Knocking on Heaven’s Door
Knocking on Heaven’s Door
by Greg Herren
(reprinted from Queer and Loathing in America, December 12, 2021)
I woke up this morning to the news that Anne Rice died last night.
She was an enormous influence on me and my life, for any number of reasons. It was her book The Witching Hour that made me realize that I needed to come to New Orleans, that awakened my connection to the city that was maybe always there in my head yet was dormant; I cannot precisely place what it was about that book that opened the connection necessary in my head to know that New Orleans was where I belonged. There was just something about that book, the way she wrote about the city and its magic, that drew me here. The weekend of my thirty-third birthday I came to New Orleans, and it was the first time I ever felt connected to a place, that I had finally found the place where I belonged, where–if and when I were to move there–all of my dreams would come true. Her love of the city where she was born and grew up comes through so powerfully in The Witching Hour, and the book remains one of my favorites to this day. The friend I stayed with that weekend–knowing how much I loved the book–took me on a drive around the city and through the Garden District, and pulled up the house at the corner of First and Chestnut. “This,” he said with a big smile, “is where she lives. Do you recognize the house?”
I got out of the car, dumbfounded. The home of the Mayfair witches was real. It was on the corner of First and Chestnut, just as she wrote in the book. There was the massive live oak in the front yard. There was Dierdre’s porch, just off to the side of the front gallery of the house. There was the pool in the side yard. There was the window from which Antha fell to her death.
I did what any number of fans and tourists did, of course; posed for a picture by the front gate. That picture–all of the pictures from that weekend–were lost over the years and many moves, from apartment to apartment in Tampa, from Tampa to Minneapolis, from Minneapolis to New Orleans, when I finally, at long last, was able to move home to the city I loved…where, as I suspected when I read The Witching Hour, all of my dreams came true.
Eight years after we moved here, I lived through a horrible nightmare. One night on Memorial Day weekend, Paul and I had gone to the Quarter for a book launch party and then went out for a few drinks. We ran into another friend at one bar but I wanted to go dancing. Paul stayed behind with the friend, said he’d catch a cab home, and off I went. I came home and he wasn’t there. I went to bed…and woke up later that morning to a phone call that no one ever wants to get. Paul had been attacked by a group of homophobic thugs and beaten, badly. Had it not happened directly across the street from the Verti Marte, the two college students who had stopped there to get something to eat on their way home from work wouldn’t have seen it happen, and run out screaming at them. The monsters escaped, but had those girls not taken action, he most likely would have beaten far worse, perhaps (probably)killed.
I don’t remember much, really, of that day or the next few weeks. I do remember how kind people were, and how much support I received.
But what I really remember is how the crime was mishandled by the homophobic cops who were called to the scene–the girls told me all about when they called (and to this day, I regret never getting their names)–and as a result, the possibility that the attackers would be caught and punished evaporated. It didn’t make the Times-Picayune for several days–the timing is very unclear to me to this day; those days are jumbled and unclear in my mind–but I will never forget that Mrs. Rice made a public statement about what happened, and she also went on all the news channels in New Orleans to talk about what happened, and offered a reward.
And one night, after I got home from the hospital, I decided to tackle the monumental task of thanking people, who had reached out, who’d offered help, who were holding fundraisers, etc. etc. etc. I knew Mrs. Rice’s address, but figured she would probably never see a thank you card given the amount of mail she probably received; I had always heard stories that she actually had a phone number listed in the phone book (yes, I am “look it up in the phone book” years old) and sure enough, there was a number listed. I also figured, as I dialed, that it was probably just a message line, but I had also heard that she listened to all the messages, so I thought when the recorder picked up, I would talk really fast to get everything out that I wanted to say before the beep cut me off.
But a human being answered the phone, a woman.
“Hi, I was wondering if I could leave a message for Mrs. Rice?” I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking.
“Yes, of course.”
The words started tumbling out of me. I said who I was and who Paul was, and that I wanted to say thank you to her for offering a reward, for her public statement, and how much it meant to me, to both of us, that probably the most famous person in New Orleans would do that for total strangers. My voice broke a couple of times, my eyes filled with tears a couple of times, and I had to stop to take a breath every once in a while. When I finally finished, the woman on the other end of the line said, very kindly, “Well, of course. It was the least I could do.”
I was stunned. I was talking to Anne Rice herself. I had read all the books. She was one of the reasons I had finally found home; the place where I felt I belonged–and was now, of course, questioning that; I had read all the books and enjoyed them all; she lived and wrote about one of the most beautiful houses I had ever seen and was kind of a personal touchstone for me in the city; and now, she was reminding me why New Orleans was home.
We talked for a while, actually; I know she asked about me, she asked about how he was doing, she wanted to be certain I was okay–this total stranger who had looked up her phone number and reached out just to say thank you. I don’t know how long we were on the phone, but I do know, when I finally apologized for bothering her and taking up so much of her time, she replied, “You didn’t waste my time. I’m so glad you called because I was so worried about you. And if you need anything–anything at all, please don’t hesitate to call. Hospitals and medical expenses can add up very quickly. You just let me know what hospital and I’ll take care of everything. Please take care of yourself. And please, call at any time.”
I never called again. But I’ve never forgotten that Mrs. Rice, one of the bestselling authors of the last fifty years, one of the biggest celebrities to live in New Orleans, took a personal interest in two total strangers, and did whatever she could to try to bring attention to what happened as well as try to catch the perpetrators, and how incredibly kind and gracious and caring she was to someone she’d never met, and would never meet.
I had always wanted to attend one of her signings, to thank her in person not only for everything she did in that aftermath of what happened to Paul, but for how incredibly kind and generous she was to a shaky, barely holding it together total stranger who called her out of the blue one weeknight. But it never worked out for me to do so, and now she’s gone.
RIP, Mrs. Rice, and thank you again. You were truly a great lady.
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Greg Herren is the award-winning author of over thirty novels and fifty short stories. He is also the award-winning editor of over twenty anthologies. His most recent novel, #shedeservedit, was released in January. He lives in New Orleans with his long-time partner. His story “The Rosary of Broken Promises” appears in Dancing in the Shadows: A Tribute to Anne Rice, out now from Yuriko Publishing.