Over two decades ago Tom Kellerman opened a used bookstore near the post office in the Gaslight District of Clifton. His idea was to create a store that was more than just a store—he was picturing a place where people would mingle and drink coffee and have literary readings and sit in a corner and read for as long they wanted. That doesn’t sound so radical now, but at the time there was nothing like it in Cincinnati.
At one of the literary readings I shared some of my fiction. On that night I was paired with someone I’d never heard of before.
Literary reading can turn into a shoutfest, and part of the reason for that may be that literature is so under the radar writers feel they have to strain to get people’s attention.
With a lightning bolt tattoo near her right eye and an androgynous face, Aralee Strange spoke in a soft voice, yet her readings were so powerful that the audience was spellbound. There was vulnerability in her voice, but there was also strength.
Kellerman’s didn’t last long, and when it closed I saw it as a confirmation of literature’s marginal existence in America.
Ultimately, though, Kellerman’s wasn’t the end of something. Really it was a beginning, forging connections between writers and inspiring thoughts about what could happen if artists pulled together.
It was through people I met at the bookstore that I was introduced to the publisher of Evil Dog, where I soon became the editor. At first we sought contributions from around the country, but soon we did what we should have done along—focus on some of Cincinnati’s best writers…like Aralee Strange
This was during a period when Aralee was attracting attention with the radio play Etta Stone, which was followed by Evening at the Sad Cafe (a play performed at Ensemble Theatre) and the movie This Train.
Then Aralee moved to Athens, Georgia, where she launched a literary reading series entitled Word of Mouth. Again she helped pull artists together and connected them with an audience.
Aralee Strange passed away earlier this month from cancer. The people who will miss her include those of us she helped bring together when she was organizing readings or directing plays and movies. We’ll miss her writing, her smile, her good energy, her wry sense of humor, her wordplay and her voice. After her passing I leafed through some old copies of Evil Dog. In one of them there was a piece by Aralee that could be described as a prose poem or a non-fiction narrative. I remember hearing her read it at a literary event. Where that reading took place I can’t say, and visually I can’t recall a single detail. I still remember, though, what it sounded like when she read it—and I’ll bet that anyone who’s heard her read can imagine what it sounded like when she delivered these words:
WAITING ON RALPH AT THE MILNER GRILL
Sour grapes and whiskey roil a deadly mix in my belly no scoop of ice cream in a cup of coffee can fix. The fat man at the far table wiping his plate with a wad of white bread licking good that last drop of grease lights a cigarette. I’m waiting on Ralph. I’m choking on smoke. And I’m listening in, “All you gotta do is please her once in a while, she’ll look out for you, do your manly duties,” and dreaming I’m the heel in the Boot eyes glued on lame Beauty thirst quenched on cheap chianti wolfing pizza bianca and Ralph (who was late) is talking to me (who was early) about bridges and can the poetic imperative and downright dangerous span the deadly waters of indifferent do-rights and do we write to right the wrongheaded who would tear down a bridge you can walk across in the name of commerce (not to mention Pollution) and how many people could you feed with what it cost to put gold crowns for chrissake on Roebling’s beautiful bridge? There aren’t words enough to bridge the gap between them and us I say and pass Ralph a slice of pizza he can’t taste but because he’s a poet can conjure the flavor of. Just goes to show you the power of words why you can build bridges with them if you just believe I believe I believe in love I believe in the innocence of animals I believe in dancing one two-three one two-three to a world waltz beat I believe lame Beauty could tame the beast in me but all I can say is May I have a cappuccino please? And Ralph commences jamming bandy legged and jive in another tongue Can you clap your hands (clap our hands) Can you stomp your feet (stomp our feet) Do the right words come when you need ‘em? Well drum! jump and cook a gumbo Free! all the deep down held back among you Allow it release! the one thumb piano plunk on a Sunday tambourine thumping ring around the shakey Pole who is unafraid exposed whose language transcends All do lament! another good man gone (to hell probably) Whose slit throat bleeds Whose black skin’s unseen bruise pains deep and overwhelms and I may be high on cheap wine and caffeine but I swear I see pale Death flying out the window flying over the used car lot flying across the unbridged flood muddy river headed west. Even Death has a home. And Ralph (yet untuckered) still stalking the wild improbable However you can man do you dig it oh ain’t it dandy (and I do) in all simultaneity and with silver tongue to sing “livid and aloud” ipso facto is allowed on the open read but try as I might I am just one more white cat on the conga line dancing to another man’s drum. Am I sufficiently engaged? Does my conscience work? When the right words come crude rude and dead on will I need ‘em? I have two good ears and listen. I have two good eyes and see. I have a mind that wanders how much pull blue yonder the wild turkey’s song (strong as gravity). Fortunately I’m among friends. My silence offends no one. I do not presume I know you nor you don’t me neither ok. And now Ralph’s working his way out there where the sun don’t shine and if we’re lucky he’ll come back singing looking to shake things up shaking things up better watch your back when Ralph’s around better mind your poetic skew and hew a new one everytime or why bother brother for we are Us here now and they are Them there then and the question before us is not when but How do we cross over if the bridge is blown in three sections and according to plan?
strange 8.27.92 cincinnati