Queen of Strays

‘Take any day’, she began, ‘and ask twenty questions of it – small and large. The one I ask myself every day – What do I have that’s already enough?’

Amy Hempel is famously kind to strays. All the same, meeting heroes is risky business. I had already breathlessly told her where I’d come from. ‘All the way from Ireland? … Just for today?’

For her master class, she asked us to consider questions that lead to a story. I had travelled to Brooklyn with many tangled questions and the hope that Amy’s bittersweet tenderness might ease the lingering tremors from my broken marriage. Two years on, and still I was shoreless.

I sat up front and beamed at Amy so ardently, she couldn’t help a slight backward shift of her desk. She asked, ‘Might anyone have a watch I could borrow? I forgot mine.’ I wriggled mine off, slapped it on her desk and sat up straight, like I was waiting for her to toss a treat.

She had asked us to print our list of questions. She read out her own –‘Raisin or poppy-seed? … What is a secret that dismantles my sense of self?’

Around the room hands went up. Will it come in time? The blue or the black? Is that smoke I smell? Has she forgotten I am her daughter? Amy cocked her head while listening, often slowly repeating the question back, which – in the warm timbre of her voice – more often than not felt like an answer.

My turn – Why couldn’t he keep his eyes in his own head? Amy looked at me with her famously kind look, her white hair emanating light. ‘Nice combination. Haven’t heard it before. Is that an Irish phrase?’ she asked. ‘Um, I don’t think so,’ I said. She opened it to the room, ‘Would you know what that means?’ A young woman two rows back, ‘I sure do.’ And we all laughed. The feeling of being handed a towel after a long swim.

Amy wrote, ‘There are many things one should try not to take personally. An absence of convenient parking, inclement weather, a husband who finds that he loves someone else.’

 

She nodded for me to read another question – Was it all a lie?

 

Within the hour, there were new places to enter old stories.

 

When the session ended, a few of us lingered, huddled like groupies. There was much chat about her new book of short stories, Sing to It. She was asked where the title came from and she told us it was part of an Arabic proverb, “When danger approaches, sing to it.” ‘I have it tattooed on my leg.’ She sat down and pulled her trouser leg up to reveal a vicious rectangular scar. ‘From a motorcycle accident.’ And beside it, the elegant script.

She added, ‘It’s to remind myself … Regret is one of those words of high danger. It’s a terrible feeling, because what can you do about it? Nothing.’

‘I would like to go for a ride with you, have you take me to stand before a river in the dark where hundreds of lightning bugs blink this code in sequence: right here, nowhere else! Right now, never again!’  Amy Hempel, Tumble Home.

I get a ride back to Greenpoint from one of the women at the workshop. Roxy Music on the car radio. She drove a longer way than needed – the scenic route by the river where the city lights were just blinking to life.