Monday, February 28, 2005

Andrea's Fiction - "...a cave so dark that even dreams will not sleep here"

Unlike Toni, Van, and the others likely to post here, I probably won't have much content to contribute. My personal experiences with Andrea overlap Toni's almost 100%, and I'm not a poet. Setting up and administering the site will probably be much of what I can contribute.

That said, Toni has suggested that we post Andrea's story "Someplace In Between" here. This was the work which first established Andrea as a writer of national stature, winning the 1992 Hemingway Prize for short fiction.



Someplace In Between

I never sleep that I know of, so I'm awake when Hattie slips into my room. She's black as the night outside and moves quick for an old woman, but they leave the lights in the corridor on all night here for the nurses to come in and take our vital signs. So I can see it's Hattie but I don't let on, and she creeps over by my bed, lifts up her hospital shift, and squats with her big gray bush inches off the floor and lets a huge puddle right there on the linoleum. She laughs without making a sound, but she does that a lot, her body rocking and her candy corn teeth barely hanging in there, ticking like bad nerves. I think about asking her if she knows who took my cigarettes. I had a secret stash in a BandAid box taped under the bathroom sink. But I don't want to spoil her fun so I keep quiet and she tiptoes out the door, her shoulders still shaking.

When I first came here, I was afraid of Hattie. I was afraid of all the other patients. I was confused about everything. I can't really say how it all came about. I had a love affair with a married man that ended badly, but at thirty-four that's not a singular experience. It's not like I slit my wrists or something, I just quit living. After he left me, I kept an apple in the refrigerator that he had taken a bite out of. The older it got, the clearer you could see where his teeth marks cut the flesh right down to the core. I kept it so long it shriveled up like an old man's balls. Except for the vodka, it was the only thing in the refrigerator when they came for me that day.

It wasn't at all like in the cartoons, with a van-load of starched orderlies wielding giant butterfly nets. Which reminds me of how much my father liked those cartoons with the chicken hawk. He would chase me around the house yelling, "Come to me my chickadee!" in his Foghorn-Leghorn voice. Anyway, two policeman entered my home at my family's request, fished me from my waterbed and placed me almost reverently in the back seat of a patrol car. I don't remember being very surprised or frightened, just embarrassed because I hadn't bathed or brushed my teeth in a long time. I had on my loud silk kimono which was flapping in the wind, so they probably saw that I hadn't shaved my legs in a while either. The strangest part was that my family was huddled in my back yard by the fig tree. When we drove away, they were all peeking through the holes in the chain link fence. All except my father.

Processing was tedious--a lot of paperwork and paper cups and violated veins. They took away the belt to my kimono, which was awkward because I had nothing on underneath. They gave me a pair of big blue pajamas. When I changed, I was pleased with my pointed pelvic bones, and my small breasts reminded me of the apple. I wondered if my mother would find it and throw it away, not knowing its significance. Later that day someone delivered an overnight bag with toilet items in it. It was dropped it off, so I never saw who brought it. An overnight bag. There's humor in that now. The nurse is coming. She always feels my breast when she wraps that pad around my arm, so I pretend I am asleep.

***

I am standing in the cold outside a big beautiful house in a fancy neighborhood. It is my lover's house, and he is inside with his wife and new baby. I can see through the bright windows that they are having a party. I am not dressed nice enough to go inside, but I want to very badly. So I pull a miniature Smirnoff from the pocket of my blue-jean jacket and stick the whole neck of the bottle in my mouth like a small gun. Armed with a warm rush of social composure, I slip through the door to the party in progress. My lover, ringed in the last of his red hair, offers me a cocktail as if he doesn't know me. I think this is a trick because he has said he will leave me if I drink, so I decline. No one seems to notice me except the dog, who singles me out and pushes his friendly greeting between my legs, making a spectacle of my gender. Women walk by in spiked heels that click like tongues. My lover looks intellectual with a pipe. He ignores me and sniffs his own smoke thoughtfully. I resist the urge to touch the hem of his jacket. An old man stands by a grandfather clock, his presence thin as crystal. I know him from my dreams. We are familiar. He toasts me with a cocktail and whispers, "This is my body, this is my blood." I am perched on the edge of an antique chair, balancing a plate of baby swiss and a small bundle of green fruit. The wife approaches, the Madonna and child. I am blushing like the Zinfandel, the grapes pale beads I count with my fingers. Closer now, and I slip through a hole in the cheese, stumble through the sober door. Outside, the crones of midnight wait. We whip the rats to frenzy.

***

Breakfast is fake eggs and tough pale toast. "Jake the Flake" runs down the hallway, clutching the excess handful of his hospital pajamas at the waistline yelling, "Cigarette break!" We all file out and take our places at the round table. The nurse unlocks a cabinet and rations cigarettes as though this took years of training. We stare at her big ring of keys. The old man beside me never wears his teeth and as always, asks me for one of my cigarettes, though he gets two just like the rest of us. I shake my head no, then look away so he can steal one. Across from me Hattie gets a kick out of this, laughing silently. It happens every day. There is a certain order to things here. Today there is a buzz of excitement around the table. Jake is being transferred to Chattahoochee. He has been there before. His wrists are manacled with scars. Jake is younger than I am and not bad looking except that his teeth are a little mossy. People in here tend to have bad teeth. Maybe they were bad before they came in. I don't know.

I know my father would have refused to sign the papers to put me in here. This is not even a private clinic. It is the mental health ward stashed in the basement of Bay Memorial Hospital. Even the staff who have to work here are offended. The huge nurses march around doing the Gestapo two-step with their breasts starched up under their chins and all that facial hair. I have sat with my father many nights while he fought the war over again with a bottle in his hand. I have been a prisoner with him, eating thin broth and bits of maggot bread. I cried with him over his dead friend, the two of them trapped in a foxhole and the body stinking and swelling up so tight the buttons burst off his uniform. I have held the green Tupperware bowl under his chin when he got sick and put damp cloths in the freezer for his head. That is how I know he would have had no part of this.

Dr. Peningroth is here. He looks like Quasimodo. The nurse brings him coffee and I think, "She brawt me wata!" and envision him swinging from the bells at Notre Dame. He asks why I am laughing, but knows I won't answer him because I don't talk out loud anymore. That started about the same time that my personal hygiene declined. At first, it was because I was just too tired. Too tired to get out of bed, go to work, answer the phone or the door. Then I just didn't have anything to say. They have a fancy name for it in here, but I call it fatigue. Besides, I know I can talk, that's why I could have asked Hattie about the cigarettes last night. I just didn't want to.

Peningroth is reading over what I have written for him and chain-smoking Virginia Slims, which is particularly hard on me because I am only allowed to smoke at designated times. I could probably quit under the circumstances, but I don't want to give up anything else. It was his idea that he assign me questions and then before our next session I write my response in the notebook he gave me. This is fine with me. The questions are personal, about my family and childhood, sex and death. I let him read what I have written, but I don't let him keep it. It's mine. He doesn't wear a lab coat. Today he has on a loud Hawaiian-type shirt and khaki pants that bag in the seat. He is a huge man, but I suspect he has a small penis. I know what he is reading right now. Maybe he has a large penis. I don't know.

Dr. P wants to know why I have never married. Why I have affairs with older men, married men. Men who aren't my own. I am actually getting angry while he steams up his Ben Franklin specs talking about my sexual fears and fantasies right out loud. It is all I can do to keep from yelling, "I bet you have a small penis!" when I realize that is probably just what he wants me to do. I do nothing, and he tells me again about this being an uphill climb and how I have to help him help me. Behind his glasses he looks like a big bird, all beady-eyed, and I wonder what would happen if I trusted him. Where is all this taking me? I don't know. I am too tired to think about it. I go back to my room and lie down, just to rest because I never sleep.

***

I walk through pine needles and purple berries, the wet soil dark as blood. It is an uphill climb. Vines like fat fingers grope the trunks of hardwood trees. There is a stream. On the sand bed, below the surface of the water, is a white stoned stained with algae. I wade into the stream and when my hand closes on the stone, a hawk circles above me. He settles on a nearby branch, his talons cracked and curled like an old arthritic. I know him from my dreams. We are familiar. I clean the green from the stone and it becomes a candle. In the company of the hawk, I move on. We have not gone far when I feel that we are near the nightmare, a cave so dark that even dreams will not sleep here. I offer the hawk my arm, and we enter. I hear the cracking of heads beneath my feet. Snakes of all species hiss and slide. Venom stalactites drip and rainbows of poison splash like arcs of oil on water. I walk by faith and the light of the stone. I am not bitten, but exit into a wet forest, the sound of something dripping magnified and everything too green. I think I am safe when a serpent's tongue licks the wick of my candle. It is dark again. The hawk's eyes are hollow. Wisdom falls like feathers.

***

It's T.V. time in the rec room, and everyone is arguing over what they want to watch. I rarely have an ally in this, but I give it my best shot, showing Hattie it's Orson Welles week on WTBS. She stares at where I'm pointing in the T.V. Guide, and it hits me that she can't read. Maybe that's why I'm drawn to her. So I wave the Guide in the air and kind of toss it toward the cheap coffee table like it doesn't matter anyway. I have to sit through "Hee-Haw," but Hattie is enjoying it, shaking and pointing her finger at the set. I wonder if Jake has a T.V. in Chattahoochee. I picture him watching this same show and laughing out loud with his green teeth.

Roy Clark is burning his fingers on his banjo, and the next thing I know I can hear my mother calling me. I see through some wire that she's on Uncle Brice's back porch. I'm hiding in the chicken coop. The hens are all flustered, and my black patent Sunday shoes are spattered with chicken shit. It is my uncle who finds me and takes my hand and leads me to the car, and we all get in and drive to a place called Little Flock. It is a country funeral, and these are my country relatives. Big bald men with speckled hands who wear their pants pulled up high and tight around their bellies like pot roasts wrapped with twine. The women stand like they're planted in orthopedic shoes. Their hair is pulled back tight; I can hear it screaming at the roots. My shoes are from last year, and they pinch my feet so bad I could cry but I don't. It's hot in the country, and everyone's waving these fans with Jesus on the cross. They have to close the lid on my father because the make-up is melting around the hole in his head.

I look over at Hattie still watching "Hee-Haw," and she starts me thinking about my mother who isn't black or nearly so old. I have this sort of premonition that she needs me or something, and I get a little frantic that I haven't known this before and maybe it's too late. It even crosses my mind that I might have died in my waterbed, and this is someplace in between. But Hattie is so real beside me that I am reassured. I think what's going to happen is that soon I'll find myself standing by those double doors with my overnight bag. When they buzz them open, I'll shoot out of here like a breech birth, and my mother will be there like before, counting my fingers and toes. It's good to think about this, and I feel as if Hattie is responsible. So I reach over and put my hand on one of her soft knees, and soon I'm laughing, too, at Buck and Roy and all these big-breasted women popping up out of this corn field.

There are many versions of Andrea

There are many versions of Andrea’s story. Toni spoke of how she always looked like a model, no matter how she was dressed. I recall that when she first came back to school as an older undergraduate her appearance put considerable distance between herself and other students and in a conference once she asked how she could make friends. “Wear jeans,” I said, and she did, and it seemed to work, though she still looked like an ad for Calvin Klein.

Toni mentions the workshops we had that included a group of enormously talented students and non-students. Besides Andrea and Toni, there were Rick Campbell, Donna Long, Lynne Knight, Catherine Reid, Mary Jane Ryals, Laura Sullivan, Michael Trammell, Helen Wallace—and others I know I am leaving out—all accomplished poets who have won deserved recognition for their work and have gone on to contribute importantly to writing and the literary community.

For the reading Toni mentioned where Andrea read, she had to have a prescription to calm her nerves, or else she said her knees would have been shaking so badly she could not have read. But it was that way with everything. Professors often assign far more work to a graduate student than it is possible to do, expecting the student to choose what is right for his or her needs. Andrea would stay up all night to try to do it all. But that was true in what others would consider mundane things. Andrea found she could make more money cleaning houses than any other way, and she was as thorough with that as with her graduate work and her writing. If her creativity was often off-set by her self-destructiveness, her perfectionist reaching in her studies and her writing were grounded by her never forgetting her humble beginnings and the love she carried for those who had loved her in early life, an eccentric aunt, and a black woman who became the voice in one of her best stories.

Altogether, Andrea won most of the prizes available for poetry in the Florida State University Writing Program. The Academy of American Poets Award for Undergraduates and later the same award for graduate students. Also, the Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society Award for Poetry. Andrea was a member of the society, but the award was open to any poet, member or not, including faculty members. Then there was a poem she began as an undergraduate that I told her should probably be a story. Eventually she made it into a story that won the Ernest Hemingway Short Story Award. But it is not the awards she won, or even the works that won the awards, but the works that were not written that make Andrea’s loss irretrievable.

So many of the people that loved and were supportive and kind to Andrea had great difficulty with her not keeping faith with her ability and promise and with her friends. Between her pain treatments, attempts to heal, and pain killers substituted for treatments she couldn’t afford without health insurance, I spoke to Andrea only a few times during her last year and a half. Andrea felt her failure and the disappointment it caused those she loved who had loved her, those who like her had had to pull the antipodes together to achieve what they were achieving. She felt it to the end, I’m sure. And she understood, for she was always a severe critic of herself.

I recall my advice to her to wear jeans and my casual remark that a poem fragment might be the kernel of a story, because Andrea would remind me of them. Similarly, she was generous in the credit she gave to her friends, and many times they did deserve the credit. Enormously creative and enormously self-destructive is the way one of her friends and former lovers put it when I sent news of her death.

Of the many versions of Andrea’s story, the following reflects things she told about her life before leaving home to return to college. It may not be fair to the keeper of the wild zone. In the long run, it was not a free ride for him, as it would not have been for anyone. I tell it because it shows much about Andrea.
Van

The Keeper of the Wild Zone

He just brought his things one night and wouldn't leave.
I didn't want this, but though I said, "No, No,"
The house had been emptier than de Milo's sleeves.

He fixed leaky faucets, clogged drains, fired the coals,
charred red meat brown, and told me: how to dress
to look my best--in skin-tight clothes,

when my thinking wasn't straight, like his,
why the job that gave me nothing was good.
It had something to do with the pay. So with his

unflagging help, I fled to my mom's and woke up in bed,
from which, dutifully, at last, he brought me home,
and prescribed, as cure, himself. I split, instead,

this time, to another town, books and jeans, and left
the teddies he bought with him, his low red road machine
my furniture, house, flowers, everything except

the wild one behind the mirror, he never knew
we kept, so tuned was he to the marble skin-tight dreams
of his Galatea, polished, made up, always askew,

with his stringents and insults, caresses and screams.
The truth? He was sweet, lonely, sad, like a stray,
or a child who wanted a toy that knew his name,

who wanted a home and keeper, without bills to pay,
otherwise, he'd rather live on a boat in the bay.
And sure, basically, we all want to have our way.

Van K. Brock

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Toni's Story: Andrea and Me (Part 1)

Queen of Cups

Andrea and I met in a Van Brock Poetry Seminar, January 1992. My divorce had been finalized in August, and this was my first semester in graduate school. I planned to major in Creative Writing, Fiction, but I’d always loved reading poetry so signed up for what I thought was a poetry discussion group. Imagine my surprise (and panic) when I discovered we were expected to write poetry.

What a group that was! Andrea, Donna Long, Helen Wallace, Michael Trammell and many other gifted writers. I was so over my head that I could barely breathe when it was time for class. My first efforts were so bad I still don’t know how the group managed to read them with straight faces. But read them they did, and how kindly they responded. If I had to describe my progress that semester, it would be something like “pulled gently forward,” and Andrea was one of the gentlest. To their credit, they “pulled” me far enough that I was able to report my first poetry acceptance before the semester’s end. The whole class shared my excitement.

Andrea always swore that she remembered what I wore the first night of class -- a bright red pullover sweater with matching nail polish (it was during the good old days of alimony when I could still afford professional manicures). I have no reason to doubt this, and I only wish I'd been as observant. I don't remember what she wore, but I must have noticed her beautiful smile, her slim-to-the-point-of-fragile frame, and her impossibly erect carriage. She always carried herself like a model and wore her clothes just as gracefully.

We hit it off right away. I don’t remember why we felt we could become friends, but we both acknowledged an immediate connection. One night after class, we went to Finale’s for a beer and ended up talking for hours. That was probably our beginning. Until then, we’d lived widely disparate lives, Andrea having experienced so much more than 22 years in a sheltered marriage had allowed me.

Andrea was scheduled to read at Finale’s a few weeks later, and she invited me to the reading. I’d never been to one, but it sounded so “writerly” I couldn’t pass it up. When I arrived, Andrea waved me over to a front table where she and Van were sitting. I remember feeling so important, sitting there with my professor and the star of the show.

Donna Long and Andrea were already acquainted at that time, and in addition to the poetry seminar, Donna and I were both in Karen Cunningham’s Theory course. We all also began participating in one of Van’s off-campus workshops, this one held in his apartment near Lake Ella.

Andrea, Donna and I spent many happy, late-night hours with Van over that spring and summer, drinking beer, playing dice poker, reading Tarot cards, listening to Bob Dylan’s No Mercy (I requested it so often that Van finally dubbed me a copy), and talking about writing, always about writing. It was the beginning of the creative journey I’d longed for, and these new friends were fated to be my guides and closest companions.

Andrea's Poetry - The Girls in the Cane

I first remember Andrea working on this poem in one of Van Brock's poetry workshops. We were at Van's apartment on Call Street, I think, and I couldn't get over the image of the girls' hands "like brown doves cooing." The poem received an Honorable Mention in the Chester H. Jones Foundation's National Poetry Competition 1995, and was also published a year later in Rosebud.

From Andrea's comments published in Rosebud: "In retrospect, I think this is my mid-life crisis poem, the one we write when we realize we are too old for Never Never Land; when we've outgrown the Lost Boys, or in this case, the lost girls. While the meaning of the poem may have eluded me during the writing, it came to me mercilessly in the end, as an epiphany of irretrievable loss."

The Girls in the Cane

At ten, we were Father McKennon's demons,
wild skinny girls with skin stitched over our hearts
like drums. We smacked gum in catechism, pelted
the young priest with spitballs ripped from the scriptures.
By twelve, we were collectively in love. Plump and holy,
we pretended our bellies were tight with his children.
That summer in the secret patch of sugarcane, we played
at conception, parting each other's sun-parched knees.

So when our mothers call from Alabama
to tell us in Florida, New Hampshire, Colorado,
that Father McKennon is dead, I see us
holding phones like empty Campbell's Soup cans
strung together with kite string, mothers repeating
"Are you there?" And we excuse ourselves
to tend lovers, husbands, children, who,
for once, don't need us at that moment.

It is what we have come
to fear most: the secret child
has filled her bandana
with irreplaceable treasures,
and even now is disappearing
down Hillcrest Drive, past Mrs. Strozier's
Dance School to the sugarcane field
by the old Confederate cannon.

This is not a sweet loss like virginity.
The girls have gone into the cane
without us. They have taken summer
with them and left us suspended
by this deep baptism. Slight and tan,
they suck on the sugary reeds, their lips
soft as vespers, and their hands, their hands,
like brown doves cooing.

Andrea's Poetry - Red Moon

Andrea was so pleased when this poem won Glimmer Train's First Poetry Open. It appeared in Issue 31, Summer 1999. From Andrea's comments published in Glimmer Train: "I have had an inordinate number of deaths in my life, which is why a good deal of my work is centered around this subject. 'Red Moon' was written for a friend and colleague who died at thirty-nine of a heart attack. He was the kind of man I am sure inspired many eulogies, and would be quite pleased that this one has received such recognition."

Red Moon

It is the night of the lunar eclipse
and a man I am planning to love
drops dead of a heart attack,
though I won’t know this
until tomorrow. Actually,
he is driving, and slumps
dead, his heart popping softly
like a bad firecracker.

My sorrel gelding is old
and has colic this night.
The book says, “Walk the horse
unceasingly; take heart
at peristaltic sounds.”
We circle the lawn in perfect
syncopation; when I press my ear
to his side, his belly is tight and silent.

In the house next door
the windows are open;
my neighbors are making love.
Is there anything
more lonely than this?
Watch your heart, I whisper.
What we say aloud
ascends to Heaven.

How God orchestrates these moments:
frozen in the arc of the stable light,
a red fox plays possum,
her heart tripping in her chest;
the red horse, deciding not to die,
shifts his weight off my shoulder
as suddenly as the sky turns red
in the middle of the night.

Across town,
at a lazy intersection,
the man puts his hand to his heart.
He is puzzled by how his life
leaves him; there is nothing
of the past, and the light he sees
at the end of the tunnel
is not white, but red.

He is dreaming, instead,
of a copper fox, a sorrel horse,
a woman whose heart
he can hear
as she opens her arms
to the luminous sky
and swears, This
is how I will love you.

Andrea King Kelly: August 18, 1953-February 17, 2005

This blog has been established as a memorial to Andrea King Kelly, who died February 17, 2005.

Andrea was a hugely gifted poet and fiction writer, a sweet-tempered and lovely woman who was also, unfortunately, haunted by many demons during the course of her fifty-one years. At this site we hope to honor her memory honestly with anecdotes, samples of her writing, photographs, and other such elements as the posters deem important. While the number of "official" posters is limited, we welcome all comments.