The first apartment I lived in on my own was a tiny place in Berea, Kentucky. I was maybe 20, in college, doing an off-campus semester. I ended up in Berea in an ill-advised attempt to be closer to a girl, who, it turned out, didn’t really want to be closer to me. But Berea was charming, full of folk artists making traditional Appalachian crafts – dulcimers, rocking chairs, woven rugs – and I thought it would be a wonderful place to stay and write. (And if said girl happened to come around….)
I rented the apartment from an elderly couple who explained that the building was owned and maintained by their son, Kenny. The old woman leaned in and told me in a whisper, “He drinks.”
I nodded understandingly, gave them a check, and set up my little manual typewriter on the vintage 50’s white and turquoise enamel and steel kitchen table that came with the place.
My first morning there, I awoke to find a paper bag of fresh tomatoes on my steps. The next day, it was cucumbers. Then, cans of beer. (Berea was in a dry county in Kentucky – no booze to be had unless you drove a little while… and I didn’t have a car so I was pretty pleased about the beer.)
Finally, Kenny himself appeared on my doorstep one morning. He was skinny, grizzled, kind of shady looking – I wasn’t too sure if I should invite him in. But as we stood on my front steps talking, I sensed there was nothing harmful about him – he was sad and sweet and full of self pity. Within five minutes of talking to me outside, he was in tears about what a mess his life was. I decided to invite him in. Besides the girl, I knew absolutely no one in Berea and Kenny soon became a regular visitor and my only real friend in town. I’d put on tea, and Kenny would sit and tell stories. He would always begin with how the love of his life had left him and taken the kids. He claimed he had sextuplets (I’m not even sure he really had any kids at all). He once worked in a garage and one day, one of the kids he was estranged from got a job there and they worked side by side for a year and the kid never knew Kenny was his dad. His ex-wife was an heiress. You get the idea.
Kenny was always drunk – I mean always – but a very polite drunk. And like so many southerners, he was a born storyteller. That gorgeous accent didn’t hurt. He told me one crazy story after another, and I nodded, asked prompting questions, let him keep spinning his tales. He had me laughing, crying, right at the edge of my seat. It didn’t matter what was real and what wasn’t. I was held captive. Parts of Kenny – his shy charm, his naiveté, drinking to anesthetize himself against the constantly surprising cruelties of life – made their way into the character of Nicky Griswold in Promise Not to Tell. And parts of his stories will probably always populate my work.
Storytelling is an art, and if someone does it well, I can listen to them for hours. I don’t necessarily care if what I’m hearing is the truth or not, or if the teller of the tale is sober or of sound mind. Some of the best stories ever told to me have been by strangers on buses and in check out lines — rambling, unbelievable. But once the spell is cast, I’m theirs. What do you think? Does it matter if it’s complete bullshit as long as it’s a good story?