The Home For Post-Graduate Boys
I was nearing completion of a graduate degree in the utterly useless and irrelevant field of creative writing.
This is a Work of Fiction
I was nearing completion of a graduate degree in the utterly useless and irrelevant field of creative writing. Perhaps that is too harsh, but midway through my studies I discovered I was an embarrassing failure at the discipline, and that discovery has colored my attitude.
It came as a shock. I won’t lie about that. I thought I would be one of the greats. The next Fitzgerald or Balzac, or even Joyce. I was part Irish, after all. I believed I had a flare for it. A unique and ambitious talent that would not only impress, but overcome my peers. I would dazzle them with my pen, making them my audience as I orchestrated my words, and made them dance atop the pages of my work.
Instead I made them laugh, inadvertently, and cringe, involuntarily. It was the similes that got me. Despite repeated pleas from instructors and colleagues that I should either remove them, or tone them down, I could not let them go. They were what made my writing special. Extraordinary, even. Who could do what I did?
“It’s like you’re putting on a big show, and you want us to all stand up and start clapping,” one professor told me. He was an older man with a shaggy, graying beard. Wrentzel was his name. He was known not for his writing, but for his supposed editing of famous writers.
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked him.
“Everything,” he said, scrunching up his hairy face, and rubbing his cheeks with his palms.
See, to me a tree was not just green. It was green like a grasshopper. Green like the crayons I used to draw with as a child. Green like dish soap. Green as the green grass under the African sky. And the sky, the sky was not just blue. The sky was blue like the ocean below it. Blue like the shorts Michael Jordan wore under his uniform. Blue like notes from a Miles Davis trumpet solo. Or it was gray. Gray like my mood. Gray like the concrete. Gray like smoke shaded in charcoal.
One time a rival of mine — some post-modern minimalist ass — began reading my work aloud in workshop, torturing my similes. Reading them in a British accent. The class laughed at his dramatic reading, and I knew then I was doomed.
The novel I had been writing was a multi-generational saga that dealt with upper-Manhattan elites. It was about a patriarch who suddenly dies in the 1920s and leaves his international corporation in the hands of a George Bailey type, who has other aspirations, but stays and builds the company into an even bigger success. Eventually he passes it down to an aloof grandson, whose true ambition is to be a writer. The scope of the novel spanned both time, from the Great Depression to Vietnam to the fall of Communism, and so on, and geography, taking the reader on a journey from Wall Street to the sweatshops of China to the jungles of South America. It was a story of family, adventure, power, and world affairs.
I carried it off terribly. In fact, I didn’t get very far at all. Maybe twenty pages. Luckily, one weekend, I wrote a collection of poetry, and I would be turning that in as my thesis. It was also horrendous, but in poetry, it is harder to tell.
The whole affair was an incredible waste of my time, and my parents’ money. It was disappointing, my lack of ability. But I was no longer concerned with the writing. I was beyond that. Finding finances, shelter, and sustenance for myself was the greater dilemma.
Mother and Father were cutting off my funding, as well as access to their home. I could no longer go back to Chicago and live with them. My father, being a sworn fan of Notre Dame football, was never happy about my coming to USC.
“What are you going to do? Go to California and dye your hair?” he asked me when I got accepted. “I mean, seriously, can you even get a job pursuing this?”
“Well, the goal is to become a published novelist,” I told him, with some air of confidence.
That goal had flown out the window like a bird released from its cage. My hope had sunk like a penny in a fountain. I was lost in a strange place called Los Angeles, where freeways crisscrossed the cityscape like spider-webs. See, I still can’t stop myself. Soon I would be evicted from my campus housing, a small efficiency where I was haunted at night by the screams of undergraduate rabble-rousers. I would need a place to live, and means to pay for that place. Given the worthless piece of paper I would be wielding and my lack of job skills (I had come to USC straight from undergrad at Wooster) the future was bleak like a rat-infested gutter on a rainy, rainy night.
I was in my final workshop class, and we were in the communal circle, discussing my work. It was a short story I had turned in. A stream-of-conscientiousness diatribe about the state of my incompetence. It was incomprehensible. My goal was to trick the group into thinking it was somehow deep in a way that was past their understanding, and, for fear of looking simple-minded, they would declare it brilliant.
It didn’t work. They declared it crap. They had me pegged, and they were right. It was a worthy send-off.
There was, however, one man who enjoyed it quite thoroughly. He was older. A non-traditional student, although I find that term demeaning. We talk about them like they’re handicapped children included in the regular classes out of some misguided sense of egalitarianism. His name was Paul Pastor, and he would be my fairy godfather.
For his age, he was in good shape. The type of person who walks a lot to stay healthy. He tended to wear a white suit, in what I think was an ode to Tom Wolfe, over a sweater-vest. He had rosy red cheeks and oval-shaped glasses. A golden pocket-watch was attached to his belt. In a previous life, he said, he had made large amounts of money in something business-related.
“I loved your piece today,” Pastor said as we walked out of class and through campus, passing fountains and trees and teenage girls in mini-skirts.
“Did you really?” I asked, unexcited.
“Oh yeah. You’re a very good writer. How’s your book coming?”
“Oh, it’s coming along.” I didn’t feel the need to get into the truth.
“I’d love to read it when you’re finished.”
I would’ve thought he was mocking me, but Pastor was one of the most earnest and sincere of souls. I desperately wanted to get rid of him.
“What are you going to do after graduation?” he asked.
“I guess I need to find a cheap place to live, so I can continue writing. And maybe something on the side. You know, freelancing for magazines, that kind of thing.” Again, there was no reason to destroy his illusion.
“Ya know, I actually have a room available for rent at my house. I’m renting it out really cheap. Just to make a couple extra bucks. I’m not working full-time anymore.”
We were now standing in front of a long, shallow fountain. A bed of blue water falling over the sides like detergent in a washing machine. We were on the sidewalk in front of a field with Frisbees floating from beautiful bodies like a Chinese plate-spinning act.
Pastor drove me out to his house. We headed west on Sunset, winding and twisting towards Bel-Air and UCLA and the ocean. The sun was bright and warm and orange like cheese. We were in Pastor’s red convertible, zooming through the green hills and trees and shrubs. A June bug navigating a leaf.
The breeze whipped through our hair and pulled back the skin on our faces. Upward we went. Rising, rising, rising into the sky. We made it to the top of the hill, on which homes were built like character.
I turned to Pastor. “Do you live up here?”
“Yeah, I do.”
He was modest, and he could have bragged when pulling into his driveway, which was on a forty-five-degree angle. A black gate with a golden lion’s head on its front opened for us, but he acted no differently than he might have if we’d pulled up to a one-story, single-family brick home in suburban Ohio.
Pastor’s house, his mansion, hung over the hill like a skydiver waiting to leap from a plane. You could see the ocean from his patio, which was two stories with a swimming pool and a diving board on the upper level. A tennis court on the side of the house. The front room, or the living room, was more like an airport terminal than the inside of a home.
My parents were relatively wealthy themselves, and we had lived in a nice suburban two-story with polished wood and clean carpets, and carefully mounted family photos along the stairwell. But Pastor’s pad had me in awe.
There was a painting on one wall that looked familiar to me. I studied it. It was blurred images of boats coming into the harbor. The colors were purple and blue and red and gray. A sun, deep in the background, reflecting on to the water like spilled marmalade.
“You like it?” Pastor asked me.
“Yes, very much. What is it?” I asked.
“It’s a Monet. One of my pride and joys.” Pastor got up on a stool and presented it to me like a model. In his white suit, with the image behind him, Pastor looked like he, himself, could be part of a painting. I would call it, “The Man In the White Suit Presents His Painting.”
“Is it an original?” I asked.
”Of course. Nothing but the best, right?” And his mouth formed a tight
smile with lines along the sides of his mouth like the Joker from the Batman comics. “Now let me show you that room.”
He took me upstairs in a glass elevator.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Though he was grown, and even leathery from the Southern California sunning, there was a child inside Pastor. A child riding a tri-cycle or chasing a ball or letting a touch of ice cream drop onto his face in the clear ambivalence of boyhood. The little boy, and all his toys.
The room faced the water, and there were three twin beds lined up neatly against the window. It must have been five times the size of my efficiency. It was filled with accessories. There was a state-of-the-art stereo, and surround-sound speakers, and a flat-screen television with various video game consuls connected to it. The walls were painted sky blue with white, cotton-candy clouds spreading across the expanse, creating the effect of motion.
“This looks great,” I said.
“I’m planning on making it so everyone can have their own space, but right now I’ve got the other rooms tied up with storage and offices. Workout rooms. You can get in shape if you want. Not that you need it.” He laughed spastically and held up his fingers to indicate I was skinny. “Now me, I’ve gotta be in there three times a week or I’ll be with the pot belly,” and he extended his hands out into a half-circle.
“What do you mean everyone?” I asked.
“Oh, I’ve got two other post-graduate boys living here. Freddy and Julio. You’ll like ’em, they’re both looking for work too.”
“And everyone sleeps in here?”
”They don’t seem to mind.”
I began to get the feeling I was moving into an orphanage, but in some ways that was exactly what I needed. A place with other boys like me, who had similar hopes and dreams, just waiting for their chance to show the world their stuff. I, as of that moment, had nothing to show, but as I stood among the clouds and peered out the window, I felt as if I could drift out to the ocean like wind. I could fly over sand and seashells and volleyball, and be like a spirit.
“So what do you say?” Pastor said, and he was now holding a white, furry teddy bear with a red bow tie. He looked at it and winked. “In case you have trouble sleeping.”
Fortunately, I did not have much stuff. Just some books and my computer, and a stack of notebooks in which I used to do my writing. I didn’t have any further use for them, but I couldn’t quite bear to throw them away just yet.
I carefully drove up the steep driveway in my cranky and sometimes non-starting brown Volvo of the 1980s. It was brown like a brown corduroy jacket is brown. The sun, on that day, felt like my own personal light bulb. It hung over only my head, and everything else faded to black.
I had been given a key, and I let myself in. No one was around, but there was a note. It said, “We’re playing tennis. Join us!”
I put my stuff down, and went out a side door to where the tennis court was. A blackboard with boxes drawn in chalk. Julio, about my age, was on one side and Pastor was on the other. Julio was Hispanic with wet, black hair and he had tight, white shorts on, and so did Pastor, and standing off the court, near the net was Freddy, also about my age, a large black figure on crutches. He was huge, like an offensive lineman. His stomach hanging over his waist like a paperboy’s satchel.
There was a table set up with lemonade in a clear glass pitcher, and Pastor, out of breath and waiting to return a serve, told me to have a glass. I did so, and stood next to Freddy. We made our introductions, and watched the match intently. Julio, who had a sweater tied around his neck like a cape, was running Pastor all over the court. The kid was a dynamo, darting back and forth, and slapping the yellow ball around like it was attached to his racket by a string.
“What happened to your leg?” I asked Freddy.
He looked down at me, very solemn-like, and said, “Football.”
“Did you play at SC?” I asked, looking up at Freddy, there no longer being a sun. It had been replaced by his deeply dark and sad face.
I sensed that it was a sore subject, and figured we would discuss it later. I watched Julio serve one past Pastor with form that was worthy of a professional, and that, apparently, was it. They came jogging off the court.
“Oh, boy,” Pastor said, with a big puff of breath, and he bent down, holding his knees with his hands. “You’re game keeps getting better, J.” And after some more bent-over puffing, “Who wants lunch?”
The kitchen seemed to be covered in stainless-steal and fine deli sandwiches were made for us by a beautiful Spanish woman. She looked to be thirty, thin, with skin like tanning oil. I felt as if I should have dropped to my knees upon seeing her and started reciting Byron. She walks in beauty, like the night. Her name was Angelica, and with cleavage like dirt mounds, ’twas fitting.
“Boys, your new roommate is quite the writer,” Pastor said of me, as I bit into pastrami on rye.
Freddy leaned against his chair and Julio could not have looked less impressed. Still, I was beginning to feel it necessary to keep up this charade about me and my literary skills. Like it was securing my spot in the house.
Pastor went on to tell me about Freddy, who was mostly silent as he was talked about, and how he spent most of his time rehabbing so he could have a shot at the NFL next year. And Julio, who was working as a masseuse until his paintings started to sell. Another artist. We are such a waste, I thought.
The rest of the day was spent watching Freddy play video games. Sports games. I knew only of sports what my father insisted on telling me, and nearly nothing of video games. He tried to explain the controls to me in hushed, barely audible tones, but it was no use. He crushed me in game after game of electronic football. Eventually, long after I had dropped out, the game box was turned off, and the television was turned on. Freddy quickly fell asleep. He was like a bear.
With the sun going down like fallen hope I went downstairs and walked out to the pool. The sunset was a beautiful sight, dropping over us like the slow dimming of a chandelier. Julio was nowhere to be seen, and Pastor had gone off to Santa Monica for business. I contemplated my life on this hill, and I felt comfortable like heads on soft pillows. Everything was fine. Just fine.
It was getting dark and the lights were starting to twinkle. Soon the stars would be flipped over and slid underneath us. A slight chill was on me now like excitement.
“You like the view?” I heard from above me.
I turned around and looked up. It was Julio. “Yes. Very much.”
“Me too. It’s inspirational,” he said, and he made what appeared to be a few finishing touches on a canvas. He was painting atop the diving board. “Shall we get something to eat?”
Before I knew it I was in a Lamborghini. Julio was driving (he said Pastor let him take it whenever he wanted) and we were going downhill in the dark, taking turns and curves with precarious confidence. “Why didn’t we invite Freddy?” I asked, worried about leaving a man of that size out of our plans.
“He doesn’t go out much,” Julio said, lighting a cigarette and barely keeping control of the wheel. “He’s very depressed. All the time. And I’m supposed to be the dark artist.”
“Why is he so depressed?”
“It’s this thing with football. He’s not supposed to be able to play again.”
“But didn’t Pastor say…”
“Pastor likes to keep our hopes up. It’s part of the charm of living with him.”
We wound up stopping at a liquor store, Julio picking out a bottle of red wine for each of us, and then we went to In and Out Burger, where we watched teenage boys and girls in paper hats splicing potatoes into French fries. From there it was on to the beach, in Malibu. We parked on the side of the road, and wandered down into the sand until Julio plopped down somewhere he saw fit. The combination of wine and burgers with fries was interesting, and I thought it might be romantic to be here with Angelica. Maybe I would bring her here, I thought. Take her away from the life of servitude.
Julio was putting the wine down rather quickly and I felt the need to keep up with him. We became goofy, throwing French fries at each other like school children at a lunch table, and mocking Pastor’s earnestness and tennis game.
“You stupid,” Julio said to me in drunken baby talk, and poked a ketchup-tipped fry into my cheek like he was dabbing paint onto one of his frescoes.
The wine inside my bottle began disappearing like sand from the top of an hourglass. I deserved to indulge, I thought. I was still technically a writer. Julio was babbling on about something. About being a creator and the fear. The fear of creation. The psychological struggle of it, and I thought, yeah, yeah, and just felt euphoric, listening to the sounds of the waves, feeling like they were swishing around inside my head.
At some point, without me noticing, Julio’s head was on my chest. He looked up at me with bloodshot eyes and started moving his head closer to mine, lips out like tulips. My mouth hung open and I was, at first confused, but managed to summon enough sobriety to put my hand on his cheek and stop him.
“I’m not in that way,” I said.
“I know,” Julio said, hanging his head, laughing and hiccuping uncontrollably. “I know. But would it hurt to hold me?”
“I suppose not.”
“We’re like brothers now.” He laughed and hiccupped some more, and then rested his head higher on my chest, near my neck.
“How are we going to get back up the hill?” I slurred.
“Wait until morning, my sweet,” he mumbled.
When I awoke the next morning to soft, gray light I felt disoriented and somewhat filthy, but foggy about what had transpired, and so less awkward than one might imagine. The outline of Julio’s body was in the sand next to me, but he was not there. I sat up on my elbows and saw his figure in the water, the waves washing up to his waist and then rolling back to reveal his naked ass.
He robed and we collected our trash and began hiking back up to the car. Julio needed to shave and I could smell the stink from my armpits. I daydreamed about the shower at Pastor’s. We didn’t talk much during our ascent back to the home. The home for post-graduate boys.
When we got inside and Julio threw the keys to the Lamborghini into a dish, Pastor was standing in the middle of the living room on a rug that mapped the orient, and Angelica, her thighs exposed in a short maid’s skirt, was on the couch, looking as if she was being lectured. Pastor had on a tight white t-shirt and a safari jacket with cargo pants.
“There they are,” he said, and gave Angelica the sad puss look of the cowardly lion. “Well, I wanna know where you guys have been.” His right hand was in a fist, propped against his waist.
“We went to a friend’s and it got late, and I didn’t want to handle the car in the hills late at night,” Julio said.
“It was my suggestion that we come back in the morning,” I said, trying to gain some loyalty points with my new brother.
“You have to tell me when you’re not coming home,” Pastor said, and then with his hands on his knees like after a tennis match, he whined, “I was worried sick about you guys.”
We stood silent and nodded in agreement, but I began thinking, who are you to micro-manage my life? I’m nearly an adult.
I was set free and allowed to take a shower. The greatest shower of my life. Steaming hot powerful water flowing over me like a waterfall. Naked and clean behind a glass door in a space as big as my last apartment, the only thing missing were Egyptian women in tiaras, feeding me grapes. I was so pleased and relaxed, feeling almost sexy, that my penis rose to fullness. Like a breadstick.
Julio and I developed our intimacy into a friendship. We’d spend the day by the pool, talking about girls, and boys, him up on the diving board with his brushes and colors and visions and such, and me in the pool, back-floating.
Freddy only hobbled outside to alert of us of meal times, which were served promptly at the same times every day. If you wanted breakfast you had to get up at six with Pastor, before he went off to work half-days in Santa Monica. I tried it a few times and the spreads were marvelous with bagels and French toast, fresh fruit, crepes and the little boxes of cereal like at a hotel.
Angelica and I took on a flirtation, and I would tell her she was the best cook. Better than my mother. Better than my grandmother. She would touch my arm and I would sometimes respond by doing the same to her waist. Sometimes she would join us on the patio and share a cigarette with Julio. There was a warmth between her and I, but it was never more than that.
When we went to bed at night, Pastor would stop by our room and wish us goodnight, like a fairytale father. “Goodnight, Freddy. Goodnight, Julio,” and so on.
As for Pastor and I, he often showed me his stories. They were, for the most part, thinly veiled autobiographies dealing with girlfriends and ex-wives, corporate hobnobbing, and office romances. Every time I read them, I feared that, like me, Pastor was also working in the wrong vocation. I couldn’t tell him. Who was I to wake one from his dream? I could not confess my own inadequacy either, because I feared that would tear the entire fabric of this new life, like tissue paper blown threw.
There was this matter of a job, and I took the Volvo down to USC to see if I could find something on campus. I interviewed for a position as an administrative assistant in the film school. I talked to a British bloke, who fancied himself some type of movie producer. Documentaries or something of that ilk.
“So you’re about to complete your master’s?” he said, scanning my resume, which seemed light in his hand.
“I do a bit of writing myself. Shouldn’t you be wearing black, writing a novel or something?”
I leaned back in the chair and crossed my legs, looking at some of the movie posters on the wall. I hadn’t heard of the films. He had me trapped. If I answered that, yes, I should be writing a novel, and I’m only trying to find work so I can sustain that effort, then I would be admitting I was not completely dedicated to the task of administrative assistance. If I said no, I want to focus on, if I’m lucky enough to get the job, doing the best I can here, then I would be labeled as a pathetic loser who failed at his real ambition. The latter would be true, but insufficient for my hiring.
I left the bloke on friendly terms and sat at a fountain in the middle of campus, admiring the architecture. The colors like red clay. Later I would spend time checking internet listings and classifieds offering management positions and opportunities to make bushels of cash by the week, but most positions were shams, boiler rooms and places where they had no need for someone with a graduate degree in writing.
The rent at Pastor’s was unbelievably cheap, and I still received a small allowance from my parents, as I had not graduated just yet, so I managed without work.
In those waning days leading to my graduation from graduate school I began to feel empty like a husk. How could I have invested myself in this endeavor so fully and come out an unequivocal failure? How could my talent be so lacking?
Even after I’d realized that I was a bad writer, I still believed I could’ve trained myself. I could have improved enough to become serviceable at the craft. But that is not how writing works. You either have it or you do not. I had thought, only jokingly, that I could kill myself like John Kennedy Toole, and when my work was found it would be considered genius. However, since my parents hadn’t thought this to be a worthwhile pursuit to begin with, and because I had not even completed a manuscript, this fantasy made no sense.
I still had my poetry, my thesis project. It was probably worse than my fiction. Rhyming nature and saccharine love. The only reason I was able to complete a book was because they were short, and each one took up a page, and the genre lent itself well to my uncontrollable schmaltz.
“When are you going to show me your poetry collection?” Pastor asked, as we all ate a Saturday afternoon brunch, bagels and jellies being passed around.
“I don’t know, it’s kind of personal,” I said. I saw Freddy staring at me from his deep marble-like eyes and I thought, he must have been thinking what a flower boy I was.
“But we’re like a family here,” Pastor said.
”I’d like to see them,” Julio said. It wasn’t the only thing of mine Julio
wanted to see, I thought.
“We’re going to hear them anyway,” Pastor said.
“You are?” I didn’t know what he was speaking of.
“Of course, at the end of the year reading. All the graduating students are required to read from their final work.” He smiled a satisfied smile like that of a dog with a bone, and because he was a “non-traditional” and an adult he had an authoritative grasp of the course literature, university requirements and nuances of our program’s graduation tract. So I knew he must have been right. I wanted to tell him to just give up this hoax. I was not the writer he thought I was. In fact, I’m not even sure he’s been reading my material all these years in workshop. For, if he had, he would most definitely have a different opinion. Or was his taste really that bad?
“I write poetry.” The voice was so rarely heard from it almost sounded unfamiliar. When we all simultaneously turned our heads like cats Freddy went back to eating. He was overwhelmingly dark. Like a cave.
That night when the three of us were lying in our beds, and Pastor had said goodnight to us, as he did every night, I asked Freddy what he writes about in his poetry.
“Football,” he said into the dead silence of the room, which was dark like what a blind man sees.
“In what sense?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what about football do you write about? The plays, the crowd, the excitement, the violence?”
“Yeah, all that.”
“Do you write about your injury?”
Julio was not saying anything, but I had a feeling he was only pretending to be asleep. I heard Freddy’s enormous body shift in his bed.
“Sometimes,” Freddy said. Then after a long time, after I thought the conversation had ended, he said, “I’m gonna play again.”
“Yeah?” Our voices were like ghosts. It didn’t feel like they were emanating from our throats any more.
I heard him breathe in through his nose and I could imagine those nostrils flaring like the rocket boosters at the bottom of a spaceship.
“Can I tell you something, Freddy?”
“It’s a secret. You have to promise not to tell anyone.”
“Well, you know how Pastor thinks I’m this great writer?” I could hear him listening. “It’s not true. I’m not great, I’m not even good.”
“How do you know? It’s just a matter of opinion.”
“I came to a realization. I’m not going to write anymore. I don’t have it.”
I heard him roll again and I could just barely see the arch of his stomach now. It was like seeing a mountain in the horizon from a cold desert at nighttime.
“Do you know what I mean?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
The poetry reading came. It was in a small auditorium, in the basement of one of the buildings on campus that was like a bomb shelter. I dreaded it, but there was some relief in knowing it was the last time I would be standing in front of these people to humiliate myself. My final bow. My dénouement.
They were all there. All the people who had mocked my writing, what I thought was my gift, but turned out to be my punishment. Most people read humor. That was what seemed to go over well at these events. Everyone thought they were the next Twain. The audience roared and clapped and hooted for their beloved colleagues. These masters of wit and irony and satire. I saw their faces in a blur. Our professors were there too, but I ignored them, because I had taken enough abuse.
When my name was called I broke into a sweat like a can of cola placed in the sun. There was polite clapping, but I could feel the unenthusiastic hands laboring to come together. I did have a small cheering section that was sincere in its applause. Pastor, Julio, Freddy and Angelica had come to see me read. I had tried desperately to convince them not to, but they would hear nothing of it. It was a family trip.
I stood at the podium and opened my black and white marbled notebook. I had dressed up, wearing a sports jacket and a collared shirt. I could at least go out with class. I saw Pastor sitting bolt-erect in his chair with proud eyes and raised cheeks. Julio and Angelica to one side, and Freddy in the aisle seat so he could stretch his damaged leg.
“These are some poems I wrote as part of a collection I’ve written. The collection is entitled, ‘In a Weekend, Thus.’ And before I start, I just want to say what a pleasure it’s been working with all of you.” I wanted them to feel some remorse for breaking me. “And, of course, our wonderful faculty.” The audience was nonplussed by my overture. So I began.
“This first poem is entitled, ‘Thine Flower Is Like Life.’ Thine flower is like lives/for it is alive and yellow/like dandelions/Thine flower is like life/for it makes the heart beat/tart and sweet/like the feet of children. Oh, how thine flower grows/like baby toes/like if I froze/in a moment.”
I could feel the pages flap in the wind like a sail when I finished and turned to the next one. I was told I had to read three. “This next one is short. Very short.” I looked up and smiled, but got no reaction. “It’s called ‘Sink.’ S/I/N/K.” This one didn’t play so well live. It needed to be seen on the page. It was the way I had arranged the letters, one falling below another. It was meant to mimic the depths of human emotion.
“And this final poem. It’s a love poem of sorts. It’s…well, I won’t explain it. I’ll just tell you it’s called, ‘Ink.’ Pen and quill and ink and will and soul/It’s why I breathe/It’s why I leave/late at night on desperate rendezvous/Minds like shapes/follow the lost stars/to a place where once/I was alive/But now am gone/Off the paper/into the night ocean/May you hear me in your seashells.”
I casually closed my notebook, and heard nothing what seemed like ages, until finally everyone’s hands were together like symbols or gongs. Pastor was standing, dabbing a tear from the corner of his eye underneath his glasses. I felt so sorry for him.
I went to bed that night feeling like, despite my futility, I had a home. It was over now. I was a graduate. I would find some work and bide my time for a while, living in luxury at the top of a hill. It wasn’t so bad a life, I thought.
“Goodnight, boys,” Pastor said, peeking his head in the door, a beam of light shining beside my bed. “Do you guys need anything before I hit the sack?”
We all said, no, we were fine. And we were. We were like brothers, and Pastor like our father. A family.
“By the way, wonderful job tonight,” Pastor said, as he stepped into the room and squeezed my feet.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I’ve got quite a group living under my roof, don’t I? The artist, the writer and the athlete.”
“Yeah, I guess you do,” I said, and I did start to feel awkward, especially with no one else talking, Freddy and Julio just lying there like mummies.
“Goodnight then,” Pastor said, and he walked out of the room, the light slipping away behind him as he shut the door like the sun giving way to the moon.
I fell asleep easily that night, but woke up suddenly, and was wide awake. I rose from the bed spontaneously, feeling the painful urge of urination. I went to the hallway bathroom and peed, urine streaming from my penis like apple juice from a cooler.
I didn’t want to go back to bed, because it was so rare that you woke up feeling completely alive. So I went out through the upstairs entrance to the second story of the patio and stood out in the night, naked from the waist up, growing stiff in my pajamas like Pinocchio. My nipples were hard like rejection.
I decided that to celebrate the end of my writing career I would take a baptismal dive into the pool, leaping from atop the hills, hanging over the ocean, and then dunking myself. I took off my bottoms and stepped up on the board, looking out over the city and the lights and all of creation and feeling the ocean’s breeze against all of me. I held my crotch and closed my eyes. I walked forward and tripped on something. I stumbled to the edge of the board and fell off into the emptiness.
My eyes opened on the way down and I saw a black mass before I crashed into it, breaking my fall, going in back-first, and feeling the splat like a whip, and yelping in accordance when I came up, wiping the water away from my eyes to see what I had hit.
Feet were in front of me. Large, black feet, dipping halfway into the water, and then coming out again, as the rest, going a long way up, hung from the diving board by rope as thick as my arms. I lurched back in the water, trying to scream, creating high-pitched notes like a seal. I swam back and grabbed the legs, trying to lift them. I had no leverage.
Pastor came running out, a black silk robe flapping open over boxer shorts. He looked like a crow. When he screamed I wanted to travel with its sound, down the hills, through winding roads, carried away by water.
Angelica was outside too, wearing only white lace panties, hair disheveled and more sexy than ever. She must have followed Pastor directly from the bedroom.
I was shivering. So cold. So, so, so cold. My teeth’s chattering reverberating in my head. Pastor climbed to the top of the diving board and tried to slide off the rope, but it was heavy and well-secured, and he needed the kind of knife you use to chop through a jungle. The end of his black robe was draped over the board, like the veil of death.
After a moment he got up, and went to the doors that I had come out of to take my swim, and met Julio, just awoken and trying to see what had happened. Pastor stopped him and pulled Julio’s head into his chest.
“You’re not going out there,” he whispered in Julio’s ear. “You’re not going out there, you’re not going out there.” He rubbed Julio’s head and I got out of the water, realizing there was no way to get this man, who was bigger than all of us put together, down.
Angelica stared at me as I got out and walked away from the side of the pool. It was just like a dream where you’re naked and you have no access to clothes, and everyone is looking at you. Somehow you find the will to cover your shrunken self, but there seems to be no exit, and you’re in a shallow pool of water that only comes up to your ankles.
Later, when it was light out, and the police and firemen had come, and you could almost think, for a second, that it didn’t happen, if it wasn’t for what felt like sour lemonade stuck in your chest, I found Pastor.
He was sitting on the couch, still in his open robe and boxers, staring up at his painting, the Monet. That orange sun burnt into the distant background like a lit cigarette. Purple hanging over everything.
I sat in a chair across from him and looked at the magnificent creation on the wall. “They say,” I said, and he wasn’t looking at me, but I could tell he was listening, “that nothing bad enough can ever happen to a writer.”
He looked over at me and let his hand fall from his chest onto the couch like the toppling of a goal post. “But you’re not one of those anymore, are you?” He smiled, but not enough for the lines to form around his mouth.
“Did Freddy tell you?”
“No, Julio. He heard you guys talking. I think you’re wasting your talent.”
I felt wrong discussing myself. I wished I could be in one of the boats in Monet’s painting. It occurred to me that Pastor would have had to call Freddy’s parents, and I’m sure he had. He took care of us, and he would do so in death as well as life. I couldn’t bear the thought of that conversation. I needed to talk to my own parents, and tell them I was alive, for some reason.
I got up and headed for the stairs, making it halfway up, when Pastor called after me. “Are you going to stay here? I want you to.”
“Yes, I’ll stay,” I said, unsure if I would. When I got back to our room, Julio was passed out on his bed. He seemed in such deep and still slumber I thought he might’ve taken something to help him sleep. I sat at the edge of my bed, and looked around the room at all the gadgets and electronics, most of which had been for Freddy to play with. I wondered where I could find his poems. I thought I could get them published posthumously for him. Getting something published, I thought, like John Kennedy Toole’s mother had. It would be the only way I would ever do such a thing.