His writing didn’t contain the trickery and the sheen that the larger American poetry audience demands—and things never became easy for him, that’s why he continued to write very well.
I had been corresponding with Bill Wantling since the days of the mimeo revolution, since the days of Blazek and Ole, when I noticed his work and some letters became exchanged. I wrote Wantling so many letters that he dumped me into a quickie novel using portions of my correspondence as my speech. I was a washed-up actor who lived in Hollywood and took pills and drank overmuch (actually I live right off of Hollywood Blvd. and Western in the whorehouse district but I’ve never done much acting). The years went on, the letters thinned, I lived with different women but Bill stayed on with his wife Ruthie who was his sanity, his love, his survival factor. We both finally had some luck with our writing; I even began to pay the rent with mine; Bill continued to work the miserable jobs when he was straight, and he was very much discovered in England and New Zealand—his writing didn’t contain the trickery and the sheen that the larger American poetry audience demands—and things never became easy for him, that’s why he continued to write very well.
With Ruthie bailing water, mending the sails, and catching dinner off the port side, Bill became universitized. The G.I. Bill helped too. It scared the shit out of me, Wantling going through all that college, because he had a hard and natural way of laying down a line across the page and I thought the ivy might diminish him. Not so. Anyhow, he didn’t go long enough to acquire a professorship—one-year tenure, non-renewable. That’s how I met him. He put the screws and torches to the English dept. to have me come out to Illinois State and give a reading. He managed to get me $500 and since the horses were running badly, I went.
On that plane it got fearful, I mean, thinking what might happen. I had made it a policy to avoid writers as much as possible; they weaken one another, partying together, gossiping together, bitching together. Almost every writer I’ve met believes that he is immortal and neglected when the fact is that they simply write very badly. Most writers are hardly delicious people, and flying out I thought, well, Christ, here it will happen again, I’ll meet him, dislike him, then begin to dislike his poems. Bill always said examine the writer, not the man. But I am emotional and I can’t help examining both. Then too, I thought, how about I’m a bad dresser. I dislike clothing stores. I had on a coat 15 years old, a pair of cheap pants that didn’t fit, shoes down at the heels, and my dead father’s overcoat, 2 sizes too large. Also my hair doesn’t stay combed, I don’t get haircuts, hair styles, I just give a woman a scissors now and then and say, go ahead. If there’s a woman around.
From out of Chicago I had to take one of those propeller-driven jobs that all the passengers joke about as they ride along. But you can get a drink on them too. And the plane rocks and the stewardess bumps you with hips like promises. That’s bad writing, isn’t it?
Well, I was the last one off. A wind came from the back and blew all the hair down in front of my face. I hunched on in and there they were standing, Bill and Ruthie. I don’t exactly remember the conversation, the openers, but I got a feeling of kindness from both of them. I liked them right off. Bill noted that he’d never quite seen anybody dressed like me but he said it almost as a compliment. We got in and drove off, “Your voice is so soft,” said Ruthie. “And you don’t chatter,” said Bill. Bill had the vibes, the good vibes, you could feel them right off, he was surrounded by them, rays, blessed easy rays. We stopped someplace for beer and went right on in to Ruthie’s house. They were in a process of divorce. He had written me: “Blew it with Ruthie, finally, she’d been putting up with my shit & vomit & dope for 9 years, couldn’t take it any longer.
There was something at 2 p.m. at the university, part of the show. I went over and scratched a few students and then we came back. The reading was at 8. We drank some more beer and I noticed that Bill was a listener, not a talker; so was I. So it was quiet, but not that kind of quiet; a comfortable quiet—no push, no shove, no megaphones. We went over to Bill’s room on skid row for a while. He had a front upstairs apartment over Bloomington Gun, Main St., Bloomington. There was space and it was light. It would be a good place to write, probably was. Then we went back to the house. More beer, at my insistence. The professor in charge of the reading came over; he was enthusiastic, childish, but likeable; bubbling but sincere. Bill offered me some pills in the hall but I declined, “Bad stomach, kid, that stuff tears me.” The professor advised me not to drink too much more, then we went out to dinner. I suggested someplace where we might get beer. All during the talking and the planning I was very conscious of Bill; I felt him there always, the rays coming off, good solid grade-AAA rays, soul, if you wish. He had a simple manner of saying things but everything he said lifted the game up out of the muck, made it gently human. There are all manners of ways that men tip off little hatreds, prejudices, petty insanities, jealousies; Bill showed none of these. Don’t let me make a god of him; he was simply a very good human being and I liked him, much.
We made the reading, I read, we came back to the house. Some of the crowd followed. Students, a couple of professors, some others, unknown. The drinks came about. The co-eds were lovely, all the traps were there. I am always relieved after a reading; it’s a dirty job to me, I sweat it. I began drinking heavily, the relief flowed into me, and I began to “chatter.” It was expected, part of the proceedings but the easiest part—I already had my check. I mocked the literary scene… “Oh, I say, have you read Lawrence? No, not Josephine, not the guy from Arabia, but the guy who milked cows and women…” I went on. It saved me from answering questions about myself. Once during the night I reached out and got a handful of Bill’s hair: “and this fucking junky here, what’s he good for?” It got quiet. “You know,” I said, “there’s one poem Bill wrote that really put the chill bumps on my arms….Bill, the one where your girl offers to do some tricks so you can score, and you get mad, cry, and she says—‘Don’t cry, daddy, it’s just another way to burn a sucker.’” Then we got on some of the rest of Bill’s stuff and we all felt better….
In the morning Ruthie had to work, so Bill and I were alone in the house. We were both sick, Bill more so that I. We both managed to get down a warm beer and then I suggested we try some soft-boiled eggs. Bill boiled them too long. After we ate I heard him suddenly run out into the yard; he said, “Bukowski,” then vomited. His physical shape was bad. He finally got down some bread soaked in milk. “We’d better go easy, kid,” I told him, “my life plan is to live to the year 2000.” “Hell, me too,” he said, “I had a dream I was going to die in the year 2000.” He even had it down to the hour and the minutes of the day. I went in and took a bath; warm baths help me when I’m sick. I finished that, had another beer. Bill still looked bad; it was the pills, the shit. It got darker and darker. Ruthie phoned and said there was a tornado on the way. It looked like midnight and the wind blew, blew. I had another beer and made plane reservations out. Ruthie came by for lunch and Bill said, “Bukowski is resilient, a resilient son of a bitch; he’s got the body of a 19-year-old.” Two poets came by for the next night’s reading: a young girl and a man in his mid-thirties. They began talking, non-stop talking…and the talk was not good. I began to appreciate Bill’s easy way more and more. Bill walked out of the bathroom. “Bukowski, did you masturbate when you took a bath?” “No.” “Good, I won’t have to wash the tub.” Ruthie went back to work. The professor came and took the girl poetess off to some function. The guy talked on.
Bill came out of the bathroom. “Listen, man, you haven’t stopped talking since you got here. It’s been an hour.”
“Well, that’s better than mumbling. All you do is sit around and mumble.”
Bill had to make class. The professor and the girl poetess came back. Bill strapped this thing on his back.
“What the hell’s that, Bill?” I asked.
“I carry my books and papers in there. I ride my bicycle to class.”
“Oh, come on, I’ll drive you,” said the professor. “There’s a tornado coming out there.”
“It’s all right, I’ll make it.” He walked over to me. “I don’t know how to say goodbye,” he said. “Don’t then,” I answered. There was a light handshake and he was out the door and onto his bike. That was April 3rd. Bill Wantling died at 12:15 p.m. May 2, 1974.
I was sitting typing a poem when the phone rang. Ruthie told me. After she finished, I phoned my girl who worked as a lady bartender. “Wantling died,” I said. “Ruthie just phone me. Wantling died.” The tears rolled out of me; I shook. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I told you how much I liked him.” I hung up. It was true. Bill had been one of the few men who had ever come through to me. I was used to death, I knew about death, I wrote about death. I went out and got some booze and got very drunk. The next morning I was all right; it had settled; it was the first rush of it that had confused me.
At the end Bill was concentrating on Style. He knew about style, he was style, he had style. He once asked me in a letter, “What is style?” I didn’t answer the question. I had written a poem called “Style” but I guess he felt that the poem didn’t answer it entirely, but I still ignored the question. I know what style is now that I met Bill.
Style means no shield at all.
Style means no front at all.
Style means ultimate naturalness.
Style means one men alone with billions of men about.
I’ll say goodbye now, Bill.
From Portions From A Wine-Stained Notebook: Uncollected Stories and Essays, 1944-1990. Copyright 2008 by the Estate of Charles Bukowski. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.