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Joe and Me

by Gene Wolfe

(From Locus Magazine, July 2000. Joe Mayhew obituary.)

Joe Mayhew died on the tenth of June, in a hospice near Washington DC. He will be buried today, June 17th; and yesterday I spent the entire day trying to fly to Reagan International Airport so that I could attend his funeral. I couldn't: a line of storms between Chicago and Washington prevented east-bound flights from taking off. We boarded and sat on the tarmac for three mortal hours, then taxied back to the gate. Yes, I wept. But I wept in a cramped window seat, and not in Saint Bernard's Catholic Church in Riverdale, Maryland.

In Seat 2A of ATA Flight 302 (which never flew) and here at my word processor. Romancing the Stone begins with a marvelous scene in which a romance writer is crying at her keyboard as she finishes a book. ''Oh, God,'' she sobs, ''I'm so good!'' That's not why I weep.

Joe was a remarkable man, and though he was well known in fandom he should have been better known than he was. In 1993, the World Fantasy Convention was in Minneapolis. I was on some panel or other, and I asked whether anyone in the audience had wondered who chose the science fiction, fantasy, and horror that went into the permanent collection of the Library of Congress. Then I explained that up until his retirement that had been Joe Mayhew, and I had him stand up and join the panel. It wasn't nearly enough, but it was something, and I'm very glad I did it.

Joe spoke fluent Spanish, Catalan, Italian, and German. (His imitation of a German-speaking lady he had known in his childhood was funny even to me, who understood only one word out of 50.) He had lived in Yucatan, working among the poor; as a result, he could also speak their Spanish dialect, which adopts many Mayan words. In the final years of his life he was learning Chinese.

''Spanish Inquisition!'' was the way Joe answered his phone at the Library of Congress. He was supposed to say Hispanic Acquisitions, of course. But he said ''Spanish Inquisition,'' and nobody ever noticed.

As the librarian charged with acquiring materials in the Spanish language, Joe negotiated with libraries in Spain and throughout Latin America, trading rarities of which the Library of Congress had multiple copies for Spanish rarities it did not possess, or buying Spanish rarities outright. It was a big job, and it would have kept most men more than busy enough; but it was not enough for Joe. When he learned that rare SF was routinely burned or discarded, he created a new post, which he filled himself. Scholars not yet born may not know the name Joe Mayhew as they pour over the works of Roger Zelazny, Joe Haldeman, Stan Robinson, Robert Silverberg, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Piers Anthony, and (Joe's favorite) R.A. Lafferty; but they will owe their research materials to Joe just the same. And we, who now have some real hope of making it to that 25th century Buck Rogers once showed us so clearly, we owe Joe Mayhew too.

Here I would like to show him to those of you – and I realize that is most of you – who never saw him. He was a big man, six foot one or so, who was forever struggling with his weight. A bald man with a fierce, grizzled, gray beard. He wrote plays and skits, and whenever possible wrote a part for himself as buccaneer. ''Arrr!'' he would say, ''that's pirate talk, matey. Esss! That's advanced pirate talk.'' I don't know whether he ever got to play Long John Silver, but he would have been fabulous. ''And now, Jim, we're to go in for this here treasure-hunting, with sealed orders, too, and I don't like it; and you and me must stick close, back to back like, and we'll save our necks in spite o' fate and fortune. Arrr.''

He reviewed books for big bucks in The Washington Post (which would not let him review mine), he reviewed them for small bucks in Absolute Magnitude, and he reviewed them for nothing in fanzines. He also reviewed for a syndicated TV show.

He was a cartoonist who sold professionally, as well as appearing in innumerable fanzines and program books. Do you remember the young woman with glasses pinching the derriere of her dancing partner? The boy making faces by pushing his nose against his fish-bowl space helmet? The leering wolf with the crystal ball? I am that wolf, and I have that one on a T-shirt – keep an eye out if you come to Chicon.

In 1998 I was up for the short story Hugo in Baltimore, and Joe was sitting right behind Rosemary and me. Mike Resnick won, and as he came forward to accept his award, Joe put his head between ours and whispered, ''Shall I kill him, Master?'' A few minutes later Joe himself won the Hugo for Best Fan Artist. He's up for that award again this year.

Thousands of fans have seen his cartoons, but I suspect that only a few have seen his wood carvings. Perhaps the most remarkable is a cane decorated with leaves and feathers and stars, and the faces of 11 different men. The inscription at the bottom reads, ''December 1993/This osage orange walking stick was made for Gene R. Wolfe by Joe Mayhew.'' Someday I may let you touch it. But only if you're very, very good.

Speaking of which, I learned years ago that I could judge fans up and down the East Coast by their opinions of Joe. Those who thought he was great were always good people themselves. Those who didn't like him were likely to be trouble.

Writing is a lonely vocation. I've known and liked John Cramer and Cap'n Wes Besse since we three were boys; John's a nuclear physicist now, and Wes is a perfectly genuine Old Sea Dog. But Joseph T. Mayhew, the Disclave chair who asked me to be pro guest of honor in 1987, became my closest friend.

My guess is that he was the closest friend of at least a dozen other people too – that he was Ron Taylor's closest friend, Evan Phillip's closest friend, Walter Miles's closest friend, his brother Bill's closest friend, and on and on. And that's fine with me; Joe had a heart plenty big enough for all of us. I won't inflict the ugly details of his illness on you, but I do want to say that once before he died I sat with my ear glued to the phone for half an hour while he prayed, mostly in Latin. And that when he was losing the power of speech he called me to say, ''I can't think of ... of words any more, Gene. Can you imagine me ... not being able to remember the words?''

I didn't have to imagine it. I was there.

Before he died he received the sacrament we used to call extreme unction.

He was born in 1942, on the 20th of August. I know that because Rosemary and I used to send him a card or a book or some such on his birthday. I dedicated Nightside the Long Sun to him; and once, when a clerk in a bookstore praised my work to him, he got a copy, showed the clerk the dedication, and said, ''Hi! I'm Joe Mayhew.''

After Joe died, I got a note from Neil Gaiman. ''Whenever I went to Washington, the high point was always seeing Joe – he was so fundamentally reassuring and wise, and he twinkled.''

He hated lying and sham, and everything shameful. I wish I could make clear to you how good he was, how gentle and kind and learned and fond of argument. There will be Joe Mayhew panels at cons to come. I will be on them unless I am physically restrained, and I will try.

Joe, I wanted to be in church for you. I couldn't do it, so this is goodbye. Pray for me.

–Gene Wolfe

© 2000 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.