“I’d better be a poet or lay down dead”
Wendt pushed himself away from his desk and stared at his hands. This is all your fault, he thought. A rectangle of white light filled the center of the blue screen waiting for him to load it with squirming black glyphs. Scraps of paper, note cards, torn envelopes, handbills took up space on the desk next to the laptop, each scribbled with an idea, a phrase, an observation, a telephone number. He had gone through and emptied all his pockets, about a week’s worth of collected thoughts and inspirations. Wednesday being hump day, he needed to organize his next column. Once he got going, the actual writing of it would only take a few hours. Getting going could be a problem as he was a world class procrastinator. Plus there was a vague autoerotic thrill to bumping the deadline. He practiced the old crocodile philosophy: don’t make a move until you’re absolutely sure you’re going to get it all in one bite.
And he recognized the symptoms, in anticipation of the discomfort of another headache, as an accumulation of haze behind the eyes that was part of a band around the interior of his skull whose locus was just beneath the anterior bulb at the back of his head.
He took another spin around his tiny bedroom to give himself a pause. Maybe more coffee but he was already distracted by the expectation of a payday from the young documentarian. His first cup that morning had resulted in Angie giving him the good news.
She was delighted that the sale of the house had gone so quickly. Their neighbor, Mr. Quan, had heard that she was putting it on the market and immediately offered ten percent over what she was asking, no questions. Wendt listened to her prattle on about how wonderful it was that they wouldn’t have to put up with real estate agents and prospective buyers traipsing through their lives. He idly passed his eyes over the bumper stickers plastered on the fridge for probably the ten thousandth time. Free Tibet. Save Mother Earth. Save the Rain Forest. Conserve our Precious Resources. Make Love not Waste. US Out of My Life. Give a Hoot, don’t Pollute. Think Peace. Practice The 3 R’s: Recycle, Reuse, Renew. Say No To GMO’s. Save our rivers. Water is Life, don’t mess it up! Be kind to your Mother, Earth. There were layers upon layers of bumper slogans and politically correct reproach. He had once given her one that read Don’t Let Your Bumper Stickers Tell You What To Think, but it wasn’t featured among the display of world saving admonitions.
“So Carl, I’m going to have to ask you to go through the boxes and file cabinets in the garage and find something to do with all you’ve stored down there. I’ll be renting a storage space in the city until I get my tons of stuff moved up to the place in Elk and you can keep your things there temporarily. I mean everything is happening so fast. I can barely believe it. Escrow should close at the end of April if all goes well, but Mr. Quan has agreed to let me rent the house till Sam finishes school at the beginning of June. I’m so excited!”
She didn’t say anything about the money he owed her. She’d patted him on the hand and looked into his eyes with motherly concern. “I hope everything’s going to work out for you.”
Checking the phone messages from the day before, there was one from Julie, Dorian’s assistant, asking about the Lucian Graff book, if he’d seen it. Her tone was accusatory. Wendt made a note to return it with his apologies though he could make the argument that Dorian had insisted he take it when he turned him out at four in the morning. But then what he could get for it from Croft was not worth violating his old friend’s trust. There was also a message from Dottie giving her and Lynel’s itinerary for the next few days and hoping that they could connect while they were still in the city. Charlie Reyes had left a brief message asking Wendt to give him a call. He sounded worried. Charlie always sounded worried.
Wendt slipped the gold chain around his neck, one that Danni Markov had given him. He was going to be on camera, after all. Danni had been his only long time relationship besides his ex-wife, and the endless running love battle with Valerie Richards. Danni ended up marrying a psychiatrist and lived in Malibu. Funny that it had taken him so long to make the connection. Sheila Norberg, aka the-artist-known-as Sierra North, his ex, had also married a psychiatrist. Val hadn’t. She couldn’t afford a psychiatrist, number one. And she wasn’t crazy. Just tortured. Word among old friends who had momentarily strayed from their social orbit and bumped into her indicated that not much had changed. She was described variously as junked out, raggedy, burnt out, or zombified. The last time Yolanda, another ex-lover, had seen her she was living on “smack and cheese,” and implying that he should look in on her. He was a coward, he knew it. Save her from herself. But he was no superhero. Or psychiatrist. He meant to do it. It was just never the right time.
Carmen was the owner of the Red Hen. She wore an ill-fitting purple muumuu and an irritated expression. She came to where he was seated at the bar, dragging one foot puffed in gout wrapped with a safety orange orthopedic slipper, not with a beer, but his tab. He fanned the bills out on the edge of the cork-lined drink tray.
“No need to get fancy.” And when she returned with his beer, “Don’t ever have me ask you more than once.”
Wendt sipped the beer, contented that his credit had been restored. He listened in on some of the conversation Carmen had resumed with Old Sharon, a Red Hen regular.
“Russian, Russian, that’s all I hear any more.”
“I get ’em in here all the time, because you know, it’s the Red Hen, right? And they can’t even talk English right, you know?” Carmen shook her head like it was the most lamentable thing imaginable.
Wendt glanced at the time stamp on the muted wide screen TV at the far end of the bar. He had time to enjoy the first beer of the day and contemplate its amber pleasures. That’s if the kid showed. Or remembered their appointment. The imperative to get more cash was giving him hemorrhoids. But so far, no need to panic.
Perhaps he had reassured himself too hastily. A lozenge of light appeared along the edge of the opening door from which a shadow detached itself. Enter Michel Brezon.
“Michel, my name is Michel.”
“Michelle is a girl’s name in this language, pal. At least Mickey is the name of a world famous rat.”
“Fuck you, Wendt.”
Been getting a lot of that lately, Wendt mused.
Carmen unglued herself from her conversation with Old Sharon and reluctantly meandered down to stand in front of Brezon and fix him with a baleful stare that demanded “what’ll it be?”
Michel glanced at Wendt. “You buying?”
Since his credit was once again healthy he nodded in assent and Carmen reached for a mug to draw the draft.
Brezon stopped her. “Uh, got any bottle beer? Heinie?” And then to make sure she didn’t misunderstand him, “Heineken?” The green oval affixed to the cluttered mirror behind the bar spoke the answer to his query. Brezon, once it came, raised the bottle in appreciation. “Salut, confrere. To the life of a poet, such as it is.”
Wendt had to laugh. Brezon was bearable in small doses. Unfortunately he didn’t come in small doses. He was, however, good for the latest dirt and that could sometimes be useful and, if nothing else, a cynical diversion.
“What’re you doing in this part of town?”
“Uh, hanging with my girl friend.”
“Is she making you unhappy?”
“Yeah, uh, we just had a big fight. I’d rather not talk about it.”
Wendt shrugged. It occurred to him to ask “What’s going on with Stoddard? Is he in some kind of trouble?”
Michel made the drinking mime. “Nothing anyone can do about it. Drowning in his own hundred proof tears.”
“What, so he just found out he’s impotent?” Wendt cracked.
Brezon rasped a chuckle. “Yeah, kinda, in a way, you might say that. But it’s the muse he can’t get it up for, and the subsequent lack of success, fame, celebrity, what have you, is crushing him.”
“Stoddard always had his limitations.”
“Maybe that’s what he’s finally bumped up against.”
“But he’s a good teacher. So I hear.”
“Well, not any more. If he does show up to class, he’s either hung-over or tying one on. So the Administration at NAIF has put out feelers to replace him. How can you charge for a class when the teacher is either blotto or doesn’t show up?”
“Blood in the water.”
Fifteen minutes later Wendt began to feel a little apprehensive. And Brezon had put another Heineken on his tab. Fifteen minutes was also about as long as it took for Brezon to become tiresome. He was an insinuator. Give him an inch and he would take that inch and an additional sixty-three thousand three hundred and fifty-nine.
“You heard about Tom Trolley, right?”
“I thought it was pronounced Tro-lay, and yeah, I heard. What was it, a couple of weeks ago, heart attack?”
“Yeah, he’d moved down to Big Sur to live with his daughter on some back road on a mountain top out in the middle of nowhere.”
“Someplace like that, and he’s sitting out on the deck, enjoying the sun, the view, thinking this is the life, drinking the wine, probably smoking the herb, if I know Tom, and he gets stung by a bee! He goes into shock and dies in a matter of minutes, just like that!
“Living in the country can be dangerous,” Wendt opined gravely. “I’ve always thought that. Snakes, gopher holes, mosquitoes, poison ivy, falling trees. I know, I spent my summers as a kid in the country. There’s so much that can go wrong and you’re what, light years away from civilization? You can actually die of boredom. Not for me, man.”
Another fifteen passed and Wendt had devoured the bowl of glazed sesame sticks and was picking at the crumbs. Carmen was never very generous with the snacks. “What d’you think? This is a lunch wagon?” was her answer to the request for a refill. It was starting to look like the kid was not going to show up. As well, after half an hour Brezon had run out of material and was starting to repeat himself.
The phone behind the bar warbled like an obese seagull. Carmen waddled to where she picked it up and spat “loreden.” She listened with an expression of severe disdain. “Yeah, this is the Red Hen!” She sounded indignant. “Who?” and at the same time threw her evil squint down on Wendt. “This ain’t a public phone. Ya wanna talk to him call the pay phone.” She rattled off the numbers and thumbed the handset off. She hobbled back to her stool in the corner of the bar by the door. “Wendt, that phone call’s for you!” she yelled as the pay phone on the wall between the Guys and Gals came to life. “Some people have cell phones, you know! Even bums like you!” she added. Carmen was still mad at him because once, long ago, she thought she had had a chance with him. She never did.
Wendt picked up the handset on the third ring. “Yeah, this is Wendt.”
The voice at the other end apologized profusely, explaining that he had just returned from an unexpected trip to LA and his flight was delayed because he was supposed to get back in plenty of time to make their appointment at the Red Hen but he just got in and had to wait for his equipment which was coming in another taxi so not to worry everything was going to be just fine, they would have to improvise and shoot the interview at the place he was house sitting and he was sending a cab over to pick him up if that was ok.
Wendt never turned down a ride in a cab.
And, the voice added, they could order out and get any kind of food he wanted, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Tai, Sushi, Eritrean, Basque, Spanish, Mexican, Russian, Polish, Salvadoran, what have you. And what kind of beer did he like? Or wine? Or whatever.
Wendt had had only two beers so he was certain it wasn’t some early stage euphoria kicking in. “Fish and chips. From the Korean place over off of Polk. And beer, good strong dark beer. It doesn’t have to be Guinness.”
Brezon was curious when Wendt came back to his stool and began the preparation for leaving, namely knocking back the remaining lager in his glass. “What’s up? You leaving?”
Wendt nodded, anticipating leaving the mental anchor behind. “Yeah, taxi coming to pick me up. Place over on Greenwich, the upside of Van Ness,” he said, regretting it immediately.
“Hey, that’s just over the hill from where I’m going. I’m reading at the coffee house on Stockton tonight. Think I can snag a ride?”
Wendt stared at a spot on the door over Brezon’s shoulder wishing that he were already gone. He nodded. “Sure, why not.”
In the uncomfortable silence between the end of the phone call and Carmen alerting him that the cab was out front, he went over scenarios of how to ditch Brezon once they arrived at the destination. Brezon was a leech and would try to cut in on his action if he could. It would probably be just as easy to tell him to get lost or that it was just business. But in that symbiotic relationship of poets of their ilk, the seed of generosity can often blossom into a flower of unexpected abundance. Brezon and pals had put the kid on to him, after all, and so he was entitled to a commission even though the two Heinies were probably all he deserved.
When they stepped out of the Red Hen to board the cab, a shout was raised from down the block. Brezon swore under his breath, ducked and scurried between the cars parked at the curb and into the back of the waiting cab. A large white man was walking briskly toward them shouting something to the effect that he told him before not to bother and said a name like Natalia or Natasha. The man had a full head of hair with touches of gray. Prominent cheekbones and flat forehead spoke of Slavic origins. He was dressed in a thigh-length black leather jacket, dark slacks and white loafers. A pale yellow shirt was open at the collar to reveal a wealth of gold chains. He paused in his tirade momentarily to consider Wendt. They were dressed almost exactly alike, except for the white loafers. A newly arrived countryman? Wendt took the opportunity of his hesitation to slip into the open door of the cab.
“What the fuck was that all about?” he demanded as he slammed it behind him.
Brezon was slouched down below window level at the opposite side. “Uh, I think that’s my girlfriend’s father. He doesn’t like me.”
The man was now standing at the curb, still shouting but no longer in English.
“That’s not her father, man, that’s her pimp,” the cabbie interjected.
“Well if it isn’t Cuntcap Murray. Any time now. Before this guy exercises the nuclear option.”
Murray put the cab into the flow with authority and cabbie disdain for on-coming traffic.
“You have the address over on Greenwich?”
Murray held up a gloved hand in acknowledgement and glanced into the rearview. “As called in. But we’re going to have to take a detour. Some kind of police action gots Van Ness closed from Broadway to the Civic Center. Guy with a gun. Already killed a couple of civilians.”
In spite of Murray’s intimate knowledge of short cuts and byways, they encountered a backup and jam in the vicinity of Van Ness. No one on four wheels was going anywhere. Wendt got out and walked the rest of the way, up the steep grade to the address on Greenwich. Brezon thought better of it and decided to wander over to the police lines to see if he could see anything. He could even write a poem about it, but all the participants would be ostriches in keeping with his penchant for obvious comic book surrealism.
Next Time: In a flash from the past, Wendt finds himself in familiar surroundings talking about his childhood on a commune, and Jack Kerouac. To review what has transpired so far, reference the episodes listed in the sidebar, or click The Complete DAY to read the pdf file.