It was a phone call I knew was coming. I was in the garden with my spouse, cleaning up the detritus of winter, giving the tiny buds room to breathe and making it easier for deer to nibble tender tulips, when the call finally came.
“Bill, Jim Harrison died,” a friend told me.
We went back to work tidying up. Jim would’ve liked that. He loved gardens.
Harrison, one of the deans of American literature and author of more than 30 novels, novellas and books of poetry, died Saturday at 78. Harrison grew up in Reed City and Haslett and attended MSU, receiving his master’s degree in 1966.
Following his death, many of the tributes came from fellow travelers who had hunted the swamps of northern Michigan with him or fished with him on Montana rivers. The stories of his life are legendary, but this story is about a simpler time when he visited MSU for the last time.
In 2008, I was presented with the opportunity to be the moderator of a literary discussion with MSU’s “big three”: Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford, Thomas “Captain Berserko” McGuane and Harrison. Over the years, I had read the work of these literary giants, but had only met them in passing or talked with them on the phone for an interview.
Greg Parker (who had pushed for this grand gathering while working at the Michigan Humanities Council) and I picked Jim up at the Detroit airport. He was waiting with a small leather duffle bag and looking decidedly un-Midwestern in a mean looking black leather vest. He looked like some kind of cross between a biker, a cowboy and a drug dealer.
After quick introductions, he slid in to the back seat and I passed him a pint of Stoli vodka. His assistant of 37 years, Joyce, had told me of his request. He cracked it open and took a long pull.
“Thanks. I needed that. To cut the dust,” he said.
As we rolled through Okemos on Grand River Avenue toward East Lansing, we passed a small cemetery on the left.
“I won’t be visiting there until I’m not in this world,” he whispered from the backseat.
The next day, as we settled into a park bench in the Secret Garden at MSU, Jim told me that he blamed himself for the deaths of his father and sister, who were buried in that cemetery. They were killed by a drunk driver, and he thought if he’d have gone along, it could have been avoided. He also told me that after their deaths, he turned to the gardens and the greenhouses for solace. They helped him get through a dark time.
As we walked slowly through the gardens, feeding the koi and admiring nature’s simple beauty, Jim stopped to talk with a volunteer master gardener about the advantages of one plant over another. To most people, the gardener would have been invisible, but not to Jim. In that moment, she was the center of his attention — the most important person in the world.
As we reluctantly left and drove across campus, Jim asked, “Are we near Trowbridge? We need some snacks. Let’s stop at Shoprite,” he said.
Shopping with Jim was an adventure. He made a beeline for the wine section where he picked up two bottles of very good French wine.
“Why waste your time with American wine?” he asked.
As I was going through a file looking for some notes from an interview I did with Jim, I came across the faded register receipt. As I looked at it, I saw pure Jim. There were three types pâté and a couple of baguettes, all to be washed down with red wine.
Later, when I picked him up at the Wild Goose Inn in East Lansing, we lingered a while over a glass of wine with Ford before we took off for the Wharton Center. He and Ford, like old pals, joked and made fun of each other.
As we drove to the Wharton Center, Jim asked if I thought anyone would be there. (The crowd that night was standing room only, with attendees sitting in the aisles.) Before we got out of the car, I slipped him the three vodka shooters he had asked for earlier.
“Bill, I get nervous at these things,” he had told me. “Could you get me three shooters?”
As I sat in the green room at the Wharton Center with the trio of authors and President Lou Anna Simon, a sense of calm came over me. I knew I wouldn’t have to say a word after I asked the first question about their dogs.
(I owe a special thanks to Ford for bringing the session to a close when Jim started talking about a trip to the dentist and an erection. I was at a loss there.)
“In Search of Small Gods,” one of Jim’s poetry collections, contains “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” a poem about an untimely death. I asked him if I could read it at my mother’s eulogy. “Use it any time you like,” he said. The last line goes: “Death steals everything except our stories.”
I will miss that throaty voice on the other end of the phone, “Hello Bill, this is Jim.” We’d roam off into familiar territory about lake storms and deep rivers — and hardly at all about his new book. I still have one of those shooters sitting on a shelf at home. That and some great stories.