Illustration by Milano ChowWe talked with Don Herron, a friend of Willeford’s and the author of the biographyWilleford.Vice: How did Willeford get started writing?Don: He was stationed at Hamilton Air Force Base as a supply sergeant, and he was always talking about what he was going to do. He’d written a collection of poems, and he’d talk about the novels he was going to write, his theories about writing, and his admiration for Proust. Well, one day, one of these fellows goes, “Will you shut up? You’re never gonna write anything.” The gauntlet was thrown down. Willeford rented a room at the Powell Hotel that weekend, and he went there every weekend after that. That’s how he wrote his first novel.
Who were his favorite writers?He’d read anything; he didn’t care if it was “literary.” His favorite was Kafka. He had a complete set. But then he’d have Phillip K. Dick paperbacks lying around.What was he like in person?Friendly, funny—he was incredibly good socially. Of course, this was something he’d worked on—he joined Toastmasters and learned how to do public speaking. The only thing he disliked was someone who wasn’t socially adept.Did he have any tics or things he said all the time?He said “You know” all the time. He was like a valley girl or something.
n hospital language a patient does not urinate, micturate, pee, piss, or take a leak. He voids. Or, as in my case, he is unable to void. Hospital jargon is mid-Victorian. My hemorrhoids were not chopped out, hacked away, or operated upon. Instead, my asshole was dilated and debrided. There is no sex talk in a hospital either. Sex organs, male and female, when they are mentioned at all, are discussed formally, as elimination tools; nor is there, apparently, any distinction made between toilets for men and women. Whoever gets inside first has possession, and then there are no locks on the doors. If the doors were labeled, one suspects they would be called “Necessary Rooms,” the euphemism for the toilets of our Gilded Age. Several years ago, before I ever thought of entering a hospital, a friend told me that a nurse’s aide would give a man a slow handjob for five bucks. Unsurprised at the time, I filed the information away, thinking I might be able to use it in a novel someday. I have been sorry since that I failed to press my friend for details. On the disinterested outside, I had no reason to disbelieve him. But on the inside, watching these harried, grimly smiling nurses aides—probably the lowest-IQ occupational group of employees in the nation—rushing about inefficiently, but earning every cent of their $2.40 an hour, I wondered vaguely about how my friend had gone about getting his slow handjob. He would have had to draw them a picture. However, discounting the denseness of the nurse’s aides’ understanding, the lack of privacy, the hospital stench, and the permeating reek of indignant death—these factors in combination—drove all thoughts of and about sex from my mind during the two weeks of my stay. My friend, I believe, now, lied to me. On the morning they brought the old man into the four-bed ward to die, I was trying to void, straining slightly at irregular intervals, right hand holding my limp cock, my left holding the clammy metal “duck” beneath a covering sheet. And at ten AM, when they brought the old man in to die, I had been engaged in this heroic project for about 12 hours. Three packs of cigarettes, six minutes for each three-cent cigarette, had gone up in smoke, and the pressure on my bladder was intolerable. Any moment I expected the distended membrane to burst inside me like a wickedly pricked balloon which, in turn, would bloat me terribly with uremic poisoning, sudden death, and a happy release at last from suffering. Such was my fervent hope. A filled bladder can, or at least has been known to, burst after only eight swollen hours. At the 12-hour mark, I knew that I was literally tolerating the intolerable. The young blue-eyed intern who supervised the transfer of the old man from the wheeled cart to the bed across from mine winked at me and said, “This one ain’t long for the road.” The remark was callous, perhaps, but obvious. As the two black orderlies, assisted by two nurse’s aides, unrolled the tiny old man from the citron sheets (bright yellow sheets belonged to the emergency admission ward downstairs) onto the white bed, I nodded in agreement. The old-timer was as small as a 12-year-old child. His bony arms and legs were as thin and yellow as No. 2 pencils, and his wrinkled saffron skin was as scaly and scruffy as damp canary copy paper. A long orange rubber catheter hose was wrapped around his left leg, which needed some disentangling, and it terminated in a square, orange-colored urine receptacle which was placed on the floor beneath his bed. His white hair was plentiful, worn roached back from his forehead, and his heavy, bristle-stiff moustache matched his hair exactly. His fierce black eyes were recessed for fully an inch beneath his bony, shaggy white brows; his high-arched nose was regally aquiline and his false teeth had been removed for his comfort. His darting black tongue, together with his upturned chin and arching nose, gave the old man the appearance of a subdued but predatory hawk. As he raised a long skinny arm above his head, his curled fleshless fingers were like hairy talons feeling for a foothold on a tree branch. He wore a blue pajama jacket, piped in royal blue, but not the trousers, and a pair of white silk socks with embroidered black clocks. It had been several years since I had seen a pair of “clock sox,” although I remembered a time when they were considered the height of elegance. Over and over without pause, the old man repeated “Aie aie aie aie aie…” in a deep-throated whisper. I surmised that this wistful cry of pain had been continued over such a long period of time that the sounds no longer reached his conscious mind—the way an old, deaf dog barks sometimes, until one gently closes his mouth for him, because he cannot hear the barking. One of the nurse’s aides removed the clock sox. The old man’s feet were as blue as the piping on his pajama jacket. “Better put ’em back on,” her companion said. “His feet are probably cold.” Yes, I thought to myself, Socrates himself said that the cold began with his feet. The small ward suddenly filled with people as the intern finished the transfer and started out with the cart and the bundle of soiled yellow sheets. There was the regular day nurse, who issued the pills, a heavy-lipped, heavy-legged, heavy-eyelidded Cuban nurse, who spoke beautiful English and performed as an interpreter; and the two busy nurse’s aides. Others crowded in: The Franciscan priest, an aged white-robed nun, two 30ish Cuban women (the old man’s daughter and his sister-in-law), and their husbands, dignified young men in their 30s, with blond curly hair and pale blue eyes, both wearing work shirts and jeans. “Tell him,” the nun said to the Cuban nurse, “tell him to say, over and over again, ‘Forgive me, O Lord, for all my sins.’ It will make him feel better.” “Should he say it in Spanish or in English?” the Cuban nurse asked, and quite seriously, too. “Either way,” the nun said impatiently. “It doesn’t make any difference.” “Aie aie aie aie aie aie…” the old man whispered hoarsely. “Ask him,” the nun said, “if he knows the Little Joseph prayer.” The Cuban nurse put the question to the old man in Spanish. “Aie aie aie aie aie aie…” the old man whispered. “He knows it, I’m sure he does,” the old nun said to the Cuban nurse. “Just tell him to keep saying it over and over. It will make him feel better.” In Spanish, the Cuban nurse relayed the instructions. “Aie aie aie aie aie aie…” the old man replied. CONTINUED:
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