Wes Kobylak (and Lulu, nude)

I made myself a White Russian (Kahlua, vodka, Splenda and cream) and there appeared before me the ghost of Vaclav Kobylak. I don’t care much for girlie mixed drinks. But I was alone, far from home, and the ingredients were there for the taking and using. Wes (as I knew him) wasn’t Russian. He was Czech. Nonetheless, this drink, his favorite, conjured him from the land of the dead. We’d met a quarter century before, in a claustrophobic academic office: six badly-paid teachers, three desks, no windows, no future. Wes read a couple of my early novels and said, with no irony, that they were “worse than obscene.” After a few semesters he moved on to a job that provided health benefits (and some modicum of dignity) and we lost all contact. One year before his heart and lungs shut down, Wes got drunk and e-mailed a dozen people from his old teaching days. “Sure. Let’s get together,” I replied, “but why does your message read like it was written by a retarded thirteen year old?” On the phone, Wes’s words were a raspy whispery remnant of his classroom voice. “You’re the only one who responded,” he said. “What’s wrong with you?” In the interim years, he’d read all my books that he could get a hold of. There is no one on the planet about whom the same thing can be said. He claimed to dislike my work, but kept returning to see what else I’d published. There was always - at least around me - an astringent bite to Wes’s words. He mocked me for not playing any sports in high school and I mocked him for playing too much football without a helmet. He insisted, when playing cards, that there always be a winner and a loser. Our last game against each other came out exactly even, so he demanded that we cut cards to see who came out on top. My queen of clubs beat his nine. Knowing there was a winner, all the way to the end, seemed to give him some sense of comfort. He lived in a studio apartment crammed with houseplants and pictures of the supernally beautiful Louise Brooks (AKA Lulu). After Hollywood and Berlin, she moved to Rochester, just a few blocks from Wes’s apartment, and took up the pen, trying to make sense of her life as a movie star. A gorgeous nude shot of Lulu hung in Wes’s bathroom. Wes once asked me about my relationship with my mother. I said, “cool.” (I didn’t mean Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk cool.) “Why?” “You’re so totally messed up,” Wes said, “but you get along so well with women.” There was a flicker of envy in the statement. I called in July of ‘15 to see if Wes wanted to play cards. Diane, his girlfriend, answered. Still in shock, she said, “Wes died three days ago.” I knew he’d been sick - toting around an oxygen tank - but Diane’s words came from nowhere, pitching me into a state of numbed vertigo. There was no funeral. Some of his friends got together at a greasy chopstick restaurant (Wes’s favorite) and told tales (mostly true) about him. A few weeks later, the nude photo of Louise Brooks arrived in my mailbox. With her hands raised and fingers extended, she’s a girlish hierophant casting a spell. She gazes down at me as I write these words: gorgeous, pale as the moon, serene in her nakedness, supremely cool.