End of the Line

The Empty Cup

When a writer has no stories left to remember

Illustration: Barry Blitt

It lurked, for many years, in the back of my mind: that weird drink Kate Smith served me. Her special drink. I was determined, as God was my witness, to summon that drink from my own raw memory, eventually. No longer.

You want to be able to reach way back in your mind and…and…bingo. It’s a rush. But it doesn’t always happen. At the Nashville Public Library recently, Rick Bragg and I held forth jointly about the writing life. After many years of reporting, he said, he had lately been getting paid for remembering. I hear that, I said, but here’s my problem: I’m afraid I have already written everything I remember.

When someone’s former life comes back to haunt her, we say, “Her past has caught up with her.” At least she has stories to tell. I am haunted by the notion that I have caught up with my past.

Oh, there was breakfast this morning, but that’s already a little hazy, nowhere near unforgettable enough to turn into literary fodder. The next thing I recall from this morning, I was looking at the clock and it said 9:30. That memory is pretty dern vivid, I must say. I can feel the texture of the kitchen tablecloth against my elbows. But that could be because I’m still sitting here.

Just live in the moment? Doesn’t work for a Southern writer. The past is our bread and butter, or at least our indigestion. “The past is never dead,” Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.” And yet the past may be this much like the future: You can run out of it.

Had I been prudent, I would have stashed away some nostalgia to trot out in this, my anecdotage. But what if I hadn’t lived this long? What if I had gone to my grave without getting mileage out of, for instance, all of my dogs? How could I have known I was recalling them prematurely, so when Garden & Gun suggested I write a dog reminiscence, I had already squeezed every conceivable word out of every blessed dog I ever had, from Sailor to Pie? What I did was, I wrote about not having a dog, in these my fool’s-golden years. Down that rabbit hole, not much left to sniff.

Time for a flashback to Kate Smith, the Songbird of the South. FDR once introduced her to King George VI of England: “This is Kate Smith. Miss Smith is America.” Her head was a moon, the rest of her a mountain; and her theme song was “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain.” She also had megahits with “God Bless America” and, God help us, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.” In the thirties, forties, and fifties, she was Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, and Lady Gaga rolled into one—except Miss Smith was actually from the South, unlike Miss Swift, and Miss Smith would never have ridden a swinging wrecking ball naked, like Miss Cyrus, and Miss Smith didn’t need to wear an outfit made of meat, like Miss Gaga, because she was packing plenty on her own big bones.

In the mid-seventies I was working for Sports Illustrated, and she became an icon of ice hockey. Her “God Bless America” before games inspired the Philadelphia Flyers to triumph after triumph. She was notoriously wholesome. The Flyers were not. They were known as the Broad Street Bullies. So I could have taken a snarky slant. But I liked her. I liked the way she belted “God Bless America.” During my visit she was cheery and sociable and said not one quotable word.

So I didn’t write anything. Then one day I was drinking with other reporters and one of them claimed to have had Scotch and milk with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Another one claimed black coffee, two sugars, and Dutch gin with Ray Charles. I thought I could top them. “Kate Smith and I had her special…,” I said. And I had forgotten what it was. Over the years, I racked my brain. I would lie on my back pretending not to care, in hopes that that drink would drift accessibly by. It was like trying to get your late great-great-grandfather to remember where they buried the silver.

Finally, just moments ago, I gave up. Typed in “Kate Smith drink,” and there it was, in an old AP story. A London Fog, she called it. Half milk, half Coke. “It looked dreadful,” said the reporter. I had remembered it as weirder than that.

The past is not dead—it is Googlable.