This is my first in what will likely be a self-indulgent series of literary boyfriends, and girlfriends. I had mentioned at my last critique group that I could use some mentoring by Hemingway because, in the words of one of my reviewers, “It’s great. But, there’s just too much.” Hemingway would have cut that excess out in no time flat. He probably would have cut even more than that, making it feel like the proverbial pound of flesh. All of this got me thinking about who I would actually like as a writing mentor. Which brought me to one of my greatest literary loves – William Faulkner. Light in August is one of my all-time favorite novels and I try to re-read it at least every other year.
While it would be a dream come true to be mentored by him, how would that even work, though? Aside from being dead, he was known to have had at least one affair with a protege, went on colossal drinking binges, and had a reputation for haughtiness. Can you tell I am in love already? He’s not a great relationship guy, which naturally brought me to the idea of, “If I had one day/night with him – a literary date so to speak – what would that be like?” This is what I think of when lying awake with insomnia. So, without further ado, I present to you my imaginary, but very-real-in-my-mind date with William Faulkner. Please note that some of the facts I use are true about him. Some, however, are my own creation. As Faulkner once said, “Facts and truth have very little to do with each other.” And, yes, I am an omniscient, personalized narrator. It works better for me this way, so roll with it.
He didn’t pick me up himself. He started drinking early that morning. Very early. Nothing like the bite of bourbon and its lingering taste of caramel to get the day started. Whoever this girl was (we’re going with an early-20’s version of me) and whatever she wanted, she must owe a pretty big favor to his publisher to get an arrangement like this worked out. Faulkner hated that I wanted something from him. “Hell, I haven’t even seen a picture of her.” He poured himself another, fearing a dowdy, rotund, hairy creature with a sweating problem would be his penance for some unnamed crime.
The car he sent for me was nice. So nice I felt out of place and uncomfortable sitting in the large back seat. I tried to make small talk with Sam, the driver, but I am an introvert in an extrovert’s body and the effort was stinting at best. I slyly slipped out my flask and attempted to sneak a drink on the way over. “Ah, bourbon. Mr. Faulkner’s favorite. You two will get along just fine,” Sam said as he peered up at me in the rearview mirror. Mental note, next time I bring vodka. I smiled sheepishly and tipped my flask toward Sam, as though he might pull one out, too and we would have a nice moment before I arrive. But he merely looked back impassively.
We arrived at Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s house, in the late afternoon. Though it looked like night because of the approaching storm. Sam parked in a circle near the house and we had a little distance to walk. Down an already muddy pathway. In heels. Naturally, the sky exploded and I was drenched before I could draw my next breath. My new sapphire dress and new matching shoes, which I had to work extra shifts for, were ruined. Sam belatedly grabbed an umbrella and reached for my hand. I hobbled and wobbled alongside him for a few feet. After deciding that there is absolutely no way I can make a stunning entrance (I did look quite stunning before I should note), I stopped him, took another swig from my stash, and removed my heels. Sam nodded his approval and my feet sank and slurped in the mud until we reached the door.
Sam knocked, surprising me. I expected that he would let himself in and announce me. But that does not appear to be the arrangement today. We stood at the doorway for what seemed like half an hour, but must have been only several minutes. The house was what you would have expected for a Mississippi estate. White, large columns near the door, moss hanging from the trees. The storm added to the gothic aura and I was swooning, an electric charge of excitement traveled up my spine, making me temporarily forget my current condition.
We heard a large thud near the door and both of us snapped back to attention. Sam looked concerned. I heard muttering, which I believed to be a litany of curses from inside and then the door slowly opened. There he was. Just as he let out the most inelegant guffaw, which I assumed was a direct commentary my appearance, the chandelier behind him flickered and went out. The three of us stood in the dark, Faulkner laughing, me sighing and opening my purse to find my flask, and Sam clearing his throat.
When the raucous laughter, complete with tears, subsided, Sam said, in a very professional tone, “Mr. Faulkner, I present to you, Ms. Diva.” Faulkner started laughing again. “That’s the name you chose for yourself?” I stared down at my muddy feet and ruined hemline and muttered, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Well, you might as well come in,” he said, wiping away a tear. He seemed completely unfazed by the power outage. Perhaps this happened all the time. He turned his head to the side and hollered toward the kitchen, “Gertrude, would you please draw a bath for Ms. Diva and find her some suitable clothes?” A large, heavyset German woman, who did not disappoint my expectations, came around the corner with a candelabra and led me upstairs. Her gray and white housekeeper uniform was perfectly pressed and starched and her hair was neatly pulled back in a bun. She sniffed repeatedly as though she had caught an offensive aroma. I sniffed, too, and concluded it must be the mud, which had a slight manure smell about it. I hoped she didn’t think it was me.
We reached the top of the stairs and turned down a long hallway, stopping at the end. In what I could only assume was a large guest bathroom, with a romantically perfect clawfoot tub, Gertrude shut the door behind us and pointed to a robe on the back of the door. “Please change, then hand your clothes to me.” She leaned over the tub and started drawing a bath, sprinkling in a healthy dose of lavendar bath salts. She did think that smell was me. I started to unzip my dress and she reeled around saying, “Ms. Diva, please wait until I have left the room. I will wait outside for your soiled clothing. Please wear the robe when you hand them to me.” This date was off to a terrible start.
I did as instructed and caught my first glimpse of the image I cut in the mirror. Gertrude had kindly left a smaller candelabra on the counter. Bobby pins jutted out of my hair at bizarre angles, the chestline of my dress weeped toward my waist, and my make-up trailed after it.
I slipped into the bath. It was luxurious. I didn’t have a bathtub of my own in my meager apartment, only a shower. The warm bath, the candelabra on the sink, the bourbon in my blood, all made for a heady mix. I laid my head down on the back of the tub and must have falled asleep because I was startled by a knock at the door. “Ms. Diva, are you quite all right in there?” Faulkner called to me.
“Uh, um, yes. Just finishing up.”
“Excellent,” he said. “There are clothes on the bed for you and supper is on the table.”
“Thank you,” I called out, chastising myself for sleeping during the very few hours I was guaranteed to have with him.
I rushed through getting ready, though I did pause to wonder whose blouse and skirt I was wearing. But, there was no need to really hover over details of make-up and hair. After all, I couldn’t look any worse than I already had. I flew down the stairs and tripped on the second-to-last one. Thankfully I caught myself with the handrail and attempted to regain some composure. I hovered at the banister for a moment, breathing deeply. I was about to sit down and spend an evening with the great love of my literary life. I was star-struck. My hands trembled and my heart raced. My brain swam with images of me humiliating myself. I thought I was going to be sick. So, I tried to breathe through it until he finally called, “Are we going to do this or not?”
“Yes,” I returned and headed over to the massive dining table.
I sat down and barely noticed the food in front of me, a simple meal of roast chicken and root vegetables. I immediately grabbed the glass of white wine near my plate and wondered how quickly a lady consumed such a glass. After my second glass, countered by only a few bites of food, I no longer cared what a lady would do.
We made small talk about my job, my attempts to write, travel. His accent took a little while to get used to and he had a habit of speaking into the glass he was drinking from. I wanted to ask repeatedly what he had just said, but got the sense that doing so would brand me an idiot. So, I remained attentive, if not completely understanding.
He told me about the war and the metal plate he had in his head. I had calmed down enough to finally get a good look at him. He was handsome, though I was not particularly fond of his mustache and he was not much taller than me. I typically did not like facial hair, but it was as much a part of him as anything else and over the course of the evening, it became endearing. I had images of myself snapping his suspenders and realized I had been living in my own head for some time again.
“And that bastard Clark Gable had nerve enough to ask me if I write. So you know what I said to him? Hmmm?” Faulkner sipped again from his glass, never taking his eyes off me. My absence had been noted.
“Uh, no, sir, I do not.”
“I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Gable. And what do you do?’ Ha!”
I clapped my hands in surprise and awe. Can you imagine telling off Clark Gable? I was in love.
We retired to the sitting room, a nice, warm fire crackling. The rain was subsiding, but day had already slipped away and it was impenetrably dark out. It was still dark inside, too, as the power had yet to come back on. He poured us each a snifter of brandy without asking me and brusquely pushed it at me. He smelled of burning wood, sweat and aftershave. It was heavenly.
“So, let’s get to the meat of this, shall we? What is it you want, my dear Ms. Diva? You must know I am a married man.” He smiled when he said the latter part and I assumed this meant I could suggest anything I wanted, no matter how prurient.
I stared at him for a moment, considering what I did want. One night with William Faulkner, that is what I asked for, but why? I don’t know if I had thought that merely being near his genius would lend itself some process akin to osmosis, thereby instantly making me an extraordinary writer. I don’t know if I thought sleeping with him would give me some claim to fame, so way of having touched him that made me unique. But, I knew I would be one in a long line of many if I went that route.
“Truthfully, I am looking for a mentor. You are my favorite author, the one whose words I most delight in and cherish. I know you can’t bestow good writing on me like a gift, but could you guide me in some way?”
He laughed, not as heartily as he had at the start of the evening. “My dear, that is simply impracticable at this time. A writer must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid. You don’t want me to guide you, you want me to validate you so that you are no longer afraid to put your words out there. But what will my stamp of approval really give you?” He had a kind, paternal look on his face as he gently let me down. “All of us failed to meet our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. You must accept your own failure and keep trying. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do.” He leaned over and put his hand on mine.
“Dear, we could spend the rest of this evening with you showing me your writing by candlelight and me picking it apart. Or we could go out and live a night that will you give one hell of a story to write. Which would you prefer?”
I tossed back my brandy and said, “The latter, sir. The latter.”
He grabbed a woman’s fur coat from the closet and hat for himself. “Sam, we’re heading out,” he called in the direction of the kitchen. Faulkner slipped the coat up my arms and part of me was horrified by the pieced-together pelts I was wearing and part of me finally understood the allure.
Sam opened the door, turned on the car’s headlights and returned for us. He opened the umbrella just outside the door and held out his hand for me. I gingerly walked across the flagstone path I could see now that the rain had stopped. Faulkner looked up at the cloudy sky and said, “Brilliant night.” I didn’t know if he meant its current condition or the way we would remember it when it was all said and done.
We headed to a party and continued to drink into the wee hours of the morning. He told me about getting fired from the post office for playing cards and mah jong, getting fired from the Boy Scouts for drinking too much (“That is a job that requires drinking,” he said in his defense), and eventually conceded that the plate in his head was just a bullshit line he used to get women.
At one point, he turned to, slurring ever so slightly, “You’re not a reporter, are you?”
I laughed. I would have been if somebody paid me to. “No, sir, I am not.”
An acquaintance of his sidled up to us. “Who is this beautiful young woman?”
Faulkner looked me up and down as if just noticing I was not the hairy, sweaty mass he feared. “She is Countess Amalia from Luxembourg. We met while I was in the war.” He lied without missing a beat. “She does not flaunt her royalty like so many others I know.” I could not tell if this was a subtle dig at our new companion or an intimation that Faulkner knew a lot of royals. The gentleman did an awkward bow and started to ask me a question. Faulkner held up his hand and said, “Sorry, no questions. She is tired from her long journey here and we were just about to leave.”
Crestfallen, I consented to gathering my coat. The evening had been rather tame, though I realized he had granted me access to himself that few ever got. The possibilities, and story fodde,r just seemed to be picking up when he announced our departure. He leaed over and whispered, albeit somewhat loudly, “That jackass thinks I don’t know he calls me ‘Count No-Count’. We’ll show him.” After our coats arrived, he said somewhat louder, “I assume you know how to ride a horse, dear. It’s one of three things every woman must know how to do.”
I didn’t know if he was talking to the Countess or me, so I lied and gave him the answer I thought any countess would, “Yes.”
“Brilliant,” he responded. We stepped outside and he signaled Sam, who turned around and left.
“Wait, where is he going?” I cried.
Faulkner put his hand on my shoulder, steering me toward the stables. “Our ride is waiting over here.”
Oh, dear God, he’s serious.
Sam had apparently arranged with Morris, the stable tender, to have the host’s (a.k.a. the jackass’) new thoroughbred saddled and ready.
Drunk enough to go with it, I put one foot delicately in the stirrup and slipped up over the saddle. Faulkner slid up behind me and said, “The reins, my dear.” I had been on a horse before, but saying I knew how to ride was a large stretch. I jostled the reins and kicked my feet into the horse’s ribs. Apparently used to liars who really didn’t know how to ride, the horse gleaned my intent and took off like a shot down the driveway. The horse neighed loudly, Faulkner cheered, and the jackass’ wife screamed. The alcohol in my stomach sloshed uncomfortably and I suddenly regretted not eating.
I had no idea where I was or where to go, so I let the horse decide. I white-knuckled the reins, squeezed the horse as hard as I could with my thighs, and tried not to vomit. Screaming in my left ear, Faulkner said, “I know now why I like you, dear. We are both liars” and he laughed wildly. The horse tore its way across town. Just as it began to slow, we saw the flashing lights of a police car driving toward us. The horse screeched to a halt and I tumbled over its head onto the hood of the car. Faulkner fell on top of me and promptly vomited all over the fur. The police said little to us, thankfully keeping the cuffs loose, and gently sliding me into the backseat. Faulkner became taciturn and received a bump on the head for his attitude as he was put in back beside me.
Sam was at the police station waiting for us and bailed us out. This must have been a matter of course for Faulkner. Or Sam was prescient, not that it required a fortune-teller to predict the outcome of our stunt. Regardless, I was delighted to see him and hugged him after we were released. He recoiled and I remembered the fur.
We put the fur in the trunk, though we could still smell it. Faulkner wanted to go home, get provisions (i.e., more alcohol) and drive to New York City. I politely demurred. Though part of me desperately wanted to go, I knew my wild side was no match for a drunk Faulkner.
They dropped me off and I kissed him on the cheek and thanked him. He smiled at me and said, “I would promise to make you into a character one day, but you wouldn’t want that.” I nodded and walked toward the front door. “Wait, dear,” he called to me, “You forgot your fur.”