NOTES ON AN ORANGE BURIAL
By Greg Levin
Dear Mr. Gold:
Thank you very much for the recent submission of your poetry chapbook, Notes on an Orange Burial. While we appreciate the effort that went into your work, we will not be able to accept it for publication at this time. Please do not be overly discouraged by this news, as we are a rather unimportant publishing company that more often than not is unable to distinguish between an inspired piece of verse and a bar-room limerick featuring scatological leitmotifs. I cannot over-emphasize enough the insignificance of our opinion, and hope that you realize how talented you truly are.
We at BlackStone recommend that you do not rip up this rejection letter in anger. We feel it would be much wiser for you to wait until you are deservedly offered the post of U.S. Poet Laureate some day in the not too distant future, and to then urinate directly on this letter in front of close friends and family at your acceptance celebration.
Once again, thank you for thinking of BlackStone Publishers. And remember, our entire editorial staff is inbred.
The above letter, oddly enough, contains not the words written by its sender, Robert Gluck, but rather the words interpreted by its receiver, Jona Gold. In fact, I now ask that you kindly forget Mr. Gluck entirely, for neither his name nor even his shadow appear again in this book. Mr. Gold, on the other hand, is just arriving.
Jona carefully folded the Blackstone letter back into its original form and started his familiar journey back up the stairs to apartment 4-A. At 5’ 8”, 145 pounds, and often wearing house slippers, he had the ability to scale even the creakiest of wooden steps without making a sound. Even when heavy with rejection, as he often was following a visit to his mailbox in the building vestibule, He moved like a panther. His shaven head and small, thin face added to his sleekness. Only his ears, which refused to lay back, and his brown eyes, which due to small lids and frequent wincing were rarely fully exposed, detracted from his felinity – that and the fact that he rarely landed squarely upon his feet after a fall.
During Jona’s slow ascent up the stairs – silent except for the sound of a few cockroach exoskeletons crackling beneath his slippers -- he thought of Sylvia Plath, as he often did to cheer himself up. He was born six years to the day of the extraordinary poet’s suicide, and thus always felt connected to her in a morose way that worried his family, especially when, during a month-long phase in ninth grade, he insisted on dressing like her. Sylvia’s mesmerizing book, Ariel, was the main reason Jona decided to become a poet. Not only did he identify strongly with the brilliant allusions and intense lyricism found in her work, he saw numerous similarities in his and Sylvia’s childhood and formative years. Several examples: Sylvia grew up in Massachusetts, while Jona’s favorite dessert as a young boy was Boston cream pie; Sylvia had a younger brother, Jona would have had a younger brother had his older sister been born much later and with a penis; Sylvia’s father died of complications from a foot infection that had been brought on by diabetes, Jona’s father, too, had feet.
The only major difference he could see in their lives was that Sylvia ended hers. Not that Jona was averse to such a dramatic exit. On the contrary, he often imagined his own suicide: Wandering Plath-like down a dark blue hallway into the kitchen, disrobing, stuffing a towel under the kitchen door, then walking without fear nor doubt over to the oven, only to experience a bitter sense of defeat upon remembering that his apartment wasn’t equipped with gas.
The inability to control the outcome of even his daydreams was dragging Jona deeper and deeper into despair. Of course, the rejection letters didn’t help matters. Nor did the fact that Silvia had taken all of Jona’s Miles Davis CDs when she left.
This Silvia was Silvia Lopez (pronounced Silbia Lopeth by those who speak the lisping Castellano of Spaniards) -- Jona’s soon-to-be ex-wife, who three months earlier had suddenly announced that she no longer loved him. (Note: We will be referring to this Silvia as “X” from here on out to avoid confusing her with the dead woman who filled Jona with boundless poetic inspiration.) The timing of this news could not have been worse, as Jona -- an unlikely though incurable baseball fanatic -- had just minutes before watched the Minnesota Twins (his favorite team, solely for reasons of assonance) blow a three-run lead in the ninth inning to lose to the Tampa Bay Rays (his least favorite team, for reasons of seemingly forced rhyme). Following the post-game show, a distraught Jona begged X to give him another chance and emphasized that he needed her to keep himself from going insane. But her bags had already been packed and a plane ticket had already been bought. Two days later, X was off to Valencia, Spain, to spend an indefinite number of weeks with her family and to eat an inhuman amount of pork.
Without his Kind of Blue CD, Jona was forced to rely on friends to help alleviate his emotional anguish. Then, remembering he had none, he decided that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #3 would have to suffice. he inserted the disk into his dust-covered CD player, and while listening to Sergei get started, walked into his bedroom and placed the BlackStone letter among the others in the “B” section of his Rejection Filing Cabinet. On the floor near the dented metal cabinet, Jona noticed a piece of paper lying face down. He picked it up and saw that it was an old rejection letter from Rain and Shadow Press that had tried to escape. Feeling nostalgic and surging with self-pity, Jona decided to read the letter before sticking it back in the filing cabinet under “R.”
We at Rain and Shadow Press would like to thank you for submitting your book of verse, Notes on an Orange Burial, for publication consideration. Unfortunately, we find that the work exhibits stunning innovation in both subject matter and technique and therefore does not fit in well with the trite, unimaginative verse that we have prided ourselves on publishing for what feels like decades.
Perhaps if your work had featured a half-dozen hackneyed pieces on love and life’s meaning, or if your father had been a famous drunken bard who had had unprotected sex with our founder at some fabled cocktail party, we could consider passing your book on to the second phase of the acceptance process. But as things stand, we have consciously chosen to be among the scores of other publishing houses that will collectively slash their wrists upon learning that they could have signed one of the finest poets of our time.
We wish you the best of luck in your writing endeavors, and look forward to you buying our company some day, then two days later selling it to a powerful crack magnate out of spite.
When finished reading, Jona wiped the froth bubbling at both corners of his mouth, returned the letter to its proper place, and practiced the different sighs he expected to use throughout the day. He glanced at the sterile black-rimmed wall clock he had stolen from his last respectable job and, realizing he was running late, decided to forego a shower for the third straight day. Since shaving his head a few months earlier (a couple of days after X exited), Jona had discovered bathing to be a somewhat superfluous activity -- one reserved for people who dated regularly or who worked in retail, or who regularly dated people who worked in retail.
Oral hygiene, on the other hand, was a top priority with Jona, who came from a long line of gingivitis victims. His father had had his gums scraped; his father’s father had had his gums scraped, and so on. In fact, Jona was quite certain that many of the large houses owned by periodontists across the Eastern Seaboard and throughout Russia had been, in large part, funded by generations of oral bacteria-laden Golds.
Jona ran into the bathroom, brushed each tooth with four up and down strokes, then hurried into the bedroom to replace his slippers with a pair of clean socks and black shoes sporting silver monk buckles that had long lost their luster. He removed the blue “Raven Used Books” tee-shirt he had been working and sleeping in all week and put on a recently-washed but only partially dried red “Raven Used Books” tee-shirt that had been hanging over the bedroom door since the evening before. “Still damp?” Jona grumbled, but didn’t bother changing, knowing full well that everybody else in humid Hannaville would be sporting moist apparel as well. Though situated among rolling hills 40 miles from and at a rather higher elevation than the massive urban beast of Thecity (and the shore), Hannaville wasn’t immune to the same sweltering Augusts that perennially swatted the metropolis to the south.
It was about a 12-minute walk from Jona’s one bedroom apartment to Raven Used Books, provided he suffered no poetic disturbances along the way. Such disturbances, like seizures or earthquakes, could not be predicted, and often caused him delays of anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the seismic measure of the stanzas that overtook him. Since he was a boy, Jona had endured these strange lyrical attacks, blasts of meter and assonance that forced their way into his consciousness and rattled around inside him until he stopped to either write them down or blurt them out. More a sort of poetic Tourrette’s syndrome than schizophrenia, the odd literary condition benefited the bard at times, though more often than not made him the object of public ridicule.
Sometimes the attacks were brought on by a simple, specific scene: E.g., Jona, on the way to work at the bookstore, walks by a man in his 60s, and suddenly…
iced over by decades shared
slip through chasms in the crystal,
and kiss black wisps of hair
Other times, the attacks pertained more to what was stirring in his mind than to what was occurring on the street before him. Once, for instance, while thinking about whether to buy a cheap bottle of red or white for the evening alone, the following playful lines of free verse beckoned for immediate release...
Cab, or nay
A white might be de vine
Oh, what’s the use
The fight is fruitless
This brute is wifeless
Because Jona much preferred to write out rather than scream out such lines, his attacks often set forth a mad scramble for pen and paper. On days that he left his apartment ill-prepared to record these poetic barrages, he’d be forced to solicit assistance from walkers-by. “Pardon me maam,” he’d say while muttering to himself the burgeoning lines he hoped not to lose, “might I bother you for a writing implement, and any old piece of tissue or torn envelope corner you might have in your bag.”
Rarely did his lyrical filaments and fragments make it into a full-fledged poem, but Jona treated any and all of his rhythmic verbal risings the same way that Roman Catholics treated semen – spillage and loss was very much frowned upon.
In addition to contributing to his frequent delays in arriving to work, Jona’s past poetic disturbances nearly cost him a couple of beatings in the street. Once, for instance, while succumbing to an internal haiku that had been ignited by a passing police horse, Jona’s outburst about the steed’s “steel flanks” was overheard by a large, heavily tatooed thug who, thinking the arrow was aimed at his sweetheart, chased Jona for several blocks before the weight of the his own body piercings brought the frightening pursuit to an end.
So rarely was it a 12-minute walk to work for Jona, but on this particular day – the day that starts our tale -- it was. His mind was too pre-occupied with pangs of self-compassion and the ping of stealth rejection to succumb to any orthometry or light verse.
However, while no sudden stanzas impeded his arrival and no odes slowed his fluid gait, Jona’s entrance into the bookstore that day was hardly well oiled.
“You were supposed to be here half an hour ago,” said Isabel, the owner of Raven Used Books and a rather avid anti-Jonite. “What’s your excuse this time?”
“I start at 1:30 today,” said Jona, looking at the clock on the wall behind the register to confirm that he still had a minute to spare.
“No, today is Wednesday, and on Wednesdays you start at 1:00,” Isabel responded in her typical demeaning tone.
“Isn’t today, Thursday?” asked Jona.
“No, but tomorrow is.”
“Not really. Wednesdays have been following Tuesdays and preceding Thursdays since as far back as I can remember.”
“My mistake. I apologize.”
“Jona, I don’t want your apology, I want your punctuality. Your loose adherence to schedule is working my final nerve.”
“I understand, and shall make amends,” the poet promised, then walked over to the stacks of new arrivals to see if anything engrossing had wandered in.
Isabel, with her four chin hairs and a right ear that hung a half inch lower than the left, was the picture of Hannavillian elegance. She was in her early 40s, though had apparently stolen some other woman’s early 50s. And while she stood at 5’ 6”, her habit of crouching down behind bookshelves to catch Jona dawdling gave Raven customers and staff the impression that she was significantly shorter.
Jona loved his job. It was the one place where he felt that he belonged. And while it’s true that most of the customers, Isabel and the three other employees thought little of Jona, he had become very intimate friends with the numerous famous dead writers who resided in the Poetry and Literature sections of the shop. It wasn’t at all uncommon for Jona to initiate conversations with his literary brethren before and after shop hours. The specific author or poet with whom he chose to speak depended greatly on Jona’s mood or emotional state at the time. For instance, whenever he was feeling horrified by the absurdity and futility of human existence, he tended to confide in paperback versions of Camus, Kafka and, of course, Sylvia . Whenever he was feeling moderately to slightly overwhelmed by the absurdity and futility of human existence, he typically spoke to Robert Lowell or Milan Kundera. Whenever he was feeling ambivalent towards or even unaffected by the absurdity and futility of human existence, he almost always spoke to either William Carlos Williams or Vladimir Nabokov. And whenever he was feeling inspired by the absurdity and futility of human existence, he called in sick to write.
Although Jona had copies of all of his favorite books at home, he always felt more emotionally connected to the ones in the shop, knowing that at any moment they could disappear from his life forever. His passion and reverence could clearly be seen at the register whenever one of his most beloved novels or poetry collections was about to be purchased. He had a habit of pretending that the computer wasn’t working correctly or that the book had been incorrectly priced, just so that he could stall the inevitable exit of the customer and book for a few minutes. Also, he would often ask the customer for his or her address so that he would know where the book was going to be living. And once, when a wealthy woman was buying a rare original edition of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Jona asked her very sincerely if she would adopt him, and had to be restrained as the woman turned to leave.
Of course, such peculiar behavior didn’t help Jona’s standing with Isabel. She had only hired him in the first place because, while interviewing him for the job three years earlier, she learned that he was married to a Spanish woman. Isabel herself was born and raised in the U.S., but her mother was from Malaga, thus Isabel had a soft spot in her heart for anything Iberian. Jona knew this, which is why he made certain that she didn’t find out that X had left him. He feared that if Isabel were to learn that his Spanish ties had been severed, she would waste no time in firing him, or, worse, making him spend most of his days working in the shop’s Science Fiction section. So, when asked why X had stopped coming down to the bookshop to browse or buy – something she used to do at least once a week – Jona shamefully confessed that she had developed a sickening affinity for books on tape.
It was a slow day in the bookstore, which, of course, didn’t bother Jona, who worked with little ambition and for zero commission. He spent the vast extent of his shift that day gazing at the various posters of literary icons that hung on the walls throughout the shop. Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and Wilde, Kipling and Hugo, Faulkner and Austen, Ellison and Orwell. Raven had acquired only two pure poets – Whitman and Frost – in poster form. Jona once tried to add Sylvia to the mix by offering to have his framed photo of her enlarged to poster size, but Isabell rejected the idea, claiming that Ms. Plath’s morbid aura might have a negative impact on consumer behavior. Thus, poor Jona was forced to live without his inspiration overseeing him at work.
Nonetheless, he enjoyed staring at the other writers – allowing himself to dissolve into certain explicit scenes from each of their lives. He stood in an entranceway as Ernest pulled the trigger; saw Kipling at six sobbing in the foster home; stood on some rocks with a skinny-dipping Whitman; witnessed Jane’s pain after the death of her West country lover; and once, after a sleepless night before a morning shift, watched in awe as Mr. Hugo arose from his crypt in the necropolis of the Panthéon.
Jona was standing behind the register, lost in the image of Frost – walking with him across a frozen pond somewhere in New Hampshire – when the bell signaling the entrance of a customer rang. Jona noticed that the customer, who’d turned her back upon entering to look at a book in the window, possessed a very familiar buttocks and a head of blueblack hair. While his heart quickly regained function, his brain failed to follow. “She came back,” he whispered to himself.
He stepped out from behind the register and walked slowly toward the woman whom he was certain was X, never once wondering why she had chosen to delay their joyous reunion to peruse a paperback. It wasn’t until he noticed the book she was holding, Metamorphosis, that Jona realized X – an avid hater of both insects and existentialism – was still in Spain, and that, oddly enough, she had a backside doppleganger running loose in Hannaville.
During his half-hour break at 3:30, Jona grabbed two oranges from his stash in the Raven refrigerator and headed to the small, forgotten park three blocks away from the shop. The park was home not only to a broken statue of a semi-famous Hannavillian on horseback, but also to Beauregard.
As usual, Beauregard, was reading one of the yellowing past issues of the The Hannaville Gazette that lined his dilapidated grocery cart. His huge, black leathery hands shook slightly as he turned the page to continue perusing an article on U.S. healthcare. Moments later, unaware that Jona was approaching, he took a deep breath and broke into one of his improvised, raging raps:
Mama told me it isn’t nice to call names
But when I am appalled, I get feisty, insane
I wish I could be calmer and a little more tame
But the healthcare problem fucking boils my brain
I mean son-of-a bitch, how can a country so wealthy
Not give a fuck about the poor getting healthy
Just shit out of luck, now can somebody tell me
Why are the rich the only ones getting helped, PLEASE
Geeeese Aetna, I’m NOT glad I met ya
Getcha greedy hands away from any aspect of
caring for the needy man, someone should deck ya
Trying to monopolize, not gonna let ya!
Why does every other fuckin civilized nation
Feature public health and NOT privatization
America, you should get a standing ovation
For letting the sick pay for corporate vacations
Beauregard was trembling and sweating profusely by the end of his inspired rant. Jona was, as always, awestruck by the man’s ability to rhyme so majestically while touching on such challenging and profound topics. Ever since meeting Beauregard – who was somewhere between 40 and 50 years old -- nearly three years earlier, Jona had heard him freestyle rap eloquently about everything from the CIA’s LSD experiments on U.S. soldiers in the 1960s to the major and minor differences between Sartre’s and Kierkegard’s theories of being.
As emphatically as he denied it, Beauregard was an intellectual in the broadest sense -- well versed in philosophy, art, politics, and especially contemporary literature. In fact, he had been well on his way to becoming a college English professor in the late 1970s, but had to be hospitalized for nearly a year, after voluntarily reading Finnegans Wake from cover to cover twice in a single week. He never fully recovered.
Nevertheless, Jona envied Beauregard. Here was a true free-spirit who didn’t need financial security, public recognition nor shoes to feel complete. Jona knew that he himself could, if push came to shove, live without the first and third items in that list. However, he also knew that he would never feel truly self-actualized until Notes on an Orange Burial had acquired its own ISBN number and at least two testimonials from respected sources for the back cover.
After Beauregard’s stellar attack on the U.S. healthcare system, Jona waited until his friend appeared to have captured his breath, then he walked over to the bench.
“You were in rare form today, Beauregard.”
Beauregard looked up, two huge black irises shifting amid the pale yellow hue filling the remaining space in each eye.
“What up, dawg? Despite his extensive education and ability to speak several shades of English, Beauregard more often than not opted to demonstrate his ebonic prowess.
Beauregard grabbed his cardboard pillow and tattered copy of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and other Stories and tossed them into his cart to make room for Jona on the bench. “Have a seat. How’s yo writin comin along, shorty?”
“Like I told you last week, I’ve been focusing less on writing and more on trying to get my first book of poetry published.”
Beauregard scowled and spat near one of the wheels of his grocery cart. “Fool, you gots to keep writing, always. Otherwise all them words you got up inside you start to leak into your blood stream and corrode yo mothafuckin stomach, fo real. Fuck all them publishing companies.You know you got mad skills with the pen. Ain’t no need to prove it to no one.”
“How do you know I got such mad skills? I’ve never shown you anything I’ve written.”
“A-ight, then show me, dog. I’s got plenty of time on my hands.”
“Okay, next time I stop by I’ll bring along a few samples,” Jona said insincerely.
“Fuck that ‘next time’ bullshit. I wanna hear something now.”
“Are you serious? You want to me to recite one my poems?
“Hell yeah. Poems ain’t alive when they just stuck inside some notebook. Them mothafuckas needs to breathe.”
Jona never recited his work to anybody except Sylvia, whose photo hung above Jona’s writing desk and who served as his harshest critic. He had once tried to read one of his poems to X, but decided to stop when mid-way through the third stanza she started playing solitaire.
“C’mon,” urged Beauregard. “Let one of them bitches fly.”
“Ok, ok. I got one.” Jona stood up, cleared his throat, rubbed his head with both hands, kicked a pebble, cracked his knuckles, and finally, after four deep breaths, started doing a series of stretches.
“What the fuck you doin?” asked Beauregard. “You gonna recite a poem o run some laps?”
“Okay, I’m ready.”
Jona stared down at his feet, concentrating. “It’s called ‘Fly Fishermen.’”
the creek’s glare is muted
Where oak boughs extend their shadows,
legs track through the steady current
They trudge slow, these men,
keep bamboo in a crazed rhythm,
each line a cobra striking
it lies still on the surface
Rings from the fly vanish quickly
deep topaz flows over them
Red hairs hold the center
hit air again without a warning
The wrists of these men are brutal,
I can’t go ‘til I smell the battle
I won’t leave ‘til I see the struggle
trout like tin riddled by the brightness
Bass like glass bend in a fury
blue gills smile then shut.
“Gaaaawd DAMN!,” Beauregard shouted, standing up and offering his right fist for Jona to hit with his. “That shit is good. It got that ragin internal rhyme and a mad flow about it – kinda like the fresh lines that Marianne Moore used to drop.”
“You like it?” asked Jona, feigning surprise in hopes of receiving more praise.
“Hell yeah. Its structure captures the raw simplicity and force of them fly fishin mothafuckas. But, uh, what a city boy like you writin bout fishin for?”
“First of all, I wouldn’t exactly call Hannaville a city. And second of all, I may live here now, but I grew up in rural-suburban Pennsylvania.”
“No shit? With them spindly l’il legs and puny arms of yours, I had you pegged for a city boy all the way.”
“I had some bulk when I was younger, but had an accident when I was 13 and became pretty frail. Ever since then I haven’t been able to put on much weight.”
“What kind a assident?”
“A farmer ran me over with his tractor.”
“I was sitting in his cornfield writing a poem about a dead crow I had found there, and the old guy didn’t see me.”
“Damn, dawg, didn’t you hear that mothafucka’s motor?”
“No. I didn’t hear anything. I was listening to Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” at top volume on my Walkman while I was writing.”
“That shit’s fucked up, dawg.”
“The worst part is that the poem and the dead crow were obliterated by the tractor. I never did finish the piece.”
“Fuck the poem and the bird, shorty -- your ass is lucky it wasn’t killed.”
“I don’t know. It would have been a fantastic way to die – kind of like when Frank O’Hara got run over by that dune buggy out on Fire Island. And just think, my death would certainly have received plenty of attention, and probably would have led to all the poetry I had written up to that point being published in some sort of anthology of dead young writers. It probably would have included my bio and everything.”
“Hmph, some bio: ‘Jona was born in the boonies of Pennsylvania and demonstrated his tremendous poetic gift at a very young age, but was too fucking stupid to not get his ass out of the way of a slow-moving farm vehicle.’”
“Hey, I’ll have you know that, according to investigators, that tractor was moving a good five miles an hour over the speed limit mandated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and by John Deere’s Driver’s Manual.”
“Yeah, and I’m sure yo mama tried to sue the farmer for negligence.”
“Actually, we settled out of court.”
“Shit. How much did you get?”
“Nothing, we had to pay the farmer for the minor damage to his tractor and the permanent damage to 17 cornstalks, plus a rather steep fine for trespassing.”
“Serves you right. Sheeeeet, what kind a sorry-ass freak sues a farmer? That poor cat probably make less a year than I do.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to change the subject.”
“Yeah, I don’t blame you.”
Jona held out one of the oranges he had brought along.
“Yeah, but that orange ain’t gonna help me. Just gonna fuck my stomach up more.”
Jona commenced peeling, carefully placing each piece of rind next to him on the bench.
“Trash can’s over there,” said Beauregard. “Don’t be like the rest of the low-life sons of bitches fuckin my park up with their refuse.”
Jona walked over to the severely rusted and dented trash receptacle and tossed the pieces of rind into it.
“Let me ask you something, Beauregard. I heard you rapping earlier. Did you really just make all that up on the fly?”
“You see any paper and pencil in my cart or on my person?”
“It’s just that there aren’t many people who have such a lyrical gift. Have you ever thought about trying to do something with it?”
“I am doing something wid it – I’m out here bustin phat rhymes every fuckin day, dawg. That’s doing something, isn’t it?”
“You know what I mean – have you ever thought of writing your raps down and, I don’t know, trying to make a CD or something.” Jona knew the answer before he even finished the question.
“HHHHELLLL No! I ain’t no entertainer, dawg, I’m just a dude who likes to express himself.”
“Just asking. I mean, the songs I hear you making up are so pure and penetrating – a thousand times better and more meaningful than any of today’s popular, commercial rap. You’re right, you aren’t an entertainer – you’re an artist.”
“It’s true. And you shouldn’t be so averse to sharing your art with the public. And I’m not just talking about the public who passes by this park.”
“Just think, you could use your verbal gifts as a way to inspire and educate youth, elicit action among the increasingly apathetic masses, maybe even challenge other rappers to do the same.”
“Calm down, dawg. Listen, I ain’t no artist, and I certainly ain’t no mothafuckin messiah. I suggest you forget about me and focus your ass on your art.”
“What about teaching?”
“You could become a high school teacher. The schools are always looking for non-traditional educators to help add freshness and diversity to the system.”
“You on the pipe, dawg?”
“It isn’t such a crazy idea. With your skills and education, you could walk right into the classroom and rap about literature, U.S. foreign policy, social injustice – the kids would love you. And the public schools aren’t that much more dangerous than this park at night.”
“What, all the sudden you my mothafuckin career counselor? Step off, dawg, I ain’t got time for this.”
“I’m telling you, kids respond to rhyme, concatenation, alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia. I’m sure that if Eminem wasn’t such a misogynistic, homophobic, egocentric sociopath, he would make an excellent humanities instructor. And your rhymes are better than his.”
“Look at you, dawg – you fucking foamin at the mouth. Chill out.”
“Picture this, Beauregard: You’re standing in front of a group of 25 kids who have just walked into the classroom for their first day of sophomore English. They all look bored out of their minds and have already begun to watch the clock. You write ‘James Joyce’ on the blackboard and ask if anybody has ever heard of him. Most of the class just sits there quietly with mouths slightly agape. Some of the sharper students respond by clicking their gum. One young woman, the future valedictorian says, ‘Wasn’t he that cute boy in Rebel Without a Cause?’ You shake your head, walk over to your desk, pull out a CD player and press ‘play.’ The room fills with some hip-hop instrumental that you have chosen specifically for the class. Then, to the beat of that music, you break into a fierce rap about Mr. Joyce’s life and work.”
Beauregard had gotten quite caught up in Jona’s vivid description, and, being somebody who never backed down from a rap challenge, broke into improvised rhyme right on cue:
If you don’t cringe, you’ll pass
I’m gonna spin this fast
about a writer so phat, he might just singe yo ass
His words shoot right through the syringe and pass
into me and you. He pushed the limits and passed
by all the syntax rules.
And now a mad black fool
is gonna teach you ghouls
about his Irish ass.
liked causing trouble in Dublin
over the shit he was rubbin in
the faces of his city that for years had been crumblin
He was tired of stumbling,
of his race bein done right in
And though he always loved Ireland
he set the country on fire and
fueled artistic desire, DAMN!
Man, this little white boy was grand
Excitedly typing til he bloodied his hands
His Portrait of the Artist as a very Young Man
Helped get him started on a book that still stands
alone in its inventiveness, now please understand
that I’m talking about Ulysses of which I’m a fan
Few people got the gist of this but I know you can
And just to get you into this – you know it was banned?
When Beauregard had finished his spontaneous rap, Jona howled triumphantly and jumped up and down. It wasn’t at all uncommon for Jona to react so physically to sheer poetic genius. Once, in fact, while leafing through an e.e. cummings section of an anthology in a mall bookstore when Jona was 15, he started shrieking and convulsing in the middle of the store. His mother, who initially attributed the incident to hormonal changes and too many Double-Stuffed Oreos, took him to see a noted child psychologist, who downplayed the role that poetry had played in the incident and promptly prescribed Ritalin for hyperactivity. However, Jona’s mother never went to have the prescription filled, and instead attempted to treat her son’s condition herself by greatly limiting his exposure to any exceptional examples of modern verse. Of course, such restrictions only served to fuel Jona’s poetic interests.
“That was incredible, Beauregard! I mean, you ripped off a number of triple and, I think, even quadruple syllabic rhymes, and maintained them for several lines, without straying from the subject, and all without previous preparation. Are you kidding me?”
If you could sustain even half that level of verbal finesse in a classroom setting, you could become the greatest high school teacher of all time. I mean it.”
Jona arrived back at the bookshop 10 minutes late. Fortunately, Isabel had left to run some errands before Jona was due back, thus the poet escaped a second scolding. All he was forced to endure was a cold stare from Sky – Raven’s resident pseudo-hippie – who was running a customer’s credit card through the shop’s antiquated machine when Jona returned.
Sky was repulsed by modernist poetry; Jona by excessive patchouli, thus the two colleagues made concerted efforts to steer clear of one another. Jona knew that there was no risk of Sky reporting his tardy return to Isabel, for she knew that Jona could counter by informing Isabel of Sky’s frequent pilfering of Kerouac and Ginsberg paperbacks from the back wings of the Raven. Despite their utter disdain for one another, each kept quiet about the other’s indiscretions, knowing that doing so freed both from having to behave by the book.
Jona walked back to the employee breakroom, and on the formica table there found a brief note addressed to him from Isabel:
Jona: Please start reorganizing the Travel section – it’s a mess.
Jona sighed as he crumpled up the note, then, deciding that Sky had everything under control up front, pulled a copy of Sylvia’s The Collected Poems that he kept in a drawer in the breakroom. It was time for his secret game, a peculiar diversion he had created years ago for whenever business was slow and/or Sky’s patchouli too potent. The game – dubbed “Winning Word” by our dawdler, entailed Jona flicking randomly through Sylvia’s poems and keeping track of how many times the words “death”, “dead”, “dark”, “black”, “cold” and “shadow” “appeared. In a given game, any of these words could emerge victorious – it all depended where in the flashing stanzas Jona’s eyes happened to land.
Jona found a pencil next to the coffee maker and a piece of paper on the table, then sat down and created a score sheet. He wrote each of the competing words at the top of the page, leaving enough space in between them for tick marks to fit.
Ready. Set. Scan. The pages fluttered through his fingers, the thumb occasionally breaking the flow. “Black” jumped out to an early lead, but was later overtaken by “death” as Jona slid into the home stretch. Final score: “death” – 21, “black” -- 19, “dead” – 16, “shadow” – 15, “cold” – 12, “dark” – 10.
Jona played three more rounds, bringing the total number of games to, as always, four.
Four. Horsemen; score; corners of the globe. The number’s silhouette and symmetry infected Jona the moment he learned to count aloud. It would be imprecise to categorize this cardinal comfort as anything obsessive or compulsive, for it did not govern or dictate any critical aspect of Jona’s life. It simply was a part of him, occasionally rising to the surface to bring order (referred to fondly, though secretly, as fourder by the poet) to a world that all too often ran amuck in threes and fives.
Four. Always written by Jona with the top closed, thus forming a triangle with one extra piece. It was the number that kept Jona from ending both mundane and meaningful tasks arbitrarily. Four more pages, and it’s time to eat. Four more grapes, and it’s time to write. Four more syllables, and this poem’s done. It was the number of times he preferred to make love to X in a month, sneeze in a row, sob in a week. Once, when in little league, he miraculously accumulated four base hits in a single game, and when it was his turn to step to the plate for his last at bat in the final inning, Jona feigned an ear infection to avoid the risk of getting his fifth hit and ruining the day.
Just as Jona was finishing his fourth game of “Winning Word” – the winner of which was “dead” – Sky walked into the break room, filling the cramped space with tension and the scent of damp soil.
“Nice to see you being so productive, Jona,” she said in her nasal voice, sounding as if one of her roach clips was pinching both nostrils closed. “I’m going on break, so you need to get up front.”
Jona said nothing. He simply closed Sylvia’s collection, stood up from the table and headed out to the front of the shop – happily imagining Sky on her next camping trip, being torn to shreds by four rabid timberwolves.
Sky exited Raven’s in search of chai tea, leaving Jona to field what for him was a rather abrasive question from the lone customer in the shop.
“Do you know if you have anything on web page design?”
Jona gritted his teeth. “Well, we don’t have a large selection of books on computers or the Internet, but let me do a quick search on the computer.”
“Sorry,” Jona said with a sly grin, “We don’t seem to have what you are looking for. Have you considered heading to any one of our fair town’s stripmall mega-bookstores? Some even let you stain the pages of their paperbacks with chocolate from a $5 croissant.”
“Excuse me?” the man said, whose round, chubby face had turned dark red. “Look, if you don’t want my business, just say so directly, dick.” The man stared at Jona for a few seconds, then shook his head and burst out the door.
Jona’s brutal treatment of any customer interested in anything related to technology, business, investing, home buying/improvement, car repair, golf, insurance, or any book with the words “for Dummies” in the title had cost Raven Used Books an estimated $10,000 in revenues over the past three years. Such commercial reading material, as far as he was concerned, was not to be sought after in a used book store – a literary cove, the last haven for humans who feasted not only on words, but on the marrow within them.
Mrs. Jacobs – a retired elementary school principal and frequent customer, was one such human – unafraid to sink her teeth into the sinew and bones of worthy books. Jona saw her approaching the shop a few moments after the man he had ridiculed ran out. Jona hurried over to hold the door open for her.
“Good morning, Mrs. Jacobs. How are we this fine morning?”
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m melting away to nothing in this heat, Jona,” Mrs. Jacobs replied, leaning on her beautifully hand-carved Mahogany walking cane that an old student of hers had brought her back from a trip to France a few years earlier.
“Hang in there, Mrs. Jacobs, Autumn is just around the corner.” Jona let the door close and accompanied the limping woman around the display table in the front section the shop. “Are you looking for anything in particular today, Mrs. Jacobs?”
“You know, the usual – something with a lot of authentic struggle, humanism and sex.”
“Well, we just received an entire shipment of Henry Miller. I know how much you liked Tropic of Cancer.”
“Yes, but I find that most of Miller’s other work is filled with far too much bravado and boners, and not enough dynamic eroticism. Frankly, all that mindless bonking just bores me to tears. Have you got anything by Anais Nin?”
“Nothing you haven’t already read, I’m afraid. As you know, she didn’t publish very much work during her career.”
“Yes, I know. It’s a shame. She was too busy living out her fantasies and changing sheets.” Mrs. Jacobs laughter tickled her throat, triggering a violent phlegm-filled coughing frenzy.
“Take it easy, there, Mrs. Jacobs. Are you okay?”
“Yes hhhh, I’m fine hhhhack. Excuse me. These, damn cigarettes are going to hhhhhhack kill me.”
“Can I get you some water?”
“No, I’ll be fine, Jona, thank you. I’m just gonna have a look around for something Nin-like.”
“Happy searching. Let me know if you have any questions.” Jona started to walk back to where he had been tidying up the Travel section, then, remembering his conversation earlier that day with Beauregard, turned back towards Mrs. Jacobs.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Jacobs. Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Of course not, Jona.”
“You see, I have this friend here in Hannaville who is thinking about changing careers and becoming a school teacher, but he isn’t sure how to go about it. Any suggestions?”
“Yes, you should start hanging out with less reckless people.”
“Oh, c’mon, Mrs. Jacobs. A lifetime educator like yourself, I thought you’d be supportive of such a decision.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Jona, it’s a noble endeavor, but unless your friend is proficient in Hapkido and mob control, I suggest he opt for a career outside of public education.”
“Actually, he’s from the mean streets, a pretty tough old guy. And besides, he knows how to speak to kids in their own language.”
“Okay, so he’s fluent in Spanish. That’s a good start, but not enough to survive in today’s classrooms and hallways.”
“No, I don’t mean Spanish – I mean rap. He can rap intelligently and coherently about any subject without even thinking. He’s amazing, I’ve heard him on numerous occasions. Just imagine what kind of lessons he could create if given some time to prepare.”
“Does he have any experience at all in teaching?”
“No, but he’s very well-educated, has ample experience speaking in public, and is already accustomed to hearing gun shots on the job while earning next to nothing.”
“Sounds promising, but I have to tell you Jona, the executives on the school board are a conservative lot. And as desperate as they are to fill teacher positions in the city, I doubt very much they would offer a job to somebody who is more likely to inspire kids to ‘drop it like it’s hot’ than to learn.”
“Oh, but you have to hear what this guy is able to say through his rap. I really think he could reach a lot of students.”
“Well, if your friend is serious, he should contact the Hannaville Public Schools Superintendent’s Office and ask for information on its “Teach for the Stars” program. The goal of the program is to promote careers in education to professionals from other fields who lack teaching experience but who are stupid enough to want to gain some.”
“Great, I’ll let him know, thanks. If you don’t mind me saying so, Mrs. Jacobs, I never knew that you were so bitter about public education.”
“You’ve also never been jacked by a nine year-old during story time.”
Jona was just finishing up in the Travel section when Isabel came storming into the shop at 5:30. He had been looking forward to showing her how he had cleverly arranged all the guidebooks based on their political relationship to one another (i.e., books on France were set a far distance from books on Germany and England, while books on Switzerland were placed on a window sill in the very back of the shop above everything). However, when he saw the furious look on Isabel’s face, he decided to delay his presentation. Jona hadn’t seen her look so agitated since the time he stacked all the books about JFK on top of all the books about Marilyn Monroe, and all the books about the Pope on top of various children’s tales.
“Jona, I want to see you in my office,” Isabel growled as she took off her sunglasses. Based on the impressive diameter that her nostrils attained after each rapid inhalation, and the fact that she didn’t have an office, Jona deduced that he was about to experience lasting humiliation and pain. He followed her into the tiny employee break room and sat down on one of the black plastic chairs.
“I’ve had to put up with a lot of shit from you over the last couple of years, Jona, and I’m tired of it.”
“Isabel, please, relax, I’ll get right out there and place all the travel books back in traditional order.”
“What? This isn’t about any travel books, Jona. This is about your poor work habits and continuous abuse of customers.”
“What are you talking about? I…
“I just got a call from my nephew. He said that he was here, and that you rudely sent him off to the competition just because he was looking for a book on a topic that doesn’t interest you.”
“I simply told him that we didn’t have what he was looking for, and suggested he try another store where he may find what he needs.”
“Bullshit, Jona. Herman told me what you said and how you said it. Besides, we do have several books on web page design, and if you had done a goddamned proper database search, those titles certainly would have appeared.”
Jona had never heard Isabel speak with so much vulgarity and rage, Her face turned maroon, and her left eye began twitching.
“Listen Jona, working with you for three years has been hell, and…
Right at that moment, Jona realized that the only remaining solid rock in his existence was about to become dust. He felt himself fading out of Isabel’s irate monologue and into a sort of trance, a trance in which all of the objects that surrounded him suddenly lost their edges. The room was transformed into a soft womb that seemed to have been created by a very abstract artist’s broad strokes, with everything – including Jona himself – stripped of its traditional definitions to become a new, colorful form of nothingness. Not even Isabel’s angry and dangerous words could disrupt the peaceful cocoon in which Jona now found himself. Phrases like “you brought this on yourself” and “fired” and “final paycheck” were seen and heard as blue echoes that caromed gently off of red plush velvet curtains.
It was the exact opposite of what Jona had seen and felt during his various panic attacks over the years. Everything felt open rather than shut; slow and undulating rather than quick and pulsating. It was as if the anxiety and dread that typically accompanied one’s world crumbling was so severe that it actually propelled Jona beyond the rigid black world of panic and into a state of temporary euphoria.
… “Do you have anything to say for yourself, Jona?”
The question brought Jona back from his temporary trance. All he could muster was, “I’m sorry – don’t fire me, Isabel. This job is my life.”
“I’m sorry, too Jona, but you’ve been given plenty of second chances. It’s over. You’ll find something else.”
Jona was too shocked and heartbroken to put up a fight. Isabel took him by the arm and escorted him out of the shop, and as they were walking past the Poetry section, Jona stuck out his left hand and let his fingers caress the perfectly aligned bindings of about a half dozen close friends on the top shelf. Just before they reached the front door, Jona shook loose of Isabel’s hold. “I needn’t be thrown out like a bar room drunk,” he said sternly. “I’m fully capable of leaving on my own.”