There was this woman with a deep, slow drawl spoken in something between a rasp and a whisper who had a lightning bolt inked high on her right cheekbone not as thuggery, irony or defiance but as a simple, stunning marker adding to the mystique of a woman easily mistaken in her era-defying androgyny for a man.
It was the mid-1990s and she sported a shaggy mullet, baggy clothes — jeans, plaid shirts — and though she wasn’t publicly boisterous everyone who passed her seemed to know her or know of her.
The rumor when I first encountered her on a bar stool in Shirley’s, the shotgun dyke dive on Vine Street down the hill from the center of things and on the way to things more sinister, was that she lived on a country property and there were dead bodies buried there.
She sure looked to me like she could’ve at least buried the bodies, but not killed ’em. I thought Aralee Strange was strange because she was so insular, so quietly aware of her surroundings; she always just looked like she was writing in her head.
My then-partner told me Aralee was a Jane-of-all-artistic-trades: a poet, filmmaker, performer and that she’d been in New York (?) working on her film.
I thought Aralee’d fallen out of the pages left on the floor by Jack Kerouac, a woman who’d palled around with the storybook Beats and been left somewhere to fend for herself because butch male narratives never make room for self-possessed women like Aralee.
She was a woman with her own backstory.
I only got to glimpse a fraction of it; another fraction I’d heard second and third generation.
From our first distant hello, I have no idea how we came to hang out a little bit, talk some.
I think it’s a Cincinnati/Midwest thing: A virtual stranger somehow ends up in your writing room one hot and humid afternoon talking about writing and what she’s reading, and I woefully needed that talk with a gentle, elder stateswoman. There are so few writing women here who aren’t plagued by insecurities, classism or petty envy.
Aralee was a postmodern hybrid who’d figured out how to be alone/together, my favorite mysterious value pack in these trying times of noise pollution and groupthink. She lived like a pioneer woman on the frontier forging her way to her next project without worrying about money, bills, cars or even about the travails of romantic love.
We did not so much keep in touch as we ran into each other with little fanfare but with great and warm surprise.
The last time this happened wasn’t long after my mother died — perhaps the winter of 2005 or 2006 — and Aralee was homesteading for Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, members of the band Over the Rhine, while they were on their annual train tour playing music for folks on private train cars clacking across the country. Aralee tended their dogs and just lived there, out in the country somewhere she once tried giving me directions to.
I never made it.
But when the band got back in time for their annual Taft Theatre Christmas show, Aralee took me for drinks and treated me to my first OTR show.
My head was buzzy and thick from the whiskey and my heart was heavy with grief from seeing all the holiday merriment downtown and I knew I had a lifetime of those times to mark the years my mother was never coming back.
But in the cool darkness I gave up my grief and got lost in the ache at the edge of Bergquist’s alto. My face was wet with my warm tears and I did not move or make a sound.
When the concert was over Aralee and I quietly parted ways and I never knew if she knew I’d been crying in the dark because she never let on.
She was good at letting folks pace themselves and at not pushing too hard, if at all. It was as though she knew I needed a sweet, silent purge and OTR’s music had been a salve and a saving dirge.
The next time I saw Aralee was in February 2007 and she was standing at the edges of the audience at the conclusion of my play yelling, “Author! Author!” in the lobby of Playhouse in the Park.
I cannot recall telling her about the performance but she was there, anyway, looking around her trying to get the crowd hyped for a standing ovation.
We hit a snag, though, as mature friendships do.
When I was writing an oral history of Main Street for Cincinnati Magazine in summer 2009, I’d compiled a long list of possible sources with Aralee at the top because during the 1980s she’d been in a group of influential Main Street denizens who’d put down stakes when the street was still very dark and ominous but turning the corner into an artistic heyday with Kaldi’s Coffeehouse as their clubhouse.
Plus, she’d written the seminal poetry cycle “Dr. Pain on Main” which, along with her film, This Train, imbued her with a hardscrabble auteur celebrity status, like Jim Jarmusch or Tom Waits.
I reached out to her and we made email appointments to talk but I kept pushing our time back and asking to reschedule.
The story was getting unwieldy.
Different voices emerged and I was more attracted to what they had to say than what I assumed she’d have to say.
Fed up, she sent me a nastygram lamenting my unprofessionalism. I replied with a gentle and straightforward explanation of the uncertainty of journalism and of interviewing, certain this was a form of writing to which she was unaccustomed.
I think there was an apology but we never spoke again.
Our only correspondences were her monthly email reminders about her “Word of Mouth” poetry gatherings in Athens, Ga., where she’d relocated.
Now I can cry in the light.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]