Capable of Standing but Would Rather Sit

Posted: September 12, 2010 in Fiction
Tags: ,

“Oh, come on.  I know you’re a poet and shit but aren’t you being a little dramatic?  I mean what’s the problem?  You’ve got a good job, a beautiful wife, and a great kid.”

            “Nothing’s coming.  That’s what’s wrong.  I’m dried up as the Sahara.  Do you know how long it’s been since I got a poem published?  And don’t even talk about fiction.  It’s been years.  And the stuff I do write, no one wants to publish,” he reiterated into the telephone, gazing out the window of his overpriced second story duplex apartment in his burgundy plush lazy-boy chair.  

            “Well, you’re making a living at least.”  His friend was right.  Sholar was making a good living, and was living a nice, affluent life in the trendy side of town where everyone was progressive and you didn’t have to look at too many poor people because the cops kept them out. 

            “That’s the thing right there.  As a creative writing instructor, you’ve GOT to publish.  No question about it.  A writer who can’t write.  What a tiresome cliché,” Sholar said in self-loathing tone.    
            “Well… yah… I wasn’t going to say anything, but—”

            “Really appreciate that.  I really do.”

            “No problem,” Shawn lightheartedly returned.

            “Let’s talk about something else.  You said you had news.  So what’s up?”  Sholar inquired.

            Shawn suddenly became reticent.

            “Come on.  Tell me.  What’s the news?” insisted Sholar.

            “Well, I just sold a novel.”

            “Oh,” Sholar choked out.   

            “Um… yah… thanks.” 

            “Well congratulations!  Good for you!  And you don’t even have a MFA.  That’s great.”  Both parties felt pretty awkward.

            “Me and Kathy are… um… having a party, and we were wondering if you and Helen wanted to come.  We’d really like you guys to come over, but if—”

            “When is it?” Sholar interrupted. 

            “Friday at around seven.”

            “Tomorrow night?”

            “Yah.”

            “I’m sorry.  The department head is hosting a poetry reading on campus.  At the auditorium.  I got to be there.”

            “Who’s reading?” inquired Sholar’s friend.

            “Bruce Bobowski.”

            “Oh yah, I’ve heard of him.  He any good?”

            “He’s no Milton, but yah… he’s pretty good.  Already published two books of poetry.  Came out of nowhere.  No MFA.  No credentials.  Nothing.  I haven’t met him yet.  Somebody ripped a page out of his book that I checked out… the page that probably had his picture on it… so I haven’t even seen a photo of him.  A lot of his stuff is about working menial labor, women, and drinking until three in the morning.  Yah, he’s popular… but ten years from now, nobody’ll remember him.”

            “Humph.  Maybe if you started drinking…” said Shawn.

            “Ha.  Not a bad idea.  That’s why—aw shit, speaking of degenerates, look who’s coming home,” exclaimed Sholar, still looking out the window. 

            “Who?”

            “The downstairs neighbor.  That’s who.  He moved in a couple of months ago.  The guy’s a total ass.  Smokes more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together.”

            “Nice simile.  You should use that.”

            “Oh man, if there’s one thing I hate it’s cigarette smoke.”

            “Sucks.”

            “It’s making all our furniture and clothes smell like smoke.  We got a lot of dry-cleaning too.  It gets expensive.  And the kid.  Can’t be good for Timmy.  He’s only ten.  And that’s not the worst of it.  The guy has people over almost every night of the week, drinking and yelling until four o’clock in the morning.  The landlord doesn’t say shit.  What does he care as long as he gets his rent money.” 

            “Well, I gotta get going.”

            “I pay rent too.”

            “Yah, talk to you later.”

            “Alright talk to you later, and again congratulations.”

            He hung up the phone.  The downstairs neighbor really disgusted him.  Trying not to think about him, he got up from his chair to grab a book, but lost interest and stared out the window.  He could smell innocuous fumes rising from below.  “Maybe I’ll write a story about killing him,” he thought. 

            A moment later, he saw Helen’s car.  Out she came followed by young Timmy. Sholar couldn’t see them without sticking his head out the window but he could hear them out the window.  The wife and kid were greeted by their neighbor.

            “What’s your name little boy?”

            “Timmy.”

            “Well Timmy, you’ve sure got yourself a pretty mommy,” he complimented, playfully messing up Timmy’s hair.  Sholar remained silent.  He couldn’t see but he could picture his wife blushing. 

“Hello ma’am, my friends call me Harry.”

            “You sure smoke a lot,” returned Timmy.  “Why do you smoke so much?  My dad says it’s bad for you.”

            “Well, you’re dad’s right.  Been trying to quit these things, but it ain’t easy.  Does the smoke bother you?”

            “Actually, it really irritates my husband,” answered Sholar’s wife. 

            “I’m sorry I didn’t get your name.”

            “Helen.”

            “Well, I’m pleased to meet the both of you.  And from now on, I’ll try to smoke outside.”

            “We really do appreciate it,” returned Helen.

            When Helen and Timmy reached the top of the stairs, Sholar was waiting for them.

            “Oh hi, honey,” Helen said in a pleasantly surprised tone.  Sholar didn’t greet Helen back, instead he made a gesture of playfully messing up Timmy’s hair:

            “How’s my little guy?”

            “Gee dad, stop it,” responded Timmy, jerking away. 

            “Say darling, what do you say to inviting our downstairs neighbor up for dinner?”

            “You mean Harry?” said Sholar snidely.

            “You’ve met him?” Helen returned sweetly.  Timmy went to his room to play video games. 

            “No, I overheard your delightful little conversation,” Sholar’s tone was aggravated.

            “What’s wrong?”

            “You’re asking me what’s wrong?  I can’t believe this.  He’s the enemy—that’s what’s wrong!”

            “You’re overreacting.”

            “This whole place smells like cigarettes because of him.”

            “He just said that he’ll stop that.”

            “You didn’t mention anything about the all-nighters, did you?  Will that stop too?  Why didn’t you mention that?” Sholar was upsetting his wife.  She stormed across the apartment to their bedroom.  Sholar pursued her, stomping all the way.  Downstairs, Harry sat in his ratty recliner down below and listened, drinking a beer.  Young Timmy turned up the volume on the TV to drown out his parents. 

            “I asked you a question.  Why didn’t you ask him to stop the all-night parties?”

            “You know John, for someone whose trade requires an understanding of human nature, you sure don’t get it.  Do you?”

            Sholar stood there paralyzed.  He knew at that instant that he had gone too far.  There was a tsunami of ferocity bubbling in her, and he was a village made of straw ominously situated on the coast.

            “And you wonder why you aren’t getting published?” she continued.  “I’m going to ask him tonight to have dinner with us.  You know—BE NICE TO HIM.  He’s more likely to cooperate, if we’re NICE TO HIM.  Did that ever cross your little LITERARY mind?”  Helen didn’t get angry too often, but when she did there wasn’t a building left standing.

            That night, Harry came up for dinner.  Helen was as sweet as she could be.  There was no sign of the earlier hostility except in Sholar’s dejected and broken demeanor.   That night she served steak, steamed broccoli, parmesan risotto, with wine, and apple juice for Timmy, who was happy because this was one of his favorite meals.  Their guest was enjoying it too. 

            “May I get a refill of wine, dear sweet Helen” requested Harry, politely.

            “Oh, but of course.  You are, after all, the guest of honor.”

            Sholar ate on in silence while Helen and Harry had a “delightful” conversation.  Eventually they got to talking about books, and Helen couldn’t help but mention that John was a writer. 

            “Anything I might’ve read?” inquired Harry.

            “Probably not,” Helen cut in, “That is, he doesn’t write books; he mostly writes poetry.  He teaches at a university and everything.”

            “A poet huh?  I read poetry every once and a while.  Sometimes I try to write it too.  Who are your influences?”

            Sholar’s countenance lit up.  It was rare to meet someone from the outside who read poetry.  Sure, he had his poetry friends, but they were all academics.  To have someone to just read poetry for the sake of reading it… that was something. 

            “Milton,” returned Sholar.

            “I’ve always had trouble with Paradise Lost.  The only good parts are book two and book nine,” opined Harry.

            “BOOK NINE! OH MY GOD! I ABSOLUTELY LOVE BOOK NINE!” Helen ejaculated enthusiastically.  “John’s always saying that you have to read all of it, but I always say: BOOK NINE, BOOK NINE, BOOK NINE!”

            As Helen and Harry talked, they didn’t notice Sholar’s deflated expression.  He quickly finished dinner, excused himself, and went to sit on his plushy lazy boy, pretending to read his copy of Paradise Lost.  When everyone else finished dinner, Timmy asked Harry if he’d play video games with him.

            “Oh yes, please do.  John thinks he’s above that sort of thing,” added Helen.  So they went to play video games, and Helen watched, leaving the brooding and pensive Sholar.  Helen shouted out to her husband, “John! Wanna watch your son play video?”

            “No thanks.  I’m going to sit here and read ALL of Paradise Lost!” returned her husband bitterly.  Helen shrugged her shoulders.  Harry and Timmy played on.  Sholar fell asleep halfway through book two.

            The next morning, Sholar woke up in his chair to the sounds of videogames coming from Timmy’s room.  The clock said it was a quarter to nine.  He got up and inquired why he wasn’t getting ready for school.

            “I haven’t slept yet,” answered Timmy.  “Me, mom, and Harry stayed up all night.”

            “Where’s Helen?”

            “She and Harry went downstairs hours ago,” the drowsy and video-game addled Timmy answered.

            Sholar went to his bedroom.  The bed hadn’t been slept in.  He looked out the window.  Helen’s car was still parked outside.  He looked at the clock again.  He had an appointment with the department head at ten.  “I’ll deal with this later,” he thought to himself.  It was a meeting that he wasn’t eagerly anticipating.  It didn’t disappoint: the department head chewed him out for not publishing, figuratively pissed on his writing, and informed him that he would be reduced to half-time next year after his contract expired.

            “How am I supposed to get by?”

            “Well, you can do what a lot of our instructors do.  Teach half-time at the community college.”

            “Who’s going to pick up the slack?”

            “Bobowski is coming in as a guest instructor,” said the smug department head, “You know what you should do.  You should try to hang around this Bobowski.  He’s already published two books of poetry.  Did you hear that?  Two whole books.  Poetry.  AND THEY SELL TOO.  Hardly anyone buys poetry anymore.” 

            Scholar had a class that afternoon, so he didn’t get home until two.  He was hoping to find Helen, but there wasn’t even a trace of her or their son.  Except for some furniture, all their stuff was gone.  His things were still there except for his plushy chair.  Also, it appeared that Helen had taken the care of ripping each page out of each book he had except for book nine of Paradise Lost, which she left perfectly attached to the spine.  There was a note taped to the door which read: “I’m leaving you and taking Timmy.  Good-bye, Helen.” 

            Sholar was offended at the note’s brevity, and immediately went to his desk, pulled out his pen and notebook, and went on the attack.  He wrote,

                        You insipid slut, tacit and surly—

                        I hope you get VD

                        From your lover, dumb and burley—

                        I hate you and will never forgive thee.

 

                        But the worst thing—the worst thing—you see,

                        My Dear Helen

                        Is that you left so swift,

                        With only a note

                        Like a cowardly felon!

Sholar stopped to read it aloud, and after doing so was pretty pleased with himself.  “Now for that wife-stealing degenerate.” 

                        You took my wife away, 

                        You must think me upset,

                        But you’re quite mistaken,

                        My sails are set—

 

                        You stole my son’s affection,

                        You must think me angry,

                        But of rage there isn’t detection

                        Because it’s nothing to me—

                        What you did—

                        It was a mean thing to do,

                        It wasn’t fair.

                        But to tell the truth

                        I really don’t care.

                        What stings most of all

                        Is the theft of my plushy chair!

           Actually Sholar didn’t really even care that much for the chair, but it sounded good.  As far as his kid and wife leaving him, he was thinking: “This is bad….  This is just too devastating… too dreadful, and yet… and yet it’s so good.  But I really should be upset.  Shouldn’t  I? Shouldn’t I do something?  A strongly worded letter?  Better yet, physically confront him?  You know… make a good show of it.  That’s what a man of passion would do.  Aren’t writers supposed to be passionate?  Hemingway would’ve kicked his ass already.  Shit, even Henry James would’ve done it by now.  But are they worth it?  No, they aren’t.  But this is an egregious trespass.”  Sholar was happy.  And inspired.  For four hours, Sholar wrote without a break.  It was only because of the Bobowski reading that he stopped.  Looking at the clock, he still had an hour to get ready, but then continued to write instead.  Not until ten minutes before the reading began did he head out.

            He arrived 20 minutes late.  The auditorium was packed.  It was by chance alone that he ran into the department head, who suspiciously looked him up from head to toe.

            “Did you just get here?”

            “Sorry… lost track of time.”

            “Something’s different about you,” accused the department head.  “Are you inebriated?”

            “No.  But what would it matter if I was?  I mean, given the poet that’s reading tonight,” he facetiously interjected, “Speaking of which, where’s this poet?” 

            “The great H. Bruce Bobowski is right over there,” the department head answered, pointing to Harry.  Next to him were Helen and Timmy. 

           “H?” Of course it was him.  Who else could it be?

          Not knowing what to do, he took a seat to get out of sight.  When the reading began, Bobowski proved himself not only to be a good poet, but a formidable orator as well.  He had a presence that exuded charm and authenticity.  Just as Satan envied Adam and Eve for having the adoration of God, so did Sholar envy Bobowski for having the adoration of his audience.  With each poem read, the audience became more enamored, and Sholar more resentful.  Not only would Sholar ever be able to fill an auditorium like this, he’d never have a crowd as enthusiastic as this one.  He had to work with this guy?  And live in the same building too?  Knowing that this guy is fucking his wife?

          Feeling disgusted, he decided to leave early to work on his writing… the one good thing that came out of this mess.  His pen was effusive.  He got home at around nine, wrote until midnight, and awoke to the smell of cigarette smoke at two.  Sholar rushed down to confront him.

          Bobowski opened the door, “Come on in.  Helen and Timmy are staying in a motel.”

          Sholar came in, but didn’t say anything.

          “I bet you’re pretty mad at me.  I hope this won’t affect our professional relationship,” said Bobowski after sucking on a cigarette and blowing a cloud of sulfur in the poorly lit room.

          Silence.   He knew that he felt envy and he knew that he felt malice.  He wasn’t quite sure if he was angry, but he felt as if it was the correct thing to do to play along just as he played along with the love, marriage, and parent thing.  

          “You wife-stealing-piece-of-shit-hack.”

          “Look,” returned Bobowski, “I’m just trying to make peace.  We’re going to be in the same department.  We don’t have to be friends, but we should make peace.  You like scotch?  It’s old enough to vote.  Department head gave it to me.  Here, I’ll pour you some.  Why don’t you sit down?  It’s your chair,” he said pointing to Sholar’s plushy chair.

          “I’m taking back my chair, and I still think you’re a hack,” remarked Sholar boldly   

          “That’s ok, a lot of people do,” said Bobowski as he went to sit on his recliner.  The two of them drank in a stifling, agitating silence for a minute or two.  “You know, she didn’t leave you for me.  She doesn’t even want to be with me.  That was a one-time thing.  She was going to leave you one way or the other.”

          “I guess I should thank you,” replied Sholar sarcastically. 

          “Yah, you should.  Because of me, you won’t have to pay alimony.  But you’ll still have to pay child-support.  Sorry.  Couldn’t do anything about that.”

          “Asshole.”  

          “At least I’m not a spineless-douche-bag-MFA whose wife left him who can’t write.”

          “I’m going to kick your ass,” said the resolute Sholar.

          “You can try,” replied Bobowski dismissively. 

          But Bobowski’s demeanor changed as Sholar lunged at him who was still sitting in his chair.  Bobowski lifted up his leg, kicking Sholar in the gut, as the bottle of scotch was knocked across the room and hit the floor.  Bobowski got up, and urged Sholar to do the same with a few light kicks to the ribs as he puffed his cigarette.  Bobowski backed up away from his chair to where the bottle of scotch was flung near a stand up lamp.  Sholar stumbled to his feet, and tried to get Bobowski with a right cross, who blocked.  But he wasn’t finished yet, he followed with a head butt to Bobowski’s nose.  Bobowski fell backwards on the standing lamp, thus killing the light, the cigarette falling out of his mouth.  The room was now almost pitch-black except for the flames.  Sholar staggered back with his hands on his forehead, moaning and coughing.  He staggered to the front door to get some fresh air.  When he turned around, he saw a bloodied Bobowski charging and screaming like some magnificent demon gladiator with lamp in hand.  The base of the lamp hit Sholar square in the chest, knocking him out the door and on his back.  He laid there for a couple of minutes. Bobowski stood over him, breathing heavily, his face covered in blood as his apartment burned.

          “Feel better?”

          “I think so,” said Sholar, taking a moment to catch his breath. 

           Bobowski offered him a blood-covered hand, and helped Sholar lift himself off the ground.  As soon as Sholar was on his feet, he ran up the stairs, and came back with armfuls of papers.  Bobowski was carrying his old recliner across the street where sat Sholar’s red plushy chair when he came back down.  The both of them were still coughing when they reached their chairs, which were facing the flames.  Bobowski went back again to get a couple bottles of wine, a pack of cigarettes, some papers, and a typewriter.  A few minutes later, he emerged from the blacken smoke, his skin and clothes darkened like a fallen angel.   Bobowski handed Sholar one of the wine bottles, who now sat there amazed watching the flames. 

          “Wanna cigarette?” Bobowski offered.

          “Might as well,” Sholar answered.  “Got a bottle opener too?”

           “Who needs an opener?”  And with that, Bobowski took the bottle out of Sholar’s hand, and broke off its neck on the curb, and then he did the same with his wine.  Sholar was impressed.  That would’ve never occurred to him.  And each on their throne, they sat there in beautiful alcohol silence watching the duplex burn down.  He couldn’t remember a time when he was more at ease, and couldn’t but help recall a few lines from Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven.  What matter where, if I still be the same, and what I should be, all but less than he whom thunder had made greater?”  Which is just a fancy way of saying “what matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”

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