Some guy had been looking for him, they said.
And by his full name, which was never good.
Except he had this job now, three hours a day at
the BOW mailroom, and hiding was impossible,
so the hell with it. What could he do but keep
riding his bike there?
The BOW compound that was, Bread on the Waters, Stockton’s main homeless program, where folks with no place to go could just hang out, maybe get their mail, and depending on a chit they pulled from the jar on the front counter, do laundry or take a shower. Matt had been through all those hoops himself, more times than he could remember.
A banner arching over the entrance read Clean, Sober, Safe, Secure and meant it. You’d still be surrounded by ragged, leathery-skinned women or men, all ages, some paired up, and others of ’em, along with their dogs, you wouldn’t really want to turn your back on, not out in the brush by the river, especially at night. Daytime at BOW, though, no problem.
First off, everyone had to pass a urine test or go through the sobriety program to get an admit card, and second, they hired the beefiest, most bad-ass reformed dudes as bouncers. Start a fight, abuse the staff, break the rules, your card got yanked and you were out for five days minimum and only earned a fresh start by convincing a counselor. Tough love they called it, which was why the most fucked-up ones straggled themselves outside along the fence with their carts and backpacks, waiting on friends to bring table scraps from the noon meal, hot and all you could eat, that was the big daily event.
But from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., winter or summer, free coffee, basic health services, education classes, books you could borrow, help with filling out forms, and a secondhand store where you took what you needed, no charge. There wasn’t any Jesus bullshit either, even if church volunteers from across the city kept things going. Them and AmeriCorps kids, with maybe a dozen paid staff to hold the reins and a scattering of part-timers like him—trustees, you might say—who helped at the wash house, receiving dock, and so on.
About when he’d finished sorting that day’s envelopes in the cramped little trailer and passing them to folks at the window, the PA system squawked out a voice. “Matt,” said Emma, the chubby college gal at the entry gate. “Matt Bowles. You have a visitor.”
Matt winced and stood in the doorway, scratching at his short reddish beard. Leafless cottonwood branches, that in a couple of months would provide shade, reached stark into the gray, breezy sky. But it was nice enough out that he thought of cutting behind the washhouse with his dog-eared book of scribbles and his pack, pretending he hadn’t heard. Before he could, though, his buddy Reg, one of the bouncers, crunched along the gravel path leading this Mexican-looking dude in a warm-up jacket with a plastic ID slung on his neck, like a probation officer. Shit.
“Matt,” Reg called. “This here’s Oscar Salinas from The Stockton Tribune.”
The Oscar guy stepped around Reg and stuck out his hand. “Mr. Bowles, great to meet you.” Matt gave him a halfway sort of grip and glared at Reg.
“It’s about your poems, man,” Reg said, with a palms-up shrug. Mean-eyed and muscle-bound as he seemed most of the time, Reg’s round, black face actually smiled before he headed back toward the gate.
Matt, lips compressed, switched his glare to Oscar, letting the silence between them run.
“Hey,” Oscar finally said, “I covered that big bust at the camp by the river last fall and heard about a guy there who was a poet.”
“Fuckers!” Matt growled. “Took everything but my bike and daypack. Left us all to the cold...storm coming in, no tents, no tarps, not a goddamn scrap.”
“Yeah,” Oscar nodded, “bad. Made me sick. But later on I saw your poem in the BOW newsletter, the one about the hand-washing station here. How the sun poked through when the crate was opened and how people saw it as a Moorish fountain or an oasis, and in the last line, a baptismal. Fine stuff.”
Matt waved dismissively. “That’s kind‘a what I do.”
“Folks from the camp didn’t know your full name, but they said you read to ’em by the fire and had barely gone to school.”
“Bullshit. Had a library card most‘a my life. Besides eighth grade...and a GED.”
Oscar took out a notepad and started to write. “So how long you been homeless?”
“You mean the hobo life? That’s how I think of it.”
“OK, how long?”
“All in Stockton?”
“Right. I used to have a real job and a little apartment with my brother till this fucker stabbed him and he died. We always drank together and had ourselves some good times. I got a grown daughter somewhere, too.”
“What kind of job?”
“Fry cook. Diner on the 99 truck route, near where we lived. Learned it in the Navy, back when all this,” Matt gestured at the compound, “was part of the old base.”
“My family worked the asparagus fields in those days,” Oscar said.
“I done that...when I had to, but up till last year I was pretty much drunk 24-7. Wrote poems anyway, though.”
“Got any more I could see?” Oscar asked.
“There’s a chance I could run some in the paper. You’d make a good story.”
Matt bristled. “I didn’t give no permission for a story!”
“We don’t exactly need permission,” Oscar said, unfazed, “but just in case, would anything you’ve told me be off the record?”
Matt thought about it. “Nothin’, I suppose, but you say anything about where I live now, I’ll find you and fuck you up bad.” Matt put on the look that had saved him quite a few fights, with knives or otherwise. “I boxed welterweight in my time and ain’t forgot how.” He felt his eyebrows and lip twitching, like they did when he got worked up.
“Whoa, whoa.” Oscar raised a hand in defense. “I don’t know where you live.”
“That’s how it stays, too. Worst thing with bein’ a hobo...homeless...whatever...is other people. Teenage punks and cops on one side and goddamn dirtbags in the camps that’ll steal from you or kill you for sport. My way’s fly solo and hold my distance.”
“I’d still bet you’re in the woods along the San Joaquin. Maybe near the Charter Bridge. But this part is off the record.”
“You’re not so wrong,’ Matt nodded, “and best spot I’ve had. Won’t flood, hidden real good and nobody close by. I never cook there either. That’s what gives you away.”
“Smart,” Oscar said.
Relaxing a bit, Matt tipped his head to one side. “Only reason I was at the camp you saw rousted was those heavy fall rains we had. Runoff wrecked where I was before.”
~ ~ ~
That same month, Ron Hensley, updating his resume, realized he’d been in Stockton thirty-five years now, ever since arriving as a freshman at the university. Yeow! Last he’d thought about it, that number was twenty-five. But he wasn’t changing jobs. The alumni association had asked him to MC a poetry reading for the Delta Food Bank and needed a bio.
He didn’t know much about the Food Bank—or poetry either—but he’d majored in drama and been a mainstay for the campus radio station, so he did have the voice and was a pretty imposing guy. After graduating, he’d carved out a success in the insurance industry, married Cecile, stayed active in community theater and had a daughter in high school and a son at Chico State. Easy enough, really, to email on one sheet of paper.
Pretty soon they’d have it on the promo website as well, where he’d already learned that certain of the poets were faculty members, a prize-winning big cheese had been recruited from Fresno and tickets were in demand. The alumni center, along the levee by the stadium, had limited space, and according to the hype, might sell out. Also, in pulsing letters down the side of the screen, attendees were encouraged to bring non-perishable food items that would be trucked over and donated to supplement the take from admissions.
But later in the week, taking his recycling to the curb, Ron noticed an out of date Tribune with a piece about this homeless poet, a former alcoholic, who wandered the streets and worked part-time at BOW. There were photos, too, of a wiry, intense and tough-looking character, and the accompanying poems really caught his eye.
One, called The Fountain, transformed an outdoor plumbing fixture into a miraculous apparition. In another, Lovers Dance, the curves of beer and whiskey bottles became female, making the lure of addiction and the struggle to quit something tactile and intimate. And the third, Hallowed Ground, blazed with the bitter rage of seeing your lean-to or tent—your only home—torn down, with all belongings not on your person at the time seized or destroyed, and with those refusing to disperse herded into vans not much different from the animal control trucks brought in to cage and haul away the dogs.
Powerful, powerful images, and, Ron, pulling the page out to save, flashed on walking or driving past people like that, not in his neighborhood, of course, but lots of places around town. Sometimes he’d grab for his wallet, but he usually ignored the signs they held at street-corners and tried not to see their sunken eyes, ragged clothes and sun-blasted skin. A group at his church volunteered at BOW, and he knew where it was, but hadn’t been there. The thing was, the Food Bank must also serve homeless folks, and this guy—Ron checked the article—this Matt Bowles, was a poet. Why not him on the program?
In the morning he dialed Marcy, the new director at the alumni office, and got the green light to give it a shot. She seemed to know that Ron was angling to move from the board to association president sometime soon, given all the contacts and corporate clients that would bring him, but she didn’t directly allude to it. Could be she was an ally in wanting to change the old guard that had run things for decades, since this MC opportunity was bound to build Ron’s profile, and she could easily have tapped another alum with more seniority.
Reaching the Trib reporter took a double round of phone tag, but by late in the day Ron had him on the line. “Hey, thanks for the callback. How do I get ahold of Matt Bowles?”
Oscar stifled a laugh. “Join the club.”
“That story grew legs. The day it came out a BOW volunteer gave him a TrackPhone to help locate his daughter. Then a woman shows up from Lodi with a free laptop.”
“Wow,” Ron said. “The power of the press.”
“No, there’s more. Within a week, BOW finds him desk space in a storeroom and he’s overboard transcribing his notes. Next up, the university press wants to do a paperback of his poetry. There’s a machine that spits out bound copies cheap. Now you, with this benefit.”
“Two months from today,” Ron answered. “Got a number for that phone?”
“He mostly keeps it off. Your best bet’s through Emma at the BOW gatehouse. If he’s there, hotfoot down in person and don’t overdress.”
“Whatever it takes,” Ron said.
“No guarantee he’ll go along either,” Oscar added. “Quirky guy...suspicious... kind of fragile. Hell, he’s been on the margins for years and only sober ten months. This rock-star treatment might be too much.”
“If he says no, I accept no,” Ron said.
“He works weekdays till 2, but usually stays around...up to when they run everybody out. Saturday and Sunday they’re not open, period.”
“I thought it was a shelter.”
“Can’t get permits for that. Anything after 5 p.m., the neighboring property owners go ballistic.”
“Where do people sleep?”
“The streets, the woods,” Oscar answered. “Where do you think?”
“That’s screwed up,” Ron told him.
“Yeah,” Oscar said. “Some of us are pushing for a safe haven...a fenced, no-drugs camp with running water and porta-potties that the residents police on their own and the cops stay clear of unless called. Want to be on the mailing list?”
“Nah, I don’t have time. Good luck, though.”
Ron always had casual clothes in his gym bag, and a day later he rang Emma during his lunch break, but BOW didn’t want Matt’s work interrupted. At 2:30, Ron phoned again, and the guy had left to redeem food stamps. But another afternoon, she confirmed Matt was there and said to hustle over. And when he did, yeow, what a place!
Desperate, dangerous-looking types staked out along the fences, unpaved staff and visitor parking near the gatehouse, and just inside, rows of banged-up bicycles, piles of backpacks and sausage-rolled tarps, all patrolled by yellow-vested bouncers that nobody would want to mess with. Still, the folks milling on the gravel walkways or lazing and talking in an open area with trees and benches, like a coffee-social for the downtrodden, didn’t seem as rough as the ones outside. Emma, dark-haired and cute as a bug, said the storeroom was A-23 and routed him past an open-air kennel for dogs and out among a sprawl of former Navy buildings and trailers up on blocks.
Everyone he passed took his measure—maybe the jeans and sweatshirt he had on were too clean—but only the bouncers met his eyes. In the storeroom itself, which must have served that purpose since day one, a single bulb lit drums of laundry soap and cases of paper towels, coffee cups, and toilet tissue stacked almost to the ceiling. Just beyond an unwashed, cobwebby window, a figure in silhouette hunched above a glowing screen.
* * *
Somewhere behind him, Matt heard a definite throat-clearing sound and tried to ignore it. Church volunteers were always in and out rounding up supplies, and lately he had enough problems finding uninterrupted time.
“Mr. Bowles?” came a male voice, almost at his elbow.
He turned in his chair and slid it back to take the guy in. Big dude, maybe 6’3”, with sandy hair and that pinkish, healthy look you saw on well-off people. “I suppose you want a piece a‘ me too,” Matt grunted.
“Pretty painless,” the guy answered. “You know the Delta Food Bank, off Highway 99?”
“Why?” Matt said, with an automatic edge. “I never took what they wasn’t givin’ away.”
“I’m part of a benefit to support them money-wise. A poetry reading...at the university. Including you, we hope.”
“Like how?” Matt challenged.
“As a reader. Bring two or three favorites and you’ll be first up. Count on a good crowd.”
“Your university bunch already has my stuff,” Matt said, his edge still sharp. “They’re scrubbin’ ’em to death...and callin’ me to nitpick.”
“Your book’s a different thing. This is on campus only ’cause the space is free. All the money’s for the Food Bank.”
“That outfit has helped me.” The thought made Matt feel less tense, and he softened his voice. “Helps a lot of us, too. Guess I could give some back.”
“Good.” The guy reached for a handshake. “My name’s Ron Hensley.”
“You already know who I am,” Matt said, not returning the gesture. This Ron guy was too smooth, too ready to have his ass kissed. “So I go with those same ones from the Trib?”
“Up to you, really.”
“Then you pick ‘em.” Matt handed the guy a sheaf of loosely piled pages. “Try these Emma just printed. I don’t know jack about what you’d want.”
“OK...but the light’s better on the porch.”
“Just don’t get grabby. Bring ’em back when you’re done.” Nothing more needed saying, not to that guy anyway, so Matt returned to his keyboard and screen.
~ ~ ~
In slanted sunlight, feet dangling to the ground, Ron sat on the worn wooden decking. People drifted by, alone or in groups, veering away from him as they got close, like he had leprosy. What did they think, he was an undercover cop scanning suspects? For the most part, they were so beaten down—or beaten up, he saw plenty of abrasions and bruises—he could barely guess their gender much less their ages within a twenty-year range.
His copy of the Trib article, he’d skimmed it again before driving over, said Matt was fifty-one, and by some miracle that was more-or-less how he looked, with fairly decent teeth and skin, and his undoubtedly self-cut hair and beard a frizzy mix of cinnamon and gray. Ron, a couple of years older, had to work at being well preserved. This guy just lived his life. But as Oscar had warned, he was plenty prickly, and the poems, when Ron got into them, were uneven, and some read like early drafts.
Except the good ones, Lovers Dance for example, which had already been in the paper, wow! Ron only had time to sample a couple of stanzas per page, trying for fresh titles no one would’ve seen yet, and on quality, he went with his gut. No, You’re in My Backyard was an obvious choice, accusative and ironic in comparing the wooded camps between the river and the levee with the overlapping roofs of new subdivisions crowded against the inland side.
Clean vs. Sober, with its snappy first line, also popped off the page: “On sober reflection, anybody’d rather be clean, but when they’re clean, doesn’t follow they’d rather be sober.” And finally, a super-shorty, November 20, named for the date of the big bust Oscar had written about: “We’d all write better / poems out here if the cops / just lived and let live.” But Ron could see something else in it, too, beyond the wicked humor.
Re-gathering the pages, he went inside, where Matt, fingers flying, was still keyboarding away. How had he learned that? Ron wondered. “Let’s go with these three,” he said, from beside Matt’s chair.
“Hey,” Matt glowered, pivoting around, “don’t be sneakin’ up on people!” With a scowl and his upper lip twitching, Matt looked past Ron more than at him.
Peeling his selections off the top, Ron set the sheaf down. Every move with this guy was like waltzing with someone happy to step on your feet. Matt grabbed at the poems, skimmed them and, amazingly, gave a partial smile. “OK,” he said. “I’m proud of those myself.”
“They’ll be a hit,” Ron offered, relieved. “The short one’s even a haiku.”
“Japanese? You ain’t makin’ sense.”
“No, it is,” Ron insisted. “Seventeen syllables, five/seven/five. I’m no expert, but I know that much.”
“Damn! Pure accident,” Matt said, actually seeming excited.
“Why not run with it?” Ron told him. “Make the name Haiku November 20.”
“Oh, hell, yeah! Them university big-shots will love that.”
Ron reached into his pocket. “Here’s a flier with the date, time and place. A campus map’s on back and my cell number’s written next to it. Know how to get there?”
Matt glanced at the flier and nodded. “On my bike. Plenty o’ daylight by then too.”
Ron moved away a step. “See you May 5. Try to come early for a mic check.”
Matt stood, holding out the three poems. “Keep these, since as you like ’em so much. Emma can print more.” And now Matt did put out a hand, firm in Ron’s when he took it, and there was eye contact.
A month later, Ron’s phone rang while he trod the pedals of an elliptical trainer at his gym. He’d also been watching stock market news on a big wall-mounted screen, but he always wore his Bluetooth in case clients called.
“This the Ron guy?” came a raspy, unmistakable voice.
“Yeah, Matt. What’s up?”
“My book. Them university pricks are drivin’ me batshit.”
“Everything’s rush-rush all of a sudden, but you don’t change a man’s poems behind his back, run the copies and stick some fucked-up title on it.”
“You’re name’s still on the cover, right?”
“I told ’em take it off and burn the lot. Joe Hill’s Next Dream? Bullshit! Was supposed to be Hoboland!”
“Hey, slow down, really.” Sweat from Ron’s workout trickled beneath his T shirt. “They change anything else?”
“Punctuation...sometimes words, too, and how the lines flow. Bastards said a few edits would be it. You gotta call ’em. I been there and I argued on the phone and they don’t listen.”
“I could,” Ron agreed. “But I don’t know anybody at the press or how they operate.”
“I want that whole deal stopped,” Matt said. “Them poems are mine.”
“OK. Anything I learn, I’ll call back on this number. Ease up, though. Lots of folks would kill to see their name on a book.”
“Not like this,” Matt insisted. “And I need another favor.”
Ron’s body tensed. What had he gotten into? Being hit up for twenty bucks? Or worse? Some transparent scam or scheme? “Maybe.” he said. “What kind of favor?”
“You read ’em that night...all three, exactly like they are. You got the voice, and I’d crap my pants with nerves and screw up.”
Ron felt his tension let go. He would’ve thrown twenty bucks to keep Matt in harness, but this was better, like something a friend would really ask a friend. “If you’re sure,” he said.
“Damn sure,” Matt answered. “I’ll still come, I’ll take a bow ’cause that helps the Food Bank, as long as it’s you that reads.”
Ron had a meeting the next morning, but afterward he spoke to Marcy, the alumni affairs director, who nixed him on calling the press and said she would. Right away, she called back.
“Ron, be careful with this guy. Last time he was there, he made threats, they alerted security to walk him out, and he’s barred from the building.”
“Like I say, be careful. There’s a signed contract letting them edit to Standard English and design a cover. Which in their world includes the title. The proof copy he saw was just a courtesy, and four hundred are already in print. It’s short...ninety pages...but he still gets royalties and they need sales to cover their time and materials.”
“Oh,” Ron said, queasy for a moment. Being responsible for something out of control was precisely the way he didn’t want his alumni profile raised.
“The press staff know about the benefit, too,” she went on. That’s why they moved his deadline up, and they’re planning a table with copies, ten bucks each. Ask yourself...why not? The other poets are selling their own.”
“Because he’ll go nutcase, and that helps nobody!”
“Sounds like your problem to me.”
Ron blew an out-breath, at least half into the phone so she’d hear it. “Look, tell them to drop the books with you that afternoon and I’ll sell them. But no table for their people. And I’m the one with the mic, remember?”
Ron cut in. “Matt’s worried about being out of his element, so I’m reading for him, which I’ll do first. Then he just takes a bow and will probably leave.”
“Very adroit,” she said approvingly. “That’s leadership. We can sell when he’s gone.”
Per his promise, Ron called Matt to relay some of this, mainly that everything was tied up in the contract Matt signed and it sounded pretty standard. Yet all he got on several tries was a dead-zone noise or a crude robo voice mail, where the messages he left led to nothing.
The night before the benefit, Matt’s raspy voice was back in Ron’s ear, because he’d picked up in the middle of dinner and headed for the study with his phone, thinking it was a client, as his wife Cecile’s eyes held on his with a long-suffering look.
“Where is the goddamn place?” Matt said. “I rode over to check it out for tomorrow and the X on your map’s a levee full o’ weeds.”
“Try back across the parking lot. You can probably see from where you are...a low building with lots of glass.”
“I called you a bunch of times,” Ron told him, “and was dumped into voice mail. Things OK now...I mean in general?”
“No, I’m havin’ a hard, bad time. My computer quit, those assholes stole my poems and all I get from you is contract bullshit. That’s how the man always fucks us over.”
“Tomorrow night’s different, I promise. I’ll read those word-for-word, no changes. Sit back and enjoy.”
“Well, don’t say haiku for the short one. You fucked me too, on that deal.”
“Made me look stupid. Ain’t a real haiku unless it ties ’round to nature, the editor pricks say. Syllables are just part. So read the title like it first was or get your ass kicked. I’ll be listenin’ close.”
“Whatever,” Ron said, staying as cool as he could. In twenty-four hours he’d be done with all this. “I’m still betting you end up with money out of that book, maybe an apartment and a new life.”
“Fuck your new life!” Matt’s voice cracked, as though he might lose control and weep. “This goddamn phone’s runnin’ outa minutes and I ain’t wastin’ no more of ’em.”
The dead-zone noise kicked in again and Ron almost dropped his phone while pocketing it. “Who was that?” his wife said, when he settled back at the table.
“Oh, the homeless poet doing some fine tuning.” He lifted his fork and ate, but the pasta primavera she’d made now seemed flavorless and gluey.
Pam, his daughter, smiled with satisfaction. “See, Mom, they’re just like anybody else when they get a chance. That’s what makes BOW and the Food Bank so terrific.”
~ ~ ~
Squinting in the bright sun, Matt eased his bicycle from the cascade of wild grape and blackberry vines screening the tree he’d camped under since January. He was so jittery and so angry at everything that he’d skipped work today and stayed away from BOW, which meant no shower, so he wasn’t as clean as he’d like, but fuck it. He’d committed to help the Food Bank and was goddamn making himself go.
At least he had plenty of time to ride the narrow dirt maintenance road on top of the levee downstream to the highway bridge, then across and into town on pavement. But this was just the kind of spring night when his brother got stabbed, and every detail—the smells, the light, the birds, the air—reminded him of it.
For years he never went to their old neighborhood, or their hangouts or the diner he’d worked at, but just a small detour east going toward the university would take him through there. Besides, he wanted to, even if there were people he hoped he didn’t see.
Yeah, he’d get to hear his poems later, and people would probably applaud, but the old hobo life he’d put together for himself, before that reporter showed up, when he was free and could set his own terms and the fuckers would leave him alone, kept slipping away now, no matter what he did. Why should he give a shit about a broken computer or a book or a dead phone? He’d never needed ’em in the first place, and his daughter was still as gone and un-findable as she always had been. As gone as his brother.
~ ~ ~
Pam and Cecile were coming later in her car, but Ron took the Audi and went early to handle the mic checks and help Marcy with setup. A sweet breath of marine air was pushing in from the delta too, so they could even give the noisy AC system a rest and leave the door and upper bank of windows open.
Levi Phillips, the Pulitzer Prize headliner, arrived and was obviously a pro. Wireless, lapel mic, no problem, so his check went great, and Susan Ravallo, the beatnik faculty poet, and the rest of the card got through theirs too. Only Matt was MIA, with chairs already filling rapidly. Next, Ron brought in the cases of books Marcy had persuaded the press people to put in her trunk, and the ticket takers agreed to unpack them whenever he gave the sign.
But still no Matt, and Holy Christ! There was another table with guacamole, chips and freebie wine! What if the guy dove off the wagon and started helping himself? What had Ron been thinking? So, shit, now he was nervous, something he prided himself on never being. And the place was packed, hardly a seat left, with the big table for donations along one side so loaded with cans, boxes and gallons of apple juice it might collapse.
Forcing himself to breathe slowly and deeply, Ron headed outside. Not a bicycle in sight and less than five minutes till curtain. He carefully eyeballed the levee and the parking lot, once, twice, then gave up. The guy had sounded bad last night, freaked-out and desperate, and must’ve plain bailed. Well, Ron had the poems, and could give them real emotion. For him, that part was easy, so cancel those worries about freebie wine. But God, it was beautiful out! Sky clear, breeze just right, and everything green or flowering or both. Maybe Matt wasn’t so unlucky. This was his bedroom, where later on he could wake up and count stars.
The minute Marcy saw Ron come back in, she stood to welcome the crowd and recite his bio. Cecile squeezed his arm when he passed her along the aisle, and his daughter, usually a smart-alec, seemed proud. A few more slow breaths, and as he reached the platform, right on cue, his nervousness dropped to zero. “Thanks, Marcy,” he said, rolling out the best of his acting skills, “great to be here with everybody. You’re in for quite a treat.”
From business dealings and from his years in town, he knew people across the alumni spectrum, so there were familiar faces in almost every row, and to draw them in, he scrolled his eyes slowly around. “For starters, how many of you saw the Tribune article this winter about the homeless poet, Matt Bowles?” A timeless trick in public speaking, and quite a few hands went up. “Pretty special, huh? So we invited him tonight. He couldn’t make it, but he did give us three poems and wanted you to hear them.”
Ron led off with No, You’re in My Backyard, figuring to generate a little discomfort among the suburbanites and set up the pathos of Clean vs. Sober. He did both of them solidly well and got good applause, with the other poets exchanging surprised glances.
“This last one’s short,” he went on. “Seventeen syllables, if that means anything to you, and it’s called November 20, the date last fall when hundreds of our homeless citizens were rousted from their campsites and lost whatever they still owned.”
It was so quiet for so long after he finished, he could hear the crickets through the open door, cranking away in the rosy-purple sunset. Then a sustained, rhythmic clapping that drowned out everything else. God, Matt should be here, and feel twice the high that Ron did.
Nodding his head at the ticket takers, who’d been applauding as well, he gave a sign to open the boxes. “Thanks very much. I think Matt must have heard you, even out on the river, or wherever he’s bedding down tonight. But there’s lots more. Please give it up for white water guide and voice of the environment, Tracy Garrolds, all the way here from Calaveras.”
A clever, inventive slam poet and a neo-Sufi with a tabla drum rounded out the initial segment, and by the time Ron announced the intermission, and that Levi Phillips would be up just afterward, the crowd was as jazzed as any he’d seen. If poetry readings were like this, hell, bring ’em on, and his profile with the culture demographic would soar. He did a quick survey of the room, and the wine table was mobbed and so was the one with Matt’s books. But at the door, a shadow-figure, visible, then gone, made an unexpected movement, and still fixed in view were a pair of hands, one above the other, gripping the doorframe from outside.
People patted his shoulder as he moved up the aisle, saying, “Great job, Ron.” and “OK, you’re a natural.” or “Can’t wait for act two.” Reaching the last row, he had an unwelcome certainty about who the figure was, but before he got there, Matt lurched into the opening, left hand still braced on the frame. His jeans were filthy, his plaid shirt torn, his eyes glazed, his face ruddy and puffed, with lips pursed, yet immobile. He teetered forward across the threshold, then swayed side-to-side as he let go of the door. Drunk, Ron instantly knew, wild, piss-in-your-pants drunk, and he felt a flaring torch of guilt.
“Matt,” he said, as though his throat was on auto-pilot and things were normal, “Too bad you missed the applause. Your poems rocked!”
No response, and Matt wasn’t looking at Ron, but at the ticket-takers and a fanned-out display of his books. When Ron turned that direction, the words Joe Hill glowed on their covers like Las Vegas neon. He turned back toward Matt and from across the room, Marcy’s voice cut through the chatter. “Ron...is that him, is that Mr. Bowles? Be sure he takes a bow before Mr. Phillips reads.”
Hearing his name, Matt oscillated around to stare at Marcy, suntanned and pretty in her sleeveless dress and artsy jewelry, like a model in one of Cecile’s spring catalogues. Finally his gaze returned to Ron, stylish himself in an REI shirt and pressed chinos. Matt’s mouth hadn’t moved, but his eyes held a death ray of contempt, despair, and self-hate.
So the auto-pilot Ron said something else stupid. “Hey, you’re making money tonight! The hit of the show. Just sleep it off and call me tomorrow.”
Matt again grabbed the doorframe, this time to turn and point himself outside. Staggering through it, he disappeared into the dark, with Ron rooted in place by his own folly.
After what seemed a long time, Ron followed. There was a half-moon, low in the sky, but bright, amid a sonic bath of crickets. Matt got as far as his bicycle, propped against the stucco wall, tried to swing it around and lost his grip. Barely keeping his balance as it fell, he shuffled to where it lay on the ground, both wheels spinning from momentum.
“Matt...” Ron said, “Matt...I’m really sorry. It’s my fault.” At the corner of his vision, Marcy stepped out the door.
As though neither she nor Ron existed, Matt bent forward above the rear wheel, gave a deep, primal cry that any actor playing Lear would be proud to bring off, and a stream of barf, corn-yellow in the moonlight, plunged from his mouth. It pooled on the still revolving gear cluster and the spokes threw undigested chunks out onto the ankles of Matt’s pants.
“Ron,” Marcy called, “intermission’s running way over. We need you on stage.”