David Foster Wallace Said I Spoke to Him Like He Was a Dog

April 3, 2022   •   By Michelle Dowd

I LEFT A voice message for Dave the day he died. [1] I don’t know if he heard it. He didn’t call back. It wouldn’t have made any difference one way or the other to what happened next, but it’s not the message I would have left if I had known what he was planning. If I had known, I would have said goodbye.

I met Dave six years earlier, under an indoor stairwell at UCLA during the L.A. Times Festival of Books, where we had both darted, looking for a place to avoid the crowd. After awkward apologies, we exchanged a few stories, and I told him about the students at the community college where I taught. He said I reminded him of his mother back when he was a young boy. That made me feel safe.

A few weeks later, we ran into each other in the Honnold Library at the Claremont Colleges, where I had gone as an undergrad and where he then taught. I told him I liked The Onion article about his 67-page break-up letter his girlfriend couldn’t get through and he snapped at me, expounding how it wasn’t true. I laughed. He looked increasingly uncomfortable.

“Of course it’s not true, it’s The Onion,” I said. He stared at me awkwardly. “Come on,” I nudged, “it’s an honor to be lampooned like that. You’ve made it into popular culture!”

“Do I know you?” he asked.

“Not yet,” I said, “but we’ve met.”

He called the next day during my office hours, explaining how he put two and two together and had some books for my students. I laughed and we began a dialogue that would continue for the next several years. Each time he emailed or left a phone message (which he invariably began with, “Um, so the thing is”), we would continue wherever he had left off, as if in a conversation that never ended.

When I stopped by his office to ask his advice on the literary journal I was starting at our college, my 12-year-old son, Storm, waited in the hallway, sitting cross-legged against the wall, reading the Banana Yoshimoto novel Goodbye Tsugumi. Dave commented that kids were entering college younger and younger these days and chuckled to himself, then insisted I bring him in. He asked Storm questions about Banana Yoshimoto and then handed him Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, suggesting haphazardly he might enjoy it, and then, in that perfunctory way of his, asked him to choose anything else he wanted from the collection housed on his office’s 12 heartily stocked shelves. He removed and then returned several individual titles until, upon closer inspection, he concluded he had far too many books to ever get through and Storm must choose at least three and keep them as a token of their shared interests.

He gave me a key to his office so I could borrow books or grade papers while waiting for my son. The department secretary thought I was his interior decorator.

In exchange for the access to his books, I tried to add some color to Dave’s office and his work life. He told me he was washed up, that he would never write the way he had when he was young. I told him maybe he could be a mentor, that there’s divinity in that, too, how opening the gates for younger writers is its own form of gift. He said he wasn’t generous like that, the way his mom and I were, that nurturing people wasn’t enough.

Sometimes when he rambled and paced, I would use the hand gesture I had perfected with my dogs and command him to sit. When he complied, I would use my gentlest voice to tell him, “Good boy,” and we would sit in silence and I would try not to laugh.

I told him nurturing is just another word for paying attention, and he knew how to pay attention better than anyone I knew.

“Paying attention is exhausting,” he said, “but I would stand in a long line to get into your office hours to pay attention to what you have to say.”

Of course, standing in line is inherently exhausting, so Dave didn’t often do it. I would visit his office while waiting for my son, and he would continue to call during my office hours instead of coming in, asking me questions about my students and my dogs, almost interchangeably. I reviewed his syllabi and reminded him what students want most is our enthusiasm, much the way our dogs do. I worshiped the way he responded to my thoughts, the way vocabulary fluttered from his mouth as if from the sky. He was an older artist, at the height of his craft, while I was a young mother, bound to the banalities of the earth. He was idealistic. I was pragmatic. When he told me I talked to him the way I talked to my dogs, I wasn’t offended.

How does the heart reconcile itself to its feast of losses?

When I was nine, my friend and I rescued a baby duckling and nurtured him back to health along the Mississippi River. We loved Sippi and we coddled him, and because he had imprinted on us, we believed he loved us in return.

We didn’t want to put Sippi in a cage, so we made a small leash with a soft wide leather loop that hung gently around his neck. We took turns leading him, though it was hardly necessary, because everywhere we went, Sippi followed us willingly. We were two little girls with one little duck between us, and for a few weeks, we saw ourselves as maternal, as indispensable as water. We walked with tender pride along the river, radiant with the kind of confidence that comes with being needed.

I want to tell you as Sippi grew, we began to feel more and more ridiculous, leading him along campgrounds on a leash, that, eventually, he began to pay more attention to the natural world around him than to us, and we realized we were holding him back from being a wild duck. I want to tell you we shooed him away along the river, watched him approach other ducks with trepidation, waited patiently until he was ready, cheering when he flapped his wings and flew toward the other ducks, that we watched him go, crying hot self-sacrificial tears.

Some goodbyes are like that.

But the truth is, Sippi died in a campground as a duckling. We let him eat grass with pesticides and he went limp and we held him and watched him convulse until he was stiff, eyeballs open, judging us.

Some goodbyes are like that.

My dad raised me to believe we are what we accomplish, that what matters isn’t who we are, but what we do. He said we’re all paper cups, disposable and replaceable, that the work we contribute to the world is what we hold in our cups, that the work we do is what we’re worth.

Dave also told me his value was in his work.

The man who would have become my grandfather (had he lived long enough to see his son grow up) battled depression and died by his own hand when he was 46, just like Dave. Neither my dad nor my grandmother would speak of him. But we grew up with his ghost, a specter haunting the house, reminding my dad where his own story would end if he ever let down his guard.

I let down my guard under the UCLA stairwell in 2002 and I’ve yet to put it back up. Unlike Dave, who held tightly to the brilliance of his work, I’ve emptied the water from my paper cup over and over again — into my children, my students, my dogs, the earth. What’s wrong with being ordinary? Where’s the shame in being of use?

I told Dave we couldn’t spend our lives hiding under stairwells, avoiding our ghosts. But maybe I was wrong.

My dog sleeps under the stairwell in our 1920s home, curling around his darkness. I pour coffee, sit next to him, and watch him breathe. My cup holds more than the money I’ve earned, the career I’ve forged, or the memories of men I loved and couldn’t keep. When I climb out from the stairwell to face the day, I lift my cup toward the sun and let it burn into the hollow spaces where I used to be. This goodbye is like that.

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Michelle Dowd is a journalism professor and contributor to The New York Times, Alpinist, Catapult, and other national publications. Her memoir Forager will release fall 2022 with Algonquin.

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[1] David Foster Wallace hanged himself in his garage on September 12, 2008.