Did you hear about Bill? That was all the text said.
No, I hadn’t heard. But with those words alone, I knew. I knew that it was something bad anyway.
He passed away. The next text came through before I even had a chance to respond.
I just saw him a few days ago. I typed back, after a while. And then I sat down at my desk, and put my head down and I wept.
“Would you rather be a big fish or a little fish, Nicole?” Bill Linn had asked me, as I sat in his little office, amidst the piles of books and empty cans of peanuts. I thought about it for a minute, imagining the way a goldfish opens and closes his mouth, swimming in circles in his bowl.
I didn’t want to be a fish at all. I wanted to be a writer.
We were interrupted by a knock on his office door. Professor Linn stood up, confused for a second.
“You called for help?” The boy from IT at the door was no more than 20 and had a head of thick curly black hair. He was clearly a student too, a student that had somehow had the misfortune to be assigned to service the computers of the English Professor’s wing.
“Yes. Yes. I can’t get this thing to cut and paste.” Professor Linn said, gesturing helplessly toward the brand new Apple computer on his desk. “Do you know how to fix that sort of thing?” he asked the boy, uncertainly.
“I do.” said the boy, trying to hide a smile.
Thirty minutes later, the Professor had finally learned how to right click the mouse and boy with the curly hair seemed to be seriously reconsidering his future career in University IT.
“Where were we?” He sat back in his chair. His head was small on his shoulders, as though his neck had disappeared into his body. His trademark sport coat with the leather patches seemed to swallow him up whole. Before I opened my mouth to speak, he regained the conversation on his own. Lucidly, and with confidence.
“You should go to graduate school somewhere that will be glad to have you. You deserve that.” He sounded so very confident that he invoked a welling certainty within me. But for some reason it was awkward to hear such kindness, such generosity. To ease my own discomfort, I steered the conversation back to neutral territory.
“How are you feeling, Bill?” I asked, surprised that I had used his first name, for the first time out loud. But that was how he always had identified himself, on the telephone and in email.
Hello, Nicole. It’s Bill Linn.
Hello Professor Linn.
“I’m not feeling well. My mind races.” He answered loudly, in the frank way he always did when it was just us alone. He did not lower his voice, despite the office door being open. “I don’t sleep.”
“It’s the curse of creativity. Every writer I know is an insomniac.” I wink at him.
“No.” He put his hands to his temples. “It’s different this time. It’s different now.” It did not seem different to me. He was always the same. Sadder, maybe. More anxious. But this was how I knew him.
That was the last time I saw him.
After I get the text, after I cry for him and for myself, I think hard, about that last time. About his words. It’s different now.
And I think about the first time I saw him.
“You make too many references to being old in your work, in class.” He said, as he stopped me in the hall, a few weeks into our first class together. That semester it was Advanced Creative Writing. I was 32 years old, a full decade beyond nearly every other student in the class. But over thirty years younger than the professor. “Don’t apologize for who you are.” He didn’t seem so old then, but maybe that is because, at the end, he seemed to have aged so much.
“I’m not sure what I’m doing.” I told him, which felt strange to say in the halls of a college building. I felt like an imposter. “I’m not sure what I’m doing here.”
“You’re writing good poetry. That’s what you’re doing.” He nodded his head, as though that was the end of it, the end of it all. And his small figure retreated in the direction of his office.
After that, I’d look up his classes first at registration time. Whatever Professor Linn was teaching, I would be taking. Every class was in adventure into his mind, like Kerouac’s On The Road—a strange and beautiful trip. The things he said put other people off, made the younger students cringe. But he fascinated me.
In a class on English Studies: That was about the time I stopped believing in God. I just didn’t know how a figure so wonderful, so kind, could create a world with so much suffering.
In an Independent Study in Writing: I don’t know how to edit your feelings, Nicole. I don’t even understand them. I think this could be good, though. I just can’t tell.
In a Survey of Anglo-Irish Literature: James Joyce wrote the best short story ever written, class. The Dead. Even now, over 100 years later, it is still the best.
After that last class, after he talked about Joyce, I went home and fished my copy of the The Dubliners from my backpack. Then I locked myself in my bedroom, while my children clamored for dinner. I flipped to the last short story, The Dead, the one Professor Linn had spoken so lovingly about and I gobbled it down.
It was a cataclysmic experience. The lines were overwhelming.
“Why is it that words like these seem dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?”
“Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”
After I read it, I slumped against the door, my head felt light and dizzy with the simple impossibility that I would never write words as synchronously heartbreaking and wonderful as those.
“We’re STARVING OUT HERE!” My son banged on the door, startling me. And I emerged, to make dinner. Reminding myself to tell Professor Linn how fervently I agreed with him, how perfectly James Joyce captured it all. The heavy, heady loss of love and dying.
But I didn’t tell him. The next day in class we had moved on to another author, another book.
So I never did tell him about The Dead.
After Bill died, after I got that text and I thought about the last time and the first time I saw him and all the times in between— I thought of that story. I went to find that book, dog-eared and smudged on my bookshelf, with a million other relics from the classes we took, together.
I locked myself in the bedroom again and sat on the carpeted floor, with my back against the door. But the house was quiet this time.
In my hands, I held that book, The Dead and slowly, with my fingers numb, I flipped the thin pages.
Every minute, I was closer to dying and every minute my professor was already dead. I did not want to be a fish, or a student or a mother or a writer at that minute, then. I wanted to be a little girl, to have someone kiss me soft to sleep and tell me that endings were only beginnings, that once the story is done, it only starts over again.
But no one was coming to tell me those things. No one was coming at all.
On the written pages in my hand, it was snowing and outside my window, it was too cold to snow. My eyes drifted to the last page of the book, to one line that seemed inconsequentially purposeful.
The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.
On the other side, out in the hall, I finally heard the heavy footsteps of my children. “Mama?” “Mama, where are you?”
I closed the book and opened the door, to show them I was still there.
And I was done with crying, then.
in loving memory of Dr. William Linn