Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Blurring the World Outside

Traveling with William Gay always involves a certain amount of detours

It goes like this: somebody somewhere asks either William or me to come and give a reading, and he or I say no or OK. If we decide to go someplace to do a book thing, give a talk, answer some questions from the audience maybe, then the road trip is on. We mark down the date and talk more and more on the phone about our trip. I’m like the coordinator guy because William does not much like to talk on the phone. Unless he wants to talk to you on the phone, which you will know if he picks up, and if he gets tired of talking on the phone he will say, My phone’s about to die. A half a minute later the call ends. Sometimes he will talk for an hour. On our road trips, we talk for hours and hours and hours. We miss our turns because the world inside the car forgets the world of streets and roads outside the car. On our way to Miami one time, driving east along the top of Florida on I-10, we looked up and saw the Atlantic Ocean outside the windshield.

What the hell have we done? I asked.

William said, We must have missed our turn.

But it was I-75 we needed to make a right on. That’s not some side street down a back road. It’s like ten acres of cloverleaf and signs and cars and lights on poles and nice landscaping.

I reckon we were talking, William said.

I imagine so.

We’ve been half a day late on arrival. Like when we drove to Maine last September was a year ago.

We were supposed to go around New York City. But we were talking, and it was raining hard enough to shut down JFK airport that weekend. So we looked ahead of the car to see the George Washington Bridge and realized we were in rush-hour traffic. It was a four-hour detour for us.

Then there was this road trip to east Tennessee. Only six hours from William’s home in Hohenwald to Lincoln Memorial University and a Monday night reading. I hit the road on Thursday and stopped off at my mama’s house to visit. She lives in the woods where a cell signal drifts in now and then on the wind, only to be snatched away with a gust. When the signal made it to my phone, there was a notice of messages. I listened. And no amount of talking with William has ever blurred the world outside for me the way the news—a message and a message and another message—of William’s death fogged-in reality for me.

I thought about turning around and going back home to Fairhope, down on the coast. But I believed I might then never go back to Little Swan Creek Road, where William lived. Ever. And that would not be the right way to fold our trip map and put it away forever in the desk drawer.

When William had called me to set up this last road trip, I told my wife I might skip it this time. But then I told her I don’t know how many more of these we’ll be allotted, William and me.

So, standing in my mama’s carport I told Darnell Arnoult at Lincoln Memorial University to sweep out the Alumni House, I’d be on time for our reading.

And, Monday night I read from The Long Home, William’s first novel. Two paragraphs of such power and beauty that I’d disbelieved him for a minute when he told me that to write it only took the length of time it took him to set it down. Until he told me he got it right in his head on the jobsite before going home that night to “set it down.”

Then I read to the room his essay, “Fumbling for the Keys to the Doors of Perception: A Memoir Mostly True But With Some Stretchers, as Mark Twain Once Said.” William writing about William. Not writing Fleming or Bloodworth. Him telling of working at the boat-paddle factory where he decided to quit, finally, and go off and find the words, the right and good words, for describing the way snow falls in the dark.

Then I read Ecclesiastes 12:5: “…because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets.”

So that’s how it goes. We are left here to mourn while William’s gone home.