What is it about being human that causes us to toast only the dead? Let us instead now celebrate the living.
Aralee Strange. The name is almost too perfect, as if a literary device. Yet she is, if nothing else, very real.
I first saw Aralee in the early ’90s at a reading she gave at a downtown gallery. I remember wondering, “Who is this woman with the measured, Southern voice and a lightning bolt tattoo on her right cheek?”
Over the years, I would gradually come to know her as a poet, playwright and filmmaker. She was, in fact, one of the original documentarians of Main Street. But our friendship didn’t truly blossom until 2002, when we would meet up on Fridays for happy hour at Main City Bar.
She moved to Athens, Ga., six years ago. Seeing how my ailing mother was in Atlanta, I would swing through whenever I could. It’s difficult to describe what it is like to be in Aralee’s presence, but anyone who has had the pleasure knows of what I speak. There’s something fortifying about it, like a good church or warm blanket. I call it “chiropractics for the soul.”
Once Aralee announced that she was starting a monthly open mic night called “Word of Mouth,” I was invited to be its inaugural feature reader. It was an honor I didn’t take lightly. To wit: My mother died somewhat unexpectedly four days before the occasion and I still performed. After all, I needed my priest. I’ve been back every December since, this last time with our mutual friend, Tim.
When you drive up to the gate of the ranch where she resides, you realize you are entering a different world. The gate reads “Timber Dance,” and as corny as that may sound, once the gate opens you immediately grasp the inspiration for its name. Your field of vision yields to a panoramic view of myriad trees resting at all sorts of angles, as if their dance was frozen upon your arrival, mid-song.
As you cruise the gravel road towards the house, to your right you might spy Brioche, a flashy Tennessee walking horse, and not far behind him, Cedric the mule, the latter of which Aralee calls her muse.
“Things get tough,” she says.
“I just say a few words to Cedric and he nods or snorts and I know everything’s gonna be fine.”
Later, she asserts, “People mistake a mule’s intelligence for stubbornness. Usually, there’s a damn good reason a mule don’t want to do what you want it to.”
Most of the heavy lifting at Timber Dance occurs on the large, partially screened-in deck that looks out over the pasture. Aralee, in her sixties, sits at a table with a shot-glass of Wild Turkey 101 in front of her.
“I know it’s only afternoon, but fuck it, I’m on vacation,” she says.
I pour myself one, sip from it, and immediately start coughing.
“It’s terrible,” I groan.
“It’s ‘cause you’re not Southern. It’s in our blood. That’s probably why you prefer Irish whiskey.”
I take another sip and say, “Well, I was derailed in my twenties by narcotics and in my thirties by drinking. Way I see it, there are two paths for my forties: sobriety or pharmaceuticals.”
Without hesitation, she replies, “It’s got to be pharmaceuticals, then.”
Which is what I came for: straight shots.
Night falls and dogs bark in the distance. I put on Tom Waits’ Small Change, but Aralee soon overrides my selection and puts on his new album, Bad as Me.
“He’s just incredible,” she says. Then, still standing, “For my money, he’s just as good as Dylan, maybe better. He’s a master of his craft — still dreamin’ up crazy sounds, bangin’ on pots and pans and makin’ this incredible music!”
She’s on a roll, more life in her pinky finger than most infants.
“Look at Over the Rhine,” she says, referring to the Cincinnati band, not neighborhood. “They figured out a success that works for them.”
“You don’t think they could be more successful?” I ask.
“Depends on what you mean. Take this local guy, Randall Bramblett; he’s played with everyone and yet he decided, fuck it, I have four kids and I’m just gonna settle down in Athens and make music and just enough money.”
The next day we decide to see a movie, Hugo. It’s in 3D, so we have some tea on the way there. Suddenly, I forget how to drive. When we finally arrive, the strip mall stands in stark contrast to where we’ve come from. Aralee goes to the window and says, “One senior please.” The cost is $10. Tim and I also pay $10 each.
Aralee goes back to the window and asks, “Why no senior discount?” The girl behind the window explains, “Because it’s in 3D.”
Aralee then enters the theatre lamenting, “Hell, the only good thing about getting older is the senior discount.”
The next day, Aralee and I are back at the table. Mortality has been on her mind, prompting her to make a will.
“It was a humbling thing,” she says, “to think you have lived your whole life and all you have to give is just these few things.”
But the fact of the matter is, when she does go, she will take with her the best that she had to offer — her strength, her insight, her understanding, her spirit — and we will be infinitely poorer because of it. Because no one else has it quite like her to give.
But not yet. For our ballad’s refrain goes thus: Even a blind man might discern/Her lucent light still doth burn.
CONTACT MARK FLANIGAN: firstname.lastname@example.org