Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Start Something, Part IV


Part IV.

He took a slightly different route back towards the hotel, to distract himself further. The sun had nearly set, but a pleasant, warm glow hovered over the quietened streets. Any glimpses of the horizon he could briefly spot between the stone buildings were highlighted with a dazzling stripe of orange-red, with a deep blue curtain slowly lowering on top of that. The temperature was probably somewhere around 65 degrees.
After almost bypassing it completely, John noticed a small wooded area on his right; trees and pruned vegetation in the midst of stone and concrete. It was a small park squeezed between two indistinct office buildings, interwoven with carefully laid cobblestone walkways, park benches, even a few shrubs in wooden enclosures that looked to John like Japanese bonsai trees, although he wouldn’t know. He guessed it to be a kind of break area, maybe a place for smokers to go commune with burned-out data analysts, number crunchers, or gofers, a kind of refuge in the middle of a stressful workday. John stepped off the sidewalk and entered the park by one of the cobblestone paths. He vaguely thought, for an unknown reason, that if he had had a cigarette, this would be the time to sit quietly and smoke it. Even though he had never so much as taken a puff of one in his entire life.
He hadn’t given a moment’s consideration to entering the park. He just did it without thinking. He had nothing to do, nowhere to go, his only reason for existence right now was to drop off some proposal for his employers. His parents didn’t know where he was. His sister didn’t know where he was. He thought of her, briefly, occupied with her own more significant existence. She’d be giving her daughter a bottle, maybe burping her, getting her ready for bedtime, herself exhausted. No time to wonder what her unattached kid brother was up to. Not that she needed to, John thought.
The park was not entirely empty. Two joggers and one couple with a husky had passed him already. What few people were out might have been naturally drawn here like himself. The trees, the shadowy coolness within this unexpected grove, the cobblestones: it was a lovely, calming spot. John sat down on a park bench across from another one where another man sat, thinking about this sanctuary in between the edifices of the system, a garden between two mounds of stone dug through with the sub-chambers of government. There was something strange about it, this place. Surreal almost. His thoughts scattered, spread out, searching, more or less subconsciously, for words.
After a few minutes he glanced at the man sitting across from him for no good reason. Abruptly, he recognized him. There on the opposite bench was the Poet Laureate of the United States.
John had forgotten his name. It was really the t-shirt he remembered best – DON'T GO – and the beard. But he knew it was him nonetheless. He was dressed very similarly to how he had been dressed on ‘Charlie Rose’. Glasses, no hat, a t-shirt (this one had a dog on it; it looked like a greyhound), khaki cargo pants that looked too large with frayed cuffs, and sandals. One leg crossed over the other. He was smoking himself, in fact. And as it turned out, he was looking right back at John Francis. What the heck was his name?
John saw him, he saw John, so John said: ‘Hey.’
‘Hello,’ said the poet.
‘I know who you are,’ John said. ‘I just saw you on “Charlie Rose”. Only, I forgot your name.’
The poet smoke, exhaled. He kept his gaze on John Francis.
‘You saw that, huh?’ he asked.
‘Yeah. Just last night, in fact.’ John didn’t feel nervous talking to the poet. He was surprised by that. He was more nervous talking to anyone else he’d just met than he was talking to this man. It might have been the setting, the context. Who knew?
‘Did you know that was taped like four months ago?’ the poet asked.
John shook his head. ‘I didn’t. They don’t tell you that.’
‘Yeah, it’s weird. I feel different now than I did then,’ he observed.
‘You mean, about whatever you said?’ asked John.
The poet hesitated. ‘Just in general.’
‘Oh,’ said John. For the first time he felt awkward. So he feels different, he thought. Does that mean leave me the hell alone?
‘What’s your name?’ the poet asked.
‘John Francis Grimm,’ said John Francis. For some reason, one that embarrassed him now, he used his full name when he introduced himself. Now it sounded pretentious. It didn’t seem to fret the poet, however.
‘Clayton Grassley.’
‘That’s it,’ said John, nodding. He paused a few moments, then made a decision. He knew he wouldn’t get the opportunity again, so ….
‘Hey, you know,’ he began, ‘this is going to sound ridiculous and everything …. But I have to ask you something, since I saw your interview and I know your name now.’
If the poet was surprised, or irritated, or bored, he didn’t reveal it, although he looked closest to the third.
‘I’ve never read your poems. But I do like poetry, believe it or not. In fact, I really feel that I want to try to write it myself. The problem is, I can’t.’
Grassley remained poker-faced, listening. He didn’t seem bothered. Maybe he’s flattered someone recognized him, John thought. But he was not worried any longer about what the other man might think of his statement, or of himself for that matter. He just wanted to hear what Grassley had to say in reply. It fact, it became clear to him at that moment that he really wanted to know what the other man, someone who had found a way, thought about it.
‘What do you mean, you “can’t”? Why not?’ he asked John Francis.
‘I … I can kind of see the poems in my head, or at least the things that I want to write poems about, but I can’t get them onto paper.’
Grassley nodded. ‘Yeah, that is the rub,’ he acknowledged.
A few moments passed, the silence paddling towards the shores of embarrassment. John suddenly realized Grassley’s implied message. There is no solution. Figure it out.
Now he felt self-conscious. It was a stupid thing to have asked. He should have left the man alone. He was about to stand up and wish Grassley well.
‘What do you put down?’ the poet asked, startling John.
‘Nothing,’ replied John Francis. ‘I can’t find any words.’
He was looking at the poet, whose face was becoming more obscured by shadows. Smoke streamed forth in front of him. John saw no further movement. Suddenly he felt the briefest touch of a kind of cognitive vertigo. He was no longer sure if the man across from him was the poet from TV. He was not even really sure if there was a man in front of him at all. The surrounding night had instantly become two or three shades darker. Fatigue coursed through John’s bones. A voice came out of the billowing dark that mingled with the shadows that mingled with cigarette smoke. It had turned raspy, coarse, as if spoken by some kind of spirit.
‘You want my advice?’
‘Yes,’ John heard himself reply.
‘Start something.’ Exhaled stream of smoke. ‘Start something.’
Why’d he say it twice? John pondered. And what happened to his voice?
That is what you would say to someone who wanted to be a poet?’ John asked.
‘That is what I would say to someone who wanted to be, or do, anything,’ said the voice. ‘Most people don’t understand that. But it is the only way. Start something.’ The poet stood up.
John was looking around himself from his position on the bench, trying to decide if he was still in the right dimension, or merely hallucinating. Neither would have surprised him. From where he sat he realized he could not see the sidewalk he’d come from, nor could he hear taxicabs rumbling by or other urban noises. One could hardly perceive in the lowering cloak of darkness that they were even between two office buildings. All he could see were angling, claw-like tree limbs, flora, and through the talons, a deep blue-black sky against which the trees were silhouetted. A cobblestone path winding away, a lamp on a post just down the curve of the path. He felt tranquil. He’d found a sanctuary in the midst of the capital to sit and reflect in, when he was here to do nothing of the kind.
The poet was looking at him. His feet planted on the cobblestone path. John Francis looked up to see if he was even still there. He saw his shape, slight, insubstantial, against the backdrop of dusk. He could not longer see the man’s face.

‘See you around,’ the voice rasped. There was a wisp of smoke, and the poet was gone. John didn’t know what else to do, so he stood and returned to the hotel.

1 comment:

Duke Altum said...

Ah-hah, the plot thickens, as it were... here is where things start to get really interesting! Mutt, I liked the way you staged that whole scene there, the meeting of JFG and the Poet. I especially liked the fact that almost as soon as they begun to talk, darkness began to fall, and each time he looked over at the poet he seemed to be able to see less and less of him. I doubt that was meant intentionally, but it adds a sort of mysterious touch (did to me anyway) and hints at the idea that the entire enterprise of writing poems is, in fact, a venturing out into terra incognita... that's what I was thinking about after I read this part anyway. Also, you set up this notion of "start something," this simple advice that "most people don't understand"... it will be interesting to see if JFG does, and if he does, what affect it will have on him, if any.

Also, die-hard Mutt fans will even recognize a famous essay title of his buried in this section, if you look hard enough... hilarious touch, that...!