It so happens that Michael Woodcock, whose painting St. Joseph’s Day appears as the cover of The Sleep Garden, also designed the cover of my first book of poems, a lifetime ago. It’s my hope that what follows will let others know how important he was to me and to everyone who knew him.
Awhile ago, in 2013, on Easter, after finishing dinner and observing it was still light outside, I decided to take a drive to the small hospital where my old friend Michael Woodcock lay dying. When I’d visited Michael a few days earlier, he’d drifted in and out of consciousness, but I thought this time there was a chance he might be able to say a few words, or listen, nod, or something. If not, I told myself, at least I’ll see him. The place Michael had landed, courtesy of some cost-effective insurance plan, was called a hospice but it didn’t look like any hospice I’d ever imagined. It was just a shabby, ordinary room in an extended care facility (a de facto hospice in itself, I guess), with the walk to his room a gauntlet of drooling ancients, abandoned, confused, or asleep in their wheelchairs in doorways and along the sides of the halls. Worst of all—at least to me—the staff, the nurses and the aides, had no idea who Michael was, what a remarkable person was passing away in their midst. I wanted to tell them, but of course it wouldn’t have helped.
I got to his room to find Michael in bed, lying on his back like an upturned boat. Always a big man, as his liver ceased to function, he had grown larger more full of fluid and his skin strained to enclose it all. He was unconscious, with an oxygen mask over his face, struggling to breathe, but at least, as far as I could tell, he was out of the terrible pain he’d been in earlier. His gray beard poked out the sides of the plastic mask like mattress stuffing and his eyes were shut. His wife said hello. She had been there for two weeks straight, sleeping in the bed next to his, feeding him, touching him, and she looked very, very tired. After a few minutes she asked if I would be there long enough for her to run home—about ten minutes away—and take a shower. “Of course,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
So she left and I sat holding Michael’s hand, watching him breathe. His breaths weren’t the rasping last breaths of the dying I had heard at other times, but they weren’t regular ones, either. There would be a breath, and then a pause just long enough for me to worry, and then he’d breathe again. Strangely, I found myself relaxing. It was enough just to be where I was, with him, and, for a change, words were unimportant. I’d brought a book to read to him, but realized that in order to turn the pages I would have to let go of his hand, so I just sat and held on, and listened to him taking in and expelling air. After a while his breathing got easier, and it seemed to me that somehow, even though he wasn’t conscious, I was helping him. Then his breaths got so easy I couldn’t even be sure if he was breathing at all, and I removed the oxygen mask to check. There was nothing. I felt for his pulse, and there was nothing there as well. His eyes had opened, so I shut them and kissed his forehead. “Good-bye,” I said, called for a nurse, and about that time his wife walked in, and she spent a long time crying.
The fact is that Michael had been dying for some time. About ten years earlier he’d had to retire from his job as an art professor and ever since, between seeing doctors, had spent more and more time in the garage he’d turned into a studio behind his house. He needed dental work, too, but couldn’t go because every time they touched his gums with a pick they wouldn’t stop bleeding. To me his studio looked like a mini barn, an art barn, because it was packed, floor to ceiling, with books and canvasses. It had its own small bathroom, and in later years, a bed. Toward the end he hardly left it, in part because he couldn’t go anywhere without his wheelchair, but also I think because he liked being there. It was his world, the one where he painted, made prints, and stared at his works-in-progress hung on the walls. This staring was necessary because in many ways Michael’s art was based on elaborate jokes, public and private, and it was important for him to strike the exact balance that was needed. For example, Michael liked to find a road sign, make a life-sized copy, and then replace the original with his copy. Or sometimes he would just put his copy next to the original and wait for Caltrans to haul it away the art and leave the inspiration. Or he printed copies of these copied road signs, or made lithographs of familiar images with out-of-left-field captions. But whenever there was a sky in his work, it was always the same one: a hopeful and unironic blue, Pantone 544. “Woodcock Blue,” we called it.
Michael’s favorite joke, or at least the joke I remember best, wasn’t all that complicated but he would draw it out for at least five minutes: A person from the city drives out into the country one day and stops to watch a farmer picking his crop of apples. The farmer holds a huge pig above his head, walks over to an apple tree, waits until the pig gets an apple in its mouth, and then, still holding the pig above his head, staggers over to a waiting bushel basket, where he stands above it until the pig lets go and the apple drops into the basket. So after the city guy watches the farmer repeat the process at least a dozen times, he gets out of his car. “Excuse me,” he says, “doesn’t it take a long time to pick apples that way?”
And the farmer answers, “What’s time to a hog?”
It was, Michael used to say, the funniest thing he had ever heard.
I saw a lot of him in the decades before he became a professor. He’d started a business making Plexiglas bases for art and, because he was losing money, he had time on his hands. I was living with my second wife by then, in a basement apartment with ceilings so low if I skipped—which I never did—I could hit my head on them. Once or twice a week Michael would show up in the evenings to play gin rummy and sit—disheartened, hopeful, funny, sweet, cranky, and large—with us on our carpet covered with grapefruit-sized clumps of dog hair (mysteriously, we’d managed to accumulate two Samoyeds). I would drink vodka martinis until I could barely see. Michael would drink only tea because, he explained, he wasn’t feeling good—his legs had started to swell from what he thought was gout. It was, of course, not gout at all, but the poison of the Plexiglas, but none of us knew it at the time.
So the three of us would play cards, and when I won, which was surprisingly often, considering the martinis, Michael would respond with epic, operatic, tragic howls over a universe that would allow such an imbecilic and haphazard individual to best him. Toward the end of those years he produced three elegant graphite portraits of my wife and none at all of me. For a curmudgeon, he got along surprisingly well with women.
Michael had also hit it off with my first wife when they met, which was the same day I first met him, about forty years before his death. It was a hot day in August, and I was sitting in a laundromat in Venice, California, watching my pile of blue work shirts go round in the dryer when I noticed a big guy next to me watching his load of plaid lumberjack shirts do the same. He looked like a lumberjack too, broad shouldered, with a full beard. Somehow—very possibly he told a joke—we started talking and it turned out that we liked each other. I asked him what he did and Michael responded that he was an artist. He was the first person I’d ever met who had ever made that declaration so seriously, and maybe it was the way he said it, but I absolutely believed him. I told him I was a poet and tried to sound equally convincing. When our shirts were dry, because the room in which he was living was on the way to my house, he offered to show me the canvases he was working on.
His room was about ten by ten and completely empty except for a paint-spattered mattress in the middle of the floor. Every wall was covered with paintings, big ones, some with huge Franz Kline-ian strokes, others stitched together, a technique he would soon abandon for canvases that were a grid of carefully emptied tea bags he’d glued on to them, then covered with layers of paint. Later on, he would give up the tea bags for the meticulous, beautiful graphite drawings, and eventually change to the road signs and lithographs, but at that moment they were still in his future.
Then I asked if he wanted to walk to where I was living and meet my wife. I could tell he was young enough that wives were novelties to him. They were to me, too. In Venice we were renting the bottom half of a house, and my wife had turned the front porch into a potter’s studio. The porch was where she would work all day throwing pots while I—when I wasn’t at the laundromat—sat in the kitchen and tried to write what I hoped would be important poems. Michael said, yes, he’d like to meet her, and so the two of us strolled on together beneath a blue sky filled with gulls.
So there we are, Michael young, maybe twenty-three or so, tall, strong, and full of excitement over everything he is sure will come his way, and I’m a little older, carrying a bag that holds my clean shirts. The day is still hot, and when we get to my place there is my wife, right where I said she would be, out in front, making her pots. She is young too, of course, and beautiful, with her flax-colored hair held back by a bandana and her forearms covered in wet clay as she concentrates on her potter’s wheel. Michael and I stand at the bottom of the steps and look up to where she works, oblivious to our presence, and at that exact moment it feels to me as if all three of us are gods of sorts, or at the very least, figures out of some myth I had read once and forgotten. This is what life is supposed to be—I remember thinking; a story is about to start, and although I cannot be sure of the details of its ending, I am certain it will be a great one, well worth noting.
“Hey,” I call, as my wife peers down the steps to see who’s standing there, and just for a second everything stands still: me at the foot of the stairs and her above us, smiling at me, whom in a couple of years she will be leaving, and also down at Michael, who unknowingly has just met the person whose hand he will be holding at his death. There are some red bushes in flower in the front yard and, out near the low, white, wooden fence by the sidewalk, a few cactus plants. In the window next to my wife is our new Siamese kitten that has the disconcerting habit of jumping out of drawers to startle me.
“Hey,” I call again. “You should meet Michael.” And then Michael and I walk up the steps, and everything begins.
Jim Krusoe is the author of the novels Parsifal, Toward You, Erased, Girl Factory, and Iceland; two collections of stories; and five books of poetry. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund. He teaches at Santa Monica College and lives in Los Angeles.