Sweet Fire: Memories of Andre Dubus, Part 2

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By Thomas E. Kennedy

[Part 1 of this essay is here.]

Early evening of the day I learned of Andre’s death, I managed to get his son, Andre Dubus III, on the phone. I had known Andre III briefly in Vermont in 1988 after his father’s accident. Andre III was there as a student in one of my workshops, and he was too modest to tell me that his own first collection of stories—a powerful one, The Cagekeeper—was about to come out from E. P. Dutton.  Maybe it was not modesty so much as delicacy; he was twenty-eight, I was forty-four, and although I had published a great many stories, it would be another year before my first book of fiction saw print. He and I went out for a night on the town in Montpelier that year, a kind of commemoration of the years before when I had done the same with his father. It was a terrific night—we talked, drank beer, laughed, and I recall at one point we were at a party, and Andre III was blowing a blues harmonica, and it was great! Although I had seen him only once or twice since, I still felt I knew him when he answered the phone that Friday evening in February to allow me to express my sadness at his father’s death.

Coincidentally, we both just had stories, side by side, in the latest issue of Glimmer Train (Spring 1999), which had appeared the week before. In the years since, Andre III’s fame as a writer has grown as greatly as his father’s with the critical and popular success of his latest two novels —House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days —and his memoir, Townie (2010), not to mention the Academy Award bestowed on the film version of the first novel.  During the same period, major films (“movies,” a term Andre preferred) were made of the father’s work, as well—the short story “Killings,” which was filmed as In the Bedroom, and a couple of his novellas filmed under the title We Don’t Live Here Anymore.

What Andre III said on the phone that evening was that his father had had a very good last day, had had some very good months. He was happy. His death had come quickly. I told Andre how sorry I was that I had no possibility of traveling back to the States for the wake and the funeral, and he told me not to worry. “Look,” he said, “I think he’s still here. He’s over there, too.” He told me about his pleasure at having had a long conversation with his father just the week before he died, and I told him about the Roland Kirk CD, which had caught my eye that afternoon. I hesitated to tell that, for fear he might think I was dishonoring the moment with sentiment, but he seemed to take it in the spirit I meant it.

After we said goodbye, I sat there at my writing desk, looking out at the fading winter light on the lake outside my window. It was just past six, Friday evening. In Copenhagen, the shops close at seven on Fridays. I thought about that Kirk CD. I thought about the fact that I had had the privilege and the pleasure just a few months before to publish a fiction anthology as a special issue of The Literary Review, for which Andre had given me permission to include the story that had so captured me twenty-nine years before, “If They Knew Yvonne,” and for which he had provided an essay explaining the background upon which he had written the story—despite the fact that I had no budget to pay him for the story or the essay other than in copies; but money had not been his first concern as a writer—this is the man who once had a three-story contract with Penthouse for several thousand dollars, which he canceled when they made unauthorized changes in the first of the three, and who withdrew a story from The New Yorker (“The Winter Father”), when the then-editors wanted him to drop the word “fuck” from a sentence that he judged required it—forfeiting the three thousand dollars, he sold it to Sewannee Review, and the story was selected by Hortense Calisher for Best American Short Stories that year.

“If They Knew Yvonne,” he explains in the essay in The Literary Review, had been inspired by a priest to whom he had once confessed the sins of a dozen years by opening his heart and explaining what he believed sinful and what not, what he was able to express sorrow for and what not, and for which the penance assigned him by the priest had been to chant three times Hallelujah.

I hurried down to my bicycle and rode up through the darkening winter evening to that record shop and bought the Roland Kirk CD, Sweet Fire. I biked home again and put it on my stereo and broke out a bottle of Stolichnaya Russian vodka and a bucket full of ice. And while Kirk blew Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High,” I lit a cigar and I cracked Andre’s last story collection, Dancing After Hours—a gift from my friend Mike Lee—and opened it to the title story. “Dancing After Hours” is the last story Andre published before he died—in the literary journal at Cornell University, Epoch, and then in this last collection.

It is an extraordinary achievement, a story which follows the daily lives of half a dozen characters in a bar from sundown one evening to just before sunrise next day. It is a long story, twelve thousand words. Its elegant features include the seemingly very simple surface, the very brief span of time it encompasses, perhaps nine hours, and the rich surface of its realistic rendering through the accumulation of simple detail and sensory evocation, conveying the quietly profound movement of the emotional lives of the characters depicted.

The entire story is portrayed through a single point of view, that of the 40-year-old Emily Moore against a background which is at once flawlessly realistic and richly symbolic. The story takes place in a bar, without windows, a place where people go to numb with drink, music and company the consciousness of sorrow at their impending mortality and the faltering of their capacities to experience profound human love. The time span—from sundown to just before sunrise— is also symbolic of the emotional states of at least three of the characters— Emily, Rita, and Jeff—who are transported through the story’s quiet events from a state of emotional shut-down to one where real human contact again becomes possible.

The music playing on the bar’s tape deck, too, is the music of the human condition in blue— jazz. As Emily’s consciousness moves from the surface of her life to the depths of her humanity, we hear the sweet fire of blind Roland Kirk’s many reeds where the story’s music melds with its first humanistic epiphany—Emily’s memory of a gifted blind man praising the virtues of blindness, of being unable to perceive the false physical surface of beauty, leading Emily to a recognition of the relative meaninglessness of her obsession with her own sense of not being beautiful as a model or actress, a modern American grief.

On this particular evening, I concentrated on the section that had made me think of Kirk in the first place. In it, Emily, a bartender, is preparing a drink for a customer who is crippled, and she is listening to Roland Kirk on the radio blow a tenor saxophone. No other male fiction writer I know of—including Gustave Flaubert—can write from a woman’s point of view like Andre could (except his son Andre III).

… Emily worked with ice and limes and vodka and gin and grapefruit juice and salt, with club soda and quinine water, and scotch and bottles of beer and clean glasses, listening to Roland Kirk and remembering him twenty years ago in the small club on the highway where she sat with two girlfriends. The place was dark, the tables so close to each other that the waitresses sidled, and everyone sat facing the bandstand and the blind man wearing sunglasses. He had rhythm sections and a percussionist, and sometimes he played two saxophones at once. He grinned; he talked to the crowd, his head moving as if he were looking at them. He said: “It’s nice, coming to work, blind. Not seeing who’s fat or skinny. Ugly. Or pretty. Know what I mean?”

Emily knew then, sitting between her friends, and knew now, working in this bar that was nearly as dark as the one where he had played; he was dead, but here he was, his music coming from the two speakers high on the walls, coming softly. Maybe she was the only person in the bar who heard him at this moment, as she poured gin; of course, everyone could hear him, as people heard rain outside their walls. In the bar she never heard rain or cars, or saw snow or dark skies or sunlight. Maybe Jeff [her lover, the cook] was listening to Kirk as he cooked. And only to be kind, to immerse herself in a few seconds of pure tenderness, she took two pilsner glasses from the shelf and opened the ice chest and pushed the glasses deep into the ice, for Alvin and Drew [the crippled man and his attendant].

Kirk had walked the earth with people who only saw. So did Emily. But she saw who was fat or ugly, and if they were men, she saw them as if through an upstairs window. Twenty years ago, Kirk’s percussionist stood beside him, playing a tambourine, and Kirk was improvising, playing fast, and Emily was drumming with her hands on the table. Kirk reached to the percussionist and touched his arm and stepped toward the edge of the bandstand. The percussionist stepped off of it and held up his hand; Kirk took it and stepped down and followed the percussionist, followed the sound of the tambourine, playing the saxophone, his body swaying. People stood and pushed their chairs and tables aside, and clapping and exclaiming, followed Kirk. Everyone was standing, and often Kirk reached out and held someone’s waist, and hugged. In the dark they came toward Emily, who was standing with her friends. The percussionist’s hand was fast on his tambourine; he was smiling; he was close; then he passed her, and Kirk was there. His left arm encircled her, his hand pressing her waist; she smelled his sweat as he embraced her so hard that she lost balance and stood on her toes; she could feel the sound of the saxophone in her body. He released her. People were shouting and clapping, and she stepped into the line, held the waist of a man in front of her; her two friends were behind her, one holding her waist. She was making sounds but not words, singing with Kirk’s saxophone. They weaved around tables and chairs, then back to the bandstand, to the drummer and the bass and piano players, and the percussionist stepped up on it and turned to Kirk, and Kirk took his hand and stepped up and faced the clapping, shouting crowd. Then Kirk, bending back, blew one long high note, then lowered his head and played softly, slowly, some old and sweet melody. Emily’s hands, raised and parted to clap, lowered to her sides. She walked backward to her table, watching Kirk. She and her friends quietly pulled their table and chairs into place and sat. Emily quietly sat, and waitresses moved in the dark, bent close to the mouths of people softly ordering drinks. The music was soothing, was loving, and Emily watched Kirk and felt that everything good was possible.

It would be something like that, she thought, now, something ineffable that comes from outside and fills us; something that changes the way we see what we see; something that allows us to see what we don’t…

Something lovely spread in her heart, blood warmed her cheeks, and tears were in her eyes; then they flowed down her face, stopped near her nose, and with the fingers of one hand, she wiped them, and blinked and wiped her eyes, and they were clear. She glanced around the bar; no one had seen. Jeff said, “Are you all right?”

“I just had a beautiful memory of Roland Kirk.”

And I just had a beautiful memory of Andre Dubus, reading his words and remembering him twenty-some years ago, a man who, like Kirk, left behind a body of enduring work.