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Andre's Odyssey

Andre's Odyssey
Edie Clark
copyright 1996, all rights reserved.
This article was first published in Hope Magazine, in July, 1996.


What happened on that clear hot night on July 23, in 1986, was like something out of an Andre Dubus story: At one o'clock in the morning, on a straight, well-lit stretch of interstate 93, just outside of Boston, a car collides with a motorcycle, which has been abandoned in the high speed lane. Inside the car are a woman and her brother who is visiting from Puerto Rico. Neither of them speak much English. They get out of the car. The woman is injured, her head bleeding. There is no traffic on the road. The woman sees headlights coming and waves her arms, hoping the car will stop. It does. The man in the car gets out and comes toward them, to help. He is a fifty-year-old writer of short stories and father of five, a former Marine who never passes by anyone in trouble without stopping. He is on his way home from an evening spent in Boston's Combat Zone, where he was gathering material for a short story about a prostitute. He is wearing jeans and cowboy boots and his walk is swift and authoritative. Por favor, senor, please help, no hablo Ingles, the Puerto Rican man pleads to the writer. The woman says, "There is a motorcycle under the car!" The writer sees dark fluids coming from under the car. He is afraid that it is blood and he is afraid that there is someone crushed between the motorcycle and the car. He sees that the woman is bleeding, and that she is crying. He thinks that he has to get her into the back seat of his car, before she goes into shock. After he gets her into his car, then he will look under the car. But he is only thinking all of this. He has done none of it. In an instant it changes. Everything changes.
Andre Dubus remembers the headlights, but he doesn't remember being lifted off his two feet, being propelled through the air and coming down on his back, on the trunk of the car that struck him. Andre Dubus only remembers lying there in the warm night, asking someone: What happened?
Luis Santiago died that night. His sister, Luz, whose injuries were minor, told the doctors that the man who stopped to help them had pushed her out of the way of the oncoming car. She told the doctors that Andre Dubus had saved her life. Later, the police found a man stumbling along the roadside. He was the man who had abandoned the motorcycle in the middle of the road. He was drunk and he had no idea the difference he had made in the lives of those who came together around his bike. He had fallen off his bike and, stunned and confused, left it lying where it was. He served a year in jail for that crime. Andre later met this man and spoke with him. Andre forgave him his drunkenness and, later, he spoke in court on the man's behalf. The woman who was driving the car that struck Luis Santiago and Andre Dubus was not on drugs and was not drunk and did not leave the scene of the accident. She was not prosecuted for the accident. But she never spoke to Andre and she never sent him a card. For a long time, Andre hated her. After much thought and after much prayer, he forgave her.
After that night, Andre Dubus, hailed now as he was then as master of the short story, never walked again. For any of us who are accustomed to our legs, "never walk again" is something simply said but strenuously hard to comprehend.
For me, the time surrounding that night in July of 1986 has a kind of haunting significance. I knew Andre Dubus "when he had legs," as he sometimes refers to life before his accident. And I remember the call I got from his wife, Peggy, a message left on my answering machine: Andre has been in an accident. He may not make it. I remember thinking back, in astonishment, of the events of the past days, the days leading up to the night of that accident.
Oddly, though I knew Andre before his accident, I never knew him with legs. That is, we had never met. In January of 1986, as fiction editor of Yankee magazine, I had written to Andre in hopes of interesting him in submitting a story to us. I had read and loved his work in the collections that had been published to date - Separate Flights, The Times Are Never So Bad, Finding a Girl in America, Adultery and Other Choices. I knew him to be a writer of integrity, whose work seldom appeared in the mainstream press but which was often published in quarterlies and literary journals, a venue that pays little or nothing. His books had all been published by the small Boston publisher, David Godine, with print runs of 5,000 or less. He was well known among writers but little known outside of that. Perhaps his persistence in the short story is what had brought him what little renown he had: in an article on the survival of the short story, the New York Times Magazine had singled Andre Dubus out as a writer who had toiled at the form for 20 years, with little financial success to show for it. I found Dubus' stories remarkable, memorable in their compassion and scope and in their ability to see through our facades to the human condition. In his collection The Times Are Never So Bad, I had read "A Father's Story," in which a father is faced with the decision of what to do when his daughter hits and kills a man with her car and then flees, coming home to her father in terror. I couldn't imagine a stronger expression of the struggle between moral courage and a father's love.
In response to my request, Andre Dubus wrote back, a lovely long letter in which he said he would like to submit a story, "Blessings," to us. He told me the history of the story and at the end he thanked me for my enthusiasm about his work by saying, "My readers are so few that I believed I knew all of them by name. It's good to know there's one I didn't know."
"Blessings" followed shortly after and I read it in a single breath. It was a story that was very right for us. But, at nearly 10,000 words, it was very long and would require three times the space we had available in the magazine for short fiction. And yet, the story's message was so gentle, so uplifting, so gracious, I was determined to find a way to publish this story in Yankee. I had been fiction editor long enough to know that it is not easy to cut fiction. Writers do not appreciate having their work abbreviated and they rarely understand the constraints of a commercial magazine. I was aware of this when I began to talk with Andre about paring the story down. First he said yes. Then he said no. At last, he gave me permission to edit it down. When he had read the edited manuscript, he called to say he hardly noticed that which had been excised. I was elated. The next day he called to say he couldn't sleep all night and that he couldn't let me publish the story as edited. The next day he called and told me once again that it was fine, a beautiful job. It went on like this, a seesaw of emotion, for several weeks. I knew the vise he was in: he wanted the story to be published, to be read by a wide audience, but to lose even one word of his writing was painful, at times, intolerable. At last, he called to say, he had decided once and for all, that we could not publish the story as is. We had already paid him for the story and the story was in production. I felt a sense of panic which translated into tears. Emotionally, I was not my strongest. The week before my husband had been diagnosed with cancer. The phone line went silent for a moment while I tried to collect myself. "Are you fucking crying?" he asked. "Andre," I said. "Let me call you back and I will explain."
Within the hour, I had explained to Andre about Paul's cancer and he never again broached the subject of the editing of "Blessings" (though I know that privately he continued to despair). Instead, a relationship developed between Andre and Paul. They spoke on the phone frequently and Andre devised a weight-lifting program for Paul to follow, to keep his strength up during radiation. This is the Andre I have come to know: a writer who is fiercely protective of his work, a man of profanity, but a man who is as fierce about his friendships as he is about his writing.
Early on the morning of the first anniversary of the day her family survived, the mother woke.
That is the first line to the story "Blessings." The story takes place on July 14, Bastille Day, a day of personal significance to Andre, who never forgets his French roots and whose father died on that day. It is a beautiful story about a family who, while on vacation in St. Croix, went deep sea fishing. Their chartered boat mysteriously sank, and before their eyes, the captain and the first mate, who had gotten them safely into their life jackets before there was time for him to put his on, are consumed by sharks. A lot of the action in the story involves kicking the sharks and, later, the mother appraises her daughter's legs, gratefully. The family survived, unharmed, though the memory of the trauma has scarred them, and, perhaps, enhanced their lives. "That was our worst day," the mother says at the end of the story. "That was also our best day," her husband muses. "Blessings" is a story about gratitude, it is a story about how near we come, at times, to the tragedies other people suffer. It is also, oddly, a story about legs.
While I was preparing "Blessings" for publication in Yankee, my husband, Paul, underwent surgery at a Boston hospital. It was early in July and he had difficulty recovering, emotionally and physically. Paul often spoke with Andre, who finally suggested a visit to LaSalette, an outdoor shrine in Ipswich, Massachusetts, about two hours from our home in New Hampshire. The Catholicism of Andre's Louisiana roots weaves in and out of many of his stories and it often arises in conversation or debate. At LaSalette, a priest offers healing services, most Sundays, and Andre wondered if that might not help Paul. Paul was skeptical. He had never attended anything of that kind. in fact, he had never heard of such a thing. He was not Catholic but, at last, he decided to go and the three of us arranged to meet at LaSalette on July 20. By that time, Paul and I felt close to Andre and this was to be the first time we had actually met. However, on the morning of the day we were to meet, Paul did not feel well enough to make the trip. We called Andre, throughout the day, but there was no answer.
At one o'clock the next morning, the phone rang, waking us from sleep. It was Andre. "Where were you?" he said, without identifying himself. "Andre," I said, "I'm fast asleep. I'll call you in the morning and I'll explain."
I was never able to reach Andre to tell him why we had been unable to meet him at the shrine. It has always haunted me, that Andre attended that healing service, for Paul, alone, just two days before he was so severely wounded that, physically, he would never recover.
Shortly after news of the accident reached me, I pulled out the letter Andre had written to me the week before. He ended the letter this way: "See you and Paul, God willing, on Sunday. The God willing is for me; I never assume tomorrows."
It is a good thing that Andre never assumes tomorrows. The accident is only one of a series of events that swirled around him after that July night. At the time of the accident, Peggy was six months pregnant with their second child. The child, Madeleine, was born amidst the confusion of her newly crippled father. In another aftershock to the main quake, within a year, Peggy gathered up their two daughters (the older, Cadence, was then 4) and their belongings and moved out, leaving Andre alone in his new wheelchair, in a house on a steep hill in the country, a house that had few accommodations for the handicapped. Peggy was Andre's third wife and she had her reasons for leaving, no one doubted that. Andre was notoriously difficult and all of us could see that his accident could only exacerbate his already sometimes overwhelming demands. If such an accident were to happen to anyone I could think of, I couldn't think of it happening to a man less suited to confinement. Gregarious, exuberant, filled with all aspects of life, Andre was a man who needed every minute of his day, a man who needed every ounce of his flesh. Putting this man in a wheelchair was like putting him in a cage. Whatever the reasons for Peggy's exit, it was a stunning turn which left Andre ever more vulnerable, ever more fearful. There is a vestige of this in his story "The Colonel's Wife", a short story he completed after his accident. In it, a disabled man lies alone in his room and listens as his pretty wife prepares to go out for a walk. He hears her leave and then the fear sinks in. ". . .he watched over his right shoulder as she went out the door. . . .his wheelchair was beside the bed. . . but he could not go to the stove, could not even get far enough into the kitchen to see it, and for breakfast they ate scrambled eggs; Lydia always turned off the burners and the oven, but in his career he had learned to check everything, even when he knew it was done. He had not thought of fire till Lydia was gone, and Lydia had not thought of fire and he saw himself in the wheelchair pushing away flames."
It was not immediately apparent that Andre would never walk again. At first it was his life he was fighting for, spending two months in a Boston hospital and then, in late September of 1986, coming home, to Haverhill, to recover and, hopefully, to regain the use of his remaining leg. In the hospital, they had amputated his left leg above the knee after rounds of surgery had failed to save it. The right leg was saved, but only with the help of a surgically implanted rod. At the time, it seemed that with a rigorous course of physical therapy for the right leg, and with a prostheses on the left leg, Andre could learn to walk again. In fact, he expected to be walking within a year. "I thought I'd just get a leg made and that would be that," he was quoted as saying when the enormity of his task began to dawn on him. As it turned out the right leg was spindly and too weak ever again to bear weight and the knee was rigid, never to bend again.
Andre is sitting in the kitchen, talking on the phone, the kitchen door open to the warm spring breezes. When he spots me coming up the ramp, he hangs up and spins around in his chair. "Hello, darlin'," he says, his arms open, as I bend down so we can hug and kiss. "What's in the basket?" he asks. I have brought soup and bread and cookies for our lunch and together we bring bowls down from the shelf and slice chunks of bread while the soup heats.
Andre's house is on the outskirts of Haverhill, Massachusetts. A modern place of glass and natural wood, the house has, over the past ten years, acquired ramps and railings and a lap pool to accommodate Andre's needs. Still, it is small and just barely big enough for him to swing around in his chair, which he does with balletic aplomb.
Perhaps because I never knew Andre with legs, I never think of him as being without them. I have a photograph of Andre that I keep on my bulletin board, a photo of him standing in a forest with fallen leaves beneath his feet. When I look at that photo, it is not as if I am seeing him complete but instead it's as if there is something missing. I think about the Western boots he was wearing on the night of the accident. I have only ever seen him wearing, on his outstretched, unbending right leg, one shoe, a leather moccasin with no sign of wear on the sole. Friends have described to me his walk: a swagger, a strut, the gate of a man who knows where he's going. I've seen none of that. But, Andre, in his chair, has always seemed majestic to me. He commands from his eyes, which are direct, and penetrating.
We see each other occasionally, like this, a visit, a shared meal, and sometimes we talk on the phone. Since "Blessings" Yankee has published more than a half a dozen of Andre's stories and essays, leaving some of our readers outraged by his profanity and others awed by his honest and resonant prose. It is just weeks since the publication of his new book Dancing After Hours, his seventh collection of short stories, and the first since his accident. Andre's books have not always been critically popular but this one has earned raves from nearly every quarter. The New York Times had this to say about Dancing After Hours: "This whole collection is suffused with grace, bathed in a kind of spiritual glow. Mr. Dubus's characters are people we more than feel for -- we end up cheering for them. Often because they are courageous or simply plain stubborn, but most of all because they refuse to despair." It may be true that his characters refuse to despair but Andre does not.
His journey to the place where he is today has had many chapters, many disappointments. Some three years after the accident, Andre ended his efforts at physical therapy and came to terms with the fact that he would never walk again. "The hope went through different things," he tells me, between spoonfuls of lentil soup. "For a long time, I was hoping to get this leg bending and then get the leg rebuilt and then walk. I have a friend, David Mix. He lost his leg in Vietnam and he really helped me through this. After the first year, he said to me, go for a year and if nothing changes, stop. If you hit the wall, stop. I doubt that they ever thought that this leg would get squared away so probably some people would say that three years was too long but I think I needed those three years, to know that I had done what I could and to accept it, because I know that when I accepted it, it was kind of peaceful. I kind of said, 'Fuck this. It's time to adjust to wheelchair life and get to work.'"
At the same time that it was dawning on Andre that he would not walk again, another, worse, dread was coming into focus. In the weeks and months and years that followed his accident, Andre Dubus felt he would never write short stories again. I was not the only one who received calls from Andre, who wept, not at the loss of his legs so much as at what he feared was the loss of something much more vital: his writing. Jack Herlihy, to whom Andre dedicated Dancing After Hours and who came to Andre's aid when Peggy left by living in the house with Andre, was acutely aware of Andre's struggle to reclaim his mastery of the written word. "I know that there was a suspicion on his part that he had lost it, that his writing had gone the way of walking," Jack told me recently. "He was pushing stories through successive drafts and there would be parts that would work but the stories wouldn't come together as a whole. It was kind of an odd parallel to his life."
Thinking back on this time now, Andre says, "It was very fucking hard. For years. I thought it was over, my fiction. It was worse than not walking. When I got run over, I had a notebook full of ideas. But after the accident, that notebook was useless. I was a different person. I knew what the notes were about, but I was not the same person. Therefore, I had no ideas for stories."
Andre never stopped writing. In the interim, he wrote and published essays. In 1991, he published Broken Vessels, a collection of essays. In the title essay, Andre quotes his physical therapist, Judith Tranberg, whom he calls Mrs. T: "You can't make a new vessel out of a broken one. It's time to find the real you." This message, that he was not the same man that he was before the accident, that he needed to come to terms with this new person, came to him many times, though none perhaps quite so eloquently as that from Mrs. T. His life had not so much changed as it had metamorphosed. After the apocalypse, nothing is ever familiar. For a long time, he could not hear the message.
Nicole Dubus, who is 33 and Andre's youngest daughter from his first marriage, lived then in Santa Cruz and talked her father through some of these hard times by phone. Andre says that Nicole helped him to really understand what these changes meant to him as a writer. "I told her, 'I can't write stories any more.' And she said, 'Your life has changed so much, I don't see how you could have an imaginary world. Keep writing nonfiction about being in a wheelchair and gradually somebody in a wheelchair may come into the story and then gradually the story may have bipeds in it.' I was working on a story called "The Colonel's Wife" at the time. I had been working on it for a long time and I wasn't getting anywhere with it. The man in the story was a biped so I broke his legs. Then the story moved for me and stories started coming after that."
Not all of his stories are about people in wheelchairs. In fact, only two characters in the Dancing After Hours collection are wheelchair bound. Indeed, it is worth noting that many of Andre's stories, written long before the accident, involved crises, crises of physical endurance, crises of emotional endurance, crises of faith. Certainly the story "Blessings", the last story he wrote as a biped, contemplates the nature of personal tragedy, the hairline, the mere seconds that can lie between life and death.
Andre has said that this experience, this reclamation of his writing, is like starting over, that it's like being a 25-year-old writer again. "It's very exciting," he says, his voice a whispery rush.
Before his accident, Andre Dubus led what might have been construed as the quiet and rather ordinary life of a little-known writer and college professor. He had taught literature and writing at Bradford College, in Haverhill, for 18 years, retiring in 1984 from "burn out." He had spent his life as a writer publishing in obscure literary journals and staying with the small Boston publisher, David Godine, even though he had had offers from larger publishers. He did not yearn to publish "big time". He distrusted New York publishing and preferred the smaller journals with higher literary standards.
But he had admirers. This was never more apparent than after his accident. Soon after, novelists John Irving, whom Andre had never met, and Kurt Vonnegut, whom Andre had known at the Iowa Writers Workshop back in the sixties, heard of Andre's plight. Together, they rallied a group of well-known writers to organize a series of benefit readings. In what became perhaps one of the most notable literary events ever staged in Boston, on five successive Sunday evenings in February and March, hundreds of Bostonians paid $200 a ticket to gather at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge to hear readings by John Updike, E. L. Doctorow, Richard Yates, Stephen King, Gail Godwin, Anne Beattie, Tim O'Brien, Jayne Anne Phillips, and, of course, Irving and Vonnegut. They called the series "The Friends of Andre Dubus Literary Series". These "friends" were united not perhaps by their actual friendship with Andre, but by their admiration for his work and, not incidentally, the appeal of the real story of heroism and survival he was playing out. They were also undoubtedly responding to the narrow thread that separated them from him. Most writers, no matter how successful, have at one time experienced the bleak prospect of no money and little encouragement. Andre's life personified this struggle. His medical bills were astronomical. Vonnegut had no trouble convincing these literary lights to come to Andre's aid. Nearly $90,000 was raised to help defray Andre's medical bills. (It was at these readings that Paul and I finally met Andre and where he signed our book, "with love, and abiding hope.")
Andre also had fans, untold admirers who had read his stories over the years and who had longed to meet him. One was Deborah Joy Corey, at the time a would-be writer with no publishing credits but a lot of zeal. She heard about Andre's accident. "I had been a fan of his for many, many years but I had never met him," she told me recently. "I had been to one of his readings and I was just struck by his presence. He just filled that theater. I never forgot how he strutted up to that stage. About a year after his accident, I was hearing about how things were for him and I was thinking that any way to get to this guy would be an advantage. Knowing that he was housebound made it seem like it might be easier."
In September of 1987, Corey called Andre and offered him this: she and seven other writers would like to come to his home for four workshop sessions. They offered to pay him $200 each. Even though he needed money very badly, he declined their offer to pay but invited them to come anyway. "Those writers had a benefit for me and I felt like I wanted to do something back," is the way Andre explains his refusal of the money. That became the beginning of what is now known as the Thursday Nighters, writers who gather at Andre's house on Thursday nights to share works in progress, including Andre's own work. Andre has never charged but entry is by invitation, only. Corey's group lasted only a few months before it went up in smoke, as do many who come to Andre's. "It was wild, it was crazy," Corey recalled of a time which included as much wild behavior as talk about writing. "He was madly in love with writing, madly in love with women. He was just this mass of energy, this genius." But, nevertheless, in the end, it was the writing that mattered. "No one in this country knows as much about fiction as Andre. He doesn't teach by telling, he teaches by asking. I can still hear him asking me, 'Why did you use that word, Deborah?' and realizing in an instant what was wrong with the story. Andre has this vibrant unrestrained personality but when it comes to people's writing, he puts on the kid gloves."
It is the raw, unrestrained, unpolished personality of Andre's that comes through so forcefully and that has put its mark on the Thursday night gatherings. Since that first evening with Deborah Joy Corey and her seven writing friends, Andre has rarely missed a Thursday, though the numbers among him have changed, sometimes dramatically. Andre himself estimates that perhaps 60 writers have revolved through his living room in the nearly ten years since the workshops began. At times, his house fairly throbs with raw talent and ambition. Some have left in anger, some have left because they couldn't stand his smoke, few have left without having their writing improved. Women find him either irresistible or else distasteful in his primitive manners. "He is a very sexy guy," Corey says. "He's the kind of man you want to be with but he's not the kind of man you'd want to marry. I can remember one night at the workshop, there was this one woman in the group that he really wanted to sleep with. He took her shoes off and smelled them. Some were really offended by that but I thought it was fascinating. He acts on impulse. He is who he is."
Shock value is big with Andre. When a reporter from the New York Times magazine came to do an interview, shortly after the accident, Andre greeted him in his wheelchair, naked but for a towel in his lap. When one of Andre's closest friends came to introduce his new love to Andre, Andre appraised them, almost sniffing the air, and then asked, "Have you just made love?" The friendship nearly collapsed. One woman remembers riding in the car with Andre and playfully asking him, "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?" At which, Andre drew out a revolver. The gun was a fake but the woman didn't know that. These are the inexplicable actions of a man who likes to see how people will react, what people will do, which is what all good writers are concerned with. He is horribly politically incorrect, a "dinosaur" in the words of one woman who tired of his expletives and his off-color jokes. All of us who have spent time with Andre have witnessed and maybe even been part of his conflicts, his demons, his struggles with his faith. "He ends up directing that into his writing and it ends up holy," Corey concluded. "He can sanctify the mundane. He shows us that you don't have to be Christ to end up holy."
It is this wild mix of the sacred and the profane that makes Andre so complicated and hard to fathom. Jack Herlihy knew Andre before his accident and, by living with Andre for seven years after the accident, has probably spent more time with him than anyone else. Like so many, Jack first met Andre as a fan and then got to know him as a friend. About Andre's rawness he has this to say: "I think people are always surprised when they meet Andre, surprised that he isn't the voice on the page, that he isn't dressed in monk's robes, that he's really just this fun rascal."
Like no one else, Herlihy witnessed Andre's struggle in the first years in the chair. An aspiring writer, Herlihy also joined in the early days of the workshops and he remembers it as a time of transformation for Andre. "His body was still broken. Emotionally, no one gets disfigured without going through a tremendous psychic duress. He could never go back and he knew that and yet, here he was. He wasn't a writer anymore. He knew that. Yet, he was a writer whose craft was second only to his faith in God. He knew nothing else except writing. It had sustained him for his entire life. So who was he? His life was in complete upheaval and the regularity of those Thursday nights offered a contrast to that inner struggle."
The group not only offered a home to homeless writers, but out of that group came also the encouragement for Andre to write again. "There was a gentle entreaty from the people in the workshop, for him to write something. And he responded to that," Herlihy said.
The workshop has also been, at various times, a remarkably successful group, with many short stories published in magazines and journals as well as perhaps ten successfully published books which were first read at Andre's as works in progress. Among the luminaries who have graced Andre's living room on Thursday evenings are Christopher Tilghman, whose career Andre helped launch by selecting him as a promising young writer for the literary journal Ploughshares. Several of the stories in Tilghman's debut collection In A Father's Place were read at Andre's and his newly published novel, Mason's Retreat, was originally read as a short story in the workshop. Debra Spark's critically acclaimed novel, Coconuts for the Saint, took shape in Andre's living room and Elizabeth Berg read her popular novel Talk Before Sleep in progress at Andre's. Through Andre's group, Deborah Joy Corey went from being an unpublished writer to a well-known one. She has since published numerous short stories and her novel Losing Eddie has recently been made into a radio play for CBC.
My own book, The Place He Made, which tells the story of Paul's illness and of his death, was read in progress over the course of three years in Andre's workshop. I perhaps still hold the record for traveling the furthest to take part in these Thursday night events -- each week, I drove 180 miles, no matter the weather. At the time there were 12 members and because of the reading rotation, my turn to read only came up every 6 or 8 weeks. Still, I rarely missed a Thursday. As an editor, I can choose the writing I want to respond to. At Andre's, whatever was read, no matter how bizarre, had to be responded to. I was fascinated by Andre's genius, there is no other word for it, his genius for zeroing in on the part of the story that needed work. He would sit there in his wheelchair, close his eyes, and listen. Not every story that was read was wondrous, and yet Andre found the place to praise but he would gently move toward the weak part. It would be impossible to capsulize the effect Andre had on me, my work, my way of thinking about writing. To say that it was deeply important is probably not strong enough.
"It's very stimulating, for me. I never charge for it. It's in my home. I pick who comes. I smoke if I want to smoke. I have a lot of fun," Andre says, though he at times has agonized over the emotion that has swelled forth from the groups that seem to form, disperse and reform. Some groups, he says, have been "very bitchy." The group he has now, which includes an Episcopalian priest as well as a full-time nanny, suits him very well. "It's a really good group now," he says of the some 14 writers who gather at 7:30 on the sacred Thursdays. About the transformation from bitchy to gentle, he says this: "I finally told them, we've got to change this, we've got to watch our tone of voice. We've got to be gentle. You've got to treat everyone like they're naked. You've got to be honest but you've got to be gentle."
If nothing else could be said about Andre, it would be fair to say that he is a writer who has likely helped more aspiring writers toward their goal than any other writer alive, before and since his accident. He has been known to call up editors that he knows and tell them to expect a certain great story from a new writer. He spends an inordinate amount of time reading uncorrected proofs and offering blurbs to the worthy, a time-consuming service that many writers simply decline to perform. Joe Hurka is a writer who first met Andre in 1982 and the year following became his teaching assistant at Bradford. He has been Andre's close friend ever since. "Andre changed my life. I was anxious to be a rock and roll star at the time I met him but I think that I was born to write and Andre awakened that in me. And I have seen him do that for literally tens of hundreds of other people. Everywhere he goes, he sort of touches lives and pulls people into writing. It's a mission for him and it always has been."
Thursday nights are not the only nights when Andre opens his house up. On Monday nights, he hosts what he calls "the Bailey girls," a group of fifteen, or so, girls from a group home called Bailey Place, in Haverhill. The girls range in age from 14 to 18 and all are in protective custody of the state of Massachusetts because they have been physically or sexually abused. This arrangement came about in 1988. "I wrote to Father Bruce (Ritter, the founder of Covenant House in New York City) and I told him that I felt like I wasn't doing anything much in life so he suggested I tutor some high school girls. It kind of evolved from there," Andre explains. Andre does not teach these girls to write. Instead, they read, out loud, to him, works of his selection, works that he thinks might spur them, inspire them. They read Chekhov and Tobias Wolffe's This Boy's Life. Recently, they finished reading Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea. On nights with the Bailey girls, he is careful never to use profanity and he is careful to select stories that won't provoke pain in them. By all accounts, Andre is something of a father figure to these girls and he is protective of them. What he wants is to inspire in them a love of the written word, a love for stories, because that is where Andre has always found salvation.
What you get with Andre is the whole package, nothing held back. He is not shy about showing the demons that he fights, whether it's in his personal life or in his writing. At the time that I was attending the workshop, Andre was still new in his wheelchair, still new in his life as a handicapped person. I had never known anyone who was handicapped before and he taught all of us some of what that is like. He taught us, roughly, not to do things for him, but not to forget his condition, either. I remember calling him once. I was feeling down about something though I no longer remember what it was. We talked for a while and then he said, "Well, don't feel so bad. Here's what happened to me this morning. I put my bowl of oatmeal into the microwave and when I reached in to get it, it tipped over. There was oatmeal everywhere. I couldn't even reach to clean it up." It's no wonder I don't remember what it was I was down about. His story succeeded in leveling me.
Joe Hurka recently accompanied Andre on a trip to Washington D.C., where Andre was scheduled to do a number of TV and radio interviews to promote Dancing After Hours. The trip became a sobering lesson for Hurka about the obstacles set before anyone who is handicapped. "I have been around Andre a lot in his wheelchair but this was the first time that I had traveled with him. When we got to the airport, he found we had been booked on a plane that had steps to get up into it. So we missed that flight. When we finally got on a plane, the stewardess argued with me over whether I could stow the wheelchair in the closet. Then at the airport, I overheard the skycap mumble, "Don't give me any more handicapped people. I can't take it." At the hotel, the doorway to the bathroom was too narrow for Andre to get in. It just seemed overwhelming, everything we encountered. On the way home, the stewardess again argued with me about putting the wheelchair into the closet and I exploded and ranted to that woman for about ten minutes. I had really had it. I went back and sat with Andre. He said to me, 'You know, it's a little like being black. You're not wanted in this country,' but he was kind of laughing about it. He was much more accepting of all this than I was. I guess he's had a lot of other experiences like that."
Though that was the first time Hurka had traveled with Andre, he has spent a great deal of time with him out in the world. "I hardly even think of the chair now, but I know that the world looks at him differently. I've been with him to the movies and seen the way people look at him. This experience has deepened Andre philosophically. I think there was this gradual change in him. He's grown to accept his limitations and been more grateful for small things."
Gratitude is something that frequently comes up in conversations with Andre and about Andre. What happened to Andre could have happened to any of us. Andre is well aware of this. But he is grateful for his writing, for what his writing has been able to do for his injury. "Of course, I can't imagine not being a writer so I wouldn't know what it would be like," he says. "I do know that writing about stuff that really happened to me, stuff that is painful makes it worse, at least for a while. I have to live it again and that is painful. But then it becomes a piece of work and that's good. But then, I don't know. I've written essays about the accident and they end up being kind of hopeful but then, after the work is done, then maybe I forget."
"Forget that there is hope?"
"If you got all the men in America who'd been hit on the highway and lived, and are not brain damaged, and nothing is paralyzed, I don't think you could fill one hotel in Boston. I'm really very lucky. It would have been a lot worse if I had been a professional athlete, in his prime, then I would be really pissed off!" Andre laughs, his high squeaky bayou laugh, acknowledging that his greater gift is, and always has been, his writing.
In his life, Andre has often despaired and he has been in places where hope couldn't find him. This is not true of his characters. Andre refuses to be analytical about his work. The stories, he says, are written from some other place. When they are written, when they have been published, he has to go back to reread them to know what they say. "I write it and I get a rush and it becomes a piece of work and then I don't remember the lessons I've learned from it. What I usually remember is that it was hard to write a particular story, that it took a lot out of me." Once the stories are written, "I hardly ever think about them."
Similarly, Andre refuses to be analytical about his accident and the path his life has taken since then. He sees no resonance in the fact that the week before his accident he ended his letter to me by saying, "I never assume tomorrows." And, to Andre, nothing about the story "Blessings", the last short story that he wrote as a man with legs, seems to carry with it any foreboding to what befell him in the midst of its publication, not its title and not even its almost obsessive mention of legs, throughout the story.
If it is true, about the legs, it is nothing Andre has ever noticed. About the story, he says this: "I got that story out of the Boston Globe, years before I wrote it. That family lost their son and they were in the water a lot longer, three hours maybe, kicking the sharks. When they were loading the son into the helicopter, a shark bit his arm off. He was ten years old. He bled to death. But, I wouldn't let that happen to the children in my story!"
Still, on what it takes to be whole again, Andre doesn't mind venturing a guess: "A lot of work. And a lot of prayer."
The peaks and valleys that have accompanied Andre's odyssey toward recovery have been profound. The medical bills have been staggering, and yet, there has been help from his friends, and, in a moment like grace, a MacArthur Foundation grant in the sum of $310,000, the so-called "genius" grant that is dispersed over a five year period, which for Andre encompassed the years between 1988 and 1993. "It made the difference," he says. Recently, Andre was awarded the prestigious Rea Award, a $30,000 gift given each year to writers of the short story. The jurors for the award praised Andre for his "conspicuous and enduring chronicles of the human soul."
Over the years, Andre has said much about the changes that began on the night of July 23, 1986, including that he does not regret what happened. Today, he says only one sentence: "I am more grateful, and probably more frightened."
By the end of the afternoon Andre is chopping frozen okra and onions and garlic and passing them into a stockpot, nestled in his lap. He is preparing a stew, with hints of his Louisiana roots, that he will serve over rice that night. The stew simmering on the stove, Andre unpacks frozen strawberries and yogurt and wheat germ from the refrigerator and dishes these into a blender. He whirls them up, a treat he will stash in the fridge for just before bed. He is tired now, a condition over which he is ever watchful. The air is good, outside the kitchen door and he wheels himself out onto the deck and sits quietly, while I pack my basket and prepare to leave. Tonight, the ten-year-old daughter and thirteen-year-old son of his dentist are coming. Andre is teaching them to write short stories. For each session with these children, Andre receives $50 and free dental care. Their writing is amazing, Andre says, amazing, and he describes a story the little girl wrote last week, about a wicked witch who turned good. "In the middle of the story, she says, "She had only a pinch of love in her and all the rest was hate." He laughs. These young ones, writing short stories, their efforts delight him and bring him great pleasure.
Andre believes that our lives are our stories, that from our lives, even from these young, emerging lives, come the stories that he can write, that any of us can write. About the short story, Andre has written: "I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live. They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice. We can sit all night with our friend while he talks about the end of his marriage, and what we finally get is a collection of stories about passion, tenderness, misunderstanding, sorrow, money; those hours and days and moments when he was absolutely married, whether he and his wife were screaming at each other, or sulking about the house, or making love. While his marriage was dying, he was also working; spending evenings with friends, rearing children; but those are other stories. Which is why, days after hearing a painful story by a friend, we see him and say: How are you? We know that by now he may have another story to tell or he may be in the middle of one, and we hope it is joyful."
At the end of the day, I asked Andre if he ever thought that his life had become like one of his stories and he said, "My story? Man stood. Man got knocked down. Man sat. Man wheeled away." And he laughed, his high-pitched belly laugh.
Andre will turn 60 this summer. He counts his blessings and he never assumes tomorrows. On July 23 of this year, it will have been ten years since his accident, an anniversary he will observe not as the day he was almost killed but as the day he survived.
I know of no one who understands pain and who understands joy in quite the way that Andre Dubus does. It is inside this place, inside this everything of life, that Andre makes his home. The choreography of his life is his gift to all of us. In the years since I have known him, I have seen Andre Dubus fall and I have seen him rise and, more recently, I have seen Andre dance.