The following is excerpted from Bobbie Ann Mason's new novel, Dear Ann. Bobbie Ann Mason is the author of a number of works of fiction, including The Girl in the Blue Beret, In Country, An Atomic Romance, and Nancy Culpepper. The groundbreaking Shiloh and Other Stories won the PEN Hemingway Award and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Book Award, and the PEN Faulkner Award. Her memoir, Clear Springs, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She has won two Southern Book Awards and numerous other prizes, including the O. Henry and the Pushcart. Former writer-in-residence at the University of Kentucky, she lives in Kentucky.
Those old letters from so long ago burned in her memory now, as she stared at the relentless azure sea.
October 11, 1965
When you graduate, please go straight to California. I know you can get a Stanford fellowship. I will put in a word for you. It will be liberating for you out there. When I traveled from Kentucky to California, I began to understand America through our fellow pioneer, Daniel Boone. I remember standing on a cliff at Santa Cruz, at the edge of the Pacific, and watching all the seabirds soar out to sea, and I thought about Daniel Boone atop Cumberland Mountain, surveying the unbounded promise of the wilderness. And I was stupefied to be there. Of course I was stoned, and for a while I felt I was Daniel Boone. Ann, what is your opinion of Daniel Boone these days?
P.S. Please do what I say.
November 15, 1965
When I was at Stanford on the Stegner with Kesey and McMurtry and that bunch—before they were big!—I knew I was at the center of the universe. Mr. O’Connor regaled us with his hilarious Irish tales. I loved to hear his thick brogue. And Mr. Cowley gabbed about his pals Hem and Dos. Imagine, knowing those writers! At first I thought he meant Dostoevsky, but of course he meant Dos Passos. He and Dos Passos were thick. And as for Hemingway, we just quivered in admiration.
But you are wise, Ann, to go the academic route. It suits you.
Your servant and literary pal,
January 9, 1966
I won’t listen to your self-deprecations. Or your oddball
notion of striking out for New York. New York! Maybe Scott Fitzgerald went to New York, but Daniel Boone went west, where everything was new. What is happening in California these days is radical. And I was there at the beginning of this transformative time. This is cosmic.
I know some fine folks out there who will take care of you. You will bloom, Ann. People are so free and willing to explore. California is just what you need to drag you out of your shell.
We loved to go to San Gregorio Beach at sunset. A bunch of us would drop acid and have a square dance on the beach. We’d mire up in the sand and fall down crazy with laughter and desire. We were just barefooted freaks wild by the ocean.
What a featherhead she was. She should have followed Albert’s advice. Even though Albert had never understood her, he claimed to know just what she needed to do—get stoned and practice “free love,” etc. Perversely, she had blazed her own trail. With her unsophisticated rural background, she believed graduate school at Stanford University was obviously out of her league. Harpur College, where she had gone instead for her graduate degree, was in upstate New York, in the snow belt. There was no real springtime, just a June burst of summer after a long, dismal, chilly season. There, she spent each spring in a blue funk, romanticizing the sweet balminess of April in Kentucky. She should have gone to California.
Now, fifty years later, shut in the lofty stateroom of a colossal, farcical cruise ship, Ann wondered what would have happened if she had gone to Stanford instead of Harpur College. Her life would have been different. The dread she faced now made her feel like a weatherbeaten mariner, under a bird’s curse.
If she had gone to California she would never have met Jimmy.
Jimmy. She could still hardly bear to think about him.
But she felt a whir of excitement, an unexpected pleasure in imagining her youth following an alternate path. People always said, Oh, to be young again, knowing what I know now.
Being young again, in the sixties. What a blast it would be to start over—in California. Wasn’t California something of a dream by definition? She could reimagine her life. And Jimmy wouldn’t be in it. Or it could have turned out differently with Jimmy. She wouldn’t be in this nightmarish mirage on an alien sea.
Palo Alto, California
“Don’t be afraid” was the last thing Albert had said to Ann before she left Kentucky.
If she had gone to California, she would have driven crosscountry alone, following the southern route he recommended. Her two-door antique 1952 Chevrolet, black with a tidy rump, was like an elderly lady in sensible shoes. But the car was a mismatch. Ann sallied out with an innocent boldness, despite a shyness that sometimes made her tiptoe and hide. She kept the windows rolled down until she reached the Sierras. The car had no radio, but the friendly chug of the engine, with the wind whistling and whooshing against the little push-out corner window, made a soundtrack for her journey. Across the vast deserts, she felt she was in suspension, the past receding, the future nowhere yet. Daniel Boone never entered her mind.
In her mind, California would be a kaleidoscope of sunny skies, convertibles, bright blonds, unusual trees. Albert was right, she thought. Out there, she would open up like a flower. But Palo Alto, when she arrived, was cloudy, and the farm fields were dry and dusty, spreading a haze over the coastal hills. It appeared to be a quiet little city, hardly larger than Paducah. Something sweet-smelling drifted through the air, and flowers bloomed luxuriantly everywhere.
She had arranged to rent an apartment from a woman in a white wood-frame house with a dark Victorian interior. From the landlady’s hallway, Ann glimpsed fringed lamps and velvet drapes, with incongruous arrangements of artificial flowers crowding the front room. A stale odor of cigarette ashes and bacon, with an overlay of Evening in Paris perfume, assaulted her. The landlady, in exaggerated lipstick and a lace shawl, was sullen and curt.
Ann rented an upstairs studio unit in a nondescript stucco building behind the house. The rooms were plainly furnished, but painted screaming pink throughout. The carpet was voluptuous mauve cabbage roses, and the bathroom was a deep burgundy color. The sink, the shower tile, the commode—all a somber burgundy. She stared in the mirror, aghast. The lighting made her skin sallow.
The university was at the end of a long avenue lined with lofty palm trees. Ann drove slowly, the car creeping along as if it too was nervous about the ultimate destination of the crosscountry journey. Halfway down the avenue, she pulled over. Stanford displayed itself lavishly in front of her, both tantalizing and threatening. The amount of wealth it held in its history was beyond Ann’s imagination. The palm trees on either side of her made a path to Xanadu. It took her breath.
She was three weeks early, and the campus was nearly deserted. At first glance, Stanford was a pleasant park, all manicured greenery and earth tones, but as she wandered past the imposing Hoover Tower and along the arcades of the sandstone buildings around the Main Quad, she felt as though she had stumbled upon a hidden ancient kingdom. The tall palm trees, with their bushy tops, seemed to have blown in from the tropics. She didn’t know the names of the flowers spread at their feet.
The harsh sun glared off the walkways, making her feel exposed and uncertain. But she almost laughed when she noticed a group of palm trees, their moptop heads peering curiously over a red-tile roof. She walked on, map in hand, wandering bug-eyed past majestic buildings and landscaped oases. Ahead of her was a bold fountain, a sculpture made of green slashes of metal. It erupted like a sea creature rising.
She had not expected the campus to be so large and quiet and leafy. The giant oak trees splayed their limbs like lazy gymnasts. She saw trees that might have been redwoods—tall and gaunt, pinpointing the sky. She ambled through a grove of what she thought—from their fragrance—were eucalyptus trees. Their peeling bark lay shredded at their feet, like ragged gowns.
It was a grand and lonesome place. But she wasn’t afraid of being alone. She was afraid of Yvor Winters, the prominent literary critic who would be her adviser. She had heard he was a curmudgeon and rationalist. What would he expect of her? She had made little progress on the reading list—seventy-five recommended books. There would be a test—but not until next summer. She knew some of the obvious books—The Great Gatsby, Moby-Dick—within the list of unknowns. But Humphry Clinker? Erewhon? She was sure that a more backwards bumpkin had never crossed the threshold of almighty Stanford University.
September 4, 1966
Glad to get your phone call and to know you are getting
settled. I know you must be excited about all your new classes and your new apartment. That woman you rent from sounds like a character!
That neighbor of ours who always keeps squirrel on the table brought us some squirrels she shot, and I had a time cleaning out the buckshot. Back in the summer, she kept wanting to
get some Indian peaches off of us and I told her, I’m sorry,
but you come to a goat’s house to get wool. We ain’t had any Indian peaches in ten years. Oh, what I’d give for an Indian peach right now. The only peaches I could get this year were wormy. . .
Ann had brought everything she owned, even her notebooks from college and her stamp collection from childhood. On a whim, while shopping at Macy’s for a skillet and a bath mat, she bought a new stamp album and a grab bag packet of stamps (a thousand for fifty cents).
She spread the stamps on her desk—a long table fashioned from a door. All afternoon, she played with them, engrossed, as if she were back in sixth grade. The countries were still mysterious, and the African countries had changed. Wars had obliterated some, brought others into being. There was something fragile and tentative about the very existence of borders and identities, she thought.
At the time, she would not have seen herself as young and naive, but years later she saw herself as even more innocent than she probably was. She blundered into anything promising, but when faced with a hard-banging hurdle—hitting a stump, her mother called it—she had a habit of escaping into mind-numbing pastimes. She hadn’t changed. She was always thinking of somewhere else.
On a cruise ship, there is nowhere to go but overboard. Her mind, though, can rewrite history. Or learn German. There are Zumba classes on the third deck. Those embarrassing moments of innocent youth can be obliterated. She shudders, a chill rippling across her shoulders.
She didn’t want to meet new people yet. Who needed them? As she sorted the stamps and placed them carefully into the new album, she lost track of time. She imagined traveling to Newfoundland, New Caledonia, New Zealand. Folding the delicate cellophane hinges and taking care not to glue the stamp to its rectangular berth, she felt like an entomologist, cruelly but patiently pinning a colorful assortment of butterflies. All day, the radio played. She heard “Sunny Afternoon,” “Sunshine Superman,” “Just Like a Woman,” and “You Can’t Hurry Love” over and over. On the weekend, she listened to Monitor Radio. Every evening at about six, an aroma of spices drifted into her kitchen. A man from India lived on the floor below.
Albert’s friends lived in a commune out in a redwood forest. There was time enough to look them up. Albert had told her about A.C. Skolnick (“Speedo”), who talked a mile a minute without repeating himself; about Spinning Jenny, who performed fluid dances in flowing, see-through nylon dresses; about Hungry Robert, who would eat anything and who had once imbibed a double dose of peyote and had to be talked down from a tree. Albert mentioned Freaky Pete, who you thought would shatter at a “Boo!” but who, with two tokes, became as relaxed as a sloth. And Albert seemed enamored of a girl who had thrown her clothes out a car window, leaped from the car at a stoplight, and paraded naked across Sand Hill Road to the Stanford Shopping Center. Albert also told her about Ned and Frieda, who outfitted a special tripping room in their house with large bright pillows inside multicolored silk panels hooked to the ceiling light and the door facings. The undulating colors breathed. California was the edge of the world, Albert had said.
Back home, a PhD was an unknown, as far-fetched as travel to the moon. It could have stood for Pursuit of Hound Dogs, she mused. As she sorted stamps, she felt courage simmering, like a chuck roast in her mother’s pressure cooker.
She met the man from India at the bottom of the exterior metal stairway. His name was Sanjay, a PhD student in chemistry. He wore a yellow Henley shirt appliquéd with a small alligator. They were standing outside his door. He made chitchat in good English.
“I have stamps from India in my stamp collection,” she said. “You collect stamps?”
“It’s a regression to childhood while I’m waiting for school to start. Never mind.” She was embarrassed. “Your cooking always smells good.”
“I’m making biryani.”
“A vegetable dish. Won’t you join me?”
“Oh, no, that’s all right. Thank you. I have something already started.” A potato. A ragged iceberg.
“O.K., I’d love to,” she relented when he urged her.
Sanjay was sautéing cauliflower florets in a strong-smelling spice that turned the vegetable orange. A chemistry experiment? It was astounding to learn about his hometown, a city of over two million people, a city she had never heard of. She realized she had never met anyone from India.
The layout of his apartment was the reverse of hers, and his bathroom was lime green, the same degree of shrieking intensity as her burgundy bordello decor. His walls were apple green. His books were all on esoteric science topics. His shoes matched his belt, and his argyle socks had yellow diamonds to echo his alligator shirt. He served no meat. He offered her sparkling water and hot tea. He sprinkled cashews on the food. On the side, he served a dish of sliced cucumbers and yogurt with a pinch of something. Cumin, he called it.
She was surprised by how talkative she was with Sanjay. He seemed so nice, so cultivated—suave, even. He was orderly and confident. She thought of him as an adult, even though he was probably not much older than she. It came as a mild shock that a visiting foreigner from a poor country would be more educated and cultured than most people in her small town in Kentucky. She wondered if she felt even more out of place at Stanford than he did. She wondered what it would be like to kiss him.
The Pepto-Bismol walls were shouting at her. With a gallon of iceberg white and a roller, she painted the walls. She left the pink margins at the top, not bothering with the expense of a paintbrush to fill in the gaps. If she pinched pennies, she wouldn’t have to get a roommate.
She went to see these movies:
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Often, late at night, the couple next door began jiggling their bed frame, knocking it against the thin wall, grunting and sighing with it. She listened, wondering how married couples could sit and read before bed. How could they wait? The sounds made her grumpy. Ann had never really had a boyfriend—a relationship, that is, the term in vogue. Although she wasn’t without sexual dalliances, nobody she had ever cared about had said “I love you” or given her a gift. She had been lovelorn throughout college over a certain Thomas from her sophomore art history class and had not gone steady with anyone since. In the mornings, when she heard the couple next door, their shower was like the sound of time whizzing by.
Excerpted from Dear Ann, copyright © 2020 by Bobbie Ann Mason. Reprinted by permission of Harper.