“A man of letters is the enemy of the world.”
— Charles Baudelaire
Wendt passed a hand over his face as if to brush off the remaining grains of sleep. His eyes resisted opening either from the glare of the bright bathroom light or in anticipation of what they’d be seeing in the mirror. He focused on the plumbing and turned the handle to let the hot water warm. He sat back on the commode, his shorts around his ankles and released the night’s accumulation. He didn’t trust his aim in his near waking state. He could see the empty bed from his vantage with the door open onto the bedroom. Monica had left a note on the bed stand. She had to get to work. “Thanks for the Jazz.” She’d underlined the word Jazz several times accompanied by a rank of exclamation points. She signed it with an M shaped like a heart and post scripted her cell number. “Call me.” Kids, he shook his head, always on the go. They don’t know how to take their time, slow down, enjoy life. They hadn’t learned that yet. Some would never learn.
He had put on Coltrane’s Africa and they had gone at it for the full sixteen minutes and twenty six seconds. She had been quite drunk and consequently had lost both her inhibition and any sensation. The pulse of the music moved her in unexpected ways. At the end she’d gasped, “That’s the most amazing music I’ve ever heard.”
He was raw, scorched by the intense friction through no effort of his own. Wendt had learned that at his age the optimum position was on his back. It saved him, and for some of his encounters as well it was their preferred position in that it gave the illusion of freedom and power.
She’d guessed his age as fifty and he had agreed. To her that was as old as she wanted to go. But kids her age, they don’t know fifty from sixty. Then she admitted that fifty was her father’s age.
He’d said something corny like “Who’s your daddy,” and that got her hot. He’d flipped the album over and they went at it for the length of Greensleeves. But slowly.
Wendt ran the warm washcloth over his face. She’d remarked on the lack of books in his room, didn’t he have a personal library? He’d directed her to the worn copy of Finnegan’s Wake and the anthology of Chinese poetry under the Webster’s Collegiate next to the laptop on the writing desk in the corner of the room opposite the doorway. He explained that the rest of his books, with the exception of the review and comp copies piled on the floor next to the record crate atop of which sat a vintage portable Montgomery Ward hi-fi, were in the public library and not taking up precious space in his tiny bedroom. And that he could go into just about any bookstore and browse the latest. “They even have couches so you can sit and read the books with a cup of coffee. It’s like having a huge living room full of books. And people, but I don’t mind people.”
“What about your books? Your books of poems. The essays. Where are they?” He’d pulled a box out from under the bed. There were mainly copies of Synthetic Lament, a selection of poems dating from a few years back. She’d never seen it. He wasn’t surprised. She had The View From Below, the essays. A friend had given her a copy. He had very few copies of Not A Bad Answer. He’d signed a copy of his latest and she was thrilled. Some people were so easy to please.
He was going to have to take a shower but that meant checking with the water police. He snagged his robe off the hook behind the bedroom door and then unlocked the door leading to the rest of the house. He stepped into the hallway and to the head of the stairs. The noises were coming from Angela’s office. He crept down the carpeted steps with a degree of self conscious stealth.
She was at her computer with her back to him when he walked in. She’d heard him.
“It gonna be OK if I take a shower?”
“Got lucky, did we?” Her fingers continued to move lightly, fluidly over the keyboard.
“Coltrane. You always play Coltrane when you score.”
“Shit, I didn’t think I was that obvious.”
“She followed me home.”
“You better shower.”
“There’s fresh coffee in the kitchen.”
“Carl, we need to talk.”
“I better shower then.”
Angie reheated Carl’s cup while he thumbed through an assortment of legal sized envelopes, announcements, postcards, and a large padded mailer ostensibly containing the review copy of a book. Wendt always greeted the appearance of such book bundles with “more inventory for the book trade!” And if more than one bundle arrived the same day he would invariably say, “The book trade is brisk.” He’d confided to Angie one night in his cups that he’d stolen that phrase from the French poet, Blaise Cendrars, though the poet had said “the coffee trade is brisk.” She hadn’t bothered to ask who this Blaze person was and why Carl would steal his line. She did know poets stole from each other. He called it the vast web of allusion that is literature. And she hadn’t wanted to get him going on a long diatribe on the state of modern literature, especially when he was drunk.
She pulled up a chair to the table and sat at his right elbow. In her early forties, she favored no nonsense close cropped hair that emphasized the shapeliness of her head, her shell-like ears, and great taste in accessories. She was Italian Irish so her blue eyes appeared particularly bright set against her light olive skin. She hated that Wendt occasionally called her Modigliani. She wore a maroon v-neck sweater over a white turtleneck. Her faded blue jeans fit snuggly over her wide hips.
“I’m expecting that advance from the Sanderson Estate for that monograph.”
“How long have they had it?”
“The monograph, how long ago did you send it to them?”
“I didn’t. It’s an advance. They send me the money. I send them the text. If they don’t like what I’ve written I’ve got my kill fee. And if they like it, I get the rest of the payment.”
“And they wouldn’t like it, why? Because you might have said something libelous about someone, or disparaged most of the art world including the artist you’re writing about, insulted the museum or institute that commissioned you to write the monograph in the first place?”
“Something like that. I tell it like it is. You have to pay for my opinions, no matter what you think of them. It’s the poetry you can get for nothing. Anyway, I’m expecting a hefty check so I can catch up on what I owe you.”
“Carl, that’s what I want to talk to you about.”
“Angie, you know I’m good for it. I’ll get on the horn to the Sanderson right away.”
“Carl, that’s not it. I’m selling the house.”
“What do you mean? Sell the house? How can you sell the house?”
“I can sell it because I own it.” Angela made a firm line with her lips and met Carl’s disbelieving stare.
“But why? Are you going to upgrade? I hear the housing market is soft. You might not get what this place is worth.”
“I found a house and some land up in Mendocino County, on the coast, near a place called Elk.”
“Up to the country? I hate the country! And you’re thinking of moving to a place named after an ungulate?!”
“It’s on the coast, it’s peaceful, and Sam needs to get away from the potentially bad scene when she starts attending junior high, you know, the gangs, the drugs.”
“So you’re moving up to Mendocino County which just happens to be, what, the largest dope growing region in Northern California? What am I missing?” Wendt stared with distaste at the cup in his hand as if it were the source of his irritation.
“Mom said we could even ride horses on the beach.” The eight year old girl had on a red and white striped long sleeve pullover. She held half an English muffin poised over the toaster.
“Samantha, how come you’re not at school today?”
The young girl made her grown-ups-are-so-stupid face. “It’s Saturday. Wendt?”
Carl laughed. Angie frowned. “Attitude, attitude, young lady.”
“So you like this idea of going off to Bum, uh, Feather Egypt to ramble in the brambles, lope along the sandy shore on the back of a beast of burden, wear baseball caps advertising farm machinery, and drive large noisy gas guzzling four-wheel drive vehicles?”
“Wow, I didn’t know I could do that too! That’s even better!”
“Obviously my descriptions of the privations of country life were not dire enough. Do you know how many miles you have to drive for a latte?”
“Carl. I’ve made up my mind. We’ll be leaving shortly after the school year ends, in June.”
“Ok, ok, I understand. And I don’t blame you. But I can’t go live in the country. I spent a week in Bolinas once with Irma and Philippe and I thought I was going to go out of my mind with boredom. I’m a city boy. No apologies.”
“That’s a relief, Carl, because you were never part of the moving to the country equation. I don’t need a mad noncle going stir crazy miles from a bar. Or a hospital. Besides, as you said, you’d hate it.”
Samantha had spread jam on the muffin and sat at Wendt’s left elbow. “You’re a noncle.” she said it biting into the muffin and laughing as if it were hilarious.
“That’s right, a noncle is a male member of the family not related by blood and not married to any of the adult females but who serves in a fraternal role by being objective and protective.”
“You think we’re a family, Wendt?” Angela’s voice wavered, unsure, charged.
“How long have I been rooming here, Angie? Twelve years? Hell, I was here when the alien landed.” Carl indicated Sam who giggled, jam on her chin, and repeated “the alien.” “I’m kind of like the perfect stranger. Here when you need me. . . .” He turned to Sam, “And I did my share of baby sitting and diaper changing. . .” and back to Angie, “And gone when you don’t.”
“A symbiotic relationship.”
“You could say that. You used me and I used you.”
“It’s never been that simple.”
“No, I guess not. When I arrived here twelve years ago, it was a student commune, a rooming house. I was brought here for a night of indiscretion by the incomparable Sylvia!”
“Margie, right. Who was Sylvia?”
“Sylvia lived in what is now Sam’s bedroom.”
“Right, right, stinky Sylvia.” Wendt answered Sam’s chortle. “She wore a lot of patchouli oil.”
“Margie left you behind when she went to live with Ronnie.”
“Abandoned like a neglected teddy bear with a torn ear and stitches on my belly.”
Sam brightened. “Hey, that’s from a children’s book!”
Angela made a wry face. “More like a stray tom.”
“Well, the rent was affordable and the company quite congenial.”
“I suppose you could call a house inhabited by six college students, four of them women in their twenties, congenial.”
“I was more of a father figure, available for consultations day or night!”
Angela closed her eyes and shook her head. She opened them and saw her daughter looking at Wendt with the same wide-eyed fascination that had afflicted most of her roommates in the past. “Sam. Saturday. You know what that means.”
Sam’s shoulders drooped. “Clean my room,” she moaned.
“That reminds me,” Wendt drained the last of the coffee from his cup. “I need to do laundry. That OK? I took a short shower so I’ve still got some credit, don’t I, water meter lady?”
Angela shook her head. “I‘ve already done a big load this morning. And besides I’m hosting a group this afternoon.”
“Is it that time of the month already? The meeting of the Man-Eaters Society?”
“Carl, it’s a weight watchers group.”
“Banished to the laundromat once again.”
“And Carl, think about what I said. You’ll have to find someplace else to live. You might even have to get a regular job.”
Next Time (11/7/14): Wendt does his laundry, reads the obituaries, and picks up his dry cleaning.