Sunday, February 18, 2018

I first met the man everyone called Buddy . . .

at breakfast, in the dining room of the Virginia Center for Creative Arts.  It was long ago, in a time far, far away. A time before cellphones. Thank god, or I’d have missed out on a chance to know a fine character and an even finer writer. And I mean fine in almost every sense if the word: smooth and polished, refined, sharp, skilled, well-honed, first rate.  A fine fellow indeed.

But I digress. This particular morning, somewhere in the very early 2000s, several of us had congregated at breakfast. A white-haired, spiffily dressed gentleman sat working alone at a table next to us. The pay phone in a little cubicle off the den began to ring and before anyone else could sleepily respond, the gentleman (for this is the only way I can ever think of him) at the next table hopped up with a deep southern  “Ah’ll gayuut it,” and left the room. He was gone long enough for us to assume it had been a wrong number. Probably he’d gone back to his room, forgetting he’d left his notebook and coffee. Poor old fellow.

A good ten minutes passed before the “poor fellow” limped back into the room. He came over to our table and tapped the man sitting next to me on the shoulder.
“It’s our wife, James,” he said.  Then, leaning back on his cane, he proceeded to inform James of everything “our” wife had been up to for the last several days. “She had a minor banking problem, but I believe I’ve solved it. And our lovely Sylvie advanced to the spelling finals. Isn’t that wonderful?”

James, who’d obviously not met the older man before, seemed rather taken aback by his new confidant.

“She said not to bother your breakfast. Just call her when you get a moment this evening.” He limped over to his table, collected his notebook and coffee cup, and left the room with a smile and a wave for the rest of us.

“What the hell?” James (and most of the rest of us) wanted to know.

“That’s our Buddy,” someone at the table said. “He just loves talking to strangers. Isn’t he wonderful?”

And indeed he was, as I found out in the next couple of weeks. Buddy always rose during meals to answer the phone, and almost everyone who wasn’t expecting a crucial call from an agent let him. Whoever was lucky enough to be at the same table as the intended recipient of the call was treated to an elaborate account of a day in the life of someone’s family. We learned about vet visits and report cards, swim meets and daycare. Buddy solved banking crises, advised on repairmen and potential play dates. He diagnosed minor ailments, recommended courses of study, and even college applications.

I had many a lovely breakfast with Buddy at VCCA, but, as with so many other people I was fortunate to meet there, my memory of him gradually receded into the past. I’m embarrassed to admit I told my Buddy stories many times over the years, and listened to many other people tell theirs, without ever bothering to find out who that quaint southern gentleman was.

A few years ago, after VCCA staff sent around yet another in a series of “Please use your cell phone courteously and softly” email requests to those of us in residence, I said something to the creative director about the good old days of the phone booth. “There was this great old southern guy,” I began—

“Oh, you mean Buddy,” she broke in, “Lewis Nordan. An amazing writer, don’t you think? He just passed away recently.”

I agreed that was who I meant, and as soon as we parted I pulled out my phone to find out what “Buddy” had written. The list was quite impressive. Three short story collections and a themed short story/novel, six “conventional” novels and a memoir. I may have missed something. Again, I am embarrassed to say that after shaking my head in awe, I left the Wikipedia page and Lewis Nordan behind.

Until a few weeks ago, when I discovered Sharpshooter Blues at a library book sale, and memories of Buddy came rushing back.

I finally read the stories Lewis Nordan committed to paper. I should have realized years ago that a storyteller who could hold a whole table rapt with the story of a cat’s hairball or a bounced check would be magical on paper. Nordan spun his web around me with his first few sentences, and transported me to a semi-fictional boyhood world he’d re-imagined as Arrow Catcher, Mississippi. A world of bayous and blues, odd characters and events that twist different ways with each character’s retelling.  Reviewers refer to Nordan as the “Singer of America’s soul.” I can’t argue with that.

Sharpshooter Blues melds the stories of Hydro, the comic-reading, peach-pie-eating, hydrocephalic son of the bayou’s bait store owner, with Hydro’s almost-only friend Lewis, the eight-year-old overweight, neglected son of the town banker and his alcoholic wife (who’s having an affair with a very small sharpshooter who is Hydro’s other friend). And that’s just to start. Nordan makes you not only believe in these characters but fall in love with them, and remember them fondly even when the book’s plot may be forgotten.
Kind of like many of the folks and adventures at VCCA, I guess.

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