The Authenticity Experiment, the suddenly dead old friend special edition. My father—consummate international business man—was never good with names. His right ear ruined by rifles and high angle artillery on naval vessels meant that even when I was a teenager, he didn’t hear well. So when I introduced him to Nita Kuhns, short for Juanita, I articulated the I dramatically.
“Dad,” I said, “this is Neeeeeeta. Can we drop her off on our way home? Neeeeta lives just off Eucalyptus Road.”
Rarely did my dad or mom pick me up after band rehearsal on Sunday or Monday nights. Usually I caught a ride with one of the other kids who lived on San Felipe Way—Lee Swerrie or John Dunst, both young men who worked magic with the mixing board. But for whatever reason, this night, my dad waited in the parking lot, sitting in the burgundy Volvo 245DL wagon, heat on against the damp fog of early fall, and, if I had to guess, a Pall Mall hanging from his lips.
You’d open the car door and get hit with the heat—welcome—and then a blast of cigarette smoke—not really welcome—but the smell of most of our parents in the 1970s, so not unfamiliar.
“Dad, this is Neeeeeeta. Can we drop her off on our way home? She’s just off Eucalyptus Road.”
No problem, Kaydoos. My dad could be genial. I’m sure he asked Nita questions. She was two years older than I and already in high school. I don’t know why she was so deeply kind to me. I really don’t. At the time it scared me because I felt this sexual energy between us. But that might be an artifact of my own memory. I felt suspect of any kind woman back then because I felt suspect of my own motives next to any kind of woman. I know that she gave me my first books on paganism and witchcraft. I know she practiced ritual and taught me some, too.
I didn’t tell my father any of this. I just asked if we could drop her off on our way home.
I never went into Nita’s house. I don’t know why. Maybe because it was a small 40’s style house, tiny with, I imagine, redwood floors and trim and I lived in a modern ranch house with green wool carpeting and floor to ceiling drapes and white velvet chairs. Nita had been to my house. I remember that much.
She saw something in me. It wasn’t just that we played music together. We talked intimately—as intimately as any 15 year old and 17 year old can talk. I told her paganism scared me. She told me not to be afraid. She explained how our ancestors all practiced it and that the Christians appropriated so many of the Pagan’s symbols.
This is all I remember about Nita: she was deeply kind to me and she sent me down a spiritual path I still follow today. I’ve thought of her so much lately. By lately, I mean this past year, when I’ve made so much ritual following all the deaths. I’ve looked at my books. I’ve used my tools. I’ve thought of Nita and wondered what would have happened if we’d stayed friends. Would we have gone to witch camp together? Would I have ultimately joined her coven (ah, I do remember a bit more). Who knows? At the end of her junior year, she moved back to Louisiana where her mother grew up.
I recently asked my friend, Laura, about Nita. Laura knew Nita was still in Louisiana. I thought about writing her. But I didn’t. Life and all that. Then tonight, Laura posted that Nita died. Laura wrote, “The last I heard from her, she asked for prayers on October 23rd, saying that she was very ill and they did not know why yet. A friend posted a message to Nita’s Facebook wall on 11/2 that led me to believe that she had passed, and I received confirmation from that friend today.”
Nita thanked my father that night we dropped her off at her house on Eucalyptus Road.
“You’re welcome,” my dad said. “Goodnight, Netta.”
I pinched my dad’s thigh and hissed “Nita!! Nita!!”
He corrected himself quickly. “Nita. Goodnight, Nita.”
As we drove away, my dad started laughing. I escalated into righteous teenage anger and embarrassment. “God, Dad! It was Nita. I said the eye so clearly to you.”
But my dad kept laughing the half mile to our house that I’m pretty sure was worlds away from Nita’s own. He relayed the story to my mother, still laughing, now both of them seizing up at the ridiculousness of my father’s hearing, the simple mistake, their angry teenage daughter. I’m sure that made them laugh as much as trying to get me to see the humor in my dad’s gaffe.
My dad rested his big right hand on the Saltillo tile kitchen counter, and barely choked out the sentence through the howls of laughter, “Goodnight, Netta, wherever you are.”
Now even I had to laugh. This was classic John DeGutes at his best.
In the years to come, there would be more name errors and every time, someone would say, “Goodnight, Netta, wherever you are.” And sometimes, for no reason at all, one of my parents—as if a private joke between them—would turn to the other and say, “Good night, Netta, wherever you are.”
And always, always when we drove down Eucalyptus Road, somebody in the car would repeat the phrase. Even last Christmas, I think, when it was just my sisters and me.
I think of them all tonight. My mother, my father, Stef, Ron, Judith, and now Nita. I think of them and, as I light a candle on the altar, laugh and cry simultaneously. I think of that warm Volvo wagon, the glow of the dash lights, the smell of cigarette smoke, my father’s big laugh, and Nita’s kind heart, and I say out loud, “Goodnight, Netta, wherever you are.”