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Meet the Assistants

To enter Reynolds Price’s home, you must pass through a wall of windows.

Step into the house at midday on a lazy Saturday and the living room is awash in a light that warms the wood and illuminates the art, creating a perfect space in which to write. It’s no accident—Price was very particular.

“Some of the blinds you could never adjust, others you had to move just right—a 45 degree angle here, two-thirds open there,” explained Braden Hendricks, Trinity ’10.

Hendricks knows because he was Price’s constant companion in his final months. From the onset of his paralysis in 1984, Price lived with an assistant, usually a young Duke graduate, who helped him navigate the house and venture beyond it.

The men served one-year terms, a time in which they enjoyed the rare opportunity to witness a great writer at work, up close, day in and day out. Though there are lawyers and academics in their ranks, many went on to pursue acting, music, writing, cooking and film, among other creative disciplines. There is a striking number of artists in this curious fraternity of about 25 men.

Price considered his assistant to be a partner, someone who helped him to be the most productive artist he could be.

“He would tell us, ‘You are not my employee, you are my colleague. You are helping me live my life,’” said breadmaker Eduardo Morell, Trinity ’93.

And yet the assistant was by definition an employee, living on a wage paid by Price in exchange for filling a very demanding post.

The men were keenly aware of how their every move affected Price, and vice versa. Actor Paul Fleschner, Trinity ’03, quickly learned that if he slept in late, he left Price stranded in bed. Eric Larson, Trinity ’93 and a professional writer in Raleigh working on his first novel, put on 30 pounds of muscle before he took the job, a transformation called for by the daily task of lifting Price. To this day, Morell evaluates each room he enters for handicap accessibility.

“How am I going to get Reynolds up those stairs? Where is the bathroom? Where are the exits? That was your brain as an assistant,” he said.

With minds so in sync, Price and his assistants forged a bond that endured long beyond their year under the same roof. Documentary filmmaker Wil Weldon, Trinity ’96, struggles to describe his relationship with Price—he was the man’s student, friend, employee, masseuse and biographer. Ultimately, he said, Price became something like a second father.

“He had an amazing sense of identifying some of the inadequacies of each of our own fathers, and he would try to fill that in some way,” Weldon said. “He would try to figure out what kind of support we needed.”

During the first meeting of a Spring 2008 course on the poetry of John Milton, Hendricks watched in awe as Price, dressed elegantly in a collared shirt and scarf, rolled to the top of the platform from which he addressed the class. To live as an extension of the man he so admired was surreal.

“I visited Professor Price during office hours after the first class. Fast forward two and a half years later, and I find myself living in this house,” Hendricks says. “Can you imagine?”

It’s not hard to understand why Hendricks feels a sense of wonderment living in this large craftsman-style house set on the banks of a still pond.

The kitchen cabinets are heavy to open, tightly lined with framed black-and-white portraits of old movie stars. Dozens of angels hover above, suspended by cobwebs and strings you have to really squint to see. Turn the corner, and you will find a wall filled just as densely as the cabinets, this time with religious icons.

“The joke is that there is a running competition for space and popularity in this house between James Dean and Jesus Christ,” Hendricks said with a laugh.

The wall of windows is the only unadorned stretch of the house. Every flat surface is used for the display of skulls, masks, fossils. A gorilla slouches on the living room couch. A figurine of the rapper Eminem stands on the kitchen counter. The cranium of a saber-tooth tiger rests on the floor.

A painting hangs above the fireplace. Price sits in his wheelchair, reading a book; a young man stands behind him, resting a finger on the handle, meeting the viewer’s gaze. Price’s assistant at the time posed for the portrait, standing in for all of them, Hendricks says.

Each Spring, Price circulated a page-long description of the job in his classes. Those who were interested approached him about the position. Move-in day was July 4. The new assistant would shadow his predecessor for a short time to learn the routine, but there was no way to fully prepare.

The assistant’s work began at about 6:30 a.m. and ended when he collapsed into bed at about 10 p.m, Larson said. The experience was known as the “Reynolds Price Academy for Future Husbands” for good reason. Much of the job consisted of simple chores. Take out the trash. Make dinner. Drive to campus.

“One had the sense that you had a man that was watching you with a magnifying glass,” Fleschner said. “There was a tremendous pressure not to mess up.”

Having just wrapped up hyper-social undergraduate careers, some assistants struggled with the solitude of the job. Suddenly, they had one man for companionship.

Price was grateful for the help of his assistants, and yet he was at times discouraged by the extent to which he needed them, Weldon said. He had always been fiercely independent.

“There was a tension because he would have to call you to help him lie down,” Weldon said. “He would have liked to have just been able to lie down.”

The presence of two grown men would charge any home with excess testosterone, Weldon said. Price understood that he and his assistant were bound to bicker.

“If he was a little bit short or crabby, it was easy to be resentful,” Larson said. “One had to force oneself to remember that he went through a lot more minute to minute than he even let on.”

Price took a minimal dose of medicine to keep his mind sharp for writing, but pain stalked him in the last decades of his life. When asked to measure it on a scale of one to 10, he rated it an 11, Morell said.

The management of the pain was a challenge that brought Price and his assistants closer. Fleschner recalled staying up late into the night reading Price the work of Virginia Woolf when he was sick. Morell counseled Price to help him push his pain from the forefront of his consciousness.

“He was my therapist, and I was his,” Morell said.

Weldon delights in recounting a story he heard Price tell many times:

When Price was visiting New York in his early 30s, he paused to examine a storefront and noted the presence of a stranger beside him. Price boldly struck up a conversation with Orson Welles, the legendary director of Citizen Kane, about the beauty of a watch on display in the window.

In daily life and especially at parties, Price dazzled others with his stories. The master storyteller trained his assistants in his craft.

From time to time, Weldon detected subtle differences between his own memory of an event and Price’s telling of it.

“He’d say, ‘Buddy, if you’re going to be a writer you have to learn to embellish things sometimes. You don’t lie but you tell things in a way that would make it more interesting,’” Weldon said.

During a drive one afternoon, Price noted a subtle change in the landscape that Larson had not even registered. The teacher did not take the oversight lightly.

“He said, ‘Buddy, if you’re going to be a writer, you have to notice these things,’” Larson said.

Although his assistants were young and unproven, Price believed deeply in their talent—it was why they were drawn to the job and why he selected them for it. Price could have hired a professional nurse to care for him—it would have spared him the trouble of training an assistant each year—but he wanted to be in the company of sharp young minds, Weldon noted.

Witnessing the discipline with which Price rolled to his desk each morning and wrote inspired Larson to devise his own strategy for writing. But Larson was not a very productive writer during his time with Price, as the simple work that enabled Price to write consumed most of his time. Yet Larson found that there was much to be gained from the quiet lifestyle.

“He liked to say, ‘Why are we always performing last year’s play in front of this year’s set?’ I stopped wondering what I could be doing instead of hanging pictures in his bedroom,” he said. “I would remember that here I had an opportunity that was very special and unique. I could hang pictures with Reynolds Price and then talk about them with him afterward.”

Life with Price was a series of rich conversations, Larson said. Price loved to imagine life in a new era and in a different skin—say, how illiterate sharecroppers must have passed their time in the year 1850. And he harbored a deep interest in the lives of his assistants, too.

“He must have gotten bored at times with 20-something guys who ran out of things to say after three months. Our lives had not been that full,” Larson said. “But you were rewarded if you brought some measure of curiosity to the job. Reynolds was an open person, open to sharing about his life and having a friendship.”

Price often asked his assistants what they were working on, Weldon said, and if they found the courage to approach him, he would survey their work and give frank feedback. They too found a way into his writing, sometimes embedded in the fabric of the story as characters in his novels and often named explicitly in the dedications.

After finishing his year with Price, Fleschner struggled to carve out a living as an artist in Los Angeles, writing a screenplay for one of his mentor’s novels. One day, a package arrived in the mail from Price: an antique collection of Shakespeare’s plays. Price remembered how much Fleschner loved the playwright.

“He understood that being an artist is keeping alive that fragile flame,” Fleschner said. “For anybody that had an interest in art, he sought to give them the means to keep on going.”

Weldon thinks Price was proud of him and his fellow assistants, though he cannot recall him explicitly saying so.

“As much as he was proud, he wanted you to believe in yourself,” Weldon said.

It took Reynolds and his assistants time to settle into the rhythm of their life together. Shortly after they struck the balance, it was often time for the assistant to pack his bags, Morell said.

Morell finds himself thinking back often these days on his last afternoon as Price’s assistant. The truck was filled with his things. His successor was settled. Morell did not want to leave, but he knew he could not stay.

“Reynolds and I were both in tears,” he said. “It was hard for him to let every single one of us go. But he knew that no one could take more than one year. By the time that year was done, you had given everything you could to it.”

As an assistant, Weldon often woke in the middle of the night with a start, wondering whether Price was all right.

“He would remind you frequently that you’re in charge of Reynolds Price’s life,” he said. “You felt that on your shoulders.”

Like many other assistants, Hendricks’s greatest fear was that he would be the last.

“Reynolds had no intention of ever dying, no intention of ever stopping,” Hendricks said. “If Reynolds was focused on getting the positive out of life, the thought of what could go wrong never escaped the assistant.”

Still, Hendricks never dreamed it would be him. In the weeks following Price’s heart attack, he was too distraught too sleep, lying awake for all but four or five hours each night. He continues to look after Price’s house.

“At night, when it’s dark and silent and I’m alone and I think back to what this place was, I’m just like, ‘Wow,’” he said. “I’m certainly heavy-hearted. But if I can look at each new day the way that Reynolds looked at each new day, it does help.”

Morell also tossed and turned as Price’s assistant, occasionally suffering from a nightmare that Price had been able to walk all along. Price never stopped coming to Morell in his sleep after their year together ended, and the appearances have grown more frequent following his death. Yet now, it is often a simple dream of conversation.

Their last chat was short and uncomplicated, a discussion of how they had been and the state of the weather. Fleschner’s last exchange with Price, a week before he passed away, was also brief.

“He sounded tired, so I didn’t want to keep him too long,” Fleschner said. “I actually think I said to him, ‘You mean a lot to me.’ I’m grateful I was able to do that.”

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