February 10, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
As promised in my last post, here is the story I developed for the theme “Frisky” at StorySlamMN! this month. The theme for next month’s slam is “thankful,” and we’ll return to prompts and brainstorming for that topic next week. (It’s February in Polar Vortex Minnesota, so “thankful” ought to be a useful exercise on many levels.) As always, comments are appreciated.
There’d been a big snowstorm the day before.
That year I was a graduate student in English, a teaching assistant, and I had invited this guy in my office to go to a poetry group. The Minnesota Daily said they were open to new members.
I liked this guy, though he was kindof arch. But I’d read my Norton Anthology. And he was every inch what I expected a poet to be.
He spoke with diction; his sentences emerged in archaic clauses. He wore a uniform of blue jeans and white button down shirts. His chestnut hair curled like Keats. Between two fingers he balanced a lit cigarette. A buffalo china cup half full of coffee was always within reach. Over his desk in the office we shared was a New Yorker cartoon of a man and a woman having dinner. The woman was gazing earnestly into the man’s glazed over, manic eyes, and the caption read What I’m really attracted to is a man with INTENSITY.
I was intrigued.
There was a wart at the corner of one lip, though on him it just seemed another literary affectation, like a beauty mark. He was pale, and very thin. He looked like he could use a good dinner. His eyes were faded blue like the jeans; his nose had a funny shape, and a sprinkle of freckles; if you looked at him head on, it was hard to take those arch opinions very seriously.
But he had said yes to the Tangerine Poetry Circle. So we went.
The leader of the group was a fuzzy bearded guy with soulful puppy eyes. He had named the group the “Tangerine Poetry Circle.” It seemed to him like a good name for a poetry circle. It was…A Metaphor.
I looked at Keats. He looked at me. I smiled nervously. He shuffled his typewritten poems.
There were no other graduate students.
The fuzzy puppy read several excruciating poems about his erect member, with which he appeared to be fascinated.
I’m not even exactly sure which poem I read.
My guess is that it was a clumsy piece I’d written a year earlier about following a date home to his apartment in a car I had been loaned by an out-of-town friend. I had become afraid of driving on the highway. Lack of practice, mostly. But something about following men made me uncomfortable. It was…a metaphor.
I remember what he read though.
It was called The Sculptor without his Chisels. It was pretty much the opposite of the priapic poem of the fuzzy puppy.
“Lacks potency,” said the puppy.
“Yeah,” said Keats. I liked him. I hoped it was A Metaphor.
I don’t remember what anyone else read. I was way too worried that Keats thought me an idiot for bringing him there; that he would be annoyed at the waste of his time.
“I’m sorry,” I began. Then I saw he was laughing.
“It was pretty bad, wasn’t it.”
“Terrible.” But he didn’t seem to be mad. Like me, perhaps he needed someone to feel superior to. Graduate school was scary and hard.
I was seldom on this part of campus, and the snow had covered all my usual landmarks.
“Which way is the bus stop?” I asked.
“I can take you home,” he said. Again that bit of gruff archness, but maybe it was just nerves. We had bonded over bad poetry. He was going to take me home! I felt a surge of relief.
The sun was just starting to go down, and the light was that sky blue pink. The snow was white and glistening, with just a faint rosy tone upon it. We were walking a stomped down footpath toward Washington Avenue. Drifts were piled high on either side. Who knew where the sidewalk was.
I had taken a gamble, and it had paid off. On impulse, I took another.
“Beaten paths are for beaten men!” I cried. And I pushed him into the snowbank.
I had read my Jane Austen. The girl with sass and intelligence always wins over the haughty shy man. Doesn’t she? Isn’t that how the game is played?
For a moment there was complete silence. A raven cawed to another raven, over on the telephone wire. Keats looked up at me, confused.
Was I laughing with him, or at him?
Thirty-four years later, I can still see that question on his face, and all the archness gone.
He stood up and brushed himself off. “My car’s this way.”