"You haven't had much to drink," Barry Hannah said to me over the low tables at City Grocery. Coming from the man once called "the Deep South's answer to Charles Bukowski," this sounded like a challenge. Maybe an insult?
"I'm working on it," I said.
Then Hannah leaned close and cupped a hand around his mouth. I was to be his guide this night.
The award-winning author of eight novels and four short-story collections died last week of a heart attack at his home in Oxford, Miss. But back on that Friday in 2003, he was my graduate school mentor, leaning into me on the bench in the barroom. He had some words for my ears only.
"I need to go to Walmart," he said. "Need to buy a stereo before my kids get to town, and I really shouldn't be driving on my medication. What sort of driving condition are you in? Bring someone along just in case."
I brought my friend Sean. We relished our roles as peripheral characters in the story of his night.
We didn't ask him to list his medications. Never mind why a visit from his adult children should prompt the need for a stereo, nor why this acclaimed author, who often said he'd rather be a rock star, didn't own one. We were content to ride along. I was thrilled to drive. That I was chosen for my relative sobriety didn't matter.
In the electronics section, one of the South's greatest living writers confronted a late-shift minimum-wager, his requests impossible and anachronistic.
"What I want is simple and straightforward. The list of what I don't want is endless and growing."
He wanted the loudest stereo he could buy, with a CD player and nothing else. No tape deck. No radio.
"Interminable commercials. Someone holding court and you sitting there dumb, unable to respond. People do listen to it, I know, but why I couldn't tell you."
He settled for two of the endless options he didn't want. In the impulse shopping section by the checkout counter, he snatched up some batteries and bananas.
"Wouldn't be a Friday night without a 9-volt and potassium," Sean said as Hannah put the items on the conveyor belt.
"Always low prices at Walmart," the man behind the register intoned.
"I've had my share of low. It's not always a virtue," Hannah said. Then, to Sean, "You can teach yourself to expect less from people."
Our lights hit Hannah's driveway, and the house exploded with the roar of a too-large dog pack. He insisted we come in for a drink. While Sean and I stood as still as possible and the snapping tumble of dogs eddied around us, Barry rummaged through cabinets, pantry, fridge, freezer, drawers, anywhere that might harbor a bottle.
"One of the great indignities of sobriety is not having anything appropriate to offer guests. Usually I can rustle a glass or two," he told us, even as we pleaded no need, thanks anyway.
"Hold on." He departed into his study where I could see books on the shelves. Books and firearms. The weapons appeared antique, just for show, but who knew? Maybe it was a study, maybe a literary torture chamber. After two beats too long, Barry came out holding a shoebox.
"This is from when I was dying of lymphoma. Couldn't bear to throw them away."
Inside the box: assorted packs of cigarettes, each with only one or two smokes missing. Lucky Strikes, Camels, American Spirits, Pall Malls, long brown ones, short fat ones. The only variety not represented was Marlboro, the brand he smoked.
"I was dying," he said. "No better time to try something new."
We thanked him and he waved us away and said something that sounded like "de nada" but just as easily could have been "be gone."
"Love your loneliness," was Hannah's advice to would-be writers. Except when it was "the job of the writer is to win the battle against loneliness." Most teachers live by a certain set of rules and lessons that they hone over time into a fine and unwavering craft, but Hannah never hesitated to offer contradictory advice. Conflict did not shame or frighten him away from the outlandish. But he never escaped his Southern civility. Even at his gruffest, he couldn't help but make friends; pals he called them.
It took us years to smoke all those cigarettes. We saved them for special occasions, even after both Sean and I had become Barry's pals, not just his students. Barry's pals were legion and not one of them felt ordinary or indistinguishable in his presence. Over the course of 40 years of writing and 25 teaching fiction writing, Barry molded any number of writers, some of them even worth reading. But most of all, Barry Hannah gave everyone their own adventure and turned everyone he met into a storyteller.
Will Short Gorham is a news researcher for the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.