“Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst”
—Jorge Luis Borges
“Help, help, a black window spider is after me!” said Jade or Jolie and pretended to cringe in fear while being chased by her sister, Jolie or Jade, with claw hands and bared menacing teeth.
The twins had greeted Wendt’s arrival at Charlie and Clarissa’s tiny apartment over on Coleridge with gleeful hysteria the last few times he’d come by for dinner. They screeched and ran circling him as he stood in the entryway and then demanded all his attention once he was parked on the sofa in the dining living room. They had just turned four, their jet black hair tied up in a bushy knot on the top of their heads, one with a green ribbon and the other a red. Their big black eyes took him in like an oddity, tiny chins quivering in determined innocence. Jade or Jolie began a demonstration of finger play, a classic, The Itsy Bitsy Spider, opposing a thumb and forefinger to mark the spider’s path up the water spout. Wendt’s attention to Jolie or Jade had prompted Jade or Jolie to transform into a black window spider.
“Black window spider! Your girls are poets!”
“Carl, don’t tell me that.” Clarissa, a large woman with an angelic face, stood in the doorway of the kitchen. She handed him a Red Stripe, and then muttered, “I’ll put them in a gunny sack and drop them into the bay.” Laughing with him, she asked, “Has Charles told you the good news?”
Wendt tipped the bottle and wet his whistle. “Yeah, he just said something big was up.”
“I’ll let him tell you, then.”
Charlie appeared in the doorway with the open laptop in his hand. “Hey, Wendt, I heard the girls screaming so I knew it must be you.”
“Or The Beatles.”
“Yeah. Want a beer? Ok, already got one.”
“What’s this good news Clarissa won’t tell me about?”
Charlie frowned like maybe it wasn’t all that good of news. “Oh, yeah, great news, actually.” He darted a glance at Clarissa. “I got a job teaching journalism.”
Wendt’s expression was a big grin and raised eyebrows. “City College?”
“Actually, Carl, it’s up in Benicia, Solano Community College.”
“That’s still in California, right? Northern California?”
“Yeah, yeah, up 80 on the way to Sacramento.”
“Ok, I guess I know where that is, I’ve been to Sacramento.”
“And the money’s pretty good.”
“We’ll be moving up to Fairfield,” Clarissa added. “We’ve been looking at home prices. We might just be able to afford a house of our own. Once Charles gets settled in.” She sounded thrilled. “A yard for the girls, a garden for me.” Ecstatic.
“So the gig with the weekly. . . .”
“I’ll be giving my notice at the end of the month. I have to get up to speed for the fall semester.”
“Well congratulations, the both of you!” he toasted with his bottle. Why does someone else’s good news, Wendt mused, always turn out to be bad news for me?
Clarissa asked Charlie to put the laptop aside once they sat down to eat. It wasn’t so much a request. Charlie frowned at the screen before selecting an option. “You know that last piece you submitted, Ed Dorn Meets Adorno, a Godzilla Love Story?”
“I’m going to change it to A Godzilla Love Story, and subhead it Ed Dorn Meets Adorno. Though I don’t know if that’s even necessary.”
Carl said nothing.
Charlie knew Wendt didn’t like his words messed with. “Here’s my thinking on it: few people know who Adorno is, even fewer have read him, and no one knows who Ed Dorn is. Godzilla, everybody knows.”
“Charles, do you mind? We’d like to eat?” Clarissa threw him such a look and extended her hands to one of the twins and to Wendt so that they might be joined for the blessing. Once everyone’s hands were linked she intoned, “Almighty throb, that we may share in the bounty of your reverberation. Om.”
“Om,” echoed the others.
“What would you like a drink with your meal, Carl, another Red Stripe? Ginger beer? Ting?”
“Got any Big Bamboo Irish Moss?”
“Carl, the last thing you need is an IM.”
Wendt looked down at the dinner plate of black beans, shredded beef, jerk chicken, rice and plantain. “Just like momma used to make.”
“I don’t see any sauerkraut, Carl.”
“You‘d have been right if you’d said corned beef and cabbage.”
Clarissa had made rice pudding for dessert. Wendt eyed the plate of gizzidas. And since he and Charlie always conducted business over lunch, they easily fell into talking shop. Wendt outlined his next couple of columns, and his idea for the feature. Charlie nodded, and grinned, and frowned, and laughed, and agreed, and frowned, and shook his head in close attention to what Wendt was telling him. Carl seemed particularly excited about his updated taxonomy of poets.
“Ok, you might have heard some of these before. There are the spiritual poets who are obviously held down by the gravity of their lofty world saving aspirations. And there are the poets of history who catalog the march of time in the broader strokes of saga and epic. You’ve got your clever poets who specialize in anecdotes and limericky jokes, and the portrait poets who sketch the psychological shape of this or that personage, famous or otherwise, in the dull gray wash of sentimentality.”
Charlie nodded that he was following.
“All right, then your landscape poets also known as nature poets for whom every bug and bee is worthy of catalog and for whom vistas, vast of course, remind them of their significance in recording, in altogether inadequate language, what they think they see.”
“The pet poets who dote on the anthropomorphic antics of their animal companions be they dogs, cats, canaries, turtles, goldfish, potbellied pigs, but stopping at the dark significance of the beast within. And the body poets, also known as the narcissists, who revel in relating the minutia of bowel movements, menstruations, ejaculations, orgasms, and ingrown toenails—in general, the narcissism of their pedestrian suffering. And of course the poets of conquest who tally their triumphs in the bedroom, in the public bathroom stall, the closet, the kitchen table, the subway, and pew. There are also feminist poets, gay poets, ethnic poets, in general, political poets, whose narrow-minded diatribes seek to correct the misguided conceptions of humanity, the them-versus-us factions, in so many words.”
Charlie blinked, maybe as a signal that he was falling behind.
“One kind of poet specializes in personal confession, another in the lexical trappings of fashion. Each has their own style, their own approach with which to distinguish themselves from others, though it would take a micrometer to gauge the difference. The minimalist sketches, the florid flourishes, the typographer experiments, the haughty moralize with holier than thou stance that masks the insubstantiality of the verse, the catalogers of mannerisms, mannerists themselves, the woe is me (or humanity) sentimentalist, the idealist, the realist, few in number but loud of voice, and the miniaturist who needs only a few words, sometimes just one, to express the entire bandwidth of consciousness. Each strives with his own trick, a spectacular specialness to an untouchable uniqueness, and thus with the vagaries of fad, reputations are made. And unmade.” Wendt added a diabolical snicker though it wasn’t necessary.
The twins, dark eyes wide with wonder or horror, had stopped, spoons of pudding held in midflight. Clarissa looked horrified. “Carl, please, you’ll make the children cry!”
Michel Brezon found him at his table in the Caffe Trieste. “Tell me you didn’t do it!”
Wendt looked up from the daily over the top of his cheaters. “I didn’t do it.”
Brezon sat down moving the empty espresso demitasse to one side of the small round table. “Dang, you are the man! Whacked the Squirrel.”
“I didn’t do it.”
“Yeah, but everybody thinks you did and that’s just as good as doing it.”
“A little early for hero worship, don’t you think? I’m not the gunslinger everyone thinks I am.”
“City Hall is considering you for a commendation.”
“Just doing my job.”
“You did do it! I knew it!”
“Mike, if you’re gonna be stupid, you’ll have to go sit at a different table.”
“The cops talk to you?”
“What do you think?”
“You threw them off the trail. Good, good. You give them any names?”
“Fuck you, Wendt.”
Wendt, laughing, folded the paper. Michael McArdle and Gary Simmons had been sitting at a table nearby and got up to leave. It appeared that McArdle’s wife had knit him a new scarf. Simmons wagged a chin in passing and McArdle offered, “How’s it going, killer?” without waiting for an answer.
“Now you’re gonna be famous.” Brezon grinned after the departing poets.
“Oh yeah, does that come with a paycheck? I could use some steady cash.”
“You and me, both.” Brezon’s eyes widened with his conspiratorial grin. He leaned forward, confidential-like. “There’s been another BK sighting.”
“Kaufman? Where this time?”
“Top of the Kearny steps.”
“The ghost of Bob Kaufman. How many is that?”
“I told you I thought I saw him on Kerouac, right? With mine, six, I think.”
Wendt chuckled. “The dead just can’t stay away. They want to be mist.”
The pitch was high and outside, but Brezon took a swing at its intent all the same. “Oh, yeah, sorry to hear about Val Richards, man, I mean I know you and her were, I mean, you know.”
“Yes, I do. But not totally unexpected.” Saying it that way felt like a betrayal, a taste in his mouth like it was someone else’s tongue doling out the cynicism. “Tell me, what do you know about the kid, Jeremy? He’s known as Jerimessiah sometimes.”
“I heard about him taking a dive. Yeah. He was a good poet.”
“I don’t think I heard you right.”
“No. Yeah. He was a good poet. I was gonna use some of his poems in the next issue of my magazine.”
Wendt wondered if the next issue might be any time soon as Brezon had been touting the next issue of his surrealist inspired literary magazine for the last couple of years. “Good how? Crazy-fully-formed-from-of-the-head-of-the-muse good?”
“Yeah, I guess. I heard that he was supposed to be the next Rimbaud. But then they say that about all the poets who die young.”
“I ended up with a bag full of his writing.”
“No shit, that paperboy bag he lugged around, all those notebooks? You got all that?” Brezon’s wheels were spinning if his eyes were any indication. “You read any of it?”
“Naw, I haven’t had the time. Been working on other things.”
“He’s good. Somebody ought to publish a collection of his stuff.” A light went on. “Hey, maybe I’ll publish a special issue of the magazine, just of his poetry. Hey, that’s a good idea!”
One way ticket to obscurity, Wendt mused. “Yeah, from what I could tell it was mostly handwritten, a few typescripts folded in with the notebooks. You want them, you got them. Come by my place on Balboa. Before the end of the month. I have to be out of there some time in May.”
Brezon nodded, “Ok, I’ll do that,” and followed Wendt’s glance at the wall clock. “Waiting on a client?”
“Let’s call her a friend.”
Brezon stood. “I can take a hint.” He made to leave. “And hey, how come nobody asked me to read at Ian Blake’s memorial? I knew the guy. He was an alright poet. Kinda stuck up, I thought.”
“Yeah? I’d never heard of him.”
“See, that’s what I mean, and you’re one of the featured readers!”
Wendt shrugged. “I’m probably not going to do it if that makes you feel any better.”
“Naw. Tell you what. Why don’t you read in my place? When they call my name, you just go up and read.”
“What do you mean? People will know I’m not you.”
“Well, not everyone knows who I am or who you are, and to those who don’t, they’ll never know the difference, and to those who do, they’ll just think it’s another of your Dada performances pieces. Brezon, that brass ass! Gotta keep your rep up, bro!”
Brezon’s expression indicated he was weighing the stunt’s potential for notoriety. “Yeah.”
Everybody has a story to tell, a book they want to write. And they want to do it well. Wendt was often asked for his advice. There was always a manuscript someone wanted him to read. The bartender or the barista or the waiter. Anyone serving the public has stories, that’s a given. The bookstore clerk, the postman. Unfortunately for fledgling authors, Wendt was brutally honest. And to avoid any nasty incidents and alienate potential contributors to the KWAF, the Keep Wendt Afloat Fund, he had to establish certain ground rules. He made himself available in a public place, usually the Caffe Trieste, for a manuscript consultation, for which a reading fee of $20 was charged. He usually didn’t provide that service for friends—it was a good way to lose them.
The worth of a manuscript was easily adduced by reading a few sample poems. Or in the case of fiction, the first page, the last page, and maybe a page in the middle, if absolutely necessary. Usually the first page, or the first poem for that matter, was all that was needed to generate an opinion. Pass a judgment, some claimed.
His customers were informed of the disclaimer as the money changed hands. They were warned that they might not like what he had to say about their writing, that they might not agree with what he had to say about their poems. Nevertheless they were paying him to tell them what he thought of their writing, not what he thought they might like to hear. It wasn’t personal, though it always seemed that way. Nor was he being paid to couch his opinion diplomatically. That cost extra, and most likely would not be much different with the exception that he might consider not using words like “suck” or “garbage.”
Monica was only fifteen minutes late. She placed the folder on the table between them. “Do you want another?” indicating the empty demitasse.
“Yeah, double, if you please.”
“Thanks for saying you’d look at my thesis. I really appreciate it.” She tried on an adorable pout. “I decided on Dickinson after all.” She shed her jacket over the back of the chair. “How’ve you been? You’re all over the internet, you know.”
Wendt frowned. “I didn’t do it.”
“What are you talking about? The video went viral.”
“On YouTube? Haven’t you seen it? It’s that interview you did for a documentary on Kerouac. From what’s her name, Gillian, no, Katje Marsh, her video zine. You’re talking about Kerouac. It’s amazing. What you said. If Kerouac was a woman, I’d be doing my thesis on him!”
Wendt was a little self conscious about his cheaters and kept taking them off and putting them back on, all the while explaining to Monica what was good about what she had written on Dickinson and what was questionable. He suggested further reading. Alcott, Emerson. The Bronte sisters, Helen Hunt. He encouraged her to choose just a few of Emily’s poems that spoke directly to her rather than try to encompass the entire sprawling oeuvre. “Try connecting Emily to Gertrude Stein. Create a Dickinstein, an American poetry monster.”
“Yeah, right, like that would fly.”
“You know that if it hadn’t been for the illicit affair Dickinson’s brother, Austen, was having with the wife of the astronomy professor at Amherst, a ménage a trios in fact, her poems would probably never have seen the light of day. The astronomer’s wife’s, Mabel Todd, championed Emily’s work to the point of laboriously typing up the poems on an early version of the typewriter. Thanks to her we have the collected poems of Emily Dickinson. Or most of them. They keep popping up like mushrooms in old trunks in New England attics.”
Monica placed her beautiful long fingers to her temples as if to lift the top of her skull to make room for all the new information, and frowning, closed her eyes. “No, this is too much. She was sexually repressed and her brother was a satyr?”
“That sounds about right.”
There was a long silence as she gazed at the pages scattered on the tiny table in front of her.
“If it helps even things out, Gertrude Stein didn’t think Hitler was all that bad. At first, anyway.”
“God, sometimes I think I’ll never get this thing done!” She beamed at him imploringly, “I’m leaving for Portland in a couple of days. Can we get together before then? You could help me so much.” She was desperate. “I’d even pay you. And, um, you know. . .tomorrow? Please?”
Wendt shook his head. “Can it wait till you get back from Oregon? Tomorrow’s a bad day for me. Friend of mine just died. His funeral is tomorrow.”
Next Time: Wendt waits for a ride to Granahan’s funeral at Rayjay’s, the poetry bakery, where he meets up with Peter Cairo, the travel writer. To review what has transpired so far, reference the episodes listed in the sidebar, or click The Complete DAY & WEEK to read the pdf file.
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