“I’d better be a poet or lay down dead”
Wendt took note that the swim consisted of a lot of information about the proportions of oxygen to hydrogen, and a lot of that information consisted of lists, of coincidences, of lists of coincidences, and that he was doing the Australian crawl when he wasn’t doing his favorite, the breast stroke.
His finger was poised to depress the doorbell over which a brass plate bore the name R. Granahan. Professor emeritus Richard Granahan had a duplex over in the Saint Anne’s neighborhood. At that moment the dingy white door with a large dusty square of pebbled glass taking up the top half opened and Marguerite Sayrah emerged, blinking twice before realizing who was standing there. Then she made an unpleasant face and brushed passed him with a grunt of disapproval. She was followed by a short round man with an orange billed Giants ballcap and a patchy black beard. He was dressed entirely in black, except for his orange Converse sneakers. He kept his head down to avoid looking directly at Wendt.
Wendt shrugged and let himself in. He followed the hallway down to Dick’s bedroom. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the old man was given six months to live. That was nine months ago. Dick Granahan, prize winning poet, scholar, and local lothario, had been Wendt’s faculty advisor at State during his ill fated attempt at a post-graduate degree. As Dick was also fond of a hearty brew, they often went for a drink at The Rustic Union, a pub within walking distance of campus. Granahan’s graduate level Advanced Poetry Seminar met there on occasion. What he called his “meet the masters” class. He would invite well-known literary figures to dinner and drinks in the company of his students. He discontinued it after a while because, as he said, “there was just too much disappointment.”
Then there was what became known as the “Grannyhand” scandal. Apparently, RG, as some people referred to him, had offered extra credit to some of the female students in his undergraduate Advanced Poetry class in exchange for the rendering of a particular sexual favor. Grannyhand seemed to say it all.
Close to retirement, Dick quietly resigned his position at State and the University just as quietly swept it under the rug. Not long afterwards, Granahan was offered the position as head of the writing department at New Arts Inc., the chain of liberal arts diploma mills with campuses in most big American cities. At New Arts Inc., Frisco, or NAIF, sexual relations between staff and students were not unheard of or particularly frowned upon.
The Grannyhand affair was not without its backlash or consequence, however. Dick’s wife, Jane, divorced him. His only son, Austin, refused to speak to him. And his daughter, Marla, possibly exhibiting some of her father’s predilections, became a lesbian porn queen. It had been a rough time for his old friend and Wendt was one of the few who stood by him. Through the odd coincidence of chance and habit, they would get together regularly on Tuesdays. Even so, it was not quite a month of Tuesdays since he’d dropped by. Watching his old friend die was not at all comfortable.
Richard Granahan was a profane little man with a slab of snow white hair slapped across a wide forehead and a nicotine stained cookie duster below the bloated and pocked bulb of broken blood vessels. When RG died, and that might be any day, they could roll him up, attach a handle to him, and he would be no larger than a moderate sized suitcase. But even now, bedridden, he seemed quite alive. At least his hand was, under the sheets. Pummeling? Or grabbing?
“That’s ok, Dick, you don’t have to give me a demo. I’m quite familiar with how it’s done.”
The shrunken old man startled, pulled as he was by two dissimilar impulses, surprise and ecstasy. Surprise won because it was more immediate. “Wendt, you crazy son of a bitch, you could have given me a heart attack!”
“Why don’t we just say that I saved you from another one of those little deaths?”
Dick, laughing now and relieved for the distraction, extended his hand in greeting.
“Hope you don’t mind if I pass,” Wendt said pulling a chair closer to bedside, “I know where that’s been.”
Dick’s face glowed red as the big smile that broke across his face rendered him speechless.
“So, been practicing long?”
“At my age sex with anyone but myself would be just plain embarrassing. After you reach a certain place in life, your cock is your only friend. You and it against the world! To my amazement I can still get it up. Long enough to do the job!”
“Ow! Please, Dick! Too much information!”
“At one point I figured why not get that momentary pleasure that still puts a sparkle in my eye. I want to die with that sparkle in my eye. I work on it daily.”
“So that’s why you were rowing with one oar.”
“Right, yanking the crank.”
“Stretching the slinky.”
“Choking the doughboy.”
“I always heard it as choking the chicken.”
“Yes, that’s fairly common, as is pounding your pud.”
“Whatever a pud is.”
“I’ve heard that pud is the diminutive for pudding.”
“I guess that makes sense, in its own odd way. As much as baby batter makes sense.”
“On the other hand, it could very well be a shortened form of pudendum.”
“Pounding your pudendum? I can see why it was shortened. But I thought that pudendum applied to female genitalia.”
“It has come to be applied almost exclusively to the female but it applies to the male as well. Interesting that the Latin root for the word is the verb ‘to be ashamed.’ So you can see that self gratification has a long history of disapproval.”
“Beating your meat, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphors, doesn’t beat around the bush.”
“Clearing the pipe is also quite graphic but quotidian.”
“I was always partial to flogging the log.”
“Well, yes, that does have a kind of assonant alliteration that is stock and trade in these kinds of euphemisms. Like buffing the banana or grappling the gremlin.”
“Lobbing a gob.”
“Collaring the cleric, testing the testicles, yes, like that.”
“Venting the ventricle, pumping the python.”
“Have you ever heard punishing Percy? That goes a ways back.”
“Right, like playing pocket pool.”
“And there are those that take on the attributes of labor like varnishing the flag pole or adjusting the antenna.”
“Basting the ham.”
“Painting the ceiling.”
“Warming up the engine, restarting the rotisserie.”
“Lubricating the lance. I imagine that has quite a provenance.” Granahan had started giggling, his eyes moist with delight.
“True, jollying the Johnson is more contemporary. As is jacking the junior.”
“I believe that the British have it as wanking the willie, or just wanking which is rather pedestrian for a tribe that prides itself on its poetry, don’t you think?”
“Don’t they also say pulling the taffy?”
“Boffing the bishop.”
“How about fingering the skin flute?”
“No, I think flute refers to another feature of that nether anatomy.”
“I was thinking flute like something someone would blow.”
“Of course. Then there are the ones that refer to other species to aid in their subterfuge. Stroking the snake. Taming the shrew. Tugging the slug.”
“Wagging the walrus. Bending the badger might also be one.”
“Spanking the monkey.”
“Oiling the one-eyed eel.”
“That’s rather exotic but since we’re being aquatic, how about releasing the tadpole torpedoes?”
“Goosing the frog?”
“Hmm, that has a rather cross-species perversity to it.”
“Opening a worm of cans.” Wendt smiled at the interpolation, but Dick didn’t seem to notice, intent as he was now on what had become a competition.
“Manhandling the midget, tenderizing the tube steak.”
“Stretching the meat sock.”
“Waxing the carrot.”
“Twanging your magic twanger.”
“Practicing the secret handshake. Also referred to as performing a sleight of hand.”
“Pulling the wool over old one-eye.”
“That’s only if you’re not circumcised.”
“Then for the educated man there’s always erecting a singular proposition.”
“Oh, in that case, fleshing out the future.”
“Enabling the opposable advantage.”
“The precious thing hard to obtain.”
“What’s not hard? It’s available day and night.”
“It’s Jung. The infantile ego and all that crap.”
“Well, that takes all the fun out of it.”
“Well, how about this: stealing fire.”
“Exactly what I was getting at.”
“Grasping the awful truth.”
“Dowsing the abyss. For the existentialist wanker.”
“Quickening the pulse.”
“Ordering the hors d’oeuvres, whisking the marinade.”
“Restocking the inventory. For the neo-Darwinians.”
“Slapping your pappy, mastering your domain.”
“Shaking hands with the master.”
“Now you’re getting down to the truth!” Granahan insisted, animated by the amusement of their word play.
“Grappling with the love vine.”
“That’s fine if you think you’re Tarzan. But then who doesn’t?”
“Owning up to your onanism.”
“Tagging the bed sheets.”
“Going blind on a date with yourself.”
The old man shook with a paroxysm of laughter, gasping for breath like a wicked rag doll.
“Shit, Granahan, you ok?”
Eyes watering, a smile full of yellow carnivores, Dick nodded. “It’s laughter you have to watch out for. It’ll kill ya.” He wheezed out a few more chuckles.
“So who were you wanking on?”
Granahan hesitated. “Who was I what?”
“Come on, Granahan, who did you have across your knees in the fold-out spread? Wait a minute! I ran into her on my way out!”
Granahan’s mug was the model of sheepishness. “Yeah, Marguerite Sayrah.”
“Ok, now I’m beginning to see a pattern. Wasn’t Kay one of your students at State?”
“Yeah, fuck, Wendt, you’re on the right track. No need to spell it out.”
“A sister in the silly putty sorority of the grannyhand. I bet there’s even a blog devoted to the posting and discussion of their experiences, barbeques, bitch sessions, travels to Cancun where they seek out old retired English professors and fulfill the old farts’ fantasies. Though I’ll bet Kay doesn’t belong to that group or read their blog.”
“I’ve done some things I’m not very proud of. I’m ashamed of my anti-social transgressions.”
“Well, yes, you did teach creative writing.”
Grananhan ignored him. “And that’s one chapter in my life I would do over if I could. I’m not going to get the chance. I feel bad enough about it. You don’t have to rub my face in it.”
Wendt pulled the half-pint bottle from his inside pocket and held it up to Dick. “Here, maybe this’ll give you a lift out of your self pity. It’ll help with that mealy taste in your mouth.”
“Jesus, you really are trying to kill me, aren’t you?
Wendt shrugged and took a bite of firewater. “Headache cure.”
“Now that on the other hand is just unhealthy. Wendt, it’s not even noon!”
“I eat at noon. Now’s the time for a drink.”
“You on a tear? You look a little rumpled.”
Wendt told him the tale of his eviction from Dorian’s couch. “This is just going to be one of those days that’s longer than twenty four hours.”
“How is old Dorian these days?”
“Just like you, dying.”
“Yes, and the vultures are circling.”
“Speaking of which, what’s going on with Kay? She just renewing old attachments?”
“Who? Oh yes, Marguerite. Very funny.” Granahan sighed, “She’s under the illusion that she’s my literary executor.”
“Who was the little guy with her?”
“A poet, I can’t remember his name. He is quite technically adept. Which is why I might question his qualifications as a man of letters. They’re different realities, you know.”
“So like Igor to her Mary Frankenstein?”
“They want me to post my thoughts and poems on this blog they created for me. They didn’t like the name I came up with, but they weren’t going to get me to do it otherwise. It’s called With My Last Dying Blog.” Granahan dragged a swivel arm table with a laptop attached to it directly in front of him. “I’ve got this set up, see. It’s supposed to be some sort of cross-media engagement of the arts. So I’m to type in some old poems or the couple of new ones, the ones that still dribble out. Or I recycle some of my old essays. Or lectures. I can say pretty much anything I damn well please. People can comment on what I say in this comment box, here.” He moved the arrow to point at the small rectangular window to one side of the page on the screen. “I call it the snark tank. Lot of mudslinging and mud wrestling goes on in there. But what do you expect? They’re just kids.”
“Ill-mannered children jockeying for status in the eyes of their elders,” Wendt volunteered.
The old man sighed, weary. “Some days I don’t feel like saying anything. Then I get a flood of queries asking me if I’m ok when in reality they’re wondering if that last post I put up was virtually the last one and am I now just a flat line.” Dick widened his eyes in mock disbelief. “And the sycophants! It’s like having a whole meadow of sheep lined up to kiss your ass with their bleating inane servility! The last couple of times I’ve posted I’ve been saying things like ‘Get a life!’ Or ‘fuck off!’ That’s why Marguerite and Igor were here. Because I was being uncooperative and ruining her expectations of me.”
“What’s the big deal? You get to ensure your legacy.”
Dick spat “Legacy” as if the word had a bad taste. “I’m a fossil.”
“So you’re immortal chalk. Why not lay down some tracks, let the future generations figure out what you’re all about?”
“I’d rather jerk off.” As soon as he spoke the words, Dick’s look of consternation and dread prompted Wendt to glance back over his shoulder. A tall shadow in a religious habit had materialized in the doorway. There was something very unfeminine in the angles of the face peeking out from the starched frame of the wimple.
“It’s ok, sister, he’s a friend of mine,” Dick called anxiously as the nun’s shadow melted away.
“What happened to Paloma?” Paloma, a busy little Filipino woman, had been Dick’s hospice worker from the beginning.
“I don’t know. One day this nun shows up. And says she’s one of the volunteers at the Hospice Center and would be taking Paloma’s place until they found a replacement for her. Maybe she went back to Manila. It’s downright creepy. I went to Catholic schools growing up in Marquette. All my teachers were nuns. Do you have any idea what that does to you?”
“Maybe. I attended a nursery school and kindergarten run by two French nuns of an Irish order. The Sisters of Perpetual Redundancy. I learned to speak a little French and dislike the Irish.”
“You know the problem with having nuns as teachers? You fixate on saintly women and end up with one, and everybody knows you don’t want to live with a saint. Let me tell you, I know from experience. We used to fear and hate them. We had this joke. If penguins are flightless birds, what are nuns?
Wendt shrugged, the bottle to his lips
The nun was having a cigarette leaning against the stucco balustrade of Granahan’s stoop. The nun was a man.
“Got a cigarette?”
The nun reached deep into his habit for a crumpled pack and shook one out.
Wendt accepted a light. “So what’s the story with the nun getup?”
The nun scoffed a laugh and told the story. Granahan’s hospice worker, Paloma, had complained to the parish priest that Dick was doing lewd things in front of her and she was worried that if Granahan kept at it, he would go to Hell. She liked her job and was fond of Mr. Dick, as she called him. She just wanted to know how she could get him to stop. Father Russo, the parish priest, knew the Granahans quite well. As a young family they often attended services together, and he had counseled Dick and Jane before their divorce so he was aware of a lot of the intimate details of their lives. He knew that Granahan had attended a parochial school run by nuns as a child. He decided to try and shame him by replacing Paloma with a nun, but he didn’t want to subject the good sisters to such wanton display. Father Russo knew that he was a performance artist who included a skit about a nun in his repertoire. The man owed the old priest a favor. So he garbed up and roamed the halls looking fearsome.
“Hasn’t helped, has it?”
“No, he’s still greasing the mongoose.”
“Getting rosin for the fiddle.”
Next Time: With a signed Granahan first edition in his possession, Wendt heads to the bookseller’s for some bartering and a potential cash infusion.