“A man of letters is the enemy of the world.”
— Charles Baudelaire
Carl Wendt smoked disinterestedly in the haze of red neon and the small spotlight illuminating the entrance to the bar. Smoking inside was banned by law. He’d been admonished for his politically incorrect habit more than once. “Please don’t smoke in here.” “I can’t be in the same room with you if you smoke.” “Smoking is bad for your health.” “No smoking.” “That’s a smoker’s cough if I ever heard one.” “It’s like kissing an ashtray.” “You could use a mint.” He’d heard them all. The air felt wet, on the verge of drizzle. The tip of his nose was cold. He sucked in smoke and stared at the brake lights and headlights prowling on the street. There were no open spaces to park on the entire block.
He wore a tan sports coat over a pair of faded jeans. The tight fitting blue polo shirt had a small stain where the bulge of gut started. He buttoned the top button of the coat and thrust a hand into his pants pocket. He had enough change for another drink, he figured. He blew out harsh smoke. He should quit. Then he’d have more money for drinks. But drinking and smoking went together. They were the addictive behavior twins.
Rough gray stubble accented the square of his jaw. He hated shaving, but disliked beards and the sartorial attention they demanded even more. Besides, those disposable razors he favored cost an arm and a leg so he shaved at most every other day and today was one of the off days.
He was about to flick the butt away when two younger men stepped in front of him. The one with the goatee looked familiar. He did the talking.
“Carl? Carl Wendt? Hi, Russell Kingston, we’ve met before, briefly.”
“Oh right. What’s it? Russ?”
“Russell, yeah, it was at the McArdle reading a couple of months ago. At the library?”
“Yeah, Mike’s a good poet.” He dropped the butt onto the sidewalk and scraped his toe across it.
“You going to hear Mitchell Tjantor read tonight?
“Mitchell Tjantor, he’s reading tonight.”
Oh, yeah, at the. . . .”
“Inter Zone Arts, yeah. We’re on our way down there now. I can’t believe how far we had to park.”
“Five blocks,” his companion, a round-faced sandy haired man with a complexion to match, offered as if he were providing the answer to a quiz.
“You going?” Goatee’s eyes brightened in anticipation.
“Oh, yeah, yeah.” Wendt coughed into his fist. “I was just gonna stop in here for a drink before I went down.” He sized them up. “You wanna get a drink?”
Sandy and Goatee both glanced at their watches and then at each other.
“Morgan Tilson is the opening reader, and I can miss most of what he’s got to say,”
Sandy spit nastily.
Wendt pulled opened the door for them and they strolled in, innocents to a gingerbread ale house.
At the bar, the bartender nodded to Carl and then eyed the two younger men. He wouldn’t have to card them. Carl turned to Goatee. “You buying?”
Goatee was taken aback, but smiled. He took out his wallet and peered into it. “Yeah, ok, I’ll buy you a beer.”
Wendt waved away the offer. “Uh, beer upsets my stomach.” He turned to the bartender. “Jamesons, water back.” Goatee went with a beer, as did Sandy, and placed a tenner on the bar when the drinks came.
“That’s twelve for the drinks,” the bartender insisted. An embarrassed silence followed while Goatee reached for his wallet. Sandy instead pulled out a couple of crumpled bills from a pocket of his jeans. “Wait I got the two bucks,” he squawked generously.
Wendt held his glass up with “cheers.”
“Yeah, so like what are you writing these days? I mean besides your column in the weekly. Getting any new poems published? I read that piece of yours in the Bookman Institute’s newsletter. The one on the function of charlatanry in American literature?” Goatee was going for broke.
Carl took a long slow sip from the small glass. He was going to have to perform for his drink. He watched over Goatee’s shoulder as a large man in suspenders rose from the bar and lumbered toward the hallway for the men’s room. He’d have to think of something else.
“Oh, yeah, well, that’s an old essay. I wrote that almost fifteen years ago.” A girl in a parka hood with fur trim was watching her boyfriend play pinball and taking furtive sips from his bottle of beer. He looked back into Goatee’s eager face. “But I got a couple new things with a publisher in El Lay. A monograph on the Comics and Poetry collection at the Sanderson Estate Library, a big catalog, with a shit load of color plates. PS Press up in Portland is going to bring out a selection of miscellaneous writings in the fall, you know, book reviews, some of my columns, essays.” He was boring himself and the little glass was empty.
“Hey, that’s great. You doing any readings any time soon? I heard you once before, at State. But that was like, what, three years ago?” Goatee hadn’t touched his beer.
“Oh, yeah, when my book comes out I’ll probably do a reading at City Lights.”
“Good, good, I’ll keep an eye out for the announcement.”
Wendt looked at the small empty glass and then at Goatee. “So what is it you said you do? Russ?”
“Russell. I teach at City College. Literature, creative writing.”
Carl took a closer look at Goatee as if his unlined face would reveal the depth of knowledge of someone so young. “You’re a college professor?”
“Part time.” Goatee glanced nervously over at Sandy. “There aren’t any full time openings around here, but I’ve got my CV at a couple of universities back East and the Midwest so.” He shrugged as if that completed the sentence. Sandy smiled wanly, a hint of foam on his upper lip.
Wendt held up the empty glass. “Drink up, boys, I’m ready for another one.”
Goatee’s look of semi-adulation turned to panic. He frowned at his wristwatch as if it had just bit him. “Yeah, well, we better get going. There should be a big crowd to hear Tjantor. We’ll want to get a good seat.” Goatee waited, expecting Wendt to say something. “You coming?”
Wendt waved him off. “You guys go on ahead, I’ll catch up. I gotta pay my tab.”
The two pushed back out onto the street, Sandy on Goatee’s heels like he wasn’t moving fast enough.
The bartender came down to remove Goatee’s untouched beer and Sandy’s single quaffed draft. “Ah, I’ll take care of these, they didn’t even touch them.” Carl pulled the change out of his pocket and deposited it on the bar. “You think I got enough for something from the well?”
The bartender looked over the array of coins expertly and nodded. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Old Overshoe.” Carl spoke jocularly.
“Yeah, Old Overshoe,” the bartender laughed.
The thing about Wendt was that even at his age, he still had most of his hair. It was easy to pick him out in a crowd, a battlement of steel gray in the precise crimp of a natural wave. Irma stepped down the concrete steps in front of the old warehouse that housed Inter Zone Arts.
Carl turned when she called his name. He smiled. “Irma, the mermaid.”
“Must you be so infantile?”
In his mind Irma Maurice wore a slinky gold lamé sheath and smoked using a long cigarette holder even though she always dressed stylishly, never outlandishly, and she didn’t smoke anymore. “You got a cigarette?”
“I don’t smoke.” She opened her brocade clutch and extracted a box of filter tips.
“Don’t let Philippe see me give you these.”
“Can I have the box”?”
“No, just take one.” She snatched the box back looking over her shoulder.
Philippe, a large bald man, was engaged in a discussion framed in the open doorway of the gallery.
“I thought you didn’t smoke.” He slipped an extra cigarette into the sport coat’s breast pocket.
“Don’t be an idiot.”
Carl lit up and waved back to someone he wasn’t sure he recognized.
“What did you think of the reading?” Irma waved at someone she knew who was waving at her.
“It was ok.”
“I didn’t see you come in. Did you hear the first poet, Tilson?”
“I got there late. I was in the back. I missed the first guy.”
“What did you think of Tjantor?”
“He was alright. Life is a learning experience. Poetry’s the same way.”
“He mentioned your name.”
“Oh, yeah? I must have missed that.”
“You liar. You always show up to readings right at the very end. You mingle with the exiting crowd, cadge a smoke, play off your reputation, pick up starry eyed aspiring poets, borrow money and who knows what else from them.”
“Irma, why so bitter?”
“Just jealous I supposed. Here comes Mitch Tjantor. This ought to be good.”
Mitchell Tjantor was a short rotund man with a mop of blond curls that made him look like an overweight self-abusing Lord Fauntleroy. His round red face held the glow of triumph. “Irma, so nice to see you.” They air kissed. “I was just speaking with Philippe.” He indicated the large bald man striding toward them. He turned to Wendt and held out his hand. “Carl, Mitchell Tjantor, I don’t believe we’ve met before.”
Carl politely blew a mouthful of smoke over his own shoulder. “Mitch, nice to meet you. Good reading.”
“Thank you, thank you, that’s much appreciated. I hope you heard what I said earlier tonight, about you being a leading influence on the poetry of the current generation.”
“Yeah, thanks, I appreciate that.” He glanced at Irma who rolled her eyes. “You’re too kind.”
Philippe Maurice joined the little group. “Carl, so nice to see you.” He said it with his teeth so it made it hard to believe that he meant it. “You enjoyed the reading, I assume.” His eyebrows pushed ripples of skin to the top of his dome in a gesture of supreme archness.
“Oh yeah, it was great,” Wendt beamed.
Mitchell Tjantor brightened. “A few of us are going over to Shepard’s for a drink. Would you care to join us?”
“That sounds like something I could do.”
Irma sidled up to him as they left in a group for the bar down the street. “Mission accomplished.”
Monica was a grad student at State. She was complaining. She was doing her thesis on American women poets, but had to pick one in particular. Wendt was trying to explain to her what was so great about the Bud Powell tune they were listening to. Shepard’s had one of the best jazz jukeboxes in the city.
“Everybody’s done Dickinson, and Plath, and Stein, and Levertov, and Millay, Niedecker and Sexton, they’ve all been taken.” She was maybe twenty-two, slender enough to wear a tank top without a bra. She wore her hair like a woolly hat and she had a nose ring. A belly button piecing showed above the dark band of her low-slung black skirt. A jacket of some iridescent material hung off her shoulders as if she wasn’t sure she was taking it off or putting it on and she played nervously with the white scarf in her hand.
“Right there, that drum section, man, that’s clean, and it introduces the cats back to the head. Oh yeah.” He smiled down at her worried young face. She smiled back unsure why.
Carl nodded his chin in time to the beat. “Tempus Fugit, Time Flies. A classic Bud Powell composition. Miles called it Tempus Fugit, but the original title Powell gave it was Tempus Fugue-it. He was emphasizing the musical form.” Carl was drinking gold liquid from a little glass and pearls of knowledge were falling from his lips.
Monica nodded as if he had spoken privileged lore. “Wow. Did you know him? Bud?”
“Powell? No, unfortunately, that was way before my time, too. I hope I don’t look that ancient.”
“Oh, no, that’s not what I meant. It’s just that I don’t know that much about jazz.” She gave a helpless sideways smile that said I feel stupid.
“Hey, no big deal. Listen, why don’t we blow this joint? We can grab a bottle and go up to my place. I’ve got some great jazz sides. On vinyl. I can teach you a lot about jazz.”
Monica turned her head and let her gaze drift slowly around the bar, at the framed celebrity photographs of the owner, Colin “Shep” Shepard, cheek and jowl with famous people, at the tables occupied by cohorts of poets and hangers-on, at the faces of those crowding around Mitchell Tjantor holding court at a nearby table, as if the answer she should give him would be written there, somewhere amidst all of that. It wasn’t. “Yeah, sure, cool.”
Next Time: Carl Wendt gets the bad news that will change his life (more or less).