Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Voices of Ghosts (In the Category of Want What You Have.) [#52Weeks]

I’m reading Anne’s journal these days. It’s research for the memoir that I plan to write — that I am writing in some of these blog posts. Anne’s brother has invited me to Alabama; he took all of Anne’s files there, back home, after we cleaned out her house in Ellett Valley. I could piece together much of what has dimmed in my memory with those files. It’s been eleven years, five months and twenty-six days since Anne died, and trust me, much has dimmed.

Until very recently, something held me back from going there — physically and metaphorically. And I don’t just mean going to Alabama to further dig through years of file folders of receipts, letters, contracts, syllabi, Christmas lists (not wish lists, but lists of gifts to buy), unfinished chapters, poems and the occasional nude picture of her ex-husband. I’ve held back from delving too deeply into the memories of all those years spent in Anne’s friendship — Anne’s universe. They were wonderful, crazy years, full of drama and comedy, littered with absolute assholes from all walks of life, and angels, saints. Until very recently, it’s been too painful to contemplate. Blogging, for some reason, has emboldened me.

The journal entries I have date back an additional dozen years, beginning in July 1988, one year before Anne and I met. They have provided an illuminating jaunt down memory lane. Reading names I haven’t heard or thought about in years has conjured faces I haven’t seen in just as long. I have a few of Anne’s photos from this time period, and I think now, I can put names to some of the people in them. I should have done this years ago, writing all this down. I should have at least scratched out a timeline of the highlights and milestones. I’m amazed I had the foresight to copy the journal entries from Anne’s computer to my own. (Anne’s computer skills! Must save those stories for a separate blog post.)

Before I began reading the journal, I could not recall the sound of Anne’s voice, but it rings clearly in my ears now. The pitch is moderate – you’d expect the tone to be higher in a woman so petite. It has the smooth silky accent of central Alabama and privilege. But the words – the incomparable sass – “I need…” in that slow drawl accompanied always with a sly smile and bat of eyelashes. The pronunciation of shrimp without the “h,” like Sri Lanka. The way “bitch” had two syllables and was always spoken with that same sly smile.

It’s nice to hear her voice again, even if it is still fretting, after all these years, about men (I want to feel close to R. But I cannot support him. Let's see if he really makes it to the job...), money (What the fuck is this Control thing to [Daddy]? Sure, it's money but it's more than that.), music (Music SAVED ME!!!) and career, her unfulfilled quest to attain the status of Full Professor. (Anne retired a tenured Associate Professor. After her funeral, at the wake, I bought many drinks for the former department head, who had been instrumental in denying Anne’s promotion, and asked him why? He admitted, giggling while his wife looked on annoyed, that it was because they didn’t like her Alabama accent...or her trust fund.... “She didn’t need the money.” I nearly committed murder that day. Karma has its way though...I saw him recently at a local restaurant eating alone.)

Anne’s journal entries take the form mostly of letters, some sent, most not. She wrote to her shrink (her standard word choice), her family, her lovers or to herself. The tone is often self-abasing but always conversational. Reading them, I realize that Anne held almost nothing back from me in all the hours and hours (years and years) of conversations we had while sitting in her bedroom, she at the head, and I at the foot of the brass bed that she bought, “because of the Dylan song.” Entry topics “fox-loop” between the things that worried Anne and the things that kept her sane. As I read them now, the voices of ghosts surround me.

Not just Anne’s voice — Michael’s there too, and Theresa, Dutton and Charlotte, Paul, Jesse, Anne’s Daddy. These people, family and friends, mentors, idols, informed Anne’s life. They grounded her, amused her, loved her, abused her. They are all ghosts now too: Michael, Theresa and Jesse by their own hands, Charlotte and Paul from illness; Dutton died naturally after a life well lived. A stroke brought Anne’s Daddy down from his terrifying, controlling status to one of drooling and vacant stares that would last several years. Karma has its way.

I’m mentioned twice. The first reference in 1990 is brief, Meeting with Kim and C. today about the video. I don’t recall the meeting. The video, “Just Like a Church But Completely Different, was a documentary about the Blacksburg music scene during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. There actually was a music scene in Blacksburg in those days, a pretty good one, and not just cover bands. In addition to teaching college English, Anne also ran a business called The Spool Company, which booked musical talent into local venues (that was the plan anyway – the business had limited success). Anne produced the video as a means to further promote the Blacksburg music scene and even managed to get a showing of the video at a couple of film festivals in Virginia (where it got honorable mention) and Toronto, Ontario.

My second mention, in 1994, occurs in a letter to her mother. I did not realize that she sent her mother a copy of the Fiber Optic Reference Guide, by David R. Goff, which I edited, but I’m flattered to know it now. Anne’s mother is a very sweet woman who showed me much kindness in many of the same ways her daughter did…so generous, so genteel.

I’m not surprised at my scant appearances in her journal. It affirms that I did not cause strife for Anne the way so many others in her orbit did. Anne routinely created very complex relationships with people who to put this? Let’s just say they may have been more motivated by self-interest than any true affection for Anne. She was ridiculously generous by nature, driven in part by an intense fear of loneliness. She never failed to pick up the check at a restaurant or bar. I managed to beat her to it maybe twice in the 100’s of meals we shared together, and she got really angry with me both times.

Many, many “friends” of hers never bothered to try to get the tab, which, in a total contradiction, also annoyed Anne; variations on, Went to dinner with ____, I paid, show up frequently in the journal. Anne was a study in contradictions, but that made the friendship fun for me; I’ve always been drawn to zaniness. The woman evoked my full range of emotions over the years, but she never bored me. Never.

I still can’t say where the memoir goes from here. Much is missing from the journal that I had hoped to find. Depression gave Anne writer’s block; trips to the “nuthut” (her word) broke the continuity of the entries; these periods are marked only by brief flashbacks: Life is overall easier [in the hospital] than it is outside. Except for sleeping. I like sleeping in my own bed. The periods I know of where she felt very content are also missing from the journal, which seems like another contradiction, but I think happiness also presented a form of writer’s block for Anne. Contentment dulled the drive to keep a journal; it seems only drama fueled her introspective muse.

At the same time, the periods where her journal is silent were very productive commercial writing periods for Anne. During those years, she wrote and edited two books of poetry along with the students of her “Literature of Rock & Roll” course. She edited a Pulitzer Prize nominated collection of letters written by her mentor, Jesse Hill Ford, the southern writer. She taught English at Virginia Tech full time during those years, was involved with the Miss Virginia Pageant (that will be its own chapter – the scandal!), performed in poetry slams and began plans to have a large addition built onto her house. Who had time to keep a journal with all that going on?

Then Daddy finally died. A year later, Theresa overdosed and Jesse shot himself, depressed from heart surgery medicine, Anne’s published collection of his letters in his lap. Anne edited a third poetry book — poems by and about Theresa, a gifted poet who studied English at Virginia Tech. Anne’s friend and favorite musician, Paul, succumbed to hepatitis C the next spring. Less than two years later, Anne was diagnosed with breast cancer. After finishing her treatment, Anne put her writing energy into The Novel, an autobiographical fiction that begins the year she and I met. She finished writing three chapters of Fool’s Hill before the breast cancer came back with a vengeance eighteen months later. All of Anne’s writings end there.

But for me, the story percolates and gains momentum. I guess the next steps include a trip to Alabama, to a little town called Oneonta where Anne’s brother lives in Graystone, the house where they all grew up. Mother is just across the street, in a newer, smaller, better appointed house, and Opal comes around every day to help with cooking and cleaning and taking care of Mrs. Cheney. Anne’s files are there, and the videos, more photos; her brother’s memories will be valuable as well. He’s promised to set up an office for me – scanner, computer, VCR (yes, VCR...these are actually videos on tape) whatever I need to take notes, recapture the memories of what we tried to accomplish, all those years ago, with music and writing. We failed and succeeded – the exquisite contradictions continue – the outcome really didn’t matter though, only the dream.
Me sitting at the foot of Anne's brass bed, Summer Solstice 1996



  1. Anne was a good person, Im glad to have known her. the world is a better place for her existance. that means far more than being a full professor.
    maybe she inspired me in ways ill never know... after all im a prof of english now too.... her enthusiasism was always contagious.

  2. ok... im a privatdoezent..... its germany. and god id love to see just like a church only completely different again.. wonder if its on you tube...

    1. It's not. I think the only copy might be in AL. Mike from King Video might have a copy...