The Great Poet
I went to see him. He was the great poet. He was the best narrative poet since Jeffers, still under 70 and famous throughout the world. Perhaps his two best-known books were My Grief Is Better Than Your Grief, Ha! and The Dead Chew Gum In Languor. He had taught at many universities, had won all the prizes, including the Nobel Prize. Bernard Stachman.
I climbed the steps of the YMCA. Mr. Stachman lived in Room 223. I knocked. “HELL, COME ON IN!” somebody screamed from inside. I opened the door and walked in. Bernard Stachman was in bed. The smell of vomit, wine, urine, shit and decaying food was in the air. I began to gag. I ran to the bathroom, vomited, then came out.
“Mr. Stachman,” I said, “why don’t you open a window?”
“That’s a good idea. And don’t give me any of that ‘Mr. Stachman’ shit, I’m Barney.”
He was crippled, and after a great effort he managed to pull himself out of the bed and into the chair at his side. “Now for a good talk,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for this.”
At his elbow, on a table, was a gallon jug of dago red filled with cigarette ashes and dead moths. I looked away, then looked back. He had the jug to his mouth but most of the wine ran right back out, down his shirt, down his pants. Bernard Stachman put the jug back. “Just what I needed.”
“You ought to use a glass,” I said. “It’s easier.”
“Yes, I believe you’re right.” He looked around. There were a few dirty glasses and I wondered which one he would choose. He chose the nearest one. The bottom of the glass was filled with a hardened yellow substance. It looked like the remains of chicken and noodles. He poured the wine. Then he lifted the glass and emptied it. “Yes, that’s much better. I see you brought your camera. I guess you came to photograph me?”
“Yes,” I said. I went over and opened the window and breathed in the fresh air. It had been raining for days and the air was fresh and clear.
“Listen,” he said, “I been meaning to piss for hours. Bring me an empty bottle.” There were many empty bottles. I brought him one. He didn’t have a zipper, just buttons, with only the bottom button fastened because he was so bloated. He reached in and got his penis and rested the head on the lip of the bottle. The moment he began to urinate his penis stiffened and waved about, spraying piss all over – on his shirt, on his pants, in his face, and unbelievably, the last spurt went into his left ear.
“It’s hell being crippled,” he said.
“How did it happen?” I asked.
“How did what happen?”
“My wife. She ran me over with her car.”
“She said she couldn’t stand me anymore.”
I didn’t say anything. I took a couple of photos.
“I got photos of my wife. Want to see some photos of my wife?”
“The photo album is there on top of the refrigerator.”
I walked over and got it, sat down. There were just shots of high-heeled shoes and a woman’s trim ankles, nylon-covered legs with garter belts, assorted legs in panty hose. On some of the pages were pasted ads from the meat market: chuck roast, 89Â¢ a pound. I closed the album. “When we divorced,” he said, “she gave me these.” Bernard reached under the pillow on his bed and pulled out a pair of high-heeled shoes with long spike heels. He’d had them bronzed. He stood them on the night table. Then he poured another drink. “I sleep with those shoes,” he said, “I make love to those shoes and then wash them out.”
I took some more photos.
“Here, you want a photo? Here’s a good photo.” He unbuttoned the lone button on his pants. He didn’t have on any underwear. He took the heel of the shoe and wiggled it up his behind. “Here, take this one.” I got the photo.
It was difficult for him to stand but he managed by holding onto the night table.
“Are you still writing, Barney?”
“Hell, I write all the time.”
“Don’t your fans interrupt your work?”
“Oh hell, sometimes the women find me but they don’t stay long.”
“Are your books selling?”
“I get royalty checks.”
“What is your advice to young writers?”
“Drink, fuck and smoke plenty of cigarettes.”
“What is your advice to older writers?”
“If you’re still alive, you don’t need any advice.”
“What is the impulse that makes you create a poem?”
“What makes you take a shit?”
“What do you think of Reagan and unemployment?”
“I don’t think of Reagan or unemployment. It all bores me. Like space flights and the Super Bowl.”
“What are your concerns then?”
“They don’t know how to dress. Their shoes are dreadful.”
“What do you think of Women’s Liberation?”
“Any time they’re willing to work the car washes, get behind the plow, chase down the two guys who just held up the liquor store, or clean up the sewers, anytime they’re ready to get their tits shot off in the army, I’m ready to stay home and wash the dishes and get bored picking lint off the rug.”
“But Isn’t there some logic on their demands?”
Stachman poured another drink. Even drinking from the glass, part of the wine dribbled down his chin and onto his shirt. He had the body odor of a man who hadn’t bathed in months, “My wife,” he said, “I’m still in love with my wife. Hand me that phone, will you?” I handed the phone to him. He dialed a number. “Claire? Hello, Claire?” He put the receiver down.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The usual. She hung up. Listen, let’s get out of here, let’s go to a bar. I’ve been in this damned room too long. I need to get out.”
“But it’s raining. It’s been raining for a week. The streets are flooded.”
“I don’t care. I want to get out. She’s probably fucking some guy right now. She’s probably got her high heels on. I always made her leave her high heels on.”
I helped Bernard Stachman get into an old brown overcoat. All the buttons were missing off the front. It was stiff with grime. It was hardly an L.A. overcoat, it was heavy and clumsy, it must have come from Chicago or Denver in the thirties.
Then we got his crutches and we climbed painfully down the YMCA stairway. Bernard had a fifth of muscatel in one of the pockets. We reached the entrance and Bernard assured me he could make it across the sidewalk and into the car. I was parked some distance from the curbing.
As I ran around to the other side to get in I heard a shout and then a splash. It was raining, and raining hard. I ran back around and Bernard had managed to fall and wedge himself in the gutter between the car and the curbing. The water swept around him, he was sitting up, the water rushed over him, ran down through his pants, lapped against his sides, the crutches floating sluggishly in his lap.
“It’s all right,” he said, “just drive on and leave me.”
“Oh hell, Barney.”
“I mean it. Drive on. Leave me. My wife doesn’t love me.”
“She’s not your wife, Barney. You’re divorced.”
“Tell that to the Marines.”
“Come on, Barney, I’m going to help you up.”
“No, no. It’s all right. I assure you. Just go ahead. Get drunk without me.”
I picked him up, got the door open and lifted him into the front seat. He was very, very wet. Streams of water ran across the floorboards. Then I went around to the other side and got in. Barney unscrewed the cap off the bottle of muscatel, took a hit, passed the bottle to me. I took a hit. Then I started the car and drove, looking out through the windshield into the rain for a bar that we might possibly enter and not vomit the first time we got the look and smell of the urinal.
From Hot Water Music – Poems and Stories
Black Sparrow Press, 1983.