9 • Morning Poetry
By the time he’d showered, brushed his teeth and thrown on some aftershave, it was still only 8:30. Mad Dog expected him to be late, but here he was right on time. He couldn’t go in yet or his partner would indeed chew him, for snack and then for lunch. Will could just hear it.
“What’re you doing here, Willy? Couldn’t wait to get to work? There ain’t no teacher here—don’t know whose pet you’re trying to be. But hey, if you’re looking for something to do, I have a sports coat in the closet. You could pretend to be your daddy, and I’ll go play football with the real neighborhood boys. I even have a cigar you could pretend to light. Unless you’d prefer a Tootsie Roll, I mean.”
Why he’d ever confided that story to the likes of Mike Delaney he’d never understand. Delaney carted it out every chance he got.
A light breeze brushed across Will’s arm, the window open the crack he’d left it during his early morning escapade. “There we go, ” he said aloud, and crouched down to open it the the rest of the way. It slid right up, as though to spite him, and he cursed it. He propped a tall textbook on its edge to keep the window from avenging itself, then looked back for a book to take out with him. Dozens of unfinished and unstarted books piled up in an uneven stack on the floor beside the dresser. He ran his finger down the spines and stopped at a thick aged slate colored volume with the old Random House Olympic torch runner emblazoned on the side. He imagined the runner was gold once, but was now worn to a dirty beige against the black oval. The Complete Poems of Keats and Shelley. Will smiled. Brother Benjamin had given it to him. He loved the old volume but hadn’t touched it in months.
He harbored a hidden inclination toward poetry but in the hard boiled world of adjusting, reading a sonnet seemed like something that could get a guy killed. It was perfect, Ben had told him. Like a book with a compartment cut out of the pages to hide a flask of whiskey, this one also let a guy hide a secret vice: the cover was bound upside down. So he could read the book, and if anyone saw him, it would look like he was posing.
The stack nearly toppled when he slid the book out. He pushed the rest against the wall and crawled out the window onto the porch roof. The crisp yellowed pages—warped and curled together from moisture—let out a musty odor when they opened. Random House hadn’t had the foresight to print a publication date, so its age would be forever a secret. The first half of the book contained John Keats. The latter half was Percy Bysshe Shelley, with explanatory notes from Mary Shelley. He’d managed to avoid reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in high school, not wanting to mar the joy of watching Gene Wilder in the classic Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein film with images from its namesake.
The aged paper crackled as he flipped pages, searching out his favorite passage.
Oh for ten years that I might overwhelm
myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
that my own soul to itself decreed.
Then I will pass the countries that I see
In long perspective, and continually
Taste of their pure fountains.
“Ten years, Keats?” Will muttered out loud. “Ten years is a hell of a long time to wait to do something your soul already decreed. What’s the deal, man? What are you waiting for?”
Will asked the same questions as many times as he’d read the verse. What did Keats want to do, why would it take so many years, and what the hell ever got done just because a guy decided to overwhelm himself in poetry called by an old fashioned word?
Then again, maybe that’s why it would take so long, Will thought. Poetry could surely slow a guy down.
“Well, Phillips, ” Will said, “at least Keats’ soul had decreed to do something. That’s more than you’ve got.”
It was true. As best as he could tell, Will’s soul had decreed no deed to itself to do.
He set the book beside himself on the shingles and rested his head against the house with a sigh.
“Your soul, Phillips. I wonder if you even have one.”
Of course he had a soul. It might have been shriveled and dried up like the few apples that hung stubbornly on Pearl’s apple tree through the winter, but he had one. Will worked in extremes. Black and white. On or off, hot or cold. Barbara used to say he’d go from zero to sixty in no time, never able to pace himself between two points. He didn’t have room in his head for a shriveled soul in need of attention—only good souls and no souls. And since he couldn’t see a good soul, he saw soul-less.
Did Joe Murphy read Keats? For all the books he had in his house, surely he read a few poets. He could probably tell him about the taste of pure fountains, Joe could. When he saw Joe the next day, he’d bring the Keats along. The old man would like that. He reached for the book at his side, but bumped it, sending it skittering down the slope of the roof. He half dove for it, trying not to slide off himself, but it was too late. The corner of the thick gray volume hit the edge of the gutter, flipped up and toppled right over the edge of the roof.
“Damn, ” Will muttered, then heard the startled gasp of his landlady below.
“Damn again, ” he said, crawling on his knees to the edge of the roof.
He peered over and found Pearl on the sidewalk with a watering can in one hand and the other on her hip staring at the book splayed open in the grass. She followed its path up to the roof and stared at Will, blinking behind her glasses against the sun.
“Mrs. Jenkins, I am so, so sorry. It didn’t hit you, did it?”
“For the love. What are you doing on my roof?” Pearl demanded.
“I was out here to read in the fresh air, and the book slipped, and, well . . . this.” He opened his hands.
Pearl bent over and picked up the book. “And Keats, Mr. Phillips? Am I to believe you were on my roof reading John Keats?”
“Well, umm, yes, ” Will said, figuring there was no better story than that.
“I have never heard of anything so ridiculous in all my life.” Pearl tucked the book under her arm and strutted away. She stopped after just a few steps, turned back and looked up at Will, who was still peering over the edge of the eave. Something flashed across her jet black eyes. Maybe anger. Maybe mischief. Will wasn’t sure.
“I’ll have you know, William Phillips, that when I was a girl, I only read Emily Dickinson on that roof. It’s no place for John Keats.”
Until just now, he hadn’t connected silver-haired Pearl Jenkins and the legendary Butler kids, of which she was surely one, as lumberman Pete Butler’s granddaughter. There were stories around town about how the Butler children used to climb out their bedroom windows and jump from one ledge to the other. He watched Pearl walk away, smiling at the eye-twinkling smirk he knew she must be sporting.
Young Pearl Butler must have scared her mother half to death, all for a little Emily Dickinson on a mossy cedar-shake roof.
Will stood and put his hands in his pockets surveying his neighborhood in the cool morning breeze. An old church stood on the corner of the next block. The stone bricks were blond, almost golden in a way that looked warm, belying that they were still cold as stones can be, holding up the framework of a massive oak door twice Will’s height and probably as thick as his middle. The finish was peeling off the wood doors and window frames. A few pieces of color were broken out of the stained glass designs along the side of the building. Churches were built like fortresses, meaning to call to the downtrodden, if one could just pry open the six-ton door with fingers that splintered and bled. This one had closed down a couple of years ago when they were down to a half dozen parishioners, not enough to bring in an offering sufficient to keep the lights on. Will figured they probably could come up with enough between them to pay the utilities, but that none of them could open the doors anymore. They deeded the building over to the historical society for a dollar and let them pay the bills. Now they just turn the lights on for tours, by appointment only.
The mortuary across the street had been shuttered for years too. They’d been bought up along with other smaller family funeral homes in the region by a one-stop-shopping death and dying conglomerate out of Nebraska that built a new funeral home mini-mall south of town. But of course no one wanted to buy the old house, considering all the dead people that had been in it over the last hundred years. Will sat with a whiskey and the realtor at the Prairie Schooner Grill one night and told him, “Nobody should be afraid of the old Thomas house. Nobody’s actually ever died in a funeral home. They show up already dead.”
Next to the abandoned Thomas Funeral Home was a brown three-story rental with overgrown junipers ready to blockade the front door. When Will first moved to town, the Downing sisters still lived there. Butler built the house for their father, who had been the mayor (to hear them tell it, for about a hundred years) in the 1940s. Frances and Jenny never married and were never seen apart. Will saw them in the supermarket on hot July day, dressed as they were all year long, in elegant hats they bought in 1950-something and full length gloves, playing the part of some nonexistent aristocracy in their heads. They stayed in the brown house from the day they were born until the day they died. Well, until the two days that they died. Jenny, three years younger, died the day after Frances, on her 73rd birthday.
The Downing house had held his interest since he noticed the new renter. Cameron Julian moved in from Minneapolis three months ago as the new head of the telecommunications company. She kept to herself, a trait Will found appealing, and she went away almost every weekend, a habit he found quietly intriguing. He’d only seen her a few times. Once, when he went to pay his overdue wireless bill and she happened to be walking through the office. Another time when he pulled into Pearl’s driveway, she was just getting out of her Mini Cooper hybrid. And then one day she was walking her dog.
Now, the door of the old brown house popped open while he was still staring and Cameron walked out. She wore a navy suit and carried a thin black briefcase over her shoulder. Her long, honey hair was tied up in the back and bounced like a schoolkid skipping on the playground as she took the steps down to the sidewalk, smiling into the air as she walked.
Here was an obstructed view of a beautiful woman who didn’t know she was being watched. He looked down at his wrist, studying the time, which he had no need to know, until he heard the car door slam. He looked up again when she was shielded from his clear view by the reflection of trees against the side glass.
Cameron drove away and Will walked to the edge of the roof as if he’d follow her right off the edge, stopping instinctively as he reached the eave.
(to be continued)