The Roads Amputated the Legs Nate Liederbach
The pack of pissed-off, caffeine-cocked neo-Ashberys ambushed my office. Four entitled seniors, huffy Lit-sters all, dressed like a crew of Victorian chimney sweeps, complete with the hand-rolled cigarettes behind the ears. They demanded action.
“He’s making strange faces.”
“He’ll just fold over, mid-lecture, hanging there, touching his toes for five minutes.”
“He’s told us five times that Frank O’Hara had Down syndrome. Frank O’Hara did not have Down syndrome.”
“No,” I said, “Frank O’Hara did not have Down syndrome,” and I calmed them. Said I’d take it right to Dean Liu, now goodbye, goodbye. It was only partly perjury on my end, meaning that I’d make her task easier and tell the old boy myself. At long last hat-hanging time for the Great Clod-Ball, and I’d personally see his two courses out. The man’s brain was cancered, a primary tumor so big it had its own pulse. At best, he had four months to live.
I hunkered down, waited until 7:30.
In office half-light, playing chess on his computer. Claude’s broad shoulders stooped, his short, patchy hair like sun-seared grass. From his chair back, his black raincoat had slipped to the stained carpet. His royal blue newsboy cap lay beside it. I said his name, tapped the open door. I set my stance, but it faltered when he glanced over.
Where my veritable Churchill once sat, now slouched a repulsive cartoon. Obscenely sagging cheeks and raw-rimmed lids. My heroic resolve drained away. I’d him seen twice that morning, but his face was still a punch to the chest. Droopy goddamn Dogg eyeballing. “Claude?” I said.
He didn’t speak. His bottom lip hung askew, white, showing bad teeth. A stroked English bulldog, I thought and raised my eyebrows, tried sounding detached. I asked if it was a bad time, but he didn’t blink. Just turned back to the screen, tapped at his keyboard, and finally croaked, “Good times, bad times, know I had my share.”
I stood there nodding, nodding, nodding.
Except for his desk, his student chair, and three neatly filled, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the place was bare. Slowly stripped of decorations over the month before. Something told me the knickknacks weren’t carted home. Nibbles of a man’s identity swallowed one by one. I’d never noticed the extent of the objects in Claude’s office until they were replaced by these garish white walls. The Far Side poster in its green frame. The scimitar with its dark blue grip. The kitschy string of chili-pepper lights draped around the high corners. Where were they now? Rotting in a landfill, streaked with magpie shit?
I was partially hurt, wishing he’d bequeathed me these items. Then again I knew they would’ve been a staggering burden. Did he know that too? Like the Nemerov poem—it had vanished the week before. Hand-written on paper towel, pressed cockeyed into a pewter frame:
The blind maid shaking a stick
Chasing dirt endlessly around
A yellow wall was the very she
To violate my oldest night;
I frighten of her still.
A Can of Dutch Cleanser, it’d been titled at the top. For three years I mulled those lines hanging eye-level on his wall, but never did I consider they were only a fragment of the whole. The day Claude took it down, the absence fucked with me, and mightily. At home, in bed, deep in the night, I tried but was unable to envision the poem’s syntax. I fell to cussing. Frustrated, I consulted my phone, clawed around online, found more than I bargained for. The lines in the frame weren’t even the poem’s beginning.
Next I’m up until 3 a.m. wondering why, why? There I am trying to pry open some personal code between the two men. No, between the three. Or four, adding myself to the equation. Who’s the blind maid? What’s the yellow wall? Oldest night? Violated by what? Sarcoma, queer love, fragments of bar-scrawled texts?
I locked my hands together, stepped into his office.
“What’ll it be?” Claude growled, not looking.
I sat stiffly in his student chair. I crossed my legs. Picked at the little whiskers on my jeans and suddenly hoped he didn’t notice my missing beard, wouldn’t say I looked younger. I set my tone to casual. “Evenin‘, Clod-Ball. How’s it hangin‘?”
“Evening for me, not you. Autumn of the turd-burgling Patriarch.”
“Really, man? You’re playing for pity? With me? The drama?”
“Believe it,” he said, and we didn’t speak for five minutes.
After the poem, it happened again, a night or two after, happened worse. Couldn’t sleep, feeling like my immune system was shutting down. There I am, wide awake with my eyes pinched and my brain just scouring the walls of his office. The missing scimitar that hung to the right of his door well it wasn’t a scimitar at all—no, something Wikipedia called a falchion. Fucking European, not Persian. Just a late-historical knock-off. I unearthed that little fact and then got in the tub, sat there until the water went cold, until a gunmetal sun leaked through the bathroom window.
Anyway, I was thinking about that night in the tub as I sat there watching him play his Chess—his nose nearly touching the monitor, his mouth agape and breath ragged. It was painfully obvious we were both aching for him to die.
So why didn’t I just leave then? Storm out like, Fuck this shit, because technically it is NOT YOUR JOB.
Yeah, Jesus, I had my own fires to put out, God knew.
Or maybe I should have only played my part to keep Dean Liu at bay, and left it at that? You know, still let Claude ride out his classes. Just do what I could to let him go as long as possible? Hell, wasn’t it fitting for our students to witness the full extent of his deterioration? A dazzling mind gone mushy inside a cozy, protected classroom? Body and spirit capitulated to the hungry fucking worm of random fucking inanity, because, fuck, isn’t academia, isn’t America, isn’t fucking pedagogy far too fucking safe?
Smells of sweat-warmed clothes, his office. Of microwaved processed foodstuff. I heard his stomach rumble. Or it was a low, stretchy fart. He muttered unintelligibly. He rubbed his palms on his same nasty slacks. I huffed and swiped his newsboy cap from the floor. I flipped it over and found a label stitched inside. A black anchor icon, a line to sign one’s name. He had, in blue Sharpie. Big block letters, the C lower-case and the U and E upper-case. I pictured his tumor straining to gain language, speak for itself.
Two days before, the guy had left me three back-to-back voicemails. In the first he was annoyed, saying I blew off our lunch. In the second he was solemn and apologetic, informing me he couldn’t make our lunch. In the third, voice longing as an orphan’s, he begged me to call him, please, sometime, anytime—“Shit, man, come on, call. I don’t even know where you’re living anymore....”
I slid to my chair edge, leaned close to his shoulder. I nodded at his monitor, and softly said, “You winning?”
He snorted, pointed to his poorly sheared skull. “You tell me.”
Instead of getting angry I forced myself to recline. Loosening my shoulders, I let my lungs fill with that old springtime strength. It’d been cautiously returning. Over the past couple weeks I could feel my blood fighting back from a hardest drinking winter. My face was tanning, its Mediterranean fleshed out of hibernation. I’d started jogging, too. Four-mile stints, eating minimal carbs, popping fish oil pills. And no beer, just Syrah at dinner, black French Roast with breakfast. Added two-hundred crunches a night, right before hitting the sack. Next, I dusted off the ancient weight bench and I assembled it on a crappy rug in the center of the garage. Put my college speakers on either side.
I know. I know. I told myself, You’ve got to be careful. All this juice and muscle-ripping, had me channeling the primitive, the cathartic. Wanting to carnivorize and compartmentalize. I’d been eyeing my students’ floppy arm meat, their tone-less calves. They waddled to their desks like corralled cows and the only way I could stay focused was imagining burning them in pull-ups and hill sprints.
Oh, please, man, they moaned, please, we’re so tired, please, we just want to pass, get the grade. Just tell us what to do, what to think.
“Claude, we need to hash this. Right now. Get serious.”
He wouldn’t face me. I rested his cap on my knee.
“Word is you’re teaching cutting-edge curricula. Frank O’Hara had Down syndrome?”
He moved his mouse, click, click, click. He said, “It’s all wire now, Boy. Down to it.”
Boy. When he remembered, he still managed to call me Boy. More and more though, he didn’t call me anything. Often he looked at me and I was a face in a poster. Or other times his red eyes darkened and I was Steve. He didn’t say it, but I knew. He would push on his forehead like it was a flap about to fall open. I never met Steve. He’d died of “complications related to AIDS,” two semesters before I got the gig. Eighteen years they’d been together.
“I’ve got other fires to put out, you know.”
Claude sniffed wetly, mumbled, “Go with God, Boy.”
“We’re gonna to talk this shit out.”
He tapped his forehead on the screen. He snarled, “Shit, oh shit yes. Let’s see, well in my thirties I was always thinking I’d finally become an adult, too. You should’ve seen me, strutting around telling folks that just because they’ve got power to do something doesn’t mean they should. Telling people I was a Dancing Wu Li Master.”
I sighed. “I’m beat, Claude. Turn around, face me. Come on, look.”
He shook his head, leaned back. He whistled. He crossed his arms and leaned forward again, returned forehead to monitor. “How to handle the dying man?” he mumbled. “Hm, cliff notes. Well, I’m down to one washed-up physician now. Oh, and Charlie flew in from London yesterday. Little parasite booked an open-ended ticket so he can sit in my basement until I die, so he can pretend he ever gave a shit, pretend I didn’t embarrass the whole family, ruin his life, pretend he didn’t side with his mother, that the two of them didn’t whisper about me like I’m some trailer-trash wino Queen who brought all this on himself. From London! Charlie! So the tick can pat me, squeeze my shoulder, call me Pops and mate, like we’re best friends and it’s gonna kill him so bad when I flit off to Fairy Heaven....”
Charlie, the son, he was only a few years younger than me. Sort of guy who marches down a sidewalk with his arms flexed like he’s carrying invisible watermelons. I’d met him, once, and he puffed up. He shook my hand and clenched my fingers like I’d better know how much he meant things.
Again Claude pulled his head off the screen to wipe at his face. I stared at the sweat smear on the glass. When I said nothing about Charlie, he flapped his arms like he might turn around, but didn’t. He said, “Use your brain, Boy. Remember what I told you after your first bombed interview here? Huh? When you were still so excited to be a piss-ant adjunct?”
“Fuck you. Don’t talk to me like I’m some admin spy out to crucify you with pity—”
“Ha! You don’t remember!”
I popped my knuckles, rolled my head, and answered dryly, “That you used to be straight once too.”
“Swell! What else I say?”
“That I’m crazy lucky you’re so old and I’m so naïve, because we’d never work out.”
He laughed weakly. “Pretty smooth, huh?”
Outside Claude’s office the night custodian began emptying trash cans and recycle bins. The tiny man shuffled back and forth under those much brighter lights. He wore a wispy wide mustache and a yellowed, matted beard. He kept his long gray hair in a tight ponytail, kept his loafers always shined. At one point he’d sported a red turban, but then abruptly ditched it. I never asked him why. Of course, he was deaf. Deaf and always smiling. When I had a semester of night classes and regularly saw him, he never failed to wave and shoot me two thumbs-up. I’d do it back. Next we’d be grinning like chum-idiots, everything Zen.
But I hadn’t seen him much that month and, sitting in Claude’s office, my janitor pal hadn’t yet noticed me. Rumor had it he was eighty-four. He didn’t look a day over sixty. Didn’t look a day older than Claude, who was fifty-two.
Claude wouldn’t look at me. He pushed the power button on his monitor. It gasped black. He glided back from his desk in his rolling chair. Still canted away, he said, “Hey, if those kids want to believe everything I profess, well good for them—”
“You’re still an authority.”
He spun around, quick, not aggressive. Looking down at my legs, he reached out, took his hat from my knee. A gentle motion. Almost paternal. Like a gift he was receiving and he wanted to show he’d cherish it.
“Here we go,” he whispered.
Father-figure, uncle, mentor, coach, call it what you will, but I owed Clod-Ball my job, my curriculum, my desire, my students. Before him, I’d never taught, never even studied, not with true thirst, not way outside my comfort zone—Genet, Ikkyū, Barnes, Bataille, Sappho, Isaak Babel—
“...I swayed from side to side, singing in a language I had just invented. Through the tunnels of the streets bounded by lines of street lights the steamy fog billowed. Monsters roared behind the boiling walls. The roads amputated the legs of those walking on them.”
We’re talking goose bumps every time from that Babel. My eyes tearing in front of my students, but, hey, I let it happen. Rejoice in it, all my multifarious manliness. Monsters and boiling walls? What did the roads do? They amputated the goddamned legs of those walking on them!
Jesus H. Fucking Christ, I mean, what does that even mean?
Doesn’t matter though, see. No, it can’t mean—it is meaning. Felt. And that’s prose. Showing and Telling drop their distinction and the writing knows for itself, of itself, and its self is universal... but, see, all this rabid chatter, it’s not mine. These platitudes and doozy terms, I spew them, I feel them, but they came from Claude and, frankly, I was terrified they were about to die with him.
I said, “Here we go?”
“Want my confession or not, Boy?”
He stroked the cap on his knee like it was some sick pet. I sighed, thinking, Confession, wow, there’s a word. Then, and I don’t know why, I blurted, “Monsters roared behind the boiling walls and the roads amputated the legs of—”
“Stop.” Claude lifted his sour eyes, cheekbones jutting, said, “That’s why you’re here, huh? Retarded? Well the answer is yes. And your dear Babel was too. Just like O’Hara. Flat retarded. What I’ve been telling my students. Retarded. I got empirical evidence. More than just tumor talk—”
“Shut up. Come on. What’re you trying to prove, Claude? I’ve been here since six a.m.”
“Paradox! Early’s a paradox! Late’s a paradox! Blah, blah!”
He pushed back with his feet, rolling away. He twirled his seat again, back to me, stopping at one of his towering shelves. Folding over he grabbed a book, turned back, plunked it open on my lap and said, “Frank.”
He pounded the page with a finger. “Frank.”
When I refused to pull my eyes off his face, he huffed. He worked his cap onto his head. He sputtered, “Oh, come on, Boy! Look at the picture, the retard. Tell me I’m wrong. Tell him he’s wrong.”
I was the first he told. Eight months before, mid-afternoon. Claude strolled into my office, shut the door, and said, “Boy, you seen any good movies lately?”
“Why, what’d you see?”
He smiled, stroked his eyebrows with both index fingers, said, “Brain cancer. Half a year and ticking.”
“Brain—brain cancer? Who? You? Shut the fuck up. No, no. Like ...like a tumor?”
Only a wry grin.
“Bullshit, bullshit,” I said, “don’t fuck with me.” And I didn’t stand. I wanted to. To throw my arms around him—not hug but get so close I didn’t have to look at him looking so perfectly blasé.
He knew it too. He stared down at me, blinking thoughtfully. His newsboy cap all crooked.
No one else at the school had a clue, not then. I’d see Claude between classes and wonder about treatment, about chemicals. My ex’s sister had it when she was in college—left her with a double mastectomy. She dropped half her weight, perfect cheekbones and hips and barely the strength to talk. But with Claude two months rolled by and he popped back in looking exactly the same. Shutting the door behind him, he announced that his tumor cells had grown. “But I got it, see. The mind, it’s the soul of the brain. Grown! It’s a good thing, Boy. Guess tumors, they swell right before dying.”
Excited, he crossed and uncrossed those huge arms. I think he wanted me to be more thrilled but I didn’t want to, not so soon.
“Boy, look, the mind drives the brain. That’s right, sometimes it drives fine, but other times it gets confused, thinks a stop sign is literally for stopping the sled.”
I leaped up, hugged him hard. It felt rehearsed, sure, but isn’t that at least a feeling?
And, of course, a mere week after that I came upon him slack-faced outside the Student Union. He was feeding sandwich crust to a squirrel. When I asked him, by name, if I could join him, I received a blank stare. So I said his name two more times, and he grunted, scooted over.
We sat in silence. After a bit he waved at the squirrel and said, “Only time I saw squirrels this fat was at the Wall. This guy’s hefty, but doesn’t compare. Goliaths, at all the monuments in D.C., ten pounders—milking sad masses, eating apples, Whoppers, Twinkies from Pro-Lifers...”
“My ghost brothers.”
“Hold up, Claude. Did I know that? You served in—”
“Toured,” he interrupted. “Oh, the things I carry!”
He gave a small, acrid smile, elbowed me gently. “Grows before it dies! Ha! They coulda just sang me a little Frankie Goes to Hollywood! ‘Relax, don’t do it, when you’re gonna come.’ Wow, if this old homo had a nickel!”
Wouldn’t do it. Wouldn’t look at that book draped on my lap. The disease was real, nefarious. I had to admit it. Brain, mind, as much as he tried to play it off like he was in control, and as much as sitting face-to-face with him I wanted to believe he was, no. The phone calls the day before—there was never a lunch date.
“Oh, come on, have a one look, Boy.”
“Why are you whispering?”
“Please?” He nodded down at my lap, biting his lip, eyes instantly alive, wide, so back to normal. “Please goddamn it, just look at him! That big ol‘ dent of a forehead, those puffy Disneyland eyes!”
I frowned but relented. On my lap, a black and white photo of Frank O’Hara. The poet posed stoically, staring at himself in a mirror. I’d seen the image before; it was famous. But the man’s forehead was huge. Huge and guttered, and I had to admit, with his balding head and his short sloppy hair, with his strangling collar and that crookedly pinched tie, he did look, well...
“Yeah! Yeah!” Claude bobbed hungrily, bright spit on his lips. “Hell yeah!”
He tapped O’Hara’s chest with a thick and dirty fingernail. He cried, “Look harder, Boy, look forcefully—past the queer eyes, past the basketball head and artsy-fartsy casual cool, huh? See that? Retard! Brain, mind, brain, mind.”
I shut the book. “Maybe.”
Claude lurched backward, his chair groaning, swaying. “Maybe!”
He smacked his cheeks with both hands and yelped, “The kid says maybe!” He snatched the book from my lap and lobbed it perfectly into the trashcan. The steel can rang against the door’s metal trim. “Maybe!”
Two points for the corpse, I thought.
Look though, way before the tumor, well, old Clod-Ball was already the department’s joke, a hulking bumbler. Zipping wit and no couth. Lettuce and coffee grounds in his teeth at faculty meetings. And of course they were replacing him already, not so subtly lining-up interviewees. And of course, with the news out, everyone was on their most politically correct tip-toes, staff and faculty just waiting for that last straw, that famous poet with Downs. They’d prearranged a goodbye party. They’d chatted with his advisees. They’d hurried reports to Human Resources. So much business, but how many of his colleagues bothered to ask him why, on his own volition, didn’t he just call it quits?
Why hadn’t I?
Claude leaned in. Squeezed my shoulder, cooed, “Hey? Hey? More proof, Boy? More?” His breath reeked rot. His eyes were too alive, circuitry afire, ready to smolder. “More? More?”
He spun his chair. Spun again and again. He over-rotated, smacked his knee on his desk. He groaned, rubbed the leg. But it didn’t distract him, not from yanking more books free. A fury. Seeking more O’Hara photographs. Grabbing and flipping, casting aside one as quickly as he could snag another.
“Pick any snapshot! Any! For one, the queer’s ears are too low—they’re drooped, hanging funny. And his cheeks! Swollen and hollow? How’s that work?”
Handfuls, pages, covers tearing. Chucked then blindly over his shoulder at the trashcan.
“His cheeks distended! Too freckled. Too pale!”
I kicked gently to clear the piles from around my feet. I stood and dropped both hands on his broad shoulders. I squeezed. His back muscles ground together and his huge frame tensed. But he continued to claw at the stacks, his voice a hum, a constant motor, “Frankie, Frankie, Frankie....”
His neck twitched under my fingers. He spat, “What? What other diagnosis? O’Hara! Motherfucking Downs! Ketchup stains. Sugar buzzes. Ginger Rogers’ similes—”
I massaged, what else could I do? Worked my fingertips deep. Tried to make it painful, purgative, paralyzing. More books flew past my head. I whispered, “OK, take it easy, Buddy...”
He did. Cut off. Just shut the book he held and calmly placed it on his desk. He exhaled. He slumped. Reaching up, hands trembling, he yanked off his cap and studied it a moment. He tossed it at the trashcan and it landed on the rim.
We stared at it, the sag and balance. We were staring when the deaf custodian peeked in. Seeing me, he began to smile. Then he caught himself, blinking at my fingers on Claude’s shoulders. The small man’s face reddened and he smiled again, but differently.
I raised my hands. I was going to give him a thumbs-up, but he shook his head like he couldn’t abide it. He abruptly dipped for the trashcan, but instead slammed his forehead into the metal doorframe, sprung upright, and laughed a muted, stuttered laugh.
He was dizzy on his feet. Now he lifted both thumbs and stood frozen like that. His forehead bubbled blood. I made a worried face, pointed at his cut, gestured to my own forehead. He lifted his hand to the wound, drummed it. He grinned, smeared, opened it all the more so a dark rivulet drained into his eye socket.
Claude whined like a hurt animal. “What sort of madness…?”
The fingertips of the janitor’s right hand were covered in blood. He held them up, looked at them for a split second, then jammed all five in his mouth. He sucked loudly. His wide mustache shuttered. His free hand snatched Claude’s cap from trashcan rim and held it out.
Claude shook his head, a terrified child, lowered his eyes. Deeply ashamed, Claude quietly said, “Please, man, get a bandage on that before the bears catch wind.”
Why was the janitor sucking his fingers? Is he concussed? Must be concussed—
I grabbed the cap from the outstretch hand. “DO YOU NEED HELP?” I asked, mouthing it, over-enunciating, but the man just closed one eyelid, pulled the glistening hand from his mouth, and wiped it on his pants. He cocked his head at me like a wondering dog.
“Do you? You need our help?”
Now he got it, eyes brightening. No, no, no!
He waved his palms and then reached for his back pocket. He produced a handkerchief already rolled up as a headband. Tying this around his head, he snatched the trashcan and slipped away.
“Janus,” said Claude, voice full of shaky reverence. “God of doorways.”
“Hope he’s not concussed—or too concussed.”
“Ditto,” Claude said, and sighed great relief. Then he said, voice patient, conclusive, “And with that demonstration we now see, don’t we, what this says us about us, Boy. About teachers. How can we be defensive and snide about anything? Retards. Art. Junior colleges and minor leagues. How can we continue to lie to ourselves, pretend that anything beautiful can be taught?”
But I didn’t answer because the custodian was back. The cut hadn’t bled through the handkerchief, but the socket sat black and ghastly around a too-white eye. There was blood on the mustache, blood matting the beard.
The man held out the O’Hara book, the book with the first photo. I slipped on Claude’s cap before taking it. The custodian liked this. He gestured at my head and flashed his thumbs. I pinched the brim, gave a slight dip. The man shook his head. He moved his hand around his mouth, his fingers like scissors over his beard.
“Jesus. He wants us to cut his face in half,” Claude whispered. “We can’t do that.”
I nodded, smiled. “Yes. My beard? Yes! Gone.”
The man jogged his thumbs a few more times, and hurried away.
“That,” said Claude, “is exactly what I’m saying.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“You can’t say that!” he brayed, grinning up at me. “I’m dying of lame-brain! You can’t say that!”
I dropped the O’Hara book in his lap. “Open the book, Tumor Time.”
He opened the book to the same photo and set it on his keyboard. He hunched over it. I rested my hands on his shoulders again. I leaned way in, way over. I pressed my chest to those dry-grass patches of hair. Set my chin on that big pale head. “You’re right, Claude. What a retard. His lips so blubbery.”
“Blubbery. Think, Boy, that’s where his words came out. Those superior words!”
“Blubbery goddamn lips,” I said, though they clearly were not. In the photo, O’Hara’s mouth was thin, tight and pale. But I kept at it, talking for the sensation, the resistance of Claude’s skull against my lower jaw, talking until the man said, “Shhhhh, Boy.”
Down the hall a recycle bin was dumped, the glass clanging, breaking.
“You know what he told me?” Claude whispered.
“Yeah, O’Hara. This was back in Ann Arbor, a greasy spoon where I used to hang out and read Carver.”
There was something so mechanical, so heavy about my mouth, about my whole head. Like if I rested it there long enough, on his, and just let my muscles go, it would sink right into Claude’s skull, come to rest on his own flagged neck. I said, “Tell me.”
And we remained like that, stacked, staring at the photo. I don’t know how long. Soon I realized it wasn’t a mirror around O’Hara. No, the poet was holding an empty wooden picture frame. What it meant, the difference, the pretentiousness, I didn’t care.
No, because Claude really was telling me everything. How, at this Ann Arbor greasy spoon, on an average afternoon, the sky hazy, the world humid as hell, he was eating a cheeseburger and sitting in a cool red booth. That’s when O’Hara showed, just plunked down and started yammering.
“Right next to me, thigh-to-thigh. I didn’t know him from Adam, but it was clear the guy wasn’t retarded, not yet. At this point he was only confused, waxing. So confused he started pinching my side and reciting Kool and The Gang. Tried to get me to French him, jam my tongue in his ear. But what could I do? Because I knew, see. I sensed it coming. So I invited him home. Let the kid stay on the couch. Brought him blankets, pillows, a glass of water and aspirin. Then I stood there and watched him, and when it happened—”
“When what happened?”
Claude lifted both hands to his shoulders, covered mine, calmed them. He said, “When he started to shake and boil. When his face started to swell all moon-shaped. His tongue got fat and he drooled and he babbled...”
“What’d you do?”
“I read to him. Pulled up a chair and read from the classics—The Rape of the Lock, To Stay Alive, Kubla Khan, Nightwood, all of them, aloud, reading into the middle of the night because that was the only way to ease the poor kid when he started twitching, jerking, when his eyes went all dumb. Tell me, what else was there? He was terrified, turning, and totally shitless. I mean, the poor fool had no idea what it meant to become a poet.”
Originally published in Moss: Volume One.