Barry Hannah has been my favorite living author for much of my adult life. On March 1st, to little fanfare, he became one of my many favorite dead ones. Reading Hannah for the first time as a teenager in the Deep South, completely rearranged my orientation to the habitat around me, and I began to experience Hannah's world in real ways. I wandered upon Airships, Hannah's first collection of short stories, in the public library and opened it to "Coming Close to Donna," because it was the shortest story in the book. I read about a fight between two young men in a graveyard:
I'm neutral. I wear sharp clothes and everybody thinks I'm a fag, though it's not true. The truth is, I'm not all that crazy about Donna, that's all, and I tend to be a sissy of voice. Never had a chance otherwise-- raised by a dreadfully vocal old aunt after my parents were killed by vicious homosexuals in Panama City. Further, I am fat. I've got fat ankles going into my suede boots.
I ask her, "Say, what you think about that, Donna? Are you going to be whoever win's girl friend?"
"Why not? They're both cute," she says.
Her big lips are moist. She starts taking her sweater off. When it comes off, I see she's got great humpers in her bra. There's a nice brown valley of hair between them.
"I can't lose," she says.
In the early 80s, Hannah moved out to Hollywood to write and bunk up with Robert Altman. I've always wondered what kind of home those two American oddballs might have had together. Back in Oxford, Mississippi, legends loom large of his adventures. He could live a pretty wild life sometimes, drank a great deal and sobered up. It's been said he pulled a gun on one of his writing students after the kid had played the smartass in front of his class. I've also heard, in a time of crisis, he spray-painted everything in his kitchen silver, floor to ceiling, inside and out. Everything in the cabinets and the items in the fridge silver too. He shot up the floorboard of his yellow Chrysler convertible to drain the rainwater out and was once arrested for shooting flaming arrows at Rowan Oak, William Faulkner's estate.
In 1993, he published Bats out of Hell, his best collection of stories since Airships. He almost died of pneumonia in 2000. While laid up in hospital bed, he saw Jesus come to him. His near-death experience inspired him to write what would be his last and arguably most experimental work, Yonder Stands Your Orphan (2006).
I'd like to present, from Airships, "Constant Pain in Tuscaloosa." It is, so far as I know, unavailable online, and, just one of the best short stories around:
* Constant Pain in Tuscaloosa *
by Barry Hannah
I went by this Chrysler on my Honda the other day. It was a sort of cold green car, in front of the bank. This nigger was eating a banana, hanging his leg out the front seat on the curb. He didn't have socks. He was truly eating that banana. Eating it was giving him such pleasure, I rounded the block and came by again to see him finish it off. By that time he was throwing the peel in the gutter.
I shut off the bike.
“Hey, man! You can't foul up the streets like that!” I said.
He looked at me awhile and then got out and picked up the peel.
“Who's that car belong to?” I said.
I'm a very slight guy and about that time something embarrassing happened. The motorbike fell over on me and I couldn't squirm out from under it before the muffler pipe had burned the dook out of my leg through my jeans. I pulled my leg out of the bike and jumped around on the walk. One of my old girl friends walked by and I was humiliated.
“My sister,” said the nigger.
“You just sitting out here eating a banana waiting for her?”
“Oh ho. You been educated.”
I was still hopping around somewhat.
“It hurt, don't it?” he said.
“Somewhat.” My leg was about to go over the border into some kind of new state of pain.
He had him another banana by then.
“You wearing a nowhere helmet, baby,” he said.
“What's wrong with my goddamn helmet?”
“Look like some other person ought to be in it. That's some kind of airplane orange, ain't it?”
“Lets 'em see you at night, brother.”
“What you come here criticizing my bananas for?”
“There was a way you were doing it, eating. Your eyes were big and your jaw humped out. You were really having fun. It's not the same with the one you have now. You're doing it more casual-like now, little bitty bites, more civilized.”
“I never came in your house watch you eat,” he said. “Tomorrow I'm coming over your house watch you eat. I'm gone drive my sister's Chrysler into your house and hang out the window watch you eat. Where you live?”
“Wait. No offense. I didn't mean anything by it,” I said.
“Where you live?”
“I don't have to tell you that.”
“This Chrysler is my home. It's me and my sister's home. Where you live?”
“Three oh four Earnest Lane.”
If I hadn't been in such pain, I'd never have told him.
“This car's the only home we got,” he said. “We be by your place tomorrow.”
His sister came out of the bank. She had on stilt shoes and this African jewelry all over her. She got in the Chrysler. I heard her talking to him.
“They turned us down for the loan,” she said.
He never even looked my way when they backed out and drove off. I was trembly. My stomach was upset, and my leg had never quit hurting. Another thing. I'd been driving my bike around town thinking things over about reality and eternity and went by the Baptist church several times reading the marquee. It said: Pay Now, Fly Later. I'd decided I was going to quit fucking around and be a Christian.
So right in front of the church there's Dr. Campbell, the minister of that church, a big guy with not much hair left and old acne marks and a look in his eye like he'd never thought about nooky one way or the other and had had his children by a holy accident. We all have our flaws. I walked over to him.
“Say, Doctor Campbell, I'm surrendering my heart to Jesus.”
He laid scrutiny on me. The few hairs he had left were oily and carefully set in a dramatic way.
“Tell you what, my son.” He laid hand on my shoulder. He whispered. “I'm not the person to talk to. I hate your guts, after what you did to that poor disk jockey.”
“He was a queer and it was an even fight,” I said. “He had a baseball bat and I had a TV antenna. On the roof there wasn't anything else.”
“He's still lying out in Druid Hospital.”
“I know where he is. I take beer to him under my coat. What about Jesus? I was surrendering my heart.”
“I've got to this position, Ellsworth. I don't think Jesus wants you. He's too dead to want. He was a hell of a sweet genius guy, but he's dead. The only thing left is humanism. Are you humanistic?”
“Precious are the hours we touch one another,” the son of a bitch said.
The Honda had hurt me so bad I was sort of timid about getting on it again, but it took me home. I sat in my house and listened to the two records I own on my Sears stereo. Three years ago my wife left this place. All the pictures she hung and the decorations she did are still around. Sometimes late at night on the phone she says she might come back. She says her condition is one of constant pain. She's been in constant pain in St. Louis, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Mobile. A guy in Fayetteville called me one night at one o'clock. He said, “Who's this, is this the authentic Ellsworth?” Lots of people were in the room he was in and I could hear they thought my name was funny. “You know what I just did with your wife, Ellsworth?” said the guy. “What I did was get in an Ellsworth costume and have sex with her—har har har,” said the guy.
“Why're you calling me?” I said. “I loathe her and don't give a spit for her career. She was something I screwed and nagged me into marriage. I'll tell you what I'll do for you, however. My name is Ellsworth and I don't know what yours is, but I don't like this laughter about my name. You and me, phone person. Just give me your name and I'll be in Fayetteville to take care of your number.”
“Wonderful, wonderful,” said the guy. “We knew you'd be like that.”
You could hear my wife among the tittering.
Actually it tore the last shred out of my bosom. I don't love her, but she was mine, and I don't want anybody else to, either. She knows that, that's why she called. She wants me to join her in constant pain.
I sat three places on my table and swept up the house. I was sweeping the front steps when my leg, the one that was burned, went through the top step and I was up to my hip in my porch. I wish my landlord could've seen that. Maybe eighty-five per shouldn't get you a palace on the moon, but goddamn, it ought to get you something. It sprained the hell out of my crotch muscle, plus tore my boot.
The rest of the day I just lay around and swore. I didn't even get a beer out of the fridge. After you've drunk a hundred fifty thousand Falstaffs, the taste goes on you.
I made sure the house stayed clean. About midnight, I went out and looked over at Mrs. Earnest's flower tree. All her lights were out. I stole about fifteen blooms off her tree. Then I got this pussy-looking green dish my wife bought and put the flowers on the table. I bought some steaks in the morning. I didn't have a barbecue, so I got a hub cap and pulled the grill out of the oven to go over it.
About three in the afternoon, they showed up in the Chrysler. I looked out and they were looking at the house, engine running. The spade had another banana he was chewing on. His sister was driving. I went out on the porch as if to check out the curb on my Honda.
“Oh, hi!” I called. “Come in the house now you're here!”
They came in the front room. His sister shook hands with me. She had blue fingernails, long ones, and that African jewelry all over and some new elevated nigger sandals and her toenails were blue too. When she walked, she rattled like a walking chandelier. The guy had on a plain shirt and just looked like an ordinary nigger. He went straight for the fridge.
“You got any soda or yogurt around?” he said.
“Hold on. This ain't a delicatessen,” I said.
“It for straight sure ain't,” his sister said. “You got a hole in your porch. Hey, look at the flowers!” she said. She went over and picked up one of the flowers out of the water. “I get off on flowers,” she said.
I was so pleased, I guess I blushed.
She called her brother Rip or Reap, I couldn't quite make it out. He never called her name.
“Man, look at the number of these beers! Are you some kind of beer salesman?”
“I keep it for friends who drop by,” I said.
“Ain't nobody drop by here,” he said. “You got some handsome steaks in there.” He made a motion for me to move aside so his sister could get a view of the fridge. “Look at them steaks,” he said.
“I get off on big old steaks,” she said.
“We're gonna get those on the grill in a couple of hours. Let me put on some music and you people sit down and relax.” I put the two records on. “I got some dope if you...”
“You what? We don't use no dope! We don't like no rock-and-roll music, either,” he said.
“I get off on Ralph Vaughan Williams,” said the sister. “You got any Ralph Vaughan Williams?”
“Come out here, look at his barbecue,” the dude said to his sister. He was looking out the back door of the kitchen at my unit. “That a space-age model, ain't it?”
After a while they said they were going out and sit in the Chrysler for the air-conditioning. I thought it was a ruse to leave for good. When they shut the door, I had to call back this yell that was coming out my throat. It was a yell that if it had come out would've been the weirdest sound I ever made.
I knew I'd hear the motor start. They were out there fifteen minutes. I couldn't stand it. I went and got a beer in each fist and killed them in four minutes. I pushed the curtain to the side.
The nigger was working on another banana and talking to his sister. She sat in the driver's seat looking like she was really grossed away by his eating etiquette. They got out and opened my door again.
“Get cooled off?” I said.
“We're out of gas,” said the nigger.
“It's cooling down some now. We can get those steaks on in half a sec. The other side of that record isn't so much of a roar. I turned it down. It's got some nice soft licks in it.”
“I'm a vegetarian,” said Rip or Reap.
“He's lying through his face, Ellsworth,” said the girl. “This family man in Baltimore, he came out on the parking lot with two buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken on his arms. He”—she pointed at the nigger—“cruised by and robbed them right off the man. He put his face in the bucket and eat that chicken out just like a hog.”
“Beauty ain't gone keep you well forever,” said the nigger to her.
“He had slaw on his nose,” she said.
The nigger made a move at her.
“Freeze, buster,” I said.
“What you got can stop me?” He looked around.
I ducked in the back room and got that UHF antenna I messed up Oliver Darling with. By that time he was half-nelsoning his sister.
“Leave off, Rip, Reap!” I shouted.
He sprung off her and came out with something yellow from his hip. It was a banana. He was a larger-looking nigger now and he raced over and beat the damn light out of me. When I woke up, he was still laying on my burned leg with what was left of the banana, these peel fibers. They stung in a vicious way.
“Stop it, stop it!” his sister was saying. “You woke him up, for Jesus's sake!”
I washed up and after we'd eaten the steaks, with light bread and ketchup, we were all lying around pretty sleepy. The girl drank half a beer. It'd drunk five or six for pain. The girl stood up and went to use the bathroom.
“Say,” I said to the nigger while she was out. “I'm kind of in love with her. I know that's not the right thing to say now. It's just my feeling talking.”
“You what?” He got wall-eyed like a joke nigger.
“Got a crush on your sis. Don't come at me again. You don't need to get tough on me. Thought we could talk this out. You think I'd have a chance with your sister?”
“Yeah. Cause you're white and she's terrible tired. You weren't too bad-looking till I blued you all up in the face.”
She came back and sat down on the floor. Pretty soon she was fast away asleep.
“I'll tell you,” he said softly, “you can't get away from people bothering you anymore. People coming by laughing at even what you eating. Don't move,” he whispered, and eased out of the room.