From Mowing Eudora Welty’s Lawn to Eating Ribs with Jim Harrison
Rick Bass on a Lifetime of Writerly Shyness
The radio operator didn’t like me. She worked the switchboard down in town for my shortwave, which was how people got in touch with me back in the late-1980s. There was no electricity up here then, no telephones, no nothing. Friends dialed the radio dispatcher’s number, and she rang me up on the radio. She was a severe churchgoing lady, severe even by standards in western Montana.
The radio wasn’t like a telephone call. People back in New York, or wherever they were calling from, thought that it was, because they were on a telephone—but out here, on the Canadian border, up in the trees and mountains, it was like a live talk show. Everybody in western Montana could hear our conversation, which was broadcast over the radio, and during the short winter days, the long winter nights, that was what a good number of the folks up here ended up doing—monitoring each other’s shortwave calls to hear all the dirt, to get all the juice. The radio dispatcher didn’t like me because my callers were often drunk and used coarse language; and I was too shy to tell them, my callers, that they were on the air—and besides, with many of my friends—so wild!—this would only have inspired them to further profanity, so I quivered and winced, imagining the church-lady operator listening, imagining my neighbors listening, imagining, in bouts of winter paranoia, the FBI and the FCC listening, taking notes—and I, as well as all of western Montana, listened to Mark Richard saying, “I watched her in the mirror as she straddled me from above” and another writer friend’s less ethereal descriptions, “I dreamed of doing it with savage pork-chop strokes, Rick.”
And why they told me these things in the first place, I didn’t know—I didn’t ask to hear them—neither did the church lady—though perhaps that’s why; perhaps the callers thought, “Why, let’s call up Bass and make him squirm”—but I was too shy to tell them, Please, stop it, and so I, and the operator, listened to Gordon Lish use the f-word like water, when he was on the radio calling to tell me about some new development, as enthusiastic as a twister—“Bass,” he said, “you’ve got to read this, it’s fanfuckingtastic, you’ve fucking got to fucking read this fucking book”—and the church lady didn’t even clear her throat. I trembled at some of the things she had to listen to, and I wouldn’t have blamed her for holding it against me, but I never dreamed of saying anything to any of the callers. All my life, I’d been shy, and I wasn’t about to change that.
“Bass,” he said, “you’ve got to read this, it’s fanfuckingtastic, you’ve fucking got to fucking read this fucking book.”
When you’re shy, and a writer, it’s not the same as being just, say, shy and a mechanic, or shy and a typist: I mean, people know you’re watching them. It’s like you’ve lost all your privacy—you can’t even stand in a crowd and be quiet and watch things, because they know what you’re up to—and then if that crowd happens to be other writers, well, that’s the worst, it’s just the absolute worst. One summer, Jim Harrison called me up on the radio and wanted Elizabeth and me to meet him and Dan Gerber in Livingston, at Jim’s daughter and son-in-law’s place, for dinner—a legendary Harrison-cooked meal, chicken and ribs and beans and turnip greens, in honor of our Southernness, said Jim—and it was the first time I’d ever spoken to him, and I had to brace myself, to keep from falling over. It was a twenty-four-hour drive, round-trip, from where we live to where he was wanting us to meet him. I was quaking in my boots.
It was like an illness! We drove seventy-five miles an hour all the way. It was as if we were driving into battle, to our deaths—there was that sense of finality to it. We’re both big Harrison fans.
The weekend was perfect and lovely. We stayed at their house and slept on the back porch by a rushing stream with wind in the trees above, and stars and crickets. Jim and Jamie, his daughter, spent the whole afternoon preparing the meal, and all the rest of us had to do was sit around and gawk, and be awed. Dan, who is a Buddhist priest, gave me his book and sat out on a boulder in a field at the base of the mountains as dusk fell, by himself, wearing pressed trousers and a clean white shirt. He came back in after dark and showed Elizabeth and me how to run white yarrow, which was growing all over the yard, along our arms and faces to keep mosquitoes away and to smell good. Jim’s agent and his wife, Bob and Kathy Dattila, were there—Kathy’s from Mississippi, too—and there were stories, stories. Kathy and Elizabeth lay in the big hammock together—biggest hammock I’ve ever seen—and there was plenty to drink. We heard coyotes. Jamie’s husband, Steve, a lawyer, but a great guy, cooked the chicken, sprinkled water on the spattering coals. I wanted not to be shy, not this one evening, but couldn’t help it. All I could do was lay low and watch and drink and eat and enjoy all these legends, and to listen to their stories. I live in the woods and make up stories, but these people have actually gone out and lived lives.
There was one magic moment, after everyone had gone to bed, and Elizabeth and I were outside, drinking, and we looked in the kitchen window, and we saw Jim and Jamie framed in the light, father and daughter, standing side by side at the twin sinks, working with concentration, and talking to one another: Harrison’s big balding tanned head, and Jamie’s slender school-looking one, glasses on the end of her nose, dwarfed by him—Jim weighing maybe 235, 240, that summer—and Elizabeth and I just had to stand there and stare at them, framed at the window in that yellow square of light, both of them working away and happy, with us on the outside, unseen, and the noise of that creek rushing past us.
When you are shy like this, you feel a million miles away from anything, from everything, and you want to come closer, but cannot bear to bring yourself in; and of course, part of you does not want to come in—but also when you are a million miles out, you can see things, and you’re free just to stand there and watch, and things that are sometimes ordinary seem to you, to your shy little mind, in the outback, the last outpost, pretty and special. They are ordinary to everyone else, but to your never-experienced-any-of-these-things little mind, they’re beautiful, and you feel like falling over on your back, upturned, like a turtle.I wanted not to be shy, not this one evening, but couldn’t help it. All I could do was lay low and watch and drink and eat and enjoy all these legends, and to listen to their stories.
One summer—one of the many summers when I was writing, but had not published anything, and did not believe that I ever would—I attempted to become Eudora Welty’s yard man. I am sad to say that this was not when I was a teenager; this was when I was a grown man, twenty-three, twenty-four, maybe twenty-five years old.
I just wanted to be close to her, was the thing. It seemed like the most perfect of worlds. I could be close to her, but I wouldn’t have to say anything. I could just stagger around in the Jackson heat, shirtless, in her front yard, and perspire: trimming the hedges, it is good to air your lawn so I did before mowing it, sweeping the sidewalks and the driveway—like some sort of yard savage; just sort of standing guard, is what I imagined it would feel like, protecting her, but more important, just kind of being around her.
I had seen Miss Welty buying a frozen pizza at the Jitney Jungle one time and had been impressed by the way she looked at each one before selecting the one she wanted, rather than just taking the first one she saw.
I figured I could learn things just by cutting her lawn, just by being around her, by maybe being bold enough to breathe some of the same air—and never, ever telling her that I was a writer; or rather, that I was trying to be one.
Perhaps I should not be telling this. It was absolutely loony.
I bought a lawn mower, and typed up a prospectus, listing my services—mowing, trimming, sweeping, etc.—and to increase my chances of employment, I gave price quotes that were scandalous to any would-be competitors—two dollars per yard, no matter the size. I went from door to door, putting these notices in the mailboxes, in the door slots.
I would only embarrass myself further, trying to tell you what it felt like, standing on Miss Welty’s porch with my little notice.
I didn’t gain Miss Welty’s employ. The closest neighbor who hired me was a man who lived two houses down, but that was all right—it was closer than I’d ever been before, and I could breathe the air, as I mowed laps around that delighted man’s yard; that man who, for two dollars a week, was sure that he was getting the better end of the bargain.
But I knew better, and I never complained about the stupefying heat, or about the humidity, and I kept a close eye on the yard two houses down the street. I was getting to breathe that air.
I had a real job, an executive’s job back then, a job with an office and a telephone, and all that nonsense, and often people from the office would drive by in their rich cars and see me out there, laboring. But it didn’t bother me at all, though my savage yard work in that neighborhood was the beginning of my downfall in that office, with those office people and their rich cars, which is another story, and I bring it up only to illustrate my point, that a shy man, or a shy woman, cannot live among people, nor should they try.
That summer I was nowhere near the writer I wanted to be, and I decided that if I couldn’t write, at least I could cut lawns, and do it well, and I suppose I wanted to show that to a real writer. The logic of it escapes me now; but I remember believing that lawn cutting would cure all the awkwardness I was experiencing with my writing.
Shyness can be a deadly thing.
About the worst case I ever heard of it (besides me) was from a writing student, a grad student at the University of Montana named Jake.
One time Jake and his friend Brian were fishing and drinking, with the sun high and butter-yellow, a lovely day—June, tall grasses blowing on the hillside—and Brian and Jake were just outside the town where Tom McGuane lives, and they were up on this hillside, taking a break from fishing, and drinking vodka.
They were just sitting there drinking that vodka, when a dog comes bounding up through the tall grass, wanting to play—McGuane’s dog.
McGuane was one of Jake’s gods. So what does he do, in his breathless shyness, in his drunkenness, in the beauty of the day? What did Jake, whom McGuane did not know from spit, from boo, from squat, do?
Giggling, he took a sheet of paper from his notebook and scrawled his address on it, and wrote, “Tom—loved your last novel. Let’s do lunch—Jake,” and then tucked a story manuscript he had with him under the dog’s collar.
It was a great joke, very funny, but before Jake could call the joke off and take the manuscript back, the McGuanes drove past on the gravel road above the river, driving past in their new blue pickup, the whole family, and the dog, Sadie, took off after them like something fired from a cannon.
That seemed the end for Jake. He was mortified. Wobbily legged and drunk-staggering, he jumped to his feet and chased Sadie across the field, chased her toward the McGuane’s not-too-distant ranch.
The truck stopped at a gate, and Tom got out to open it, and Tom’s little daughter looked back and saw Sadie racing toward them; and then, surprisingly, not so far back—since Jake was a very good athlete—Jake, his legs churning, arms pumping.
The McGuane family watched, as Jake caught Sadie, bulldogged her down in the tall summer grass, wrestled the note and the manuscript from her collar, and then fled for the cottonwoods along the river.
That’s how it is. You wait and you wait, and you work and you work, hoping to be a writer, a real writer—not as good, yes, as the ones you most admire, but good enough to maybe one day go up to them and say, “Hi,” or, “Hey”—but it very rarely works out that way, and if you’ve got this wretched shyness, you almost always seem to find yourself doing something foolish: rolling around wrestling a dog, or spending hot afternoons cutting lawns for free (when you should be inside writing).
It’s much better just to go off in the woods and not ever be seen again: just protect yourself from yourself, stay cool, and do your work. You can be the party animal in the next life.
A million miles away. It felt like being a million miles away.