Today, October 22, is the poet Helen Morningstar’s fiftieth birthday. She lives with her husband Justin Oglethorpe in the small town of Mercy on the far north coast of California where she and Justin are majority owners of Big Goose, the largest and most popular of the town’s three pubs, Justin the very tall bartender and manager, Helen not so tall and handling the bookkeeping, purchasing, payroll, and so forth.
To celebrate her birthday, Helen is taking the day off from work. She wakes at eight to the sounds and scents of Justin making her a mushroom zucchini omelet for breakfast, and luxuriates for a while in the warm bed knowing her day will be free of office work.
Now she makes a silent prayer of thanks to her grandparents who raised her, gets out of bed in her slow graceful way, and traipses to the kitchen still in her night gown, her long black hair tumbling to her waist – a love poem from Justin awaiting her on the kitchen table propped against a turquoise vase overflowing with just-picked red and pink roses.
to my best friend wife
apprentice poet writes birthday poem to master poet
unworried he is not as masterful as master poet
because more than poetry she has taught
him never to be afraid of what he writes
After breakfast, Justin goes off to the Goose as their pub is known to locals, and Helen stays at the kitchen table sipping coffee, nibbling on a chocolate birthday truffle, and talking on the phone to her daughter Carol, a tennis pro in Florida, after which Helen works the lines of a new poem for a while, finishes writing a letter to her famous poet pal Tommy Matsukado, and writes a heartfelt response to a fan in Australia who wrote Your poems fill me with strength and determination to overcome the negative forces both inside and outside of me.
Letters ready to mail, Helen takes a shower, dresses warmly for the cool overcast day, and is just about to go out the door to walk to the post office en route to Café Brava to meet with friends, when her phone rings and she sees the caller is Edie Jackson, her editor at Lancaster Books in San Francisco, publishers of Helen’s nine volumes of poems.
Helen recently completed her tenth volume of poems entitled Submerged Dragon and sent the manuscript off to Edie and the publisher Arthur Lancaster, both of whom she knows are eager to publish her new collection.
“Happy Birthday my favorite poet,” says Edie, not sounding her usual upbeat self. “This a good time to blab?”
“Yes,” says Helen, sitting down at the kitchen table. “How are you?”
“Well,” says Edie, hesitating, “not great. And I hate to give you this news on your birthday, but…”
Edie starts to cry and Helen’s first thought is that Arthur is unwell or has died.
“Tell me,” says Helen, holding her breath.
“We’re kaput,” says Edie, sniffling. “Bankrupt in a big way. Arthur left for England this morning. We could say he fled, but we won’t go there. I’m about to start looking for a job, and you, my favorite poet, will have to find another publisher for your magnificent new collection. I’m so sorry. I’ll email you the contact numbers for some other editors I know who may want your book. In the meantime, let me give you my home phone and my personal email because we have to vacate these premises and cease doing business by five tomorrow. I’m in the midst of spiriting away mailing lists and other stuff that could come in handy for you.”
Helen is in a state of shock as she walks to the post office. Lancaster Books published her first volume of poetry when she was thirty-four, and for sixteen years tirelessly championed her work – Edie getting Helen’s poems published in dozens of literary magazines, Arthur getting her books in bookstores all over America and around the world – Helen’s experience with Lancaster Books the envy of any poet save for those few poetry superstars, and by superstars we mean people who actually make more than a pittance from their poems.
At Café Brava, a cheerful bakery café in the heart of Mercy, Helen has cookies and coffee with fellow poets Sara Steinberg and Marcus Pontiac, both in their sixties, both excellent poets, and both barely known outside the Mercy watershed. They are disappointed to hear of the demise of Lancaster Books, but not surprised.
“I’m amazed they lasted as long as they did,” says Marcus, shrugging. “There’s never been any money in poetry in America unless the poem happens to be lyrics to a hit song, yet Arthur spared no expense on the books he published, many of which I happen to know sold but a handful of copies, and those copies to the authors. Not your books, of course, but the tomes of less fortunate poets I shall not name. I assumed they kept going all these years because Arthur had a patron with deep pockets, and maybe he did and the patron disappeared. They’ll do that.” Marcus smiles at Helen. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. The poetry gods shall not forsake you.”
“Oh yeah?” says Sara, giving Marcus a dubious look. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the poetry gods are the ones who bankrupted Arthur. You know what I’m saying? In my experience they’re a bunch of tough-love gods who think the poet has to suffer in order to write great poetry.”
“You think maybe I was too happy?” says Helen, laughing as she cries.
“Clearly,” says Marcus, nodding gravely. “Nine acclaimed volumes of poetry. Owner of a fabulous pub. Beautiful. Brilliant. Married to a friendly giant. Beloved in your community. How you wrote anything halfway decent is a mystery to me.”
“I had a rough childhood,” says Helen, laughing merrily now. “Had a baby at sixteen and raised her on my own. Worked as a secretary for a schmuck for fifteen years who paid me almost nothing.”
“That was then,” says Sara, pointing at Helen. “What have you suffered through lately?”
Being a supremely pragmatic person, though undeniably eccentric, Helen approaches each of the five editors Edie suggested she show Submerged Dragon to with great care and professionalism, querying them first with beautifully crafted letters that elicit five positive responses, three of the five editors wanting to see a sampling of the new poems as a PDF attached to an email, one wishing to see the entire collection sent as a PDF attached to an email, and one accepting Helen’s offer to send a hard copy of the collection.
And all five of those editors ask Helen to send with her poems a detailed outline of what they refer to as her Author Platform, which should include all the ways she will reach what they assume are her many thousands of followers on various social media platforms, as well as a thorough breakdown of her advertising and touring strategies along with estimates of how much money she intends to spend on each aspect of her Selling Plan, including hiring a publicist and producing video commercials for her book.
When she has pondered the five responses until her head aches, Helen calls Edie in San Francisco and says, “I don’t do social media and I have no touring or advertising plans, nor do I have any money to spend on promotion. Isn’t that what publishers are supposed to do?”
“In the olden days,” says Edie, sighing. “Lancaster Books was a throwback, which is one of the reasons we went bankrupt, though not the only reason. And speaking of bankrupt, I am bankrupt, too. Sadly, my long tenure as Poetry and Short Story editor at Lancaster Books won’t get me a job with any of the few houses that pay their editors a living wage, so… any chance you and Justin might want a gorgeous black gal in her late forties as your new bartender or waitress? Both positions I held before Arthur made me his editor-in-chief in the fairy tale life I lived for the last twenty years.”
“As a matter-of-fact,” says Helen, hardly believing she’s having this conversation, “we are looking for a bartender who would also sometimes wait tables. Hard work, Edie. We do pay a livable wage, but nothing compared to what Arthur paid you.”
“I would love to give it a try,” says Edie, sounding deadly serious. “At the very least I could help you set up all that social media stuff you’ll need for your next publisher. I’m being evicted in six days if I can’t come up with five grand, which I can’t so…”
“Come any time,” says Helen, dizzied by her swiftly shifting reality. “You can stay with us for as long as you want.”
“I’ve got a dog,” says Edie, prepared for Helen to change her mind. “Horowitz. A medium-sized mutt, antecedents unknown. A sweetheart.”
“Not a problem,” says Helen, laughing. “We’re between dogs right now and thinking about getting a new one, so… perfect timing.”
Edie, who has lived in cities her entire life, has been to Mercy nine times in the last sixteen years, each time to hear Helen read from her newest collection at Crow’s Nest Books, the only bookstore in Mercy that sells new books. And each of those nine times Edie made the five-hour drive from San Francisco, she stayed in a luxurious suite at the Mercy Hotel.
Not this time. She arrives at Helen and Justin’s little house on a Tuesday afternoon with her very friendly dog Horowitz in a car she borrowed from a friend, the plan being to give life in Mercy and working at the Goose a try for a couple weeks and then see how things shake down.
Edie is forty-eight, a tall striking African American with carob brown skin and stylishly short hair currently blonde. She’s in great shape from walking up and down the San Francisco hills every day with Horowitz and attending daily yoga classes, and she is not currently in a relationship, which is unusual for her.
“I’m a devout serial monogamist,” she confides to Helen and Justin over wine her first evening with them. “And I’m ambidextrous as Arthur likes to call those of us who equally love men and women.”
“Is Arthur ambidextrous?” asks Justin, who doubts Edie will stay for long in Mercy, though he thinks she’s fabulous.
“No,” says Edie, feeling sad about her exiled boss and best friend. “Arthur likes women. Specifically young women, which is why our relationship ended when I was thirty-two and he was hankering for someone younger.”
The next day, a rainy Wednesday, Edie shadows Justin behind the bar at Big Goose from four to five-thirty, has their marvelous fish & chips for supper, and shadows Diana, one of the pub’s five wait staff, from six to nine.
Thursday, a sunny day, Edie tends bar from four to seven with Justin supervising, and waits tables with Anna Marie, another of the pub’s wait staff, from eight to ten.
Friday, cloudy and cool, Edie sleeps until noon and wakes aching all over. With great reluctance she gets out of bed, takes a long hot bath, lunches in the kitchen with Helen, and is greatly relieved to learn she need not come to work tonight or Saturday.
After lunch, walking Horowitz around town with Helen, Edie says, “You may be surprised to hear this, but I’m digging the Goose. I like the people, I like the scene, I like the change. Now the only question is, am I physically up to the task? I think the answer is Yes, and we’ll know for sure a week from now.”
“Justin says you’re just what he’s been looking for,” says Helen, still discombobulated by no longer having a publisher. “And I’d love you to live in Mercy.”
“Well that’s good to hear,” says Edie, laughing at how sore her arms are from drawing and lifting and setting down hundreds of pints of beer. “You know what I like most about working at the Goose?”
“Tell me,” says Helen, who feels like crying much of the time these days.
“I like the immediacy of giving people what they want, making people happy. All those years in my office proofing text and working with designers and printers and hustling magazine editors and dealing with unhappy authors and watching most of our books flop because so few people read poetry any more, let alone buy it, I rarely had the sense anybody we were serving was happy with what we were doing for them. But in the Goose, people thank me and thank me and thank me and stuff the tip jar so I feel like Saint Francis feeding the grateful animals, not that your patrons are animals, but you know what I mean.”
“I do,” says Helen, her anguish about losing her publisher fading away as she and Edie step off the road onto the headlands trail that leads to land’s end overlooking Mercy Bay. “I hope I thanked you enough for all you did for me.”
“Oh honey,” says Edie, taking Helen’s hand. “You were the shining light that made everything we did worthwhile.”
Two months later, Diana comes to the bar in Big Goose on a busy Friday night and says, “Two pints of Guinness, two pints of Mercy porter, a pint of Albion stout, two glasses of Elder Creek pinot, and one glass of Philo Chardonnay.”
“Yes, my dear,” says Edie, who never seems to be in a hurry yet manages to fill orders as swiftly as Justin. “You want that on one tray or two?”
“One is fine,” says Diana, nodding assuredly. “My shoulder’s better now.”
“Now don’t overdue it, hon,” says Edie, who recently moved out of Helen and Justin’s house into a cute little backyard cottage at the north end of town – Horowitz adjusting fairly well to being one of three dogs in the yard after seven years of being the only dog in the mix. “You want to make sure you’re completely healed before you lift too much.”
“You’re right,” says Diana, nodding gratefully. “Make it two trays. I still think I’m twenty-five.”
“I know that one,” says Edie, laughing.
Now Jorge Ontiveros calls drunkenly from the far end of the bar, “Edie. Hola Edie. Uno mas. Por favor.”
“Jorge, mi amigo,” says Edie, moving to him in her easy way. “Might be you’ve had enough booze tonight. Yeah? Be good to your wife, hombre. Let me get you some coffee. We don’t want you driving home drunk. Por favor.”
Jorge, a big man with short black hair, pouts at Edie and says, “I’m not driving tonight. I’m walking home. Come on, Edie. Uno mas.”
“Un momento mi amigo,” she says, waving to Justin who is out among the tables visiting with folks.
Justin sees her wave and comes to help – Edie giving a tilt of her head in Jorge’s direction.
“Jorge,” says Justin who is six-feet-six and built like a linebacker. “Que paso?”
“Quiero uno mas, Justin. Please? Edie won’t give me. I’m not driving tonight. I’m walking. Un poquito mas? Por favor?”
“Half-pint do ya?” asks Justin, resting his hand on Jorge’s shoulder.
“Yeah okay,” says Jorge, nodding sadly.
Justin nods to Edie and she draws the beer and Jorge drinks it down like a man dying of thirst.
Edie waits for Justin to go back out among the customers before she says to Jorge, “Talk to me, amigo. What’s going on?”
Jorge shrugs and looks into his empty glass. “My brother and his family sold their house next to ours and moved away. Too expensive here. They got a place near Portland for half what they sold the house here and now they got money in the bank.” He looks at Edie. “I miss him. He was my best friend, you know.”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” says Edie, nodding in sympathy. “There’s nothing harder than losing a good friend. Nothing. And the only cure is making new friends. Right?”
“Claro,” says Jorge, smiling at her. “Gracias Edie. Some coffee might be good now. Por favor.”
On a cold morning in early March, Helen and Edie are sitting at Helen’s kitchen table looking into Helen’s laptop computer, and Helen turns to Edie and says, “I don’t want to do this. I can’t do this. I want to write poetry and send my poems to magazines and my manuscripts to publishers, and if they want them, they want them, and if they don’t they don’t. I don’t have the time or the desire to be on social media and promote myself. That’s not my job.”
“I hear you, girlfriend,” says Edie, nodding. “But if you don’t do this, the likelihood of a publisher taking you on is next to nothing. I suppose there’s a chance by some miracle you might run into another Arthur, and please know I’m holding that vision for you. And I have one other proposal, which is we publish you ourselves. I’ll handle everything, you shell out the not-very-much money, and you’ll have books to share with your fans and any bookstores we convince to stock you. A print-on-demand edition and e-books. Cost you about a grand plus my wages, which might come to another grand. Not saying you should, just giving you the option.”
And though part of Helen wants to publish Submerged Dragon in the way Edie suggests – Justin enamored of the idea of calling their publishing company Big Goose Books and selling the book in the pub along with Big Goose sweatshirts, T-shirts, mugs, monogrammed pint glasses, and baseball caps – a much bigger part of her wants to stop worrying about publishing her book and give herself to the work of making poems, the work she loves.
When October rolls around again, a few days after Helen’s fifty-first birthday and coming up fast on Edie’s one-year anniversary as bartender at Big Goose, Helen receives a handwritten letter from Arthur Lancaster in England.
After a rather hellish year of starting anew in every way I can imagine, I have launched a small publishing company here in Bristol – Nick Bottom’s Books, named after Shakespeare’s resilient and mischievous character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Edie sent me your manuscript of Submerged Dragon and I was bowled over from first poem to last. I would be honored to publish your opus in the first batch of four books we’re bringing out some six months hence. I promise we will make a gorgeous book for you and do all we can to share your incomparable poems with the world. I trust three thousand pounds will be sufficient as an advance.
I eagerly await your response and hope you will use one of the more modern means of communication to give me your answer, though I knew you would want to receive my offer through the mail. And by the way, I have secured the rights and printing files of your previous books from those who seized the assets of Lancaster Books and have arranged with our distributor to fill any orders for your earlier works inevitably arising in the wake Submerged Dragon will create when she swims into the larger world.
We mistake so many things for what they are not. For years
and years we admired a giant tree on the ridge across the valley
from our house. Then one October, on a day after a good rain,
we crossed the valley in search of chanterelles and climbed up
to the ridge and discovered the giant tree was not one tree but
seven trees growing close together, their totality at a distance
creating the illusion of oneness. On the homeward trek, our
baskets full of golden mushrooms, we looked back and saw
the seven trees appearing to be three trees. Yet we knew the
three were seven. And home again we could only discern one
giant tree, yet we knew the one was seven.
There once was an enormous log submerged in a deep part of
the Mercy River a hundred yards inland from where the
Mercy meets the sea. We assumed the massive log was a
a fragment of a colossus washed downstream in a torrent
some winters ago. The mighty log had lodged over yonder
on the wild side of the river where no one ever goes, and only
two nubs of wood at one end of the gargantuan log rose
above the surface. And we might have lived the rest of our
lives believing the log was a log until one day when the tide
was so low we could walk far out into the bay on sand
exposed but once a decade, you took my hand and
whispered urgently, “The titanic log is still submerged,
though by all the laws of nature should be exposed.”
And that is when we saw the two nubs of wood were
not wood but the nostrils of a submerged dragon who
sensing we had discovered her, loosed herself from
where she’d lain for thousands and thousands of days
and rose full out of the water so we might glimpse
her awesome beauty before she swam
with the river to the sea.