“I’d better be a poet or lay down dead”
The clock on the wall behind the bar indicated that the reading next door was almost over. Wendt considered sliding in for the last few minutes but figured that most of the audience would probably be in the mood to unwind and find their way into The Zag. So why move, he already had a catbird seat at the bar. He could nurse the shot and hang-glide until the spillover after the reading brought in the true patrons of literature and bought him a drink. Or two.
Dottie and Lynel found him staring at the residue at the bottom of the shot glass. “Where were you? We saved you a seat.” She didn’t wait for an answer. Instead she proffered a body, a baby faced young man with an unruly goatee. “Carl, this is Tim Carbone. Tim was a student in one of Lynel’s graduate seminars. He lives in the city now.”
“Wow, Carl Wendt, I’ve heard a lot about you. Really surprised to meet you!”
“How so?” Wendt sensed a new fan.
“Well, I’d heard you were dead.”
“Not dead, just worse for the wear,” Wendt said with a laugh. “You know what Sam Clemens said,” and at the blank look, explained, “Mark Twain,” which sparked recognition. “Besides, if you can’t be a legend, be a rumor.”
“Mark Twain said that?”
Now both Dottie and Lynel were laughing much to their young protégé’s consternation. Wendt dropped his large hand on the young man’s slight shoulder. “For the price of a drink, I’ll tell you all about it.”
As the young man tried to attract Pierre’s attention now that the small space at the front of the bar was filling with parched authors, Wendt glimpsed Courtney and David squeezing their way inside. Courtney had seen him and waved. They made their way over and Wendt introduced them to Dottie and Lynel and then to Tim who had successfully made his purchase and handed Carl his beer.
The noise level in the bar rose to just below a din and conversations were not so much spoken as shouted. Facial expressions, body language played a big role in making points on numerous social and discursive levels. Bloom produced a flyer that featured Wendt’s name as one of the poets who was scheduled to read the following month at the memorial for Ian Blake, someone whom Carbone seemed to have heard of, and if Dottie and Lynel had not, they pretended that they had. Carbone made a show of entering the date of the reading on his smart phone. Dottie and Lynel made apologies as they would be in LA around that time. Wendt said nothing. He didn’t like the idea that his participation was a foregone conclusion. And there was the matter of his fee.
It seemed as though Lon Murphy always managed to have one of his minions secure a table by the window after these events. Alonzo Murphy was what Richard Harris would look like if he’d been zapped by a dwarf ray. Still he managed an aristocratic bearing, glaring down his fearsome beak at all even though he had to tilt his head upward do so, a black great coat draped over his scarecrow frame, full head of white hair down to his shoulders. Wendt tried to avoid having to actively dislike anyone. He was out of luck with Lon, and the vortex of tiny-minded elitists who swirled pretentiously around him and his vastly overrated literary magazine, Hermes, known to many as Herpes.
Once, in the likelihood of twenty years ago or more, Wendt had had a throwdown with Murphy outside the old Intersection on Lombard. Ted Berrigan had read that night and had expounded on the difficulty and ambiguity of the word “read.” Which was it? Read or read? In any case, out on the street afterwards, insults were exchanged, exception taken, challenge given. Their faces were within kissing distance of each other. But it was mostly splutter and bluster, no chance of osculation. They were separated. Nothing was going to happen. They were poets.
Todd DeCal had joined Murphy, a devil in a blue dress on his arm. She turned to look in Wendt’s direction and he saw that it was Mac. Amusement flickered briefly around her rouged mouth subtly changing the hue of her peachy complexion as she turned back to let Lon kiss her hand and offer her the chair of one of his subordinates. If anyone deserved to be next in line for a dirt nap, Lon got his vote. He had to admit it. He hated that prick.
He watched as Mac leaned over and whispered something in Lon’s ear which caused the old gas bag to cackle obscenely and flash his Hollywood whites. She threaded through the crowd, black bag clutched like a football against the blue sheen of her dress, and hip action any running back would envy. She made as if to pass him by and then stopped. She fixed him with a mischievous hurt. “I thought you’d respond to my email.”
“Email? I haven’t checked my email in over a week,” Wendt lied, “But you’re here, I’m here, who needs email.”
“I’m with Todd tonight.” Then “I have to go to the little girl’s room” with a little girl pout.
Wendt turned back to his drink. Since when did you have to check your email to get laid?
The guy at Wendt’s elbow couldn’t help overhearing and nodded sympathetically. “Women. I dunno, man.”
“Yeah, I dunno either.”
He offered to buy Wendt a beer. He was a writer, too.
Women. The word vibrated at a sub-audible frequency like a distant ringing in his ears that he couldn’t immediately shake. He could not figure them. Not that he couldn’t make heads or tails of them. No problem there, and for Wendt that usually meant tails. He had, like a good scholar, tried to classify them, but they were all so different and unpredictable, like mares in a meadow. He’d always figured Catholic girls as just mean and sadistic. Protestant girls were cold and joyless. Jewish girls were neurotic and oversexed. Asian girls were way too pushy, it didn’t matter what religion they belonged to. And East European women, whether they were orthodox or godless, were after blood. Their icy blue eyes, white blond hair, sharp upturned noses of ancient ghosts made men despair.
Peg Aziz was a poet who wrote children’s books. She had albino eyes that matched her absolute Norwegian blondness, and a hairdo that featured little wings that seemed to protrude out from the sides of her forehead. Even her smile was a sliver of absence. She was married to an exiled writer who had the misfortune, given the times, of having the name of Saddam. So he was Sid if he knew you. Otherwise he was Mr. Zees which he would emphasize, zigging a zag with a well manicured finger. He was the Arabic correspondent for a London newspaper and taught at the international institute in Monterey. He had dark puddles under his eyes and Wendt didn’t think it was make-up. It was as if Zorro’s mask had run.
Peg wanted to know how Wendt had liked the reading. He had to admit that he’d come in late, too late to catch the actual reading. She wanted to know if he knew the poets or their work. He knew he wasn’t going to come up with the names. It was near impossible to stare down those colorless eyes.
“Jay Hunt, Greg Peck,” Sid volunteered.
The names were familiar but he couldn’t place them. He knew so many writers, many only in passing, and those names weren’t attached to anyone who had loaned him money. That he would remember even if he said he didn’t. And if they were younger than thirty, with a few exceptions, he wouldn’t have a clue. He bluffed with a nod. Sid’s smile of approval exposed his exquisite dentistry and gold caps and the fact that he still couldn’t believe he’d landed an ice queen.
Peg pointed an ethereal finger at the now shoulder to shoulder assembly of scribblers. “Do you know Zane Yee?” She was indicating a lanky young Asian in a silvery gray designer suit coat. Wendt knew him or knew of him, some kind of entrepreneur from down on the peninsula. He also recognized the man he was talking with, Mitchell Tjantor.
“They are evil,” she said matter-of-factly and at the same time squeezing in at the bar to order a refill.
Sid’s toothsome expression hadn’t changed though at one point he looked nervously down at the drink in his hand and then adjusted his tie. He was probably the only person in the bar, besides the bartender, who was wearing a tie. And a vest.
Peg glanced over her shoulder impatiently. “They want to take over the world.”
Wendt’s interest was mildly piqued. World conquering poets? Or poetry world conquerors. He raised an eyebrow that asked how so and took a closer look at the clique.
“They’re creating an exclusive group of poets whose purpose is to marginalize everyone else.”
Now Wendt placed the faces with names. Two preppy wannabes from back East. Long on theory, short on style. Hadn’t Max Jacob once said that all writing depended on style and situation? Add, short on situation. Hunt and Peck. Wendt actually knew Jay’s brother, Mike, not at all as stuck-up. He also recognized the lone woman among that cluster of elbows and averted gazes, Mira Marks, diminutive but fierce, in a navy blue trench coat and a dark Shirley Temple do that desperately needed redoing. Wendt knew she taught creative writing at State. She’d been a student in Granahan’s Introduction to Poetry class right around the time the grannyhand scandal broke. He was almost certain she wasn’t a part of that sorority. She always seemed so severe, not the eager worldly type Dick was drawn to. He never understood how she had landed the position right out of grad school. He shrugged. “They can have it.”
Martin McGraw aka Marty Graw, a stocky square shouldered Irishman, was the kind of guy who would just as easily knock your lights out as sing you an Irish lullaby or quote from Yeats. He was compelled to be a poet by his origins the way some Irish Catholic kids (his brothers, uncles, cousins) were compelled to become priests. There’s an old Irish saying not often heard, a spoiled poet makes a good priest. Maybe he had that backwards.
“Heaven help me,” Marty intoned as he muscled up to the bar, “and if that’s not possible, then a shot of whiskey.” He winked at Wendt and then under his breath. “I had to get away from those two. If he said one more thing about Jim Carroll, I was going to bust his nut.” Wendt had seen McGraw talking with William Erickson and Alastair McLews earlier. “That insufferable bourgeois snot.” Wendt knew he was referring to Erickson who was also known by the sobriquet of Bill Irkesome. Then Serge La Praie came cruising by, glad-handing as he went, and sucking the energy out of every conversation. He was not known as “lamprey” for naught. In the parlance of the past, his social transgressions were “not cool.” Wendt drained his beer. He felt, as Lester Young might have said, a breeze. It was time for a cigarette.
Later on when the crowd thinned out, Wendt found himself alone, nursing a beer paid for with the last of Andy’s twenty. Earlier, on the other hand, Geoff Einstein, in a mildly euphoric mood, either drug induced or the early climb into mania, had ‘loaned’ him two Jacksons claiming that he could get more anytime he wanted because the machine outside the bank down the street just spit them out. He planned to use some of it for a cab back to Balboa. For now he was riding a well rounded trajectory with barely a tremor, a large bubble in a landscape of fizz, the headache at bay, and resigned that besides the few extra dollars he had managed to extort, the evening was a draw.
A woman down at the far end of the bar was prattling on about why Thursday nights were best for poetry readings. Apparently Thursday was the perfect day to test the weekend waters. It wasn’t the weekend exactly but taking in a cultural event allowed one to guiltlessly get out and yet not necessarily go overboard. She should know. She’d been running the event next door at the Upright since. She paused and sipped her cocktail.
“Seems like you’ve been doing it a long time.” Pierre was trying to be helpful. She was his type. She wasn’t Wendt’s.
She glowered at Wendt as if he had just suddenly appeared out of thin air. “Well, if it isn’t the great Carl Wendt, King of the Male Chauvinist Pigs.”
There were two kinds of women that were drawn to Wendt at amorphous minglings of literary celebrity. They were lost souls of one sort or another, punishing their bodies with their neuroses. Some put on the pounds to a self conscious extreme, and others ate themselves alive to a penitent skin and bones. Wendt was cautious not to encourage them. They so desperately wanted to be encouraged.
Joan Dunn was one of the latter, a brittle stick figure with a no-nonsense convent school set to her jaw. They had crossed paths numerous times. And he had done his best not to encourage her. Sometimes no encouragement is the only encouragement needed
“So you dislike me. Please step to the end of the line. It’s a very long line.”
“But I hate you.”
“No cuts allowed.”
Jo Dunn taught in the English Department at the Catholic university. She had a condo around the corner, fronting Buena Vista Park. He’d been to a party there once before, a book reception for her then lover, Gilbert Hovac, the Hungarian writer. She’d once been part of the Feminist collective that ran the series at the Upright. In a masterful reversal of power, Joanie had turned the tables on the three other women who were trying to force her out because she wasn’t abstract, Maoist, or feminist enough. She was tough enough. And devious as need be which of course spoke of her strict Catholic upbringing.
She came down to stand at Wendt’s elbow. “Have you ever googled yourself?” It really wasn’t a question. She stirred the ice in her cocktail meaningfully with a swizzle stick.
“Not in public. No, wait, maybe once when I was really drunk.”
It was a smirk. “I’ve googled you.”
“You know, I didn’t feel a thing.”
Once, many years before, in this very bar, they had come close to hooking up. Her desperate blue eyes kept saying “let’s go.” Wendt had a scheduling conflict. Jo had lost the toss.
“You’re not there. Even on Wikipedia. You have a negligible presence in cyber space. You are nothing, a nobody.”
“Despite a whole lot of evidence to the contrary, in cyber space or in the real world, I’m good with that. I’d hate to have to live with the illusion I’m someone I’m not.”
Jo laughed. “You bastard.” It was said affectionately. She was drunk, and under the right circumstances that made her horny. She let her gaze drift down to Wendt’s crotch but due to her heavy headedness overshot. “Oh, look your shoe’s untied.”
Wendt felt a little uneasy as she bent down to tie the laces of his shoe.
She was smiling when she straightened to look him in the eye. “How come we never hooked up?”
“There was always a long line ahead of me. And you know me, I always show up late.”
“Let’s remedy that.”
Wendt looked down into her long lashed Betty Boop eyes, their moist suggestive narrowing like the pods of a Venus fly trap. At least he was going to save cab fare.
Next Time: Due to circumstances beyond his control, Wendt takes Bart to Berkeley and is accosted by the queen of the street poets. To review what has transpired so far, reference the episodes listed in the sidebar, or click The Complete DAY to read the pdf file.