Our friend William E. Wallace died today. He was a great man and a great writer.
From the novella Legacy, by William E. Wallace:
Frank Trask never guessed he had a drinking problem. “I drink; I get drunk; I pass out—no problem,” he’d say when people asked him about the large amount of booze he consumed.
At least that was what he said until the Monday he passed out before he’d had his first drink. He walked out of his West Oakland hotel to buy a package of razor blades, turned right, and took four steps before everything went black.
He woke up in Highland, the hospital for indigents, illegals, and the uninsured run by Alameda County. He could tell it was the county pill mill because the staff had stenciled its name on everything to keep patients from walking out with it.
The news crawl on the idiot box hanging from the ceiling above his bed told him it was already Thursday. Trask groaned. He was supposed to spend Tuesday at Pete’s, his local bar, celebrating his 67th birthday with the closest thing to a family he had, his three buddies from the old steel mill.
Instead he’d spent his birthday passed out in a no-hoper hospital with a bunch of losers who didn’t know where their next meal—or anything else—was coming from.
He could have worked up a pretty good case of feeling sorry for himself if he’d had half a heat on, but ordering a drink in a county hospital was out of the question.
Now THAT, he thought, is a drinking problem: not being able to get hold of booze when you really need it.
A nurse who looked something like Dorothy, the big sardonic woman on “The Golden Girls,” seemed surprised to find Trask awake.
“Well, welcome back,” she said, reviewing the readings on the machine next to his bed. “You’ve been out quite a while. How do you feel?”
Trask eyed her. He’d never had much use for the medical profession. “I feel like home-made shit,” he said.
“Ah!” she said, smiling. “A Village Fugs fan. Tuli Kupferberg rocks!”
Her name tag said “Kennedy” in white letters on black plastic. Trask thought of asking her whether she was single and would like a husband; he hadn’t met a woman who’d heard of the Village Fugs or Kupferberg since 1967.
“What’s wrong with me?” he asked. “Why am I in county?”
She gave him a long look. “I’d rather your doctor talked to you about that, Mr. Trask.”
“So where is he, at the driving range or something? How many times a month does he drop by?”
She glanced at her watch and smiled. “You’re in luck,” she said. “Her tee-time isn’t until five p.m. today, so she should be by in about ten minutes.”
He thought about that. So his doc was a woman; he wondered if she knew about the Village Fugs, too.
The nurse finished recording information from the machine and took his temperature.
“Looks like you’re semi-normal,” she said. “That’s a little like a miracle considering when you came in here, you were at death’s door. Please listen to what the doctor tells you and follow her instructions. You may just live to see your next birthday.”
Trask laughed bitterly. “I wish I had seen the last one. It’s a hell of a thing to spend your birthday on your back in a hospital.”
She put his chart back in the rack at the foot of the bed. “I can think of worse ways to spend it,” she said as she started for the door.
“Yeah?” he said. “Like what?”
She turned and said, “You could have spent it on your back in the morgue.”
She left, humming the Fugs’ tune “Wet Dream.”
He thought about the expression she had used: “death’s door.” He had probably heard that phrase a million times but never really paid any attention. Apparently death lived in a house. He had always thought of the skinny old motherfucker just wandering around aimlessly with his scythe over his shoulder, harvesting souls willy-nilly, sort of like the homeless guy with the torn straw hat and shopping cart he saw going through garbage bins near his hotel.
His head was sore where he had banged it when he passed out. He could feel a bandage just over his left eye, and whatever was under it was tender when he touched it.
When the doctor showed up—three minutes early—Trask initially thought she was an orderly sent in to change the bedpans or something. First of all, she was young, maybe all of 28 years old; second, she was black. Trask had never seen a black doctor who was a woman before. They had all been men. And every African American doctor he had ever met seemed to be at least 55. He’d been under the impression medical schools wouldn’t give a black doctor a degree until his hair was gray and he had a double chin.
“Mr. Trask?” the young woman asked as she studied the clipboard she’d pulled from the foot of the bed.
“Yeah.” Trask looked at the three other beds in the ward, all empty. “Since I’m the only person here, that must be me.”
“I’m Dr. Lois Johnson,” the young woman said with a thin smile, holding out her hand.
Trask took it, wondering what year in medical school doctors learn the hand-shaking tradition. To Trask, it made seeing a sawbones a little bit like visiting a used car lot.
“You were brought in because you passed out on the street,” Johnson said. “Have you ever blacked out like that before?”
Trask shook his head.
“Ever feel dizzy or disoriented?”
“Nope,” he said, then corrected himself. “Yeah, actually, I do. Sometimes when I wake up at night I feel dizzy when I stand up. My heart seems to beat fast then, too.”
“Do you have trouble sleeping?” Johnson asked, writing something on Trask’s chart.
Trask nodded. “Only at night,” he said. “Days I can nod off on the bus, or while I’m eating lunch. Night’s a different deal. When it’s dark out, I only wake up to pee. It seems to happen to a lot of us old farts.”
Johnson made another note. “Do you have abdominal pain? Stomach aches?”
Trask considered the question. “Maybe three, four times a week. I think it’s indigestion. I take antacids for it.”
“Do they help?”
He thought about it. “No. Not really. Eventually it just stops. Or else I stop noticing it.”
“When was the last time you saw a doctor?”
Trask thought a moment.
He remembered the last time he’d talked to a doctor, but he didn’t think that was the kind of conversation she meant.
William E. Wallace had been a house painter, cook, dishwasher, newspaper and magazine reporter, journalism professor, private investigator and military intelligence specialist. He took his bachelor’s in political science at U.C. Berkeley and was an award-winning investigative reporter and special projects writer for the San Francisco Chronicle for 26 years. His work has been published in All Due Respect (which has nominated it for a 2014 Pushcart Prize), Shotgun Honey, Spinetingler, Out of the Gutter Online, Crime Factory and Dark Corners Pulp. Wallace’s longer fiction includes: The Jade Bone Jar, Tamer, The Judas Hunter, Dead Heat With The Reaper, Little Nightmares, I Wait to Die, Face Value, and Hangman’s Dozen.