I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
I went to Mississippi to kill a turkey, it being April and the time to kill turkeys. Not that I’m much of a hunter, just a dabbler in such manly pursuits. Once or twice a year I go to a sporting reserve in upstate New York and shoot pen-raised birds, pheasant and chucker mostly. These birds are set out in the morning, hidden within the brush like Easter eggs for bloodthirsty children. Hours later you walk through fields with a guide, a few springer spaniels up ahead sniffing and pissing and squirting a constant skid of diarrhea. The guide tells you, “I think they’re on to something,” pretending that a wildness is involved instead of a hand-placed precision. Soon the dogs freeze, tails stiff, paws lifted and limp—no matter the circumstances, a beautiful thing to behold. The guide whispers, “Okay, okay, okay,” and arranges you for a clear shot. The overall scene is briefly spoiled when he’s forced to flush the tame birds by kicking and yelling at them, but when you put the gun to your shoulder and pull the trigger and see the immediate effect—a pheasant freezes, then tumbles to the ground—well, it is satisfying.
So I packed a duffel bag for the trip south, breaking down my .12-gauge shotgun and slipping the separate bits into old athletic socks, like some sort of assassin on a secret mission. I surrounded these cotton-encased sausages with innocuous polo shirts and khaki pants, the condiments of a law-abiding citizen. Gretchen, my wife of two years, my second in six years, watched me as I did this.
“You’re so serious,” she said.
“Your face, it’s like this is a science.” She sat at the end of the bed, her face far from scientific though she benefited from a certain pharmaceutical science. You really noticed it in her eyes. They wanted to be nervous, constantly scanning details and questioning their particular relevance, but something in the pills held them from panic, kept them steady like hands restraining a small wild animal.
I said to her, “Well, it’s illegal. You know what happens if I get busted with this thing in an airport?”
“It’s a $25,000 fine and a few months in jail. Or something like that.”
“Yes.” Then I realized that this information might strain the limits of her medication, so I added, “But no one ever gets caught. Never. Not if you’re careful.”
“So don’t worry.”
“Okay.” She picked up two pairs of socks, each tightly balled within itself. She weighed them with utmost concentration, her upper lip curled and tucked over her lower teeth, an expression I recognized from her tennis-playing days. She used to have a very nasty spin serve, a left-handed slice, and on ad points she would force you into the fence. But this was when her killer instinct was aimed at others. She made a few juggling pantomimes, trying to figure out the basic mechanics between object and air and self. I went to the bureau and grabbed some other socks.
“You sure you’re going to be all right for the weekend?” I asked.
“This weekend, are you going to be all right?”
“Oh, I’ve got things to do.”
“Good. The plantation number is by the phone, just in case.” I zipped up the duffel, feeling like a surgeon when he turns a wound into a scar, then leaves the recovering patient behind. “Well, I’m off,” I said.
“You sure are.”
You shoot turkeys on the ground, in the head, as they strut in front of a replica of a hen, the hot blood of desire shading their necks purple, drowning out all reason for the hope of a thrill. Sitting in the airport bar, my flight to Atlanta an hour from boarding, a brief vision of blow-up sex toys played in my head, of lonely men, young and old, seeing a group of helpless naked women lounging by the highway, their mouths finishing the perfect O of hello, their breasts better than saline implants, their vaginas shaved. Of course these men would lock up their brakes and sprint for introductions, no matter if married or not. And they’d never notice the lack of movement in the bodies or the ridge where the two plastic halves collide. They’d probably be shot in the head as well. The clean kill of the lusty stupid.
I ordered another drink, rationalizing a double whiskey with a general fear of flying, not my fear, but the fear of the people around me. Anxiety lit their faces with an ashen neon glow, the noble gas flickering thoughts of We might die. They treated the booths like the trenches of Verdun, and I was almost ready for a rendition of “La Marseillaise” before a charge toward the gate. Maybe I’d sing “Wacht am Rhein” as historical counterpoint.
I rechecked my plane tickets: New York to Atlanta; Atlanta to Jackson, Mississippi. During the layover I’d meet Wilson Plagett, my host for the weekend, a college friend whose uncle owned a plantation teeming with wild turkeys. I had convinced Wilson that a little hunting would do us both some good. “Blast the hell out of something,” I told him on the phone.
“You think?” he said.
“Why not? I mean, why not?”
Wilson said, “Okay,” his response so quick and casual that it briefly deflated my excitement and left me feeling small with my idea of fun.
Over a loudspeaker a female voice announced the pre-boarding of my flight, for the clumsy young and the senior frail and the privileged few. Some people reluctantly rose, strapping on their gear and tamping out their cigarettes, finishing their drinks. The first wave. I waited for the third wave of final boarding.
I was sitting in the way back of the airplane, in the seats that can’t recline, across from the bank of narrow bathroom stalls, a sweet odor of antiseptic blue water wafting out with each entry and exit. A very bad situation. Now add babies. A slew of them surrounded me, all newborns, wrapped so that they resembled linen props in a Broadway play. Their crying was incredible. I could hear them in first class, but from that distance and in that atmosphere of civilized travel, I mistook them for some sort of pneumatic device employed to restock the galley. As I got closer, I recognized the baldly human quality in the noise. I trudged forward, my boarding pass held out in front of me, and I stared at its high number like a gambler who knows his horse is a loser after the first furlong. I said, “Shit,” just above a whisper, envying those in front of me who broke left or right, cashing out, while I continued forward, busted. 46C. I stopped. The eight women who held the eight babies smiled at me.
I found the nearest flight attendant and pleaded, “I can’t sit back there, I mean, no way, it’s a nightmare, almost a bad joke, ha ha ha, but really I just can’t.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but it’s a full flight.” She was an older flight attendant, in her youth probably a stewardess, and she carried the washed-out, overly made-up, seen-everything sheen of a service-industry veteran. These are women you don’t fuck with. Their dreams of being whisked off by executives have been dashed years ago, and their routes are no longer European hot spots but East Coast hubs, and now they must wait on inelegant passengers while they yearn for a minor disaster to break the boredom of the day.
I asked, “Is there anything in first class?”
“No. This is a full flight.”
“Sir, you’re going to have to sit down. We’re in our cross-check.”
“Well I’m in the goddamn penalty box.”
She almost grabbed me by the lapels in a shakedown of what’s what. “Listen. If you don’t want your seat, we have plenty of stand-bys who’d kill to get on this flight. Okay?”
Heads on either side upturned as if a bride and groom were having a spat at the altar. Their discomfort subdued me. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“That’s all right. Just sit down.”
“But I want to put in my order early for some whiskey. That’s the least you can do.”
And she smiled and showed me her wrinkles, along her eyes and mouth, and I knew I was with someone who understood desperation. “I will make your flight as comfortable as possible.”
“Thank you,” I said.
Back at row 46 the baby-holding women still smiled, and I settled into the colic and tried to meditate, to breathe in and out, to find transcendence in a hum, a loving mantra. No dice. So I took refuge in earthly distractions. I glanced at the emergency pamphlet—the cartoon people with impossible cartoon composure—then at the in-flight magazine with its inane articles on travel—“St. Louis: Gateway to Dreams”—and then at the book I had lugged with me, a history of warfare aptly titled A History of Warfare. For the last month I’d been stuck on the Battle of Actium, the bookmark a flag of surrender. When the plane started to lumber down the runway, I stopped reading and began concentrating on aerodynamics, on airfoil, and the physical certainty of lift and drag, a principle of science, no less, a goddamn rule, a fucking law! Even the babies briefly quieted with profound recognition. Together, we waited for these precepts to kick in, and of course they did, and soon we were above New York, banking over Queens, climbing past New Jersey and leveling off under God knows where. The “Fasten Seat Belt” symbol dinged dim. A few people immediately rose to their feet as if freed from the chains of enslavement. And eventually the flight attendant dumped six tiny bottles of Jack Daniels on my lap. “Now be good,” she told me. I nodded, a five-year-old with his new blocks, and I proceeded to build a castle on my tray table, a feudal estate with turrets, and like Alice, I grew smaller as I drank, but in the end there wasn’t enough booze to make me a lord of anything.
When the plane touched in Atlanta and pulled into the gate, and the aisle filled with people, I stayed in my seat, happy to be last, a position I’ve cherished since high school. Not much of a limerick, no rhymes, no bawdiness, but a lack of effort is the best revenge against forced meter. Once everyone had deplaned, movement came over me. I said good-bye to the flight crew who stood by the cockpit in a thanks-for-flying tableau. “Nice landing,” I said to the pilot as if I were Chuck Yeager. And after the solitary walk through the jetway, the colon of transportation, I was flushed into the swirl of the terminal, not the usual combination of activity and passivity, but something different, something blunt and jarring and frightening—sobs of joy, from men and women cradling babies, my babies, in their arms. A banner spelled WELCOME. Balloons were tethered to anything that could take a knot, though some had escaped and were sadly stuck to the ceiling.
“Hey, Tom.” Wilson Plagett patted me on the back. “I thought maybe you missed your flight.”
“Nope. I was in the tail with the screaming babies.”
“Ouch,” Wilson said, his well-managed face smiling. I’d last seen him at our tenth reunion, where I found myself naked in a lake at 3:00 in the morning, trying to convince everyone else to just loosen up. Wilson was the only one who joined me, a new party compatriot, having held off at college for the sake of a future public life that never panned out. Instead of governor, he was now an insurance executive who played a ton of business golf. “Some guy told me,” he said, “that these are orphans from China. All girls. They do awful things to girls over there.”
“China’s a cruel place.”
“I’ve heard that. Anyway, these folks are adopting them.”
“Sure is. I couldn’t do it.” Wilson checked his watch, a huge Rolex that could sink a drowning man. “We’ve got time to kill. A drink, maybe?”
“If you insist.”
Now I’m not Southern, but when I’m around Southerners or down South or just plain drunk, this weird accent inflects my speech, and I become broad and expansive, convinced that this is the most natural thing in the world, almost authentic, though I’ve been told I sound more like Big Daddy as played by Dustin Hoffman. So by the time Wilson and I landed in Mississippi and rented a car for the two-hour drive and took advantage of the wonderful convenience of a drive-thru liquor store, I was feeling good and Southern, eating a stick of beef jerky and wondering why I didn’t eat a stick every day.
“Fucking good,” I said while chawing.
“Stuff’ll kill you.” Wilson’s eyes were intent on the road. It was late dusk, a difficult light that turned passing shadows into phantom dogs who jumped out in front of the car. Wilson was quick on the brake, his body hunched over the wheel, and in my inflated state of Southern charm, I began recollecting past drunken behavior.
“Did I ever tell you about my crazed trip to the Bahamas with some woman I met at a bar? No?” So I told him. It happened almost three years ago, during a cold New York winter, when I was married to the other woman, a high school sweetheart, and I went out for a drink after a half-day of work, a few friends joining me, and soon those drinks compiled like a late payment on a loan, and we found ourselves at another bar, and another bar, running from debt until I met this woman. She was quite beautiful, her nose sharp with cartilage which created a ridge. This one physiological feature seemed to define her face, like a hilltop cathedral in a small European village, the outlying lips and eyes and cheekbones and chin modeled with a similar devotion. Think of Chartres with breasts, a mysterious presence imbued with a conflicted history of worship. But I was drunk at the time.
We started talking about the weather and tennis—she was an ardent player—and how this weather made tennis impossible, which was too bad because she could kick my ass. I didn’t doubt it. She let me feel the muscle in her left forearm. Quite impressive. And when she moved, little air was displaced, as if she were designed for speed. The afternoon turned to tequila shots—she insisted—and warmer weather entered our discussion, of tropics, of beaches, of sun-baked clay courts, and we began leaning into each other until we had leaned into a taxi and leaned into an airport and leaned into a flight to Great Abaco Island, an awful place in the Bahamas, where we continued the night, drinking frothy fruity drinks and hitching in a cheap motel, the next day buying tacky clothes, playing absurd tennis, napping but never really sleeping. The hangover was all-encompassing, the physical spilling into the psychological so that you questioned your life and your decisions and your behavior. To avoid such thoughts, and to cool down and feel weightless, I went snorkeling on my own, leaving Gretchen—yes, Gretchen—to recover in the shade. As I swam out into the cay, I saw no signs of aquatic life, no coral, no fish, only sand and murky water. My stomach started to unsettle, and my mouth filled with acidy saliva, and within seconds I was retching into my snorkel, shooting out a stream of vomit like some bowery whale. It was a very low moment, throwing up into the ocean, until these fish, I think they were parrot fish, with small puckered mouths, suddenly appeared and proceeded to eat the lowly species of my puke.
“That’s disgusting,” Wilson said.
“No. It was spectacular,” I said.
“All this color, a swarm of it, just colorful, the fish, I mean.”
“They were hungry.”
Wilson squirmed, then asked, “That’s how you met Gretchen?”
“Basically. At least a version of her.”
“That’s how the whole thing started?”
“That’s quite a story.”
“One of many. But the only one with fish involved.” I reached into the backseat and dug my hand into the booze-filled bag—the housewarming present—my face lit with the glow of what was once wild experience.
A half hour later we turned off the highway and drove past towns instead of exit signs. The darkness held squalor, you could just sense it as you can sense rain on a clear day. Roadside buildings were put up with house-of-card construction, the light within revealing cracks.
The live oaks that seemed to twist in pain like Dante’s suicide woods, the dripping Spanish moss the drool of indulgent last words, and once making this connection, easy lugubriousness took over and tinted the odor of dank soil and perfumed plants—azaleas, magnolias, camellias—into an open-coffin wake, and the distant sounds of swampy nature into an unknown beast half-submerged.
“How much further?” I asked.
“I need to get some food in me.”
Wilson was interested in making good time, so he feigned deafness. But I pressed further.
“Maybe we could stop somewhere.”
“Get a burger or something. A drink.”
“Why not? I mean, are they expecting us at the house?”
“Yes and no.”
“Is there a big dinner planned tonight?”
“What’s our commitment?”
“Well, hunting in the morning. Early morning. Pre-dawn.”
“That gives us about eight hours to grab a bite.”
“Well.” Wilson rocked his head with internal debate, then smiled like the lame duck he was and said, “We can stop in Kosciusko.”
Some people don’t know fun until it’s their last option.
There are secrets to turkey hunting. Calling is very important. The merely adequate are able to mimic a hen by scratching a piece of cedar on slate, while the truly adept use a diaphragm call, a small whistle tucked in the mouth, so that their hands can be free to aim and kill. Yelp-yelp-yelp is the sound you’re trying to capture; yelp-yelp-yelp will bring you a mate. But that’s only half the game. Stillness and camouflage are also essential, not moving as you rest against a tree and pretend to be an innocent swath of moss holding a .12-gauge shotgun.
Walking into Mervin’s Shack in downtown Kosciusko, I possessed none of these qualities. I was still wearing my suit from work, and even though the jacket and tie were off, and the sleeves of my shirt were rolled up, the people inside turned and watched me enter. All talk briefly hushed so that sizzling meat became the primary conversation. Wilson guided me to a free table, the flotsam of spilt ketchup and french fries on its orange surface. A waiter came over and wiped away the mess and deposited two menus. He had the loose face of a stroke victim.
“Howdy,” I said, sometimes getting confused with the West and the South, between twang and drawl, talking like an Oklahoman.
“Can we get two beers?”
“BYOB,” he said.
Wilson translated, “It’s bring your own,” then he said to the waiter, “We’ll take two Cokes on ice.”
“No booze?” I asked Wilson.
“Should I go back to the car?”
A man at the counter glanced over, his eyes scrutinizing us as if we were soaked in gasoline. He slipped off the stool and made his way to our table, his left leg kicking a large cooler. “Hey,” he said.
“You boys with the FBI?”
“I’m not,” I said.
“But I’m not too sure about him.”
He smiled. There was gold in his teeth. He opened up the cooler and revealed the lovely brown necks of submerged bottles. “I brought you your beer,” he said. “Knew you’d forget.”
“You’re a friend,” I answered, enjoying this black-market code. Wilson was less at ease, his knee nervous under the table.
The man set down two bottles. “Oh,” he said, “Did you remember to bring that money I lent you?”
“Sure did.” I handed him a 20.
“Can’t make change,” he said.
“We’ll take it in kind.”
When the racketeer left, we had eight bottles on the table, and Wilson was already pleased with the adventure, his nervousness turned into giddiness, and he probably could’ve stopped right there and weaved a story for friends back home, of eating chicken with gravy and mashed potatoes and drinking illegal beer.
Before leaving, I called Gretchen from the back of Mervin’s Shack, at a pay phone surrounded by industrial jars of mayonnaise. The answering machine picked up but I knew enough to disregard that as any sign of vacancy. After the beep, I said, “Hey Gretch, it’s me. Are you home? Hello hello hello.”
There was a click, and a fumble, and a curse, then she answered. “It’s you.”
“Just wanted to tell you I made it here all right.”
“You sure did.”
“Met Wilson, no problem. Flight was easy.”
“Good,” she said.
“You know, I was thinking,” I began telling her, “that I don’t think I’ve been away from you for the last nine months. Not one night. Not one single night. Nope.”
“You don’t have to call.”
“I want to. Thought maybe you tried the plantation and I wasn’t there and that might’ve—” My hip edged a mayonnaise jar from the pile; it fell to the floor but luckily it was plastic and all it did was sway in a mesmerizing half-circle. “Just calling to say hi.”
“Where are you?” Her voice had lost the ability to clothe a question properly; instead, she spoke with the threadbare tone of a bureaucrat.
“I’m at some restaurant in a town I can’t pronounce,” I said.
“Oh. You been drinking?”
“A little. Well, a lot. What have you been doing?”
“Killed a turkey yet?”
“No. That’s tomorrow. What did you have for dinner?”
“Yeah. Everything all right?”
She took a deep breath, though it was far from a sigh, more of a public access of air. “Do you want me to say no?”
“Just curious. Strap on the old Superman outfit and fly back, maybe?”
“Come on, Gretch,” I said.
“I’m all right,” she said.
“I’m all right, that’s all. Truly.”
“Great.” I looked over toward Wilson, sitting alone, uncomfortable in such a place, his eyes concentrating on a beer bottle, his fingers picking at the label.
“I better get going,” I told her. “Just wanted to touch base and say I made it here in one piece.”
“You sure did.”
Outside, the streets of Kosciusko were busy with cars cruising the strip of Main Street, making constant circles from one end to the other, like animals too long contained in a cage and now left to pace the edges of their existence. “We should probably get to the plantation now,” Wilson said.
“Still early,” I said.
“Not really. Not anymore. Long day tomorrow.”
“Come on, a couple more drinks. Let’s have some fun, Mr. Governor. The campaign’s over and we lost.”
Wilson smiled. “I don’t know if I can keep up,” he said.
“Sure you can.”
“I don’t know if I want to.”
“Sure you do.”
I started walking ahead, happy to take charge in such circumstances, a man with an understanding of what to do and where to go, a man with contingencies, a man more interested in the military than the political. Nights of depravity made for mornings of pain which led to days of grace. A syllogism for drunken behavior. Wilson soon followed.
Oftentimes, when turkey hunting, you’ll sit for hours against a tree, calling and calling; listening; calling and calling, yet nothing will answer, nothing will happen, nothing will emerge in that early morning to awaken you. These are smart birds, though most people know them as domesticated livestock waiting for the November hatchet of a mass sacrifice, so stupid that they can drown in a rainstorm, so ridiculous that their name has become a put-down. Gretchen cooked turkey only once, and that was last July in the midst of a heat wave. She sporadically tested herself as a homemaker—knitting, gardening, interior design—each foray lasting only long enough to prove that she was capable of the task. This led to a complicated sweater with missing arms, a garden halfway planted in colorful annuals, a chintzy living room that didn’t match any other room in the house, and a perfectly prepared turkey served with potato chips and raw, uncut carrots.
Wilson asked, “Did you talk to Gretchen?” We were heading down Main Street, in search of a proper bar to have a proper drink.
“How is she?”
“Off and on. Mostly on, nowadays.”
To our left, in a small gated park, we passed a grass mound, bulged as if an elephant had been buried beneath. A plaque informed us that this was a tribute to Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish patriot who fought on the side of the American Revolutionary Army in the War of Independence. He was a hero in many a campaign, and in 1934 the town of Perish was renamed in his honor. Three thousand schoolchildren contributed cupfuls of earth from their yards to build this monument.
I said to Wilson, “Have you ever heard of him?”
“Nope. I thought it was some local tribe.” Wilson was a buff of the War of 1812, feeling that the Revolutionary War and the Civil War were already overfilled with buffs. He loved to discuss the Battle of New Orleans and the consequences of poor communication. I was still stuck on the Battle of Actium, where Cleopatra abandoned Mark Antony in the face of defeat.
“I like Perish better,” I said. “Easier to pronounce at least. Perish. I live in Perish. I’m Perishian.”
Down the street we came across a place with a glowing sign scripted in the window: The Déjà Vu. I peered inside, my hands shading the streetlight glare. I saw people milling along the feedline of the bar; I heard jukebox music playing Motown; I felt social vibrations reverberating against the glass; I asked, “How about here?” in a fog of moist breath.
“One drink,” Wilson said.
And I said, “Let’s just play it by ear.”
We pushed through the door. The atmosphere cooled as if we had brought in a draft and sucked out warm comfortable air, the two of us an arctic front that swept toward cracked leather stools. The bartender, a chubby man wearing a Key West T-shirt, paced back and forth in the trough behind the bar, popping off tops of beer bottles with a powerful flick of his wrist. He had the avuncular appearance of a fishing guide. He asked us, “What can I get you?”
“A beer,” Wilson said.
The bartender nodded, then he turned to me. I pointed to a juice dispenser positioned behind the bar. Liquid cascaded down the clear plastic shell like turquoise rain on a window. “What’s that?” I asked.
“We call it a hand grenade,” he said. “Knock your socks off.”
“I’m all set,” Wilson said.
“No no no no,” I told him. “We have to soak up the local flavor. That’s part of the experience.”
The bartender ended up listening to me, the machine humming when it poured. “Six bucks,” he said. I paid with a 20 and left a four-dollar tip. My wallet was bursting with 20s. Whenever traveling, I always overestimate my expenses. Wilson nervously noticed the wad.
“So cheap,” I said.
“You better be careful with so much cash,” he said.
“That’s racist,” I said.
“If we were in some fancy place you wouldn’t think that.”
“Jesus, that’s an asshole thing to say.”
“I’m sorry.” I lifted up the glass. “Cheers,” I said.
I tossed the hand grenade down my throat. Wilson sipped. It was sweet, a combination of lemonade and grape juice mixed with the unmistakable numbing of grain alcohol. After the first taste everything else dwelled in the aftertaste. “Whoa,” I said.
Wilson pushed the glass away. “I can’t drink this.”
“Sure you can.”
“No. I don’t want to drink it. I think we should go,” he said.
“Don’t be a pussy.”
“No, you’re not.”
“My uncle’s probably worried.”
I touched him on the shoulder. “Wilson, you’re a 32-year-old man.”
“Exactly why I’m going.” He slid off the stool. “You coming?”
“No. I’m staying. I’ll meet you there. Cheeawah Plantation, right?”
“That’s insane. We’re hunting in the morning, remember? It was your fucking idea.”
“But this is fun.”
“How you going to get there?”
“I’ll hitchhike.” The conversation continued, trapped in a long rally, until I put the point away with an overhead slam of rudeness—“You’re still that fucking college loser nobody liked!”—and Wilson flashed anger and left the bar. Game over. I thought for a moment that he was going to hit me, really pummel me, but he just reeled and walked away.
Turkeys are prized for particular characteristics. A great ruffled tail. Sharp spurs on the legs. Those items are often cut from the bird and kept as keepsakes to the hunt, the tail fanned on a wall, the spurs hanging from a rear-view mirror. The more dedicated will actually stuff the bird so that the long beard can be remembered, and the puffed body, bronzed and iridescent, can be preserved in its last living pose. Others will ask the taxidermist to mount the bird in flight, so that the mighty wingspan is spread and any indication of death is left behind on the ground.
At the Déjà Vu, a large clock, the type often seen in classrooms, filled in the seconds between minutes, a full circle that somehow encompassed the sun and the planets and the laws of brilliant men passed down to ignorant me, sitting in this bar, drinking hand grenades, pretending that this repetition of time was gentle when in reality it was painfully linear.
“Daylight Saving’s tomorrow,” the bartender said.
“That’s right. Tomorrow night you lose an hour to drink.”
“How’s that go again?”
He smiled and said, “Spring forward, fall backward, that’s the easy way to remember it.”
“That’s right. Always forget.”
The overhead lights were on, so bright now, and most of the people had cleared out for a party somewhere. Glasses were being collected. A young man was mopping down the floor and throwing bottles into a large trash bin, an awful noise.
“So tomorrow,” the bartender told me, “you’ll have to start happy hour an hour earlier in order to offset the government watches.”
“But I have to go now?”
“Sorry to say. You’re a good tipper.”
“Any cabs in this town?” I asked.
“Can you give me a ride?”
“Me? Sorry, no.”
I got up and felt all too clearheaded, as if I had been drinking to stay sober. “Good-bye now,” I said, a bit disappointed that I hadn’t made friends, that I hadn’t stumbled onto a group of others who were off to do wicked things—to steal road signs or wake up single women with pebble-throwing entreaties. Instead, I just sat alone at the bar, the stools on either side of me empty. No one even tried to pick a fight.
In the warm after hours, I walked aimlessly down the street, my thumb stuck out for nothing. I glanced around like someone traveling by himself, someone who wants to see glorious sights yet doesn’t want to see them alone, someone looking sideways for a friend. And I thought about giving Gretchen a call and telling her that I was alone in this town and wished that she was with me, at my side, the two of us tipsy or maybe just flat-out wasted. But I didn’t spot any pay phones.
Up ahead, the lush grass of Kosciuszko Mound was too inviting to pass up a roost. I lay down at the crest. Live oaks, their trunks in deep shadows, twisted so that sky was glimpsed through crooks and curves, the Spanish moss hanging luminescent, as if a distant relative to the moon. And before passing out, I imagined children, practically babies, little girls rescued from a cruel fate who come to this place and dump cupfuls of earth from old Perish to a new beginning, slowly covering me in the dank soil, legs disappearing, torso disappearing, arms disappearing, now just a head remains, the final reminder, but soon that will be gone too and only a monument will live on.
May I ask, has this ever happened to you?
—David Gilbert’s fiction has appeared in Harper’s, the New Yorker, Mississippi Review andNew Stories from the South, Best of 1996. He lives in New York City and is completing a novel to be published by Scribner in 1999. Remote Feed, his book of short stories, will be published by Scribner in April.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.