“Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst”
—Jorge Luis Borges—
Wendt hurriedly stepped over the charged hoses snaking out from the pump bays of fire engines and made his way to the opposite side of the street, turning to look back at the crowd spilling from the building, many of whom took up positions next to him to pause and look back as well, and thank their lucky stars or deities. TV news crews stood on the periphery, reporters gripping mics and speaking into them with earnest professionalism. Allie Grey was being filmed pointing to the old hotel. The building had emptied itself in an amazingly short time. Only a few stragglers, a woman who appeared to have injured her leg being helped by two firefighters, remained to clear the street area in front of the Reed Hotel. One of them was Michel Brezon.
Wendt caught his eye and waved him over. “You all right, man?” Brezon’s clothes and hair were covered with a light patina of white dust.
“Yeah, yeah, everything’s cool. False alarm.”
“Yeah, somebody flushed and however that toilet was rigged, the pressure just blew the pipes out, knocked a few bricks down on top of the porta potties below, and sprayed shit down on whoever was standing in line.” He grinned, “It’s a poetry event, what do they expect?”
Wendt nodded. “Nobody was hurt? What about that woman I just saw being carried off?”
“Aw, she just twisted her ankle. Slipped in a pile of debris in the stairwell.”
“Well, good thing no one was hurt. I don’t think the Penumbroi can afford a lawsuit.””
Brezon turned the conversation to more important matters. “Hey, whajathinka my sermon?”
“Impressive. And very familiar. Wasn’t that the text from the Trotsky /Breton/Rivera thing. . . ?”
“Right, The Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art of 1938, yeah. I did a Ted Berrigan word substitution on it, tweaked it a bit here and there.”
“Good job. But isn’t that plagiarism?”
“Yeah, well, what isn’t these days?”
Wendt laughed. “You’re right. And there’s always room for a good hoax.”
“Hey, come on, a bunch of us are going down to the Asylum on Howard. You can buy me that drink you owe me for being such a dick at the Blake reading.” Brezon grinned like he had an ace in the hole.
Wendt ruefully agreed. “Yeah, I might drift down there in a bit.” Not, he thought to himself. The Asylum, not the actual name of the bar, was known for its crazies and rough trade leather boys.
The police extended the perimeter and began herding the growing crowd of gawkers further away from the site in either direction on Mission. Wendt went with the flow, reaching into his pocket for the last cigarette of the pack. Beyond the confusion of whirling colored lights and patrol cars and ambulances and ladder trucks and powerful search beams even though there was still enough of twilight left to illuminate the potential catastrophe, he stopped to apply flame to tobacco. Blowing out the first mouthful, he chuckled to himself brushing plaster dust off the sleeve of his jacket. No doubt. Hell is other poets.
The refugees from the Penumbroi event added a parade of pedestrian traffic to a normally busy thoroughfare now blocked by the aftermath of the near crisis. A crowd had gathered out in front of a liquor store on the corner of Sixth, a safe enough vantage that provided a view of all the excitement and a place to talk about how any one of them had just barely made it out of there alive. Wendt eyed the opposite corner as the clearest unobstructed route back to Powell and Bud’s.
But he’d have to pay the troll before he did. Lon Murphy stepped in his path followed by a gaggle of his goose-steppers, all of them attired in one or the other of the fifty shades of black.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Gonewiththe Wendt, author of Splenetic Cement.” Murphy was pleased with his little joke and looked to his coterie for their nods of chin wagging approval.
Wendt eyed the clot of writers and wannabe writers who were all for the most part clueless stick figures, some like Lon’s second, Roman Ackley, leering with self-righteous condescension. He could have taken any or all of them, but why bother, a passel of clowns if there ever was one. “Murph the Smurf. And his shitbirds. Did somebody forget to lock the gate to poetry fantasyland?”
The smurf tag always enraged Murphy and inevitably his face turned a purplish shade of blue. “You are in a shit load of trouble.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“When a man makes a social faux pas like you have, it’s known as stepping on your dick.”
“That must be hearsay to you, Lon, because you’d have to be a man and have a dick to actually know that.”
“Your p-p-poem,” he sputtered threatening to go entirely mauve, “is an insult to women, to every woman poet in the city, an offensive patriarchal Victorian throwback of ignorance and arrogance!”
“Yeah, what poem is that? Unlike you, I’ve written more than one.”
“Why should I care what it’s called? It’s that abortion everyone is talking about. The product of a perverse sexist mind! You know the one I mean! That reactionary tract!”
“You mean the poem no one has ever read, and maybe half a hundred people, if that, have heard only a portion of. The infamous phantom poem?”
“Face it, Wendt, no one likes you. You are just not a very nice person.”
“I’m not losing sleep over what you think of me, Lon, and if I’m such a bad guy maybe you should worry about what I think of you.”
“You’re an asshole.”
“The world is full of assholes, I’m not going to sweat that I’m the only one.”
“You’re a sellout.”
“It has always been my intention to sell out. I would have preferred one big honking chunk all at once but apparently I’m on the installment plan.”
“I’d like to know how you went from hustling open mics in North Beach dives to where you are now, supposedly a respected poet and authority on poetry as you claim at the bottom of that seething cesspool of hostile disgruntled self-righteous passive aggressive lies and conjecture you call a column!”
Wendt looked down at Murphy’s bulging eyeballs and gritted teeth. Obviously, another fan. But the worst kind, an angry, slighted fan. “Well, good looks count for something, and yeah, if you have to know, I made a pact with the devil. I opted for the bargain package, though. I only get the knowledge, not the power that goes with it.”
“You’re a fake, a phony with your post Beat quasi second generation New York School Pacific Rim pseudo intellectual pop primitivism!”
Wendt was a little taken aback by the vehemence of Lon’s vitriol. “Does this mean you don’t love me anymore? Should I be crushed?”
“You’ve got nothing, Wendt! You are nothing! A charlatan, a con artist, a poetry snake oil salesman!”
Wendt shrugged. What about my purity of intent, he could have asked, but this had gone on long enough. There was a beer with his name on it waiting for him up at Bud’s. No one there would be disrespecting him, and even if they did, it would be in a language he didn’t understand. “I might be concerned if I thought you knew what you were talking about, Lon, but since you don’t, why should I give a fuck what you think?”
Lon was literally hopping mad, checking Wendt as he stepped off the curb to cross the intersection. He looked about to explode. “You killed Reg Meyer!”
Wendt stopped in the middle of the street, Murphy circling him like a rat terrier. He feigned a yawn, sidestepping and holding up his palm, and spoke, “Whatever,” in a tone of arch indifference and weary disdain, “Talk to the hand.”
That was the button. Murphy sprang forward and shoved Wendt with the force of both hands. Taken by surprise, Wendt turned and stumbled back a few steps, catching a heel on the curb, completely losing his balance and falling with a smack onto the sidewalk, his right hip taking the brunt of the impact. The sound alone hurt.
In almost instant and divine retribution, a dark shape roared past, sideswiping Murphy, sending him ass over tea kettle to land head first against the pavement with a sinister melon splitting crack.
Wendt groaned to his feet as Lon’s claque and the odd bystanders drawn by the histrionics rushed to see to Murphy.
“No, no, that’s alright, I’m ok. I only broke my hip,” but the last word died on his lips as he saw that Alonzo Murphy was in much more serious hurt, a red pool oozing around his head like the liquid filling of a fractured chocolate covered cherry.
Immediately the accusations started flying. “I saw him! He pushed Lon right into the path of that car!” Roman Ackley pointed a finger at Wendt. Even if it did challenge the perception of what they actually witnessed, Murphy’s sycophants took up the howl. “He did it! He pushed him!”
A young patrolman who happened to be close by was almost immediately on the scene. He herded the bystanders back onto the sidewalk away from the body, called for assistance and an ambulance. He glanced at Wendt holding his hip. “Sir, were you struck by the vehicle?”
Ackley repeated his accusation. “He pushed him!” And some seconded, “Yeah, he did it, he pushed him.” Now a couple more patrolmen worked their way through the gathering crowd of onlookers.
“All right, we’re going to have to take statements from witnesses,” an older cop with a triple chevron on his sleeve announced. That had the effect of thinning the crowd some. Wendt tried standing but the pain in his hip shot the length of his leg and made him gasp. He leaned on the nearby light pole.
“Sir, you’re gonna have to sit down and take the weight off your leg,” the young patrolman directed. “EMT’s are on the way, they’ll check you out.”
The third policeman got up off one knee after having held a finger to Murphy’s neck checking for a pulse. “Nope,” he said shaking his head, and addressed the crowd, “Anyone get a license plate? Make or model of the vehicle?”
“I took a picture of it with my phone.” A tall bearded prematurely balding young man in a brown suit jacket and red and yellow scarf stepped forward. Then he pointed at Murphy. “This man pushed this man.” He indicated Wendt. “If he hadn’t, this man,” Wendt again, “would have been hit by the car.”
“Ok, give your information to the officer here. What was the license plate? We’ll call in an APB.”
The man regarded the device in his hand and flicked the image with his forefinger and thumb. “Uh, it’s kind of fuzzy but it looks like 1-H-8-P-0-8-5.”
The young patrolman jotted in his notebook repeating the information into his radio mic, “Won, henry, ate, paul, zero, ate, phiver.” He glanced at the image on the man’s phone. “Hard to tell what make that rearend belongs to. Could be a Mercedes or a Hyundai.”
Wendt peered over the man’s shoulder. “That could be an S.”
The patrolman looked at him. “What?”
“The five, that could be an S.”
The young cop wrote it down, shaking his head. “That’s not your standard license numbering. Must be a vanity plate. We’ll get him. Hit and run.”
“No,” Wendt said, “I think it was deliberate. The plate reads ‘I hate poets’.”
Wendt cooled his heels in the back of a squad car. That’s what he got for playing Mister-Detective-Sherlock-Holmes. He should have kept his trap shut. The patrolman said that someone from Robbery Homicide was going to want to talk to him. There was a faint odor of urine and vomit rising from the floorboards and he sat partially out, the door open, feet on the pavement wishing he had a cigarette as the passing crisis tourists viewed him as a questionable sideshow.
“Well, well, Mr. Wendt, one of my favorite heteroclites.” He recognized the detective, Mike Reardon, hands on hips and a smug smirk creasing his mug. “You might wonder how an ordinary working stiff like me might know a word like that.” He paused. “Someone gifted me a desk calendar that has a new word for every day of the year. I don’t pay attention to most of them. What do I need new words for when the old ones work just as well? But I remember that one. Heteroclite, one who deviates from the norm or the rules. I run into quite a few in my line of business.”
Wendt said nothing, staring at the cop and waiting to hear what he would say next.
“So another dead poet, and you, Mr. Wendt, in close proximity. And a witness saying you pushed the deceased into the path of an oncoming vehicle?”
“You can probably find more than a few witnesses who’ll say that he pushed me.”
Reardon wasn’t listening. “Is that a coincidence? You should know that I don’t believe in coincidences. The poet body count is adding up to something sinister.”
Wendt should have shut his yap, instead he said, “When a poet dies two more are born to take his place.”
“That’s a disturbing thought.”
“In this case they’ll probably have the intelligence of a fruit fly.”
“You think this is funny, Mr. Wendt? A man, it doesn’t matter whether he was a poet or not, might have been deliberately killed.” Reardon let that sink in. “This poet on poet violence has got to stop. Is there some kind of poetry war going on?”
Wendt nodded his head acknowledging what Reardon was saying. The poetry war was a never ending war, but no one had taken it to this extreme before. Sure Catullus capped on his contemporaries, and Diogenes did the dozens on the steps of the Acropolis. And ages before that shaman poets dueled with competing praise song epics, but apparently the last poet standing was a guy name of Homer, everyone else who ever plucked a lyre infinitesimal dust. Sappho and Archilochus merely echoes of their eras, everyone else drowned in bottomless Lac Cunae. Dante ran with poet gangs in Florence, and Cyrano would run his witless opponents through with his rapier wit. Victorian sissies and fops bitch-slapped each other with their kid gloves over some imagined literary slight. Roving claques of misguided French estheticians rioted like common football rowdies. And now in Frisco someone was systematically offing poets.
“That hit was meant for me.”
“Well, of course, it’s all about you, isn’t it Mr. Wendt. How many poets have to die before you get what you want? Fame, fortune, king shit at the top of the heap?”
“Hey, I didn’t do anything.”
“I think I’ve heard that before, on more than one occasion.”
“Just minding my own business. Murphy’s the one got in my face.”
“Like Reginald Meyer got in your face, Mr. Wendt?”
Wendt shrugged. Ironic, or maybe it was just that people who disliked him had a habit of doing him a favor and offing themselves. He figured he was just lucky that way. “How’s that investigation going, by the way?”
“We know two things for sure. He’s dead, and it wasn’t a suicide.”
“So you have no clue.”
“Oh we have plenty of clues. We’ll get the guy.”
“You think it’s a guy? Why not a woman? Like I told your partner. His girlfriend. She has motive.”
“Naw, she’s accounted for. We’re looking at his professional contacts.” He gave Wendt the benefit of his shit eater.
“Good luck with that. They’re all bound to be guilty of something, but homicide is a stretch.”
Reardon answered with a stare prompting Wendt to demand, “Am I done here? Do you need to take a statement? I’ve got some place I want to be that’s other than here.”
“Relax. We’re waiting for the wagon. We’re taking the lot of you down to the precinct to sort this out. You’re not going anywhere.” Reardon looked over the top of the squad car and addressed the uniform. “Wagon?”
“They’re on their way.”
“Well, this is bullshit,” Wendt said mostly to himself.
“You’re a poet, Wendt,” Reardon said after a moment’s silence, “And you don’t look or act like a fairy.”
“I’m not tiny and nor do I fly around on gossamer wings, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
Reardon gave him a look like he was reconsidering his assumption. “Tell me something. My kid thinks he’s a poet.”
“Yeah, he’s always writing poetry. Or jerking off. As far as I’m concerned they’re pretty much the same thing.”
Wendt had to think for a minute. “Yeah, you’re probably right. They both manifest as a sense of profound self-awareness at being the center of creation. Only problem is one will get you arrested if you do it in public. No law against mental masturbation, though maybe there should be.”
“So if my kid writes poetry, does that make him a faggot?”
“What makes you say that?”
“He’s always leaving poetry books lying around by people with faggoty names like Percy, or Pierce. Lance. Randy, Peter, Dick, Johnson, Jimmy, Vlad, Woody, Dirk.”
“I get the point.”
“Chinese, I think. I never know.”
“Does it make him happy?”
Reardon shook his head slowly in consideration. “Naw, he’s not a happy kind of kid. His mother says he’s just sensitive.” He gave a derisive sneer. “I got his sensitive hanging. Anyway, he keeps filling up notebooks with what he calls poems. He’s got issues.”
“You may have a problem.”
“You’re saying my kid’s queer?”
“I don’t know about that, but he might be a poet.”
The Black Mariah though in actuality a large square dark blue prisoner transport backed into the blocked off street with an attention getting warning pulse. The blue light on the roof strobed lazily. “Ok, let’s go,” a uniform directed him.
Wendt called to Reardon as he was led away, “You know Grace Niklia?”
The puzzled look was not Reardon’s most flattering expression. “Yeah? What about her?”
“What’s the story with her? She really have a twin sister?”
“The weird sisters? One’s crazier than the other. They’re both loony.” Reardon snorted a laugh as it came to him. “You and Niklia? Not a chance! She’d chew you up and spit you out like a bad taste!”
Next Time: Wendt gives a talk on poetry at City College much to the dismay of the professor who invited him to speak and in turn gets a glimpse of the poetry of the future. 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.