“Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst”
—Jorge Luis Borges—
The waitress came by with a refill for Wendt’s coffee and inquired if Grace wanted more tea. She had removed their crepe plates the last time she passed their booth when she dropped the bill off, placing it on the table equidistant from both of them. Grace shook her head and glanced at her wristwatch. She was feeling the constraints of time. It was getting late.
Wendt crinkled one eye closed like he did when he reached a conclusion. “Would I be wrong if I guessed Gigi has aphasia?”
Grace nodded. “You’ve heard of aphasia, good. My sister has what is diagnosed as primary progressive aphasia. It started with what’s known as conduction aphasia, and what I’d call re-phrasia. There’s a French term for it, conduite d’approche? I don’t know if I’m pronouncing it right.”
Wendt smiled and nodded. He was so beguiled by her that anything she said was surrounded by an aura of correctness. “Yeah, sounds right. A rough translation would be something like ‘behavior of approximation.’ Something like that.”
“You know French, too?” There was fascinated eagerness and a touch of envy to her question.
He felt a little embarrassed, the embarrassment of privilege. “I spent some time bumming around Europe when I was in college, France mostly. I picked up a little.”
“I would so love to travel.” Grace looked down at her hands in silent reflection for a moment. “But yes, in that type of aphasia it’s like she was continually trying to approximate the appropriate word or phrase. Some of the stuff she came up with was hilarious. I wish I could remember the things she used to say. Oh, and beautiful things, too. Poetry.”
“I get the impression she’s not. . .making poetry anymore?”
Grace shook her head and stared out of the wide dark window fronting the shadow squelching amber lighted street. “No. She’s pretty much lost all her verbal abilities. She hardly speaks anymore. And when she does, it’s really difficult to get what she’s saying. The words are all jumbled up, unrelated, and don’t make sense. It’s frustrating. For her.”
Waves of sympathy coursed through Wendt and he felt like he might cry. “Hey, I’m sorry to hear about your sister. It must be tough.” Val came to mind, and he didn’t know why. Maybe it was a contiguous sorrow. He wiped his nose with a napkin.
Grace acknowledged his sympathy, “It’s no fun. But I’ve been doing it for a while so I’m kinda used to it, you know.” She gathered up her purse and picked up the check.
“Hey, I can’t let you get that. Let me. . . .” Wendt wasn’t sure what had come over him. Gallantry? He never contested paying the tab.
Grace smiled as she stood, reaching into her purse for her wallet. “No, no, I’ve got it. Consider it a contribution to your underground charity.”
Outside, he waited while Grace called a cab from her cell. “Judy, Grace Niklia, is Marc on shift tonight?” She smiled at Wendt. “Good. I’ll be out in front of Crepe De Sol on Masonic. Thanks.” Then to him, “Do you know Marc? He’s a poet, too.”
Wendt’s mind was a thousand miles away from cab driving poets as if any major city couldn’t claim a dozen or more. “Maybe. I know a lot of poets though few are cab drivers.”
Grace smiled again. “Well, I guess this is good night. Thanks for an unusual and interesting evening.”
He didn’t want it to end, but how to get past the first date standoff. He could make his move but by doing so stood the chance of destroying the rapport they had forged in the pancake house. “You know, there was something I meant to ask you.” He’d stepped closer to her as the light changed down the block and a herd of vehicles bellowed past making normal conversation difficult. He brought his face close to hers and gathered her scent. It made him dizzy and delirious. He took it as a good sign that she didn’t seem to mind his closeness.
“Oh, what’s that?”
“Why did you bring me Jeremy’s things? His notebooks and stuff. Why me?”
Even in the harsh amber lighting Grace’s face seemed to take on the darker color of a blush. She hesitated. “I’m not really at liberty to discuss the case. But what I can tell you is that you were the designated recipient.”
“He left a will?”
“Not exactly. More of a note.”
“What did it say?”
Grace looked at him, her mouth a thin line, eyes, unfathomable, official. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you that. It’s an ongoing investigation.”
“Ongoing investigation? What’s to investigate? The guy takes a header from the third floor. Looks like he slammed the door on himself and said the big adios.”
“Yes,” Grace answered with the hint of a smile. “Let me just explain that the city is very sensitive to deaths in SROs, especially suicides. There’s been a spate of them recently, suicides, and the Mayor’s office wants to make certain that that is all they are. Your friend. . . .”
“He wasn’t my friend.”
“. . .was just one of a half dozen deaths we’re looking into. Just crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s. You wouldn’t believe how much of police work is also paperwork.”
“So the note says ‘I leave all my worldly possessions to Carl Wendt someone I barely know’? I’m really having difficulty getting my head around this, Grace. I mean, if it’s an ongoing investigation, shouldn’t you be hanging on to the notebooks as evidence of some kind?”
Now she was frowning. “Carl, don’t push it. It’s police business. I’ve probably told you more than I should. It was my personal decision to bring you the bag of notebooks as per Mr. Beljhar’s last request. Otherwise they would have probably been incinerated as soon as the coroner’s report was finalized.”
Wendt pointed to the row of newspaper boxes lining the curb, one of them with the weekly’s logo under a scrawl of graffiti. “I don’t suppose you read my feature. What’s Killing Our Poets?” He yanked open the spring hinged door and brought out a copy. He’d argued for Who’s Killing Our Poets? but Charlie had dissuaded him saying the boss thought the greater generality would attract more readers.
Grace looked at it like it might be infected and then took it from him with the tips of her fingers. “What’s it about?” She wasn’t sure that she actually wanted to read it.
“Poets are being killed or dying under suspicious circumstances. It’s all in there. Someone or something is killing poets.”
Grace smiled warily. “You’re joking, right? What reason would anyone have to kill poets?”
“The last time I saw Jeremy he had this theory. . . .”
“You said you didn’t know Jeremy.”
“I didn’t. He knew me. That’s the difference.”
“If you say so.”
“Anyway, Jeremy had this idea that there was a serial killer of poets. I didn’t take it seriously, of course, but the more I looked into it, the more plausible it became.”
“You mean like someone is targeting poets, a kind of Jack, The Ripper?” Grace’s expression showed a mixture of disbelief and disdain. It wasn’t the most flattering look.
“Think of it. You’ve got Jeremy. And Morgan Tilson. And Ian Blake. And Reg Meyer. Val Richards. I could name more, but these are just the recent deaths.”
The dark shape of the cab eased to the curb and Grace gave the driver the high sign. “I don’t understand why anyone would want to kill poets specifically. That doesn’t make sense.”
“Let me give you a capsule summary of what I wrote,” he insisted as Grace put her hand on the door to the cab. “Poets are like starved dogs. Throw out a little scrap of food and they pounce with fangs bared, ready to kill. In the poetry world there are so few bones and so many dogs that the competition for survival immediately turns them into back stabbing creeps just to get their names in print. The literary world, especially the poetry scene, is one of tormented and agonized beings who contrive to exist by devouring each other. Every ravenous writer is the living grave of thousands of others in a chain of painful deaths in which the capacity for feeling shame decreases with continued willfully blind ambition.”
Grace hesitated. “All that’s figurative, right? I mean they’re not using actual knives. It’s social competition, hierarchal jockeying. What’s the big deal? Everybody does it, even in the department, cops vying for promotion are not above social sabotage. It’s human nature.”
“Homicide is also human nature. You know that as well as I do. Sure, as you say, it’s mostly figurative. The halls of academia run with metaphorical blood. Professors and other assorted educrats engage in conspiracies and walk around with sharpened knives just looking for a back to plunge them into. It’s a way of eliminating the competition. But what if someone started taking that literally?”
Grace shook her head. “Carl, I don’t think so. It’s all a little farfetched.” The smile she gave him said she pitied him, like maybe some of the respect she had for him was slowly fading.
“Grace,” he said, catching her by the elbow, “Forget what I just said. I would seriously like to see you again. I’ve never met anyone like you and I’d like to get to know you better.”
She placed a firm hand on his chest. “You have to understand that can never happen.”
Wendt liked the clarity of her language even if it did make him feel desolate and abandoned.
On the slog back to Balboa, the fog had wrapped itself around the line of horizon like a big grey breaker. He stood at the top of Geary and considered stopping in at the Red Hen, but it was late and he was tired. His conversation with Grace replayed itself and he engaged in the correcting of his mental transcript. What he should have said, what he could have said, what he would have said if only she had said. His figurative heart ached. As blasé and as cynical as he normally was, Grace held his attention, an object of unattainable desire. He wanted to know her with a kind of intimacy that transcended the physical. It had been a while since he’d felt that way. He’d always played it safe, his assignations generally brief and for the sole purpose of self-satisfaction. He’d been hurt before. And if he’d admit it, he was a coward. Sheila, Valerie. Even Dannie. What rejection did to his self-esteem, crippling. The apprehension of pain darted through the amygdala, the pain of regret that still made him flinch, twitch with a deeply etched cerebral tic. How and what would he have done differently. That was the kind of speculation he rarely indulged. Yet Grace. He would open himself to all the possibilities of love and affection as well as rejection, heartache, unknown and untold pain. For her.
Think positive, he told himself as he paused at the curb before striding across to the other side. The traffic noise distracted him and he gave his attention to the near day-bright illumination of the boulevard islands and passing headlights, the storefronts, shuttered by grilled gates hung with pendulous chains and locks, coffee shops and bars and restaurants minimally busy for a Wednesday night and buzzing faintly like stunned bees.
Maybe he shouldn’t have played his hand so soon. It betrayed his eagerness. That rarely happened. The mountains came to the Poet, not the other way around. Grace was different, smart, sharp, intelligent, sexy, sexy intelligent. Nor was she part of the inane literary scene. She was a whole new world, a new world he would gladly step into and leave all else behind. What could he do to gain her attention, to win her respect? He was out of his element in the real world of competition for jobs and wages. He was a fucking charity case, he’d admitted as much to her. Smug in his skin of teeth survival as what, a literary dandy, a fop, a swell, a coxcomb, a toff, a macaroni, a blade, a buck, a fribble, a popinjay, a carpet-knight, a dude? A flaneur without a pot to piss in and soon no window to throw it out of? He had to face it, he was a participle dangling poseur, an idler, a lounge lizard. What could she possibly see in him?
But she, she was a melody, unforgettable, bound to bore its way into every thought, a maddening musical loop to accompany the memory of her laughter and her perfume. It started above the right ear. Bah dah—badah da da da dadah. And then above the left ear. In stereo. The Quintet. But actually they started it with a little downbeat. Ba do dum ba do dum bad do dum. Before Dizzy gently unfurled the melody line over the solid comp of Bud’s keyboard and Mingus’ bass, Max tickling the skins and Bird testing the spaces in between. All The Things That You Are. A sentimental favorite, particularly this version. Sometimes it left him on the verge of tears, riding a great swell of indiscriminant emotion. The melody recalled pervaded him and he hummed it, remembering the trilling of Bird’s alto playing with the line and the way the rhythm section knocked against it, Mingus finding places for big thumps and Bud’s sparkling notes splashing out as languid liquid flow. He allowed his breath to tumble over his lips in a bare approximation of the saxophone’s improvised peregrinations. His pace on the sidewalk keeping the beat as he added recalled nuances, not in any particular order, now going back to the melody for his own purposes because that’s what got to him, the sweet lyric of that phrase, all the things that you are. Now back to bleating it out louder above his breath and flattening the sounds like that of a deeper horn. Wondering what the genius of J. J. Johnson would have done with that particular riff. Of course he’d listened to that track often enough to remember Dizzy’s high register trills attempting to squeak them out between his pursed lips on the dark night street amid the roar and rush of fouling engines, smiling at Dizz’s riff punning on the Grand Canyon Suite in the middle of his solo, and the wrap up change of tempo upbeat crescendo into a Powell classic, Dance of the Infidels he was pretty sure, to bring it all to an end washed in the static of applause. But he could always bring it back to the head. Bah da badat dadadada belioo bang boom zee-toon-do badah. It was love.
Or something like that, something he had no time for. His present situation tentative as it was. He was the bear about to be evicted from his lair after a long hibernation. From dream to waking as in the solemn attendance to death, a period of activity, a rebirth as with spring. Oh furry Persephone! Should he also consider himself a wandering Ulysses, not to get too Joycean, caught in the maze of islands of the eternal city, though that was more like Dante, all his friends shipwrecked or eaten by Cyclops, nightly, frequenting Polly Famous’ CAVE (Cabaret And Variety Entertainment) in the Castro, realm of the one eyed snakes, or turned into pigs, the majority of them, and he trying to return to Penelope who is the muse, his ex-wife, old girlfriends, his new love, all women kind and unkind. Should he consider the city a labyrinth, that he was Theseus? And the Minotaur? How do you go from believing that all women desire you to thinking that the one you desire most could care less? The rebuke in her lovely face, almost too hard to bear.
Next Time: Narrowly escaping being run over, Wendt ends up in bed with his neighbor. 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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