“A man of letters is the enemy of the world.”
— Charles Baudelaire
Enrico’s began filling with patrons, many of them tourists who tried to appear unobtrusive while gawking at the adjoining tables. The celebrities usually stayed away on weekend nights unless they were really needy or escorting friends from out of town, and Enrico’s was a place to be seen by the sight seers. Ruiz, Brezon, and Leary traded lies with each other in a competition to impress the young filmmaker and charm him into picking up yet another round.
Then the contingent arrived, a well dressed gaggle gathering at the entrance to the terrace and surveying the availability of table space. There were at least a half a dozen of them trying to position themselves in close proximity to the elderly man with the beige topcoat draped over his shoulders, graying hair, long, covering his ears in the Wildean style, a narrow chin to match a narrow nose pointed toward the heavens. Wendt recognized him from the picture that had accompanied the review of his new book of poems, Ion Eon, in the Sunday paper’s book section. Charles St Charles. It appeared that Diane McCracken and her sycophants had joined him.
No one area of the terrace held enough vacant tables to accommodate the group. There was a table in close proximity to Wendt’s that was empty and another at the far side of the café. One of Lady Di’s minions ran interference with the waiter as Diane approached a couple at a nearby table, gesturing to her party and then to the empty table across the way. The guy shrugged in agreement though the woman with him didn’t look pleased and raked Diane with a narrowed glare. Diane barely noticed the challenge. She had already turned to face Wendt and his coterie. She smiled a phony but effective smile. “Carl, darling, be a dear and let us borrow your table.” The empty table and the recently vacated table were being pushed together and chairs rearranged. The addition of Wendt’s table would have probably accommodated Charles St Charles and friends. But it wasn’t that easy. Although she was practiced at walking on hot coals, ignoring veiled innuendo, spoken or displayed, Diane McCracken had just stuck her hand into a bag of snakes.
Brezon’s fury was most evident, his face contracting like a bright red rubber ball squeezed by the hand of anger and resentment. He bared his bad teeth, spittle forming at the edges of his mouth. He was going for apoplectic. He mouthed the words a few times before they became audible as if he were getting a running start. What came out was remarkably mild. “It isn’t his table to lend.”
Diane looked down at him off the tip of her nose. She couldn’t believe he’d actually spoken to her. Stoddard spoke up. “No way we’re gonna leave.” He held up his half full glass of beer. “Still got time on the meter, lovely Rita.” This was getting to be more than she could stand. Paul Ruiz looked down at his hands to avoid seeing Diane’s eyeballs spin in disbelief that she was actually being refused. Young Shue looked on, bewildered, having no idea who this woman was, trying to impose her will on them.
Wendt smiled and spread his hands in the helpless gesture. “Sorry about that Lady Di, looks like I’ve been out-voted.”
Diane McCracken frowned, and then as if night had suddenly turned to day, she smiled. “Oh, no, no, please, you’ve misunderstood what I meant. I mean why don’t you join our tables so that we can all sit together? Carl, I don’t know if you’ve met Charles St Charles.” She motioned to the man in the camel overcoat and he ambled over, a question mark for an expression. He was accompanied by a nondescript woman with a pinched face and a permanent frown creasing a pale forehead. Diane made the introduction. “Charles, this is Carl Wendt. Carl, Charles St Charles.
The white haired man smiled faintly and extended his hand. “Carl, nice to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you.” He looked up at Wendt with a calculating gaze. “I didn’t realize you were such a large man.”
Wendt smiled, “Well, not Charles Olson large, but yeah, I’m topping six foot.” What about you, five five with the platforms, Wendt was wise enough not to add. “Good meeting you too, Charlie. That was a nice review in the Sunday paper book section.”
“Oh yes, I saw that. By Mike Seaton. I have no idea who that is, but it was very sweet nonetheless. I’m surprised I didn’t meet him tonight at the reading.”
Wendt said nothing but knew that if Mike had been there St Charles would have been well aware of the man humping his leg. As it was Mike was probably too drunk to find the door to leave his apartment. “Yeah, I would have been there too, but I had a prior engagement.”
St Charles cast a disapproving glance at Wendt’s table mates. “Ah, yes, surprisingly there was quite a crowd. I didn’t realize that my work was so well appreciated out here .” Lady Di had indicated a place for St Charles away from the obviously lower caste scribblers but the gray haired poet chose to situate himself at the table drawn up next to Wendt’s where, if they wished, they could hold a conversation.
“Well, we may be provincial here on the left coast but we do read.” Brezon’s attempt at sarcasm was nasal and hysterical, too much venom and not enough barb. But it did merit a glare from St Charles.
Wendt chuckled and indicated his table mates. “Charlie, allow me to introduce some of the city’s finest poets.” This statement drew dark scowls from Lady Di and Marguerite Sayrah, the prim woman who had accompanied St Charles and whom everyone referred to as Kay. Wendt continued the introduction as if he were the ring announcer at a prize fight. “Michael, I mean, Michel Brezon, renowned surrealist, editor of the surrealist publication Ton Trou. Stoddard Leary, accomplished poet and essayist, and professor of creative writing at New Arts Institute, Frisco.” St Charles rose slightly from his chair to shake Brezon’s hand and then Leary’s in turn. “Yes, Stoddard, didn’t you have an article in a recent Pan-American Poetry eReview?”
Leary seemed startled and pleased that someone beside his intimate associates had paid attention to that piece. “More of an editorial than an article.”
“More of a letter to the editor,” Brezon sniggered. Stoddard appeared not the least bit perturbed and ignored his cohort as Wendt continued with the introductions. “Uh, Jim,” he indicated the faux Kerouac youngster who practically leapt the table to grasp the old poet’s hand. “James, James Shue, so nice to make your acquaintance.” Wendt added, “He’s a documentary film maker.”
That seemed to pique St Charles’ interest. “Really? What are you working on currently?”
“Kerouac,” Ruiz interjected, “A documentary on Kerouac, Charles. Hi, Paul Ruiz. We met once before at the IWC.” And at St Charles’ blank look, “the Intermountain Writer’s Conference in Denver?”
St Charles shook the hand with a narrowing of his eyes trying to recall when that might have been. He smiled blankly, the effort not worth it. “Yes, of course. Paul?” and let go the hand. If nothing else the reply highlighted the awful fact of Ruiz’s fawning. But fawning is like a driving wheel and once it gets rolling it goes until someone puts on the breaks or it runs out of steam.
“Uh, yes, we spoke at the end of the panel discussion on metrical irregularities in Post Modern American Poetry. Yours were the most telling points of the evening if you don’t mind my saying so. Conrad Endorf was not only rude but way off base. I think. . .”
Wendt watched in amusement as St Charles squirmed in the obviously awkward onslaught of sycophantism. He liked his yes men to be a little more circumspect. His ploy to bring the litany of ass kissing to an end was to draw attention to Ruiz which was what Ruiz had been angling for all along.
“Ruiz was Picasso’s father’s family name. I see you have a likeness of Pablo printed on your tee shirt. And I’d be blind if I didn’t notice that there is a resemblance between the image and you.” The grin on Paul’s face was wide enough to rip it in half and backlit by a coloring of pink embarrassment. For some people the attention they desire is often something they have no taste for or it is more than they can contend with. The reality trumps the fantasy and they are uncomfortably naked. But Ruiz had asked for it. “And Paul,” St Charles continued, “is Pablo in Spanish. The writing says, ah, yes, an oft repeated quote but with some contention as to its authenticity. ‘je cherche pas, je trouve,’ I search not, I find.”
“Yes, yes,” Paul came back, his embarrassment receding to an unnatural boldness, “I’ve heard it translated as ‘why look, I found it.’”
It was St Charles’ turn to be taken aback. “That’s creative.”
Brezon weighed in since he felt that he was the de facto faux Frenchman. “Technically, that translates, as Charles says, as je, I, cherche, search or look for, pas, not, and je again, I, trouvre, find. However there is a greater subtlety to what Picasso is saying. Essentially what he’s saying is don’t fucking bother looking because I already fucking found it!” Brazon’s laugh was that of a squeaky wheel of an office chair being dragged across a plate metal floor. Everyone else merely managed a guffaw or a wan smile.
Stoddard had been watching Wendt who seemed to be drawing back like a bystander at a mud fight. Maybe it was time to splash the observer. “Ah think it means ‘what, what, where?’” Stoddard pronounced with a Southern drawl, “Whadyou think it says, Wendt?”
Wendt didn’t lose his benign smile though his eyes did harden and say thanks, motherfucker. He raised his hand almost defensively. “Ah, French is not my strong suite.”
“Now come on, Carl, don’t be modest. You’ve published translations of Blanchnoir, Serge Ragut, Follain, Ricane.”
“Oh yeah, well that was back when I was dating Val Richards. She grew up in France as an embassy brat. We translated some poets together when we weren’t fucking or eating. Come to think about it, I lost about fifteen pounds when I was with her. Guess I didn’t do that much eating. Food, anyway.”
“Valarie Richards?” A small bulb of recognition lit up under the tan parchment of St Charles’ face. “I was a judge for the Nickerson Award, what was it now, ten, fifteen years ago? She was hands down the best poet who submitted work. Unfortunately, there was a political choice that the foundation insisted be made and so she was short listed. Whatever happened to her?” He smiled expecting good news. The looks of those he was addressing should have told him different.
Ruiz having been temporarily sidelined thought it was time to play his hand and regain the limelight by moving the subject back to himself. “Carl, I think your French is more than passable. You can at least venture a guess, can’t you?” With this last he flashed a triumphant grin at St Charles that was a bid for acceptance as well as redemption for his fawning.
The look wasn’t lost on Wendt whose shrug said if that’s the way you want to play it. He looked at the bottom of his empty wine glass and then fixed Ruiz with a hard stare. “It could mean pretty much what everyone has said it means, but there is an underlying Cartesian element, Paul, that should make sense to you. I think therefore I am lost.”
There was an echo of chortles from those within earshot. Ruiz retracted into his chair like a turtle into its shell. St Charles’ veiled smile indicated that he knew he was in the company of a sharp wit and that he should proceed with caution. Now others were bidding for his attention and with a nod to Wendt, engaged with those for whom his presence was a great honor or at least was what could be gleaned from their comments.
The kid paid for another round at their table but less cheerfully so. More people arrived standing around looking for empty tables or chairs in the vicinity of the visiting poet. Not a few hostile stares were directed at the table occupied by Wendt and company. Brezon chuckled, “The Noë Valley elite want a seat.” That remark overheard was greeted with full face disapproval that included the wrinkled nose of you stink. The poets nursed their drinks gleefully knowing that they were occupying territory the literary swells thought belonged to them.
Next Time (2/6/15):Wendt encounters his nemesis in the can then scores with a lovely redhead.