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short story

The Whole Point

In Big Goose, the largest of the three pubs in the small town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, as the warm October afternoon gives way to a foggy dusk, the bartender Justin Oglethorpe, forty-three, a muscular six-feet-six with curly red hair says, “I’ve been a bartender for seventeen years. Fifteen here at Big Goose.” He looks around the spacious pub. “And believe it or not, most of the time I enjoy the heck out of my job.”

Justin is talking to Michael Frosbisher, fifty-one, five-feet-nine, a good-looking guy twenty pounds overweight with brown hair going gray. Born and raised in Mercy and voted Most Fun To Be With his senior year at Mercy High, Michael lives in Los Angeles now and makes seventy grand a month as the co-creator and head writer of the long-running television sit-com Danny and Maureen.

“Well it shows,” says Michael, looking up at Justin. “You’re by far the best bartender I’ve ever known, and I’ve known way too many, believe me.”

“I appreciate the compliment, Michael,” says Justin, who went to San Jose State on a basketball scholarship and sat on the bench for four years before finally getting into the last game of his last season there – and with San Jose State trailing by thirty-six points and only six minutes left to play, Justin took and made nine three-pointers, grabbed seven rebounds, and had the time of his life.

A scout from China approached Justin after the game and asked him if he would be interested in trying out for a Chinese basketball team. Justin said sure, tried out for the team, and was offered a one-year contract with the Jiangsu Dragons, which he turned down because he wanted to go home to Mercy more than he wanted to play basketball in China.

“How is your beautiful wife Cecily?” asks Justin, who has served beer to Michael many times over the years. “She’s the only Cecily I’ve ever met, though the town is rife with Cecilias.”

“My wife,” says Michael, seeing Cecily glaring at him as he got in his car and drove away from their big house in Brentwood to make the long trip to Mercy, “is having a rough time these days. Our daughter Twyla just started her first year at Brandeis, and our son Paul goes off to Yale next year, and dear Cecily, who has spent the last twenty years catering to their every whim, suddenly doesn’t know what to do with herself. I begged her to come with me, but she doesn’t like it here, so…”

“What did she do before you had kids?” asks Justin, pointing to Michael’s empty glass and giving him a quizzical look.

“I would love another,” says Michael, nodding. “She was an agent at a big talent agency.”

“I thought for sure you were gonna say actress,” says Justin, serving Michael another glass of amber ale. “She’s a knockout.”

“Yeah,” says Michael, remembering the first time he saw Cecily and the world disappeared and she became all that mattered to him. “We met at the wedding of a mutual friend and fell madly in love etcetera.”

“Could she go back to being an agent?” asks Justin, who knows next to nothing about show biz.

“She’d rather die,” says Michael, remembering how incredibly relieved Cecily was when he became a staff writer on the sit-com You Can’t Be Serious and was finally making enough money so Cecily could quit the job she hated. “But enough about me. How’s the gorgeous Helen? I assume you’re still together.”

 “Helen es muy fabuloso,” says Justin, waving to Jack and Norman as they walk in the door at 4:30 on the dot as they do every afternoon. “She moved in with me six months ago, which enabled her to quit her horrible fulltime job and get a much better part-time gig. Best six months of my life.”

“For her, too, probably,” says Michael, who finds Helen enchanting and heroic. “She still writing poetry?”

“Helen will write poetry until the day she dies,” says Justin, smiling as he thinks of his beloved. “Hold that thought.” He turns to Jack and Norman as they approach the bar – Norman tall and skinny, Jack small and round-shouldered. “Gentlemen. Pints this afternoon or are we starting slow with the little glasses?”

“Pints,” says Jack, his head void of hair. “To quickly drown our sorrows.”

“Guinness for me,” says Norman, his attempt at a British accent comically awful. “And not too much foam, if you please.”

“Stop, Norman,” says Jack, rolling his eyes. “You sound more German than British.”

“And you, Jack?” says Justin, loving these guys. “What are you having?”

“Something not bitter and not dark,” says Jack, smirking at Norman. “And a muzzle for this guy.”

“Conchita will bring you your drinks,” says Justin, bowing to them.

Jack and Norman head for their usual table and Michael asks quietly, “Are they gay?”

“No idea,” says Justin, filling a pint glass with Guinness. “Nor do I care.”

Michael nods. “You’re a wise man, Justin.”

“Let people be who they want to be,” says Justin, raising a hand to beckon Conchita the barmaid standing at the far end of the bar gazing raptly into her phone. “And to complete my report on Helen, she published her third book of poems a year ago and her publisher called last week to tell her they just did a second printing so they’d have enough copies for the Christmas rampage. That’s a big deal for a poet. Means she sold more than a thousand copies.”

“Fantastic. Can I get a copy at the bookstore?” asks Michael, his heart pounding at the thought of publishing a volume of poems.

“You can get a copy right here,” says Justin, reaching under the counter and bringing forth a briefcase full of copies of Helen’s book Inevitable Impossible. “And if you stick around a little while, the poet herself will be here and sign your copy.”

“Wonderful,” says Michael, holding the volume of poems in his hands and gazing at the cover – a tall slender woman with long black hair walking on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, a huge wave crashing behind her. “I can’t wait to read these.” He looks at Justin. “I haven’t read a poem in twenty-five years. Not since I stopped writing poems. I guess I was a fake or I wouldn’t have stopped. Right?”

“I’m sure you were not a fake,” says Justin, placing Jack and Norman’s pints on a tray and waving to Conchita again. “You simply learned to disguise your poems as television scripts.”

“I’d much rather write poems, believe me,” says Michael, remembering the glory days of scrambling to make enough money to pay his rent and eat – when the poems came fast and furious.

“Speaking of poetry,” says Justin, pausing portentously, “Helen’s got me writing poems now. I write every day. Never in million years thought I’d write poetry, but I love it.”

“Is she teaching you?” asks Michael, gazing in awe at Justin

“Oh yeah,” says Justin, raising his hand to greet more regulars. “She’s a master of cadence and clarity.”

*

With a signed copy of Helen’s book on the seat beside him, Michael drives from Big Goose to his folks’ place a couple miles north of Mercy, their old falling-down house sitting forty feet from the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. They paid seven thousand dollars for the small redwood house on three acres in 1969, and now those three acres are worth at least four million dollars.

Michael’s older brother Duffy, a large-scale marijuana grower, is there for supper with Tess, his very young wife, his third.

Tess, a cute busty blonde, greets Michael with, “We watched Danny and Maureen last night and I laughed so hard I thought I was gonna pee my pants. You’re a genius.”

“Thanks,” says Michael, wondering what it would be like to be in a relationship with someone so much younger than he. “Which episode? We filmed this season last year and we’re nearly done shooting next season.”

“The one where Danny stops to help the woman with the flat tire,” says Michael’s mother Irene, a roly-poly eighty-two, standing at the stove boiling spaghetti noodles, her glasses fogged up. “And they kind of fall in love.”

Kind of?” says Michael’s father Arnold, a wiry eighty-five, calling from the nearby living room where he and Duffy are watching basketball on an enormous television screen with the sound off. “The whole point was if Danny hadn’t been married to Maureen, he and the gal with the flat tire would’ve gotten married in a minute. They were perfect for each other except he’s already got Maureen.”

“Danny would never leave Maureen,” says Irene, beckoning Tess to come drain the noodles. “That’s the whole point of the show. Right, Mikey?”

“The show has a point?” says Michael, giving his mother a dubious look. “Who knew?”

I know,” says Irene, cleaning her glasses. “And you know it, too.”

Tess empties the big pot of boiling water and noodles into the colander in the sink and is engulfed in a cloud of steam. “It’s about meeting your soul mate,” she says, speaking from the cloud. “And the irony of meeting someone perfect for you but not getting to be with them because… whatever. I so get that.”

Duffy, a taller skinnier version of Michael, is enthroned in one of the four armchairs in the living room. “I never care what the episode’s about,” he says, shaking his head. “I just want to look at Maureen. She could just gaze into the camera for twenty minutes and I’d be happy. And she’s like… Do whatever you need to do, Danny, and he’s like terrified of living the life he wants to live. She’s the most fabulous woman on earth and he’s a total putz. You’re a genius, bro.”

“What’s he want somebody else for?” says Arnold, grimacing. “Who could be better than Maureen?”

“Come eat,” says Irene, directing her command at Arnold. “We’re sitting at the table tonight, not in front of the television.”

“The sacrifices I make,” says Arnold, getting up from his armchair to come sit in his customary place at the head of the table.

Duffy sits at the table where he has always sat since he was a little boy. Tess brings him a beer and sits beside him. Michael sits across the table from Duffy where he has always sat since he was old enough to sit up, and he and Duffy exchange looks to say Here we are again.

*

After supper, Michael drives a mile north of his folks’ place to the beach house he’s renting for his two-week stay in Mercy, settles on the living room sofa, and calls his wife.

Michael: Hello darling.

Cecily: Don’t darling me.

Michael: But you are my darling.

Cecily: If I’m your darling, come home.

Michael: You come here. Fly up to Santa Rosa. I’ll pick you up. My folks would love to see you. We’ll have a fifth honeymoon.

Cecily: You wish.

Michael: I do wish.

Cecily: Do you have to stay for two weeks?

Michael: I need to stay for two weeks. My father is eighty-five, Mama’s eighty-two. I only see them twice a year. I need to breathe the good air here and walk on the beach and not be in LA.

Cecily: You’d like to move there, wouldn’t you? Marry some teenager like your dope head brother.

Michael: I would like to move here with you.

Cecily: And you would write and what would I do? There’s nothing there.

Michael: Can we change the subject? Please?

Cecily: To what?

Michael: To I love you and I’ll be home before you know it and you’ll be glad to have a happy rested sane husband instead of a nutcase.

Cecily: If you loved me you’d come home.

Michael: And if you loved me you’d be happy I’m where I want to be for a couple weeks.

Cecily: So you’re saying I don’t love you?

Michael: Do you? Love me?

Cecily: I don’t know anymore, Michael. You used to love it here and now all you want to do is be in Mercy.

Michael: All I want to do? A week in the summer with you and the kids, and two weeks in the fall? What about the forty-nine other weeks of the year when I’m with you in LA every day and night?

Cecily: You’re right. I’m sorry. I just feel like everybody’s going away. Twyla’s overjoyed not to be here. Paul can’t wait to go to Yale and never come home again. And you’re in Alaska finding yourself.

Michael: I’m in Mercy being myself.

Cecily: Fine. Have fun.

Michael: I’ll call you tomorrow.

Cecily: Only if you want to.

*

Michael pours a goblet of red wine and settles again on the sofa in the living room to read Helen Morningstar’s book of poems.

He opens to page fifty-one in honor of his age and finds the title poem Inevitable Impossible.

Many moons ago a woman in a little house in a small town on the

north coast of California sat at her kitchen table in the morning

before going to work trying to write down the dream she just had,

the dream more of a feeling than anything that happened, a feeling

of being lost yet about to be found. Then the timer on the stove

beeped telling her to go to work. She put down her pen and

gathered her things and walked across the small town to the

office where she worked for a man who sold insurance and settled

insurance claims and paid her barely enough to live on. And all

that day and for many weeks and months she continued to work

on the poem about feeling lost yet about to be found until one

morning, a Saturday when she didn’t have to go work and could

stay with the poem, she realized she was attempting to translate

feelings into language. And thinking of herself as a translator,

not the original poet, she was able to complete the poem and

send it to an editor at a literary magazine who bought the poem

for fifty dollars and two free copies of the magazine, and now,

all these moons later, the poem is in a book and you are

reading these words the poet hopes will ignite something

in you that has needed igniting for a long time. All of this

 impossible, yet inevitable.

*

The next evening, a Thursday, Michael goes to Big Goose to have a beer and listen to Ricardo, a piano player, and Ray, a stand-up bass player, make music together. A dozen or so of Ricardo and Ray’s groupies are sitting close to the little stage, and one of those groupies is Helen, tall and slender with long black hair in a braid – a beautiful Latina in her late thirties.

Still very much under the spell of Helen’s poetry, Michael asks Helen if he might join her and Helen says, “I’d be delighted.”

Michael sits down and Helen introduces him to the other person at the table, a Mexican woman named Maria who Michael recognizes as the sales gal at Brindisi, the one and only upscale women’s clothing store in Mercy. Cecily likes to shop at Brindisi when she comes to Mercy with Michael in the summer, and she refers to the store as a little island of civilization in the wilderness.

When Ricardo and Ray take a break after their first set, Michael says to Helen, “I’ve read Inevitable Impossible three times now. Can’t put it down. All the poems, I’m not kidding, seem to have been written specifically for me.”

“I’m glad,” says Helen, blushing.

“‘A feeling of being lost yet about to be found,’” says Michael, quoting her poem. “That’s me every time I come home from Los Angeles, except I never stay here long enough to be found before I return to my whirlpool of confusion in that terrifying megalopolis.”

“Why do you go back?” asks Maria, gazing at Michael and thinking I really like this guy. I love how he talks and how he’s not trying to be anything he isn’t.

“Wife, kids, work,” says Michael, shrugging. “One kid in college, the other starting a year from now.”

Maria nods in understanding, and so does Helen.

“I would love to move back here,” says Michael, never having told anyone of his longing to live in Mercy again. “Though my wife would never move here with me.”

“What do you do in Los Angeles?” asks Maria, mystified by how much she likes Michael – liking any man a rarity for her. “For a living?”

“I write a television show,” says Michael, thinking of how he and Devora do most of the writing, though there are nine other writers on the staff, and when he and Devora don’t do most of the writing, the show stinks. “Danny and Maureen.”

“Oh my God,” says Maria, placing a hand over her heart. “That’s my mother’s favorite show. Maureen is her best friend, I swear to God. For Christmas last year my brother and I got her the boxed set of the first ten seasons. She watches an episode every night and on Tuesday night when the new one’s on, our house becomes the church of Danny and Maureen.”

“How about that, Michael?” says Helen, beaming at him. “Your shows all seem to have been written specifically for Maria’s mother.”

“She’d be in heaven if she could meet you,” says Maria, clasping her hands in prayer. “How long are you here for?”

“Ten more days,” says Michael, sighing with relief. “Ten more days in paradise.”

“Come for supper?” says Maria, nodding hopefully. “I’m a very good cook.”

“I can attest to that,” says Helen, giving Michael an encouraging look. “You won’t be sorry.”

*

“So how was it?” asks Justin, serving Michael a beer a few afternoons after Michael went to Maria’s and dined with Maria and Maria’s mother Sylvia and Maria’s brother Pedro.

“Big fun,” says Michael, taking a long drink of his beer. “Best Mexican food I’ve ever had and the sweetest people I’ve ever met, not counting you and Helen and my mother and Duffy’s wife Tess and Ephraim Espinosa who takes care of our yard in Brentwood and makes the place look like Versailles.”

“Sweet is right,” says Justin, thinking of Sylvia and Pedro and Maria who come to Big Goose for fish & chips every other Wednesday. “When I shop at Walker’s and get Sylvia for my checker, I always feel like I’m buying groceries from a saint. She must have been thrilled to meet you.”

“I guess so,” says Michael, shrugging. “And after supper, dozens of her friends just happened to drop by to meet me. I felt like Mahatma Gandhi.”

“To them you are a mahatma,” says Justin, nodding. “To my mother, too.”

“I want to feel flattered,” says Michael, smiling sadly, “but I feel like such a con man. The show is so much shtick. So predictable. No discernible originality. You know what I mean? Same old same old.”

“What’s original?” says Justin, waving to Jack and Norman as they enter. “It’s not what happens in a story that makes it great, it’s how the pieces fall together, how the story is told. And you do that very well, Michael. You need to own that.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Hold that thought,” says Justin, turning to Norman and Jack. “Gentlemen. What cravest thou as the deep chill of winter inexorably approaches?”

Jack rolls his eyes. “Please Justin, don’t get him started.”

“I live to get him started,” says Justin, winking at Michael.

“Ah winter,” says Norman, hoping to sound Shakespearean. “Such bitter cold spurs my craving for bitter beer. I’ll have a Guinness, foam be damned.”

“Red wine for me tonight,” says Jack, rolling his eyes again. “Your best pinot noir, please. John Gielgud and I will be at our table.”

“The fair Conchita will bring your drinks,” says Justin, bowing to them as they depart.

“I love you, man,” says Michael, looking at Justin. “And I love Helen’s poetry. As far as I’m concerned you’re both angels.”

“Speaking of poetry,” says Justin, pointing at Michael, “I made a little book of my first ten poems I thought were good enough to share. Want a copy?”

“I’d love one,” says Michael, taking out his wallet. “How much you selling them for?”

“Not for sale,” says Justin, reaching under the counter and bringing forth a little spiral-bound book. “Just for friends.”

*

About My Name

When I was twelve, my mother’s father was dying so my mother and

I went to stay with Gramps and Grandma for the last seventeen days

of Gramps’ life. He was only sixty-seven, but he’d smoked all his life

and the smoke got him. He was a professor of Latin and wrote a book

called A Few Good Romans. The day before he died, I sat on the bed

beside him holding his hand and he said, ‘Justin comes from the Latin

 Justus, meaning just and fair. I hope you’ll be that in your life.’ Then

he acted like he was hearing something I couldn’t hear and said,

‘Hold on. This just in. Get it? This. Just. In. Justin.’ Then he laughed

and said, ‘My god you’re big for twelve, kiddo. Don’t ever be a bully.

Promise me.’ I promised him I would never be a bully and would

try to be just and fair. And he said, “Good, but don’t take any shit

from anybody either.’

*

On Michael’s last day in Mercy, a rainy Saturday, he stops by Helen and Justin’s house, having arranged to purchase twenty signed copies of Inevitable Impossible to give to friends as Christmas presents. They insist he stay for coffee and pie, and the three of them sit around the kitchen table talking.

“I don’t want to go back to Los Angeles,” says Michael, taking a deep breath, “but I will. And I’m going to tell my wife I need love and if we can’t love each other then we should call it quits and start anew. And if we can love each other, then let us begin.”

“Good plan,” says Justin, shaking Michael’s hand. “Life is short, my friend. I’m with you.”

“And I’ve started writing poetry again,” says Michael, smiling shyly at Helen. “I want to thank you both for inspiring me to try again.”

“You’re welcome,” says Justin, raising his mug to Michael.

“Welcome,” says Helen, raising her mug, too.

“And I got this great idea,” says Michael, a twinkle in his eyes, “that Danny will start writing poetry, and of course everybody will tease him and call him Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson and e.e. whatever, but he won’t stop writing. Could be a running gag for years. They just extended us another two seasons. I can do anything I want with that show so long as it’s funny.”

“Everybody gives Danny a hard time about writing poetry except Maureen,” says Helen, gazing intently at Michael. “Because she loves him and she’s thrilled he found something he feels passionate about. Right?”

“Right,” says Michael, laughing. “That’s the whole point of the show.”

fin 

No One Knows

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Categories
short story

What We Become

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.

For Helen

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.”

fin

Todd reads his short story Poetry.