Correspondence with Richard McCann


Correspondence with Richard McCann

Correspondence with Richard McCann

Julia Slavin
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I met Richard McCann a year ago at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., where we had been relegated to the cheap seats at an awards show. A handsome man in a box-cut tux, he introduced himself and asked if I’d “had any work done.” I said not yet, but did he know anyone good. I wanted to tell him how much I loved his writing, how after reading Mother of Sorrows the mean sidewalks of Wheaton, Maryland, would never look the same. But there was too much other ground to cover: the best concealer, whether one needs to pay a lot for good moisturizer (no, one does not). There was more to say but the lights went down.

Why share our letters? You remember the story of the boy who while wandering the mountains finds a piece of iron that will give him immortality. His greedy family takes the rock and will not allow the peasants of their ailing village access. The vain sisters use the rock to make themselves more beautiful—but for whom? The young men of the village are dying of the fever. The father uses the rock to make him rich, but what is there to buy? The merchants have left the village to escape the fever. His mother uses the rock to become a great weaver and cook. But who can eat on a stomach ravaged by the fever? Disgusted by his family’s behavior, the boy takes the rock to the center of the village and drops it down the well, where it dissolves into the town’s drinking water. Did the rock cure the fever? We never find out. All we know is that the rock is for everyone.

—Julia Slavin

Dear Richard,

I went to that flea market but the dollar was so weak against the Euro I couldn’t buy anything.  I’d been hoping for an antique wooden Madonna, couldn’t even find an angel.  And the prices!  Some old dental tools, really frightening, especially a rusted steel impression of the mouth pried open, filled with real teeth, some missing: two thousand euros!  A hard hat diving helmet: three thousand!  Remember those Saturday afternoon movies that took place “under the sea” with a guy whose hose gets cut, runs out of air and can’t pry off the hard hat?  There was always some frat boy in college with one of those diving helmets on top of his little refrigerator full of Schlitz.  “C’est une chapeaux dans une condition excellent,” the owner of the stall told me, except for a small dent at the top where the owner had hit his head on the boat coming up for air too quickly when the hose got clogged.  He said I should buy it because there weren’t many of these left and my son said, yes! Yes, we should buy it. I told him I didn’t know about wearing it through the metal detectors at Charles de Gaulle and he started to cry saying that if we didn’t buy it he’d spend the rest of his life “wondering what could have been.”

The whole business made me feel anxious and depressed.  I don’t like flea markets.  I’m not Mary Kate and Ashley who, as Jay Manuel from The Style Channel says, “are all about mixing the vintage with the new.”  Old stuff bums me out.  I spent hours in flea markets as a kid.  There was one in Wheaton, not far from where you grew up, where all my clothes came from, the TV set with the ‘walnut’ cabinet, the bureaus with the jammed drawers, the beds.  Even the piano.  Our front yard was a dirt pit and the only furniture we had were a pair of canvas wing chairs, practical, since I had four violent, loudmouth brothers who liked to break stuff and fling stuff and chuck stuff.  In fact, if I had a hard hat diving helmet on my head and were forced to say why I became a writer, I’d have to credit my four loudmouth brothers who never let me get a word in edgewise.  My mother never lost her taste for flea markets and even now in her late years when she afford not to, she visits a place called St. John’s Opportunity Shop.  Can we get really sad here for a moment?  No, let’s not, Richard.  Let’s just say Thank God for Modernism and move on.

I wanted to mention that whenever a friend travels to a place I’d like to go I ask that they think of me there.  Think of me at the Blue Mosque, think of me at the Wailing Wall, at the Taj Mahal, etc.  It’s like having your name carved all over the world without the jetlag.  So, I thought of you, Richard, in that Paris flea market.  Or, rather, I thought of your liver, which I hope you won’t mind my mentioning (you did, after all, mention it within the first ten minutes of my meeting you that night at the Folger Theater).  And I thought… well, I thought of a secondhand liver, vintage, and how that must make you feel.  I know you appreciate every bit of life that liver has given you… but I imagine… if it were me, and it’s not, so I have little right in saying this and I would understand if you never ever wrote back, but if it were me (I’m writing this small because I’m embarrassed), I would hope it had belonged to a girl, and I would hope that she had been a virgin.

Now I’m sick with a cold and a bad enough case of rosacea to keep me isolated and irritable and I’m stressed out about writing that Pakistan piece so any words you have would cheer me up.

All best wishes,


P.S.  Did I tell you about the time my husband took a leaf blower to my son’s room?

P.P. S.  Do you know anything about Pakistan?

P.P.P.S. Sorry about the Nutella stains.


Dear Julia,

I haven’t appreciated every moment of life that my liver transplant has given me.  In truth, I’ve never appreciated life as much as I did the year that I spent waiting for an organ, the year that I was busy dying, when everything was (to borrow a line from Dickinson) “italicized—as ‘twere.”  After all, it’s easy to love things when you’re saying farewell.  Haven’t you noticed that it’s the living who walk around complaining?  They’ve still got the luxury of thinking that life’s not good enough for them.

Anyway:  Did I really announce within minutes of our first meeting that I’d had a transplant?  Yes, of course.  I can believe that.  (I remember only that it was a black-tie dinner; and that you looked quite glamorous in that backless gown, which I’m sure was not from a flea market, whether in Paris or Wheaton, MD; and that Philip Roth was somewhere in the next room with his girlfriend.  I remember we discussed our favorite skin care products.)

I can believe that I blurted that one fact to you, Julia, because I’ve done it before; sometimes, I even lift my shirt to show people the ragged twenty-two inch incision, the shape of an inverted Y, that the surgeon cut across my belly, though no one has ever actually asked me to see it.  But it’s only in moments like these, when I see the startled looks in people’s faces, that the transplant feels real to me.  Yes, I think then, it really happened.  It’s only in moments like these—and sometimes at night, when I’m alone in my apartment, standing naked before the mirror, running my hand along the puckered, hypertrophic scar that marks the burial site, if you will, of my donor’s liver.  Please whisper my donor’s name—any name you wish to invent will do, whether John or Shakir or Sharona—when next you visit the Blue Mosque, the Wailing Wall, the Taj Mahal…

I do know my liver’s provenance—if a liver can be said to have a provenance, that is—though I never speak of it to anyone.  But I will tell you this:  I’ve been to the spot where my donor was killed.  It’s not far from where each of us grew up.

And I’ll tell you this, since you raised the subject:  I never think of my liver as “vintage,” which sounds to me more like a word I’d use to describe the sort of Sonny-and-Cher fringed suede jacket I feel sure you would find for me if you were really my friend.

I think of my liver as a hand-me-down.  As “pre-owned.”  And this makes perfect sense, at least in terms of my personal history:  Did you know that my mother ran a consignment shop in Wheaton, MD, not far from the flea market you frequented with your mother?  My mother said she sold “antiques,” because she kept a display case in the front filled with costume jewelry and carnival glass.  But the back of the shop—which she called Good-As-New—was crammed with battered furniture and racks of old clothes, beneath which were boxes filled with used brassieres.  My brother and I never wore new clothes, except for our white linen First Holy Communion suits, which were rented.

(My mother once told me, when I was trying to convince her to buy me a brand-new Ban-Lon shirt from National Shirt Shop in Wheaton Plaza, that I would be surprised if I knew how many fine ladies bought their brassieres used from Good-As-New, including a certain well-known local TV personality.  She meant by this that I shouldn’t be uppity.)

I like to think that thanks to the quality skin care products we were discussing, I look at least lifelike it not quite, well, good-as-new.

Which reminds me:  While you were in Paris, I was attending the annual Donor Family Gathering at the National Presbyterian Church, where over 700 family members had come together to honor their loved ones who had died and whose organs had gone to others.  There were testimonials.  We heard from a woman who husband had been declared brain-dead after falling from their roof.  We heard from a man whose seven-year-old son had been shot by bandits in Italy.  He said he’d donated his son’s organs because it was clear his son no longer needed his body.

Then the donor families were called up to the altar, one after another, in alphabetical order, where they each received some potted tulips and a small gift bag tied with pastel ribbons.  I felt bad when the elderly couple next to me were called up—the announcer called out the name of their son, whose organs they’d donated—because, as they crossed in front of me, I could see them looking at the badge that I’d been given to wear—“Richard McCann, Liver Recipient.”  How could I acknowledge to them that I knew it was unfair that their son was dead while I was still among the living?  When they came back to the pew with their gift bag, I tried for a moment to look inside it, to see what they could possibly have been given in exchange.

Didn’t you ask me, Julia, to tell you about what you called my “hidden influences”?  When you asked, I thought I’d write to you about the writers I love best, like Tillie Olsen and Jean Rhys.  But I suppose the “hidden influence” that I think of most is the stranger whose liver still works within me.  I have nothing to tell you about Pakistan, though it’s possible, I suppose, that my donor was a Pakistani.

The next time I see you, may I show you the scar?

Yrs, Richard


Dear Richard,

Just so there is no awkwardness between us, you DID show me your scar within the first ten minutes of meeting me.  I was extremely flattered that you trusted me enough to share it and that you somehow sensed that this would be something I’d like. I think you are the consummate dinner companion, someone raised you right.  Just this Saturday I was seated between two boors who leaned across me to discuss… who cares, I spilled Tiramisu on the new satin finish with the muted leopard (really fabulous, tight to the waist then full skirt with hidden pockets (!) for lipstick and concealer.  Hands down, the best concealer: Laura Mercier) trying to get my spoon around them.  I do hope you’ll show me your scar again as I can’t remember if it was an accent grave or an accent aigu.

I was so moved by what you had to say about your the Donor Family Gathering, especially the gift bag since it’s always the small issues that give us the sucker punch, to keep us from coming apart about the real issues.  Did you ever find out what was in the gift bag?  Maybe… moisturizer?  By the way, my friend, Sally recommended a product called Line Tamer by Colore Science (I’m becoming Jay Manuel from the Style Channel with my product placement).  I don’t know what it does because she manically went on to another subject at our sons’ baseball game, complaining that her kid flunked Latin as he hit to deep center while mine, well, let’s just say that if I could choose my transplant organ I’d go for a heart that would not break every time my son gets up at bat.  If you have another opportunity to attend one of these gatherings and you can’t find a date, I’d love to go as FRIEND OF RICHARD MCCANN: LIVER RECIPIENT.  Though I’d probably cry a lot and embarrass you.


P.S.  I hope my backless dress wasn’t too backless, if you know what I mean.  You can be honest.  I need friends who will… watch my back.

P.P.S.  I hope you like my new stationery.  Doesn’t it have that sort of Massengil-commercial-backdrop sort of feel?


Dear Julia,

I showed you my scar and you don’t remember what it looks like?  I was carved open, as are all liver transplant recipients, with what’s called a “chevron incision.”  My boyfriend says the scar looks like the peace sign, minus the circle; my surgeon says it looks like the logo for Mercedes-Benz.

Once again, income and aspiration determine perception, one might say.

I suppose it will come as no surprise, now that you know my predilection for revealing my scars, if I tell you that I don’t imagine I would ever have started writing had I not come across the poems of Anne Sexton’s books All My Pretty Ones and Live or Die. Until I read Sexton, I’d never heard anyone speak with such violent self-exposure.  (I was twenty years old when I found Anne Sexton.  I was still in the closet.  I was still whispering politely within parentheses.)

And before Anne Sexton?  Well, I was thrown out of 11th grade Honors English by Miss Evelyn Stockard, who wore her grey hair in a bun, because I’d chosen for my term project to declaim a half-dozen poems from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology.  I was only a few lines into my first selection, “Hortense Robbins,” I believe—“My name used to be in the papers daily/ As having dined somewhere,/ Or traveled somewhere,/ Or rented a house in Paris…”—when Miss Stockard rose from her seat in the back of the classroom. “Stop!” she said.  “Stop at once!  That is not literature!”

            And that is how I came to spend my senior year in Mrs. Dawn Dollard’s dumb-dumb English class, among the delinquents and illiterates.  Mrs. Dollard said we wouldn’t have to read Beowulf in Old English, even though it was a senior requirement, because we’d never understand it anyway.  Instead, she set us to the task of drawing pictures of dragons and monsters, which she then hung on the bulletin board in the front of the classroom, right beneath the American flag.

(It was that same year, by the way, living among the school delinquents, that I came upon the book I still regard as The Great Influence—Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal, which I shoplifted from Brentano’s Bookstore in Wheaton Plaza, along with The Films of Bette Davis, which featured hundreds of photos, as well as plot synopses and complete cast and credits, from all of Miss Davis’s movies, starting with Seed in 1930 to The Nanny in 1965.)

AND:  That was also the year that I took two semesters of typing, beginning and advanced, so that by June I was able to type 80 words per minute with no errors.  I loved typing, as I still do, because it calmed me. Oh, I thought, as I approached my high school graduation, I’ll become a clerk typist!

Why, you ask, am I telling you all this?  Because I want someone to know that even though the guidance counselor’s Career Aptitude Test said that I’d be best suited for a career in which I’d be working with people, such as “travel agent” or “salesman,” I was in fact, little by little, becoming singularly qualified for the work that I chose:  American writer.

Like Philip Roth!

xox Richard

P.S.  That Laura Mercier concealer that you mentioned—is it waterproof?  I need to know soon.


Dear Richard,

Are you planning a trip to the shore?  The Laura Mercier concealer, waterproof, I don’t know.  If you’d seen what I had to cover up at last Saturday’s Bat Mitzvah… made Iran-Contra look like a skin flap.  But, as I have always said, when in doubt, run to the cabana and reapply.  And when in terrible doubt, don’t come up for air.

I filed the Pakistan piece.  A week late.  What a lot of stress for something no one will read.

I felt nostalgic at your mention of Brentano’s.  I know the Hafts are your friends but you have to admit, Richard, we are still trying to catch up on our reading from that hole in the ozone of wisdom left by their Crown Books chain.  How I wish you had shoplifted from the Hafts!  And speaking of illiteracy, I too was thrown out of English class.  Miss LYNCH asked for my paper on Silas Marner.  I said I didn’t have it but here is my paper on Last Exit to Brooklyn.  The summer school teachers were a whole lot better than Miss Lynch.   I could mention writers who broke the ice but I’m unoriginal on that score and mostly I wrote because of my four loudmouth, idiot brothers, the 12 days I slept in boots during the ’68 riots, the year I spent in bed wishing for a riot, and my interest in professional wrestlers “from parts unknown.”  I went to college in Montreal and hooked up with an experimental theater on campus that produced my “No Exit” rip-off plays.  The happiest time of my life was when I was a cheerleader.

How on earth did I miss the shape of your scar?  I was too focused on what was underneath, more connected to the liver than the man.  I apologize for imbuing (what an awful word) your liver with human properties, seeing you as an outgrowth of a liver with arms and legs and an adorable mind.  Now you know how it feels to be a chick walking by a construction site.

Don’t worry about having missed Beowulf in dumb English.  They made a movie and a musical.

My dogs chewed the lenses out of my glasses.  Amy and I took a quiz on our dogs’ behavior.  My dogs got C’s.  Her dogs got A’s so I said, “Ohhhh, I guess you are pretty pleased with yourself,” and she said, “Ohhhh,” and I’m all “Ohhhhh,” and it’s not like my self-esteem wasn’t in the trough already.

I’m off to the waxer (a former Miss Ziegfeld!).  I did tell you that if getting waxed you should only see a drag queen, right?

Happy Anniversary!

ox, J


P.S.  Had to tear open the envelope to tell you this.  I don’t believe that “everything happens for a reason” but this must have happened for a reason:  I was in the parking lot of The Giant today and saw a bumper sticker that read: I am a proud KIDNEY RECIPIENT.  I waited around a few minutes and a woman came to the car carrying one of those massive packages of paper towels.  I told her, “I have a friend who is a liver recipient and today is his 12- year anniversary!”  She said the kidney recipient was the father of her friend whose car this belonged to, that she had needed the car to transport the 24-pack of Brawny.  Wow.  She was either stockpiling or had one really big spill.

P.P.S.  You would have made an excellent travel agent or salesman.  I would have gone anywhere or bought anything.

P.P.P.S.  Happy Anniversary!  Did I already say that?

P.P.P.P.S.  You don’t have to tell me about it but if you wanna tell me about it…


Dear Julia,

Twelve years ago today the Transplant Center called to tell me they thought they’d located a donor.  I believe that’s the verb the liver transplant coordinator used:  “located.”

Not that I’m sure what anyone said about anything—by that time, I had encephalopathy, the mental confusion that accompanies the final stage of liver disease.  By that time, I’d started sometimes to forget the names of my best friends, who came to my apartment in shifts to care for me.  I was no longer allowed to cut my food with a knife because my platelet count had fallen so low that even a simple cut could have quickly proven fatal.

I’d been waiting thirteen months for a liver.

But here’s what I remember for sure:  The transplant coordinator first phoned around noon.  She said that I was not to eat or drink a thing, because I might soon be going to surgery.

I phoned my friend Bert, who left work right away to come over.  In the months before my transplant, I often wanted Bert at my side, because when he was there, I seldom thought about dying.  When he was there, I just kept thinking:  Does he love me?  

He didn’t love me, of course, not in the way that I loved him.  But my wanting him was what I had then that made me feel I was still among the living.

All day, the transplant coordinator phoned over and over.  First, she’d say that the transplant was on; then she’d phone back to say it wasn’t.  “There are problems,” she kept saying, though I didn’t know what these problems were.

That night, after dinner, Bert went out to the Video King down the block to pick up a copy of “Auntie Mame” starring Rosalind Russell.  He said he couldn’t believe I’d never seen it, not even once in my whole life.

I remember thinking:  My whole life?  Have I had a whole life?

The next thing I remember, it was hours later and I was lying in the bed beside Bert and there was a phone ringing somewhere in the background.  I had fallen asleep.  “Auntie Mame” was playing on the T.V.

“Oh,” I thought, “it’s ‘Auntie Mame.’”

Bert was scrambling for the telephone.  He talked for a minute and then hung up.  “It’s time,” he told me.

My friend Sarah drove me to the hospital, as we’d planned.  I brought with me the small suitcase that I’d packed a few months before:  a blue silk dressing gown, a packet of Dentyne, and a bottle of scent—it was called “Grass”—that I’d purchased on an outing to The Gap a few weeks earlier.

When we pulled up to the ER entrance, I reached for my bag.  I must have forgotten to zipper it, because the bottle of scent fell onto the floor of the car and smashed there.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I kept saying to Sarah.  I had a handkerchief and I was trying to use it to pick up the bits of broken glass.

xo Richard


P.S.  Forget the Laura Mercier—I think it’s too late for the concealer.

P.P.S.  On reflection, I don’t think it’s true, what I wrote earlier about Anne Sexton being my first Big Influence.  On reflection, it occurs to me that I liked Anne Sexton because she was the poet version of my Real First Big Influence, who preceded her:  Miss Bette Davis.

P.P.P.S.  Have I ever told you that Bette Davis and I were pen pals for a year, right after the publication of her autobiography, The Lonely Life?   I still have a framed photo of her that’s signed: “For Ricky McCann, with love from Bette Davis.”

P.P.P.P.S.  I only show this photo to people who’ve seen my scar.  You, for instance, are eligible.  Come over!

P.P.P.P.P.S.  I suppose the Bette Davis photo is a kind of scar, too.  More later…


Dear Richard,

How ‘bout this, “It’s a Capitol City!” postcard?  I’ve had it since 1975!  This morning it spoke to me.  It said, “We never go anywhere,” so I’m sending it to you.  A proper letter to come.  That night at the Folger you leaned over and said, “If I were a straight man you would be afraid of me.”  I said, “You are right.”

Wish you were here.  You are!

ox, Julia

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