James Grissom | Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog | Knopf | March 2015 | 26 minutes (7,038 words)
“James Grissom wrote a letter to Tennessee Williams in 1982, when he was only 20 years old, asking for advice. Tennessee unexpectedly responded, ‘Perhaps you can be of some help to me.’ Ultimately he tasked Grissom with seeking out each of the women (and few men) who had inspired his work—among them Maureen Stapleton, Lillian Gish, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Marlon Brando—so that he could ask them a question: had Tennessee Williams, or his work, ever mattered? This is Grissom’s account of their intense first encounters, in which Tennessee explains his thoughts on writing, writer’s block, and the women he wrote.”
* * *
“Perhaps you can be of some help to me.”
These were the first words Tennessee Williams spoke to me in that initial phone call to my parents’ home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was September of 1982, a fact I noted in a small blue book. The book was new and had been purchased for an upcoming test in World History that I would not be taking because Tennessee invited me to lunch in New Orleans, and I accepted.
I know that pleasantries were exchanged, and he laughed a lot—a deep, guttural, silly theatrical laugh—but the first quotation attributable to Tennessee Williams to me was the one I wrote in my small blue book.
Perhaps you can be of some help to me.
How could I be of help to Tennessee Williams? How, when in fact I had written to him, several months before, seeking his help? From a battered paperback copy of Who’s Who in the American Theatre, I had found the address of his agent (Audrey Wood, c/o International Famous Agency, 1301 Avenue of the Americas), and had written a letter—lengthy and containing a photograph, and, I’m thankful, lost to us forever—asking for his advice on a writing career. I wrote that his work had meant the most to me; that I was considering a career in the theater. I also enclosed two short stories, both written for a class taken at Louisiana State University. It was a time I recall as happy: I was writing, and exploiting the reserves of the school’s library and its liberal sharing policy with other schools. I was poring over books and papers that related to Tennessee and other writers I admired.
Tennessee (he told me, by the end of that first phone call, to cal him Tenn) was in a horrible “knot of time.” He asked me to imagine a knot of time, but time for me at that point was something from which I was seeking favors, something I was approaching. I did not feel a part of time yet, which can be somewhat attributable to growing up and living in Baton Rouge, a city detached from time, thought, or curiosity. Tenn acknowledged with a laugh that Baton Rouge was a city encased in gelatin.
Tenn, however, could see and feel a literal knot of time and people and places encircling him, choking him, pursuing him. While he told me that he could no longer dream, due to age, a lack of flexibility both glandular and creative, and the “monumental accretion of toxins self-administered,” he was, comically, fully equipped to endure nightmares. His most frequent nightmare, one he had endured the night before he chose to call me, consisted of his slow, painful death by means of a massive knot, bearing the image of an enormous boa constrictor as well as an “artistic representation of a penis,” encircling him and squeezing him into darkness and death. The scales of this boa were faces of people and covers of books and posters of plays (both his and others’), travel brochures of trips planned, taken, aborted. The faces of the people and the blurbs on the books and the posters all posed the same question: Where have you been?
This time knot was for Tenn a threat, an indictment, and a motivator, and he took it as a primarily positive occurrence. “This thing, this horror,” he told me, “may very well allow me to write at my previous level of power, and it appears to be telling me to plunge into my memories, to plunder them. And those that are most vivid to me are in Louisiana.”
Tenn believed that writers, all artists, had several homes. There was the biological place of birth; the home in which one grew up, bore witness, fell apart. There was also the place where the “epiphanies” began—a school, a church, perhaps a bed. Rockets were launched and an identity began to be set. There was the physical location where a writer sat each day and scribbled and hunted and pecked and dreamed and drank and cursed his way into a story or a play or a novel. Most importantly, however, there was the emotional, invisible, self-invented place where work began—what Tenn called his “mental theater,” a cerebral proscenium stage upon which his characters walked and stumbled and remained locked forever in his memory, ready, he felt, to be called into action and help him again.
“I’ve got to get home.”
When Tennessee Williams was young, when he could dream and felt that time was a destination awaiting his arrival, he would repair to this mental theater, a safe place that operated under his management, where he could close his eyes and open the stage curtains and be not only home, but working.
If you’re a writer, you write. If you don’t, you’re dead. You have no home, no reason to be offered a seat at any table, and no reason to live.
No play written by Tennessee Williams, however, got its bearings until a fog rolled across the boards, from which a female form emerged.
“I do not know why this is,” Tenn confessed to me, “but there is a premonitory moment before a woman, an important, powerful woman, enters my subconscious, and this moment is announced by the arrival of fog. Perhaps it is some detritus of my brain belching forth both waste and a woman. I do not know, but it comes with a smell, and it is the crisp, pungent smell of radiators hissing and clanking and rattling in rooms in New Orleans and St. Louis and New York. Rooms in which I wrote and dreamed and starved and fucked and cried and read and prayed, and perhaps all that action and all that steam creates both this fog and this woman.
“I have not seen the fog in years.”
Tenn’s primary activity, he told me, was “faking the fog.” When he closed his eyes and summoned his mental theater, he could see the scuffed boards of the stage, the frayed, slow-moving curtains, smell the dust, and feel the excitement of drama forthcoming.
“When I was young,” Tenn told me, “I never sought out a woman, a character. She came to me. She had a story to tell, urgently, violently, fervently. I listened and I identified, and I became her most ardent supporter and witness. I cannot get a witness for me and I cannot be a witness for anyone! I cannot find a woman who will speak to me on my stage.”
So Tenn sought the women elsewhere, searched for fog in movie theaters, on television screens, and in the pages of magazines, in stacks of photographs. He failed to find fog in literature, because, he explained, “I am a very visual person. I need to have the shape and movement and intent of a woman before me.”
In his homes, in hotel rooms, in lodges and athletic clubs and as a guest of others, Tenn would pull out his typewriter or his pad of paper (which he called the “pale judgment” awaiting his ministrations), move close to a television set, and wait for a woman to speak to him. With friends like Maria St. Just and Jane Smith, whose love for and patience with him were boundless, he would sit in movie theaters for up to three consecutive showings, because a “wisp” of fog was emanating from the screen.
“I have not seen the fog in years,” Tenn repeated. “But your letter made me believe it still existed.”
Writing early in the morning or deep into the night, Tenn kept his television set on, the volume set to low, a radio or a phonograph playing the music of people who had led him to fog-enshrouded stages in the past. An image would come across the screen and catch his eye, the volume would be raised, and a voice would speak to him. Tenn had notes and diagrams and plot outlines scrawled on envelopes, napkins, hotel stationery, menus from restaurants and diners and airport lounges. Once, he delicately constructed a plot outline on a paper tablecloth, which the waiter neatly folded and presented to him along with the check.
He consulted psychics, tarot-card readers, tea-leaf diviners. He placed himself in tubs of warm water and tried to experience rebirth, so that he could emerge from his liquid prison young and alert and full of creative and glandular flexibility, free forever of the impending time knot.
Time and the ever-present pale judgment haunted him, jeered at him, reproached him. In the home of a friend, a fellow writer, he once walked over to a desk holding a ream of white paper and violently pushed it to the floor, then shoved it from view behind a desk. “I will have none of that from you!” he admonished the pile of paper, and went on with his visit.
Where have you been? the scales of the time knot asked him.
“Well, where the hell have you been?” Tenn once yelled out. “I was very loyal to my women, to my plays, to the construct of words. Where are they? Oh, they’re all on tour, baby, and I’m here with silence and clean air and a condemned theater. My heart and eyes are failing, but those gals are doing fine.” In Tennessee’s mind, Amanda and Blanche and Alma and Serafina and the Princess were errant daughters, each of whom who had been carefully listened to and coddled and husbanded by him, their “queer Lear,” and were now on stages telling their stories—the stories that had come to him in the fog—and he was off on his heath, yelling and whining and drinking and fighting off the time knot.
“Sometimes,” he told me during that first phone call, “I think the fog has been replaced by something else. I feel that there is a wind tunnel inside of my head, and inside my head, within my very brain, there are leaves flying about, and each leaf is an idea.”
When I finally met Tenn, he placed two fingers on his forehead, as if pushing against the pressure within, and he told me that the nights were spent scurrying after these leaves, trying to catch and collect them and find some meaning and comfort in them. He had also come to believe that the specks in his eyes, darting and floating, were reflections of these leaves moving across his brain, and if he could only marshal them, calm them down, and make the many dots one whole entity, he would have a character, a play, a woman, an idea.
“I am incapable of containing it,” he told me, “this mulch, this confetti, until I can find some form in which to place it. A shadow box of the cerebellum; a case of curiosities plucked from my subconscious; a brilliantly white page framed in gold that I can approach and admire for its order and cleanness and say to it, in front of it, ‘Yes, I have something to add.’ ”
Because he believed that the spots in his eyes, the floaters in his vitreous humor, were actually reflections of his cerebral leaf storm, Tenn took to staring into white tablecloths, looking upon blank white walls, and facing the sky, blinking and rolling his eyes, hoping to focus and find a connection.
“I’ve heard of connecting the dots,” he laughed, “but this is ridiculous.
“I try to approach the whiteness of the page, the pale judgment, as if I were a neophyte priest, and the paper is the host,” Tenn confessed to me. “I approach it gingerly and ask it to be patient. I see upon it the darting leaves in my brain, and I pray they will alight on the page and have some meaning. Or I touch it gently, a frightened queer faced with his first female breast, a nipple that seeks attention and ministration. ‘Forgive me,’ I say to it, ‘I don’t know my way around these parts.’
“I start with anything—one lone sentence—and I ask the leaves, I ask the page, for the next line, the next phrase.”
Sentence after sentence would follow, and Tenn would write them down, fervently, eagerly. Later, once we had met, once he had decided to trust me, I would write them down for him, and the bits of papers, the pages yanked from journals, and the old bills and envelopes—all littered with words—would pile up.
“I think we can help each other,” Tenn told me in that first phone call.
Tenn admitted that he was repairing to bars, where jukeboxes sat in dusty corners (“I judge a place by the particular pattern of its dust,” he told me: “dust often tells me I can be comfortable . . . or not”), and play, incessantly, songs that gave him something, that took him somewhere, that might ignite the clanking and rattling of radiators and produce a fog. Fumbling for coins in the sparse afternoons of dark, dusty bars, he listened to “If I Didn’t Care,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Bridge over Troubled Water,” “Haunted Heart,” “Our Finest Hour,” “The Long and Winding Road.”
“One should discard immediately from one’s life anyone who does not cry at the sound of these songs,” Tenn told me. “These songs hurt the heart.”
Once, he told me, he was driven to write on a series of napkins a letter to his mother, after hearing the Andrews Sisters sing “I’ll Be with You in Apple Blossom Time.”
I think of organza and linen. My nose pressed into her bosom, the slightly singed smell of where the iron pressed into the fabric. My face rubbed raw by the fabric.
I am not moving.
Tell me something. Tell me anything.
When did you realize that to survive, you would need to stumble in the dark rooms of reality until you found a door, to a closet perhaps, that, once opened, held a dream, or a memory, and suddenly, Mama, you could face grocery lists and altar-society meetings, and congregation with my father and . . . me?
Tell me, Mama. What did you give to me, and where is it now?
Tenn believed that if he could get back to the intersection of Royal and Conti streets, or Dumaine and Bourbon, he could connect all those floaters in his brain, all those leaves, which he came to believe were memories unacknowledged, unrecognized.
Another night, sleepless, anxious, afraid of a visitation of the time knot, Tenn saw an actress on television and had an idea. He would later relay it to me, and I would write it on the menu of a praline shop.
A young man circles a small Southern town. Everyone has seen him. The older woman, living alone, nurses her memories of the young man she once loved, who died, taking with him her unrequited love, her desire for the surcease provided by the flesh, and a dark secret. Is this man walking about a ghost? He appears to the young man who sits in the public park at night, because he has heard there are assignations among the magnolias, buttocks pressed against the cool bases of the Confederate statues. This young man speaks to the phantom, who never responds, and who never submits to his longing. Is he real? Is he the desire most wanted and never found? The town becomes afraid of the young man. Is he responsible for the vandalisms, the small robberies, the sound of shattering glass in the still night?
Tenn would stare into tablecloths, bare walls, the noonday sky, and remember: “This is the white of the pale judgment which faces me every day. I think of piles of cocaine, beautifully white and pure, like sand on the beaches where I was beautiful and the days were long and fat with purpose. I can look into the cocaine, as I look into a white tablecloth, and I can see the spots that dance in my eyes, and they are like the leaves that whirl in my brain. If I can only connect them. If I can only find a means to use them.
“I pray to the emptiness that is the page,” Tenn said, “and I pray to the emptiness that is my mind, and I ask that I be filled.”
Tenn paused, then continued.
“Now, I can recall a summer in Italy, in a small pensione, simple and rustic, with the most luxurious towels. No grand hotel of Europe ever had such plush towels, as white as this tablecloth, fresh-smelling, nubby. I remember that the shower had a loud, slow drain, and as you began to rub your body down with the towel, you would stand ankle-deep in warm, soapy water. The air was full of the smell of castile soap—those bars that are as large and as heavy as Baptist hymnals—and the sweet smell of onions and peppers slowly cooking in olive oil. When I would begin to dry my face, I would press the towel against my eyes and I would feel—and be—totally blind. There was blackness as stark as this cloth is white, and I was ankle-deep in the water, and I was casting off the poisons of the previous night, so I was not strong or sure on my feet, and the smells were there, and I would suddenly hear a woman’s voice, hear her words, and she was reciting her Rosary, in Italian, a language that was still new to me, so I could only decipher a few words of her prayers, but I could hear, I could feel, her intent, her desire, and I could begin to write. That voice ultimately became the voice of Serafina [the primary character in The Rose Tattoo], and I just followed that voice from prayer to prayer, from room to room, and that woman and I completed that play, on a different evening, in a different setting, on a night that was balmy and smelled of lemons.”
The memory of balmy evenings forced Tenn to reopen, then reclose his eyes, and remember a New Orleans summer, in a room where the shuttered windows were open to the humidity and the noise of the city, burning peanuts, hot chicory, and a blank page in front of him, but fog incoming. “I was poor and I was parched,” Tenn laughed, “and there’s a prayer everyone has memorized, and I took my last coin and I went to a Rexall’s and I bought a lemonade, extra ice, and I drank it fast and hard, and it hurt and it healed, and I could only think Rapture! And Blanche DuBois had entered the picture, danced her way into the blank whiteness, and begun to live.
“Tell me,” Tenn had wondered, “is it that I can’t find the words? Is it that I have nothing more to share or to care deeply about? Or am I husbanding my niggardly treasures because I would rather have them surprise and comfort me in the deep of the night, scribbled on some scrap of paper, rather than fill the vast whiteness?
“I need you to understand three things,” he told me. “Find the memories. Build words from those memories. Trust me, they will come. Finally, recognizing the worth of the words, separate the wheat from the chaff. That is all.”
“That is all?” I asked.
“That is more than enough, baby! That is enough for a lifetime of fog and time knots.”
Plans were made. I was to meet Tenn in Jackson Square, in front of St. Louis Cathedral (“Louie’s Place,” he called it), and we would have lunch, we would talk about writing, I would help him connect the dots that were flying about.
“I need to know that I mattered,” Tenn told me, “and your letter led me to feel that I did. Surely, there must be others who can tell me that I mattered, that I was of some value.” Tenn paused to cite, apparently from memory, two vituperative quotes from theater critics who had come to their separate conclusions that Tennessee Williams had never mattered; his work had been overrated; it was time to reevaluate him or discard him forever.
“One man felt it charitable,” he continued, “to assume that the real Tennessee Williams had died, and all of my later plays, my work of two decades, had been perpetuated by a clever epigone, a paid hack carrying on the industrial entity known as Tennessee Williams!” He laughed and hacked a bit, recovered, and muttered, using a term I hadn’t heard since childhood Sundays in revivals, “Good Lord, can I get a witness?”
“Do you need a witness?” I asked.
“Yes,” Tenn quickly responded, “and I’ll be yours. I’ve read your work and I’ll champion it, and I’ll be your witness.”
He was full of energy now.
“Here is the importance of bearing witness. We do not grow alone, talents do not prosper in a hothouse of ambition and neglect and hungry anger; love does not arrive by horseback or prayer or good intentions. We need the eyes, the arms, and the witness of others to grow, to know that we have existed, that we have mattered, that we have made our mark. And each of us has a distinct mark that colors our surroundings, that flavors the recipe of ‘experience’ in which we find ourselves; but we remain blind, without identity, until someone witnesses us.
“How does the pretty girl know she is pretty? Her witnesses testify to the fact that she is unique, that her peers lack something in pigment or stature. How can we know that we have talent until our words or the manner in which we speak them moves someone? Makes them think outside the puny lines into which they’ve colored themselves? We can’t know that we have the power to break these lines apart with thought until we have our first witness, that person who tells us what we have done.
“So we grow from being watched and felt and we grow from watching others, and we have to fight our way out of the blind alleys that we create by believing that a witness can be snorted from a mirror or can reside on the tip of a syringe or come tumbling from the mouth of a paid witness.
“No,” he uttered, seemingly defeated, “I’m afraid that we can’t continue to run from each other; I’m afraid that only in the company of these people, all of our witnesses, many of whom frighten us, can we learn who we are and what we’ve done.
“Jim, be my witness.”
The following morning I got into a 1977 Chevy Malibu and drove the eighty miles to New Orleans from Baton Rouge with the memory of something Tennessee Williams had said to me.
“Perhaps you can be of some help to me.”
* * *
Here is what I took with me on that trip from Baton Rouge to New Orleans: three small blue exam booklets. Soft-blue covers and lined pages. I took Berol pens. I did not take a tape recorder, because I was not a journalist and this was not a “story” or an “interview.”
I wrote everything down. I am a dutiful student and there have been complaints that I rarely look up and into the face of my subject. I wrote when I was with Tennessee, and I wrote when I was away from him. I researched everything he mentioned or told me to study.
The blue books multiplied, and ultimately more than twenty were filled with notes. The books have long since deteriorated, their staples fallen away, their pages thinned and yellowed. The words from those books were transferred to pages typed on an IBM Selectric, then to pages created through an IBM word processor and on to Compaq and Dell computers. Some of the pages were given to those about whom Tenn spoke.
That day in September was slightly muggy, so I used the air conditioner in my car, and people throughout the Quarter were in shorts and light cotton shirts. There was a lingering feel of summer in the air. Nonetheless, Tenn was wearing an enormous coat of indeterminate fur, a large straw hat, and sunglasses: he seemed ready at any moment to endure a winter storm, imitate Rudy Vallee, or face the firing squad of a Latin American judicial system.
Before I could approach him, he turned, saw me, and smiled. “You must be Jim,” he crooned. “You look utterly confused.”
Tenn had been engaged in conversation with several people huddled in the Square, only a few feet from the bird-infested statue of Andrew Jackson, but he pulled from them quickly, put his arm around my shoulders and began walking toward the Quarter.
“I am most at home in the Quarter,” he spoke to my right ear, but the conversation seemed decidedly one-sided, a monologue for his own edification. “Wonderful things have happened for me on Royal, of course. Nothing of any positive significance ever happens on Rampart. Have you felt that way?”
I explained that I was actually from Baton Rouge, the club-footed cousin to New Orleans, and my time in the Quarter had been solely as a tourist. I could not speak to any deep experience on Rampart Street, or any other street in the city.
“Let’s try to change that while we’re here!” he exulted. “But let’s now eat something. Do you like the Court of Two Sisters?”
I admitted that I had never eaten there before.
“You’ll love it. Wonderful food, courtly service, lovely people, food served in bowls the size of a dog’s head, all the time in the world.”
I was not able to get a look at Tenn’s face until we stood in the dark, brick-lined passageway to the restaurant; a tiny shaft of sunlight streamed from the courtyard, and it fell across his face as if directed by an aging film star. Shadow obscured his prominent chin and neck, and his face held a high pinkness that made me think of Easter hams fresh from the oven. His mustache and beard were both trimmed short but looked askew, as if he had recently been resting flat on his face; there were hairs posing in quizzical fashion, curious as to their whereabouts. His lips were dry and flecked with white, and his tongue darted quickly and constantly across them, but never long enough to provide any moisture or comfort. Tenn’s eyeglasses rested unevenly across the bridge of his nose, which was red, weltlike, as if the glasses had rested too heavily and abraded him. The lenses were coated with fingerprints. His eyes were bright and were confusing in that they could appear blue or green or a combination of the two; the lids were heavy, and he blinked at an alarming slowness. Nonetheless, they were not the eyes of an old or tired man—they appeared to be fighting against the flesh that held them. The host and several waiters flocked around Tenn like bridesmaids cooing over a giddy bride; they were flush with compliments, praise, greetings. They all knew and loved Tenn, so they all loved me. I was embraced and led, a few steps behind Tenn, to a table in a dark corner, away from the bulk of the diners but still within view, our gustatory real estate of value to us and to the restaurant.
Tenn snapped his fingers, then pointed to a pitcher of water. A tall, elegant waiter brought to our table the pitcher and two large goblets and filled them. Tenn quickly and voraciously drank them. “Good God,” he stated, spraying the table with fluid, “I was dying and didn’t even know it.” There was then a long, dramatic pause. “As is my wont.”
I know that the waiter read us the specials and left us with menus. I don’t remember any of what he said, and I know that we failed to order for some time. It was more important for Tenn to drink, and he signaled that he wanted a bottle of liquor left at the table, along with a bucket of ice. I chose iced tea, the house wine of the South.
Every eye and ear in the restaurant was trained on us.
“I would like to talk about prayer,” Tenn said.
Prayer was introduced to me—and to Tenn—as a device to achieve what earthly vendors could not provide. Prayer opened up supernal supermarkets, opportunities; energies were shifted, and people we needed or wanted appeared.
I prayed to be accepted into the kingdom of heaven and I prayed whenever I plugged an appliance into an electrical socket, because I had been shocked at a young age doing so. I prayed to be left alone by school bullies, and I prayed to die young, because I believed that one remained forever at the age at which one died, and I didn’t want to get to heaven and be too old to enjoy myself or to be able to move around with ease. More than anything else, I prayed to get out of Baton Rouge.
Tenn prayed for this same liberation, but his prayers came with a particular consecration: Tenn was raised in the cradle of the Episcopalian Church, his family serving the institution (on retainer to Christ, as he saw it), and his mother finding great strength in having and maintaining a high standing within its social confines. Deluded into thinking that his prayers would hold a higher power because of his connections, Tenn was bitter that they failed to remove him from his unfortunate place of residence.
“I awoke every morning,” he told me, “enraged that I was not in Maine (I fancied Damariscotta, because I thought it might be like the Taj Mahal on the water, with silver maples in the background) or Paris or Los Angeles. I expressed grave disappointment as my mother’s face hovered over me in the bed each morning. It should have been Gloria Swanson or Judith of Bethulia or any number of imaginary women I had conjured in the night. I came to see that my reality was St. Louis and oilcloth on the table and watery eggs and perpetual abuse by my father and other boys, so I found a new means of prayer and a new means of liberation.”
Tenn explained to me that he had and loved a large radio throughout his childhood. The radio reminded him of a photograph he had once seen of a cathedral, and it became for him a holy relic, an object of great adoration, as esteemed as the church that gave him nothing on barren Sunday mornings. Tenn could not recall if the radio was made of cherry, walnut, or oak, but it was the first fine gift he had ever been given, and his first memories of reverence were of polishing this radio with lemon or verbena oil.
Deep in the night of his sleep, Tenn would hold the radio as he might have held a puppy or a stuffed animal, and he would listen to radio dramas, or parties over which band music wafted, and he could imagine other lives, other snatches of dialogue that could remove him from the reality of the life he endured.
“When I was young,” Tenn told me, “and if I was particularly inappropriate, my father would punish me by sending me to bed early, demanding that I sit in my room with no illumination and reflect upon my maledictions. Having no access to my books or drawings, I would turn on the radio that sat by my bed and listen to the dramas that played there. I would hug the radio close to my body, the better to hide what I was doing from ears of enmity that lived around me, and also to better feel the vibrations of the action that was emanating from the radio—to feel the action of the airwaves enter my body. I became engaged to my imagination, and I loved the organ stings, the glissandos, the tiny dramas that used so much, so quickly.
“As I listened to these programs, I also husbanded a deep hatred for my father and for the God who had decided, in an attack of cruel capriciousness, to cast him as my father in our own tiny drama, which deprived me of so much, so quickly.
“I prayed a new prayer as I listened to these dramatic programs. I asked to be released from the prison that was my home, from the meanness that surrounded me. I utter this prayer every day, to this day. You’ll learn,” he explained to me, “that prayers are directed at us, at our souls, our gifts; and I was being released, I was being directed to a new reality.
“When my father was especially angry and fulsome in his rage, when I was especially effeminate or dreamy for his tastes, he would remove my radio from my room, and I was left with nothing but my imagination, my rage, and my pitiful prayer, thrown up to a God who directed, mercifully, my attention to the sounds outside my window—the scattered conversations of my neighbors, the sound of music and dramatic programs emanating from dozens of radios around the neighborhood, cast on spring or summer breezes, or encased in closed-for-winter homes. Faint or forceful, I would listen, and I would imagine the circumstances surrounding the shards of dialogue or music I could hear.
“I believe this was when I came to believe I could write. I believe this was the time when I could imagine that there might be a God.
“As the years have progressed, and as my maledictions have become pronounced and occasionally profitable, I still find myself in the dark, in the silence, listening and waiting, hoping and praying, beseeching that ever-capricious God to show me something, share something with me, cast upon the movie screen that hangs over my bed, or within the radio tubes that reside in my head, a narrative, a woman that I can follow and believe in and dream for and write about to pull me from that St. Louis bed of anger and fear and sadness. God, give me something, anything!”
A pause, a lick of the lips.
“Oil, as you may know, is most often found in our own backyards; euphoria deep within. Aren’t we told that the kingdom of heaven is within us? I’m still looking, and my guides, my fearless and supernal Sherpas, are attempting to keep me on the right paths.
“As I stare into the darkness of my many nights and bad intentions, waiting for my mental proscenium to be lit, or for my above-bed screen to flicker with images, I think instead on those women—and a few men—who have been a constant source of inspiration and illumination; examples and extremes. I can’t always recall the circumstances through which they came to dominate my thoughts and my earliest attempts to communicate, but I can remember their names, and I have created acts of idolatry for them all, an amended Stations of the Cross in which I recall their acts of alchemy, of kindness, of spiritual and imaginative valor. I hold the memory of these people as close to me as I held that radio, lost to me forever.”
Tenn paused and looked into the courtyard, not for human contact, but for a distant spot into which he could stare and think. His eyes were lightly misted, but he brushed away any emotion, and returned his attentions to me.
“A few years ago,” he continued, “a friend in publishing told me of a typeface bearing a most marvelous name: Friz Quadrata. Very bold, very stylish. I was given some samples of this typeface, and they were on a sheet of paper upon which you could press and they would stick to whatever you had devised for a communicative purpose. Pressure letters, they’re called. What a lovely title that is: ‘Pressure Letters.’
“I can waste a good day applying these pressure letters to surfaces of pale judgment that cry out for a story or a woman speaking to us, and I can fool myself that I am writing, that I am praying to that same fucking God again to allow me to hear the distant voices, the distant music, to bring forth words.
“I now imagine the names of my great influences, and I see them in this great and bold typeface, and I focus and I pray and I am not bitter. I am grateful that they have been in my life and continue to be in my life, and I hope to be of use to them again. To matter.
“If there is a God, I think that he realized upon creating the world, upon making the mud and man—the rudiments, the utilities of the world—he needed color and beauty and analysis of what he had made, and he made woman, not from dust of the earth or spit or rain or sweat, but from the bone of a man. Now there’s a title, too: ‘The Bone of a Man.’ ”
Another pause, a slight laugh.
“So God presented us with the follies of God, the great and immortal truth of his humor and comfort and care and taste. And at night, in the dark, without my radio, without my rosary, without a word to place on the pale judgment, I see, without effort, and with great peace, the names of these women in Friz Quadrata type on the screen above my bed or on the lids of my tired eyes. And I can dream, and I can sometimes write, but I can always, always believe again.
“And so, baby, that is proof enough for me that there are higher powers and better stations awaiting us—awaiting you—and a woman will lead us to them.”
Tenn then picked up his menu and handed it to me. He pointed to it and said only one word: “Write.”
Over the next twenty minutes or so, Tenn dictated to me the names of the people he wanted both of us to pray to, dream of, write for.
He called them the follies of God, and I wrote down the names.
The menu was soon covered with names, primarily women, and then Tenn offered me an assignment.
“I would like for you to ask these people if I ever mattered,” he confessed. “I ask you to go to them because these people have mattered to me, and they keep me going—to the pale judgment, to face another day, to care again.”
The tone of the lunch changed abruptly. I was no longer the rube from Baton Rouge seeking advice and counsel; I was his partner in a venture that would bolster us both. I would go to New York and I would go to these people with a message from Tenn, after which the topic of Tenn mattering would be broached. I would then call or write Tenn and let him know what had been said.
“I am keeping the disease of bitterness firmly at bay,” he said. “I’ve been to the bottom of that barrel, and I’m not going there again. I am no longer angry, baby. A little aggrieved, perhaps, but anger is a voracious cancer on the soul and the talent: it cripples the instincts, leaves you open to all manner of bad things.”
Bitterness was kept at bay by a pronounced concentration on those people who had mattered to him, would matter again, and who might be of some value in pouring some fog on his mental proscenium and allowing some women to come forth and begin talking. He had taken an old rosary—given to him more than a decade earlier, when he had converted to Roman Catholicism—and he had renamed the mysteries and each bead along its length. There were no longer mysteries reserved for the crucifixion or the giving of water as the burdensome cross was carried. Instead there were beads bearing the memory and imagined visages of Jessica Tandy, Kim Stanley, Maureen Stapleton, Maria Tucci, Irene Worth, Marian Seldes, William Inge, Elia Kazan, John Guare—far too many names, so the beads had to be rotated, understudies taking over for leads, Beatrice Straight sometimes being called forward to take over the bead reserved for Geraldine Page, her memory caressed, recalled, blessed.
My assignment would be to knock on the doors of these people and relate to them what Tenn felt about them, then tarry and see if the thought was reciprocated, if they believed that Tenn mattered.
“There is very little that I can do well,” he confessed. “I cannot have or care for a child. I cannot prepare a meal satisfactorily—the dishes never emerge at the appropriate times. I cannot even eat a meal when I would like to. Things are falling apart; I lack mental and glandular flexibility. My brain doesn’t produce the creative fog, or words or sentences that share anything but the dusty refuse that resides in my skull. I cannot even be a friend for any sustained period of time, because my boundaries, always gently traced in sand—sands of madness—have been blown away and I can’t retrace them. I cannot, you see, really do anything, can’t relate to anything, but goddammit, I thought once, and I think still, that I can write. Can’t I get a single witness to whom I once delivered pages and deliverance to say that I once mattered?”
I accepted the assignment. I took out my first blue book and began to take the notes, to receive the directions to find my way to the people who had mattered to Tenn.
“One more thing,” Tenn interjected, as I began to write. “I would like to call you Dixie. It seems appropriate.”
I nodded and returned to my blue book and the description of the first folly of God. I wrote her name: Maureen Stapleton.
* * *