I don’t know much about ghost stories. I don’t like reading them ‘cause my life is scary enough as it is. You want to scare me you can hold the ghosts and tell me about a woman and her two daughters loose in Bergdorf’s with my credit card, now that’s what scares the hell out of me. As far as trying to tell one, I was never any good at ‘em. I usually messed up the scary part, and everybody’d laugh when they were supposed to be hollering and screaming. Although that happens about a lot of stuff, for me, the laughing part not the hollering and screaming. I guess it’s just the way I say things.
I remember once when I was just going into radiation oncology and was still doing a lot of work at the Children’s Hospital of the Kings Daughter. I was trying to tell a friend who I’d deployed with on dive jobs around the world about how it was making me feel. How I was running a lot better now because I wasn’t running through woods imagining getting away from Russians or Arabs or whatever, I was running down the streets of Virginia Beach trying to get away from the eyes of the dead children I’d taken care of.
His response wasn’t that helpful in trying to help me find a way to deal with the way I was feeling about stuff. He cracked up and said, “Man you should do stand-up. This stuff is hilarious.”
I changed the subject.
So if you’re hoping for a scary ghost story save yourself the trouble and bail out now, ‘cause that’s not what this is going to be. Anyway, Barry Hannah died this month. He was the kind of author that took chances, sometimes too many, but he was a good writer, for it and despite it too. He died up in Oxford where he taught creative writing, but I never knew him there. He was born here in the town where I live, Meridian Mississippi, but I never knew him here either. I went to the University of Alabama. When I was there we won the national championship twice, Bear Bryant was our coach, Sela Ward was one of our cheerleader, and Barry Hannah was in a drunken whirlwind, shooting arrows through folks houses, stealing motorcycles, and teaching in the English Department. That’s when I was aware of his existence.
I wasn’t the kind to get too impressed with a wild ass literature professor back then, I was in the honors English program and was studying Southern Literature because I liked it, but I was a pre-med major and all I gave a shit about was Biochemistry, and Physics, and Advanced Analytic Spectroscopic technique. My one stab at writing was a research paper on “The Clinical and Laboratory Characteristics of Macroamylasemia” a clinical syndrome where your amylase molecules are too big, with large redundant sections, so it doesn’t get excreted normally and you get high serum amylase levels. I’m pretty sure Barry wouldn’t have seen it favorably, as it didn’t take a lot of chances with the English language. Anyway, Airships had just come out, and one of the big stories that drew a lot of local ire was Constant Pain in Tuscaloosa. The constant pain had ended up with him in Bryce Hospital, the local inpatient psychiatric unit, for alcoholism. Which explains some things later in the story.
Now this morning was a rodeo Saturday at Casa Charlo (that’s the name we gave our new house, the last one was called The Monkey House because of all of the kids who lived in it with us). We were up a 5:45 am to get ready, get everything together; horses, trailers, trucks, etcetera so the girls could drive across the state to ride horses around stuff in a dirt pen somewhere else instead of here. I wasn’t going, so after I took them to breakfast and the barn and watched them drive away in a pick-up with a gooseneck horse trailer on the back I got to go home and go back to bed for another hour or so.
That’s when Barry showed up. Which was kind of disconcerting, because I’d known about him being dead for about a week or so. Anyway, I was lying there asleep and there he was, his hair was even still dark, no gray in it yet, althought he died with a bunch of gray hair. He was leaning over the bed and shouting down into my face, like he was famous for doing in class all those years ago.
“Tom…Tom…listen to me now Tom.” My names not Tom, but I figured it was the alcohol talking. “…just listen. You’re never going to be a real writer if you keep yourself all bottled up in your own life. You got to let go. You just got to let go and see what in the hell happens. Let your characters run their own lives. Stop getting in the middle of it. You gonna be dead soon enough, just like me. Write something worth leaving before you go Tom. God damn it, write something worth leaving.”
It never occurred to me that he might of gotten the wrong address, somehow I knew he was talking to me, he just had the wrong name, which wasn’t unusual back then either.
“So what is it you're trying to tell me to do, man?” I asked, still in college, I suppose.
“When opportunity knocks, you open the door Tom. Open the fuckin’ door.”
In the dream, I guess, I heard the doorbell ring and I was confused. Barry was gone and I didn’t know if the doorbell had really rung or not. The dogs weren’t barking. That was a sign that it was just in the dream, but I couldn’t just lay there. I got up and put on my robe and went from door to door and I didn’t see anybody out there. Opportunity had not knocked.
I tried to figure it all out, but it didn’t make sense. I poured a cup of coffee and sat down at my desk and rewrote the ending of The Hard Times , the novel I was editing, and I wrote well, which is always a nice thing. It was raining outside, the coffee was still warm, and I knew that while opportunity knocks and is gone, inspiration’s the one that takes the time to ring the bell.