THINGS THAT COUNT
I offer this in memory of Smith Kirkpatrick, and in the wish that his daughters, Anna Marie and Katie, will find in it a worthy keepsake.
* * *
I remember Ward in one of his group missives looking forward to our “penetrating insights” concerning our years in Smith’s tutelage. In my customary manner of shirking a burden I’d rather not shoulder, I wish to serve advance notice that that will not be forthcoming from this quarter. I’m not even sure I can fulfill the task I’ve set myself, which is to relate simply and honestly what the man meant to me. I’ve probably an inflated estimate of my own abilities, but not so much as to think that my words could take the measure of even that, let alone what he meant to others as a man, a teacher, a father. His guidance was a thing that is still alive within me, and just as love is so much bigger than the word we put to it, I can’t find the words to fence it off.
And when I think on Smith, I remember not him only, but all those – all of you – who sat in that classroom in Building D year after year because you thought something not merely useful, but important, was going on. I think of Ward, and Willie Mickelberry, and Marie Speed, and Sterling Watson, and John Feiber, and even, from my early years, of John Morefield, who disappeared one day, but now I hear we can thank Sterling for digging him up. Rick Barnett did not sit in Building D, having come into the program on the cusp of my leaving it, but rather took his instruction in that new brick bunker I can’t remember the name of. By means of that occasionally happy accident of technology called the internet (Highway 666, says Rick), we found each other; to be exact, he found me, and another friendship has been born. But for the more significant accident of having known Smith, I might never have known any of you, and even though Rick and Ward are the only ones I’ve seen in the last 20 years, I want all of you to know that, as with Smith, you’ve never been far from my thoughts, that I have kept the good memories close, that I’ve wondered about your trajectories, and have hoped often that life has been gracious to you and those dear to you in good measure. I was frequently in those days a fairly sizeable rear aperture, and would like further to take this opportunity to hope that, if I offended, or hurt, any of you, it would not be a presumption on your good will to imagine that you’ve let me off the hook. For any who are reluctant, I’ll invoke Smith’s spirit by asserting that he would command it, who held us together in all our variety by his mere presence, and in the conviction that, through fiction, the human spirit in its most baffling manifestations was worth exploring, and that if it was worth exploring it was also worthy of respect. Otherwise, what were we good for? Some of those friendships may have run aground at times, but most seem to have survived to one degree or another, and it can only be due to that sense of respect inculcated by our mentor, to the miracle of our common past, and the understanding that most differences aren’t worth saying goodbye over.
Some of those memories I ought to be ashamed of (don’t worry, I’ll spare the details), but sometimes I smile too much at the recollection, like the night John Feiber lectured the cops outside the bar they’d just thrown him and Ward and me out of for behaving like pigs (though I’ll have to say the Major gives a good speech). When I got home I told Mary Helyn (my wife) the story, thinking she’d be amused. She wasn’t. She preferred that I take the world a little more seriously. When she took her vows, she said, she didn’t see anything in there about posting bail. (Recently, approximately 30 years later, she asked, “When are you going to grow up? I mean all the way.”
“I am grown up.”
“See what I mean?”)
Others are of acts of kindness, like the day Willie helped me unload a washing machine off a trailer, though I believe a bottle of Kentucky bourbon offered in bribe was what secured his assistance. I also liked talking to him about fiction – especially my own, which he was always willing to read - because he was generous with his compliments and always gave me the impression that I was on the verge of saying something interesting. And I remember teaching an undergraduate fiction class with Marie as part of our graduate internship, and some years later her writing a letter to help me get a job at the Flush (Santa Fe Community College for those not conversant). It was effortless, graceful, “glowing”, a real work of art as it came to that sort of thing. She didn’t have to do it, I didn’t deserve it, but she did and I can’t even remember if I ever thanked her for it. And there was the night Ward showed enough confidence in me to ask that I substitute-teach his fiction class at Santa Fe (the campus was still downtown in a building near the Baptist church). It’s one thing to be a student in such a class, contributing now and then, and another to be its guide. I wasn’t as good at it as I had thought. Fortunately, John Feiber had sat in on this one and, during the awkward moments, kept the conversation going. I don’t know if it was a deliberate act of kindness on his part, but it was certainly a mercy.
Over time, things seemed to fall apart, though no one in particular was doing the destroying. Apparent injustices had been perpetrated – Lytle being eased out at the Sewanee Review, Smith being relieved of his seniority in the program – but mostly it was just the press of life, that ongoing event in which nothing stays the same. People left Gainesville for their various pursuits, and how could it have been otherwise? Eventually, I left too, cynically wondering if Lytle’s words could be true, that “Things that count never seem ended”, but also in the company of a childish, deep down sense that maybe it was just temporary, a sort of leave of absence that time would remedy when all were gathered again, for some unknown reason, the occasion for which I never bothered to imagine because of its seeming impossibility.
Well, the occasion is here. A man’s death makes a difference that really can’t be ignored, and we’re all together again, in a manner of speaking if not in the flesh. And the things that matter really do survive, for if the spirit of a thing has any truth in it, it’s hard to kill. Every time you pick up a story or a novel, Smith’s eyes are helping you read. Those of you who still teach probably read stories aloud now and then, and your students are grateful, as once were you. And when you write, even if it’s nothing more than a letter to a friend, you sometimes bother to hone the language with the tools of the trade, because your possession of them is a gift for which you are indebted. Maybe sometimes we even remember, and try to pass on to our children and students, the reasons why we read and write. I think Mr. Lytle would back me up in saying that these are civilizing activities, and have been since man first lit a fire to see by, that in standing in awe of those oft-mentioned “eternal verities of the human heart,” we pay proper tribute to the possibility that they might really have their source in eternity. I won’t say that a writer must believe it, but he must confront it if he is not to become mired in the mere surface of things.
Unlike the case with Lytle, I never knew what Smith’s “doctrine” was or if he even had one. I never pressed him on it because I didn’t have one myself, and because I knew – in his writing and teaching – that he paid the proper tribute. He may have dropped a clue here and there, as in “The Anointed Powerhouse,” his analysis of the Welty story (from the Winter, ‘69 Sewanee Review) that would have remained forever closed to me had he not opened it up: “This then is the center, this is the powerhouse: love, the divine part of man...that sets in motion the artists...impels the artist to give everything he’s got – even for an audience of one...When Powerhouse is urging those musicians who count to give it up, it is the self he is urging them to leave behind. He is urging them to become selfless, which is the very essence of love.” Only a man who knew something about it, and believed it, could write such a thing. It may have been as close to a creed as he ever got.
As I say, I never asked him about it because at the time it didn’t seem important. I do remember stopping by the house on 10th Avenue once to find him somewhat agitated. He was down by the pool and had just finished reading one of those articles by a scientist who also fancied himself a metaphysician, or perhaps I should say a reductionist who’d discovered that metaphysics could be dispensed with. Struck by the realization that man had indeed come from the earth and would return to it, the author announced (authoritatively) that the apposable thumb was what distinguished us from all other creatures. Smith was in a state. “The apposable thumb,” he snarled. “It’s the brain that makes us what we are.”
“Maybe,” I said, “he meant that the thumb made the development of the brain possible.”
He looked at me. “What good’s a thumb without a brain to use it?”
Ah, the old chicken or the egg difficulty. I smile at the memory, as one who, in time, was unable to accommodate himself to a modern literature in praise of Nothing, nor to the materialist’s description of a man as a complicated assemblage of coagulated proteins, inexplicably blessed with the gift of temporary motion which allows it to twitch a while upon the earth before disintegrating back into it. I can no more find a man in that definition than Smith could find one in a thumb. What seemed unimportant back then isn’t anymore. As much as Kirk meant to me and to all of us as a teacher and friend, and to his daughters as a beloved father, I want to know that he was worth something beyond that, beyond what any of us could see in life; and whether, when he left this world, he was taking that leave of absence or imparting a last, and irrevocable, goodbye – a severance beyond repair. I want to pay the proper tribute.
I think it was the end that took me back to the beginning, the day that Anna called to tell me of Smith’s last days. I had asked her to email, but she called instead, and indeed I was glad she had, to hear the story from his own flesh and blood. Even an email can convey a nuance, but her voice inflections were sounds to see by.
Earlier in the week, a couple of those days had been plagued with a sleepless suffering as his lungs tried to fill up and Anna feared he might drown. The Hospice lady gave relief in the form of “positioning – and drugs.” He got some strength back, but a corner had been turned. He was surrounded day and night by family - his brother Bill's daughter, Sharon, among them - touching him, stroking, punctuated by brief but frequent effusions of spoken love, for Smith himself could no longer speak, his efforts emerging in whispers that others understood only with great difficulty, and sometimes not at all. On the last night of his life, they shoved his hospice bed up next to another, the old wooden one he was born in, so that someone was always beside him, and he did not have to sleep alone. “Katie lay with him the first part of that night,” said Anna, “and I the rest of it,” she with her hand on his chest, lest he slip away unnoticed. Also that night he made a great effort, reaching out to embrace his grandson Max, Anna's son, and in the morning ventured it one more time, holding to himself both Max and Ollie-Ella, Katie’s infant daughter. At some point during those early morning hours he tried to speak. The word "paper" was deciphered, but they didn't know what he meant. He made a motion as if to write, and after being supplied with pen and paper, got down two letters: W A, which they at last understood was a cry for water. He couldn't swallow (I had witnessed this during my visit) but, she said, "How do you deny him?" Well, you don’t. And so she held the cup to his lips. I didn't ask for the details of how this went. Not long thereafter his gaze became distant. She told him she loved him, but his attention was reluctant in its return. At this point (and I'm sorry I can't remember precisely what she told me) she either went outside to make a call to someone who needed to know what was happening, or was called by that someone. Katie and Max were still beside him and watched him draw his last breath. "I got back inside," said Anna, "just in time to see the color leave his face."
As she said it, all I could see was Kirk leaning against the desk at the front of the classroom in Anderson Hall back in the Fall of 1968, the first time I ever saw him, his hair just starting to streak silver, bathing us in that perpetual smile - gentle, gracious, indulgent - and wondering aloud how many geniuses he had before him, which we greeted with a nervous titter. That was the first time I heard The Speech I never tired of, the one informing us that he didn’t know how to talk about storytelling in any other way than as an art form, as a craft with its attendant discipline and tools of the trade and its exceedingly mysterious subject matter, upon which we were to exercise our talents in lifting the veil without tearing it. Then he read us a story, we talked about it, he told us to go write one of our own, and I left the class thinking, “I might want to do this,” my life changed forever, and to this day I have no clue how he pulled it off. A couple of weeks in he read Morefield’s “Bear in the Street”, which caused some blonde girl to cry out when the little boy “let all the blue inside.” After I turned in my own first thing (it was bad, but he saw something in it), he invited me up to Building D to that other class and that’s how I met all you folks.
Out of embarrassment, I don’t want to dwell at length on the degree of vanity I brought to the exercise, huge bloated quantities of it. If physically manifested, I’d have been obese. I remember Marie Speed (at least I think I do) sticking up for the downtrodden, and by that I mean those who were literally trod underfoot by people like me. She didn’t like that kind of thing, and I think Smith was on her side, because one night I got a comeuppance. After reading a story, he set it aside, then swung his gaze in my direction, the one that said “Get the conversation going.” The story was terrible and I said so. The problem was, I enjoyed saying it. Awful, I said. I knew good stuff when I heard it, and this wasn’t it. I went on a while finding different ways to say “awful” until finally Kirk interrupted. You know, he said, it’s one thing to tell a writer his work is bad. It’s another to give him something useful to take home, so that he might have reason to write again. If my instinct for quality was often correct, my ability to articulate it hadn’t kept pace. He shamed me into silence, and made me careful thereafter to have a reason for my discontent. He had never treated a story of mine, or that of anyone I knew, in such manner. What gave me the liberty to think I should do it to others? More than the teacher was at work there, perhaps a touch of the father, whose reprimands seem severe at the time but later deserving of thanks.
And how do I begin to thank him? Other than a now deceased Catholic priest, the burden of whose instruction bore a slightly different emphasis, I’d never had, until Smith, a teacher who was also my friend. I had never thanked him for being that friend. I tried, last time I saw him in late May, but the effort in person seemed inadequate, and so I wrote afterwards to Anna that it was “a great reward to find him so lucid and as strong as he was. Please tell him that I think about him, and pray for him, every day, and give thanks that I was so fortunate to have had such a teacher at the time when our lives first crossed. He stopped me in my tracks and sent me down another road without even trying. I could not have written the little I have without the knowledge he gave me - free of charge, no interest due, as a father gives freely to a son (and he had many sons and daughters) - nor can I even imagine what shallowness I'd have brought to the reading of literature had not his powers of perception enhanced my own. He's not the only one I owe, but he was the first; and if I could repay it I would, but I can't. As if he would ever ask, but he won't.”
And always there was Anna, whom I’d last seen in her teens, now a woman fully grown. When it came to his daughters, some of you might remember Smith’s bent for sentimentality, showing himself guilty in life of what he forbade in our fiction. On more than one occasion – we might have been talking about the state of the arts, or politics, or any number of things - he suddenly sidetracked into a story about how Anna, and later Katie, had suddenly, for no discernible reason, thrown her arms around him and said, "I love you, Daddy," as little girls will. And Kirk would conclude this annoying diversion with, "That's what it's all about. It doesn't get any better than that." It was annoying until later I understood that he didn't care about much else, at least not in quite that way. It was annoying until I had daughters of my own and decided he had a point. The writing, the work, was important, but it wasn't what "It" is all about. I think I can die not having left an imprint on the world of letters if my daughters could say of me, as the grown Anna said of Kirk, “I just feel so lucky that he was my Dad”; and if my wife could likewise swear that casting her lot with my own had been worth the risk.
She was always at his side, wiping his chin when he couldn't hold down a sip of water, running back and forth to the bathroom to freshen his washcloths. Once she left the house to run an errand. Smith became anxious about something and called her on the phone. She turned the car around and within moments had returned. She was his angel now, the face he saw before going to sleep at night, and the one he expected to see again when he awoke. She would be with him till the end. “Many,” I wrote to her, “are not so fortunate as to die with the one we most love by our side. Maybe Kirk was just enough of a good man to deserve this final grace. He always seemed so to me. I'll pray that your strength and patience be kept up, and that death for him when it comes, if it must come, does so quietly. Give him a hug for me, and a final thanks...”
She read him the whole thing, and reported back his words: “That was a good letter,” and I’ll be keeping that as close as anything he ever said to me.
Later, when she called after he was gone, I asked how she was doing. Bittersweet, she said, missing him, but at the same time "excited for him." He was going off on this new “journey that none of us know anything about.”
During that last visit, we had sat together, Anna and I, on the back porch for a while, talking about what he'd been through, what she'd been through, and what was to come. Below us the back lawn sloped down to a creek invisible beyond the azaleas now crowded by encroaching undergrowth. I reminisced about coming over to mow that lawn for him in the early 70's, and about sitting around the pool and talking with him about a story I couldn't make work, and his incredible patience. It's a wonder he didn't throw me out. And she remembered the Writer's Conference parties and, being a girl of ten, making herself stay awake so that she could listen to the conversations, some of which she probably shouldn't have heard. Writers can be a profane lot, their vanity presuming license. But in Smith's own home, in his gentle and hospitable presence, things (in my experience) never got too out of hand. As we talked, time seemed to reel backwards, as if none of it had passed at all.
Meanwhile Smith slept and awoke, slept and awoke.
I visited Ward and Barbara that day on their thirty acres out in Alachua, fed the cows by hand (got slobbered on, cow snot blown all over me – I loved it), ate pizza, drank wine, and talked to Johnny Feiber on the phone. I would not see him face to face, but in Ward and Barbara’s company, amid the reminiscing, and with Johnny’s voice in my ear, that old thing happened again, the abolishment of time, but it was only an illusion, of course. “Well, goddammit,” he began, when I told him that in a few minutes I’d be driving off into the darkness, heading home. But soon, I assured him, maybe soon we’d all be getting together again, all those who’d missed each other this time around, and then we’d play that round of golf I’d been promising.
Yes, he agreed, it all depended on that rasp we heard when Smith dozed off.
I had sat with Smith for several hours, Rick Barnett there with me, having come all the way from Atlanta. Several times Smith asked about Marie, as though he’d forgotten the previous inquiry. He really wanted to see her. At some later point I asked Rick if he had told Smith that he was still working hard at his fiction, that he'd written three novels and a bunch of stories. No, he admitted, he hadn't done that yet. So, fed up with modesty, I leaned toward Smith, speaking loudly, and said that he needed to know that Rick, unlike me, was still working hard at the craft, and doing good work. Some of it might even be great work.
"You might have taught him something, Kirk.”
"It's true, Smith,” said Rick. “If I know anything, I learned it from you."
Smith blinked for a moment, then smiled faintly. Well, it reminded him of that poet's line he liked so much. He squinted, looking frustrated, the name just out of reach. But he was able to deliver the line: 'the life so short, the craft so long to learn.'
Which brought back a declaration uttered by one of Smith’s former students and later a colleague, one who achieved a notoriety that Smith never sought. He made the proclamation in open forum, up in that classroom in Building D: “Smith Kirkpatrick knows more about the craft of writing fiction than any man I’ve ever met.” Considering Smith’s small output, his apparent lack of worldly ambition, and his gift for self-effacement, it’s unlikely that a future historian will dig that one up, but there it is, as much a part of history as anything on the record. And it can’t be taken back, erased, or revised. I wonder if that same historian will stumble upon Smith’s gem of a short story, “Silence”, or upon that piece of The Sun’s Gold excerpted in SR, when the Kid’s perched on the crosstree, riding the ship’s roll, and experience what Willie Mickelberry told me of later, that it made him dizzy.
Anna got my attention and motioned to a corner of the room. I got up and went over and found a piece of wood sitting atop a pile of books and papers, and on the wood someone had engraved for Smith the line he could not forget: "The Lyf so short/The craft so long to lerne." The name he couldn't remember was Chaucer's.
Most of the time he’d been right there with us, in spite of his hard hearing, taking part in the conversation, but every now and then his gaze wandered out the glass door leading to the porch and the trees beyond, but I don’t think drawn there by any object of nature. Whatever he saw was too far away. The rest of us kept talking while he was off out there in his own place, no doubt pondering, as Barnett called it, the “looming, invisible Event,” the end of Time, the only thing we know how to live in.
Andrew Lytle passed away in 1995, at 92. When I first met him circa 1972 or 3, I can’t have been the only one for whom the experience was like running into a family member I hadn’t seen for many years, now renewing a bond we’d simply left off for awhile. I can’t explain it. He made you feel that you had reconnected with something important you’d forgotten about, something that stretched far back in time. Now one of his foremost students was following, and soon that latter's, Smith's, will follow after. It all goes away, and even though we all know it because we’re all grown up now, it's hard to choke down. I wonder what Mr. Lytle would think of my bemoaning the fact. I don't think he'd approve. Something will survive, he'd say, even if only here and there, in hard-to-find places: an enduring philosophy of literature, a method of teaching, a vision of the humane and civilized life (the 'good' life), all subserved by that “covenant with God”, which he said we had lost, and without which we have recourse to nothing but despair, but with which no cause for anything but hope, and in the end, joy – perhaps adding with a wink that its quality might be enhanced in the company of a good bourbon.
“Things that count never seem ended.” I'll work on it, because for me that's what it really is.
As I watched Smith’s eyes leave us again for that other, farther off, field of inquiry, then return, then do it again – possibly wondering how much he counted, worrying the hope of a world beyond time – it reminded me of a scene in that story he liked to read us, O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation,” when the condemned prisoner Belcher, a normally quiet man now babbling in the face of death, says of his already slain comrade lying on the ground at his feet, “It’s very queer, chums, I always think. Naow, ‘e knows as much abaout it as they’ll ever let ‘im know, and last night he was all in the dark.”
Well, I think Smith counted, was worth more than any could see on earth, and I have great hope beyond worry – that on that morning when his gaze became irretrievably lost in the distance, its focus dimmed upon this world, he was eager only for the path ahead, the one followed on that “journey none of us know anything about”; and that, when my own time comes and I try to peer through the darkness woven by this trick of time, I’ll have the grace to let it go, and that maybe Smith, having gotten there first, will be able to teach me what he knows one more time.
And one more time, Smith: thank you.