“I’d better be a poet or lay down dead”
Wendt hooked up with Dottie & Lynel at the Zig Zag Room in the Haight. The Zig Zag Room was run by a Frenchman of Lebanese descent named Pierre who had heard every joke about Lesbians and Lebanese there was to tell. And in the process he had probably lost what little sense of humor he originally had. The Zag, as it was affectionately known, was a staging area where literary types could fortify themselves before having an evening of literature inflicted upon them. Next door to The Zag was the Upright, a coffee house that hosted weekly poetry readings, and known once, not so affectionately, as the “Uptight” when the series was run by a group of Abstract Maoist Feminists.
“I didn’t think they’d let us in.” Dottie was not wearing her contacts and in consequence her round dark framed glasses gave her a wide-eyed owlish appearance. A black knit hat with a skulls and crossed bones motif allowed a fringe of dirt blond hair to peek out at her cheeks and just above her shoulders. She wore what looked like a European style long military overcoat.
“I saw the gaggle of black and whites down on Stanyan. What’s up with that?” Wendt accepted the pilsner from the bartender who explained, “Shot some kid in a stolen car after a screaming chase down the middle of the street in mid-day traffic. Yashouldaheardit.”
Wendt slid Andy’s twenty ever so tentatively across the bar on the off chance that Dottie or Lynel would offer to buy the beer.
“They just reopened the street not more than fifteen minutes ago,” Dottie offered. “I thought that they were going to cancel the reading.” The way she said it sounded ambiguously disappointed.
Wendt stared down at what was left of the twenty.
“So what’s up with the angry little guy? At Megan’s salon last Tuesday?” Dottie wanted to know.
“Reggie?” Wendt chuckled, “Short story, long answer. I should have beat his ass but he’s one of those guys who won’t go away unless you push them off a cliff.”
“I thought his head was going to explode.”
Wendt shrugged, “Yeah, he’s a pain in the ass.” And changed the subject, “Who’s buying archives these days?”
“Nobody. University libraries are cutting way back on acquisitions. And it’s not so much because of the cost of the materials. Most authors will sell their lives for a pittance. It’s storing all that paper that’s the real cost. Storage space.”
Wendt grunted and nodded like he’d heard it before.
“You could try finding a private investor. That’s what Ly and I are doing. Ly has correspondence with the crème de la crème of the literary world back from when he had his magazine See in the late eighties. Berrigan, Schuyler, Weiner. He was smart to hang on to those.” She smiled at Lynel and he smiled back. “And we’ve got all our early manuscripts and journals, his and mine. Now we just have to find the right person to buy them.”
Wendt thought of offering Harry Croft’s name but he wasn’t the right person, not for Dottie and Lynel. He was Wendt’s own private runnel of trickledown economics. “So there’s such a thing as a poetry investor?” He didn’t want to sound incredulous.
“Oh yeah, collectors, and not just poetry, of course, all kinds of limited edition literary ephemera, chap books, that sort of thing. Orthography, too, which is why it’s good to write your work out by hand first even if it doesn’t turn out to be the final version. Especially if it doesn’t turn out to be the final version!” Dottie and Lynel clinked their drink glasses and grinned at some private joke. “We thought that Dorian Pillsbury might be someone who would be interested.”
Wendt’s frown was like the growl of a dog protecting his meal ticket.
“We called him up but all we got was his assistant who was super bitchy. She said that Dorian was in the hospital.”
Wendt looked down at his beer. The phone message on his machine earlier from Julie he had deleted before he heard more than half a dozen words because he didn’t want to deal with her usual histrionics. He hated what he was thinking. If Dorian kicked, he would get more than just a finder’s fee for the signed Lucian Graff. He didn’t want to think of Dorian dying just yet, though like Granahan, it was a matter of days, months, not years.
Dottie sailed into his thought stream. “Denny Darns passed away recently. Down in Pismo Beach.”
“Denny, wow, no,” Wendt blinked. He hadn’t thought of Denny in a while. They’d crossed paths in Wendt’s younger, rowdier days. Even though they’d lost touch, he kept an affectionate memory of the wild old man. There was a little more than a decade’s difference in their ages, though he remembered Denny holding his own at the drinking trough.
“He was at Iowa when Ly was there, teaching fiction.”
“Didn’t he get fired from the program?”
Dottie and Lynel exchanged meaningful looks. “He was asked to leave. ADU.”
“Adu? You mean adieu, like good-bye?”
“No, A-D-U, Alcohol, Drugs and Undergrads. But he landed on his feet, dried out. Bluffed his way into a teaching position at a community college on the central coast. He stayed in touch with Ly, and he liked to write long letters. By hand!” She widened her eyes to the size of silver dollars. “Anyway, his novel? The Color of Sunset? About the art scene in Santa Barbara? It was optioned by some big Hollywood producer, and all of a sudden old Denny had a rocket in his pocket. There’s this bohemian literary circle in San Luis he had been hanging out with, and next thing you know he had groupies.”
Wendt tried to imagine the types of groupies that would be found on the eastern flanks of the rolling toasty brown hills of the central coast range. “The wives of vintners? And cattle ranchers?”
“More like university wives and their daughters. And some of the local artistes, of course. Apparently it got almost as crazy as it did in Iowa.”
Lynel responded to Dottie’s remark with a low sardonic chuckle that didn’t reflect anything funny.
“He had so many women after him that they had to beat him off with a stick.”
This time Lynel’s laugh was genuine. “I think that should be ‘He had to beat them off with a stick,’ honey.”
Dottie cocked her head to the side. Then with a shake, “No, I think the way I said it is right.”
Wendt had to know. “So was he in. . . ?”
“Flagrante dilecto? You bet, but, you know, in a very Chance the Gardner fashion. He liked to watch.”
Wendt understood. Old men and their cocks.
“The funeral is next week. Denny’s sister asked Lynel to speak at the memorial.” Lynel nodded his agreement. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist. Wendt couldn’t imagine him delivering anything more than a haiku for a eulogy. But maybe he would don his professorial hat and lecture the mourners. He had heard of, but never witnessed, Lynel’s vaunted logorrhea.
And would he attend the funeral in his signature black leather motorcycle jacket? It was the Lynel Pauk bad boy of poetry look of his youth, though that image had been compromised once he took the teaching position at the University of Kansas. He still sported a ridiculous Gorgeous George pompadour, now thinning, the architecture precariously held in place with hair spray, and streaked with grey.
They had stepped out to the sidewalk to grab a smoke. Dottie continued her chatter, a result of her favorite diet pill, no doubt. Dottie was tall for a woman, tall as most men so when she talked she didn’t have to talk up and was better heard than many of her sex. Men adored her and women found her charmingly threatening. Wendt wondered if Lynel’s silence was because he couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Dottie was Jay to Lynel’s Silent Bob.
“Lynel’s going after the job that’s opening up at NAIF,” she said, probably not remembering that she had already told Wendt of their plan. Lynel agreed with his eyebrows. “Lawrence is turning into such a debacle. We need a scene that’s a little more laid back.” Wendt said nothing, having heard through the grapevine that Dottie and Lynel’s time in Lawrence could be compared to Quantrill’s depredations.
A knot of poets along with a knot of hangers-on, a knot of poseurs, a knot of sycophants, and a smattering of wannabes had gathered at the entrance to the Upright with more than a few anxious types glancing at their watches or consulting their smart phones. Dottie and Lynel drifted over at the greeting from some new arrivals, one of them being Todd DeCal. Dottie threw Wendt a questioning look.
“Save me a seat. Gotta see a man about a stallion,” he said cryptically.
Over the urinal in The Zag’s men’s room someone or more than one someone had scratched Pierre is a Zouave and Pierre = yesterday’s piss into the square maroon tiles. Also in ink written in tiny letters in the pale grout between the defaced tiles, pee air. Wendt washed his hands, dried them with the annoying hot air drier, straightened the shoulders of his jacket, tugged his cuffs, checked his fly a second time, and pushed back into the bar.
“You’re an idiot!” The man speaking the words displayed a mouth full of teeth and the tell-tale crinkle of glee around his eyes. Wendt didn’t recognize the man addressing him, a thirtyish, short haired, almost balding fellow dressed in Levi’s and muddy grey pullover. He knew that he would get to know the man better once he accepted his offer of a drink. And opting for a shot of Jameson’s, he settled on the bar stool next to his new found fan. The ‘idiot’ part referred to a column he had written some time back entitled You’re An Idiot, or Inquiry into the Self-Destructive Behaviors of Pencil-Neck Hominids, Especially Poets.
Apparently the man agreed with Wendt’s point of view, for the time being at least. Often there was an underlying argument lurking beneath all the jolly adulation, a point to make, a bone to pick. It surfaced after the second shot of Jameson’s. The man was a frustrated writer. He named off the writing courses and conferences he’d attended, the North Bay shindig being one of them, and where he’d first met Wendt but Wendt probably wouldn’t remember him which of course he didn’t hold against him though he probably did, and all those boring workshops, and what he was leading up to was how unfair it was that he had done all that work, jumped through all those hoops, paid his dues and his tuition, and he still couldn’t get published. And as his list of complaints lengthened so did his tone turn accusatory, blaming the elitism of the literary establishment in general and specific authors who represented that establishment. And when he didn’t get the kind of validation he was looking for, especially after the third Jameson’s, he began aggressively demanding that Wendt proffer his own opinion because here he was taking all these writers to task and Wendt wasn’t offering yea or nay but merely sucking down the expensive Irish whiskey.
Wendt glanced around the bar as if for some succor. The place had pretty much emptied out, most of the earlier patrons probably sitting next door at the Upright with their hands piously clasped and wishing that they had not zigged into the pretentiousness clutches of a literary evening. “So what have you written?” was the wrong thing to say, but he asked anyway.
It was the opening that Craig, as he had identified himself, was looking for. He had written a short story. Just one, Wendt mused, but kept it to himself and accepted the fourth shot as payment for what was going to be an onslaught, a blow by blow, if not a word by word, recounting of Craig’s magnum opus which was about, strangely, or not so strangely considering the source, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas and the pubic hair on the soda can affair. The subject perked Wendt’s interest to a degree and he briefly considered where he himself might go with something like that. And Craig was becoming rather caught up in the telling of the story, having put away more than a few beers and shots himself, and listing all the minute and insignificant details. There was a point in the story where Clarence Thomas finds the pubic hair which Craig felt he should dramatize. “There’s a pubic hair in my drink!” he exclaimed. This caught the attention of Pierre who had been discreetly monitoring the conversation, one-sided as it was, polishing glasses at his post at the end of the bar.
Wendt didn’t think he’d ever seen Pierre move that fast before. Pierre poked a fat Lebanese finger in the direction of Craig’s face. Pierre had news for him.
Still enamored by what he assumed was authentic and telling dialogue, Craig looked at Wendt imploringly. Wendt shrugged. Once Pierre said out, he meant out. If you didn’t believe him, he’d bring out the bat. You didn’t want Pierre to bring out the bat.
Next Time: The Upright empties the parched literati back into The Zig Zag Room where Wendt can be assured of the liquid accolades that are rightfully his. To review what has transpired so far, reference the episodes listed in the sidebar, or click The Complete DAY to read the pdf file.