The first words William Gay ever said to me occurred in what appeared to be a ballroom inside the public library in Nashville. This was in October 2002, at the annual Southern Festival of Books. I stood uneasily near the beer station—scared, really—and William sidled up and said, “Tommy Franklin says you’ll help me beat up ____,” a writer who’d reamed William’s fine novel Provinces of Night in a published book review. He said, “I’m William,” and gave me that grin of his, that twinkle in his eyes.
I had just met Tom Franklin and didn’t recall ever saying I’d help anyone fight a critic, but I said, “Okay,” and started laughing.
“Nah, not really,” William said. “He just said we need to meet up.”
We were uncomfortable as slugs touring a salt factory, and it seems that—except for once—William and I were always thrown together in these situations. I like to think we considered each other Home Base in a strange childhood game of tag, that we could each find the other somewhere and lose all the discomfort of trying to remain cordial to strangers.
On this particular night in Nashville, said writer/critic showed up soon thereafter as I stood with William. He said, “Hey, George, always wanted to meet you, big fan, big fan…”
I said, “Thanks.” He didn’t acknowledge William, and I would bet he felt awful about misreading the novel. Within an hour, my big fan started calling me “Mike” for some reason. He called me Mike for the rest of the night. I never told him anything different.
I would look at William, who grinned and grinned. Somehow it meant that we had won this fight without ever throwing a punch.
We were in New Orleans at some kind of booksellers’ conference. The hotel was out from the main drags, way out by the Superdome. William knew that I wake up at 4:30 just about every morning, no matter what, especially out of my comfortable territory. This convention lasted three or four days, and each morning before the sun rose William called, or I called him, and we met up and smoked (and drank beer, sinners we) and talked about mysterious illnesses that might keep us from having to attend our own readings and whatnot. And Faulkner. And Cormac McCarthy. And dogs.
One morning we went downstairs and got on some kind of trolley that would take us into the French Quarter. William sat right behind the driver, a young, flamboyant African-American man who insisted on pointing out various landmarks of interest—levees, cemeteries, abodes. I sat across the aisle. The driver said, “Ohhhhh, now I’m going to point out a place that has the best bread in New Orleans. If y’all are looking for some fresh bread, this is the place to go.”
He pointed at a Subway restaurant.
I looked at William, who nodded, and glint-eyed, and smiled. Everyone behind us on the trolley had leaned out the open windows, wanting to know The Best Place Ever to Get Bread in New Orleans.
We got off the ride and drank a beer or two, and then William said, “I want to find that driver we had. I could listen to that guy talk all day, driving us around.”
Later that night he and I read together. I thanked all the gods ever invented that I didn’t follow him. He signed my copy of I Hate to See that Evening Sun Go Down: “Best Always to Artemis Gordon.”
William and I shared Sonny Brewer’s basement in Fairhope, Alabama, because I wouldn’t stay with strangers at some kind of writers’ festival—I’d made it clear, I thought, that I couldn’t stay in the home of people I didn’t know, that no one would want me in their house—and the Holiday Inn was full. I had a couch, William the bed. I know for a fact that I said “Good night” every evening past midnight while William sat there reading, and every morning when I awoke, pre-dawn, William still sat there reading. Does he not sleep? I thought. No wonder it’s not a problem when I call him up his hotel room at 4:30.
I had a rental car and needed to get from Nashville to Memphis. William said, “Swing on by Hohenwald. Bring some bourbon.” I did.
At the time William lived in a house trailer on a nice piece of land. I pulled in, and his wonderful pit bull Knuckles came running out from beneath the trailer, barking like all get-out, looking mean.
At the time I had about eleven strays, a couple of them pit bull mixes. I got out of the car, and bent down small, and stuck my hand out. Knuckles wagged his stubby tail and came up to me. I petted his head and cooed.
William opened the door and shook his head. He grinned. “I used to think that dog was a good judge of character,” he said. “Hey, George, come on in. Did you bring that bourbon? Let’s listen to some music.”
I will miss the great big-hearted man immensely. We’re all going to miss the music he had to offer us generously.
George Singleton is the author of four story collections, two novels, and a book of advice for aspiring writers. He teaches at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities and lives in Pickens County, South Carolina.