It was the 1st day of Bob Miklitsch’s Critical Theory class at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. I was in the middle of the 2nd row from the window wall. A southern Ohio stay-at-home mom of 4, I had finished a short teacher education certificate course of study at Rio Grande College (now the University of Rio Grande). It had somewhat prepared me for grad school after 23 years out of academia, but the vocabulary and concepts covered in Miklitch’s class were way out of my wheelhouse.
To my right, seated a row over and a seat behind me, was another student about my age. I didn’t talk to Will in class that first day but took note of him because he, too, was older than the other students. I drove each day to Athens from Jackson, 39 miles to the southwest via Rt. 32, the Appalachian Highway, and didn’t have much free time before or after classes, but when I did, I explored the shops along S. Court Street.
A couple of days after our first class, I ran into Will standing on the corner across from the main entrance to campus. Stocky of build with stringy brown hair pinned down over his ears by a baseball cap, he seemed both unkempt and unconcerned about his appearance.
In A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole describes his main character’s attire as an “. . .outfit [that] was acceptable by any theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life.” This description seems to capture both Will’s attire and demeanor in those days. Lesley from South Africa has said that this book and Wallace (as we called him) “are intertwined in her memory forever.”
Will recognized me from class, said hello and asked me if I wanted to go for a “coke.” It was a long time before I realized that this was Louisiana-speak for or “pop” as we call soft drinks in Ohio.
I said yes. We went to a place that’s no longer in Athens ans sat in a booth and got acquainted. This encounter and the subsequent “going for cokes” happened several times over the next few weeks. It was uncanny how we met so frequently—unplanned and unscheduled—on Court St.
A friendship grew out of these chance encounters, and it was one that was deeply meaningful for me. Despite his appearance, Will had a palpable sexual magnetism. This, and the fact that he truly listened, made me want to spend time with him.
We shared a common history—that of a generation of wanderers. He knew at least one person who had been in my circle of friends when I was in my 20s. He didn’t think much of him; nor did he think much of the man who fathered my oldest daughter without contributing in any way to her care. He was on my side. He had my back in everything. Most of all, he praised me for understanding critical theory (which I didn’t) and for being a “great mom.” Praise was new for me and very encouraging.
I was excited by how his mind worked and by his interest in theoretical physics. At times during and after our conversations I felt as though we would both, as Marlon Brando said in On the Waterfront, be “somebody.” His energy was electric.
That he had a girlfriend, Tracey, was a bit of a disappointment, but also a safeguard because it meant I couldn’t get too serious about him. I was, after all, still married and not really looking for divorce at that time. But meeting Will marked an important turning point in my life. He helped me reclaim a past—my 20s—which marriage and “respectability” had sent underground.
When I think of Will, I think of “You’ve Got a Friend” by James Taylor, specifically the lines “Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall/ All you’ve got to do is call/ And I’ll come runnin’/’Cus you’ve got a friend.”
He lived on the 5th floor of the Mill Street grad student housing. Because I lived so far from campus, I crashed at his apartment some nights when I was in the computer lab late and had an early morning class. For some reason he discovered he could roast a turkey, and on at least 2 occasions, this was in the oven when I showed up at his doorstep. On those nights, turkey and tequila were dinner.
I wasn’t a drinker and didn’t yet understand alcoholism. Though most of our conversations were fun, exciting, there was one dark night that he stood by the narrow window overlooking the flood plain below and considered jumping.
He was off to Nottingham during my 2nd year in grad school. I missed his weird humor, offbeat, accurate insights, his antics, his conversations and his encouragement. We wrote however, and in the summer of ’92, after I finished my MA, I visited him in England. Tracey was there. We went to the Lake District where we rented a car and toured Wordsworth’s house and a stone circle. I was the designated driver, which was huge for me because my husband was always belittling my driving. Will started our excursion in the front seat but in the end my proximity to the stone wall on the passenger side made him really nervous, so he traded seats with Tracey and sat in back for the rest of the journey.
We corresponded throughout his stay in England, and I wrote a letter on his behalf while he was in Jail.
When he returned from Nottingham, he landed again in southern Ohio for a while. I had introduced him to my friends Bruce and Janet Martin, who lived on the edge of a nature preserve nearby. They had a small 1-room trailer that they offered him for the summer, so he could work on his dissertation. I can’t remember how long he was there, but one day he spotted a 5-ft. black snake under the trailer, hightailed it up to Bruce and Janet’s, made Bruce go down to the trailer for his toothbrush and moved into a motel room in small town about 8 miles away. My son, who grew up around snakes, remembers him as the strange guy in the trailer who freaked out at the sight of one a friendly snake.
I was no longer married and was living in a small house several miles from Bruce and Janet and Will’s motel. We saw each other infrequently because he was working on his dissertation and I was teaching. One evening though, he was at my house with some dynamite weed. My kids were with their dad. We smoked, talked, laughed and cried. It was one of the most intimate, sensual, non-sexual experiences I’ve ever had, demonstrating perfectly what so many spiritual teachers say: “Emotions are meant to be experienced and then let go. They should flow through us as the wind, without hindrance. In this way we can enjoy even sorrow.”
The county fair is held in the town Will was staying in, and the carnies provided endless fascination for him. But the thing he was most amazed about was the Demolition Derby. To him this was the epitome of hillbilly: people intentionally crashing their cars into each other for fun.
Shortly after the fair ended Will took up residence in Vermont and then in Florida. We kept in touch by email (he sent poetry and stories) and evening calls. He always said that the evening was the hardest time for him to be alone, so he spent many hours in conversation with friends. I visited him at the Depot, in Newfane, while he was glamping at Zet’s, and at his home on Westminster West.
I have many more memories from the late ‘90s and the 1st decade of the current millennium but I’ll end with these: In March 1999, the stock market hit 10,000. I remember this only because Will went on and on about it one night. And on September 11, 2001, it was Will who called me at 9 in the morning to tell me about the attack.
Helen has talked about Will’s many “angels.” I suppose I, “Ohio Nan,” was one of them. But men can be angles too. Although definitely not saintly, Will was my angel at a time when I needed someone to tell me I was not only ok but also great. He taught me many things—both directly and indirectly. He was a catalyst for change, and I wouldn’t be who and where I am today if I hadn’t met him.