William Gay: “I’m ready to go anytime you are. This looks like a damned dress rehearsal for the bottom level of hell.”

From a post by Sonny Brewer on lithub.com headlined “William Gay Was Never Too Busy for Life’s Smaller Moments”:

William Gay was a good man. And they aren’t that easy to find. My great uncle got specific and said a really good man was one in ten thousand. He was a Harvard-trained minister who spent 40 years in the pulpit. He was, however, pulling a thread in his clerical cloth hoping to impress me with an opportunity to be somebody just by being good.

Confucius talked about the idea of a good man. He said a good man is kind, has integrity, doesn’t need much, and is willing to put himself at the disposal of other people. But more, while being an archetype, he is not rich or a politician, not a ballplayer or a celebrity—just somebody who understands others, and counts relationships with family and friends above all else. . . .

The night I met William Gay, we were in a bar in Columbia, South Carolina, in town for the Southeastern Independent Booksellers Association annual conference. It was the fall of 1999. My pal Tom Franklin had mentioned his name to me, said I’d want to get in line on Sunday morning for a signed copy of his chapbook.

“I’ve never heard of this guy,” I said. “Is this something he self-published?”

“No. But it’s independently published by a woman who lives in his hometown,” Tom said. “It’s one short story, in a limited run of 250 copies. All of them numbered.” I had a bookstore back in Fairhope, Alabama: Over the Transom Used and Rare Books. Tom had heard my story about selling one book for more than $6,000 to a collector. “Trust me,” he said, “you haven’t heard of William Gay but that’s about to change when his first novel comes out in November. And you do want to have one of these chapbooks.”

The bar was crowded, people standing up, brushing past, and Tom turned to greet a man. “Hey William,” he said. “I was just telling Sonny about you,” and clapped me on the shoulder.

I don’t know what I was expecting. First-time author, maybe a young college type. No, this writer had some miles on him. Older than me, I guessed. And with long hair, kind of curly. I couldn’t see his eyes. But something about him drew me in.

“Hey, Sonny.” His slow Tennessee voice was musical and had a kind of smile in it. He was wearing jeans and a rumpled black velvet-looking sport coat with broad lapels. Out of fashion.

Pretty quick I found myself sitting in a booth with the man. Just the two of us. And we fell into an easy conversation about editors. William’s heavy drawl was the real version of the fake thing that actors foist on moviegoers in hillbilly movies. It belied his mercurial intelligence and an English professor’s vocabulary. . . .

And like two men shooting pool, we took turns across the table. Him then me. Me then him. Ratchet-jawing like drunken sailors on leave in Barcelona, Spain. . . .

But our talking was not triflng gossip. It was on our New England trip that William explained to me why Robert Penn Warren’s “Blackberry Winter” was a perfect short story. Said if you removed or added just one word from it, you’d damage it. . . .

When, short weeks after he died, I read the handwritten manuscript of The Lost Country, what pages had been found by then, and I came across the paragraph that included the book’s title, that time, too, my heart stumbled and I cried for the loss of my friend.

On one of our trips the bed and breakfast the college had lined up for us was, well, dainty, and heavy on the pastels. William went into his room and came right back out again. Didn’t even put down his bag. “Can we go to a motel? I’m afraid I’ll be swarmed and smothered in my sleep by butterflies.” We left. Found a handy motel where I thought up some story for our hosts.

We couldn’t blame our wrong turns on whisky. I never once saw William Gay drunk, co-piloting or not.

But he and I did belly up to a bar now and again. Like the night in Nashville we were parked on stools when three young women came to stand right beside us. They ordered drinks and scanned the room, blessing the barroom’s ambience with their centerfold looks. When they left in a swirl and sway, 15 minutes later after one round of cocktails, I said, “Did you see that? I mean, those girls were clearly looking for somebody to play with and they did not even glance obliquely in our direction!”

William didn’t look up from his beer when he said, “I guess you ain’t checked your expiration date lately, have you?”

Another night, this time on Beale Street in Memphis, it was obvious how poorly we two fit into the scene when William said to me, “I’m ready to go anytime you are. This looks like a damned dress rehearsal for the bottom level of hell.”. . .

He was a superior man. Willing to sell his literary papers to help with someone else’s doctor bills. Or to offer me a loan when I lost my home to a foreclosure sale on the courthouse steps in 2008. . . .

That chapbook? The one by the writer I’d never heard of? I sat in the back seat of my Ford Explorer and read it aloud to two other men, Kyle Jennings and Frank Turner Hollon. We were southbound back home, toward Alabama. A story called “The Paperhanger, the Doctor’s Wife, and the Child Who Went into the Abstract.” When I finished, the vehicle had slowed from 75 to 50. Somebody finally said, Damn!

And I said, “I gotta get this guy down to read in my bookstore. But I heard he doesn’t drive.”

“Sounds like a road trip,” Kyle said.

Yes, and what a road trip it was. Here and there, over and over, again and again. Until one day almost six years ago I got the news, behind the wheel, on my way to pick up William and go to a reading at Lincoln Memorial University, that my traveling buddy had died. But, because he wrote books, and because this manuscript was finally found, the road trip continues.

From the foreword to The Lost Country by William Gay. Used with the permission of the publisher, Dzanc Books. Foreword copyright © 2020 by Sonny Brewer.

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