His voice was sore, but he did not know it yet. As far as he could tell, Lowell’s problems were restricted to other familiar symptoms of a rough night. His head and feet both hurt. His stomach felt sick with emptiness. These he knew how to deal with. He was also sure he knew their cause. However, Lowell’s voice was sore as well, a fact he realized when he sat up in bed and moaned. The initial hope was that the moan would help get rid of various somatic pains inside him. Instead, it uncovered a voice that was raw. A serious effort was required to make any sound. He wondered how he had damaged his vocal chords before going to sleep on his futon.
Other pains Lowell could understand. The trinity of hurt in his head, gut, and feet was the usual result of drinking too much. His stomach was angry with him because it had been irritated all night long from the things he had poured into it without worrying about the consequences. His head hurt from various factors, many related to dehydration and various impurities lodged into the alcohol he drank. The pain in Lowell’s feet came not from the metabolic properties of anything he drank, but because he had stood in place or walked for hours across the city. For one night he had been given the superpower of numbness, and it allowed him to go farther in his beat up shoes than other mortals could.
Lowell walked through his kitchen and went into the bathroom. He looked at himself in his mirror while running the water from his faucet until it was hot. There was no damage to his face this time. He had no new bruises or scars. There were no patches of red that he would have to explain to other people. His black hair was still thinning, but it was always thinning. Lowell spoke to his reflection, greeting it and asking it how it was. The voice he made echoed through the bathroom and sounded like it was coming from the aged gramophone recording of an even older vaudeville star.
The water was now steaming and Lowell grabbed a plastic cup to fill it up. The cup was generic, red, and had come from a party he went to months ago. He had walked home with it and since it was durable enough, he decided to keep it. Lowell drank the hot stream of tap water and let it soothe the scratched up portions of his throat. He was still too young to sound so old. Lowell gargled and he swallowed a bit, then he gargled and he spat. His face felt dry so he dabbed a washcloth with the water and scrubbed his forehead, temples, and the sides of his mouth a bit. Now his face had red patches on it, but he knew these would fade in a few minutes. The soreness in his throat had dissipated. However, when he tried to speak his voice still sounded hoarse.
He went back to his futon and smacked the brown cloth that covered it. In the Sunday morning light he released a fleet of dust particles that sprung into the air and circulated in currents too faint for Lowell to feel. He sat down and watched the dust for a few minutes, trying to see if there was a poem to write in the patterns he saw. Maybe he could write remarks about chaos and beauty. Or he could craft a few passages about how everything turning to dust was not so bad. When disturbed by a certain force and illuminated by a certain slant of sunlight, it was beautiful too. Lowell grabbed the pad he kept close by his futon for such creative emergencies and wrote down his thoughts.
As he was about to begin writing poems drawn from these thoughts, his phone rang. Lowell let it ring, unsure of who would be calling him and afraid they might have revelation about the previous night. Before his voicemail kicked in, Lowell picked up the cellphone and spoke. He was unsure if his voice was now unrecognizable to whoever was on the other side. As soon as the voice spoke to him, Lowell recognized it was Brendon.
“Hey man, how’s it going?”
Lowell tried to hide his wounds. “Fine.”
“You were pretty crazy last night.”
“Oh yeah?” Lowell answered with a slight swagger of confidence. He had to make it seem like any insanity and chaos he was responsible for the previous night was a completely planned out affair, or at least was less ad hoc than it seemed to him at the time. Lowell did not mind being known as a mad poet, so long as it was understood he never lost control while performing in an escapade.
“We were all wondering about you. We weren’t sure if you made it home safely.”
“Of course I made it home safely. I know how to handle myself.”
“Dude, how much did you have to drink last night?”
Lowell was sure a serious talk was developing. His friend was trying to sit him down for a discussion and they would discuss his health and his effect on other people like Brendon. Lowell did not want to be told he had that kind of problem. Other issues he would accept but addiction was not one of them. He only deranged his senses once in a while, every weekend at the most, but that was only when there was money and somebody was giving a reading.
He answered half true, “I’m not sure. I keep trying to cut down but somebody pulls me back in. You know how bartenders are. I think I must have complained about a weak drink, so he gave me something stronger.”
“Yeah. Maybe. I mean, you were crazy.”
Lowell hated hearing that word applied to him so early on a Sunday morning. Pacing through the kitchen, he wondered what he had done. If he had gotten into a fight he must have won because there were no marks on his body. He was ready to apologize, but only after Brendon listed the damage that he had done in full. Lowell had too much pride to say he was sorry before he had the facts of what went wrong.
“You were really on fire.”
Lowell stopped pacing and leaned against the edge of the kitchen counter. “Oh really?”
“Didn’t you see how the crowd was going wild afterwards?”
“It was dark.”
“Remember everybody kept coming up to your afterwards?”
“There were so many of them. I couldn’t hear what they were saying.”
“Dude, it was great. You totally killed that open mike”
“I did, didn’t I?” Lowell was relieved. The reading. It was coming back to him in bits and pieces now. He could recall a bar lit in red and bricks all around him. There was a stage and he was on it. A bright light was on him and made him feel feverish. That was about it.
“I wish there was a video of the night. Maybe somebody recorded something. It would suck to lose it.”
Now he was curious. “I hope somebody did too.”
“You were just going on and on. And when you went over the five minute limit there was nearly a riot.”
“Yeah,” Lowell laughed as if remembering. “There really was, wasn’t there?”
“It was the crowd and you versus the emcee and the other poets and they got shouted down. It was real people power man. Real people power.”
“It was amazing, it made me want to go and write an epic of our own like you did. All those images and random pieces you strung together. It was amazing. It was like, like, you pulled a Christmas tree out of your mouth.”
“Maybe that’s why my voice hurts so much.”
“That would hurt, wouldn’t it?”
“Definitely. Anything coming out of your mouth would.”
“Speaking of which, did you get sick afterwards?”
Lowell pushed his upper lip to his nose. He smelled nothing foul. “Nope.”
“Good. We were worried. You just sorta took off after everyone was on top of you.”
“I guess I was nervous. All the attention.”
“Yeah, I can understand that.” Brendon laughed. “You took up my slot you bastard!”
“It’s okay. It’s okay. It was for a good cause.”
“Good. It won’t happen again. You have permission to bump me off next time with your own epic.”
“Let it happen. Your stuff was good. You were great. I’m not complaining. People are wondering about you. They’re asking questions. They want you to speak again.”
“Wow. Well, be my agent and book me something.”
“I’ll let you know if anything serious comes up.”
“Thanks.” Lowell still wanted to know more about his heroic stand at the open mike. What had he written that was so inspiring? “Hey you want to get something later, a cup of tea, some pizza?”
“You want to meet at Moonstruck? We can get pretty much anything there.”
Lowell came to the diner after Brendon. When he walked through the front door he saw Brendon’s shaggy brown hair. His face was blocked by the copious menu. Lowell slid in the booth across from his friend and ordered a Western omelet and some coffee. Brendon, who had been up longer than Lowell and felt the time was past for breakfast, ordered a club sandwich. When the waitress left them, Lowell began prying his friend for more information, careful not to reveal his own ignorance of the night’s events.
“So, which poem was your favorite?”
“What do you mean?”
“Which one did you like the best?”
“You said you were just reading one.”
“Yeah, that’s right. I combined a bunch together into one. I forgot.”
“I liked the poem you read. Everybody really did. It just hit all the right spots. I mean I’ve liked your stuff, but this was the first thing I absolutely loved.”
“Thanks. What lines did you like? I’m just trying to figure out what I’m doing right.”
“Let’s see, let me try to remember.”
Lowell pulled out a pen and grabbed a napkin from the dispenser.
“There were lines. Plenty of lines I liked. It’s hard to recall them now. You have a better memory for these things than me.”
“I can fill in the blanks obviously, I was just wondering.”
“The thing about catastrophic agents of predetermined chance, I liked that line. I also liked your observation about Virginia and North Carolina mirroring one another, the plot of long dead English kings, or a joke, I can’t remember which.”
“Yeah.” Lowell wished he could remember as well.
“The audience was into your comparison of the gates of Babylon and the bridges of New York City, the Iraqi veteran unable to determine if he is living or dead on the streets of Manhattan. The young liked it when you went after the old. The old liked it when you scolded the young for being inactive.”
“That’s all I can remember. I’m sure more will come to me.”
“It’s okay. Any feedback I can get.”
The food arrived and the two of them ate. Lowell waited for Brendon to bring up another favorite part of the work, not only because he liked the compliments, but he needed to know what he had recited to the crowd. But Brendon began to speak about his own work and what he had planned to read before Lowell went off on his epic tangent that hijacked the evening. Brendon even pulled out the printed papers he had brought to the open mike. He asked Lowell to read them for him and offer his feedback. While he went over the poems with his pen, he asked Brendon what parts of his poem did not work. He still needed more details.
“Well, I thought it was pretty strong and together.”
“There must have been something.”
“The bit about tentacle rape I thought was too much but other people laughed out loud at it, so it’s your decision if it’s good or not.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“I hope you’re not offended.”
“It’s okay. I’m not.” Lowell was far from offended. He still did not know which piece Brendon was referring to and so had no memory of pouring his heart out over it.
“There were some sentimental bits.”
“And what were those?”
“You used thee and thou in this one part. Then you spoke about the endless embers of the cruel unforgiving sky. Maybe sentimental is the wrong word. Maybe it was overwrought?”
Lowell wrote all these lines down on his napkin. The waitress came and took their dishes, silverware, and dirty napkins. Once she left the bill came and the two friends pulled out coins and crumpled bits of paper in order to pay for it. They left a tip that was generous so long as the waitress was willing to count out the nickels and dimes they left behind.
He went back to his apartment and opened up his laptop. Lowell read the lines on the napkin as best he could and searched his files for a poem that contained all of them. He was unable to see anything like the work that Brendon described. A few words were under one poem and some were under another. Many of the scenes he claimed to have heard were not in anything on his laptop. He went online to see if he had posted the lines in a forum. There was a chance the poem had been a creation purely for the internet before he read it out loud. But when he typed in terms for the search engines to find, nothing came up. Thankfully, the work of other people was not found either. Lowell then went to his clothes and the jacket he wore the night before. He felt around for a set of poems that he must have printed out to read for the open mike. In his nervous confusion he had probably combined them by accident and added lines he had written in with his pen as part of his last-minute edits.
There was nothing tucked away in his pockets. Lowell looked at the trashcan. There were no poems shoved in it either. He checked his emails in hopes that maybe he had sent it to himself from some other computer. But there was nothing relevant in his inbox, archives, or the virtual trashcan that held the ghost of past messages. However, there were plenty of emails from new fans and admirers. He could not find the work that had inspired them, but they had managed to find him. Most of the messages were short and told Lowell that he had reached them with their words. His words touched off raw nerves and at the same time brought people together it seemed. Some of the messages were longer. There were fans who wanted help on making their own poetry better. Others came from people who wanted him to speak at their bar or club. These interested Lowell the most and he responded to them first. He did not want to wait for them to lose interest. Apparently the honorariums were now ready to start rolling in.
He asked the proprietors if he could read new work. Lowell claimed that his concern was becoming a “one-trick pony,” rather than a loss of the text that had made the night’s reading so memorable. Most of them said yes and it was only those that agreed that Lowell responded to further. One establishment, Bar 107, was willing to pay more than anyone else. He agreed to give a reading for them in a week and then told all the others his decision. He casually mentioned what they were willing to pay him, unsure if it was fair to do so, or it was just in bad taste to announce it. Lowell was hoping to bring that rarest of factors into his life: competition. No one was able to match Bar 107 so far, but he was sure that once word spread and his readings were attended by motivated listeners who were also hard drinking, his newly established fee would be met.
Lowell arrived at Bar 107 ten minutes before going on. A makeshift sign had been assembled out of paperboard and colored paper to announce the reading. There were already fans inside, eager to listen to him read. Lowell talked with a few of them. He was nervous but the conversations gave him hope for another successful reading. People offered to buy him drinks, including the bartender, but Lowell declined. Seeing so many eager faces ready to lend him their ears made him happy and relaxed. Instead, he asked for a glass of ice water with lime, which was promptly refilled whenever he finished it.
Brendon came in with his friends. The group all smelled of tobacco. Lowell met them and they talked while Lowell pulled out his poems. Since he had the evening to himself, he had brought more work to read. Folded up and stuck inside his pockets, the poems had pressed into him as he made his way over to Bar 107. There was a feeling of relief once he pulled them out. Lowell apologized to the group and told them he was just reviewing his work for the reading but he swore that he was listening to everything they said. He had over twenty poems to read. He was not sure if this was the right amount. Many of them he had meant to read during his epic stand at the open mike. Lowell shuffled the papers and placed the poems he wanted to read the most in the front so that he would get to them at least. It left open the possibility of finishing on a weak note, but he believed it was more important to get the crowd’s attention at the start.
The bar’s manager/art director/emcee came up to him and shook his hand. He asked him if he was ready to go on. Lowell nodded casually and everyone moved into the performance space through a pair of black velvet curtains. Lowell looked around and tried to count how many people had showed up, since each one of them had come specifically to see him. There were a few familiar faces, people who had sat and stood next to him at other readings. They had all just been loyal listeners then. How many of them, Lowell wondered, thought they would be eager to hear him read one day? The manager went into emcee mode and took to the mike. He gave Lowell a small introduction and when it was done, Lowell took to the stage sober.
The stage was painted black but the bright lights turned it bone white. Lowell walked up to the microphone and adjusted it for his height. People applauded him in anticipation and Brendon called out Lowell’s name. Someone from the dark masses told him that he wanted to have his babies. Unsure of what to say, Lowell muttered a lukewarm, “okay,” that made the assemblage of hidden faces laugh. He held the poems in his hands and began introducing his work. Those faces that he did see seemed surprised that he was reading his work from a page. He knew that singers often told little stories between their songs and the impromptu lines often diffused tension and kept the voice warm.
“So…I…uh…I wrote this first poem after drinking some cough medicine…and wine…” there were cheers from the audience. “I had this vision under the Empire State Building…how I ended up there from Brooklyn…I have no idea. Anyway…it’s a little crazy…but I was told you like crazy. Hell, I’m going to dedicate this to my friend Brendon. Brendon are you out there?”
“Read the poem!” He shouted back. There were more laughs and Lowell smiled before beginning.
The response was not what he had expected. No one cheered or laughed as he read. When he finished, there was applause, but no spontaneous cheering. Lowell had the feeling they were all doing him a favor to get him warmed up, convinced the best work was yet to come. He let the poem drop to the ground like a heavy snowflake and went onto the next. “Okay. This next poem…is about fall…in the city…but the change of season also…when I’m talking about John…that’s a pseudonym…John isn’t real…what I mean by that is…uh…John is really somebody else…see there was this dream…” Lowell decided to cut short his meditations on John’s identity and began reading.
The crowd was with him but halfway through the reading they began to show signs of distraction. They sipped on their drinks loudly. They shuffled and swirled their ice around and then chewed on the cubes. They made conversation and they laughed softly but loud enough for Lowell to hear them. Meanwhile, he continued to read. After his tenth poem, he asked the crowd to hold their applause until the end. He could tell it was a dwindling resource. Somebody in the middle of one work asked him to speak up. The request was repeated three poems later. Lowell asked for a glass of water and secretly hoped the bartender or someone along the way would spike it for him with something stronger, but when he put it to his lips it was decidedly non-alcoholic.
The audience was now inebriated and brave. People began hurling strange bits of words at him. “Fantastic spaceship of the inner shared heart!” “Jasmine infused mediocrity!” “The sun rolls off its stage in sighs over us!” “We are trapped under the oedipal complex of military gears!” Lowell could not tell if they were mocking or insulting him. It was an odd form of heckling. Gradually he realized that they were uttering phrases from his epic poem, which they wanted him to recite. Lowell had to interrupt the poem he was reading and tell the crowd to behave. He felt like a kindergarten teacher. The lights were already off so he did not have the power of flashing them in order to silence his disappointed audience. His commands were not enough and Brendon eventually had to stand up and tell everyone to be quiet in a booming whiskey scented voice.
Lowell thanked his friend and then read quickly through the last of the poems. He finished with five minutes to spare. The emcee came up and took the mike from Lowell and asked everyone to give him a hand. Most of the people applauded, but Lowell were certain he heard a solitary booing coming out at him as he left the stage. He left the performance space and got the bartender, who was still sympathetic to him as the guest of honor, to give him a White Russian. He needed something that was strong but sweet as well. Brendon and his gang came out from the curtains and surrounded Lowell. They fed him compliments and shielded him from the audience as they shuffled past. Lowell could see disappointment on all their faces. The group bought him a few more drinks and soon he was drunk.
Lowell collapsed on a couch in the corner and Brendon’s group sat around him. His friend began feeding him compliments until Lowell stopped him and admitted that he knew the reading was a failure.
“I don’t understand what happened.”
“Well, your work was different tonight. Too cerebral for the stage maybe.”
“All my work is like this. How is any of this work different from my usual?”
“I think you were missing the energy from last time. You got all your inhibitions back.”
“The audience was not with me.”
“No they most definitely were not.”
“I don’t ever want to give a reading like that again. It was miserable.”
“The work was good. It just wasn’t good for a live reading.”
“It was dull.”
“Dull to listen to, but knowing you I could see how it would look on a page and I put it together in my mind and I understood it. A lot of good line breaks. But that doesn’t come out on stage.”
“Yeah. I figured.”
“Cheer up. They’ll be other readings.”
“I just don’t remember what I did right last time.”
“Well, you were drunk.”
“I don’t want that to be the only reason. What a crutch!”
“Okay. Okay. I think it was a big part of it though.”
“What else? Go on.”
“Do you even recall that night?”
Lowell had to admit the truth. “No.”
“Well, you berated the people who read before you.”
“Oh that’s cruel.”
“But it was funny, and you were just saying what we were all thinking.”
“So I was an asshole. Is that it?”
“Maybe. You also didn’t read from any paper.”
“No, you looked like you had memorized something, but now that I think about it, I think you improvised. Where you got the words from, I don’t know. They just kept coming out all smooth though.”
“Too bad nobody recorded what I said.”
“Too bad. But I don’t think anybody recorded tonight either, so you’re better off.”
“I just wish I could do another reading like that. I’m going to get paid for tonight, but nobody will probably ever pay me again. I’m lucky if I get into an open mike.”
Lowell still had enough fans left. Not everyone who witnessed his success was at Bar 107 the night of his failed reading. Bar 107 could not have held them all and half of the crowd that came for the second reading was new, drawn in from the strength of Lowell’s reputation. They were disappointed, but a large group of true believers in Lowell’s abilities still remained. They continued to ask Lowell for advice on their poetry and he did his best with what they sent to him in the bodies of their emails. Occasionally they would come up to him in the bookstore that he worked at and gave him their poems asking his opinions in the flesh. Some were good and some were bad. There was no pattern of quality among his fans.
A month passed and Lowell was content to never read again. It was better to allow his legend to circulate. However, one day a man came into his store specifically asking to see him. It was rare for his fans to do this; most of them simply looked for Lowell and then recognized him from the reading. But this man had not been to the reading or the one that followed after. Instead, he had heard Lowell’s name mentioned highly and that was all he had to go on. The man went over to the travel section, where Lowell was stocking books. He introduced himself as Zack and asked Lowell if he had a minute to talk.
“Great. I work over at the Cordelia Street Café. Have you ever been there?”
“A few times. You got that nice fireplace.”
“And an open mike. We would be honored if you read.”
Lowell wanted to decline the invitation. He wanted to ask Zack for money and then when no offer was made, to refuse to read until he was paid. But Lowell had a soft spot for the Cordelia Street Café. When he was an undergraduate, it was one of the few bars that had let him drink without asking for his identification. It had treated him like an equal. He felt compelled to return the favor.
“Great. We don’t offer, um, payment. But just talk to the bartender and they will help you with what you need.”
“Okay. When is it?”
“This Saturday. Bring your friends.”
“How long do I have?”
“Five minutes? Is that enough?”
“That’s fine. I work better under deadlines.”
Lowell went through his poems that week and printed off a batch he thought would do better. They were filled with the surreal imagery that the crowds seemed to enjoy. He hoped that these words would inspire them to heckle the management once more to let him go over the time allotted to each reader. If nothing more, he wanted howls and cheering to accompany him as he read, a form of excited punctuation to his lines.
Brendon greeted Lowell in front of the red and white awning of the Cordelia Street Café. His friend had brought along some of the same people from last time to hear him read, but most of those people were missing. Lowell and Brendon exchanged small talk and he bummed a cigarette off Brendon, trying to keep warm. Brendon asked what he was reading. Lowell pulled the poems out of his coat like they were a bribe and cautiously handed them over to Brendon.
“It’s for tonight. It’s what I’m going to read. What do you think? I don’t want to bomb again.”
“Okay.” Brendon read through the works quickly and gave his assessment. “They’re good, I mean, on the page. When you read them, I don’t know. It’s hard to imagine people who are expecting a show to go crazy over them.”
“They’re that bad?”
“They’re bad for reading out loud, if you want to bring down the house. I’m sorry Lowell. It’s only five minutes.”
“I thought this is what the people wanted.”
“I know. It’s hard to predict these things.”
People began to enter the café for the reading. Several of them stopped to shake hands with Lowell. They had high hopes for his reading. They expected to have their minds blow and their worlds turned upside down. Lowell said he would try his best to do either, though he admitted it would be a miracle if he could do both. He saw that they were excited, not just about him, but poetry in general. The thought of letting them down troubled him. Once he had a moment to speak to Brendon, he expressed his doubts about reading what he had brought.
“Maybe I should just wing it.”
“You can do it. But it’s risky.”
“I don’t want to let them down.”
“Well, you can’t just do things to please people.”
“True. But Brendon, you see how they are. They are excited. About poetry! How often does that happen? If I bomb I’ll ruin not only my chances of reading again, but the audiences of other poets, including you. By the way, are you reading tonight?”
“Before you. I already signed up.”
“So you’re really going to try and make it up as you go along?”
It sounded like a challenge. Lowell took his cigarette out of his mouth and grabbed his poems from Brendon. He brought the end of the butt against the papers and they went up into flames. Lowell dropped them into an empty trashcan where they quickly turned to ashes. Lowell and Brendon both watched them disappear without saying anything until the fire died down.
“Well, if you’re going to improvise, I believe you have to get ready.”
“I guess I haven’t had anything to drink in a week.”
“A heroic achievement, believe me.”
“And my audience expects it.”
“It appears they do.”
“It’s part of what it means to have an audience. Certain obligations, right?”
“True.” Lowell dutifully walked inside the café. He sat in front of the bar and adjusted himself to the cushion of the stool. A bartender with red pigtails asked him what he wanted. He was honest with her.
“The strongest thing that Zack will let you give me for free.”
She nodded. “You’re Lowell, aren’t you?” She poured him a scotch. “Is that okay?”
“Yes to both questions.”
“I’ve heard about you. Apparently, you’re a crazy guy up there when you read.”
“Apparently.” Lowell began to quickly drink the scotch until he finished the glass and set it down on bar.
“You want another one?”
He nodded. The bartender put a small plate of olives for him to munch on while he drank. Lowell wished she would linger and talk to him some more, but there were other customers to attend to. After he was done drinking and reading, things would change. As soon as he had cheers following him out of the cellar downstairs, then she would give him her full attention. Maybe she would even let down her pigtails for him. Once he fell off the wagon and was celebrated for it, she, like everyone else, would love him.
He checked his bearings. They were not off yet. “I guess so. There’s enough time, right?”
She shrugged and gave Lowell his third scotch.
Ben Nardolilli’s work has appeared in Perigee Magazine, Red Fez, Quail Bell Magazine, Elimae, Pear Noir, and Yes Poetry. His chapbook Common Symptoms of an Enduring Chill Explained, has been published by Folded Word Press. He maintains a blog at mirrorsponge.blogspot.com and is looking to publish his first novel.