The Private Muse


originally published in Fresh Cup Magazine

My name’s LaRue. I’m a poet. I carry a pencil. I drink coffee.

I was sitting in my office, dank curtains, pitted wood desk, torn window shades. My pencil tapped furiously against my chipped “Java Junkie” coffee mug. A five-letter two-syllable word for greeting an enemy? Tappety tap. I hate crossword puzzles.

The phone rang.

Tappety tap. I stared at the half-folded newspaper. Ring-ring. Ring…

I picked up the receiver and held it cradled in my shoulder, “Ayuh?”

“Hello?”

Hello? That could be it, those tricky bastards. I penciled the letters in one by one.

“Hello?” said the voice on the line. Man’s voice.

“Wait a second, I’m writing.”

An appropriate pause while I fill in the letters. What next? A thirteen-letter word for edible fat with the second letter, “l”? I put down the paper in disgust. The phone receiver was still cradled in my shoulder. It fell to the floor and I caught it on the first bounce.

“Whaddaya want?”

“Is this LaRue?”

“Ayuh.”

“You’re a poet, right?” the man’s voice was gruff, brusque, short, deep.

“Bingo.”

“Go to the coffee shop on Amsterdam between a hundred and tenth and a hundred and eleventh.”

“Why should I?”

“How does ten-thousand big ones sound?”

Ten-thousand big ones? Ten-thou samolies? Ten grand? Did people still talk that way?

“You there, LaRue?” said the voice.

“I’m putting on my hat,” I said. “I was half way out the door already.”

“Good,” said the voice. It had a ring of finality and I got the impression that the man was going bald.

“How will I get in touch with you?” I asked, as I really reached across the desk to put my hat. “Hello?”

But I was right about the finality. The only thing on the line was the static buzz of the Baby Bell. They had promised to use modern technology and fiber optics to get rid of that buzz, which reminded me how much I missed Ma. Ma Bell, she was a good kid, a bit fat towards the end, but dependable.

Anyway, I broke out of my reverie. I stopped at the bookshelf to pick up the tools of my trade — a sharp pencil, a blank notebook, and a plastic eraser with the words, “Use Me” printed on it. That reminded me of a long-dead love affair. Marsha, will I never be rid of you?

I sighed, broke out of my second reverie and left the office. The coffee shop wasn’t far; I could walk it. Besides, going across town on foot would give me time to think, time to contemplate, time to figure out what was going on. New York is the kind of city that does that to me, even with the bustle and the rustle and the hustle and the hubbub, my brain kicks into high gear as I walk past taxis, stalled busses, and begging bums.

It was a strange call, I’ll give it that much. And it surprised me. There wasn’t much call for poets these days. Sure, I had an ad in the yellow pages, but it was mostly a joke. An expensive joke, too. You wouldn’t believe how much they charge for a one-line listing. And then I started getting the calls from “alternative yellow pages.” Christ, I wasn’t made of money, and I’m loyal to Ma Bell’s kids, I told the interlopers.

But what did anyone want a poet for anyway? And for ten K? Hell, for four zeroes you could buy a flock of poets these days. And why me? I hate to say it, but I haven’t been published in over three years. My last gig, if you can call it that, was doing rhyming captions for sports blooper photos in The Daily News. It wasn’t much, and it paid a steady living until the day I blew it with a sly reference to male genitals that got me canned quicker than tuna on a Japanese fishing boat.

So, I was supposed to go to the coffee shop. Ok. By the time I finished thinking my thoughts I was already there. Fine. I’d go inside, order some java, maybe bum a cigarette, and look busy. See what I’d find.

Hungarian Pastry ShopThe coffee shop on Amsterdam between 110 and 111th is well known among poets, art-types, and pseudo-politicians. You order a cup of coffee and a pastry at the counter, they take your money and your name. Then you find a table. About half an hour later, one of the waitresses will call your name and bring your order to the table. Then they leave you alone to get as many refills as you want from a never-empty self-serve coffee pot. I’ve seen grown men and women wearing black berets like modern beats, read the entire Sunday New York Times in one sitting while bloating themselves to the point of jaundice on the free caffeine. And for all that service, you’re supposed to leave the waitress a big tip. Right.

I took a table by the wall, noticed the “No Smoking Section” sign and shrugged. There were only two non-smoker tables in the whole place, so the sign was more symbolic than effective. But I believe in the law.

Taking out my pencil, I opened my blank notebook, and waited for the coffee to come.

* * *

An hour and a half later, totally wired on ten cups of joe, I put the finishing touches on the poem, noting a bum as I walked back to my office. Nothing much, not a bad couple of stanzas. Some good imagery, too bad I couldn’t get the rhyme scheme to work in that second to last verse.

Oh well, poetry is an evolving art and you sometimes pay in structure what you gain in spontaneity. It was something a college professor of mine once said, and I’m not sure he believed it, and I’m not sure I believed it either, but there it was. He was a professor, paid in tenure and illicit meetings with co-eds, while I was just a hack poet trying to piece words together at a penny a pop. Christ those ivory towers protect some high and mighty bastards, and they’re the ones who control the University presses too.

That rant took me all the way up the stairs to my office. The door was open, but I wasn’t paying attention. They still owed me royalties on that last book. Sure it was slim, but it made the ten best poetry volumes of the year, and I know it sold more than fifty-two copies.

There was a man sitting at my desk, sitting in my chair, which wasn’t surprising since it was the only chair in the office. I had sold the other chair for ten bucks once when I needed to buy some groceries. Like I said, there isn’t much call for poets.

He didn’t look like how I imagined him. For one thing, he had more hair. He was about five-ten, only slightly balding, nattily dressed in a suit, and his expensive Italian shoes were propped up on my desk like he owned it.

I put my hat on the guy’s foot, since it was covering the spot where I usually put my hat. He kicked it off.

“Don’t be a tough guy, LaRue,” he said.

“You’re sitting at my desk,” I said.

“I always wanted to know what it felt like to be a poet,” the guy said.

“You’re kidding?”

He shook his head no as he got up. I bent down to pick my hat up off the floor, and he hit me over the head with something hard, solid. It felt like my stapler.

* * *

I woke lying on my back, staring at the cracking plaster on the ceiling of my office. My head hurt. There was a knot the size of… the size of… I couldn’t think of the metaphor, the noun, not even a simile. I was shaken up bad. I slowly sat up. The guy was sitting at my desk. He was reading my notebook, nodding. I looked at my watch, I hadn’t been out for long. How I could tell that from my watch, I don’t know. I didn’t remember looking at the time before he clobbered me.

“Just make yourself at home,” I said to the guy as I pried myself off the floor.

He stopped moving his lips long enough to nod an affirmative. I balanced myself against my desk, felt a little dizzy, so I stumbled over to my liquor cabinet. I don’t drink much. For some reason, people expect poets to drink a lot, despite the medical advice, but I’d gotten paranoid about my liver, and ouzo was the only thing I had. The bottle was a leftover from the days I was dating a Greek woman named Marina. Still, I needed something to settle my nerves, so I gritted my teeth and pretended to like it.

“Can I have one?” said the guy reading my poem at my desk.

“Sure,” I handed him the bottle, “knock yourself out.”

He chuckled quietly. “Very funny, Mister LaRue.”

“I’m a quirky guy.”

“And this,” he waved my notebook. It looked blurry, so I took another sip of ouzo and winced. It must’ve been the way I looked, but he started quoting.

“And the poet drinks in silence/Silence drinking tea/And he tries to make his art/But his heart says only me.”

“Do you like it?” I asked.

“It’s a bit self-referential.”

“You didn’t give me much to go on.”

“No, I didn’t,” he nodded. “I wanted an honest impression.”

“If you want an honest impression, go to the waxworks,” I said. It was feeble, and he glared.

“You were drinking coffee, weren’t you?”

“I do that,” I said. “I didn’t see you there.”

“I know.”

I stared at this guy, he was starting to get on my nerves. “What about my money?”

“You’ll get your money, LaRue. What about the coffee?”

“It didn’t feel right,” I said. “The rhythm was wrong.”

He boshed. Literally. “Bosh,” he said. “And you threw out the rhyme scheme towards the end.”

I hate it when people rub it in. It was absurd, but I wasn’t going to get angry. Here I was arguing rhythm and rhymes with a client. “Hey, I’m a professional, you wanted my words, and you paid me.”

“Not yet I haven’t,” he said. That shut me up.

And then he read my poem to me:

And the poet drinks in silence
Silence drinking tea
And he tries to make his art
But his heart says only me

And he tries to show the world
And he tries to catch the light
To tell us what is wrong
And how to make it right

And the coffee shop is bustling
And the waitress has a fight
A black man with a hand gun
Starts yelling at a white

And he sees it in his head
And he sees it in a book
So he tries to write it down
But then he takes another look

The waitress spilled the coffee
And the gun is just a toy
And the books have all been written
He read them as a boy

And then a tear drips slowly down his face
Or at least he wants it to
Because the poets are all dead now
With better things to do

So he gets up from his coffee
And sets aside his dreams
With a small tip for the waitress
That no one sees him leave

And as he writes he thinks
As he slowly wanders home
There’s an old man on the park bench
Who will never read this poem

 

It was eerie listening to him. It’s not often that a poet gets to hear someone else read his writing. Most of the time the only thing the rubes with the money pay us for is to read our own damned poems, as if we were the only ones who could properly interpret them, and we hadn’t heard them enough in our own minds already. I’ve always said that any poem worth a damn will sound good no matter who it’s read by, and this guy’s rendition proved my theory. It wasn’t a bad poem.

“You call this ‘A Sentimental Coffee Shop Parable’?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“You were drinking coffee,” he said. “The poem said ‘tea.’”

I shrugged, “The rhyme scheme’s better that way.”

“Where’s my wife?” he said. “Where is she in this?”

I looked at the guy, was he kidding? I mean crazy millionaires who’ll spend five-figures on a page of verse are one in a billion, so I didn’t want to lose the guy with a stupid and inept answer. Why was he doing this? Why did he care? And who the hell was his wife?

“Can’t you tell?” I asked, hoping he’d fill in the blank. This whole case, if I could call it a case or an assignment, which I suppose it was, was one big blank.

The guy only shrugged. “She was there,” he said.

I nodded like I knew what I was talking about. “She’s the waitress.”

“Why a waitress?” The guy looked desperate, like he expected an honest answer. I’d do the best I could.

I sighed. “It’s metaphorical. A waitress serves, but she’s anonymous. She’s a mystery. You pay her, you tip her, but she scorns you. You wave her over to ask for something more, and she ignores your frantic signals. Most of all, she wears her hair a certain way, and that reminds you of someone else.”

I wasn’t sure if he bought it or not. He kept looking at me, and looking at the poem. Maybe he was going to cry, maybe he was going to hit me with the stapler again. In any case, I wasn’t taking any chances. I had drawn my pencil. Not drawn like sketched, but drawn like pulled it out of my pocket. Ok, it wasn’t a gun, but since both the stapler and the bottle of ouzo sat on the desk next to his feet, the pencil was the only weapon I could reach.

“Put down your pencil, Mister LaRue,” he said. He was reaching into his coat pocket for a heater, a gat, a rod, a gun. He pulled out a pen and a check book and began filling in the blanks. Not the explanations, unfortunately, just the important lines, like “pay the order of” and “the amount of”.

He took his feet off the desk and handed me the check.

There was no name, it was a bank check. It read, “Ten-thousand dollars and no/100.”

I nearly collapsed again, but put on a good face. “Thanks.”

He nodded and shrugged. “It was too good to be true,” he said. “I thought she’d come back.” He tore the poem from my notebook, folded and put it into his pocket along with his checkbook.

I nodded and shrugged, “These things happen.”

He started towards the door, and then stopped. “How did you know? How could you see all that?”

I laughed that little laugh that you see in the movies, that smug and knowing little laugh that the actors do when they’re not quite sure what their motive is, except the pay check. But that wasn’t enough, for ten grand the guy, who ever he was, deserved something more.

“Ok,” I said, and I nodded. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my wallet. I opened my wallet and showed it to him.

“Poetic license,” I said.

He left me his pen.