By Richard Wiley
Guest Columnist
Tacoma, WA, USA

For some forty years I wrote novels, eight of them. That worked out to about five years a book, though they were by no means uniform in their time requirements, for one kept me sailing upon the rough seas of its myriad demands for more than a decade before things calmed down. But I liked (and still do like) the form. It seemed best suited to my interest in a multiplicity of characters, my desire to lose myself in various wildernesses. I had written a few short stories as a beginning writer, but felt – I would never have admitted this before now – that I wasn’t very good at it, that I’d lost the capacity to be brief. Also, I had noticed that I didn’t fit the zeitgeist – rarely liked reading the stories that I happened across in the New Yorker.

But a few years ago my college alumni magazine published the obituary of one Rebecca Welles, a woman I had known when both of us were twenty-one or so years old. I had a job back then tending bar in a local Tacoma, Washington tavern, and
Richard Wiley
Becky would come in most afternoons to have a beer and chat with me when no one else was around. She had the unique problem, as I saw it, of trying to figure out how to shed the weight of the tremendous fame of her parents, namely, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. To be sure, she sometimes loved the fact that they were famous, and used it to her advantage, but she also understood that she’d never be able to breathe freely with the two of them perched on top of her like a couple of very heavy frogs.

When I read her obituary – she died at only 59 – I was, as they say, “deeply saddened.” I’d lost track of her over the years but thought of her often. So I wrote a small remembrance, set on a certain Saint Patrick’s Day when the tavern was full of happily drunken friends, and published it in that same alumni magazine. On the Saint Patrick’s Day in question Becky told me she was thinking of never leaving Tacoma, of finding her freedom in a mid-sized city that would be, quite plainly, anathema to her parents. She even posed for me the question, “Do you think a town can act as a hedge against the unabated loneliness of the human heart, whether mine or anyone else’s?”

In my remembrance I used the real names of other friends from that era, and got cordial notes from some of them, saying that they remembered the evening and had liked the piece I’d written. But, “do you think a town can act as a hedge against the unabated loneliness of the human heart?: stuck with me. Who says such a thing under any circumstance, even in a late-night bar with faux Irish songs being sung all around them? Had Becky actually said it, had I pieced it together from snippets of other things she might have said, or had I even made it up? I am a fiction writer, after all, and memory is a slippery slope for things like that. What’s more; Tacoma was my home town, not Becky’s, so shouldn’t I have been the one to take advantage of the hedge Becky thought it might offer? Perhaps, but I left Tacoma for decades of life in Korea and Japan, Nigeria and Kenya, and finally, Las Vegas – in each place writing about the world at large. Tacoma, I began to suppose, was my Dublin, though I was no Joyce twice: first because I couldn’t begin to write so well, and second because I returned to my home town at the mellow age of seventy, while Joyce, forever a nomad, died in Zurich at a younger age than Becky, at one month short of his fifty-ninth birthday.

My return to Tacoma prompted a rush of nostalgia the likes of which many surely know. “Home again, home again…” that kind of thing, though without the “jiggety jig” to give it a jaunty cadence. But once I got there it came to me quickly – I want to say as I drove past the tavern where I met Becky – that most of the others who’d haunted the place on that Saint Patrick’s Day night, by then fifty years past, had used the hedge better than I, by leaving Tacoma only briefly or never leaving it at all, and that the loneliness of their human hearts was an unknown quantity to me since I had lost track of them all. As I said, I’d used real names in my alumni magazine piece, but I had no interest in tracking anyone down – this is about a foray into the imagination, not into the reuniting that is rampant these days – so I hurried home to dig the piece out, pluck new names from the air around me, and fashion stories for the people that now bore those names…stories that fanned out from the closed tavern door on that long-ago night, not only into futures that I made up, but into pasts that, because they were by then my inventions, perforce had some connection to my own.

As I worked, however, giving one man a long and happy marriage, another, let us say, the burden of many divorces; one woman good luck and another perennial bad luck under the stars arrayed above us, a strange thing happened…Tacoma’s nature, its history, its unqualified beauty, even its infamy, began to muscle into my various narratives, to “speak” as if it were the central character of each of my stories, and not simply the venue in which the stories were set. I even began to sense that the characters I’d invented were meant to highlight Tacoma, and not the other way around. That is not to say that the stories weren’t moving or funny, that they couldn’t stand on their own…of course I hope they were and could…but it is to say that an underlying geographical knowing, a groundswell sense that Tacoma lived within and beneath my stories, began to assert itself, giving them an extra bit of magic that they wouldn’t have had were they not linked and set there, a magic that I absolutely hadn’t put in them, if that makes any sense at all. Tacoma was in my stories, and the magic they seemed to exhibit came from Tacoma, had been there before I wrote my stories, and would be there after people read them and closed the book.

All of this is to say that when we die, either in stories or in real life, the places we
inhabited live on. The operative word being “live.” Dublin lived in Joyce, even as he exiled himself from it. And Joyce lives in Dublin now. If you go there you can feel him everywhere.

So if that is true of Dublin and Joyce, why not of Tacoma and me?

Or of your hometown and you…or any place and any one?

Becky, by the way, did stay in Tacoma, and seemed to have had a happy life.

(Richard Wiley photo credit: Pilar Wiley)

Richard Wiley     


Richard Wiley is the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Best American Fiction. Tacoma Stories is his ninth novel.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.