GALEN HOLLEY: My first and last meeting with Barry Hannah

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

Wishing is for fools, so the old saying goes, and I figure that’s sound advice. When someone dies, vanity makes us wish we’d said something different the last time we saw them.
I can’t be sure, but I believe the last thing I said to my grandfather, who died about a year ago, was, “I’m leaving now. I’ll see you in a day or two.”
If memory serves me right, when cancer took my father-in-law, the last thing he heard from me was, “Try to be still, and sleep. I’m here if you need something.”
The one and only time I met Barry Hannah, we were sitting on the balcony at City Grocery. We were talking to a Japanese man who had come to Oxford to research addresses in the works of William Faulkner. Our visitor’s English was about as good as my Japanese, and Barry and I tried to hold the thread of conversation, jostled all about by fraternity boys and chattering, fragrant girls.
For two years before I met him, I carried on a letter and phone correspondence with Barry. I first discovered his books when I was working nights at FedEx in Indianapolis. Many was the night I took “Yonder Stands Your Orphan,” or “Airships” to work with me, reading with shivering hands, waiting for the shuttle to take me across I-465 into the yawning maw of the terminal.
Reading Barry’s prose was like someone explaining to me Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, telling me that time and space were just ways of perceiving the universe.
I didn’t know words could be arranged like that, or that a man could be so skillful at his craft that he could soak every word of a short story in a deep, wet theme.
“I loved it when T. Bandini climbed the Confederate soldier there,” I said, referring to one of Barry’s stories in “High Lonesome.”
“He was based on a real person,” Barry told me. “But, I’d better not tell you who it was.”
Sometimes Barry wasn’t well enough, or social enough, to come to the phone. When he did, I always ended our conversations by saying, “Barry, you hang in there. You are a treasure to those of us who love words.”
“You’re sweet, Galen,” he’d tell me, then scurry back into his private life.
When I left him on the balcony of City Grocery last summer, he signed two books for me, saying, “To Galen: A real pro and now a pal.” I said I was honored to meet him.
“Let’s just skip the honor stuff, all right?” he said.
I think the last thing I said to Barry was, “Thank you, sir. Thanks for the work.”
There were a thousand conversations we never got to have, a thousand questions I was never able to ask.
Barry Hannah was a fierce artist, a craftsman who made words do what he wanted them to. Now that he’s dead, I wont’ wish, like a fool, that I had known him longer, or that I’d said something different the last time I saw him. I’ll only say that he changed me, and I’ll never forget the evening, on the Oxford square, when he called me friend.

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.