We didn’t spend enough time with any of our friends who are dead when they were alive, we never are good enough and we never can be the old declaration god is love. —Barry Hannah
Before he used the gun on himself, my friend Liam Rector wrote poems, published, taught, had friends, a wife, a collection of custom-made shoes so finely loved and polished they were put on display for his memorial service. Some said Liam had talked about having such a service—some even said he had planned it. And who was there to say he did not? We weren’t close friends; his wife was a shy acquaintance. He may have shot himself in the heart. I really don’t know how he went about it. A late poem of his points to “the final thing.” A lot of the poems in the last book, The Executive Director of the Fallen World, are valedictory—poems of inventories and bequests. From “Handmade Shoes”:
So here I am,
Here I go walking
In Liam’s shoes,
The size twelves
When Liam died.
I wonder who’s walking in Liam’s shoes now, as there were surely men to wear them.
Liam had many friends. He liked to make them CDs. He sent me a disk that included the old-timey song “Rank Strangers,” as sung by the Stanley Brothers. It’s a rare, live recording of them—probably from the early fifties. I don’t know how it was acquired except that I think of Liam as commonly finding the uncommon. There’s audience fuzz here, chuffing. Carter Stanley introduces. His voice is soft and sorrowful and he speaks slowly, pauses a long time between, “One that we’ve . . . recorded and I hope you’ve heard. It’s called ‘Rank Strangers’.”
I played “Rank Strangers” again and again the first night I heard it, summer 2006, Maine, after Tennessee, after everything to do with Barry Hannah, whom I missed. A late-life romance as slight as a paper match, a piff of heat but no flame really. Letters, for the next four years, flurries. “Your company,” he wrote in the first, “was the best thing that happened to me at Sewanee.” And I, I think I’ll never see you again. I was listening to “Rank Strangers” is why Never and never was on my mind as I wrote. I was lonely and sad, and the yangy sound in rank twanged in a hard mountain tenor made me even lonelier. Ray Stanley is on his way to a high note, an anguished sound at the horror of return to a home now peopled with strangers—“They knew not my name and I knew not their faces.” So it is to be orphaned, widowed, friendless, bereft.
I want to whine along to this plaintive, rusty wail whenever I hear it.
But that first time, I got hung up on the harshness of the word rank and misheard “youth’s early dawn” as a “new surly dawn.” But why not surly in company with rank? Mean-spirited words, they seemed rightly paired and came with a sour smell I knew from next door, from childhood Sundays in the care of the Ritters, farmers Albert and Ernie.
I have not always lived in New York; I have not always been moved by country music. For a long time, I ran away from country sounds, and I disdained those who listened to it. They seemed illiterate. Albert Ritter loved polkas and accordions; his brother, Ernie, inclined to country. In our fancier house in the subdivision built on what was once a part of Ritters’ farm, my father listened to Dizzy Gillespie; my stepfather, Frank Sinatra. (That’s a lie about my father’s music. I don’t know what he listened to, but my stepfather was a smoothie. He wanted us to call him Daddy-o.)
Frank Sinatra is a daddy-o. He moves in suits as in pajamas while the Stanley Brothers, in their highwaisted pants and cowboy shirts, look blocky. Liam, who made the disk, had the rough elegance of a sea captain. Barry was pure country. Short, barreled, bowlegged, in jeans and a kerchief, he stands in a photograph I have of him against a hedge with his little black and white dog on a leash.
I did not know either man long enough or well.
The lyrics to “Rank Strangers” turn to gauzy consolation with the promise of meeting those called back again. They have gone to heaven, so the song says, “to a beautiful home by a bright crystal sea.” And we’ll meet them there—Mother and Dad and all those friends—“some bue-Tea-ful day.” That’s how Carter Stanley says it: bue-Tea-ful. The word sounds stupid and genuine—gen u Ine—and I sing along. “Rank Strangers” promises a heaven where “no one will be a stranger to me.” Hunh.
The boyfriend who introduced me to Mississippi John Hurt may still be alive and in Vermont. That’s where he was living when last I saw him and first heard “Make Me a Pallet” from the soft mouth of the largely toothless Mississippi John Hurt. Vermont then, in a New England farmhouse near Canada in the Northeast Kingdom, I wrote poems there and fucked. Friends of my boyfriend, a couple, were visiting at the same time, and the boys, for they were boys, turned fucking us girls into a competitive sport. Every time someone climaxed, a cowbell jangled. We made a lot of happy noise, I remember. Downstairs on the turntable a record of Mississippi John Hurt played: “I did all I can do and I can’t get along with you . . .” Summer, 1969, someone there was always rolling a joint.
We were not so much in the country that I should have walked in the meadow in baby-doll pajamas, but I did, and the boy I was visiting was mad at me for whatever I might have done to his wobbly reputation in the community. Trailing dope smoke—slack, skinny, squinty—he looked more like a dealer than the poet he put out to be. I told him so. It wouldn’t be my fault if they ran him out of town. Besides, wandering and wondering was the business of the day, and no one lived remotely near enough to see me in the meadow batting grasses. Sweet music, sweet smoke, and the sound of John Hurt’s guitar plucked sweetly into a voice. “Babe, I did all I can do and I plink plink plink plink plink . . .” His blues: Richland Women Blues, Salty Dog Blues, Coffee Blues, Monday Morning Blues, Hard Time Blues—blues isn’t always sad.
Thank the lord for “Aint No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down,” a loudly plucked promise, sung rough and flat and fast, sounds entirely sincere. The clapping is off the beat, and some are out of tune, but I believe, I dearly believe Brother Ely, Holiness preacher, when he says he will rise from his grave. The River Jordan slicks past and I can see myself kind of jumpy in the water, then dunked and brought back wobbly and saved. Thank the lord!
Brother Ely says, “We want to say this evening that we’d like to dedicate this whole program to our good wife and two little sons, Monroe and Roxy over home. Thank the lord.” Brother Ely says he’s “gonna try to sing” for us. “Talk about Jesus.” When he says Jesus, the big stress on the first syllable insists on the good brother’s direct personal Pentecostal experience of God. I want to be under the tent when this preacher sings. I want the spirit of the Holy Ghost apostle to shake through me, wake me to everyday miracles, to cold clarity, quiet sleep, health despite my self abuses.
Oh, hell, I’m a half-and-half Christian. I need proof of life after.
Letters are all that is left of his talking just to me.
“If I check the map and it’s agreeable to you I’ll rent a car and we can meet at some congenial spot between Amherst and NYC the last month of June. If it doesn’t suit, fine. Just an idea. I’m not huge on ‘gathering’ but do love you . . .”
Why didn’t I go to some congenial spot except that Barry was right all along: “We didn’t spend enough time with any of our friends who are dead when they were alive . . .”
From Barry’s letters, salutations:
Dearest Big Heartmate,
How was it that Liam could leave “but for the late, last ill reasons.” And Barry, too, in a late letter had the same reasons:
“I need percocet to write. There. I’ve said it. Liberation from permanent ague, or whatever medieval blind random pain you got.
“In the old days I could play to my weakness and thereby acquire subjects, sentences. Pray for me to get back to creative weakness, maybe. Otherwise it’s going to be unfinished feeling and too bleak to spit.”
“Unfinished feeling and too bleak to spit” sounds like a country lyric to me: it has spirit and fight in it yet.
Christine Schutt’s most recent novel, Prosperous Friends, is now available in paperback. Besides two story collections, other works of fiction include the novel Florida (a National Book Award finalist) and All Souls (a Pulitzer Prize finalist).
Country A Mix Tape appears in The Tides (TLR Winter 2014)