19 • Performance
Joe was waiting for him in the kitchen with a cold bottle in each hand. “Here you go, my friend.”
“Any idea where we’ll find an opener? I’m not tough enough to do two of them with my teeth.”
“Don’t waste your teeth on them, ” Joe laughed. “You still need them for a few years yet.” He pointed his bottle toward the sink. “There you go. Once upon a time I had the sense to bolt it in.”
Will tipped the top of his bottle into the opener and pried off the cap. He took Joe’s bottle and did the same, handing it back to him with froth edging its way up the neck and out the mouth of the bottle. He held his bottle out toward Joe’s. “To memory, Joe, ” he said. He put the bottle to his mouth and took a long drink, wishing Sam Adams could wash the taste of Barbara off his tongue.
Joe took a sip from his bottle and smiled. “To memory, ” he said, motioning toward the kitchen entrance. “Let’s go sit. The coals will be a while yet.”
Will nodded. “I just need to wash this grease off my hands. I’ll be right there.”
He turned on the faucet and held his hands under the stream until it warmed, feeling clear water run through his fingers. He looked on the countertop for soap. There was none. Really? he thought, looking over his shoulder and all around the kitchen. They make TV shows about guys who live in houses like this. He has to have a crate of soap stashed somewhere that he picked up on some ‘don’t miss this’ sale. Will kept his hands under the water and opened the cupboard below the sink with the toe of his boot. Half-used bottles of kitchen cleaner lay on their sides, but no hand soap.
Damn. He held his hands under the water another 30 seconds, the only part of him that felt remotely clean, then turned it off and picked up one of a dozen rolls of paper towels piled on the counter to his right. He looked as he wiped his hands. No waste basket. He saw a small pile of wadded paper towels and crumpled newspapers on the floor beside a cabinet and shook his head.
“Geez, Joe. What have you become?” he said softly. He smoothed the two used paper towels against his leg, then folded them twice into a small square and pushed them into his back pocket. “Sorry, man, ” he said, looking at Joe’s trash pile on the floor. “Can’t do it.”
Joe was bent over his stereo in the living room. “You’re going to love this one.”
“Yeah? Who do we have today? Renfro? Chekhov? Crap. What was that one guy’s name?”
“I don’t know any Renfro, ” Joe smiled. “And Chekhov wrote short stories, not music. I see you didn’t look up Ivan Rebroff like I told you.”
“Well, you know. Things come up.” Will tipped back his bottle. “A busy adjuster only has time for so many opera singers.”
“Choose the right ones, and you don’t need that many. Anyway, no. This is The Doors.”
“The Doors?” Will cocked his head.
“You’ve heard of them, I hope?” Joe dropped the needle lightly onto the turntable. “My tastes are more varied than you might have thought. Now, sit.”
Will looked around. He wouldn’t take Joe’s chair. That left the couch. Archie sprawled across two of the three cushions and he wouldn’t fight him for it. Besides, sometimes, if he looked at it in just the right way, he could swear he saw the upholstery moving. He looked over his shoulder and saw Emily tiptoeing along the organ keys. He slid the bench out and carried it over by Joe’s chair, set his book on the end table between them and sat down.
Joe picked up the book. His face lit up. “Say, where did you get this?”
“A friend gave it to me.”
Joe ran his finger along the bent spine, rubbing the smooth Scotch tape across the top with his thumb. The warped pages stuck together and he flipped through them. The monastery’s library must have had a leak at one time.
“Wait here.” Joe got up and left the room, returning a few minutes later with a second book, one in each hand. They were identical, except there was no tape on Joe’s and the cover was a deep slate blue with no scuffs. The edges of the pages were a lighter shade of the cover, but not speckled with water droplets like Will’s.
“Of course, mine is bound right side up, ” Joe said with a laugh, holding his copy out to Will.
Will took both volumes in his hands. “No kidding? The same one?”
Joe’s book was pristine. Not a bent corner or torn page, and not even a smudged finger print or speck of dust. It may have been the first thing Will touched in Joe’s entire house that did not make him flinch inside.
“Where’d you get yours, Joe?”
“Picked it up at an estate sale years ago.” He dropped into his chair. “Go ahead. Read something.”
“Oh, I’ve read lots of it already, Joe. But I’m a guest in your home. I’m not going to sit here and read a book. I can do that at my house.”
“Out loud, Will. Read something to me.”
“Oh.” Will looked down at his hands. “I, ah—I see.” He flipped through the pages of Joe’s book, his eyes going out of focus. “I’m really not much of an out-loud reader, Joe.”
He closed the book and set it on his thigh, resting his hand on the cover. “It’s really beautiful next to mine.”
Joe picked up Will’s copy and thumbed the pages. “They’re the same. Open it. Look inside.”
Will had discovered the sound of his own voice one day when he and Tom were playing with his dad’s old reel-to-reel tape recorder from the radio station where he worked. After Tom had recorded a brilliant spoof commercial for McDonald’s, Will recorded a hilarious news report about a large Collie named Houdini that had recently escaped his owner’s by opening a basement window with his teeth, running across the fenced yard, crawling through the doggy door into the garage and jumping through a broken window. After an extensive dog-hunt was called throughout the city, as Will’s story went, the dog was found sitting at the end of its owner’s driveway waiting for his children to come home from school and play. It was a story based on the antics of Will’s own dog, Rascal, who they always thought they should have named Houdini because he escaped from every form of confinement they tried with him, just to show off to the other neighborhood pets.
When Tom rewound the tape and played it back, he laughed and laughed at the story. Will’s cheeks flushed and he ran to his bedroom and hid in the small space between his bed and the wall, sobbing until he fell asleep. He’d never known the voice that other people heard. It wasn’t the thick, steady voice he heard inside his head when he spoke. The voice on the tape was awful. High pitched, weak. Soft. Will wanted never to speak again, never wanted anyone to hear that voice coming out of him. That was the year his report cards started coming home with comments like “Doesn’t participate in class discussions” and “Needs to speak up more.” That was also the year he learned the word “enunciate” because he heard it used so often.
Joe stopped thumbing and opened the book. “The sonnets start on page 28, Will. Let’s each do one. I’ll go first.”
Many the wonders I this day have seen:
The sun, when he first kist away the tears,
That fill’d the eyes of morn; —the alurell’d peers
Who form the feathery gold of evening lean;—
Will listened as Joe read aloud, finishing with the final couplet:
But what, without the social thought of thee,
Would be the wonders of the sky and sea?
Joe’s voice was deep and seemed to inhabit Keats’ words, giving them a vitality he’d not heard in them before.
“Reading poetry on the page is nice, Will. But it’s not all it could be. Reading it aloud—or hearing it read—gives it another dimension. It’s as though vocalizing the words completes the poem. Try the next one?”
He stared at the page, hardly seeing the words. “It’s a little— You kind of put me on the spot, Joe.” Even as he was trying to tell Joe how he couldn’t, he found Joe’s asking very hard to resist, as though Joe knew things Will wanted that Will did not yet know.
“Give it a try. I don’t have any scorecards. And then we need to check the coals. I’m getting hungry.”
Will ran his index finger along the words, stopping under the Roman numeral marking off the poem. “To a bunch of asterisks, ” he said. He looked up. “Who was the asterisk?”
“I don’t know. Could have been his girl Fanny, I suppose. He sometimes put marks instead of her name.”
Will looked back at the page and opened his mouth, which felt very dry. Joe already knew the faults of his voice by now anyway. He read.
Had I a man’s fair form
He stopped. How the hell did I draw this poem, of all poems? I should have read first, Will thought. There’s something about this old man.
Will knew there was an intimacy that accompanied being read to. He sensed it here in Joe’s living room as much as he’d sensed the difference as a small child between listening to stories on his record player and sitting on his mother’s lap while she read to him. A human voice attaches to flesh and blood, and to warmth. Joe knew this, surely. There was a reason he was insistent.
He started again.
Had I a man’s fair form, then might my sighs
Be echoed swiftly through that ivory shell
Thine ear, and find thy gentle heart; so well
Would passion arm me for the enterprise:
But ah! I am no knight whose foeman dies;
No cuirass glistens on my bosom’s swell;
I am no happy shepherd of the dell
Whose lips have trembled with a maiden’s eyes.
Yet must I doat upon thee, —call thee sweet,
Sweeter by far than Hybla’s honey’d roses
When steep’d in dew rich to intoxication.
Ah! I will taste that dew, for me ’tis meet,
And when the moon her pallid face discloses,
I’ll gather some by spells, and incantation.
“Joe, is that really a sonnet? Keats had a helluva rhyme scheme going on there.”
“Well, Shakespeare didn’t write them all, Will. Don’t believe everything you heard in high school English.”
“I’m not sure what I heard in high school English. It wasn’t my best subject.”
Will didn’t hear much that Evangeline Foster said in English class, except maybe that he didn’t have enough note cards to construct a proper bibliography for his term paper. He did have vague memories of Miss Foster typing wildly with two fingers on an ancient manual typewriter at her desk. He recalled she had a deeper voice than any woman deserved and it would randomly drop another octave midsentence when she read Macbeth to the class. And he remembered the way she would push out her lips and scrunch up her cheeks, rotating her contorted face in a circle to move her glasses up when they slipped down her nose.
But Will’s memories of Barbara in English class were clearer. She sat in the front row opposite Miss Foster’s desk. Light danced off her silky blonde hair, always tied up with a ribbon that matched her sweater, whenever she raised her hand to answer a question, which frequency was always in direct proportion to the frequency with which Miss Foster asked questions. Barbara always had an answer. He remembered the curve of her small teenage ass, fit snugly behind the pockets of her stonewashed Guess jeans when she stood at the board to diagram a sentence. She always smirked at Will, slouched in a desk at the back of the room, when she turned to go back to her seat. Every day she would rush out of class, only to wait outside the door for Will, hugging her books to her chest even as she would wave him in close, knowing he would have to dip his head down toward her cleavage to listen to whatever new thing she wanted to whisper in his ear.
He followed Barbara around like a doper would follow a guy carrying a dime bag with a hole in it. He never asked another girl out in high school; Barbara wouldn’t stand for it. But then, he never went out with Barbara in high school. She wouldn’t stand for that either.
“Never mind high school, ” Joe said. “Tell me about the sonnet you read. What did you hear Keats say?”
“Don’t ask me that, Joe. I just read the things. I don’t pretend to know what they mean.”
“Not asking you to. Just asking what you heard. If you and I go to the lake, will we hear the same things?”
“Sure. We’ll hear the waves lapping at the shore, ” Will replied.
“Well, maybe you will. But I’ll hear the gulls yapping at each other. My neighbor Midge will hear two fishermen talking softly in a little boat.” Joe smiled. “She has a thing for men with big nets. Point is, there’s no one thing for everyone to hear, no one meaning everyone has to understand and agree on. So. What did you hear?”
Will looked at his boots, noticing a little mud by the outside right heel. He’d need to clean that up when he got home.
“Tension, ” he said. “I heard tension.”
“Tension? What kind of tension?”
“Oh, don’t ask me to explain, now. I can’t put my finger on it, ” Will said. “But it seems like Keats lives with some kind of tension. Between what he is and ought to be, or maybe between who is and wants to be. Listen to the guy: ‘Had I a man’s fair form, ’ ‘I am no knight, ’ ‘I am no happy shepherd.’ He wants something he doesn’t have. A certain kind of man he seems convinced doesn’t reside in him.” He looked at Joe. “Or maybe he does but is somehow tethered to a different sort of existence that’s somehow really apart from himself.”
“There. You see? You heard Keats say something in that poem.”
“So you heard it too, Joe? The tension?” Will’s eyes widened.
“Actually, no. I didn’t hear that.” Joe smiled. “It’s like the waves and the gulls, Will. I was rather set adrift by the ‘honied roses.’ Keats had quite a way with images, you know? I don’t think he really meant literal roses and dew in that poem, if you get my meaning. Do you?”
Will scowled and looked down at the poem. He looked at Joe, an eyebrow up. “Going to ‘taste that dew, ’ eh Joe?”
“Only in poetry these days. There comes a time in a man’s life when he takes his rich intoxication wherever he can find it.”
Will laughed. “But no tension. You don’t hear a tension at all.”
“Tenacious, you are, ” Joe said. He took a drink. “Yes, there’s tension. Keats spent a good deal of time living with yearnings he could not seem to satisfy. He could not save his brother from his illness, could not support himself, could not be with his beloved, could not appease the critics, could not stave off death himself.”
“A tension between soul and body, do you think?”
“That, my friend, I don’t know. His letters suggest that he seemed to come to some sort of peace with the mystery in which he found himself, whatever it was.
Will closed the book and held it in his lap, not saying a word.
“Read more of his poems, Will. Take your time. They’ll tell you what you want to know.”
“Yes?” Will asked, looking up.
“Well, that or you’ll get tired of it and decide you don’t care anymore.”
“Steaks, Joe. Let’s go put them on.”
(to be continued)