"The one from Miami." He waved his hand, exasperated. "Why can't I get her name?"
"You mean Marie," I said. Another former student. She was the editor now of some magazine down in Boca Raton, not Miami. Smith nodded.
"Next week," I said. Just like a man, always wondering when the girls are coming.
There was a tube running into his belly, another carrying oxygen into his nose. I found out later from his daughter, Anna, that the feeding tube - which he had resisted mightily - had saved his life. He'd almost died from the weakness of hunger a couple of months ago when they finally found the cancer. Now, using the triangular bar hanging over his head, he had the strength to elevate himself a little bit when the sheets needed changing, when he needed bathing, or when Anna needed to slide him back up on his pillows.
I'd last seen Anna in her early teens. Now she was a woman well into her 30's. She was always at his side, wiping his chin when couldn't hold down a sip of water, running back and forth to the bathroom to freshen his washcloths. It was plain to see that she would be with him till the end. We sat together 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. He was incredibly patient. 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 giving them license. But in Smith's own home, in his gentle and hospitable presence, things never got too out of hand. And if Mr. Lytle were in town, everyone knew how to walk before the seat of Judgement. As we talked, it seemed as if no time had passed at all.
Meanwhile Smith slept and awoke, slept and awoke.
Later I visited another old friend (and student of Smith's, of course) on his farm outside of town. He had 30 acres, some cattle, and two big black Rottweilers, not bad for an old English teacher, and it seemed like paradise to me. The nearest neighbor's house was several hundred yards away on the other side of an endless wooden fence that disappeared into some forest. About twenty yards beyond the back porch was a wire fence, and when two baby bulls the color of burnt sienna came up to it to nibble on some tall weeds, I grabbed my camera and ran down there. I tried to feed them carrots by hand, but they wouldn't take it. Then a big black cow came running up - I had thought to protect the little ones - but she just wanted the carrots. Pretty soon I had several big black cows eating out of my hand. They jostled for position. Every now and then one would head-butt another in the ribs. I made sure they all got some. They have huge sensitive eyes, snort when they take a carrot, blowing snot on your arm, and they have big strong tongues with sandpaper on top. I could have done it for hours.
When I first met up with my friend, he was all hot and sweaty, having just gotten off the tennis courts out at the country club. He was still robust with playing tennis, running, and lifting weights. At 65, he was not going gently, and good for him. But I could see the post-match stiffness in his bearing, the slight sag to his structure that comes after us all at a certain age. He was twenty years behind Smith; I slightly more. His wife ran out to get us pizza and then the three of us sat around eating it and drinking a wonderful cabernet sauvignon. Again there was reminisence, story telling and laughter and, again, it was as it always is: as if no time had passed. He made me call another old friend (another student) I had hoped to see, but who had not been made aware of my coming. He was a former college football player, a handsome cuss whom the women could not resist. But now he was fighting a daily battle with a severe form of diabetes which doctors attribute to his exposure to Agent Orange. He swims and plays golf, but can't run or lift weights, or drink beer. But one good woman finally nailed him down and he's been married to her for the last fourteen years. I could hear the hint of age in his voice, but otherwise it sounded the same, taking me backwards, making past and present one again. It was good to hear, and I told him so. "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. Soon I had a feeling we'd all be getting together again, all of us, Marie and all the others who'd missed each other this time around, and then we'd play that round of golf I'd been promising him.
Yes, he agreed, it all depended on that rasp we heard when Smith dozed off. So I said good-bye, then hugged my host and his wife and went out into the darkness that pointed the way home.
I had sat with Smith for several hours. Rick Barnett was there with me, having come all the way from Atlanta. At one 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 in that somewhat modest, retiring south Georgia way he had, he hadn't done that yet. So I leaned toward Smith, speaking loudly, and said that he needed to know that Rick, unlike some of us others, was still working hard at the craft, and doing good work. Some of it might even be great work, I assured him.
"You might have taught him something, Kirk," I finished.
Rick, realizing the moment, said, "It's true, Smith. If I know anything, I learned it from you."
Smith blinked at him for a moment, and then smiled faintly. "Well, it reminds me of that poet's line I like so much." He squinted, looking frustrated, the name just out of reach. "Anyway, it was something like 'the life so short, the craft so long to learn.'"
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.
Update: Here's the letter I sent to Anna via email after I got home, which she tells me today that she read to him:
I'm sorry I didn't get back to see Smith Friday night, but I had a feeling it might happen. After visiting with Ward and Barbara way out in Alachua, it was getting late, I was tired, and had a long drive home. But it was important to me to see him again, and 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 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.
It's clear that the demands on your time now are enormous. You are his angel, the face he sees before he goes to sleep, and expects to see again when he wakes. When I said you're doing good, I did not mean a "good job", because it's too obvious that you are. I meant good, as in the right and virtuous thing. Many 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. With any luck, maybe I'll say it to him myself. We'll see.
If you need anything, let me know...
My love to you both...