Down on the corner/ Out in the street/ Edgar Allan Poe-boys, he’s sayin’
Once Upon a Wednesday Weary
by Allan M. Heller ©2007
There is nothing more dreadful than imagination without taste. - Goethe
More than just his clothing betrayed the fact that the man browsing the selection of cakes, cookies and other confections on display inside the glass case was an outsider. His whole demeanor was too hesitant, too curious for someone who was familiar with his surroundings. He lifted his gaze to the list of hot and cold beverages posted on the wall, cocking his head as he mulled over the choices. He had a haggard face, tinged with fatigue, and dominated by a large forehead and a pair of sunken blue eyes underscored by deep crescents. His delicate nose was perfectly straight, in contrast to his small, slightly-lopsided mustache, which matched his mop of dark, tousled hair. He was clad in a thick, black, double-breasted suit, buttoned all the way to the top. A white cravat clung loosely around his throat. Tucked under his left arm was a large, tattered notebook.A girl of about 19 approached him from the other side of the counter. She wore a dark green apron embroidered with the name of the café. The chewing gum in her mouth popped and cracked loudly. “Can I help you?” she asked. The man flinched upon noticing a thin metal shaft skewering her right eyebrow, then again when he saw the shiny steel ball protruding from the center of the her tongue. “Can I help you?” she repeated, with a hint of annoyance. “Yes,” the man replied. “I think that I shall have a. . .Oh, let me see. Do you have any plain coffee?” Her index finger rapidly poked several buttons on a dull gray machine, which responded by beeping loudly. “$1.49,” she said. Unbuttoning his suit coat, the man reached inside and produced a large billfold, which he set down on the counter and opened. He pulled out a two-dollar bill. Carefully holding the black and gray note up to the light, the girl said, “This is cool. Where did you get this?” “At the bank,” he replied. She punched several more buttons on the machine before handing the man two quarters and a penny. Without looking at the coins, he scooped them up and put them into his pocket. Before departing, he paused to stare at the ceiling. “They have harnessed the power of electricity to produce light from those long tubes,” he remarked. “Uh, yeah,” she replied. “Thank you very much,” he said. With his tattered notebook in tow and his cup of black coffee in one hand, the man approached a moving stairway in the center of the bookstore, then paused apprehensively as if he were peering over the edge of a steep precipice. Without touching the railing, which was also moving, he cautiously stepped onto the ascending platform, never taking his eyes off of his feet until they were planted firmly on the stationary floor upstairs. He made his way past numerous bookshelves stacked to capacity with the latest titles, none of which he recognized. Cardboard images of skeletons, witches and black cats hung from the ceiling, walls and windows, along with letters strung together to form “Happy Halloween.” Tonight was All Hallows Eve, he recalled, but what was the purpose of these bizarre decorations? He made his way to a small section arranged with six rows of chairs. To the left, atop one of the bookshelves, was a large sign reading SELF-HELP. Sitting in the front row, he took a sip of coffee, grimacing at the surprisingly bitter taste. He began leafing through the pages of his notebook, mumbling as he read aloud. The chairs began filling quickly, and within 15 minutes, there was not one empty seat. Taking another sip of coffee, the man glanced around him, making note of the strangely-attired individuals in attendance. A wooden podium had been set up opposite the chairs, and a tall, attractive woman with short blonde hair began fiddling with a metal baton capped with a mesh-like ball. The man winced when she tapped on the device several times with her index finger, producing a loud, thumping sound. “Hello,” she said. “Can everybody hear me?” “Yes,” several people shouted. The man’s attention lapsed for about five minutes, and when the woman had concluded her introduction, he realized that he hadn’t heard a word that she had said. Applause roused him from his reverie, and he saw a short, heavy lady of about 60, wearing a long blue dress and a pearl necklace, standing behind the podium. She opened a thick green book and began reading. The man leaned back in his chair, attempting to absorb what he was hearing. She sounded like she was reading a diary entry, but there was no clear course of events, and her ideas seemed to flow randomly from one to the next. He had always considered himself intelligent, but he could not grasp whatever theme she was trying to convey. She spoke of butterflies and spruce trees, afternoon tea and “tell–a-vision,” then compared the color green to the soul of a cat. Just as he thought that he was starting to understand- “. . .floating up toward heaven like tiny, opalescent bubbles, and filled with the hope that they, too, would eventually reach perfection. Seeing them in their pristine flight, the child breathes a deep sigh of contentment, wondering if she will ever be able to float so high, to attain such a perfect. . .” The man shifted several times in his chair. Perhaps this was some sort of game or riddle, some obscure amusement prefacing the poetry reading. Whatever she was doing, the audience was positively enthralled. “Wow.” “Incredible.” “Beautiful.” Just to be certain, he glanced out the window to see if there was some natural phenomenon like a shooting star or lunar eclipse that the others had observed, but saw nothing except passing motorized carriages and street lights that changed from green to yellow to red. “. . .and I imagine that I see myself in everything, feel myself in everything, recognize some deep, hidden part of my inner essence, in even the most mundane, trivial and. . .” He opened up his notebook again and flipped through the pages, trying to decide what he would read. In the meantime, the woman in the blue dress droned on. “. . .and seeing at last, out of the shadows which surround her, out of the darkness which threatens to envelop the dawn, out of the sickness which seems to eclipse health, the light of all eternity. It is a light which. . .” An entire week seemed to pass over the course of 30 minutes. What was the point of this? Were they all being subjected to some semantic experiment? Was he himself the target of some elaborate practical joke at the hands of Griswold? He sighed, a little too loudly, for his exhalation drew several irritated glances. “. . .and I often said to my grandmother, ‘I know that you are old, and that you will leave me soon.’ She did not reply, but smiling softly, merely reached down and patted me on the head. And I saw in those sparkling, wise old gray eyes the wisdom of all the ages, both past and future.” She paused and looked up proudly, beaming. Thunderous applause erupted, punctuated by cheers and whistles. “Fantastic,” one woman said. “Bravo!” someone else shouted. Restless, the man closed his notebook, pulled out a gold pocket watch, and flipped the cover open. 7:32. Nudging the man next to him, he asked, “Excuse me, do you know what time the poetry reading begins?” After a brief recess, the tall blonde woman asked if anyone in the audience wanted to share anything. This precipitated a stream of insufferable hacks taking the podium, most of whom seemed to have just strung together a list of words which they had selected randomly from the dictionary. There was no rhythm, no meter, and no rhyme, and no meaning that he could discern. And always, the readers were followed by loud applause and copious praise. Finally, his turn came. He was greeted by polite, obligatory clapping. “Welcome,” the tall blonde woman said to him. “Have you been to any of our readings before?” “No,” he replied. “Where are you from?” she asked him. “Baltimore,” he said. “You’ve certainly come a long way to be here tonight,” she said. “Further than you could possibly imagine,” he told her. “I like your costume,” she added. “Really in the spirit.” “My costume?” he replied, prompting a burst of raucous laughter from the audience. What was the matter with these people? Whatever their problem was, it mattered little. He would demonstrate what poetry truly was. He would recite something that would render all of them spellbound, the very piece which had won him so much acclaim. Opening his notebook to a dog-eared page, he began reading in a loud, unwavering voice, trembling mildly as he reached a crescendoed pitch near the end of the final stanza. Maybe he should have expected the weak reception that followed, particularly after what he had heard up until now. These individuals hardly seemed the types that would appreciate the artistic subtleties of trochaic tetrameter. Still, the faint applause stung him like cold, pelting autumn rain. “May I ask you something, dude?” The question came from a fellow seated in the back row. He wore a white, short-sleeved cotton shirt with a strange design on the front, ragged blue pants and a backwards baseball cap. “Dude?” the man repeated. “Why are you like, so hung up on rhyme?” he said. “I mean, when we were like, in first grade, that was all cool and stuff. But now. . .” “Yeah, and I didn’t get the whole thing with the talking bird,” a teen-aged girl said. “it was like, too psychedelic for me. Plus, why did it keep on saying the same thing?” “The whole piece is kind of sing-songy,” someone else said. “Yeah, what she said.” “What do you mean ‘sing-songy?’” the man snapped, livid. “Poetry as an art form has matured,” the tall blonde woman explained. “By adhering to such strict form, you’re really limiting yourself. You’re not allowing yourself to reach your full potential.” “Madame, I’ll have you know that I have published a great deal of poetry and fiction in my time,” he retorted. “I believe you,” she said. “but you really need to pay more attention to current literary styles.” Then she addressed the audience. “Let’s take a ten-minute break, and if anybody wants to read a second piece, they can.” Scowling, the man settled back into his seat and crossed his arms defiantly. Then a different kind of inspiration hit him. His expression softened, his natural color returned, and a mischievous smirk crawled across his face. The hour was 8:30 when the group reassembled. With a second cup of acrid coffee from the café downstairs, the man settled in the exact same spot and waited patiently. No one spoke to him, nor he to anyone else. After sitting stone-faced through another 20 minutes of doggerel, he was once again allowed to approach the podium. During the recess he had purchased a brand new notebook, more compact, with a sleek black cover. “Hello,” the hostess said. “I hope we weren’t too hard on you. We just give one another constructive criticism from time to time.” “All well and good, madame, “ he replied, and opening his new notebook, he began reading. “In the light of the evening, through the pale darkness, I glimpse a face. It is not a face I know, and yet, it is not a face with which I am entirely unfamiliar. I approach the face, which begins to hover above me, at first smiling, then weeping, then openly mocking me with its scornful red mouth. I cry to the face ‘Tell me who you are, floating face!’ but it does not answer, and yet, I know that it is listening, hovering on every bitter word. Finally it smiles with its gently-mocking, androgynous appearance, and I hear the words in my head more so than with my ears. ‘I am you. I am every man, every woman, and every child,’ he/she/it tells me. I am the world at war, and I am the world at peace. I am that which pleases and displeases, and I need not give anything in return.’” Concluding with a flourish, the man stepped out from behind the podium and bowed to the audience, who clapped enthusiastically. When the applause subsided, he asked politely, How was that?” “Good, really good.” “The whole floating face thing was awesome.” “The symbolism really moved me.” “So I hope that we’ll be seeing and hearing more from you,” the tall blonde woman said. He snapped the black notebook shut, and stood at attention. Then raising the notebook high, he hurled it over the heads of the astonished audience, striking a large window 30 feet behind them. “Nevermore,” he hissed. Turning abruptly on his heel, he marched to the moving staircase, descended to the first floor, stormed out the front doors, and literally disappeared into the night.
x x x
Edgar Allan might well have bemoaned the state of poetry in our benighted age—but he’d have been pleased, I think, with the state of horror. What think you, ‘realmers? Let us know on the BBS. -GM