On a cold rainy Friday morning in November in busy Café Brava, a bakery café in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, the poets Phyllis Omega and Helen Morningstar share a small table. Phyllis is having the El Grande Breakfast #2 and a latte, Helen a breakfast burrito and coffee.
Phyllis is sixty-four, buxom and pretty, her dimples impressive, her silvery gray hair in a short ponytail, her legal name Phyllis Goldberg. Single and childless, Phyllis works at Crow’s Nest Books and makes up for her insufficient salary with discrete sex-for-money with four older local guys.
Helen is half-Pomo and half-Mexican, thirty-seven, slender and solemnly beautiful, her long black hair in a braid. Never married, Helen is a secretary for an insurance salesman, has a twenty-one-year-old daughter named Carol who lives in Florida, and Helen’s longtime boyfriend is Justin Oglethorpe, a bartender and bouncer at Big Goose, one of the three pubs in Mercy.
Phyllis and Helen are reading together tonight at Crow’s Nest Books, their meeting this morning a planning session for tonight’s performance. They are not close friends, though they see each other frequently at poetry readings and at Big Goose wherePhyllis is a regular and Helen goes on Thursday nights to listen to Ricardo Alvarez play piano.
Lancaster Books just published Helen’s second volume of poems Inevitable Impossible, and several of her poems are in current issues of literary magazines. Phyllis hasn’t published anything in twenty years, but she has a loyal local following and Ramona France, the bookstore owner/manager, is determined to get a good turnout for tonight’s reading after several months of terrible turnouts, even for well-known poets.
“Of course I’ll read first,” says Phyllis, who is intensely jealous of Helen’s recent success. “You’re the star.”
“Hardly,” says Helen, who wishes Phyllis would write something new – Phyllis’s repertoire unchanged in twenty years. “I was thinking for the first half we could each read for fifteen minutes, and then do ten minutes each for the second half.”
“How about I do ten and you do twenty for the first half?” says Phyllis, sipping her latte. “And I’ll do seven and you do fourteen for the second half? You’re the one with a new book and poems in jillions of magazines.” She shrugs dismissively. “I don’t write anymore. Nothing new to say.”
Helen can’t imagine not writing – she lives to write.
“I watch too much television,” says Phyllis, shrugging again. “The antidote for poetry.”
“The antidote for poetry,” says Helen, nodding. “That’s a poem.”
“A title anyway,” says Phyllis, who regrets agreeing to read with Helen. “Titles aren’t my problem. It’s what comes after that eludes me.”
“How about we each write a list of titles?” says Helen, eagerly. “And we can go back and forth reading our titles. People will love that.”
“You think so?” says Phyllis, seeing one of the men she has sex with enter the café and pretend not to see her. “If I have time. Crazy busy today.”
That afternoon in the bookstore, shelving the latest batch of murder mysteries – murder mysteries keeping the bookstore solvent – Phyllis thinks of two titles she wants to write down for the back-and-forth with Helen, but by the time she helps a nearsighted man find the latest Murray Splatz murder fest Bloody Bloody Money and sells a Sierra Club engagement calendar to a tourist from Dallas, she can’t remember the titles she was going to write down.
Standing at the counter, the bookstore momentarily empty of customers, Phyllis writes in her notebook Nothing. Something. Everything. Self-hatred, self-love, self-denial, tired of self.
“Excuse me,” says a man with a British accent.
Phyllis closes her notebook and smiles at the handsome man with brown hair going gray. “How may I help you?”
“We’ve come up from the city to hear Helen Morningstar read tonight.” He glances around the store. “Wanted to make sure we’ve come to the right place. Can’t imagine where the poets will perform.”
“Bookshelves on wheels,” says Phyllis, amazed someone would drive five hours to hear Helen read for a half-hour. “We make space for thirty chairs. If more than thirty people come it will be a new world’s record.”
“Ah,” says the man, laughing. “Thank you. And can you recommend a good place to eat?”
“Money no object?” asks Phyllis, guessing it isn’t for him.
“Seafood?” says the man, dodging her question. “Mexican?”
Phyllis recommends Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican, watches the man depart, and writes Money No Object. Bookshelves on Wheels. Nobody Ever Drove Five Hours To Hear Me Read.
Helen is sitting at her desk in the one-room office of Levinson Insurance talking on the phone to an outraged customer. Her work day ends at four-thirty, fifty minutes to go, then home to read through her poems, make an early supper, get dolled up, read through the poems one more time, and walk to the bookstore with Justin, assuming he remembers she’s reading tonight.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Carlyle,” says Helen, closing her eyes. “That’s what happens when you have a big claim like this. Your rates go up.”
Mrs. Carlyle shouts angrily about insurance companies being a bunch of crooks, and Helen holds the phone at arm’s length waiting for Mrs. Carlyle to stop shouting.
“I’ll have Pete call you,” says Helen, referring to her boss. “He can explain this better than I can.”
Mrs. Carlyle starts shouting again and Helen holds the phone at arm’s length again. Pete looks up from his desk across the room from Helen and says quietly, “I’m not here until Tuesday.”
When Mrs. Carlyle stops shouting, Helen says, “Pete will be out of the office until Tuesday. I’ll put you at the top of his list. We’ll do everything we can to keep your rates as low as possible, but the truth is, replacement costs have gone through the roof, so there will be an increase in your rates.”
Helen hangs up the phone and says to Pete, “You want her file?”
“No,” says Pete, who prizes Helen far more than she realizes, though her salary is an insult. “Go home now. Your big night tonight.”
“Thank you,” she says, greatly relieved to be done for the day. “Much appreciated.”
“We’d come to your reading,” says Pete, lying, “but things with Andrea’s mother are just nuts right now, so…” He picks up his phone. “Gotta take this.”
As dusk descends, Phyllis sits at her kitchen table in the little house she bought thirty-five years ago for next to nothing when half the houses in Mercy were vacant and the current real estate madness was unimaginable.
She is leafing through the same little pile of poems she’s leafed through for the last twenty years and wishing she hadn’t agreed to do this reading – thinking of calling Ramona and bailing.
Her phone rings and the little screen tells her the caller is Albert, one of the men she has sex with – Saturday at ten his usual time.
“Hey Albert,” says Helen before Albert can speak. “We on for tomorrow?”
“Yes,” he says urgently. “Can I come over now, too?”
“Sorry, honey, I’m busy. I’m reading at the bookstore tonight.”
“Please?” he says desperately. “I won’t take long. Pay you two hundred. Please?”
“I can’t Albert. I’m…”
“Three hundred? Please, Phyllis?”
She looks at the clock. She needs the money. He will be quick. He always is.
“Okay, come on,” she says, terminating the call and going to get lubed up.
Albert arrives five minutes later – a portly fellow with a lopsided mustache – and with barely a hello he is astride her on her bed and finishes quickly.
“Thank God,” he says, climbing off and putting on his clothes. “My wife out of the blue decided to go to the city for the weekend and the minute she drove away I got so horny I thought I was gonna explode.”
“You couldn’t just do yourself?” says Phyllis, hating the sight of him.
“Why would I do that?” he asks, grimacing. “When I can have you?”
Phyllis takes a shower, puts on her bathrobe, sits on the sofa in the living room, and leafs through Helen’s new book Inevitable Impossible, stopping at a poem entitled What We Become.
What We Become
When I was two my seventeen-year-old mother left me
with her grandparents and disappeared. My great Grandpa
Morningstar was eighty-one, great Gram seventy-nine.
We lived in the woods north of Mercy and they loved me
until they died when I was sixteen. I was a good student
but crazy desperate to be connected to someone so I got
pregnant quit school went to work as live-in help for Janet,
middle-aged blind woman. She loved my baby Carol so much.
Loved her and loved her and I went to community college
where a poet came and read poems to us and I was
born again and started writing poems and never stopped.
When Carol was six she got hooked watching tennis on
television, begged for a racket, and I got two to play with her
and we played together every day for three thousand days.
When Carol was twelve she said, “I’m gonna be a pro,
Mama. Wear all white and play at Wimbledon.” She
won a tennis scholarship to Stanford, played college
for two years, turned pro at nineteen and now she’s
twenty-one and makes her living playing tennis!
We become what we tell ourselves we are.
We can’t determine the future, but we can choose
our direction and devote ourselves to the journey and
become who we keep telling ourselves we are.
Looking up from her writing, Phyllis is shocked by how late it is, the reading to begin in twenty minutes. She gathers the pages she’s written and puts them in her satchel along with a few of her old poems, dresses quickly in her traditional poetry-reading outfit – a cherry red Poetry Kicks Ass sweatshirt, long black skirt, abalone earrings, red cowboy boots – jumps in her ancient Volkswagen bug, and zips across town to the bookstore.
“Holy shit,” says Phyllis, amazed by the line out the bookstore door.
Ramona, tall and stately and wearing a sleeveless blue calico dress, stands in the doorway and says to the twenty people waiting to get in, “I’m so sorry, but there are no more seats and no place left to stand. Sorry. You’re welcome to listen from out here. We’ll keep the windows open should you choose to stay.”
Phyllis squeezes through the crush and makes her way to the microphone where Helen is dazzling in a black sheath dress and dangly turquoise earrings, her long braid tied with a turquoise ribbon. She is chatting with the attractive British fellow who came into the bookstore this afternoon and a striking African American gal with blonde dreadlocks wearing a brown leather jacket over a slinky silver dress.
“You’re here,” says Helen, giving Phyllis a big hug. “You look wonderful. I should have worn a sweatshirt. I feel naked. This is Arthur Lancaster, my publisher, and Edie Jackson, my editor.”
“A pleasure,” says Phyllis, her heart pounding.
“We will let you kibitz,” says Arthur, shaking Phyllis’s hand.
“Break a leg,” says Edie, winking at Phyllis.
Arthur and Edie take their seats in the front row next to Justin who bounces his eyebrows at Phyllis to say hello, and Helen says to Phyllis, “Can you believe this? Who are all these people?”
“These people,” says Phyllis, turning to look at the vivacious throng, “have come to feast on your words.”
Ramona, usually unflappable, has a quiver in her voice as she stands at the microphone. “Thank you for coming tonight. This is by far the biggest audience we’ve ever had for a poetry reading here, and possibly even bigger than the crowd we had when Murray Splatz came to promote his murder mystery The Bloody Bloody Summer House.” She waits for the laughter to subside. “Phyllis Omega and Helen Morningstar are both longtime Mercy residents. Phyllis works here at the bookstore when not writing her marvelous poetry, and it is my great pleasure to give you Phyllis Omega.”
Light applause greets Phyllis as she steps to the microphone – most of the audience here for Helen.
Phyllis sets her little stack of just-written pages on the podium, surveys the crowd, sees a few familiar faces, and begins.
Like Young Men
Poems used to come to me unbidden.
They’d come and come and come
like young men with willing lovers
and I thought the flow would never end.
Why would it? And when it did, oh what bitterness.
No more multiple orgasms of pen on page, only long
confusing bouts leading to nothing to marvel at.
That was always the test: did I marvel? But young
men cannot be forced to make love. They must
want to come, just as poems must want to come,
cannot be forced. Aye there’s the rub.
Phyllis nods in thanks for the applause and reads her next page.
What If I Told You
What if I told you I know nothing, have no insight, no words
of wisdom except if you can hook up with someone with money
do that because money is everything when your cute stuff fades
and your boobs start to sag and all the things you used to do
with ease are hard labor now and that’s just to break even.
What if I told you I don’t make enough money working in
a bookstore to cover my minimal needs so I supplement my
income sleeping with creeps for a hundred bucks a pop,
and more and more these days I think about swimming
out into the ocean and being done with my shitty life?
What if I told you I became a poet to be Cinderella
in front of an audience thinking Maybe he’s out there,
you know, Prince Charming. A nice guy with money
and a lovely house with an ocean view who adores
me and brings me coffee in the morning to my beautiful
desk we moved out onto the veranda in the gentle sun
and doves flutter down to me, not pigeons, white doves,
each with a scroll in her beak, and on each scroll
a priceless poem?
Following loud sustained applause, Phyllis uncovers the next poem.
Today because of you I wrote the first new poems
I’ve written in twenty years and writing them lifted
a curse that has lain heavily upon me since I was a
young woman, the witch who cursed me resembling
me to an uncanny degree. Because of you I wrote
new poems showing me how I will live my life
from now on, how I will end the tyranny of self-abuse,
how I will surrender to what is, and stop yearning
for what isn’t. Yes because of you and your brave
poems, after years of forgetting, I remembered
I, too, am a poet.
When the reading is over and Helen is done signing copies of her books for excited buyers, and Phyllis has been hugged by old friends and thanked profusely by people moved by her poems, Helen and Justin and Phyllis and Arthur and Edie and Ramona and Ramona’s partner Vera walk to nearby Mercy Hotel for drinks, and when they enter the hotel, dozens of people who attended the reading applaud and shout Bravo!
They sit around a big table, Arthur orders champagne, and Edie leans close to Phyllis and says, “Your poems just knocked me out. Arthur, too. Have enough for a book?”
“Not yet,” says Phyllis looking into Edie’s loving eyes. “But one day I will.”
Todd reads his short story Poetry.