Copyright © 2009 by Harvey Havel
All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publishers, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a newspaper, magazine or journal.
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Books by Harvey Havel:
Noble McCloud (1999)
The Imam (2000)
Freedom of Association (2006)
From Poets to Protagonists (2009)
Harvey Havel’s Blog, Essays (2011)
Stories from the Fall of the Empire (2011)
Two Tickets to Memphis (2012)
Mother, A Memoir (2013)
Charlie Zero’s Last-Ditch Attempt (2014)
The Orphan of Mecca, Book One (2016)
The Orphan of Mecca, Book Two (2016)
The Orphan of Mecca, Book Three (2016)
An Adjunct Down (2016)
The Thruway Killers (2017)
Writing about the very people you know and love has never been easy for any writer, let alone this humble one who has had the high honor and privilege of being a part of The Hudson Valley Poetry Scene for the past several years. This work, I admit, will not do any of the poets featured herein their due justice when we take their incredible gifts and incredible talents into consideration. And stumbling upon this fine community of poets was certainly not easy, as in my early years as a writer, when I was both bruised and battered by my many attempts to make it in the New York City area as a big-time fiction writer, did I find the most fascinating group of artists just across the Jersey border to the north—in the rapidly developing suburbs of Orange County, New York.
The timing of meeting and getting to know these poets in the summer of 2005 couldn’t have come at a more desperate time in my life. I had failed as a young man in ways that I never even thought were remotely possible. I was so filled and consumed by such a loneliness and desperation from an intense urban isolation and longing in Manhattan that I thought my life would be a short and tragic one. Neither finding an audience for my work nor any writers who believed in me as an artist was only the starting point to what became a continuous downward spiral. I thought I had lost it all as I continued to roam the streets of Manhattan in search, not only for the fame and glory of being a writer, but quite simply for a connection with anyone who would even like me as a person or would talk to me as any human being would.
I wound up in Hackensack, New Jersey, as I was unable to afford the fast-paced lifestyle and all-around exclusivity that New York City demanded of its artists, and it was there, through a part-time job serving as an assistant to a disabled man, did I meet George Nitti. Through knowing George—a very talented writer, poet, and screen actor in his own right—I landed my first legitimate job as a composition instructor at Bergen Community College in Paramus, and after we both learned that we had a lot in common as writers, George took me on as a roommate at his spacious home in Chester, New York.
I remember well my first time meeting with a group of young, extremely talented poets whom George had invited for dinner and drinks one night on his wide, stone-flagged patio behind his home. I would learn to follow these poets for the next several years, and what’s more, these poets— Robert Milby, Bonnie Law, Christopher Wheeling, Marina Mati, and Ken Van Rennselaer among them—practically welcomed me at the gates, accepted me with open arms, took me in, and turned my entire life upside down by allowing this sole fiction writer among them to feature his prose at almost every blasted coffee house, library, and cultural center up and down the Hudson Valley.
Since that time, I have moved on to a more sobering teaching position up here in Albany, and being in Albany is like being in another world. I miss these poets terribly, as I don’t get to see them as much anymore, as I do live close by but not nearly as close enough. But my love for them still overflows with gratitude for what they did for me, whether they are conscious of the many gifts they imparted or not. Yes, as poets they do tend to struggle more so than any group of people I have ever met. They are constantly being beaten down by bills they can never pay, broken cars they can never fix, marriages they can never keep, lovers and soul-mates they can never rightfully have, books they can’t for the life of them publish, and places that they’d love to escape to but simply can’t afford. But I realize now, in my casual reflection of those threadbare times we shared together, that these poets don’t need these finer things in life. They seem to have each other and their own artistic merits and endeavors to guide them clear through to those celestial destinations that only poets of such high talent and caliber can intimately know.
The work herein does not represent an accurate depiction of what these poets are like. This collection was never meant to do that. But rather these stories try to place some singular quality of their multi-faceted characters within the context and action of short, fallible narratives that serve more to accentuate the stories themselves and not to emphasize any shortcomings that may be misconstrued as being a part of their personalities, personal histories, or qualities as people. Above all, this is a work of fiction, and what’s printed here, even though it involves these poets, is only fiction and far from fact.
Again, it is not so easy to write about the people a now-humbled writer has come to know and love, but my hope is that they forgive me for anything I have written that might cast them in any light that does not flatter them— because I may not be so flattering from time to time for the sake of these stories—not because these Hudson Valley poets aren’t some of the best people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.
Dusk had befallen the village of Goshen. The moans of a saxophone and the brushing of a cymbal spilled from twin speakers from within Bill and Patricia Seaton’s living room onto an otherwise silent side-street like soft, undulating waves. Their oversized Victorian home, tucked away within a row of tall hedges and a couple of knotted elms, hid the laughter and the din of conversation that flourished on their porch outside. Bill looked upon his porch proudly, as it had been the latest addition to a home that he and his wife had spent many years rebuilding. They had both worked very hard in their later years to restore the home’s siding, which had chipped and peeled, and the wide deck that wrapped around it became a testament to the comfortable niche they had made after many years of tumult and uncertainty as fierce intellectuals and dedicated artisans. The floodlights hovering above them lent considerable shadow to the nooks and quiet corners of the porch where their artist-friends mingled and sipped at their wine. Their faces were hidden from the full gaze a daytime party would have revealed, as this was, after all, a special occasion. Bill Seaton was finally retiring from his position as visiting teacher at the state correctional facility the next town over. He could now settle more deeply into his work as a poet, his daughters college-bound and the mortgage on their large ornamented home recently paid-off in full.
And the guests there that celebrated his many years as a civil servant were an odd assortment of old-guard lefties from his days on the San Francisco poetry scene, local artists who spent their sober evenings at coffee houses, and proprietors from local grassroots businesses who had just entered the world of dollars and cents. Even a few family members had made the long trek to Goshen from as far away as Illinois and Florida. With Patricia by his side, he stood chomping on celery sticks beneath the glow of the lights.
He discussed prison life with George Nitti, who had recently bought a stake in the Baby Grand Bookstore in nearby Warwick. Bill wore a pair of tan, thick-whaled corduroys and a buttoned Oxford shirt, starched white. The curls of his whitening hair frizzed along his scalp with a gravity all their own, and his white beard hung upon the lower half of his face like a lush throwback to the calm, ancient evenings he spent hiking the upstate hinterlands, his wire-rimmed spectacles hinting at a royalty that had somehow interrupted his tenure as the radical reformer for whom he was so well known for many years.
In fact, his interest in social justice began in the farmlands of rural Illinois as he traveled southwest, hitch-hiking the entire way to San Francisco. Once there, he met Patricia for the first time. Luckily they had had enough foresight to flee from the ever-repopulating city by the bay before the world’s camera focused its full attentions on the dharma bums, sages, and mystics that wandered lazily through its hippified streets like decorated juggernauts. He saw all of these faces in front of him now returned to life, their dignities restored, as though every one of them had straightened the wrinkles and creases of their older age and dyed their hair their natural colors again. A return to youth, perhaps, but this time they did it more responsibly.
He remembered how several of his close friends fell to the excesses that soon followed this explosion of counter-culture, and many of them never quite returned from their forays into alternative living and the ever-expanding mind. Bill was much too genuine to have been sucked up by the rampant commercialism that replaced this wholesome drift into utopia, but when the ideas seemed to fade and the logic of their dogma succumbed to the raw, narrowing eyes of the money-making machine, they hit the road and took their thoughts and beliefs elsewhere.
Yet the streets and alleyways of San Francisco had taught their swollen hearts to imagine, and both Bill and Patricia held onto this cultural currency that would have otherwise rendered their lives barren.
Before the influx of acid tabs and electric guitars and the Rolling Stones, there had been a commitment to equality and an old roll-up-your-sleeves and turning-swords-into-ploughshares motif whose time had finally re-emerged. It all seemed a bit fantastic and somewhat naïve to think that any age could tumble beyond its limits, but he saw this era manifested in the people merging into one another on his porch like swirling eddies in a slow-moving creek. He saw their presence as sublime, as he carefully looked beyond George’s shoulder and glanced at the camaraderie that so reminded him of his younger years. He knew just then that satisfaction took its own, mellow time to arrive, and he had mellowed slowly amidst the relentless pull of what became the all-too-easy and the all-too-quick, as even by his own standards his society had derailed and barreled headlong into a synthetic, artificial, and apocalyptic dead-end without noticing its vain reflection as it passed by its mirror.
“All things return,” he said to George, who cupped the stem of his wine glass. “Just because the world is pretty much soulless now, doesn’t mean it remains that way.”
“But these are criminals,” retorted George. “They knew what the rules were, and they broke them. They either raped poor, innocent girls or killed their victims in cold blood. You have to consider that.”
“But you’re not looking at the reasons behind these acts,” said Bill. “These prisoners never even had a chance. They come from broken homes and a society that cheats them out of every chance they get. I doubt that many people ever consider their hardships. I’m not saying they’re charity cases by any means, because they are convicted felons, murderers, and rapists. I’m not disputing that. But society’s answer is always to lock up this permanent underclass and throw away the keys. That’s not much of a solution. And meanwhile they build prison after prison. Where will it end?”
“So you’re saying that I have to watch as a guilty man gets a lesser sentence, just because he’s under-privileged? I think that’s incredibly risky.”
“It’s society’s job to rehabilitate these prisoners. I don’t like what they’ve done either, but unless you give these people decent jobs, enough food, and adequate shelter, you have no right locking them up.”
“And who’s supposed to pay for all this rehabilitation?” asked George. “The next thing you know they’ll be wanting painting lessons, acting lessons, and undergraduate degrees from the penal system. Why not aerobics?”
“If you think that our government pays these people more than a token for the brutality it has inflicted on them compared to those who are already privileged enough to be deemed ‘law-abiding,’ then I think you are operating under some kind of cruel delusion.”
Bill’s voice steadily rose as he said this, and by the end of his argument a crowd had surrounded them and had absorbed every word. On one of the daytime talk shows or on one of the twenty-four hour news channels this would have been seen as a moronic victory, but both George and Bill knew that no one won or lost here, nor should either of them win or lose. Their points jousted from different locations, and both worlds carried valid gripes about the other. Nevertheless, Bill had attracted attention again for an older brand of politics that crested many moons ago, and he considered whether or not his politics were relevant in an age awash in money and interest rates and big corporate mergers. He was, after all, comfortable and settled, whereas George needed accomplishment and solubility and understood the value of a dollar. It was the strangest binary contraption—this point and counterpoint—as though pro and con explained away the most controversial subjects of the day.
No one really won or lost an argument any more, he considered. The people at the party staring at them seemed neither to agree nor disagree with the positions they took. They just wanted to see which way the tide turned or found what they said interesting. Bill sheepishly pointed out, however, that it’s usually hard to gauge where anyone sided on these ‘issues du jour.’ Nevertheless, his life had been built around the volumes of poetry and prose he ingested as well as the journals and magazines he poured over in quiet libraries, and his opinions on things rarely altered course. He needed his beliefs, just as George needed his. But Bill thought he was in the right, and the crescendo that kicked in at the end of this jousting must have implied a stronger belief than mere argument for argument’s sake.
The party-goers once again scattered into the quiet corners of the household. Their debate had ended quite suddenly. The mixing of politics and art had always been dangerous, but it’s the inevitable plight of man to debate things that would have normally allowed more polite men to suffer. Women, on the other hand, were somehow the opposite. They were more practical in their approach, as there were many of these joyous life-appreciators within his gang of old friends. The crowd watching them slowly slinked away and filled up on more wine and hors d’oeurves. Nothing douses a party more than politics, but Bill understood it to be a necessary evil that bound a man to his own purpose. Patricia, on the other hand, to her grateful relief, quickly caught Bill by the shirt sleeve as the wailing of the saxophone and the rat-tat-tat of the snare drum continued.
On the next morning, after the last of the travelers had departed, Bill woke up on the early side and felt able enough to put in his second-to-last day of teaching at the prison. He buckled his beige leather briefcase containing a few stories he had wanted his students to read. He had become used to the prison, and maneuvering through its metal cages and security checkpoints became second nature to him. He drove along 17 from Goshen and parked his car near the long chain-linked fence that had razor wire coiled along its length. The courtyard beyond the fence was as silent as a Gulag before an execution. A loose basketball waded in a puddle at the center of cracked asphalt. A watchtower manned by a guard wearing aviator sunglasses seemed casually menacing.
The walls of the first corridor he passed through were painted lime green, and his shoes squeaked along the polished linoleum. Already he heard the slams of cell doors and the jangling of keys. Voices that echoed were telegraphed from deep within the concrete core of the building. The air was moist and cool, as though he were floating through a sunken cave, the security guards motioning for him to step forward through the metal detectors after flashing his state identification card. The procedure was as innocuous as an airport’s, but further down the long tunnel a more formidable set of thick, bullet-proof barriers separated the convict-packed common areas from the rest of the upstanding citizenry on its other side. Beyond these barriers loomed even more jangling of keys and convict voices that bounced off the walls. The hum of flickering fluorescent lights were protected in wire-mesh encasings, if only to prevent the convicts from reaching up and smashing them. The prisoners themselves, milling about like bored teenagers in orange jumpsuits, sat on warped stackable chairs and gazed into a boxed-in television set tuned to one meaningless channel. Divorce Court, then Jerry Springer, then a dumbed-down game show droned in their ears.
Bill’s duties educating the juvenile drug-pushers, gang members, and other felons stuck in this maximum security wing at least kept their minds and speech agile enough so that if any of their basic skills in this regard had failed, his pedagogy would deliver doses of serenity like prescribed medication. The prisoners’ faces were melancholy, and their stares as blank as their empty jail cells. On occasion they shuffled from seat to seat, as though that alone were the only activity available to stave off an anxious boredom. No wonder inmates fought and played territorial games of socio-political chess among various gangland factions that ordered shanks one minute and the comforts of filterless tobacco the next. This was hardly the environment George Nitti had referred to when he asked who’d be paying for their rehabilitation. George didn’t know how time dribbled from these rusted water fountains like liquid goop, the walls damp and sweating with stubborn mildew and poisonous lead, the prison guards with batons and guns more like traffic cops ushering prisoners from one area to the next. The prison hummed like a machine that really didn’t go anywhere, as though occupying themselves was a mere guise to prevent the undercurrent of idleness from exploding into a riot. As long as everyone looked like they did something to pass the time, the guards eased up a bit and the tension of metal-against-metal was sublimated within the far reaches of a criminal’s mind.
Bill walked along the television area bidding quiet greetings to the prisoners who watched the glowing box suspended in the air by steady chains, the volume barely audible. He walked into a classroom on the side of the main area where jump-suited prisoners sat around an oval table waiting for him. He was a little on the late side, but several of the prisoners were happy enough that he still showed up to his job after many years of faithful service. George Nitti’s assessment of their criminality still reverberated in his ears, as a couple of them didn’t seem too pleased to be there at all. The prisoners were mostly black and Latino, the type of convicts who fell through the cracks of young adulthood by dealing drugs or getting angry enough at a streetwalker to rape her, and while this would normally be unsettling to anyone who had to rub shoulders with this muscled collection of men, Bill was at ease with them. He modulated his speech to slow and quiet. He was definitely non-authoritarian with them, as there was nothing these prisoners hated more than authority.
Over the years Bill had trained himself to see their good parts and tailor his discussions to these good parts rather than to thump upon their continuous disenfranchisement within a system that couldn’t absorb them. Within the classroom his talk, then, was slow, deliberate, and methodical, his delivery smooth, upbeat, and sometimes entertaining. He saved his politics for his end-of-the-summer parties and instead let the prisoners do most of the talking. There was, however, a new prisoner in the class who looked at him meanly and had an attitude about him, suggesting that Bill ought to avoid him as much as possible, at least for the first few days. New prisoners sometimes took months to settle in, and he tried to avoid the bitter rub of confrontation as he passed around copies of the latest short stories. Yet he could feel the tension of this one prisoner—a large, muscular black man from the mean streets of the Bronx, just transferred in from Riker’s Island. Bill tread along the perimeter of the oval desk ever so softly, as he had been so used to doing.
One of the short stories he handed out, Richard Wright’s masterpiece “The Man Who Was Almost A Man,” was to be the topic of discussion that morning. All of the prisoners took about twenty minutes or so to read the story in front of them—all of them except this one prisoner who simply stared back at Bill with dark, menacing eyes, as though he had something against him personally. Bill had rarely found himself in situations like this, but he made sure not to make a fuss over it. Some prisoners took time, he remembered, and this prisoner was no exception. And yet something about his harrowing stare pinned him into a submission much like a wrestler pins his opponent to a mat. He couldn’t help but be distracted by this convict, as the rest of the class worked quietly and flawlessly reading the story, only that this one man represented the bane of imperfection of what would have otherwise been a dynamic process that operated flawlessly. As the minute hand on the clock above the table swept around its dial, the clock itself fiercely guarded in an iron face-mask all the same, Bill couldn’t help but be sucked in by the demonic gaze of this prisoner who made him out to be the enemy and the object of his frustrations, as though his defiance carried with it its own terrible form of abuse and torture.
The prisoner’s defiance had probably targeted an innocent man, as they had all targeted the most innocent of creatures and ate these lambs whole like the wolves they had become. For a moment, Bill no longer felt so sorry for these caged animals, their criminality as insidious as this black man’s stare, the glare of his eyes challenging him to assert his authority, which he seldom showed to anyone. He could be tough if he wanted to, but he was too much of a seasoned professional to resort to such childish power struggles. This wasn’t the hot grind of an inner-city street, and yet he wanted to teach the prisoner a lesson not to fuck with him as the prisoner had done to his many other victims. Bill walked up to the convict and stared at him point-blank, like a dean of students at a reformatory, and said:
“Is there a problem?”
The convict eyeballed him back, and for a moment Bill thought the convict may just get up out of his chair and confront him physically. Hot bursts of fear and adrenaline pumped through his system, as the convict may have reacted at any moment. The confrontation, however, was necessary. If only Bill didn’t have to take things so personally with this prisoner. But the laws of the street demanded that he deal effectively with anyone who tried to buck his authority, especially in a place where a display of manhood and guts marked the difference between living and dying.
The convict, after peeling his eyes away from Bill’s, must have recognized that he was in a different place other than Riker’s Island. He lowered his gaze while flashing a snide grin, as though he had only toyed with Bill to judge his ferocity and his street credibility, so to speak. Bill, who waited on the other end of his grin, breathed hot and heavy after the convict submitted to the rawness of his authority, but he felt guilty about it after they discussed the story and he dismissed the class for the last time.
Bill returned to his Goshen home later that evening after a trafficky ride along 17. Upon sitting down for dinner, he remarked to Patricia that he had had a good day. He didn’t explain it any other way. From his home in Goshen the prison system seemed a million miles away from him, and in a day or so, that’s exactly how far away it would be.
You will always be a mystery to me. When I asked if you’d like to go to the Corner Stage that night, you just stared at me and smiled knowingly. Perhaps you didn’t want to go out that night, especially with someone as socially awkward as I. What would we do there together but sit in silence, as I try to hold your hand in the darkness? You’ve always known how shy I can be, as though a part of me can’t put together a conversation worth listening to. You know that about me—how I cringe in public places, how I save my love for you only in the most private of moments. And when we’re out in public, I hide my love, thinking it too inappropriate for anyone to see. When I’m out of the house, I like to blend in, like a mouse that scurries for shelter, always wary of being the object of public consumption. So if I take you to the Corner Stage tonight, you already know that I will be hiding under a soft skin of shadow that renders me invisible to the collection of faces who sit in the comfortable den of plush sofas facing the small stage. Since we’re in public, you sense my fear yet still try to make small talk. But I remain as resolute as a stone in a river, your words washing over me as though they were spoken in a dialect I can’t comprehend. And yet you smile at me, thinking that I’m some small child unable to absorb the stares and curiosities of others. But I should know better than to let you pay so much attention to my foolish disposition for remaining ever-so-small. We take a seat in the middle of the crowd at the Corner Stage anyway.
Within a few moments I am saved by Sarah Morr who gracefully takes the stage, acoustic guitar and all, and so you and I still sit and hide in the darkness as her voice, sonorous as it is, sings verses that match my honest feelings for you, her lyrics able to express what I am unable to express. Her guitar is deep blue, and somehow we swim in her words, as though they were somehow meant for us. We sit and watch her elegance from below, wondering where she had found the depth of her experience. I take your hand in mine, the only display the crowd will get from the two of us, and your hand feels like it belongs there, your fingers finding a home within the pool of my palm. And maybe this is the most man you’ll get out of me tonight, as Sarah Morr, silk bandana wrapped around spiked hair, glitters in the spotlight, her arms strumming another tune as though she plays it for ourselves alone.
Now that Sarah is the object of public consumption, I’m thinking that I can tickle your soft arms with the grace of my fingernails, as no one can see us. It’s safe to show my love for you when she’s singing. I no longer have to hide how I feel about you, and I’m sorry that I’ve put us in a closet or, better yet, a dark box where the sunlight can’t shine. My reticence is really an expression of words, I tell you, as though my love for you is too great for common speech or small-talk, which is why I’m so quiet this evening and why I am now able to place my hand on your thigh and touch you in places that would have otherwise been forbidden, had we not been under the auspices of Sarah’s singing. I touch you in places like your knee, for instance, or maybe I pretend to yawn and put my arm around your shoulders, moving closer to you, as we were meant to be this close, you and I. The night permits this indiscretion, and slowly I am surrendering to the possibility that we were truly meant for each other. But I dare not kiss you, as Sarah Morr has just finished her set. I suppose we’re not by ourselves yet, and I hesitate to show you how I need you and will always need you, especially when I’m most often sitting at home and you’re out in the world being the social woman you were meant to be, enjoying the company of others and loving them in some imperceptible way, as I am more prone to avoiding them and hiding from them. I’m too acquainted with darkness to shake a person’s hand and actually mean it. But from within the shadows of the Corner Stage you know me better than that. You know I’m taking things much too seriously for such a young man, even though my heart aches for you greater still, even though my arm is wrapped around your porcelain shoulders. You then chide me for taking love so seriously, because you notice Bill Perry emerge from the corner of your eye. He has been sitting at the bar in his blue dungarees and opaque sunglasses, his eyes needing shade from the spotlights on the stage.
Maybe you’re right. It’s time to loosen up and not dote too much on how I’ve madly fallen for you. I can’t seem to let go of how attached my heart has become. You smile and clap as Bill Perry takes the stage with his band of music-makers, all of them dressed casually, the Corner Stage their comfortable home. And as he belts out a blues tune that scorches the midnight air, and as the patrons at the bar escort their dates to the front of the stage where they begin to dance to the tones of his guitar, I wonder too if we should join in, perhaps give in a little bit, and let ourselves go a little bit, if only for a short while. But I sit and wait patiently, like a bird on a branch waiting to fly. The music, it seems, takes me higher, especially when he does an extended version of that James Brown tune. I sit there stunned by Bill Perry’s signature talent—how he’s able to move people on the dance floor these patrons have slowly carved out in front of the stage. What an immense power this must be, because who really needs to think about love when we can show it by dancing to an electrified guitar and the band that keeps his beat?
At this point, I’m thinking that my rigidity and shyness are too selfish for a night as tonight. Perhaps I get carried away by my own narcissistic fears that somehow I’m the one who’ll suffer if I ever reveal my love for you and release it from the maze of my restricted heart. And maybe my love for you ought to be celebrated, as these people who shake and jive in front of the stage are celebrating the depth of their love for each other.
I’m sorry for making you sit in the shadows for so long. Normally I wouldn’t have such nerve, but my feet! They seem to be tapping all on their own, the circus of guitar, bass, and drum beats arousing what little courage I have, because all one really needs is a little courage at a time like this. I’m finally off my contemplating ass, and I reach out my hand for yours. I lead you to where a throng of people are shaking and writhing to this one remarkable number, and slowly, like a slave breaking his chains, I shake and writhe as though I’ve lost all of my senses. And as I take you in my arms, I can see that you’re smiling.
In the spring we planted a small garden. It wasn’t anything too elaborate or ostentatious, just a few flowerbeds of violets, daisies, and tulips that hugged the outer-rim of our cabin by the lake. When summer came, these flowers had grown knee-high and covered the edges of our home with crisp, bright color. It lent our home an uncertain legitimacy among the other lakeside cabins where the sons and daughters of our neighbors scampered along a narrow dock jutting out into the water and flung their pink bodies over planks of mossy wood. The resounding splashes of lake that leapt up from the surface reminded us that perhaps we should someday have children of our own. But this was my line of thinking more than hers.
She seemed content working in the garden, snipping away at the overgrowth of flowers that had encroached too quickly on the flatness of the lawn, and I couldn’t really tell if she were content with the love I had given her or not. And even though we had spent seven years together, our love grew as tired as the joints between our bones did, and maybe she thought of leaving me once the brittle air of autumn swept through the valley and rendered the lake too frigid to swim in. This was a possibility I had feared for some time now, and to ask her to expound upon her feelings towards me after all of this time together only pointed to my naiveté. On issues of importance, especially love, a woman never tells you what she thinks, which is why, I suppose, I took matters into my own hands, because, yes, I distrusted her, and my suspicions festered slowly in my own heart like a degenerative disease.
I could no longer tell why she had grown so indifferent towards me, as her love in our earlier years overflowed with a passion that shone upon me like a sunrise, and gradually that light had been dimmed by time. We had learned everything there was to learn about each other and had shared a level of closeness whereby the only direction left had to be our own exclusive separation. Although we tried to find the higher plane of love, much like that mythical jet stream that carries a relationship along its current for the rest of a couple’s life, somehow we fell short of arriving and instead dangled mid-air on our slow decent earthwards, almost like an aborted mission without a good enough explanation as to why it had ended. Nevertheless, I loved her with a zeal most men in my circumstance would readily shy away from, and my intense passion for her no longer inspired a reciprocity of feeling. She had grown quiet and distant and busied herself with her gardening, and for the last couple of weeks up here on the lake, we’ve hardly said a word to each other. I’ve demanded explanations from her before, but this time the explanations I seek have to be mined discreetly.
You see, my wife is also a poet, and luckily she keeps her latest work in a folder between a couple of musty chapbooks in the guest room. It was then that this terrible idea had suddenly popped into my head that perhaps I should start searching for clues in the pages she had penned. She kept her latest work in a desk drawer in the room adjacent to our bedroom. Sometimes in the middle of the night I would awake with a start from some self-involved dream and search along our warm sheets for the soft of her body, only to discover that she had retreated into this poet’s den of hers to write. Lately she had been spending a lot of time in there, and if she ever found out that I was snooping around or rummaging through her papers, perhaps she would finally summon the nerve to leave me once and for all. I waited until she drove into town to launch my full investigation, as she usually took a couple of hours to do the grocery shopping.
The room itself had a huge lakeside window surrounded by yellow birch trees that shaded the lake but still permitted a good view of it. Her desk, made of sanded Puritan wood, edged up against this window and had fittingly inspired many of her poems about nature, as that comprised the bulk of her published work. She used nature as a metaphor to emphasize certain quirks that are found in our own human relationships, and I, for one, had been a loyal and devoted fan of her work and often wondered why she wrote very little about the events shaping our world, or at the very least, what she thought about me and our relationship. Poems of this more personal sort, which usually demanded more concreteness and directedness, hardly ever found their way into her chapbooks, as though her nature poems were an awkward defense that hid her true feelings, or her true capabilities, as a poet beneath the surface of a crafty, almost shape-shifting intellect. She keenly observed her emotions but hardly ever expressed them, or so I had thought, until I finally found a manila folder tucked away into the far corner of her desk drawer. Admittedly, I expected more of the same work and secretly hoped that she shied away from anything too revealing. But my heard leapt when I pulled out an undiscovered cache of poetry all devoted to love and love-making.
These poems, hidden from me on purpose, I suppose, were stacked an inch thick and probably hadn’t been seen by anyone before. I always knew Bonnie had her secrets, but what I had found nearly crushed me. One of her poems read,
“At the bar, between sets
While you were telling me
How you saw Twisted Sister 15 years ago
Before they were discovered, and how
You had a nervous breakdown at 20
Because of a crazy girlfriend
“I was thinking about running my fingers
Through your shiny black curls
Feeling their softness
Imagining our warm bodies
Needless to say, this poem wasn’t about me. I’ve never seen the rock band Twisted Sister in my life, and I haven’t had any crazy girlfriends yet, (although they’re all crazy, aren’t they?) And I have straight blonde hair, not black curly hair. To top off the betrayal, she imagined sleeping with this guy. What I had suspected all along had pervaded my marriage, and a burning at the pit of me swallowed my heart due to the loss of my wife’s fidelity. Perhaps I didn’t tell her I loved her enough, or maybe we had spent too many worthless evenings avoiding each other, but I never expected her to go this far. The rest of her poem read,
“How I would lay my palm
In the hollow of your belly
The rhythm of your breath
Our lips lightly touching
How my tongue would love