“I’d better be a poet or lay down dead”
“You’re an asshole.”
Nora White and Associates, Literary Representatives, held court at a tiny red table at the far back of Tosca’s. The associates were three Maltese mutts named Sam, Miles, and Bridgette. Nora looked like she could use a cigarette. She smelled like she’d already had more than a few. What could have been an angora sweater was merely an accumulation of dog hair on a wool shrug. A veneer of hair spray held her curls in check, what curls there were, dyed blond and worse for the wear.
“Thanks for your vote. If I get enough, I can win the Rusty Sphincter Award.”
“Golden Sphincter, and there’s a limit on how many times you can win.”
“Then when do I get inducted into the Asshole Hall Of Fame?”
“You’ve already been. But you’re such an asshole that you never showed up for the ceremony.”
“What’s this all about?”
“Why did you tell those kids you wouldn’t read at that memorial unless I gave the ok?”
“I don’t do readings for free. It sets a bad precedent.”
“You haven’t had a reading in the city in what, three years? I think you’re in the hole on this one.”
“The longer it takes me to get a paying gig the more expensive I get.”
“I don’t quite follow your logic.”
“Besides I didn’t think he’d call after I warned him about you.”
“Snakes in the hair again?”
“More Cyclopean than Gorgon-ish.”
“With friends like you I don’t need enemies.”
“Face it, Nora, your enemies are all your old friends. You’re in the literary biz, you know, knife in the back and all that.”
Nora dropped her chin in assent and slid off the chair untangling the dog leashes. At full height her nose pointed directly at Wendt’s heart.
“Walk with me, Carl. Time for me to leave my perch before the health inspectors and their wives come in for a drink, anyway.”
“Health inspectors frequent Tosca’s?”
“Figuratively, Carl, figuratively. I’m talking about the couples who come in here and see me with my dogs and think they can quote public health code about them being in a food service establishment unless they’re seeing-eye or service dogs.”
“Well, they’re right. That is the law.”
“So, you’re a health inspector now?”
On the walk up Grant to Nora’s apartment they fell in behind a trio of young people that from the swagger and stagger of their meanderings indicated that they’d been hoisting a few. Two men and a woman, one of the men and the woman engaged in a passionate embrace as they made their progress. The other man trailed behind.
“Poor guy doesn’t have a girl friend,” Nora observed more to herself than to her dogs or Wendt, “and he has to watch his friend get smooched.”
“I think the woman’s his girlfriend. Or his wife.”
“The third wheel’s? You are an astute observer of human nature, Carl.”
“Or I’ve got a good imagination. But that doesn’t explain why he’s sobbing.”
Nora reached into her bag and retrieved the key to unlock the grate. “You’re a savant, an idiot, but a savant.”
“Ah, is that a promotion?” Wendt held the iron gate open. “From asshole to idiot savant?”
“No promotion.” Nora herded the dogs ahead of her and up the narrow grey painted stairs. “Idiot savant asshole. It just takes longer to say.”
Nora splashed cranberry juice into a couple of water glasses of vodka in the kitchen. Wendt moved the pile of manuscripts from the big overstuffed chair in the living room office onto the floor among the other piles of paper and dropped onto the threadbare cushion, stretching his legs to the ottoman piled with padded envelopes.
Nora placed the drink in his hand. “You know as well as I do why you’re not getting asked back to the North Bay Writers Conference. Don’t play dumb.”
“What are you saying? That it’s my fault?”
“Carl, you were screwing the director. . .”
“Whatever. For the three previous years you were applying your variable foot to her, and then last year you dumped her for some shrill ingénue. Didn’t you think she’d notice?”
“Come on, Nora, it’s just sex.”
“You won’t learn, will you, Carl. For a woman, it’s never just sex, no matter what she leads you to believe.”
“Well, whatever the cause, I’m gonna miss that money.”
“I know all about that. I’ve been talking to Angela. She’s smart to move out to the country. It’s best for Samantha. She has asthma and the pollution in the city gets deadly at times.” This from a woman whose apartment was a giant ashtray.
“I need to make money, not just my usual chump change. Any ideas?”
“Oh, I have ideas but none of them relate to you.” She surveyed Wendt from the leather office chair that engulfed her like a large fielder’s mitt. Or a malignant mushroom. “I suppose I could pay you to read some of the stink that comes in the mail. Would you be willing to do that?”
Wendt considered his drink, and shook his head no.
“How about a speaking and reading tour?”
“Would I have to leave the city?”
“Carl, you are a parochial anachronism.”
“What part of poet doesn’t cover that?”
“Of course, you’re going to have to leave the city.”
“Got anything like featured speaker at a convention? I hear they do pretty good.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Nora confined her sarcasm to a loud mocking laugh. “I’m thinking more along the lines of writing groups looking for authors to come and talk to them about their experiences with the craft and how to get published. I have a couple of other clients who do pretty well.”
“The Tupperware circuit? I think not.”
“Suit yourself. But there you go acting like a snob. Just like the people you say you hate.”
“Writing isn’t about joining a group and penning borderline erotica for your friends. It’s not a knitting circle.”
“Oh my, that’s pretty sexist. But I’m not surprised, considering the source.”
“You don’t just suddenly decide you’re going to be a writer once the kids move out or you reach a midlife crisis.”
“I can quote a list of names longer than my arm that proves you’re talking through your hat.”
“My point is that it’s a synthetic hell when what you really need is an authentic hell. These people write for the chance to get on Oprah, they don’t write to try to make sense of their confusion, to overcome the doubt and anxiety that will turn them into an ascetic of the word. And at the same time make them whole. I’m not interested in talking to a room full of broken crockery wanting to be reassembled into a piggy bank.”
“Get off your suffering artist high horse, Carl, save it for the impressionable young seductees. Nobody cares more about what you do more than you, as the author, and after that the appreciation drops off a cliff. I’m not talking about baring your soul and converting the rabble. I’m talking about a snake oil show. Give them what they want and let them do with it what they can. People want opinions. Is it good, is it bad? They don’t want art. They wouldn’t know what to make of it. They want to be told how to do something that will make them money or held in awe by their friends, and most of the time making loads of money does that. Aesthetics is not listed on the stock exchange and you can’t deposit it in a bank.”
“Ok, you got my attention with ‘deposit it in the bank.’ What do I have to do?”
Nora trumpeted a victory chuckle as she went back into the kitchen to dilute the cranberry juice. When she came back, she laid it out for him. She was connected to a number of Writer’s Clubs and Guilds throughout the State. As well, some of her clients who ran writing workshops were always on the lookout for guest writers to come in and talk. Maybe lectures at a few community colleges, but that would have to wait till the fall semester. He might do reasonably well in the short term. The long term depended on how successful he was in the short term. Make money, and then make more money. That was her motto. In the meantime he could do some fact checking for some of her clients. And if things were particularly slow, he could proofread manuscripts.
Wendt snaked a cigarette from the pack on Nora’s desk. He lit it with her personalized pink butane. She had one in her mouth and another burning in the ashtray. “Yeah, maybe, but I don’t want to cut in on Val’s livelihood.”
He had gone to the kitchen to refresh his drink. There was little more than a corner left to the potato juice. Then he spied the full half gallon set back among the clutter of appliances on the counter.
“Val is a flake. She brought back some work I had her do for me a couple of weeks ago. She hadn’t touched it.” Nora paused and angled her head like a drunken parakeet. “Aren’t you going to ask how she’s doing?”
He nodded reluctantly knowing that Nora would tell him anyway. “Yeah, how is she doing?” He didn’t want to care.
“That was the last time I saw her. She knows I’m not happy with her. She poached one of my clients. He gave her money to edit his manuscript and he hasn’t heard from her since.” Nora blew smoke from her pursed lips with a whistle of exasperation. “The woman is not well.”
Wendt wobbled over to the coffee house on Stockton where Brezon and another poet were reading. The place was deserted except for the poets and one or two other patrons. A shot of espresso put some timber back in his sagging foundation.
Nora drank way too much. She hadn’t been such a drunk when he’d first met her years ago as a successful young editor. That was back when he was on the way to becoming a successful young poet. He’d been sidetracked. She hadn’t. She’d used her savvy to build a successful career representing authors. All the same, they’d built up a rough trust that resembled more of a truce over the years. She didn’t take any of his guff, and he knew she wasn’t going to bullshit him. She’d walked him through the grant writing process once and then, realizing that he was hopelessly inept at paperwork that did not proceed directly from his own imagination, took over the grant writing for him. If the application was successful she charged what she called an administrative fee. Wendt, in turn, felt that he could take advances on the grants before they were awarded. That created problems. Mainly, his being in a deep hole to her. She was in business after all. Of late though, it seemed like drinking was a large part of her business. And her smoking! She was going to set herself on fire one of these days.
He was beginning to wish Brezon’s reading partner would self-immolate. The man was a dishrag of self pity from which he wrung every drop of sloppy sentiment for all it was worth. At a nearby table, Brezon, who had read first, now seemed transfixed, a rigid grin of nervous approbation, his right knee bouncing in rapid agitation as if from a drug that was just too good. The umpteenth occurrence of the word agony seemed like enough of a cue for Wendt to get up and leave. He sauntered down Union. A patrol car with its lights flashing was pulled over to the curb alongside the park. Someone was getting a blue light special. He headed to Joe’s to check on when Wendy got off work and maybe catch a ride back to the neighborhood.
He couldn’t tell if the headache was leaving or just taking a breather. He reviewed his conversation with Nora again. They’d batted around the idea of his going after Stoddard’s position at NAIF. He had enough of a reputation, but that and three-fifty might get him a latte. And besides, he wasn’t a teacher. He shook his head confirming it. The ache rattled awake like a tiny toy in a gumball machine.
Next Time: Over noodles and pot-stickers at the Be Bop Dim Sum Café on Clement, schools of poetry (& poets) are the topic of discussion for Wendt and his young friend, Andy Porter. To review what has transpired so far, reference the episodes listed in the sidebar, or click The Complete DAY to read the pdf file.