(This is a love story.)
Bruce would not budge. Now for those of you, many of you, who knew Bruce Fortier, this comes as absolutely no surprise. When I first arrived in Essex a few years ago, I marveled at Bruce and his endless labyrinth of stacks and piles, outbuildings and vehicles on Southern Avenue, where I live roughly across the street. Like most of you, I had the universal and quintessential Essex experience of being cornered by Bruce at the post office or swap shop (RIP) and despite all of my hints (which slowly escalated to outright declarations) of having to go, he would blithely continue speaking. The thing is, what he had to say was always terribly interesting. He was remarkably intelligent, with spellbinding stories of running wild in the Essex woods as a child, coming of age on Main Street, helping write the town’s bylaws, building his own car, and so on. In his mid-seventies with snow white hair, piercing blue eyes and a downright jolly face, Bruce was spritely and engaging. When I asked about him in town, I heard stories of his propensity for foregoing clothing, once, I was told, even jogging up Southern Avenue in the buff. I learned of his brilliant mind but stubborn nature. His masterful skills as an engineer and woodworker. And, of course, his steadfast contributions to town meetings. Everything about him seemed fascinating, if a little rogue.
I left a note in his truck one day (no mailbox) asking for him to contact me regarding a story for The Cricket. That afternoon I found him standing in my driveway. Hello Bruce. We chatted. And chatted, and chatted even though I was just dashing home to grab a notebook to take to my son at the high school. We made a plan to speak further on the phone the following day. Our call lasted well over an hour. Sadly, I could not convince Bruce to let me write a story about him. He would only allow me to write about his grievances with the town of Essex, which was not the story I was looking for. We agreed to speak again to see if we could come to an agreement.
Amongst the stories Bruce shared, there was one I found most intriguing: The story of his friendship with David Andrews. I would see David, old, weathered, and impossibly slight, with a chin strap beard riding his bicycle up and down Southern Avenue at a positively glacial speed. Walking the same route in all manner of weather and sometimes in dangerous darkness. Bruce shared with me that David was extremely—almost cripplingly—introverted. Bruce indicated that the root was likely autism. David had experienced a very tough time growing up, especially in school where lack of understanding led to poorly handling David’s condition. Home was not much better. Without going into all of the details, when Bruce and David met as adults, Bruce helped David find a better life and invited him into his. One could argue that Bruce saved David.
And so, began a friendship of nearly 40 years. Everyone in Essex knew Bruce and David. They would motor around town together in the car that Bruce built in 1972. They would stop at the dump to chat. Bruce saying hello to everyone and David waiting in the car or milling about. They would be at the post office. Or working away at Bruce’s place. With David always heading home at the end of the day. Only to be seen again, each morning, heading back down Southern to Bruce’s place. As best I could tell they spent every day together. Bruce told me how he taught David to ride a bike, and how he would set David up working with a grinding wheel and polisher, both with a repetitive motion, which made David feel calm. I suspect that Bruce had worked out a number of ways to make David feel useful and at home. In turn, Bruce had a dear friend and constant companion. It was symbiotic.
And then, just weeks after my first attempt to pry Bruce loose, after the seemingly endless phone call, the unthinkable happened: Bruce died. Suddenly. Sometime in the night he fell from his elevated bed located in his workshop. David found him the next morning. Sitting just on the heels of my disbelief was the thought - my god, what will happen to David?
I saw him, just days after Bruce’s death. Making his same trek down Southern Avenue. As if it were all just so. As if he did not know. Or could not believe it.
I asked about him to my friend Sylvia Martin who knew those who knew David. She said he was doing okay. I watched, day in and day out, as he continued to make the familiar journey up and down Southern Avenue to the now empty house. To the memories of Bruce. I worried.
One day, maybe two weeks after Bruce died, I saw David at the Essex library. I was stunned. It made me almost laugh out loud to see that he was reading a Martha Stewart Living magazine. I had hope. A week later, while visiting The Great Marsh Brewery, I was elated to see him upstairs. Walking around the perimeter of the restaurant, looking at the brewing operation down below. Relief. More hope.
And then, like a slap, came the words: “Did you hear that the guy who used to walk up and down Southern Avenue died,” from a friend of my son’s in the back of my car. No. No. I turned my car into the driveway and let the kids out. I sat and let the realization slowly settle and, just as slowly, turn to understanding. He had tried. But ultimately David was not able to live without Bruce. So, he decided not to. Thinking back, I knew. Thinking back, it was inevitable. And while this is enormously sad, I also find it to be painfully beautiful.
The widowhood effect, as it is called, is a term for the increased likelihood that a person will die naturally in the three months following the death of their spouse. The percentages vary, but studies have shown that the correlation is very real. Of course, Bruce and David were not a couple — they were friends. But such was this friendship that one could not live without the other. Such was the love. I believe that David ultimately died of a broken heart.
To think of a friendship so strong, a love so integral to one’s existence that they truly cannot live without the other; It is a magnificent thing to behold. I, for one, feel intensely lucky to have witnessed, even from afar, such a friendship. David and Bruce will surely be missed. As eccentric fixtures in our quirky town. As a part of our unique history. And as a reminder of the beauty and wonder of human connection.