Editor’s note: The characters in Will Willingham’s Adjustments: a novel made a brief appearance in honor of the bicentenary of the death of John Keats.
“How was I supposed to know his birthday was last week? It’s not like we were friends.”
“And how many times must I tell you last week was not his birthday?” Pearl Jenkins slid the knife drawer drawer closed with a slightly more vigorous flourish than was necessary and wiped her hands on her bright floral apron. She turned to face the man leaning on one hip against the kitchen island, hands in his Levis pockets, once blonde hair darkened and greying against the temples. “It was his bicentenary. We were supposed to be celebrating the 200th anniversary of his death.”
“Celebrating?” Will Phillips raised an eyebrow and tilted his head.
Pearl waved him off with a dish towel. “Marking. Noting. Acknowledging.” She sighed. “You know what I mean.”
“You don’t find a death party just a little bit strange?” Will folded his arms across his chest. “I can’t imagine what you’d do if I had passed on.”
“Well, for one thing, I don’t plan to be here 200 years after you leave this earth, so I won’t be the one planning any parties. And for another, it’s a belated death party. We’re a week late because you didn’t tell me about it. I had to hear about it on the Instagraph, and now our party will just make us look like we’re just getting on the John Keats bandwagon when we really should be recognized as superfans.”
“Superfans?” Will topped a Wheat Thin with a small slice of white cheddar. “How could we possibly be mistaken for John Keats superfans? I don’t even like his poetry.”
Pearl froze, her slender knife hovering over the dark red pear she was slicing. Her eyes narrowed. “You … don’t like his poetry. Do I have this right?”
“Yes. You have it exactly right. It’s everything that makes poetry impossible for me. Grecian urns, indolence, melancholy, things writ in water. And the rhyming. God. The only thing worse is Emily Dickinson.”
Pearl and Will both jumped at the clatter of dishes behind them. “My stars, Joe! What are you doing!” Pearl grabbed a towel and rushed to the dinette table where Joe Murphy was mopping up tea from a shattered gold rimmed china cup with paper napkins.
“I’m so sorry, my Darling. Let me get this.” He reached for Pearl’s towel. “I was just so surprised I forgot myself for a minute.”
“Of course. I’m quite shocked myself. Don’t worry about this at all. It’s Mr. Phillips’ fault.”
“What is wrong with the two of you?” Will picked up another cracker. “Why is this so surprising? When have I ever said I was a fan of John Keats?”
“Well.” Pearl turned and put her hands on her hips. “You cart that book of his everywhere you go. How else should we explain it?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. You are not going to play that game with me.” Pearl stomped across the kitchen, her heels clacking hard against the linoleum squares. She picked up Will’s brown Patagonia backpack and dropped it on the counter with a thud.
Will grabbed the bag. “Hey, you can’t go around digging in people’s personal things.”
“I can do anything I want in my own home.” Pearl snatched the bag back and pulled open the top. “I’ll bet it’s in here right now.”
Will pulled the bag away and held it against his chest. “It’s— I uh— I’m doing some research, okay?”
“Research, Will?” Joe chuckled and folded the tea-soaked towel on the table. “By research, might you mean reading?”
“Reading for research, yes.” Will felt his cheeks begin to burn. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Not because I enjoy it.”
“You’ve been carrying that book around since I met you, Will. Haven’t you finished your ‘research’ yet?”
“I— Listen— It’s just that—” Will stopped, his jaw clenched. “I’m going to go answer the door. That’s what I’m going to do.”
The doorbell chimes echoed, and Will rushed out of the kitchen, leaving Joe and Pearl staring behind him.
“Oh thank God, it’s you.” Will pulled the front door open. “I’m so glad to have a normal person here.”
“Hi Will! And I’m so glad you’re here.” Cameron Julian leaned in and kissed Will on the cheek. “Here, can you help me with this?” She motioned to a large shipping box.
“Of course, let me get it.” Will stepped past Cameron and picked up the package, and noticed a corner crushed in. The box was sealed with duct tape and he thought briefly about the various trips it had likely made to various places. He followed Cameron in the door. “What’s in here?”
“Oh, I can’t wait to show you! You’re going to love it.” Cameron tossed her hair back, flashing a wide grin. “It’s a Grecian urn replica! Just like one Keats would have been imagining when he wrote that one poem.”
Will stopped at the base of grand staircase. “Grecian urn. My god, you’re in on this.”
“I wouldn’t miss it. Pearl has been so excited about this surprise.” Cameron frowned lightly. “But I still don’t understand why you didn’t tell anyone about it being Keats’ birthday.”
“It’s … not his birthday.” Will shook his head. “And I had no idea. I don’t follow the guy’s Twitter, you know?”
“Birthday, anniversary.” Cameron made a twirling motion with her hand. “Whichever. 200 years is a long time, don’t you think? Really quite something.”
“It is.” Will hadn’t moved. “But it’s not like he accomplished anything spectacular in 200 years. I mean, that’s how long he’s been dead. He’s done nothing for 200 years and we have to get ourselves all up in a lather over it?”
Cameron put her hands on her hips. She spoke softly, but she was firm. “Will Phillips. Pearl has gone to a lot of trouble over this. And Joe too.” Her eyes narrowed. “And honestly, so have I. You’re going to need to get yourself together on this and show Joe and Pearl—and, well, me—some appreciation for planning this event for your literary hero. It’s the least you can do.”
Will eased one side of the box onto the aged mahogany of a stair riser and stood up. “He is not my literary hero. I don’t even like him.”
“I don’t even like him.” Cameron’s tone cut. “How old are you? And besides. You carry his book with you everywhere you go. Who does that?”
“The book has already been covered today. No need to revisit.”
Cameron stepped toward the box and reached down. “I’ll take it. Maybe you need to go upstairs and splash a little water—”
“Oh, there you are!” Pearl burst through the swinging door from the dining room, Joe following right behind. “I can’t wait to see the urn— I mean, erm— you know. The thing you ordered from eBay.”
“You’re going to love it, Pearl.” She turned to Will. “So is Will. I’m sure of it.”
“Will … cannot wait. I’m sure he has never wished for anything more than whatever this is.” Will started up the stairs. “I need to check on Emily. I’ll be right back down.”
“Don’t be long, Dear. This will be just like the Davy Crockett birthday party we had when I was 16. It was such a delightful …” Pearl’s voice trailed off as she led the procession back through the dining room to the kitchen.
Will took the steps slowly. “Hosted Davy Crockett himself on his 16th birthday, no doubt.”
Cameron turned back. “I heard that.”
Will stood at the mirror, water dripping off his chin. He reached for a towel and heard a familiar hiss. He didn’t flinch.
“Why must you hide behind the linens? It’s not as though we aren’t all used to you by now.”
An orange calico jumped off the shelf and landed on the tank of the commode. She hissed again. Joe’s cat, Emily Dickinson, had stayed on upstairs at Pearl’s house, long after Joe moved from the guest room to Pearl’s room downstairs. “An easier walk for him,” Pearl had said. “Knees, you know. They get all of us eventually.”
Knees, of course. That had to be what it was.
A loud banging came from the radiator beside the old claw foot bathtub. Pearl was downstairs rapping on the kitchen radiator with a broom handle, no doubt. He couldn’t stay up here much longer.
Why Keats, he wondered. He knew, of course, why they thought Keats was his hero, literary or otherwise. But he’d yet to understand why he’d become so fascinated with a poet he did, truly, not enjoy.
But it was true. He did know it was Keats’s bicentenary last week. He even knew what a bicentenary was. Story after story popped up on the Web and he couldn’t help but read every last one. They were still open in tabs on his laptop at the office. “John Keats: 10 Best Poems You’ve Never Read.” “Negative Capability: Why You’ll Never Understand It and How John Keats Died Trying.” “John Keats: Writ in Water Means You’ll Never Be Famous Until You Die.” They even used CGI to bring the hapless guy back to life to have him read one of his poems.
What was it with this poet? Undistinguished in his life. Unrecognized well after his death. And then one day, his odes are the most beautiful thing anyone has ever seen and he’s been pixelated back into existence 200 years later.
For all the things Will spent ruminating over—Joe called it brooding and said it did not become him, but Joe was wrong—he did not spend much energy on mortality. Keats’s preoccupation with death and the transient nature of man was certainly not the common thread that kept bringing Will back.
Well, maybe the transient nature of man. He did find himself returning to Keats’s meditations on masculinity. Or at least on Keats’s own masculinity and how he related to the world.
“Keats was just misunderstood.” Will turned to Emily, who was now licking her front paw like it had accidentally been dipped in caramel sauce. “You would know something about this, yes?”
The radiator clanged again. Emily stopped mid-lick and tipped her head toward Will. If cats had eyebrows, one of hers would be raised. “Yes, yes. I’m going.”
He ran his hands through his hair, mussing it just right in front so it didn’t look like he’d combed it. He pointed a finger at the cat, who’d gone right back to her cleaning ritual. “We’ll pick this up later.”
Will jogged down the back stairs to the kitchen. The worst thing about being misunderstood, he thought, might be that 200 years later they think they’ve got you figured out.
Post by Paulius Malinovskis, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Will Willingham.
By turns thoughtful and hilarious (even, inexplicably, both at the same time), this deeply Midwestern book quietly unfolds a vision for how to navigate in a world where we can’t always resolve things.
As much as the characters have a relationship with poetry and story (and they do), it is also a profound book about naming both the things that have held us back and the things we want, to move us forward—a book about choosing life.
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Bethany R. says
Enjoyed visiting these characters again. Interesting to pick up this thread of why Will’s character is intrigued by Keats and the theme of being misunderstood. Love that last line. Brings up all sorts of musings and questions.
Will Willingham says
I enjoyed spending some time with them again as well. It came rather unexpectedly when I read of the bicentenary. (Yes, I had all those tabs open in my browser, just like the old days of trying get my head around Keats and negative capability.)
Bethany R. says
So, now I have looked up the definitions, or explanations, concerning negative capability–fascinating, but still a bit fuzzy for me. I like how you mentioned needing to use it to underdtand it. 😉
Could it be like when something rings true, but you can’t quite suss it out?
Could it b
(Take that ending as a poetic example (or as me trying to type in a 1/2” field on my phone).)
L.L. Barkat says
Of course, now we totally want more. The party feels like it’s just getting started. 😉
(Such a fun piece! That Grecian urn is too much! As is the Instagraph. Ha 🙂 )
Will Willingham says
I don’t know if the party will come off, lol. Even with a Grecian urn, things are not off to a great start for Pearl.
Megan Willome says
So, the plot thickens.
(I am intrigued as someone who does not care much for Keats, although I did enjoy spending time with the last stanza of his “To Autumn” for By Heart, but if it had been “To Summer,” I would’ve begged off.)
Will Willingham says
One of my sons started reading Keats after he read Adjustments, and wanted to talk about the poems. He was a bit surprised, and not a little disappointed, that I’d written about him and didn’t really care for his poetry so much.
I remain fascinated by negative capability, and the way I have to practice it in order to think about it.
While I don’t love the poems, I did very much enjoy the film Bright Star. It’s lovely.
Laura Lynn Brown says
The way you have to practice it in order to think about it … would you say more about that? I wonder if I’d see Will Phillips doing that if I look hard enough.
Will Willingham says
I think what I mean is that I’ve always had a hard time fully getting my hands around precisely what Keats meant by negative capability. So, I have to actually practice that negative capability even as I try to understand it.
Yes, you’ll see Mr. Phillips engaged in it from time to time. 🙂