[I met Michael on “Voyage Hope”—his one-day, Creative Non-Fiction seminar on the Ohio River. I made the 90 minute drive north to Cincinnati from Louisville, where I was raised and where most of my surviving family lives. Michael had taken my paternal Aunt, Sylvia, on a tour of Gettysburg. When she returned—tan and smiling for the first time in years—she was full of praise for Michael and his work: both his writing and his talents as a guide. (She even compared him to Virgil.) She mentioned that Michael was an aspiring writer and a born teacher—“He just asked the best questions, keeping the conversation going when the pain kept me from wanting to go on.” Sylvia was a history teacher for many years; she also had a monthly column in the local newspaper. She was a teacher and a writer. So Michael invited her to speak at the seminar. Because her health would not allow her to attend, she asked me to go in her place as a display of gratitude, but also, I suspect, because she wanted me to meet Michael.
That was the chain of events that led to the following conversation, which I recorded with Michael’s permission at Sylvia’s request. (Note: This interview was revised and edited several times by the questioner.) Without Sylvia—who is, as of this writing, still hanging on obediently to life—I never would have exchanged the following words with Michael. As the steamboat’s paddle-wheel churned the muddy waters of the Ohio, we talked about Sylvia and Michael’s other pilgrims and what it was like to care for the sick—we both had this trade in common, though in different ways. We discussed the risks involved in writing about this tender and terrifying subject. Just so the reader is informed: I am a teacher of English Literature and a writer. In the following exchange, I’m the questioner.]
Q: Did you have any reservations about starting this, well, how do I put this, peculiar business?
A: Yes. The prospect of spending my life with the dying was daunting, but I knew that I was good at it. I had a history of taking care of others, and there seemed to be such a vast need for this service. Not just physical care—though there is certainly a need for that. But a more human kind of caring. A more human kind of care. I think this has to do with keeping people engaged with the world. For the most part the dying in this country are taken out of the world, and there’s no good reason for that. I sure as hell hope that someone drags my carcass to Karachi when I’m on my last leg.
Keep in mind, I was a point guard on the floor. It was my job to get everyone into the game, to put the ball into the hands of others and help them help the team. Go figure that this would shape the way I see the world. An occupational hazard, I suppose, but I think a valuable one. Did you ever play ball?
Q: For years. Growing up, I wanted to be a center. This worked when I played in the backyard with my little brother, who was smaller than me until his first year in High School. He grew eight inches that year, and I never grew again. Not many 5’9” centers out there. Paul went from a very small guard to a power forward in one year. Relative to him, I went from center to point. Since I couldn’t back him down to the hoop any more, I worked on my crossover and jump shut. He became the scorer and I became the passer. When we played pick-up ball, he and I were a vicious two man team. Because we’d played together—with and against each other—for so long we could sense each other’s presence on the court, knew as if by instinct where the ball needed to go. Used to passing to each other in tight spaces--the garage, our bedroom, the hallways in our mother's townhouse--we could dissect space on the court, use to our advantage.
He died two years ago.
A: Your brother? But you're so young? How old was he?
A: Shit. What did he die of?
Q: Level 5 head trauma resulting from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Funny how the police report called it an accident. The driver blew a .11 two hours after drag racing into a tree.
[Long, awkward pause. I shouldn't have mentioned it. I should have cut this piece of the interview out as well.]
A: I’m sorry. How am I supposed to respond to that?
Q: You don’t need to. It was terribly unprofessional of me to bring that up. Let’s change course. You mentioned a “history of taking care.” Would you care to elaborate on this statement?
A: I would not. Damn that paddle is loud. Have you ever been on a steamboat before?
A: Me neither.
[There was another long pause. I felt the engine turning as a vibration in my feet. At the bar on the upper deck, the clown college reunion was in full swing; fifty grown men and women in full clown regalia played improv games and juggled bottles of liquor. The bachelor party raged in the parlor downstairs-- drunken male yawps echoed up the stairwell. An old Milonga streamed out of an open window; the Argentinian Dance troupes gala performance was underway in the ballroom. Twenty "Voyage Hope” attendees were sitting down to dinner in one of the small dining rooms, wondering where their somewhat peculiar host had gone and what he’d plotted for them next. He’d already asked them to define writing using items found in the room, then chuckled as they made metaphors: a life preserver, a garbage can, a ball of rope, a jar. He’d compared writing, thinking, fucking, fishing and reading to playing basketball. He’d argued with the lone critic and reviewer for praising his novel’s “realistic approach to representing consciousness.” Keever had politely but firmly retorted: “A more precise word for what I’m trying to achieve is verisimilitude.” The following question ended the silence.]
Q: What does the word verisimilitude mean?
A: A good fake. A pleasing likeness. A very good imitation. Verisimilitude is about appearances. Things as they seem. From the roots, “vera” meaning truth and “similus” meaning similar or the same. Similus gives us simile, assimilation. Vera gives us verify, verdict: making and speaking truth. Does that answer your question?
A: Why do you ask such strange questions?
Q: Force of habit. I’ve been trained to ask questions that force people to reveal more than they want to.
A: What are you, a lawyer?
Q: I’m a teacher. I’m a writer. What are you?
A: A father. A writer. Obsessed. To tell you the truth, I have no idea what I’m doing. This is the first class I’ve ever taught. How did your first class go?
Q: I had the kids dress up like characters from Twelfth Night. They made up skits on the spot, blushing and tripping over their words the entire time. An ice-breaker. What you’re doing seems harder: the one-day unit. I get 181 instructional days. I can't imagine having so little time. What do you hope to accomplish in this seminar?
A: With my blue-collar background, I have been able to avoid the traps of academic writing. I think I’ve found a way to make functional as well as beautiful writing, and I wanted to test the waters, see what others might think of it. Who knows? It might be useful.
Q: What use do you see literature as having?
A: I don’t know much about literature. I was once told and I now believe that the world needs "a moving image of negative feedback, the positive ‘negative.’" Negative feedback can slow down the systems that are taking over life on earth--I don't need to give you the laundry list of these, do I?
A: I’d like to think that there are ways to change peoples’ minds other than blowing up buildings—or writing stories that try to achieve that same effect. But this is all theory. It’s the difference between coaching ball and playing ball. One is about theory, moving abstract objects through an abstract space. The other is about practice, crashing the boards, making the pass, taking the shot. The word that joins theory and practice is praxis: that way of learning as you go by going on.
A: Praxis: practice for purpose, learning to learn. You’re not doing a very good job with this Q &A. We’re getting awfully theoretical here. Is there a goal for this conversation?
Q: To start with details and definitions, move outward into larger ideas, and then return to the details and definitions. Small, big, small. It suggests a continuation of process, a pleasing prospect for those with limited time on earth. How do you sleep at night knowing that your pilgrims are going to die?
A: That’s not the hard part. Everyone is dying; some of us just aren’t as aware of it. Because we don’t have a tumor or a rotten liver or AIDS or Black Lung or some congenital heart defect, we don’t really have to live with death. The hardest part is that they know, that they are put in a position of anticipation. This is a terrifying prospect. It’s the difference between knowing you have to go to the dentist some time soon and knowing you have an appointment next Wednesday. If you are prone to dread, and many of us are, a little knowledge can make it very hard to live.
Your aunt said as much to me on her tour. A nice woman, by the way. A brilliant conversationalist. You should have seen her walking the fields at Gettysburg. It was like she was the guide. She taught history, right?
A: She knew her Civil War. I can’t really do justice to what she said out there. She moved through the dates and names of generals, the stuff memorialized in stone and brass, and then tapped into a very human sense of loss. She said: “it’s all right here. Right in the land. The fact of the land.” How else can we respond to such a place? A field of dead. With neither tombstones nor grave markers. Just that hill, those scrubby trees, the grass going brown, the iron in the creek-bed coloring the water red. I caught myself wondering how much lead shot had been left behind there on the field, how much iron had been deposited in the soil from all that blood, how much was left behind by the facts of those days. And I was thinking these things through, silently looking down into the valley, when Sylvia said: “I kept coming back to this place because I thought it was sacred. I realize now it’s as sacred as the earth in my garden. My father was a Civil War historian. I came here half-expecting to run into him. Isn’t that silly?”
No response from me, the Greek Key, who usually has quick words for any situation. She smiled, put her hand on my shoulder.
“Can you imagine what it’s like to die?”
I didn’t want to give my stock response: “Who’s to say?” I didn’t want to answer with a question. I got the sense she wanted me to say, not as an authority on the matter, but as an equal, a fellow human. I didn’t want to say that I had imagined what the light’s departure looked like to my mother. I didn’t want to say that I had put myself into my father's Ford as it crashed through the ice, that I had put myself there and let the water fill the cab and then my lungs. I didn’t want to say that I had run the tape of Alice’s dying through the editing machine again and again, on and on and on. I don’t know why I’m saying all of this to you; you didn’t ask for this.
Q: It’s an interviewer’s job to draw people out into the open. Here’s a question: You seem to care a lot about your pilgrims. How did you manage to keep the tours on a professional level?
A: I didn’t. I maintained certain limits. Well, usually. But to do what I was doing I had to be honest. I had to be genuine. I couldn’t lie. So I let my guard down and allowed myself to like—to love—my pilgrims. I think they saw this and trusted me. Because they trusted me, they asked tough questions. Like Sylivia’s. Like, “is there life after death, Michael?” And the truth is I don’t know, and so I said “who’s to say?” Maybe I didn’t want to depress them any further with my own words on the matter.
Q: And those words are?
A: That it ends. Stories, they go on, at least as long as there are readers or listeners for them to go on through. Genes, they go on, at least as long as there is egg and sperm to pass them through. Life, plants and animals and bacteria, the whole mess of biology and evolution, it goes on. But the messengers die. They die before, with, after and sometimes because of the messages. It’s not much comfort for me to think that in forty or fifty years some message will go on as the water and the worms work through what is left of my body. It’s not much comfort to think that the metal in my hip will be a subterranean marker of my existence. I’d rather be balling.
A: I'm curious. Why are you so interested in all of this? Terminal tours. The dead and dying.
Q: Tough question. I guess it's because I see myself in the same line of work: caring for the doomed. I teach at a school that specializes in educating severely disfunctional adolescents: kids who have been in and out of rehab, kids who have more than one abortion before their first prom, kids who cannot produce work because they believe their work isn't worth producing because their parents and their teachers have told them how it is. The depressed, addicted, derelict and broken. Those hanging on by threads. Kids that hate themselves, their lives. Those are my kids. So I guess I know what it's like to care so much for something doomed. I, too, have lost my share of pilgrims.
Q: Would you mind if I changed the subject?
Q: I was once told that writing was like a game between text and reader. This idea seems in line with your work. I’m wondering if you’ve considered the risks of this way of looking at writing. What if, for example, your reader doesn’t know the rules of the game you’re playing?
A: I guess it’s my job to clue the reader in. I threw a lot of bad passes in my days on the court—as well as many that hit their mark. When the pass failed, it was because I was out of step with the recipient or the recipient was out of step with me or something blocked the pass as it was sent. A lot has to happen for a pass to be caught. I can only do so much—it’s my job to do what I can, certainly, but the reader has to have hands and know how to catch for any of this to work. I guess it just takes practice.
Q: Isn’t that a risk? That you won’t have enough time with your reader for them to read your no-look pass?
A: I guess I can only hope they’ll stick around long enough to learn to read the body. You can signal with something other than your eyes that a pass is coming. The eyes can be incredible deceivers. I used to use this to my advantage on the court. The defense couldn ’t see what I was seeing.
Q: But does it have to be a contest?
A: Ann used to ask me that. Why was I so cagey, so tricky? She thought I was playing against her, and I guess for a while I was. Now I’m not so sure.
By the way, “contest” doesn’t mean war; it doesn’t imply a lack of love or respect. Quite the opposite. Contest comes from two roots: “test” meaning witness and “con” meaning with. Test gives us testimony, testify. Con gives us consummate, context, conversation. A contest isn’t about wins and losses; it’s about people engaging the world together. I guess that’s what I’m trying to do.
Q: I sometimes think of writing in adversarial terms. It’s a powerful urge: to exercise control, to manipulate. It happens in my classroom and in my writing. I actually caught myself the other day writing an essay about double-binds. I was hung up on a desire to put my reader in the same position I’d been in—torn between two impossible alternatives. I wanted to make them see what I saw, feel what I felt. And then it occurred to me that I was merely doing to them what had been done to me. I learned this from my kids: it can be done another way. I think It’s okay to tear down their preconceptions and assumptions, especially if those assumptions are toxic, but I can't escape their need for the tools to put things back together. Remember, Michael, if they don’t get the joke, then the joke’s on them. You don’t like being laughed at, do you?
A: No. I actually had this fear that the audience would start laughing at me today. That’s why I started with a joke, to get the room on my side. Getting them to laugh with me. I don’t know anything about literature. I haven’t studied the craft of writing. I don’t have much to offer except a pracitioner's view--and an outsider's at that. I’m in over my head, to be quite frank, so I can empathize with those who fear the laughter of others. Maybe I’m picking on that because I want to laugh at myself a little. You like to laugh, don’t you?
Q: Yes. But should you be laughing at a funeral?
A: I’ve cried at some, laughed at others. Why shouldn’t writing reflect that double urge?
Q: Did you just answer my question about the function of writing?
A: I was just talking about myself.
A: What do you see as the function of writing?
A: No, lie to me.
Q: I guess I see it as a gift. When everything else is stripped away it has to be a gift. If it’s a joke—and a joke is a wonderful gift—the recipient has to know that it’s a joke, otherwise they’ll be pushed away. It’s like walking into a room of people laughing and having them suddenly stop and look at you.
The most important part of a gift is that it is a loving gesture, something that pulls people together. People need gestures like this, human gestures made with human talents. Sometimes you have to draw people to the gift with such a gesture. You have to cut through the game and hold something out that is honest, even if it is terrifying or embarrassing or shameful.
I know this is true of relationships. I asked my wife the other day why she stays with me, detached as I can sometimes be, withdrawn inside many layers of armored artifice. She said: “because sometimes I see the most amazing glimmers.”
A: Was that enough for her?
Q: No. Not in the long run. In the long run, she said she would need more facts, more glimmers, more of me. And not just more time, more body, and not just in bed, though that of course, but more substance. Not all of me, but more of me. I don’t know why I keep getting hung up on the relationship between text and reader. Is this a trap? I mean, what else is there but relationship? How one thing ties into another?
A: I guess there are the things themselves. That ball. That water rushing. That pigeon shit. Those clowns. The facts. It’s funny, you and I seem to have been in some of the same predicaments. How did you end up where you are?
Q: Isn’t this supposed to be about you?
A: Yes, but can you really place a limit on a conversation?
Q: Can you draw a map on water?
Q: So, Michael, where do we go from here?
A: First, to dinner, then down the river and back to the waterfront. This river-ride ends with a road.
[We exchanged email addresses. I thanked him several times for the breath of life he’d blown into Sylvia, and told him that if there was anything I could do for him he should contact me. A week later he sent me an email asking if I knew any web designers. I told him that I had developed a few pages myself, simple sites for my classes and for a few writers I knew. He wanted to redesign the website for his business. I checked out terminaltours.com in its infancy. Images didn’t match up with the text. There were a host of dead links and the formatting was inconsistent. There was no easy way to navigate through the site. It looked more like a high school newspaper than an eCommerce site. (I later learned that Keever’s daughter, Sara, had enlisted her boyfriend’s help in building the site.)
I liked Michael, and since I valued what he was doing—since I had seen what he had done for Sylvia—I offered my services pro-bono. Of his need, Otherworlds Studios was born. I sacrificed my time to learn the language and to figure out the programs. I obsessed over the layout, tore through a dozen different designs until I learned how to control the page, then settled on the clean and (dare I say) beautiful design you see before you now. Michael and I emailed his pilgrims, drummed up a story-writing campaign, then collected, edited and arranged the stories you see here.
I’m no altruist. I had a vested interest in helping him. If I could make him a star, he could help me get my own work out into the world. I thought the web could do this, so I invented a world for him and put him in it. Understand, I had my own worlds in mind as well. Now he seems to be becoming part of them. Or maybe he was a part of them from the beginning. Maybe I’m just imagining him and this. And maybe not. Of course, there's no way to know from reading this interview, since here it seems that the interviewer gets the final word on Keever.
It would be crazed for me to doubt what I have seen and heard: that silly and serious day on the Ohio river, Keever’s lanky body leaning into the railing of the boat as it floated on, the paddle wheel spraying clouds of river mist into the air behind him, the carnival music the clowns on the upper deck were dancing to descending to the deck on which he stood in profile, smiling against the blurred blades and crushed water, preparing to ask a question and at the same time waiting to answer another.]
Thomas Rickson is the founder and director of Otherworlds Studios. He is also the webmaster of Terminaltours.com.