The Poet was a First Place Winner in the Gloria Vanderbilt/Exile Short Fiction Competition, 2011. Gloria Vanderbilt chose the winners. It was also published in Exile: The Literary Quarterly, Volume 35 No.1.
© Frank Westcott, 2011. All rights reserved.
For those who wish to write and, once, knew a poet.
The Poet danced through the room wondering if he was dancing through time, and knew he wasn’t. He was just dancing through a song wondering if he should’ve become a musician, but he couldn’t sing a note or play an instrument.
“Tone deaf,” his mother had said. “We’re all tone deaf in this family. That’s why you sing the way you do. Like a frog. Croaking.”
“Croaking?” he remembered saying.
“Croaking,” he remembered her saying. “Like a frog...”
“How can a frog croak?” he had said. “I thought croaking meant dying. Like that.”
“It does,” his mother had said between pots and pans. Well, not literally between pots and pans, but between putting pots and pans on the white of the stove where the burners weren’t.
“Where the burners burned is where you don’t want to put your hand, right, Mom?”
“Right, son,” she had said, rattling a few more pots and pans between the sounds of others rattling in the space between words. And thoughts. And more sounds. And the thinking about stovetops being hot where the elements weren’t. Or were. Or both.
The Poet danced through the living room thinking these things. Remembering these things like they were yesterday. But they weren’t. Not yesterday in life. They were now time though ’cause they were in his mind, now.
Word images of stoves burning heat, into air and over pots, and into the room, danced him back to then, bringing him out of the true now, to where it all happened, and he knew he couldn’t sing, and had to be a poet. A singer of words without a song. Without a melody. But notes. Notes on the page in words. Not notes on the page as in treble clefs, eighth notes and quarter notes. He loved a whole note on any page because it was round. Whole. There. All of it. No splitting off. None of that. At all.
“’Shoulda bin a singer, if I could sing,” he said to the interviewer.
She looked at him, crossing her legs.
He watched her cross her legs, so he could see how she crossed her legs. And he saw the skin of her thighs, too. As he watched her crossing her legs in front of him. Lifting the upper leg a little higher. So he could see more. Even if she didn’t know she was doing that. But she did.
She liked this writer. Poet. Whatever he was. There was something different about him than most of the writers she interviewed. She liked crossing and uncrossing her legs in front of this poet. Her notebook on her thighs. And her pencil poised.
“So, you write with a pencil,” he said, more of a statement than a question. But he would have said it as a question, too. Being distracted, as he was, by legs crossing. And thighs. And her skin under her nylons which you didn’t see much anymore. On these interview things. Nylons, that is. And simply, he was distracted by her legs and didn’t really care if he asked a question, made a statement, or she wrote with a pencil or elephant’s feather.
“Did you ever see an elephant wear a feather?” he asked now, watching the pencil write something. Then cross it out.
“Huh?” the interviewer said, not crossing her legs this time. Or uncrossing them either. Or even making them straight. He couldn’t watch the uncrossing-crossing thing anymore, anyway, and do the interview. He liked that. Watching. She had nice legs. He wondered about her legs, then. He liked them more than the interview. For another second, he forgot he was in the middle of an interview. The Poet slipped again, back into that other story. Or was it a poem? About him and
his mom talking. When he was a boy. In the kitchen by the stove. The pots were rattling between pans, or was it pans rattling between pots? He didn’t know which. Or remember. Or think he cared. But part of him did. Part of him wanted to get it right, the rattling, and whether it was the pots or the pans, or the pans and the pots, and if the stove was on. Then he remembered.
He could feel the heat. Still. Sort of. When he thought about it, this way. Now. Like the heat coming from the girl. This interviewer. Scratching her pencil across the page. Pages. Of her notebook. Not crossing her legs anymore thigh high. And getting a serious look on her face
where her thoughts intruded on her countenance, turning beauty, well pleasantness, into granite.
“So, how old were you when you began to write?”
The Poet seemed to fall into deep thought, as if this was a penetrating question requiring profundity in answer. Actually, he was thinking how deep he could go in her and got distracted, again, thinking about her legs. Uncrossing and crossing and very still, now. The Poet sensed, then saw, a motion in her foot. Suddenly rocking. No... It was bouncing the air around it, as she bobbed and pointed her shoe sometimes at him, sometimes at her, waiting for the answer. Pencil poised.
The Poet cleared his throat. He wished he could stay with the leg thing. “Um...” he said, searching for profundity, “How old are you when you get to hold a pencil?”
“Why would you ask that?” the interviewer asked. Her leg stopped bobbing. She stopped bobbing. Foot, too. ’Cause they were all attached. She was attached. Her toes pointed to the corner, now. Shoed toes no longer pointing at her or him. All stationary. Like wedding stationary. Stiff. Cardboard-like. White. Gold embossed. And, the Poet thinking of his mother by the stove when he was nine and him knowing he was going to be a poet, because he couldn’t sing.
“’Cause that’s how old I was... when I started writing... when I was old enough to hold a pencil.” He watched her now to see if there would be any foot bobbing or toe pointing or scribbling on her pad. But there wasn’t. Her tits just rose, fell, and pointed at him as she breathed in deeply
and held her breath. He would have held her breath for her in that moment, if he could have, but knew he couldn’t. You can’t hold someone else’s breath for them. Even if you, or they, want you to. Yet, in that moment, he dearly wanted to hold her breath just for her. He liked the way she
looked at him, now, with her breasts high and held and pointing at him instead of the shoe toe. Much, much more intriguing.
“When do you breathe?” he asked.
She smiled. Elaine Hathaway. That was her name. He finally had it. The name he had been searching for. But couldn’t quite get a hold of. She was good at this, this interviewing thing. She’d worked years for Canadian Review of Books. So much for being a poet, he thought. He had just had a novel published. Pieces of Eight to the Power of Two.
“Odd title,” she said.
“You’re breathing,” he said, smiling back at her. The foot started to rock, and point, at her, at him, again. Nice shoes, he wanted to say. But didn’t. And wondered how old he was that time in the kitchen. By the stove. When he knew he was going to be a poet. Because he could not sing.
“Croaked like a frog,” his mother had said when he tried to sing a lullaby to his sister.
“Amphibian song,” he had said, defending himself. But knowing she was right. Right about the singing. And about the frogs. Croaking. When they sang or died. Either way, they croaked, if you listened well enough.
If you listened...
“Nine,” he said, trying to listen to the interviewer. And not be distracted by what was not being said. And going on in his head. And around them in that moment between the moments of her scribbling. And questions. And breathing. And not breathing. The holding the breath part. Her not breathing. The not breathing in those spaces where much happened. Where everything happened. Really. It was there this interview was taking place. In the in-between place. He knew in that instant they would become lovers. This interviewer from Canadian Review of Books. And him. This was what was going on. Here. Between the sheets. No, the covers. The pages. Between the pages of her scribbling, she was, he was, they were, going to become lovers. He knew this. In that moment. In the midst of her scribbling.
He couldn’t wait.
“So, what are you waiting for?” she asked.
“For your next question,” he answered, watching her wrist work the page under the pencil. She was breathing slowly, now. And deeply. And smoothly. She had changed. Shifted. In herself. In some way. As if she, too, knew in that moment something more than what was happening in
that moment, was happening.
She set the pad on the end table by her chair. She looked at the lamp. At the doily under the amp. The light in the light caught her hair. The dark. The black. The ebony. Glistened. Deep orange. In the glare. Of the light. The light shone back to him.
“Nice lamp,” she said.
“Wife liked it,” he said. “Was nine. By the stove when I knew.”
“Knew what?” she said, picking up the pad, again, shifting her head from under the cast of the light back to him, so he could see her eyes. Into them. He saw pain there. She knew, too, something in the heat of the stove. In that memory. They shared. Something from when they were nine. But she, he, couldn’t put her, his, finger on it. Or place it. She uncrossed her legs. Then re-crossed them the other way. Thigh low this time. He didn’t notice. This time. ’Cause he was looking at her eyes. Sharing. Something from when they were nine. He wished he knew her then. They could have been friends. Then.
“We could have been friends,” she whispered. Deviating. Distracted away from the interview. The strange power of this man who was the Poet. Now, a novelist of repute who wrote poetry. Or, the other way around. It didn’t matter. She was sitting there across from him. As if she was nine. And he was nine. And they were both wondering. If they could have been friends when they were nine? If they had known each other, then.
And they knew they could. Have. Been friends. They were becoming friends. Now. In the space between. Between them. Where hop was just a skip and a jump away.
And, he thought, he was falling in love.
“Lust,” she said.
“What?” he said.
“Lust. There is a lot of lust in your work.”
“No... love,” he said. “There is a lot of love in my work.”
“Mmmm...” she said softly, now, writing like a whisper on her paper so it was just a sound. A barely audible sound. A sound above the beginning of sound. A will-o’-wisp whisping sound whispering on the pad to him. On the paper. Under her hand. Under her pencil. Scribbling softly. There. Thinking love when she had said lust.
“Yes,” he went on. “There is love in my work. And yes, there is lust, too. But mainly love. It’s all about the love in the end. The lust is just tragedy manifesting. And we don’t want to go there. Really. We just have to. Sometimes. Live out the tragedy of lust. So we can know. Find. Find the blessing of love...” he said softly. Like the softly whispering pencil scribbling across her paper. In the pad. Under her hand. He wished he was her hand. Or under it. Like the paper. Or, held by her that way. The way she seemed to be holding the pencil. Now. Or herself. She was breathing easily. Softly. Her breasts rising and falling evenly. In unison. Now. Singing for him, even if he couldn’t sing and was a poet. He loved the black of her sweater. As it rose. And fell over her. Where she wanted him to love her. Now. And forget the interview. She knew that was not professional. She had never wanted to do that in the midst of an interview before. She breathed a little deeper, now. Feeling his gaze on her. But not penetrating. Or evil. Or lustful. Just on her nicely. Softly. Warmly. Him wanting to hold her, too.
“You sound like a poet,” she said, “...the way you said that... what you just said about the love thing and the lust thing... You speak like a poet... Have you ever written a song...?”
The Poet laughed. Now. Easily. “Can’t sing,” he shrugged. “So, it would be a pretty not-fine song coming from these hips. Lips. I mean lips!” he chuckled. “Or rather, these fingers. In the writing. I mean. The songwriting.”
“Hips... are okay,” she smiled. Then giggled. Both feet came to the floor. Her legs uncrossed. Landed straight up over her feet. Skin under nylons looking back at him from her knees. Again. And he thought, my how this lady looks at me from lots of places except her eyes.
He looked at her once more. Saw she was no longer looking at him from there. Her knees. Now. Suddenly. Still.
She was thinking how it was when she was nine. And not by the stove with the pots. And pans. And her mother. And he danced through the room. In his mind. Again. Dreaming he was a poet. With this woman. In some far-off place. Loving her. Truly. Deeply.
“Back to reality,” she said. “So... You wrote this book Pieces of Eight to the Power of Two after a long career as a poet? Some said, the Poet. Suddenly, you switched off the poetry and wrote a novel? A good novel. An award-winning novel. A multi-translated novel. And here you are, sitting across from me like always, I guess. In interviews. You sound no different than other times I’ve seen or heard you on different things over the years. And, I am sorry about your wife. I know you loved her.”
“Yes...” he said.
“Can I pursue that or is that too sensitive? I have to ask if you will let me. But, if you won’t that is okay. I will respect that.”
“Ask anything you want,” he said, and looked away into a space she had seen him look into before. And disappear. And reappear. As if he came back from another angle. From another place. From another way of being. Bringing wisdom he went there to collect. And found. Easily. Like he could just go there. Like an old shaman. Like a medicine man. Like that. A medicine
man who happened to be a poet. The Poet. The poet who happened to suddenly write a revered novel. About death. And dying. Dying so you might live, they said.
A tear came to her eye. Then her other eye. Her left eye. Then her right. She must be one-brain sided, he thought. The way her tears came. The way they welled in her. And he knew she was more emotion and heart than he gave her credit for with her thigh crossing. And uncrossing. And
leg dropping. Beats name-dropping, he thought. Her legs went to the floor again. Her skin on her knees looked at him. Quiet now. Looking back through her nylons. And he wanted to look and see how her breasts were looking at him. Or breathing. But he didn’t. He didn’t want to leave her eyes. Just then. Because, he was beginning to see her there. And it was fine. It was the first time he had been able to see her in her eyes since they had met. She was there, now. Present. Not like when she arrived. And was at the door. And he had just danced across the living room. Thinking. Wondering. If he could sing. But knew he couldn’t. So, he sang like a poet. With words. On the page. Her page. He wished. And knew of singing. Like a poet who couldn’t sing. And he remembered, how he was remembering about a stove. With heat. In the kitchen. As a kid. When he was nine. And told frogs croaked two ways. Alive. And dead.
The Poet looked into her eye. Eyes. Both. With his. He saw fires there. Of pain. From another place. When she was nine. And suddenly, he knew, he knew her. They were brother and sister in a way unspoken. But known. By her. By him. By those who knew. The Poet sighed. Hurting for her. He wished she had put her hand on the stove instead. Or had had her hand put on the... on... the stove... instead.
“Ask anything you want,” he whispered, looking into her eyes and seeing her for this first time. Fully. And he wanted to hold her. But he knew he couldn’t take the pain. Her pain. Away. She had to do that herself. For that was the way of pain.
“Your wife,” she said. “Um... did... her um... d... passing... um... trigger your writing of the novel...? This novel...? Did it come from that...? Your love for her...? So, so... um... evident... in your writing there...? In that book...? Even though... it was... it was...?”
“Fiction,” he finished for her, “...and yes.”
“Yes?” she whispered, wiping a tear rolling off her cheek. Glistening there. Like a diamond. And he wished he had not thought all those thoughts about being her lover. Or her his. Or them theirs. Or each other’s. He wished he had not thought these things because now she was crying. As much from being nine. Once. As from the pain she felt coming from him. Out of the book. That won all the prizes. That he had walked out of the pain from. In the writing. And no longer felt the pain. In that way. Inside.
“Yes?” she whispered. Again. Feeling the wet of her tear on her fingers. And feeling him somehow, too. Wet and near her. Then. And she wished she was not thinking like this, too.
And he knew he loved her then.
Something had changed in that unspoken place. He knew he was ready for love again. Then. He knew. He simply knew.
“Yes?” she said softly, wiggling her toes in her shoes and leaning forward towards him... “Yes...”
“Yes,” the Poet said, “the novel was triggered by Yvonne’s last years. Before she passed. It is like that sometimes. The writing. It was good to write it with her in mind. With those feelings. In mind. Those feelings of love that were not lust. And lust sometimes, too. That was part of that love. But only for her. It was special in that way. Very special...”
And his voice trailed off. No longer the Poet. Just the man. Hurting in a way that one hurts when one has irrevocably, for some reason or by some event, lost a love, forever.
“Do you think you can? Will? Love again? Write another novel?”
“Yes. I do already. And yes. I have already.”
“You love again, already?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“And you have written another novel? Already?” she asked, and added, “This is not literary in the asking, but if I may ask, who is your new love?” she asked.
“You,” he said, grinning. Her feet did not move. Her legs didn’t cross. Or uncross after the crossing which they didn’t do. And her pencil stopped. Right in mid-letter of the letter it was making. Under her fingers. Under her hand. On the paper. And the pencil popped off the page. Like a rocket. Pent up. Waiting. Waiting to launch long after the countdown was finished.
She sat up straight. Her tits looking at him with smiles, now.
He smiled back at them. She wanted to lean forward. Bringing them to him. He wanted her to bring them, and her, to him.
“So...” he grinned, “do you wanna hear about the new novel?”
“Am I in it?” she grinned back. Coquettishly. Pad on her lap. Pencil on the pad.
His novel Pieces of Eight to the Power of Two under the pad. Under pencil. Her hands still. Fingers alive.
“Already done,” he said. “Wanna be in the next one...?”
“No,” she whispered, “...let’s just keep ourselves to ourselves... Sacred... Us... Like that...”
“You sound poet-ess-etic,” he said.
“It rubs off,” she said.
They stood, seeing into each other’s eyes and what was behind them. And they both loved deeply. In that moment. And later in other moments, as life brought them continuously closer and closer together, as his poetry found its way into another novel, and his novels found their way into more of his poetry. And, she was present when any other interviewer interviewed him.
Especially, if it was a woman.
THE POET is Frank Westcott's GLORIA VANDERBILT/Exile SHORT FICTION AWARD winning story from 2011. Winners chosen by Gloria Vanderbilt. The prize is now called the Carter V. Cooper Memorial Prize. This story was published in CVC: Book One: Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology Series Paperback – Sep 26 2012. It was also published in ELQ [aka Exile the Literary Quarterly] Vol 38 No. 1 . A fine story of love, loss, redemption & recovery, "...full of love and beauty" as Gloria Vanderbilt said when she selected the story as a winner.