Most people walk away from college with a favorite professor, an educator they had a certain intellectual connection with that greatly influenced their work as a student. Michael White’s relationship with his favorite professor, who he met during September of 1979, was slightly more complicated than this. In “The Bard of the Bottle” from The Missouri Review, White recalls his friendship with professor Tom McAfee, a friendship characterized by nightly black-out drinking sessions, reading and workshopping poetry for hours on end, and eventually one caring for the other during his dying days drenched in delirium.
White, during his sophomore year at the University of Missouri-Columbia, was failing all of his classes but McAfee’s. He bartended at The Tiger bar, a favorite haunt of the professor, and every night like clockwork White would close up the joint, pour several glasses of bourbon, and grab his backpack full of poetry books:
I’d go to the mezzanine with these supplies. By then he’d [McAfee] be passed out, nodding in his chair beside his watery drink, a cigarette burned down to the nub in his slender, nicotine-stained fingers. But he would awake and be deeply grateful to see me. It was like I was rescuing him—which I was, from the terrors afflicting him whenever he closed his eyes. We’d stay up and talk: he’d tell me his dreams; we’d talk about whatever dramas we’d seen in the bar; or, mostly, I’d just read to him. Night after night, I read those poems, dozens of poems by one poet or another, and Tom would gesture in deep pleasure or recite along with me. These were poems he needed to hear again and again, and I was happy to reread them, since it helped me to comprehend, to hear them for the first or fifth time.
It was an unhealthy relationship at best, drinking to the point of unconsciousness every evening, but it wasn’t as shallow as one alcoholic finding companionship in another. As time went on, McAfee grew more and more ill at the hands of his vices, and their bond continued to evolve:
My role in Tom’s life had already begun to switch from friend to caregiver. This was absurd, as I couldn’t even care for myself, but I was what Tom had. I brought him food for the last months of his life. He would have gone sooner if I hadn’t. Fool that I was, I still believed I could save him. I would bring a bowl of red beans with a little bacon. That was all he wanted; he acted like it was sacredly wonderful stuff. When I showed up with the beans, he would practically weep with gratitude. He wouldn’t touch anything else anyone brought him, just a few mouthfuls of soft beans at night which he could chew with his bad teeth.
James Thomas McAfee's health continued to decline, and he died in 1982 at the age of 54. Michael White, after being evicted from his apartment, fired from his job, and essentially losing everything, ended up receiving his Ph.D from the University of Utah in English and creative writing and has won numerous prestigious awards and gained significant respect in the literary community. White turned 54 the day before he wrote “The Bard of the Bottle.”
Source: The Missouri Review (excerpt only available online)