I was certain I was going to die. For six days the doctors struggled to find a diagnosis. I couldn’t walk and knew I wasn’t leaving Little Rock Baptist on my own. So many memories came flooding back. Every minute, every hour, I was thinking about my death or someone I hadn’t said enough to, a debt outstanding, words I needed to share.
Professor Mayes had been crucial to me as a writer. He wasn’t a creative writer himself. I’d taken an eight-week class of his one summer: Magic in the Short Story. If it earned me anything on my transcript other than elective credit, I can’t remember. Yet it advanced my fiction in ways I never told him, never told anyone until now. We read Malamud, Ozick, Singer, Steve Stern. We read “The Kugelmass Episode,” Viramontes, Randall Kenan. Professor Mayes mentioned the South Americans—Borges, Lispector, Garcia Marquez—but only to complain that his literature colleagues insisted such masters could only be included on syllabi designed by Spanish faculty.
A New Yorker who’d spent his professional life in Houston, he took two cigarette breaks during those four-hour summer seminars on the third floor of Roy Cullen. He complained about the AC, sure UH administrators were trying to save money. But at some point, every class period, he’d say, “As a form, the short story has room for the magical, when the writer chooses to find it.” This answered so many questions I had about stories, solved problems better than any quotes from Flaubert or Flannery O’Connor. Near the end of the term, I shared with him a story, something I never did with my lit professors; purportedly, they hated the creative writing faculty for overshadowing them and barely tolerated us students. I hadn’t even told my dissertation director, Jim Robison, about the story, “Ball of Confusion,” in which the biracial narrator discovers his great disappointment after he turns his whole family white. I asked Professor Mayes if this was the kind of thing he was talking about. He handed the story back and blew a great cloud of smoke on it. “You tell me, Mr. Williams,” he said. “You tell me.”
I didn’t know how old he was then. Forty would have been my guess. I was twenty-eight and never thought about death, but at fifty-three in my Little Rock Baptist bed I knew how little time I had left and wanted to reach out and thank him, because even though “Ball of Confusion” never appeared in my dissertation—or found an ending that satisfied me—I had found that space for magic in my three published books and more. And at no time in any interviews or essays had I ever thanked him.
Finding his number was easy. He still taught at UH, had achieved the rank of associate professor, suggesting only a moderate advance in his career. But, certain of my imminent death, I thought only of how much he would like hearing from me. He answered on the second ring. I didn’t bother with small talk—how are you; do you remember me—I told him my name and how he had been immeasurably helpful to me as a writer and that I felt ashamed for never having told him this.
Then he started to cough. The first one was so raspy and broken, I didn’t want to hear another, but many more followed. They escalated in volume and frequency so greatly that I was trying to determine how to call Harris County 911 from Pulaski County Arkansas and hoping to die soon so I would never have to tell anyone I had killed Professor Mayes.
Then he started laughing. “Jesus, Williams,” he said, “your faculty must walk all over you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re a dean, right? And you fell for my phony cough like nobody’s business.”
I was a Dean, inasmuch as one wasting away in a hospital gown is any job title they hold. But the fact that Professor Mayes knew my title suggested he’d kept up with me—on the basis of the A I earned in summer school (I think the only grade Mayes bestowed below an A went to the doofus who stopped showing up after griping about Mayes’s criminal failure to include fiction by our master, Don Barthelme). Excitedly, I actually raised up on my elbows in bed and said, “How did you know that I was a dean?”
“The picture from the alumni magazine helped. It was pasted up in the copy room for a couple of months.” He sounded raspy. Who still smoked? Professor Mayes said, “Now is there anything else? I have a class to prepare for.”
I shook my head, remembered it was a phone call and that I was dying. I didn’t share this with Professor Mayes. I thanked him for his time. He thanked me in a way that left things unclear if he truly appreciated what I had shared with him.
Another matter I wanted to discuss was whether I should carefully establish early if this narrative of clear facts and manipulated or outright invented details was memoir or a short story. But when I called back he didn’t answer. My three messages received no reply. And I never heard from Professor Mayes again.
Tom Williams’s short fictions have appeared in such publications as New World Writing, Five Points, New Flash Fiction Review, and John Dufresne’s textbook Flash! Writing the Very Short Story. He’s also published the novella, The Mimic’s Own Voice, a novel, Don’t Start Me Talkin’, and Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales. Find him on Twitter at @dubioustalents.