I have to tell you one more story about Leslie Garrett, Knoxvilles late, haunted author of dark and brilliant books. Its too amazing not to tell. The story is shot through with irony and wonder, and theres no better time than Fathers Day weekend to tell it.
Its OK if you havent read the books Les wrote. "The Beasts" and "In the Country of Desire," Im sad to say, are out of print. I mention them only because they tell stories about misfits seeking redemption, and they bear striking resemblances to Less life, especially the parts Im about to relate.
As I say, Les was a haunted, wizened man, who could never outrun his bruised childhood, his drug and alcohol-tortured manhood. But Im getting ahead of my story, which actually begins when Les was young and in the Navy.
While stationed in Florida, Les fell in love with a 17-year-old, blonde wisp of a girl named Jean. Theirs was a sweet courtship, and passionate. They soon married and Jean gave birth to a baby girl. They named her Dawn. By the time she was born, however, both Jean and Les had decided the union was a mistake. Jean was a sweet Baptist girl with modest ambitions--to raise her baby in a wholesome place, maybe a house with a white picket fence and a plaque that read, "God Bless This Home." Les never knew such a home. He knew little besides ambition to experience the world and feed a craving to write in the grand tradition of Faulkner and Balzac. Les, feeling trapped and dejected, left the marriage in ashes. Jean and Dawn became two memories best forgotten.
He seldom if ever looked back during a tortured trajectory that carried him through New Orleans, San Francisco, New York, Paris and back to Philadelphia, scene of his own terrible childhood. His was a journey through despair, and it ended in Knoxville, where Les moved in the late 1970s at the invitation of a friend. Here he wrote one last book, while doing battle with poverty and the throat cancer that--he couldnt know then--would kill him on June 3, 1993. Better to think of happier times.
Skip to the spring day in 1992, when we celebrated his latest book, "In the Country of Desire." It told the story of a young girl seeking the parents she had never known. I was at Less apartment the day a UPS truck dropped off his case of complimentary copies from the publisher. Nothing can match how it feels to father a child, but to first hold a book youve had a hand in, is akin to it. Once someone asked how I liked a brand new book I had published. I said, "Ask me later, Im still counting its fingers and toes."
Thats how new Less book was when a knock came at the door that would change his all too finite life. We were still oohing and ahhing over the cover, with its portrait of a pretty young girl, when we heard three tentative pecks at the door of his dusky apartment. That door swung open, as if to let in a ghost. A neatly dressed woman said she was from the IRS, which was scary enough, given the recent changes in Less fortunes. But this visit wasnt about money or legal obligations. This was about a message from a long-lost daughter, who had spent considerable time and energy tracking down her father. It was against IRS policy to give information to that daughter, said the courier, but she wanted Les to know a woman named Dawn was looking for him.
Across the spines of this new book about a girls quest to find her family, Les and I looked at each other in amazement. After a third of a century, his own daughter had found him, and on this day of all days, in this moment of all moments.
Later I drove him to Charlotte, where Dawn lived with her husband, their two children and her mother, Jean--a slight, country woman, still yet attractive. Dawn was pretty, plump, sincerely Christian and hill-country sweet. Her family lived prosperously in a sprawling brick rancher. They were happy and fun-loving, and, over fine country cooking, Les regaled them with stories. Memories were traded about how Leslie and Jean used to dance! How they laughed and sang together. How beautiful their baby girl was.
Bad times remained buried. This was Dawns day. We all basked in her glow. Apart from the visit itself, three memories stand out from that trip. One was the care with which Les prepared for it--shopping for new clothes, studying faded photographs, reciting what he would say. Another was the stop we made in Asheville, where Les sat on the porch swing at Thomas Wolfes old home place and, from memory, declaimed to the night, passages of, "You Cant Go Home Again." Finally, I remember how he fidgeted and lit cigarettes as we approached Dawns house. How he motioned for me to stop the car in his daughters driveway and asked me to take him home, then shook his head, took three deep breaths and got himself ready to hear his only daughter speak a word he had fled most of his life. That emotion-laden word with the power to forge identities and reshape destinies. The word Daddy.