Yesterday my friend Tim Stone reminded me that today is the anniversary of Fred Alley’s death. Eleven years now, and I can still see his always smiling face, remember many of the conversations we had over coffee and lunch at The White Gull or Al Johnson’s, talking writing, poetry, books, theater, film, acting, travel. Discussing “Guys on Ice” which he was working on at the time for the American Folklore Theater, which defined him like nothing or no one else–the spirit, the very breath of that talented group, where his spirit continues to reside to this day.
He was all about life, all about people, all about words, all about performance, ‘be-ing’—how all of this came together in the soul of one person who surrendered self for the goodness and grace of art.
God, how we miss him. How the county itself has been diminished by his loss. The word “irreplaceable” is too often used to describe the absence of a host of people, places, and things these days that don’t quite add up to the loss of one person, one place, one time, one particular talent to put words, action, passion upon a stage and let it live, speak, sing, come together in celebration of who we are or might become. Fred could work that magic.
I remember, upon learning of his tragic, early death, driving one morning, to the place along the roadside where he was found, where he had had fallen, where his heart finally gave out so unexpectedly while jogging—which would remain a place, a site, etched forever in my memory with countless others. Which, after forty-three years of living here, would remain on my list of Door County final resting places, if you will, of friends, neighbors, acquaintances whom I periodically recall, visit, immediately recognize by merely passing by somewhere in the county, remembering a name, a face, a conversation: that’s where________car turned over…hit a tree, crossed the road, hit an oncoming vehicle; that’s where_______lost a daughter or a son; that bay, that lake, that mesmerizing body of water, so beautiful and blue this summer day, so wondrous in white all winter—that’s where_______drowned; where_____crossed Portes de Morts in a small boat, his body never recovered; where______fell though the ice one winter. That’s the barn where_______took his own life. That’s the big bluff where______ stumbled and fell.
I remember driving the quiet back road where Fred had fallen not far from his house, a bright, sunny morning, just like today. I remember driving very slowly, looking for some sign…the weeds padded down …something. And there, a small pile of stones. I remember continuing a short distance, then pulling over, leaving the engine running, slamming the door shut (an unwelcome sound, breaking the silence I was entering, the reverence I was already feeling) as I stepped slowly along the road’s edge, into the weeds and grass, approaching the now hallowed ground of a fallen friend.
I said something like a prayer in conversation with him.
It’s been said of James Joyce that his characters never remained dead, I remember just now.– norbert blei
It was everywhere, in the streets and houses,
on farms and now in the air itself.
It had come from history and we were history
so it had come from us.
I told my artist friends who courted it
not to suffer
on purpose, not to fall in love
because it would be naturally theirs
I had sad stories of my own,
but they made me quiet
the way my parents’ failures once did,
but our own, and, besides, what was left to say
when the unspeakable was out there being spoken,
exhausting all sympathy?
Yet, feeling it, how difficult to keep
the face’s curtains
closed — she left, he left, they died —
the heart rising
into the mouth and eyes, everything so basic,
at such times. And then, too, the woes
of others would get in,
but mostly I was inured and out
to make a decent buck
or in pursuit of some slippery pleasure
that was sadness disguised.
I found it, it found me, oh
my artist friends
give it up, just mix your paints,
the strokes unmistakably will be yours.