“Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst”
—Jorge Luis Borges—
“Yeah, third floor, three ten. You from the paper? The weekly? Yeah, he said he was a poet. What do I know? I thought they was all in the schools. You writing something about him? Funny critter. Used to call me his corn-sage. That means apartment manager in French. He said he could speak French. He tried some out on me. But what do I know. Come on in.”
Gray limp hair hung from her surprisingly small head like unraveled yarn. Her shoulders were broad, and her arms jutted out in installments from the garishly bright orange and yellow sleeveless dress. She’d forgotten her teeth. “’scuse a min.” She came back shortly with her smile. The widescreen TV seemed out of place in the cramped shabbiness of the tiny room. The sound was off and the images flickered disconcertingly without context. “Funny that when he was alive he hardly had any visitors. Now that he’s. . .you know, there’s always someone asking after him.”
“Oh yeah, like who?”
“Well, cops, for one.”
“Yeah, yeah, but she come later, after the uniforms got done taking statements.”
“A guy. I think I seen him with Jeremy once, before. . .you know.”
Wendt nodded. “What did he look like?”
“I dunno, big guy. Looked like he ate well.”
“Younger than us, I’d say, older than the kid.”
“You talk to him?”
“Only once, after the. . .you know. Wanted to look in the room. I told him the cops took everything.”
“Say what he was looking for?”
“Books. Notebooks. Said the kid had some of his books.”
“I showed him these over here in the corner.” She pointed to a bundle of spiral notebooks on the floor next to the chipped and dinged white nightstand. “They’re still in the shrink wrap. He didn’t want them though. Had to have writing on them. I said he could have them anyway. They’re brand new. You want them? You can have them. I ain’t gonna use them. They was Jeremy’s. He’d just bought them. Figured he wouldn’t need them and I could give them to the neighborhood kids to do their homework. That’s something I didn’t know.”
“Kids don’t do homework anymore.”
Wendt pulled his attention away from the dancing shapes on the flat screen. “Think he had a girlfriend?”
The corn-sage said “I did see him with a woman,” when she finished coughing and laughing. “Didn’t think she was his girlfriend. Older. Redhead. Dyed red, you could tell.” And without prompting, she blurted, “He give me that TV so I ain’t gonna say nothing bad on him.”
“Nice TV. New?”
“Said he come by some money and just had to have it. Impulse buy, he called it. Didn’t matter. Said he’d be getting more money soon. He had a deal with some guy to write for him. Said I could borrow the TV anytime I wanted. So when he. . .you know. . .I figured that it would be as good a time as any to borrow it seeing as how he weren’t gonna ask for it back.”
When Wendt said nothing she insisted, “He said I could borrow it!” He didn’t care about that. Why would the kid buy new notebooks if he was going to take a dive? Another impulse buy? Or maybe the euphoria of the moment when possibilities seem infinite.
Wendt also thought to check some old trap lines among the margin dwellers. Apollinara and Jacob, known to everyone as Polly and Jake, were an East European couple in their 70’s whose apartment was on a block south of Market scheduled to be demolished to make room for more parking garages. He remembered that Val had a special affection for them because they were so old world, and she was particularly fond of old world. Polly was a papier-mâché artist while Jake was a junk artist.
“So much more junk in America! My art improve one hundred percent!”
The walls and ceiling were covered with papier-mâché stalactites and odd organic protuberances painted a variety of colors but giving off a slime yellow-green aura like the inside of a giant gut. Jake’s repurposed found objects were niched and incorporated into the ever-changing irregular surroundings.
“The things people throw away would make a man rich in my country.”
They were always busy creating, Polly tearing strips of newspaper, a cigarette permanently lodged in the corner of her lipstick rouged mouth, one eye squinting from the trickle of smoke, a ratty blond wig on her head, thin diaphanous kimono thrown over narrow bony shoulders, a stained satin slip showing underneath, and when she paused, one hand on her hip, to take the cigarette from her mouth to blow a cloud of smoke and consider the progress of her latest creation, she resembled a bad parody of Marlene Dietrich.
Jake, a tall stooped man always attired in the same suit coat and matching brown trousers, a perfect crust of day-old white whiskers clinging to the hangdog jowls, mouth a liver red smear beneath cavernous nostrils and, despite their inflamed sockets, blue eyes twinkling with glee, joy, and mischief.
A constant stream of people passed through the small two room apartment, mostly neighbors, druggies, conmen, common criminals, and street toughs. No one ever overstayed their welcome for fear of becoming a part of the incessant collage going up around them. And it was because of one of Val’s drug connections that he had first been dragged down the dead end alley and up the short flight of creaking wood steps.
“What’s the matter these people? They don’t have memorial for her friends should honor her?” Polly squeezed the life out of a tea bag that had seen better days into a cracked tea cup missing a handle. “You want sweet? We got pink and we got blue, no real. Just like political party, yes?”
Wendt examined his own cup and tried to discern color in the liquid. Was it darker than hot water or was that just a shadow?
“She come here with skinny crazy boy who must always talk not so long ago. Looking for Gordo.” Polly shrugged. “Each their own.”
“Just her and the kid? Anyone else?” Wendt noticed Jake eying the used tea bag on the saucer as if it had a numinous presence.
Polly carefully emptied two packs of the pink sweetener into her hot water and then set them aside with the pile of used pink and blue packages that would eventually be collaged to a section of wall.
“Fat man.” Jake said looking up from the tea bag. It sounded like he said ‘fete’ man.
“Last time she come with fat man.” He made a slope shoulder gesture with his arms held away from his side.
“He was money,” Polly added.
“How do you know?”
She shrugged. “Because Valentina say so. Gordo come, they get big score.”
“I guess I’m gonna have to talk to Gordo.”
“No good. Hit run.” She waved a nicotine stained hand toward the outside, relegating it to another world. “In hospital, maybe die.”
Wendt now considered City of Assassinations as the title of his feature on Granahan, Val, the kid, and now something on Ian Blake which would also serve to announce his presence at the memorial, and maybe Morgan Tilson. Both of them had been associated with NAIF as adjuncts. He figured he could glean enough background from Stoddard Leary.
The bartender at the Back Inn a block down from the NAIF campus had said “regular as clockwork” and at three on the button, Stoddard pushed in the door and momentarily reveled like a man in the desert suddenly happening upon an oasis. He didn’t object when Wendt offered to buy him a drink.
They touched glasses. “I thought I’d see you at Granahan’s funeral.”
Stoddard made a face and waved a hand in dismissal. “My ride never showed up!”
Wendt knew this was bullshit as Nate Silveri had complained to him at the funeral that he was late because he’d waited around for Stoddard who never showed up at their agreed upon meeting place.
“Shame. Wasn’t he instrumental in getting you the position atNAIF?”
Stoddard looked at him like he had just uttered nonsense. “No. . . ,” he shook his head slowly. “As a matter of fact, he had recommended someone else. I got it because the provost at the time was Joel Fischer, an old classmate from Iowa. Granahan, if I remember correctly, wanted you to take his place.”
Wendt nodded, receiving the memory like a bad odor. He’d missed the interview. It had something to do with a woman and too much to drink or a drink and too much woman, either way he didn’t want to think about it. “Ah yes, the Iowa connection.”
“You’re just jealous.”
“Doesn’t IOWA stand for Inbred Ontologically Witless Assholes?”
Stoddard chuckled. “You could be describing any writing program in the country. But, yeah, Iowa is certainly the model. Need I remind you that Valerie went to Iowa.”
“For less than six months. She said the sexual predation was disconcerting. And provincial.”
Stoddard toasted Val, another painful memory. “Here’s to a sweet angel. She will be missed.”
Wendt raised his glass before knocking it back.
“And to Reg Meyer, who won’t be missed.” Stoddard called for another round. “Are congratulations or thanks or commendations in order? You did the world of literature a great service.”
Wendt shook his head. “I didn’t do it. On the other hand there’s no shortage of people who would have done it. I didn’t realize he grated on you, too.”
“He was after my job!”
“No kidding? Reg?”
“Yeah, Reg. He didn’t have any idea how unpopular he was with the board of directors. It may have been that lawsuit he filed against the school a couple years back. Remember that? It was a nuisance suit. Corporations have very long memories.” After a belch, he added, “They’re called databases.”
That was neither here nor there, what could he tell him about Tilson and Blake.
“They both wanted my job!”
“What do you mean? At NAIF?”
“And they didn’t stop at stabbing in the back whoever was in their way. Of course they aren’t the only ones. There are others. Everyone wants my job. It’s the perfect poet’s job. The pay is decent and you don’t have to do anything except talk about what you do to a bunch of cross-eyed trust fund morons.” Stod had the bartender bring over another setup. It was as if he were preparing to go to work, the work of getting obliterated. “It does have a price, though. Who would have thought that it would be so soul negating. It’s not the art. It’s the people you have to deal with. Vampires are real, my friend, they drink a figurative literary blood. And when they’re done with you, you’re about as useful as a burnt out match.”
“They’re dead, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. I just wish there was a way I could thank them.”
“No love lost?”
“The Blake kid was alright. He had a lot of energy, and it showed in his writing. But when you’re the cute up-and-coming literary property and make a point of being seen at all the correct occasions and then act like that somehow gives you some kind of privilege, it can be a pain in the ass.”
“What about Tilson?”
“He was an alien.” Stod savored some of his drink. “A walk-in. Maybe even a robot. I could never connect with the guy. Totally devoid of viscera. His method was interesting, but not the end result. And very ambitious. They both were. Now they’re just a boring subject.” He turned his attention to finishing his drink and hunched his shoulders like he was done for now.
Wendt signaled the bartender for another round. “C’mon Stod, don’t clam up. You got me curious. Who else do you think is after your job?”
The bartender removed the empties and Stoddard moved the new setup into position. He didn’t want to be bothered.
“Like three of the people who were after your job are now dead. Is that just a coincidence?”
“I can’t help it if I’m lucky.”
“With luck like that you don’t need friends.”
Stoddard shrugged. “I heard your friend from Kansas is angling for the job, too.”
“And Charles St Charles.”
Wendt shook his head. “No way. St Charles is old school University material. Where’s he teaching, Yale, Princeton? He’s not going to go after something at a barely accredited diploma mill. That’d be like putting a brass doorknob on a beaded curtain.”
Stoddard giggled. “Where have you been, Wendt? Don’t you know? The old guard is being sloughed off like last season’s exoskeleton. There’s a new breed of insect, of climbers on the bricks of academe. Ruthless untutored young pups. And they’re pushing the old dogs out. St Charles is out here looking over the prospects.”
“If I hear he’s met with an accident I’m going to get real suspicious.”
“How come you haven’t queued up to stab me in the back, Wendt? Waiting for the field to narrow down?”
“Lack of experience more than anything else. Impatient would be another.”
“You’ve got the rep though. That’s all the kids want, to have some of your name rub off on them. Then they can say, I studied under Stoddard Leary. Or Carl Wendt.”
“Quite a few can already say that, but it has nothing to do with poetry. I’m not a teacher.”
“You’d be good, Wendt, I’d even consider passing the baton to you if I didn’t have rent to pay. But you’d still have to contend with Mitch Tjantor and his asshole friends.”
“Tjantor? Who are his friends.”
“Greg Peck, the Hunt brothers. Tjantor has Berkeley sewn up. He has his shadow, Mira Marks, at State poised to jump into the head job at Mills. Hunt or Peck would then move into that vacated position, and the other would be looking to slipping one between my ribs.”
Next Time: Irma Maurice provides a blow by blow commentary of the memorial poetry reading for Ian Blake at Golden West Hall while Wendt is reminded why he avoids poetry readings. 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.