Get me at a cocktail party. Get me talking about writing poetry. Get me talking about what made the difference.
Just a phone call.
In the spring of 1992—now, twenty years ago.
“What are you doin’, Malone?” in North Dakota vowels from the old Scandinavians, the voice of my undergrad mentor, Dex Westrum.
“Oh, ” I said, then answered. I trailed the long phone line out to the sprawling porch of an old Victorian in seedy, downtown Albuquerque.
“That’s bull shit. You need to get your ass out of there. You’re going to apply to Indiana State for graduate school. There’s a poet, Matt Brennan, you need to study with.”
Spring had already lifted the snowcaps from the Sandias.
“Dex, it’s already April.”
“Malone, ” he started. It wasn’t long before I dragged the phone cord back through the screen door, past the paws of my roommate’s cat and the stench of beer and enchiladas in the kitchen, and into its cradle.
With his PhD education, couldn’t Dex intuit my grand, poetic life? I was metropolitan. I lived with two girls. I drank jugs of wine with my buddy James, listened to Tom Waits, and wrote necessary, dark, nihilistic, existential poems. And I had proof. A smattering of them had been published in several not-so-terribly-awful literary mags.
In the cockroach-infested Victorian, beneath the giant transplanted oaks that shaded our lawn, and below those mountains and inside that city of light, I couldn’t shake Dex’s words.
In July, I sold my reliable, white Toyota Tercel, packed up an ugly yellow Ryder truck with a bike for transport at school, and I drove two days to Terre Haute, Indiana.
The last week of August, a fellow grad student held a party for the burgeoning new class of TAs, nearly thirty of us, representing the halcyon days of English graduate study at ISU. The classy brunette gal from the Upper Peninsula Michigan snapped a photo of me. I wear what I did in Albuquerque: white T-shirt, blue jeans, and big black boots. Instead of red wine, I hold a glass of white. From behind my looming 50’s style eyeglasses, I stare off-camera. A slight smile.
The young man can’t know what I know. That he toasts a crossroads. And cheers a wake.
Photo of Dex Westrum, 1988. Post by Dave Malone, author of Under the Sycamore.
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