by Joelle Steele

When a soul departs this earthly plane, it usually leaves behind an empty hole that loved ones soon fill with tears, after which they press on, continuing with the business of their lives. But, if that soul happens to leave by its own hand and without explanation for its premature departure, it leaves a void that can never be completely filled by tears and can never be abandoned in favor of getting on with one's life. The hole is simply too great and the questions are never-ending, as those left behind try to piece together the answers they so desperately want and need in order to move on.

Randall Hauser left such a gaping hole, and one year later, his friends and family were still asking each other why. At the age of 43, Randy was at the peak of his career. His paintings were exhibited in galleries throughout the world, and many were available as prints. Quite a few were on the faces of posters, greeting cards, and calendars. Randy and Diane were happily married with two great kids. On weekends, so that Diane could have some time to herself, he would bring the kids to his studio in Carmel Valley for the day and let them play while he worked. When asked how he could concentrate with all the noise and commotion of a five year-old and seven year-old, his love for them was clear: "My art comes from the joy of life, and my children are my joy."

When I first met Randy, it was in high school. He was about six feet tall, with reddish-brown hair that regularly fell across his hazel-green eyes. We met in our senior year in art class. I was taking it for fun; Randy actually knew what he was doing. His fingers were always stained with ink and paint, and it was not just from that class. He was drawing and painting outside of the classroom too. His talent was obvious to everybody, including our teacher, Mrs. Duncan.

That fussy old harridan thought the sun rose and set on Randy, and she made no secret of it. The rest of us didn't care all that much, since we were also in awe of Randy's ability to make every boring project into something exciting, unique, and eye-catching. When we did still life watercolors of artichokes, mine looked like oblong balls wearing tiaras. Never mind the fact that they were entirely the wrong shade of green as well. A few other students managed to capture the true shape and color of the vegetables in question, but only Randy's were the real thing.

In 1984, Randy painted artichokes in oil. They were not as realistic as the ones he had drawn ten years earlier, but they were, nonetheless, quite extraordinary. There were three of them, one of which was cut in half lengthwise, offering a perfect view into the intricate flower that was the artichoke. The lines were wavy and blotchy, the colors close but not true, and the background was a violet not unlike that found in the center of the vegetable itself. That was Randy's art in a nutshell: impressionistic with just enough detail so as not to risk sacrificing realism entirely. Whether he was painting a still life, a portrait, or a landscape, his style was distinct, and people who knew nothing about art were drawn to his work. In 1998, his was the top-selling calendar in America.

What could make a man, who for all intents and purposes seemed to have everything going for him, decide to end it all? What drove Randy to head for his studio on a sunny Wednesday morning, sit down in one of the redwood chairs on the deck overlooking the river, and eat a .45 revolver that no one, including Diane, knew he owned.

"I have spent hours agonizing over the possible reasons for why he ... did it," said Diane, when I interviewed her for an article about Randy a year later. We sat on her flagstone patio at the end of a rare sunny day in Carmel. She wrung a tissue in her hands as she looked out over the pines and cypress trees and spoke. "I have wracked my brains trying to think what I must have missed. Surely he tried to tell me something. I can't help thinking that I must have ignored him when he tried to confide in me. Maybe I was busy or preoccupied when he needed me the most. I just didn't see anything wrong. We were living the life we had both always dreamed of. What in the world could make him leave me and the children like that?"

"And why didn't he leave a note?" I added.

"A note would have been a blessing," she concluded, her voice sinking like the sun.

I had known Diane in high school too. She was Randy's girlfriend then. They were that "cute couple" that was destined to be together forever. Diane was, and still is, a tall, willowy blonde, who walks with the magic of a dancer, seeming to float across the floor, so graceful is each step. Soft-spoken, yet capable of expressing profound thought when called for, Diane became an accomplished musician, playing guitar, lute, and banjo. She performed locally with a popular string ensemble, Mandolin Wind, and I had interviewed her as often about her music as I had her husband about his art. If anybody knew Randy, it should have been Diane, and she was in the dark as much as anyone else I had interviewed. Even his own mother had no clue.

I saw him just two days before he ..." she paused to find words she could say easily and gave up. "He was talking about taking the kids to Disneyland that summer. He told me about an offer he received from some art publisher about doing a book of his works. They thought he was popular enough to sell a lot of copies, I guess."

Lois Hauser was herself an artist, a sculptor to be specific. Widowed when Randy was still in grade school, Lois had worked as a secretary for a construction company. She began dabbling in clay in her spare time, teaching herself by making everything from pots to animal figurines. When it appeared that her ability to form figures from clay was far greater than her talent with pottery, she started taking classes at Monterey Peninsula College. For twenty-four years, Lois had owned a small gallery in Carmel just one block from Randy's. I bought a small cat figurine for a song when she first opened. It sits on my desk and has given me years of enjoyment.

"Did Randy ever talk about problems with the creative process or anything else that might have been troubling him?"

"Randy was a very prolific artist. I don't think he ever felt blocked in any way. He never seemed to run out of ideas, and he was always talking about something he was going to do after he finished what he was working on at the moment."

I did not know Randy very well as an adult. We had spoken a few times at openings, but all I really knew about him was what I wrote, and that was based on what his agent released to the public and what Randy spoke of in our interviews. Had I even suspected that there was some darkness brewing within him, I probably would have been pushy enough to actually confront him about it. But he always seemed so normal and so comfortable in his own skin. He was so unlike other artists I had interviewed who seemed to be constantly doing battle with their inner demons.

Randy had a younger brother, Steven, who refused to talk to me about anything other than Randy's career, which was ongoing despite Randy's absence. Steve was an accountant, and together with his mother, they handled everything pertaining to Randy's artwork. Since I could not get any personal information from Steve, I spoke to some of Randy's friends and fellow artists.

Madeline Campos saw her career launched as a result of Randy's generosity. Ten years earlier, he had given her some space to hang in the small gallery he had at the time. There was barely room for his own work back then, but he felt Maddie had potential and just needed a break. She was not famous by any means, but she now managed to make a living from the sale of her art, and in such a competitive field, that was something indeed.

"Randy always wanted other artists to succeed the way he did. He would spend hours talking to a struggling student or an emerging artist, trying to advise them, always telling them not to give up, to keep trying." Maddie looked up as a couple walked into her gallery, which was just a small alcove between two larger storefronts. She rose to greet her customers, quickly finishing her thoughts on Randy as she walked away. "He was upbeat, very positive. It's hard to understand how someone could throw it all away like that. I'd give my eye teeth to have just a fraction of his talent and success."

Other artists simply repeated Maddie's sentiments. So did most of his friends and acquaintances. It was not until I spoke to his former agent, Gabrielle Stuart, that I ran up against a brick wall.

"Why are you so anxious to pick apart this man's life?" she asked, standing in the doorway of her small, yellow Victorian in Pacific Grove. Gabrielle was painfully thin, her hair unwashed and matted. She wore no makeup and was dressed in a pair of white, paint-spattered pants and a faded navy T-shirt. I had never known her to be other than the picture of good health and fine fashion. And, I did not know that she was a painter. Of course, she had not let me in, so for all I knew she could have been painting her kitchen, and not a still life with fruit.

It was a typical foggy day in Pacific Grove as I stood on her front porch, adjusting my shoulder bag, which was heavy from my tape recorder, camera, and other assorted tools of the writer's trade. "Randy's work is being shown in a retrospective in three weeks. I just want to understand him better so that people who view his work can get a glimpse of the man behind the art." I thought my words came out rather eloquently, but apparently not sufficiently so to elicit information from Gabrielle.

"Randy is dead. Why he died is for him to know. We have no business trying to understand someone else's life. It was his life, to live or to take." Gabrielle spoke with conviction, but she also spoke with a lot of anger behind her words. Her face was flushed and distorted, her jaw hard. At the same time, she looked like she might burst into tears at any minute.

"You no longer represent him, his work?"

"No. His work is in the hands of his brother and mother," she replied, sighing heavily in annoyance.

"Was that at Randy's request?"

"No, I don't think so. But I am resigned to them being in charge of things. The fact that I spent most of my life building Randy's career is no longer relevant. The important thing is that his art lives on."

She promptly closed the door on me, and as I turned to leave, my bag dropped open slightly, releasing two Pentels and a small scratch pad onto the porch. As I stooped to pick them up, I could have sworn I heard Gabrielle crying from somewhere in the house. I reluctantly left, feeling she knew a lot more than she was saying, and wishing I could have found a way to reach her, to encourage her to share something about Randy that would answer all the questions that remained in the minds of the people he left behind.

My story would not be too interesting at this point, and it was not going to resolve anything in the minds of his fans or his family and friends. I worked on the outline, reviewed my notes, and looked over some of the articles that had been written about Randy over the years. One of them mentioned a painting trip he made to San Diego just six months before he died. I couldn't find anything to indicate exactly what or where he had painted, so I called Steven.

"I think he went to Encinitas or Leucadia, maybe Rancho Santa Fe," said Steven, when we spoke on the phone. "We have a lot of his sketch books here if you want to look through them. There are also a lot of unfinished paintings, some watercolors, and maybe you can identify which ones he did down there if you know those areas. Lois keeps meaning to go through them, but neither of us have had the time."

Neither did I. As much as I would have loved to take a trip to southern California, I just couldn't justify it at this point. Besides, I had yet another interview with the publisher who was planning on putting out a book of Randy's work. His offices were in one of the charming little courtyards and lanes so carefully hidden among the many shops and galleries that lined the streets of Carmel. Hayden Mitchell's office was in Su Vecino Court. The former restaurant owner had discovered desktop publishing and fashioned a new career around it. He began by publishing a lot of tacky-looking cookbooks for local restaurants but later graduated to elegant and sophisticated, full-color art books, which he marketed internationally.

"So, tell me," he said, after our overly-long discussion of Randy's painting techniques had, thank God, finally come to a close. "Have you ever written a book?"

"I've thought about it. Most writers do ... think about it, that is."

"Do you think you could write one about Randall Hauser?" From that point on, we discussed the work on Randy that was in progress, mostly the artwork itself, and the lack of personal background and history about the artist. "I want a full-on detailed account of his life, everything about him and his work. We've all heard the stories of how devoted he was to his family, but there has to be more than that, because a man so devoted seems unlikely to die by his own had, wouldn't you agree?"

"I don't know. I guess you're right. I actually have a lead on some of his unpublished works. Maybe that would be helpful. I'll let you know later this week." I rose to leave, we shook hands, and I immediately decided to take up Steve's offer to rummage around in Randy's stuff.

There was a lot more to examine than I had expected. There were piles of drawings and watercolor sketches, some loose, some in books. Only two or three looked like they might have been done in the lagoons of Leucadia or Encinitas in north San Diego County, and Steve let me photocopy them so that I might be able to identify them later. On the page opposite to one of the sketches were three phone numbers with area codes in north San Diego county. Next to the first of the numbers was the name Bernstein. I copied the numbers down in case they were relevant to my research. I didn't really have time for a trip to the San Diego area, but after my meeting with Hayden and the possibility of writing a book, my curiosity and my ambition were equally peaked, and I decided to go. I made arrangements to stay with an old college pal at her house in Del Mar.

The weather was gorgeous, the sky a vivid blue without a cloud in sight. It was windy, and the air was so clean that you could see the distant hills quite clearly. The drive was peaceful and uneventful until I reached the outskirts of the greater metropolitan area of Los Angeles. Traffic then slowed to a snail's pace in places, for reasons I could not determine, since there were no accidents and no repair crews out and about. I arrived in Del Mar just after dinner, and visited with my college chum and reminisced about what she recalled as the good old days, and what I remembered as one very long morning-after that I was all too happy to forget. After she went to work the next day, I drove south to Encinitas in search of the source of Randall Hauser's last known works. I was able to identify two of the sketches as Encinitas for sure. The other was a question mark. By noon, I had driven inland and found my way to Rancho Santa Fe.

"Oh, yes, Randall Hauser. I love what he does with flowers," said Janine Matthews, the manager of Rancho Galleries. She was a heavy-set woman with a long, graying-brown page-boy hair cut. Her dangling beaded earrings were swinging and her open-backed sandals slapped at her heals as she led me to her office, past the works of many California artists, some of whom I recognized immediately, and others who were new to my eyes. "I framed this one because it's my favorite." She pointed to a small print of a piece called "Roses of Summer." The roses were not really roses at all, but were a kind of evergreen shrub called a rockrose, that was common to the California coast. Randy's were a beautiful shade of orchid, and behind them, in the distance, was a corner of the Pacific Ocean.

"Yes, they're lovely," I replied. "Have you ever met Mr. Hauser?" I asked, sensing that she liked to gab and probably knew who was doing what at any given time of the day or night.

"Just once. He was here about six months before he died. Such a tragedy that was," signed Janine, pursing her lips.

"Was he here visiting friends?" I asked, feigning ignorance of Randy's life, which was not much of a stretch, since I really only had it on his brother's authority that Randy had been in the area at all.

"I don't know. But he was here for a few days. Dropped in here to look around. I also saw him having lunch with a woman at the vegetarian restaurant down the street. I think he also went to dinner with the O'Neals. They own the Sunflower Gallery. It's just around the corner next to the garden center." She gestured as she spoke, pointing in the direction where the restaurant and other gallery were.

After thanking Janine for her time, I decided I should have a late lunch at the vegetarian restaurant. It was almost deserted when I arrived.

"I thought I'd stop in and have a bite to eat. My friend Randy Hauser recommended it to me," I lied, hopefully convincingly.

"The artist?" asked the waitress.

"Yes, that's him."

"I thought he was dead."

"Yes, unfortunately, he is. About a year ago. He was here just a few months before he died."

"I remember. He was here with a lady friend. He said he liked my paintings." She made an offhand motion in the direction of several small watercolors, each nicely matted and framed, and hanging above the high, dark wood wainscoting across from me. "He told me I had talent, said I should keep working at it. As if." She shrugged. "So what can I get you?"

I ordered and thought about the "lady friend." Steven didn't say anything about Randy visiting with Diane, and I couldn't really see Randy cheating on Diane. It was probably not a girlfriend at all, but just another artist or friend from the area. I would investigate further if I had the opportunity. My food arrived, and I decided to give the waitress another try.

"I was wondering if the woman with Randy was an artist friend of mine. Short dark hair, glasses, lots of jewelry?" I was winging it here.

"No, this was a real classy looking woman. You know, the town and country club sort. A little thin, but lovely clothes. I remember she was wearing this off-white suit — and pearls. She was wearing pearls. Imagine that. Never see anyone wearing pearls nowadays, do you?"

No, you sure didn't. But I knew immediately who Randy's lunch companion was. After I finished my mushroom veggie burger, I went over to the Sunflower Gallery, but the O'Neals were in Europe, and the young woman minding the shop knew nothing about Randall Hauser. I went to a phone booth and dialed the three phone numbers. The first was Dr. Richard Bernstein's office. He was an oncologist. The second number was an answering machine for a private residence, and the third was a fax machine. I decided to drive back up to Del Mar and spend the night there before returning to Carmel.

My trip back north the following day was just a reverse of the trip going south. The traffic cleared after Oxnard, and the going was relaxing the rest of the way. My mind was busy, however. The possibility that Randy was suffering from cancer now plagued me. I could never get hold of his medical records, if they even existed. After all, he could have been doing a commissioned work for Dr. Bernstein, and might not have been a patient at all. I also kept thinking about Randy going to Rancho Santa Fe with Gabrielle. Somehow, I had to find a way to gain her trust and get her to speak with me.

I was beginning to feel like a reporter for the National Enquirer, but I could see a legitimate story behind Randy's activities in the months preceding his suicide. If I found the answer to his desperate act, it could be a welcome revelation to a lot of people. On the other hand, it could be less than welcome, and I would have to decide whether it was worth revealing the truth and hurting people, or keeping a secret to myself. For the time being, I just wanted to find out what that truth was. What I would do with it, I would have to decide later.

"I'm surprised to see you again," said Diane, as she led me through the living room and into the kitchen.

"What sort of information do you still need?" She resumed chopping vegetables that she had left unattended when I paid my unannounced visit.

"I saw Steve and he said Randy had gone to Encinitas to paint about six months before he died. I wondered if you could tell me anything about his trip. There were only a few sketches and I didn't see any finished work from the area."

"Encinitas. Yes, I remember." Diane ran water over the veggies and then dumped them into a pot of boiling water. "It was about six months before he died. He was going to stay with some college friends of ours, Robert and Melissa O'Neal. They own a gallery in Rancho Santa Fe. I forget the name."

"Did he stay long? Paint anything?"

"He was gone about a week. I do know about the sketches. I've seen them. But I don't think he ever completed anything in oil. When he came home he said the weather wasn't very good and he didn't feel much like working. I don't really remember him saying anything else. Sorry." She bent down behind the counter and banged around in a cupboard. She stood up holding a lid in her hand that she placed over the cooking vegetables.

"Do you think that Gabrielle Stuart might know anything about the trip?" I asked innocently.

"Maybe. She probably knew more than anyone else exactly what Randy was doing at any time. She directed his career almost from day one. He relied on her for just about everything, including input on the various projects he was working on. Gabby knows a lot about art, not just as an aficionado, but as an artist herself."

"I didn't know she was an artist."

"Randy said she had raw talent, undeveloped, that if she spent more time on her own art, she could really do something with it. Of course, if she had done that, someone else would have had to manage Randy. He sure couldn't manage himself."

"How so?"

"He was undisciplined. Sometimes unfocused. She was just the opposite. Off the record, I was always a little jealous of her." Diane chuckled to herself as she turned her attention to preparing garlic bread.

I stayed longer than I had planned to, but Diane had opened the door for getting more information from Gabrielle, so I went home and made some notes. Then I called her. It took some skillful begging to get her to see me again, but she did agree to talk to me the following morning.

Unlike our previous meeting, Gabrielle was prepared for me. When I rang the bell, she answered wearing a pale, dusty-pink pantsuit with a silk ivory blouse. Around her neck was a single strand of small white pearls. Her hair was pulled back in a loose French twist, with a few curled strands unpinned at the neck. I felt like a slob in my best jeans, my turtleneck top, and my camel-colored wool blazer. We sat down in the tiny living room that is so typical of turn-of-the-century Victorians in Pacific Grove. Also typical was the slight scent of mildew that came with the dampness of the peninsula location and the preponderance of antique furniture in the room.

"I'm sorry for being rude the other day. You caught me off-guard, and I was in the middle of something," she apologized. "Please ask me your questions, and I'll do my best to answer. But, I really don't want to speculate on the reasons why Randy might have taken his own life."

"I understand. I just want to have a sense of what he was doing during the last few months of his life. Diane told me that you were most knowledgeable about his comings and goings, and she suggested that you might know what came of his trip to Encinitas about six months before he died."

"As I understand, the weather was bad and he did not accomplish much," she said blandly.

"I will probably contact the O'Neals for the details of his visit," I lied, finding myself getting better at stretching the truth to its very limits in order to achieve my goal.

"The O'Neals ... no, I don't think that would be a good idea. I don't think he stayed with them."
Now who was lying, or at least trying to keep me off track? It takes one to know one, and I could see she was uncomfortable.

"Diane told me he stayed with the O'Neals," I said, pushing harder still. I looked around the room as I waited for her response. Hanging on the wall next to the hallways was a small painting that was undeniably a Randall Hauser. The subject: the lagoon at Leucadia.

"I think he stayed in a motel," she retorted. Her eyes followed mine to the Leucadia painting.

"Did Randy paint that?"

She rose from her chair and walked to the painting. I followed right behind her.

"Yes, it was the only painting he did while we were ..." She turned to me abruptly. "What is it that you really want to know?" she said, looking straight at me with her eyes set to burn a hole through me.

"I want to know if you were with Randy on that trip and I want to know if he went to see a doctor there, an oncologist."

Gabrielle's shoulders slumped and her face turned ashen. She walked jerkedly back to her chair and sank into it.

"I see you have been doing your research," she said icily, then paused to take a deep breath. "Yes, I was with Randy. But we were not having an affair, if that's what you're thinking. Not that I would have said no if he had suggested it." She leaned her head back and took a deep breath. "I was in love with Randy from the first day I met him. He saw me as a sister and a friend. Diane, Diane was the love of his life. But when things got sticky with his health, well, he turned to me.

"The trip to Encinitas was a ruse. Randy had suspected something was wrong with him for some time, but he didn't want to see a local physician. You know how news travels here in such a small town. He didn't want the word to get around if he was seriously ill. He didn't want to be pitied. He knew this doctor, Rick Bernstein. They met briefly in college or maybe it was at an art opening, I forget which. It was a long time ago."

"Was Randy dying?" I interjected.

"Yes. Brain cancer. Too far gone and inoperable. It started with severe headaches. Randy thought they were stress-related. He was taking a lot of over-the-counter pain relievers. But then he started having episodes of blurred vision. That's when he decided to contact Dr. Bernstein. I went with him because he was afraid to drive alone. He really shouldn't have been driving at all. He could barely paint or sketch by then. He tried to do both while we were down there, but all that resulted was that one painting. My painting. He gave it to me because it was my birthday while we were there. Imagine getting an original Randall Hauser on your birthday, from the man himself, the man you love more than life itself, all on the same day you find out he is going to die in a year, maybe less."

"I'm so sorry, Gabrielle." I was no longer lying. "Why didn't he tell anyone? Why didn't you say anything after he was gone? Surely you knew how difficult this was for everyone who loved him."

"It was difficult for me! I loved him too!" she exclaimed. "He asked me to keep his confidence, and I did. It was all we shared that was ours alone." She cupped her face in her hands as her head fell to her knees, and I heard the sobbing I had heard just a few days earlier. Through her tears she whispered, "And now we share nothing."

It was four days later that I turned in my article to the editor. By that time, Gabrielle had paid a visit to Diane to tell her the truth about the untimely and unexpected death of Randall Hauser. I did not have to decide whether or not to tell the truth after all, as I left that decision to Gabrielle, and she handled it admirably. I left out a lot of facts in my version of the story, stating only that Randy's suicide came as a result of being despondent over his terminal illness. I faxed a copy of it to Hayden Mitchell. He sent me a contract and an advance to start work on the complete and unabridged story of Randall Hauser. But by that time, I had already decided it was better not to delve too deeply into someone else's life. I respectfully declined.