Not Half Bad: Remembering My Friendship with John Goulet

1.
He walked into the room, leaning hard on a cane, and hung his leather jacket on the back of his chair. He was big at the middle; buttons on his sweater vest hung tough across his belly, and he wore a T-shirt under his vest, which I thought was funny. He pulled a stack of papers from his briefcase and flapped it on the table in front of him, taking one copy then sliding the stack to his left. We all took a copy. It was a one-sided photocopied syllabus that looked like it was originally punched on a typewriter. He looked down at the sheet in front of him; white tufts of hair surrounded his dome like a Julius Caesar wreath.

He cleared his throat.

“Hi, I’m John Goulet. You can call me John.”

He recited this and the following syllabus like he had a thousand times. His voice was dynamic—calm sometimes, gravelly or squeaky. The entire syllabus covered just one side of the page. It was a schedule, a reading list and a warning not to be late. He wouldn’t be posting online or spending much time on email. The objective of the class was simple: for the students to read and talk about stories, to put words down on the page and to ask questions.

He had rules: Don’t talk about movies or television, and don’t say, “This isn’t really my thing, but…” Which made sense to me. The stories we workshopped were rarely anyone’s “thing.”

John was funny. His hands and face were always chapped. He wore a mustache under a round nose and glasses that made his eyes small. Every so often he would pull his glasses off and polish the lenses on his shirt but continue talking, effortlessly, like he was repeating lines from a play he’d acted a thousand times but still loved.

At the end of class, John said, “OK. Tear off half a sheet. It doesn’t even have to be half a sheet! Write something about yourself, what you’d like me to know about you.”

It was a raw time. I had an infant son named Theodor and had just finished a two-year stint at the U.S. Cellular store downtown. On that day in the classroom, it had been two years since I stepped foot in Curtain Hall, a cement building, too brutal for brutalism, a couple blocks from Lake Michigan on the UWM campus. I had dropped out of school twice already. I couldn’t quit again. At 29 years old, I had to make something work.

I was a part of things in Milwaukee. I played in a band. I directed music videos and my film, Heavy Hands, had premiered the year before at the Raindance Film Festival in London. After Theodor was born, things changed. I lost touch with a lot of old friends (which I didn’t understand), and my band kicked me out (which I did). So on the first day of school, I was just returning to the world. I felt far from my goals and alien.

I wrote: My name is Sean. I have a baby son. I’ve been away. I’m excited to be here.

2.
Workshop is funny. You don’t know what is helpful or what anyone is saying much of the time, but you read the story, say some things, and try to work it out. Some of us talked; some of us showed off; some of us missed the point entirely. John nodded along like he had a million times before, sometimes holding his cane over his lap, sometimes drinking coffee.

At the end of critique John would hold the story in front of him and look on it like it was a photo. “Well, we have some interesting characters. The fire at the beginning is captivating, but some of us were wondering if the metaphor really worked by the end. Overall, some really nice imagery—grammar is a fixable problem. Would the writer like to say a few words?”

The previously anonymous writer would step in. We would all nod, and John would tell us what we needed for the next week, satisfaction in his voice that we learned something. Then he’d say, “OK. Thank you, everyone.”

We’d leave: to the bus, to the union Burger King, to another class in another building, to the library, to our houses just off campus. John would walk slowly to the elevator, pushing on his cane, then across the windy parking lot where he would lower himself into his car.

3.
Twice a semester, John held conferences in his office on one of the top floors of Curtain Hall. It was a nice office. Carpeted with full bookshelves. It wasn’t like other offices, where books slid onto the floor, where wastebaskets overflowed with paper coffee cups, where The Far Side comics were crookedly tacked to the wall. It was simple and clean with two long picture windows overlooking Downer Avenue, the long grey of the lake and the wall of bursting yellow, orange, and red trees that stood between the two. It was the most beautiful view. Cars moved down the street, students across the sidewalk. I had lived in Milwaukee for 10 years and never imagined a life that peaceful.

During most conferences, I would remark on the view and, for a few moments, space out, hungover or exhausted because I stayed out late with my friends from the restaurant, or because I got up early with my son—usually both. I had stopped working at the cellphone store and got a job waiting tables, but I felt more trapped than ever. Bills were stacking up. I was unreasonably annoyed by my girlfriend, Heather, and son. I had plans before any of this happened: Alaska, Colombia, Colorado, Argentina—somewhere! But I couldn’t do that now! Now I was just some dope in a classroom, and any chance I had was gone; I had accidentally kicked it off a cliff! What was going to happen—

“Sean, are you OK?” John asked.

“Yes.” I looked back from the window.

“OK. I was saying your story is good. It’s funny. The main character is compelling and believable. Have you ever thought about applying to grad school?”

“Um, yeah. I was kind of taking it one day at a time.”

“OK. There are some good ones out there. I went to Iowa 40 years ago. I don’t know anyone there now, but I think that’s a very good program. You don’t want to go just anywhere. But I could write a letter for you.”

One of John’s books, Oh’s Profit, was behind a glass case next to the elevator on the fourth floor. The copy was old and the cover was fading. Other works by other faculty members were in the glass case, too, much newer, like they could have been placed yesterday.

“I think you have what it takes, but who knows,” John said.

I had been thinking of going to grad school. I thought the book I was working on, a first-person narrative about a new father working in a cellphone store in Milwaukee and suffering from apocalyptic dreams, had some legs.

“I’ll think about it.”

John had a way of casually motivating me. I would leave those meetings feeling lifted and head to the cafeteria for a popcorn-chicken wrap before taking the bus home.

4.
I crammed out a draft of the book in the year we worked together, and when I emailed John over the summer, he said he was being forced/forcing himself into retirement. He explained it in his usual noncommittal, nonvindictive way.

“Well, they don’t have a spot for me this semester. I was only teaching the one night class as it was, and I don’t know how much longer I want to do that anyway.”

Heather got a day job, so I watched Theodor all day. In the summer when I didn’t have class, I would walk for hours with him in the stroller. Sometimes I sang to him so he would nap; sometimes we would go to the library or ice cream parlor. In the grass at Humboldt park, he would toddle on the hill in grass-stained overalls, long blond hair tumbling on the wind. Theodor would laugh and fall. I would give him crackers and juice and listen to Stephen King books on tape or podcasts about Charles Manson.

Most days I didn’t talk to anyone.

Unless John bought me lunch at Harry’s on Oakland. Then, sometimes, I’d tell him about my family, how I was laying off booze. Sometimes, I’d tell him I was having another child, and we’d drink bourbon. John would laugh, wearing short-sleeved breezy button ups. The front windows on the restaurant open.

Sometimes, he was the best friend I had.

John paid me to do a read on his new novel, a captivating but messy noir about a private detective in New Haven. I figured the job was more about helping me out, but he seemed genuinely pleased with my thorough notes.

We would talk about teaching. He told me that teaching made his life better, though he hadn’t planned to do it very long. He met friends through teaching. “Like you,” he’d gesture, which always made me feel good.

A couple times, he told me how when he taught James Joyce; he’d say, “You know I love Joyce and I’ve taught Joyce a hundred times over the years. That’s not half bad.”

He was how I imagined old writers to be, and as our friendship grew, I found myself trying to mimic his attitudes, his occasional defeatism, only to have him wave me off, stating: that I was a nut job, that I had my whole life ahead of me, my whole career ahead of me, and I should get on with it.

5.
Once, I brought my family to his house for dinner. He also invited another writer, another former student, Chris Fink, and his family. We sat on the back patio area, and John’s wife Susan got us drinks while we talked about school, writing, and we stayed a long while like that. Theodor and Chris’s daughter playing in the yard. John and Susan told us about Susan’s granddaughter, who they would talk to on Skype.

Chris was John’s student in the ’90s and John told me I would like him and his work, and I did. They talked about people from the old days. I think they were wilder back then, more drinking, more carrying on. I imagined, in the days after the dinner, what those classes were like. John sitting at the head of the table in the same room in Curtain.

Who else had John taught? Who else remembered him?

6.
Before he was really sick, I visited John in a hospital room. He emailed me the day before my visit and asked me to bring a handle of bourbon, which I ignored. John was in rehab after a knee surgery. I brought my equipment to record his story, “The Drowning Bear.” The story was from a collection John was trying to have published, so far without luck, and was about a man coming across a bear that had fallen through the ice. The man thinks he recognizes the bear from his dreams years ago.

I held a microphone just under John’s chin as he read the story propped up in his hospital bed. He read the story perfectly by the third take. If people just listened to this story and how he read it, I thought, his collection would be published, no problem.

We talked for a while, and he read the new intro to his novel out loud. I gave him some pages I was working on. This was what we had. We were writers. We were friends.

“Did you bring the bourbon?”

“No. I did not. It’s important to me you live. But it’s more important that I’m not the one that kills you,” I said.

7.
Three years after I met John, I moved to New York City with Heather, Theodor, and a new baby, Sawyer. I emailed with John; we stayed in touch. Then, for a couple months, I didn’t hear from him. I emailed to see how he was doing, how the newest draft of his noir was going. A few weeks later he responded. John had stage 4 throat cancer and a few months to live. He asked me to do another pass on his book. I said, “Yes, of course.”

We talked on the phone and he sounded good, in better spirits than I expected.

“They are going to try this chemotherapy. The doctor says it will be a miracle if it works. So I guess that’s what I have going for me.”

“Fuck, that sucks.”

“Yeah, it’s crummy.”

We both laughed. What could we say?

John sent presents for my kids on Christmas.

8.
The last time I talked to John, he sounded faint, far off and beaten. I was driving an old mail van full of restaurant supplies from Bushwick to Park Slope for work. It was dark and cold as the old van beat down broken streets, side to side. The van smelled like gasoline. I had one earphone bud in, and though John’s voice was weak, he was right there in my ear.

“It’s not what you want to be doing. You want your life, your freedom,” John said.

I felt like he was warning me not to die. There were no jokes this time.

“If it means anything, I’ll make sure your book is right.”

“I want that. I want you to do that.”

We both hung up, and I knew that was it.

9.
I sent John an email and got a reply from his wife. John is no longer responsive, the email said. I talk to his son on the phone; John is in hospice, out of consciousness much of the time, he said. It won’t be long. I checked the internet for an obituary. I wished a dumb wish—that he would turn it around.

I saw him, skinny probably, his throat invaded, his body invaded by a sickness that seemingly takes us all. I wished he wasn’t dying.

Even when I accepted he was dying, I thought there was time.

I never believed it would come.

We always assume the world will wait for us. We look forward to our best moment, when we’ll really see someone and share something. We’re unaware that our best moments have already happened: former students and teacher sharing drinks, recording stories at a rehab center, Reubens at Harry’s, talking in an office with a beautiful view.

Now that John is gone, I know how sweet that moment really was, watching the wind twirl tops of Autumn trees from his window, lost in a fretful daydream about fatherhood, about the unexpected turn my life had taken, as John tried to tell me something.

John Goulet was the author of two novels and many short stories. He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and taught creative writing at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.