Monday, November 10, 2008

Short Story by Yours Truly

Poets Make Poor Travelers

Scrambling to get his mind working on anything, for he was deep in the throes of a writer’s block that was more firewall than mere impediment, the poet defied the flight attendants and turned on his cell phone at thirty thousand feet. He knew there is no panacea for writer’s block more effective than sex: It is the most indulgent and stimulating thing to do, the most indulgent and stimulating thing to think about (especially on a plane), so it is often the easiest thing to write about. The poet got outright sexy in this despondent hour. His kids would never imagine such explicit text messages existed between spouses over fifty, but click, click, and the poet was looking through some twenty x-rated messages that would make the kids’ abstinence education obsolete.

The last romp of text sex was the previous Tuesday, as the poet sat downing whiskeys in a sports bar near Seattle. He had flown out to give readings at the English departments of a couple colleges and high schools, and found the bar on his way back to the hotel one night. He needed the drink. The poet—oh aficionado of miscellany—despised the idea that his room was a precise replica of the one next door, he avoided the hotel as much as possible. And giving readings while facing writer’s block is as depressing a gig a poet could take. There he stood, behind lectern or microphone, faced with the depraved extravagance of being able to choose between poems! Oh no. You see, the true horror of writer’s block is the subtle suggestion that God could remove your voice—and thus your livelihood, thus your sanity—at any moment. The poet was certain that the oeuvre from which he read were getting closer to forgotten ancient uselessness with every passing moment of futility. Then, as if the readings didn’t tempt fate enough, the poet had to face the audience’s uncomfortably personal questions, the professors’ elbow rubbing, those two enthusiastic students who wait until 11 pm to shake his hand—it all made the bar a welcome sight. Being the thorough man that he is, there was no vacillating when the bartender told him about the one-dollar-big-game beer special. He didn’t know who was playing what sport for which championship, and he didn’t care. Seven dollars bought his scotch straight.

Since he was on the west coast, the time difference meant his wife was just getting ready for bed out east. He imagined her adorable habit, taking a book to read in the bathroom as she brushed her teeth and prepared for bed, as if even those two minutes were somehow less meaningful without continuing her education. The poet equated complete happiness with the toothpaste marks on his first book.

He wanted to call her, to speak to her, to hear her say that she was happy he had gone to read because he had real supporters out there and everything was going to be alright. But he knew that as soon as he heard her voice, coming from the plush down comforter of their bed at home, he would be depressed.

So, after ordering another scotch, he sent the first text message. It was a sweet, “hi. thinking of u.”

She replied immediately, as if she had been waiting for it. “hey you too. miss you.”

Sitting solitary in the corner of the bar, the poet texted away. He was pleased to forego his writer’s block for a moment, and the conversation, along with the poet’s erection, progressed.


Now he was trapped in the window seat of a Boeing 737 on a late Friday afternoon, and the poet was dying to return home and see his family. The pressure of day after day without writing anything felt like being nibbled to death by a school of fish. He had a pain in his side. The next day would mark a full three months without a single stanza, and his agent was starting to increase the intensity of her gut wrenchingly passive-aggressive emails. “Where’s the piece you promised NPR?”

As much as the poet loved the traveling (and the money) that readings and conferences allowed him, there was nothing he wanted more than quiet days with the newspaper, tea, a bike ride, and writing. But he was wrenched. Pulling out his empty notebook, his brand new empty notebook—he thought that buying a nice new one might kindle something—he shifted his legs away from the dozing middle seat’s counterparts. He tried to get comfortable, but the airplane air conditioning made him feel nauseas. He moved his ankles around in circles, seeking circulation. They only cracked, stiffened, and ached. Likewise with his neck and wrists. The seat belt wouldn’t loosen and it pinned him against the chair. His side was killing him. If only he could stretch out for a second. If only the person in front would sit up. If only the guy in the middle seat would wake up long enough to let him out.

The poet glanced at the clouds beneath him. He thought of his wife, of their comforter. He was still hours away. In the reflection of the window, he saw the lines on his forehead, the wrinkles in his blazer’s collar. He took a deep breath—and coughed out the synthetic airline air. If only he could open the window!

What could he do? Airports are usually as stimulating a locale for him as any. He loved how each city’s central airport had its particular quirks; how he inferred the city’s personality from the luggage, conversation, and demeanor of the passengers; how he was never bored. How could he be? There are too many people to see in airports, too many peculiar circumstances. It was eavesdropping heaven. Plus, if he didn’t feel like eavesdropping, he could go to a bar. If he didn’t feel like drinking, he could peruse one of the bookstores. And if he was terribly delayed, he listened to the comedy routines of George Carlin (“I’m not getting on the airplane, I’m getting in the airplane”), Bill Cosby (“Hope the plane don’t crash!”), or others’. What could stir a poet’s creative sauce more?

Yet that Friday, it seemed, was black Friday for the poet. Just as he made it through the security line—oh that bastion of dread—he bumped into a short, fat woman yelling his name and pushing her boarding pass and a Sharpie into his chest.

“William Starlukas!” she screamed. “ William Starlukas!”

The poet couldn’t even smile. He looked down at her.

“Can I have your autograph?!”

The security line stopped moving. Passengers craned their neck to see Angelina Jolie or George Clooney, and then turned inquisitively to other passengers in line. They murmured. Who is that guy? The TSA staff (that “crack squad of savvy motivated personnel,” in Jerry Seinfeld’s words), mechanically moved the x-ray conveyor belts even though the people weren’t moving. Shoes, laptops, jackets, and bags fell against each other at the end of the tables. The entire space was abuzz. Who is that guy?

The poet cringed, signed the autograph and moved quickly, head down, towards the men’s room. Behind him the woman continued: That was William Starlukas! He had written her favorite poem, “How Men Fall In Love.”

In the bathroom, the poet cowered into one of the stalls. How unlucky. He was almost never recognized, especially this far from of his hometown, and he just hated it when any chance at eavesdropping was ruined by a stranger’s happenstance recollection of that ridiculously cheesy photo on the back sleeve of his books.

A man came into the bathroom, evidently with his son. The poet spied through his stall door. “I don’t know who he was, Jay,” the man said. “And I don’t care how famous he is. It took us thirty minutes to get through security. How egotistical do you have to be to sign autographs right in front of security?”

He’s right, the poet thought. I should have moved to the side. How did she even recognize me? I still have brown hair in that bio photo.

The poet hated himself.


Fuck. This. Stupid. Shitty. Notebook.

The poet spilled tomato juice and ice on it. Why did he even ask for tomato juice? He hated tomato juice. Writing was no longer fun. It was excruciating. He couldn’t take it. As if the poet’s confidence isn’t shaky enough, these unexplained paroxysms of writer’s block were like heart attacks or strokes to the poet. Who could calculate the irreparable brain damage of the stress? How many episodes could he survive before full-blown insanity? Near rock bottom, where he was now, he couldn’t teach, he couldn’t exercise. He could hardly muster the energy to have sex. The tomato juice dripped into his lap. It was shockingly cold.

Squirming in his seat so he could sop up some tomato juice with the airsickness bag, the poet finally reached a breaking point. He decided that all he wanted was a title. Just one poem’s title. Then, maybe, one line in relation to the title. It seemed easy. For the title, he could modify something his wife had written. He took out his phone and reviewed the dirty texts underneath the food tray.

For once, the poet was happy the man in the middle seat was sleeping. He shifted the airsickness bag to accommodate his erection. Pablo Neruda, Anias Nin, even E. E. Cummings would feel some conscious before publishing or reading aloud what the poet was looking at—such was the lewdness of their contents.

“i want you in me,” his wife had written.

“i want you on me,” the poet had replied.

The poet took his pen, like a convalesced car accident victim taking the wheel, and wrote these two lines on the top of the page. He paged through other messages. “take me in your hand.” “your tongue keeps me awake.”

And before he even realized it, the poet was writing. He was writing about various parts of the body. The female body. Not the pubis or the breasts, the poet was not so crude, but elbows, the forehead, the smell. The poet got poetic, and the brand new notebook was no longer brand new. Lines of inky tomato juice, ruining his notebook, now spelled triumph.

But as he began writing about the back of the knee—the sexiest part of the body, to him—the poet got too absorbed. He was hypnotized by the moment. Unwittingly, he put his phone on the tray table. He started giggling, his shoulders throwing the blazer up and down. He was lost in the numbing ecstasy of creative construction, filling pages and pages of the notebook at a stenographer’s pace. When a flight attendant walked by, the poet came to and scrambled to hide his phone. He failed. He only made his guilt more obvious.

The flight attendant turned to him with the customary cold, ultra-polite smile and curtly requested the poet turn off his phone.

“It was off,” said the poet. “I was just taking it out of my pocket for one second.”

The flight attendant asked him again, clinically courteous, to turn off his phone. After all, it could interfere with the cockpit’s communications and was a serious danger to the safety of the plane.

“It was off the whole time!” cried the poet, as embarrassment and anger joined the other emotions coursing through his body.

Now the flight attendant addressed him loudly, loud enough to wake up the passenger in the middle seat, and he jolted up in his seat. Soon most of the rows behind and in front of the poet were twisting in their chairs to see the commotion. The poet thought he saw the plane’s armed marshal approaching him. Oh God. He would be mistaken for a shoe bomber, or worse.

In his haste to prove his innocence, the poet decided to take drastic action. “Here,” he said. “Look for yourself—it’s the main screen. I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”

He was too emotional. He wasn’t thinking clearly. Instead of exiting his text messages and returning to the main screen, the poet accidentally accessed a text that contained a photo of his wife in the nude. Posing. It was their new thing. Camera phones should be used for something useful, right? The flight attendant’s face told the poet he was in trouble. It was the first facial expression the attendant had made that didn’t seem previously trained for—something between surprise, irrepressible laughter, professional solemnity, and embarrassment.

The poet sunk back into his chair. Cruelly, the flight attendant decided to lecture the poet about the use of phones on airplanes. It was almost crueler than showing the rest of the plane the naked photo of the poet’s wife, though, because the sermon dragged on for nearly ten minutes. Loudly. None of the adjacent rows could avoid hearing. The poet sensed a collective rolling of the eyes—he felt like the most annoying wailing infant, inducing the snobbiest whispers.

Finally, he had enough. What had he done wrong?

The poet rose to his feet and interrupted the flight attendant. “Excuse me,” he said. “But I really haven’t done anything wrong. There’s nothing dangerous about my phone—I was just getting some information out of it.” (The flight attendant cleared his throat.) “For that matter, there is nothing dangerous I even could do with that thing! It has no service, it can’t be used to call or receive calls.”

But as he spoke, the flight attendant’s hand wriggled and lit up. The phone was ringing. Worse, it was blasting the polyphonic rhythm of a song the poet’s daughter had downloaded behind his back. She thought this was a hilarious prank.

“I wanna make love in this club,” it rang.

The flight attendant, composed as always, retained his poise and looked down at the phone.
“Your wife is calling,” said the flight attendant. “Should I take a message?”

The poet snatched the phone back and fell into his chair. He saw the notebook, the incredibly emboldening sight of original artistic creation.

“Fuck off,” the poet said, turning off his phone and uncapping his pen. “Go and fuck off.”