“I’d better be a poet or lay down dead.”
— Jack Kerouac
Dorian Pillsbury had a shrine to Roger Wilson down at the end of the hallway by the door to the bathroom on the left and to his bedroom on the right. A large framed b&w portrait of the late poet, naked, appearing to look over his shoulder in a suspiciously derivative pose was mounted in a spare, tasteful frame on the wall. A slim volume of his collected poems and some original first editions were bookended by art deco bronze athletes of Greek antiquity. A few of Roger’s personal items were placed in a small rectangular shelf beneath the portrait and over which was draped a yellow silk scarf once belonging to the self same Roger along with a single votive candle.
Wendt and Roger Wilson had been contemporaries of a sort. A few years younger, Wilson had run with the high octane crowd that made Wendt, no slouch himself in following Rimbaud’s exhortation on the necessity of self-derangement, appear like a lumbering tortoise. Roger had taken a tumble down the stairs at some hole-in-the-wall bath house and broken his neck.
Dorian Pillsbury (which he pronounced “pullsbry”) was the Pillsbury Doughboy of American poetry, “dough” in the literal sense that it meant money. A tall, gangly New England patrician in his mid-seventies, his mottled paper white skin had the appearance of a desiccated mushroom. Twin plastic tubes inserted in his nostrils snaked from the oxygen canister that followed him in a little wire cart, and but for his deflated appearance would have argued for inflating him. He lived on the third floor of the building he owned overlooking the Mission District. He employed a delivery boy, a cleaning woman, and a young assistant who sometimes helped out in preparing his epicurean repasts. He had no need to go anywhere. Any physical activity would soon have him gasping for breath.
As a senior editor at FSG, which he referred to as Fakes, Simpletons, and Goons, Dorian had made his reputation as someone who could spot a literary trend. When his more radical assessments didn’t agree with the corporate vision, he moved to the West Coast and started his own independent press, Frazier & Harrison, which further reinforced the reputation of his critical acumen. Wendt had met the older man shortly after Dorian selected some of his poems for the critically acclaimed Singled-Out, 1980, in which promising young writers of the preceding decade were, in a word, singled-out.
Monday nights he regularly ended up at Dorian’s. Despite seeming at death’s door, Dorian had a robust appetite for food as well as life. His steaks were flown in from Omaha. Sometimes Japan. The seafood was always fresh. He had a well-stocked wine cellar with vintages from all over the world although he favored local varietals from the Sonoma Valley. Desserts were always spare, delectable and loaded with calories. Dorian thought himself an epicurean, though probably not by Livy the Younger’s standards.
Julie was Dorian’s assistant. She didn’t try to hide her dislike of Wendt. A young woman in her late twenties with a perpetual sour expression, she had a nose like someone had placed a baby’s limb in the middle of her face. She assisted Dorian in preparing the meal which meant that Dorian breathed his emphysemic wheeze over her shoulder and directed even the slightest move.
“Julie doesn’t like me,” Wendt said after the door to the apartment had closed behind the departing assistant.
Dorian shrugged bringing a square of medium rare filet mignon at the tip of his fork to his lips. “I didn’t hire her to like or dislike my friends. She’s very smart and an obsessive neurotic. That makes her an excellent assistant. She’s become protective of me which can be annoying at times. I don’t want to excuse her ill-manners, but it’s touching that she thinks I should entertain a better class of friends.”
Parsley potatoes and roasted asparagus spears accompanied the filet mignon. Wendt poured another glass of the cabernet, finishing off the bottle. Dorian pointed to the sideboard where another bottle of red wine waited to be decanted.
Dorian’s condition always made it seem that this would be his last supper. But the old gent didn’t dwell on his own mortality. He seemed to derive a special pleasure from talking about the mortality of others, in particular those who had thus far preceded him.
“Walker Klein drank himself to death you know.”
“Yeah, I know, I watched him do it. Towards the end there, he was just a fucking zombie. I saw Henry Longtree the other day, same fucking thing, bleary eyed into the sunset.”
“And Odell Corcoran. Again, not altogether unexpected.”
“That surprises me. I thought she had it going on. Once she stopped the lesbian superwoman posturing, she showed she had some interesting stuff.”
“You’re thinking of Adele Cochran. Odell was that handsome black poet from Jamaica. He was always in such demand.”
“As a poet?”
“Not as much. And then after he got sick, not at all. He could have single-handedly wiped out the entire poet population in New York City. Fortunately, they are not all tramps.”
“And around the holidays, Khalid Bradica.”
“The guy was almost a hundred. I think even he was beginning to think he was immortal. His last words were something to the effect that he wanted to be buried like Frederick the Great.”
“With his five dogs?”
“Actually, I think with his five ex-wives. They were understandably not amused.”
“Carl, you’re making that up.”
“I hear he choked on a chocolate covered cherry.”
“Perry Lowery and Cliff Velez, a double suicide. I supposed the correct term is murder suicide. Cliff was such a talented photographer. He’s the one who photographed Roger for the portrait in the hallway. And Perry. Wasn’t he just rage and resentment personified? He was short listed for the National Book Critics Award. And the fact that Shaundra Eun won put him into a tail spin.”
Wendt grunted, sucking a thread of mignon from between his incisors. “Art is indifferent to our expectations.”
“It’s been five years since Robbie Hadley went off the deep end.”
“That reminds me. Chuck Lazar. I heard it from Digger who had it from his ex.”
“Oh yes, one of the Oakland people. That was some time ago. Didn’t they call themselves the California Pretenders? He was one of the better ones. And Laura Villalobos.”
“Whom I made the mistake of referring to as Laura Villabozos.”
“I seem to remember that story making the rounds.”
“I was young and in love with myself.”
“Yes, Carl, you’ve remained remarkably youthful in that respect.”
“Is she still prowling the literary salons? She was quite the cougar in her day.”
“Laura? I have a recent message on my answering machine from her. She is quite alive, and all claws.”
“Did you know Grady O’Grady?”
“Funny you should mention that name. I just heard about it today. What was it? Ran the car in the garage?”
“Asphyxiation is just not a way to go,” Dorian wheezed for emphasis, “I can assure you.”
“I’d never heard of him before.”
“He was associated with that Cambridge set who call themselves The Neo-Brahmins.”
“Ok, Michael Harry, Bridgette Smiley. The Reverse Review. That group.”
“Actually, that’s the Revere Review, after the famous New Englander. Mark Oldham called them ‘the British are coming’ gang in his article on the Boston literary scene in Bookforum. To which he could have added, ‘Too late! They’re already here!’”
“Where was Revere in the 60’s? We could have used him then. Herman’s Hermits?”
“Ever hear of a kid by the name of Ian Blake?”
“Certainly. He just won the Lambert Award. I was on the committee that recommended him.”
“He died in a vehicle accident?”
“Tragic, yes. And such a promising young writer. The car he was driving went out of control and swerved into a brick wall. He was killed instantly.”
“How about this guy Morgan Tilson?”
“I learned about it just this morning from Julie. Another fine poet. And a Lambert Awardee as well.”
“So what does the Lambert prize consist of these days, a bag of cash and a one-way ticket on the ferry across the river Styx?”
Dorian strained at a low coughing laugh, it was about all the air he could allow himself, and raised his glass in salute. “Poets are dying every day. What’s killing our poets?”
Wendt was reminded of Jeremy’s conspiracy theory. “Maybe it should be ‘Who is killing our poets?’”
Wendt cleared the table, retrieved the bottle of port from the cabinet in the sideboard, and poured two glasses. It’s what they did on Mondays after dinner. Wendt would recount the salient details of his previous week: whom he had met, insulted, what literary events and art shows he had attended, and what books he was reading. Currently it was a fascinating book titled Out Of Pangaea, about the evolution of the South American tree mole with implications on early hominid development.
Dorian let Carl do the talking. It saved his breath. Dorian for his part would enumerate the celebrities he had known in his day and invariably this led to a list of the dearly departed.
“Ted. Well before his prime.”
“Same with Jack. In Florida, the elephant graveyard of French Canadians.”
“Frank, of course. Such a shame. And Jimmy. Ken, too.”
Wendt made a mental game of anticipating who he would name next. Robert, Ron, Allen, Tom, Michael, Sean, Phil, Martin, David, Victoria, Jeffrey, Lindsey, Hunce, Darrell, William, Mort, JC, Jerry.
They consumed a goodly portion of the Madera. Dorian’s liver red lips and inflamed gums loosely gathering his giant yellow horse teeth the only sign of color on an otherwise creased parchment visage. His rheumy eyes glimmered under the hedge of dusty grey eyebrows. Wendt could make him laugh. But it was tiring, even when he wasn’t talking.
He had Wendt retrieve a manuscript box from his desk in the study. He wanted his opinion of the poems. He was considering publishing them.
“Yes. Let me know what you think. Julie brought them to my attention. You know I ordinarily don’t read unsolicited work.”
Wendt quickly glanced over a few pages. “At first impression there’s imagery that challenges your assumptions. I’m all for that.”
“There is something quite compelling about them, in a primitive sort of way. Do you know Mitchell Tjantor or his work?”
“Just met him last Friday.”
“This is quite a departure. But take your time.” He wheezed a sigh. “Now if you’ll pardon me, I have to go lie down. The meal and its amenities have made me positively soporific.” Dorian used the edge of the table to leverage himself to his full height, each joint seeming to creak in protest. “By the way, there’s a stack of books next to the desk that have come in since last week. Feel free to pick through them.”
Wendt watched attentively as Dorian tottered down the hall, trailing his oxygen canister behind him and pausing at the shrine before turning into the bedroom. He flipped through a few more pages of the manuscript and decided he would be more comfortable on the big black leather couch in the study. The title page read Skid Marx.
He was fond of Dorian’s living room with its large picture window overlooking the bay and the lights of the city below. The room itself was decorated in a subtle mix of art and literature. Arts and Crafts bookshelves held rare and first editions by some of the 20th Century’s greatest authors as well as some who, like sky rockets dazzling at first sight, had faded into the obscurity of an all devouring anonymity. A sturdy two tiered coffee table held not surprisingly an array of art books and museum catalogs. After-dinner eye candy to Wendt’s way of thinking. The leather couch in its oak frame was positioned so that at a glance the orange halo hovering over the Oakland shipyards was visible as well as the string-lighted girders of the Bay Bridge reflecting on the dark waters.
A tasteful selection of modern Japanese prints patterned the wall next to the sliding panel doors that lead into Dorian’s office. The walls in the office were taken up with more bookshelves and file cabinets. A large Sam Francis print looked down on the oversized green and white electric typewriter perched to one side of Dorian’s scrupulously tidy desk. The smaller paper cluttered desk away from the window was obviously where Julie worked.
A tiny green light blinked at the bottom edge of the computer monitor. Wendt idly pressed the space bar on the keyboard and the screen came to life exhibiting an open page of email on the desktop. Julie had forgotten to log off before she left in a huff earlier. Never one not to indulge his curiosity, Wendt scrolled through the emails, aimlessly opening and closing them at random. The ones that had not been read he avoided. He recognized some of the names of the senders, most unfamiliar to him, though a string of emails from Mitchell Tjantor, suggesting strategies for the publication of his manuscript, implied that it was a done deal.
A pile of books filled a box beside Dorian’s desk. Wendt found one or two that he could turn over quickly. The Collected Works of Alcide Bava, a slim volume translated by Alfred Daria, and something called How An Irishman Born In French Canada Tried To Become A Thirteenth Century Chinese Poet Along The Russian River In Twentieth Century Northern California, A Memoir by Brian O’Flannery. No jacket photo, obviously an assumed name. Wendt never cared for books whose titles ran more than five words and said everything about it just by reading it. A copy of Nostalgia For The Infinite by the surrealist Lucian Graff on the blotter of Dorian’s desk caught his eye. He set the memoir down and picked it up. It was signed by the author. That would be worth something at the book seller’s. But it wasn’t in the pile. He pawed through the pile again, the two books tucked under his arm. There had to be at least something else worthwhile.
Wendt retrieved the half full bottle of port and his glass, and stretched out on the couch. He snapped on the parchment shaded lamp, settling in for a more careful look at the manuscript Dorian had asked him to appraise, cheaters astride his nose.
The poems, on closer look, were impenetrable. Forward progress was impossible. They stymied even the most basic of assumptions. The language was so precise that it had the feeling of having been machine-made. He flipped through the pages. Maybe not all the poems were like that. But they were. They spoke with a tone that was eerily inhuman. On the one hand the poems displayed an interesting use of language and its potential for ambiguity, but on the other there was an insipidness that made prosaic sound exciting. They were tiresome, and in the long run, irritating.
Soon he tired and settled into merely enjoying the last of the port. The bear trap had loosened its grip. It might have only been a hunger headache. Still his troubles seemed to have just begun. He had to deal with losing his living arrangements and as much as he would like to push it from his thoughts, it was becoming the immovable object in the space between his ears. He had to think about acquiring a cash flow that satisfied more than his daily needs.
Wendt’s income consisted, in part, of micro loans and outright gifts from a large network of people he knew or was always getting to know. His weekly fee from the column ensured that he could at least pay Angie their agreed upon rent for the room. But then what did Charlie say, there was a new sheriff in town intent on cutting costs at the weekly. An occasional grant or honorarium allowed him to repay his generous friends and thus ensure their generosity the next time they were approached. It was his own lopsided, quirky pyramid scheme, a poetry pyramid.
He refilled his glass and tried to assure himself that the Northbay Writers Conference had committed an oversight by excluding his name from the calendar of events but that was accompanied by the vague sinking feeling that they hadn’t. That, however, would not solve his dilemma. He’d been living on a trickle and now he needed a steady stream. You might have to find work, Dorian had advised with fatherly concern when Wendt told him of his impending eviction. “But you’re a talented man. Have you considered teaching?”
Wendt looked at his hands, the empty glass in his hand. The bottle empty as well. Idly he flipped through the books he had rescued from the pile. He was too preoccupied with his own dilemmas to solve the literary ones posed by the writing in the books. His eyeballs felt rough and dry. He turned off the light fitting his back in a comfortable hollow on the leather cushions. He should have passed out by now. The dark was splotchy and constantly shifting in shades of darker and darkest. Lately he hadn’t been feeling the effects of alcohol. That was it, then. He’d done it. He was finally immortal.
Wendt woke with a start, Dorian standing over him.
“Get up, get up, you can’t stay! What if he comes home and finds you here?”
Wendt sat up and shook the sleep from his head, holding it in his hands while he tried to make sense of what was going on. “Who?” he asked, bewildered by Dorian’s agitation.
“Roger! Roger! He could come home any minute! He would be so jealous. You have to leave. Here, take your books and go!”
Wendt stood blinking on the street. He had glanced at his watch clambering down the stairs. 4 AM. He adjust his shirt and shoulders inside his jacket and made his way to the intersection and the beckoning Hopperish glow of the 24 hour coffee shop.
Next Time: It’s Tuesday and Wendt pays a deathbed visit to poet, scholar, and professor emeritus Richard Granahan during which time euphemisms for masturbation are enumerated.