Illustrations by Sammy Harkham
The poet and his wife were young, and they were just married.
They had an apartment near a grocery store and a post office. The poet walked most everywhere. The first floor of their building was brown-painted wood. The second floor was like imitation stucco. Rent on a second-floor apartment was $100 more per month on account of it being less noisy.
You know, the woman from the rental office told them, nobody living above you and that sort of thing.
They took a place on the first floor. They didn’t have much money then.
The poet was, at the time, a promising writer. Several established poets had told him his work displayed a certain promise. He had entered his poems in a national contest, and while he didn’t win one of the prizes, the judges included his name on a list of poets to watch. He had also published a poem in a literary magazine, and an editor at another magazine read and passed on six of his new poems, but wrote a note at the bottom of his form rejection: pls try again. The poet’s wife had a good job, in a nice office that paid health-insurance benefits for their entire family. The poet had a job too, besides the poetry, stocking shelves at an office-supply outlet. It was fairly menial and mindless and didn’t pay well and offered no benefits save a slight discount on office supplies.
When the baby came, the poet stayed at home with him. Daycare for the baby, when they looked into it, proved too expensive, many multiples more than what the poet earned from his job and his poetry. The choice was plain.
Raising the baby was hard work. The poet told friends of theirs it was the hardest job he’d ever held, but also the best, far and away the best. That was his pat answer. When anybody asked how it was going, staying at home, he’d just deliver his sound bite. He didn’t even need to think.
But like so many of the things he repeated, it seemed less true the more he said it. The poet had a friend with a young child and, like him, she stayed at home, caring for the boy. The poet’s friend lived far away, but they wrote back and forth when time permitted and sometimes talked on the phone. The poet felt close to her, though he hadn’t seen her for years. The poet simply could be more honest with her, especially if he took the time. Her child was older than his by a couple of years, so he listened keenly to her stories. She came from his future. She brought back detailed reports of life there. So when the poet’s friend asked him how it was going, being at home, he didn’t give her the usual sound bite. He would never. The poet’s answer, when it came, was halting, however, and confused. It’s weird, how time feels now, he told his friend. The baby affects everything. I mean, even my sense of time. Whole days can fly by, he said, but in another, maybe bigger scheme, everything seems longer somehow. Does that make sense? The poet knew it didn’t make any sense. He only ever asked if he was making sense when he knew full well he wasn’t. I’m afraid I can’t explain it, he said.
A few days later, or maybe it was a few weeks, who could tell anymore, the poet talked to his friend again. His baby was napping, or was supposed to be, anyway. Her child was at preschool. I’ve been thinking, the poet said, about what I was saying before, about time. His friend said she remembered. Sometimes, the poet said, I don’t know what I do with a day or a week. I can’t tell you what I did yesterday. And if I tell my wife a story about something the baby did, I often try to say, This was yesterday or whatever, but I often can’t remember what day it was. I’ll say I don’t remember and apologize, but I’ll also say it doesn’t matter. Because when I think back to how much time has passed, the poet told his friend, it feels like a great deal of time. He paused, listening back over what he has just said. I’m not sure that’s any clearer, he told her.
The poet’s friend understood, though. I have a friend, she said. She once perfectly captured what you are trying to say. She had asked me how I was doing at home, as I asked you. Like you, I sort of stuttered out a response, not really making my point. Anyway, my friend nodded her head and said, The days are long, but the months are short.
The poet thought about that for a few seconds. It was like trying on a new shirt. You had to look at yourself in the mirror first, maybe turn a bit. The poet decided he liked it, he liked it quite a lot. What his friend’s friend said was true. It was, in fact, perfect. The poet repeated it to himself, listening to the words. That’s it exactly, he told his friend. The days are long. And the months are so short. The poet was impressed by people who could boil something down with no appreciable loss of complexity. There was real beauty in it. Epigrams—the poet thought that was the right word, though he often confused it with epigraphs—could be like sculptures. He wanted to walk around them, admiring them from every conceivable angle.
he baby was a wonder. At birth, his arms annoyed him more than anything else, equally liable to knock himself in the head or scratch his cheek. It was as if his hands were worked by someone else’s mind. Once, the poet was holding the baby. He was leaning against the wall with the baby riding high on his shoulder, when the baby started pawing almost blindly at a light switch. A few weeks later, the baby brought one steady finger to bear on the same switch and then simply flicked it on. It was something else how that could happen, this change, his control. The baby was so pleased by such small things, like seeing a beetle crawl across a window screen or holding his bottle in one hand without dropping or fumbling it. His willpower astounded the poet, his determination, say, to move and then, later, to pull himself up an entire set of stairs as the poet followed behind, there if the baby should slip.
It was easy for him to get lost in the baby’s antics. They crawled together and played. The baby crawled around chairs and then ducked to peer underneath, to look back at the poet. The poet waved to the baby and called out his name. When the poet crawled toward the baby, he took off, laughing as he went. The baby had the laugh of an evil genius.
The poet liked seeing things from the floor, things like the underside of tables and the long, bobbing shadows cast onto the ceiling from the street. While lying on the floor, the poet said, even a door appeared great.
e told himself he’d get writing done, but of course he didn’t, really. He worked erratically, in spurts punctuated by long, restive periods of inaction. During one spurt, though, he managed to produce a long poem about Dubai. He had never been, but he caught part of a documentary on television one night and was quite taken by the look of the place, especially the hundreds of manmade islands off the coast which, from the air, resembled a map of the world. At a shopping mall, people skied on indoor slopes and a store sold Ferraris. Not Ferrari t-shirts or key chains or toys, the poet said to his wife. The actual cars. Dubai was, as he imagined it, like some giant playpen. The rich were shaping Disney Worlds from the desert sand. The poet reached for comparisons, anything, but could think only of movies about a coming time when men and women are ruled by robots. That’s what Dubai looked like: a place made for robots. The skyline was a work in progress, jagged, futuristic. Most buildings were under construction still, with cranes pivoting from the rooftops and crews of workers laboring through the day and the night. Thousands of mercury-vapor lamps illuminated the sites at night. The chilly white light of another artificial day.
The poet’s poem was long but had come to him easily, with little revision required. It was as if a spaceship landed on my desk, he told friends. He pressed the finished work on his wife and a few others, people who loved him and whose opinion he trusted. He told them, You know Kafka wrote the novel called Amerika without ever visiting. Not, he added, that I would compare myself to Kafka, but I do like that whole idea of writing about someplace without seeing it.
His readers liked the poem, or at least they said they did, but weeks and then months passed without the poet producing any new writing. The Dubai poem soon felt old, the work of a former self, someone who reminded the poet of a person he knew. What’s more, no editor seemed keen to publish the stupid thing. It was too long, it turned out, for most magazines even to consider.
The poet told himself he’d review books instead, to keep abreast or whatever, but he didn’t do much of that either. He did manage, however, to interest an editor in his proposal to write a review essay about an old satirical magazine, a publication that had begun with little fanfare in 1957 only to promptly, and sadly, fold, as most satires are wont, just 11 issues later, in 1958. The old satirical magazine had been long forgotten but was set to be reprinted in a stately two-volume boxed set. The poet wanted to review it, or at least use it as a launching pad for an argument he’d been thinking about off and on, for, he supposed, at least ten years. He had not known of the old magazine, but he thought of satire as one of a very few subjects that he knew better than almost anybody. Satire was one of his things. He loved when a satire masqueraded as something else. Report from Iron Mountain was, to his mind, the gold standard, just the way it pretended to be the leaked proceedings from some secret quasi-government study group, with hardly a wink or a nudge to the ribs, just that mask, a perfectly fitting mask.
The poet’s essay, as he imagined it, would suggest that what we typically call satire is not really satire at all, but just humor tossed out to audiences already primed to laugh. The Onion and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, as funny as that publication and those television programs sometimes are, attract audiences that know exactly what they’re getting. And never mind that the audience is seldom, if ever, the object of any of the jokes. The audience gets off easy, too easy, in favor of other targets—politicians, say, or celebrities, professional athletes, and so on. The old satirical magazine was no different. If anything, it was a kind of model for what would come to pass. The ur-Onion, the poet called it. The writers and artists for the old satirical magazine took snide swipes at pop culture—movies, books, television shows, even other magazines—but let slide by without comment the consumers of all that junk, the people who made the crap so popular to start with. All of us, in other words.
Real satire was rare stuff. It unsettles and riles. It also makes people exceedingly uncomfortable. Satire is not some balm or some half-hour-long respite from a crazy, mixed-up world. Genuine satire does not amuse or alleviate stress. It should, in fact, disturb and interrogate, all under the guise—and this is the hardest trick of all, the poet thought—of humor.
A professor the poet had once likened satire to being cut by a sword so sharp and wielded so artfully that a person doesn’t even realize he’s been cut in two. The more the poet thought about satire, it seemed less a species of comedy than a strategy of rhetorical attack—withering, exact, unsparing, even violent. All this brutal language, this talk of target and attack—it was military language, really—was no accident. One scholar describes how generals of ancient armies placed the rhetorically gifted on their front lines, employing them to hurl curses and insults ahead as they charged the enemy.
So went the poet’s idea anyway. The editor gave him a generous deadline and a lot of room to flesh out his argument—4,000 words. It was the most anyone had ever asked him to write. The poet got to reading back issues of the old satirical magazine. He read slowly, when he found time and had enough energy. Sometimes weeks went by, though, whole weeks in which he read no pages. His hopes and plans, such as they were, exceeded his time, or maybe it was just his energy. It didn’t matter which it was, really. He did finish reading the back issues, eventually, but by then, his deadline was looming, and he’d written hardly a word. He contacted his editor and apologized, asking for more time. His editor said all was well. He wanted the essay done right, not hastily.
The poet began reading interviews with the founders of the old satirical magazine. He also located critical articles about the publication. As before, he read slowly, when time allowed. He began looking at other work by the founders, so that he could understand the old satirical magazine in the context of their various oeuvres. The poet was nothing if not thorough. He approached the project as if it were his dissertation and filled the margins of his research with arrows and his ragged handwriting. He posed questions to himself and underlined bits that would, if he followed up on them, open whole new avenues for further research. He took pages of notes.
The poet’s wife gave her husband every opportunity to work on the essay. She was just so glad he was writing again. It made him happy, having something in the works. On her days off, she took the baby out of the apartment, to run errands and whatnot, so that he could have a quiet space in which to think.
A couple of months later, the poet completed his study of all the secondary material. He could have gathered more, he knew, but he had to tell himself, finally, to stop already. By then, though, his memory of the primary sources—the actual issues of the old satirical magazine—had faded, so he went back through all his notes and typed them into his computer. The work was tedious and even repetitive, but not without occasional rewards. He came upon particularly perceptive notes and was pleased to see how clear-sighted he had been, back when he had only just started to work on the project. In addition, he found a few meaty notes and was able to expand them into complete sentences or even, in one or two instances, a paragraph, text he figured he would return to and incorporate directly into the finished essay. By the time the poet was done, he had 42 pages of notes, double-spaced. The essay was already there, in his notes, sort of. It was a mess, still, but he could see it starting to take shape.
His second deadline loomed, however, and so the poet had to ask the editor for just a little more time. He apologized for being so slow. I’m making good progress, he said. I want to finish this for you. The editor was kind, unfailingly, but he was also firm. He needed the essay no later than two months from that date. The poet thanked him and then apologized once more and said he would not let him down.
It had seemed like enough time, but the two months passed quickly and with little actual progress. The poet’s wife asked him how the essay was coming along. He was sitting at his desk, and she was standing behind him, to the side. Her hand rested on his shoulder, and then she let it fall to his chair. She tried to be gentle and tried not to push. She didn’t want to make him feel bad or pressure him in any way.
The poet told her he needed more time. It’s not enough, he said. You leave the apartment for two hours here or an hour and half there. What am I supposed to do with these little snatches of time?
I can’t keep the baby out all day, his wife said. He needs to nap.
I think I know about naps, the poet said. Thank you, though.
The poet’s wife started to walk out of the room, but got only as far as the doorway before she turned around to face him again. I stay out for as long as the baby can stand it, she said. But we do need, at some point, to come home, you know?
I’m not talking about naps, the poet said. My god.
The poet’s wife was silent. She would let the poet do the talking. It was the only thing to do, really. Just let him go and go until he tired of it. Or else leave. Not that anything changed anything.
You see the trouble, the poet said. Don’t you?
She didn’t, but she didn’t say.
I never know when I’m going to get any time, the poet said. That’s what makes this so hard for me. Maybe I’ll get an hour tomorrow. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll get a little time next weekend. But maybe not. How can I work like this? the poet asked.
The poet’s wife just listened.
The answer is I can’t, the poet said. I can’t work like this. It’s just no way to work.
The poet’s wife suggested some new way they might eke out a little more time for him, both during and in between the naps, at least on the days when she was home. She would do anything for him. She wanted to make that plain. And she wanted her husband to write this essay. It was important. That’s what she told him. I want us to find a way, she said. I want to make this work.
It doesn’t matter, the poet said. It’s not going to work. Nothing will work. Even when you two leave, I have to do so much to get you ready to go that by the time you actually clear out of the apartment, I feel too tired to do much work. What the poet said was and was not true. He tended toward melodramatic overstatement, especially when trying to be persuasive. He didn’t have to do that much, not really. He did feel tired, though, but then he always felt at least somewhat tired.
In the end, the poet failed to turn in his essay. He failed even to start the thing. That was the sad truth. After all those months—how many exactly he didn’t want to count—and he had not written a single word. All the time his wife gave him, her support, her patience, her forgiving him his moods and his impossible brooding, plus all the editor’s understanding, and the poet still had nothing. He had spent so much time reading and note-taking, never mind the time he then spent organizing his notes. It was absurd. Maybe he had just been stalling all along. The poet had to wonder. Did he need the notes? Did he need them typed? He had wasted so much time. Maybe he just got bored. Or maybe the idea grew old and, in his mind, started to seem like something he’d already written.
Sometimes still he burned with the idea. A little fire that rose and fell. He could feel it. He considered making one last push, a final attempt to get the thing done, but after dragging all his books and research out and sorting them into neat stacks on the kitchen table, he decided he didn’t have it in him, he just didn’t.
The poet wrote the editor, telling him the bad news, and a few days later, the editor responded. Very sorry to hear this, he said. Why don’t you send me what you have, though? Maybe we can figure something out…
The poet stared at the ellipsis at the end of the editor’s message, trying to divine what those dots might entail, what he could do and what the editor would then say and so forth. He thought he might tell the editor the truth, or something close to it. Instead he told him that his writing, what he had, was just too bad to show. It’s really, really rough, he said, in its current state. I’m sorry, but I’d rather just pull the plug on the thing and be done with it.
A few more days passed, and the editor wrote back. Plug pulled, he said. Be well.
The poet imagined then that he might start to write in short forms, the epigram, say, or maybe the couplet, but that never worked out either. He could never say anything much in a line. He did, however, start one new poem. He had only a couple of lines in his head, yet they seemed to hold some promise. For several days, he thought of the words, repeating them to himself, listening to the sound they made. He wanted to give them a chance to build, to grow, to become something, but when nothing seemed to be happening, he opened a new document on his computer and just typed the words in already. The man was tired, he wrote. Too tired even to sleep. That was it. It wasn’t complete, but that was all he had. Over the next two weeks, he went back and looked at what he had done, tweaking what was there, bending the lines first one way and then another, breaking them into even smaller pieces only to put them back together again, exactly as they had been before. He elaborated and embellished plenty, but then ended up deleting his efforts until he was back with just those original two lines. Nothing new ever lasted long. As he worked on the poem, he thought chiefly of himself. Once, while staring at his nine words on the screen, he thought of those small lead weights used for fishing, sinker weights. He imagined them secured to a thin line and then hooked into his face, right beneath his eyes and at the corners of his mouth. The weights stretched his skin, tugging at his features, pulling them down. That was how he felt, he thought. He just didn’t know how best to put it. The more he read the poem, though, and the more he worked those two lines over, the more self-pitying he found the entire undertaking. Everybody is tired, he thought. Everybody is always tired. Eventually, he just quit the thing. It was stupid, he told himself.
For the first time since he was a teenager, the poet started to keep a notebook, just a place to jot down ideas for lines or overheard dialogue and occasional thoughts, but after filling a few pages with writing that seemed, on reading it over, slack and meandering, if not self-indulgent and pitiable, he let the notebook get buried underneath other papers.
he less he wrote, the more books he bought. The poet purchased new collections of poetry, dense works of literary criticism and poetics, a study of Melville’s poems, and a biography of Mallarmé.
When he got a new book, he always took in a few pages, just to sample it, getting a flavor for the thing, but he only rarely found the energy to read more. The poet bought the books he wanted eventually to read as well as books by authors he wanted to support.
He was building a library for the person he wished he was. Or so he told himself.
Once, the poet found a passing reference to an out-of-print monograph that argued Emily Dickinson’s style, her telegraphic lines and those bold dashes, was the result of her being blind. The dashes were there, the author posited, so that she could find her way on the page, by feeling the deep marks with her fingertips. It was an intriguing if impossible-to-prove thesis, and the poet spent weeks of what free time he had trying to track down a copy. When at last the book came in the mail, he left the package unopened on his desk. One day, he thought, I’ll read about blind Emily Dickinson.
Under the circumstances, it was all too easy for the poet to begin to resent his wife. Not that she deserved it. Not in the slightest. She worked hard for them, and they owed everything to her. The apartment. The food. Their lives and their stability. She made milk for the baby and brought it home for him, several bottles each day. And anyway, the poet couldn’t do her job. Nothing he could do paid well enough for a family of three. Believe him, he’d looked.
Nevertheless, the hours began to wear on him and turn him sharp. Also to confuse him. One night, he rolled over in his sleep and grabbed his wife by the arm, convinced the baby was in bed with them and that it was his little arm he held in his hand. Never mind that they never slept with the baby. In his half-sleep, the baby was there and in danger of being crushed and smothered. It felt so real.
He comforted his son, which was really his wife, stroking his arm and telling him it was OK, it was OK now, Daddy’s going to be put you to bed now, OK?
He whispered to his wife. Love, he said, trying to wake her. Love.
What is it? she said. Shouldn’t we put the baby back in the crib? he asked.
The poet’s wife was silent, thinking. The baby’s not here, she said. Go back to sleep.
He mumbled an apology and rolled onto his back, trying to understand his mistake and compose some semi-coherent explanation.
On the next night—and for several nights following it—the poet had this same dream.
n the mornings, the baby awoke at seven, which is also when the poet’s wife started to get ready for work. So for the next ten or 11 or sometimes 12 hours then, the poet took care of the baby. He tended to fill their day with talk. He liked to tell the baby what he was doing and what was going on, like a narrator would. We need to change your diaper, OK? Or, Daddy needs to make lunch now. That sort of thing. But often when the poet spoke, he made mistakes. Just stupid errors. He mangled his verbs, for instance, and sometimes he searched for a word only to come up with the wrong one. Once he asked his wife if she’d seen the baby’s coffee. Milk, he added. I meant milk.
The poet’s wife looked in the refrigerator and, after a few seconds of hunting, found the milk pushed way to the back. It was behind the orange juice, she said. Hiding. She handed the bottle to the poet, and he handed it straight to the baby, who had been reaching for it as soon as it appeared, reaching and calling out, Meh, meh, meh, his word, they figured, for milk.
The poet and his wife watched their baby consume the milk. He’s draining that thing, the poet’s wife said. Look at him.
It was impressive, the poet had to agree. Guess we shouldn’t starve him so much, he said.
We could feed him more coffee, his wife said. As an alternative.
The poet smiled. It was a kind of comfort, his wife knowing just what he had meant. They were well versed in each other’s nonsense. But still. He couldn’t shake the errors, and he couldn’t forgive himself for making them. It was embarrassing. His grasp of grammar was deteriorating. He felt retarded, almost. He hefted his baby into the air and said, Let’s get into the table now, when what he meant, of course, was Let’s get into your high chair. He did that sort of thing all the time. He said things like Daddy eat strawberry, or Daddy go to kitchen. He sounded like a caveman in some bad movie.
It was when things got tough, when the baby was being especially fussy, refusing to eat, swatting away food he normally loved, or crying for no identifiable reason, that the poet thought, This isn’t fair. It’s not fair what I’ve given up. It’s not fair what I have to do. I can’t even manage to finish reading a book, he thought. A goddamn book. What he wanted to know was when he was going to start getting something back around here. That’s all. Because he’d really like to know when it’s going to be his turn for a change.
Not that the poet could imagine another way they might get by. He had no plan in mind, nothing reasonable, really.
At the end of the day, before the poet’s wife came home, he often ended up on the floor, lying there spent, his eyes shut, the baby across his chest, trying to clamber over him. If the baby crawled away, he let him go, not because he didn’t care, but so he could steal, with his eyes closed, a few seconds of rest. The poet had to tell himself, order himself really, Get up now. Go after your child. He was his own sergeant and slack soldier both.
Sometimes the poet’s wife came home and found them on the floor. Sometimes when she came home, the poet could hardly manage a hello, a how are you, and how was your day. When she bent in for a kiss, he gave her his cheek.
It got so bad that the poet had to remind himself to be patient with his wife. He put a note on his bedside table, so he saw it every morning and every night.
he poet had a fear. He worried that one day somebody would arrive and just take the baby from him. Somebody official, from the city maybe, or the county, however it worked. Sometimes the poet worried his parents would try to take the baby.
What, his father might ask, can you even do for this baby, as a poet? How can you take care of him? This is my grandson we’re talking about.
The poet could hear the conversation in his mind, the reel of tape turning and rewinding and then playing again. He knew well how his father pronounced poet, as if the word itself had gone sour.
The poet had no idea what he had done wrong—or not done right—that would merit having the baby removed from his custody, but he felt sure there was something. There was always something.
One night, after the baby was asleep, the poet was lying in bed, resting, just staring at the ceiling, at their ceiling fan. He had his arms thrown over his head, and he thought, not for the first time, I don’t want to move. I want to stay like this forever. The fan shook and rattled, as it did when set on any speed but slow and ineffectual.
His wife was about to leave the room, when he called out to her. Love? he said.
She turned, already in the doorway, half standing in shadow.
Am I doing the right things at the right time? he asked her. In general, I mean.
She said he was being silly. Of course, he was. It was all fine.
At some level, though, the poet couldn’t accept that it all really was fine. Time and again the poet asked his wife, What’s wrong? Is anything wrong? Because he was so sure something was wrong. Something was always wrong. Behind her assurances, the words were there, he just knew it. The complaints, the differences, impossible wishes for how things might be instead, they just hadn’t yet been spoken aloud.
Around this time, the poet began to notice a man lurking about the apartment complex, a black guy, middle-aged, who wore Hawaiian shirts and kept a pair of reading glasses and a laminated ID around his neck. The poet saw him knocking on doors in the middle of the day. Sometimes when the poet walked by with his baby, the man was presenting his ID to whoever was at the door. The man tried to be real casual. Once, the poet heard him say, But if now’s not cool with you, I can just swing by later on.
He had a kindly voice. Soft-spoken, nonthreatening. You could train a person to talk like that. It wasn’t hard.
The poet assumed the man was from some social-services welfare-type office, and that he was checking up on his cases, checking on children. He carried a clipboard and had friendship bracelets, an easy couple dozen of the things, tied around one wrist. Often, when the poet saw the social worker, he was standing before some door, looking at it, listening. Was nobody home or was nobody answering? Were there noises inside? Was that a television? The poet didn’t have a lot to go on, but what more did he need, really?
he poet was happiest on the weekends, when they were all together. Raising the baby was a job for two people with almost nothing else to do except care for the child. By himself, when it was just he and the baby, the apartment came apart, sliding gradually into disorder and chaos. What was clean became dirty, until everything was dirty. With both the poet and his wife at home, however, they stayed ahead of the chores, the laundry, the dishes.
They did things together, too, as a family. They went places. Nothing big, but still. When the poet needed new shoes, they went to the mall, to a department store. The poet had thought shopping for shoes sounded like a hassle, but his old pair was looking—in his wife’s words—a bit rough. The toes had holes in them, holes large enough to see through, and the soles were worn down past the rubber in places. Still, the poet didn’t care about the condition of his shoes. He knew they looked rough. No one would argue that point. He just didn’t want to spend any money he didn’t have to. The poet always resisted spending, particularly on himself. It just seemed like the least he could do, since he didn’t make any money of his own, per se. He was always trying to save, too, turning out the lights when nobody was using them, that sort of thing. He also filled out those forms for mail-in rebates, a task to which he brought a religious devotion. The amounts he got back were nominal, and he often felt ridiculous trudging to the bank with some check for a dollar and change or whatever it was, but it didn’t matter, money was money. Wasn’t it? He did feel bad if a line of people was queued up behind him, guys in gray suits, women in their work clothes and their tennis shoes, and there he was holding these busy people up in order to deposit sums like $4.50 or $6.85 or, one time, 75 cents.
When it came to the shoes, however, his wife had insisted. Shoes are not a luxury, she told him.
The poet stood in front of the store displays and assessed his options, trying to find something he might wear. Each shoe glowed, lit up like a movie star by a small spot lamp. While the poet browsed, his wife watched the baby. She carried him around, showing him shoes, talking to him sweetly, telling him what Daddy was up to. The baby started to fuss a bit, and the poet heard, but he didn’t turn to see what was wrong. The baby was his wife’s problem for now.
The poet found a couple of shoes that he thought might work, and then he flagged down a salesman and said he’d like to see them in a 12, if they had it. The baby, by then, was really going at it, his cries louder and more pained. That was, it seemed, the way of their child: He was either fine or else he was bearing witness to the end of the world. By then, the poet’s family was on the other side of the department, but he could hear them still, quite clearly. The baby yelled and screamed, and his wife tried to calm him and soothe him and let him know that everything was going to be all right. It was as if they carried one of the poet’s ears wherever they went and, no matter how far they wandered, he heard them and knew what was happening. The poet glanced in their direction. There was his baby, red-faced and grimacing. The poet’s wife struggled to hold him in her arms, he was wriggling and writhing so. The boy was getting too heavy for her, the poet thought. He started toward them, but then he thought, It’s fine, it’ll be fine. He took a seat and just waited for his shoes.
From his chair, the poet continued to survey the selection on the wall. Was there perhaps one he missed? He looked at each shelf and then he fixed his attention on an odd pair of dress shoes—dress boots, really—made of red, white, and blue leather. Were they part of some promotion, for display purposes only? Was anyone seriously expected to buy them? The poet didn’t know. He liked sitting there, that much he knew. He liked the feeling of not having a thing to do. He even liked having a guy go fetch shoes for him. Because who would not, honestly? The poet took his old shoes off and tucked them under his chair, turning them so that the toes would face away from the salesman when he returned. Then he straightened his socks and relaxed back into the chair.
The poet’s wife came over to where he was waiting. She sat down beside him and sighed. The baby scrambled over the arms of the chairs to reach the poet. Dada, the baby said. Dada.
Come here, the poet said. He hefted the baby up to his shoulder. What a big lug you are, he said. In the time that his wife and boy were away, he had forgotten how heavy he had grown. It had been only minutes, if that, but the weight in his hands felt new somehow. He could appreciate it.
The salesman emerged from the storeroom, carrying seven or eight shoeboxes balanced in two stacks. The poet’s wife scooped the baby up and said they’d be around. She kissed the poet on the cheek and told him to pick out something nice.
The salesman explained that he had taken the liberty of selecting some other shoes he believed the poet was certain to like. He spoke about these shoes, the ones he had picked, as if they were finely made cigars or an exceptional vintage of some wine.
There’s a big sales event coming up, the salesman said. Had anyone mentioned this to the poet?
The poet shook his head. Was somebody supposed to? In the background, over his left shoulder, he thought he heard his baby cry.
We don’t have many sales, the salesman said, but the sales we do have are quite good.
The poet nodded and took in all the shoeboxes the salesman had arrayed around them. He was surrounded. From the top box, the salesman removed one shiny black dress shoe. He laced it up quickly, efficiently, and then, holding it in both hands, pronounced it a very fine shoe. He handed it to the poet to admire. Classic design, the salesman said. Perfect for the office.
The poet turned the shoe over in his hands. It seemed slightly strange to him, like an artifact in some museum exhibition about a tribe of people he had only ever read about in school.
It’s a really nice shoe, the poet said.
The salesman told him how much the shoes would be, on sale, and how much they were originally.
I unfortunately don’t have much need for dress shoes these days, the poet said. He handed the shoe back to the salesman. I’m sorry, he added.
Mind if I ask what you do for a living? the salesman said.
Right now? the poet asked. He spoke it like a question, as if the salesman were inquiring about his rich history of work. I stay at home right now, the poet said. I take care of our baby. He gestured vaguely behind him, toward where he had last heard the baby crying.
Well, that’s a good job to do, the salesman said. He packed up the shoe and then moved aside all the other pairs that he had planned to show the poet.
The poet watched him work. It sounds like a real good sale, he said. I’m just sorry I don’t need any dress shoes.
The salesman said there was no problem at all.
They are nice shoes, the poet said.
The salesman said he should keep them in mind, for future reference. He then found the shoes the poet had asked for and removed them from the boxes. The poet tried them on and, after deliberating a bit and looking at his feet reflected in a mirror, he settled at last on a pair of running shoes, mostly brown with a touch of lime green that ordinarily would have been enough to frighten him off.
I’ll take them, the poet said. Thank you.
The salesman asked the poet how he would like to pay for his shoes today, and the poet handed him a card. Credit, he said.
The salesman then went through some intricately choreographed motions involving the cash register, the poet’s credit card, a pen, and a small sticker he affixed to the side of the shoebox. He was like a machine. No movement was wasted, no energy expended senselessly.
Are these shoes by any chance going to be part of that sale? the poet asked.
The salesman looked up, his trance broken. He had to think for a second, to focus on the question. They’re not, he said. Sorry. And then he went right back to work.
In the car, on the way home, the poet told his wife about his exchange with the salesman. I mean, did you catch how many shoes he brought me? he asked her.
I’m sure they train them all to do that, she said.
I know, the poet said, but I just felt so embarrassed.
He must have thought you looked like someone who works in an office, the poet’s wife said. That’s not an insult, you know.
The poet said he felt—he wasn’t sure how he felt, exactly. He searched around for some word. I felt this deep shame, he told his wife. I wish I hadn’t, believe me, but there it is.
His wife told him it was all right. The guy was just trying to sell some shoes, she said. He probably brings out extras for everybody who walks in there.
The poet said in a weird way he sort of wished he was the man the salesman figured him for.
From the backseat, the baby cried. Out, he said. Out.
God, he hates that car seat, the poet’s wife said.
Out, out, the baby said.
The poet twisted in his seat and craned his neck to check on the baby. Mommy and Daddy can’t let you out right now, he said. We’re going straight home, though, OK? And then we’ll let you out, all right?
Out, the baby said.
The poet turned back around in his seat. That went well, he said.
n Saturday and Sunday, when the baby went down for his morning nap, the poet and his wife took a shower together, and they talked and they kissed and hugged under the water. Sometimes they made plans while they showered, mapping out the day to come, but often they talked about whatever. One time, the poet’s wife said, I wish there was a new food, something I’ve never eaten before. Her comment came out of nowhere. She had, she said, just been thinking. The poet loved such nonsense, the light stuff barely more substantial than air, stuff that didn’t try too hard. It meant everything to him. There was an ease to it, a comfort. He could, he knew, exchange such nonsense with her for the remainder of his life.
Don’t you ever wish you had a new food? the poet’s wife asked him.
He wasn’t sure. I never really have cravings, he said. Not for food, anyway.
In the shower, talking like this, with no real aim, the poet could start to feel he was getting away with something, but he was only relaxing. At some point, relaxing had started to feel wrong, gnawed away at by the many things that needed doing instead.
It was during one of their showers that the poet’s wife asked him what he was thinking, and he told her nothing, really. It’s embarrassing, he said.
That’s OK, she told him.
He had been thinking, he said, taking a breath then, about how once he had supposedly been a promising poet and how that meant something, even though he told himself at the time it was meaningless and ridiculous and then swore he would go on writing regardless.
Sorry, he added, I’m just in a mood, I guess.
Once, the poet’s wife said. You say it like you’re talking about ancient history.
I’m serious, the poet said. I mean, how long, realistically, can one remain quote-unquote promising? At what point does the promise become something never kept?
The poet’s wife tilted her head into the water and rinsed the shampoo from her hair. She pulled her hair back and wrung it and then opened her eyes. You worry too much, she said. She leaned in for a hug and wrapped her arms around the poet so hard that he gasped.
Anyway, she said, you’re the promise. You can’t just break that.
The poet said he supposed so, but he wasn’t sure. It sounds sort of corny, he added. Doesn’t it? A little?
The poet’s wife shrugged her shoulders. She didn’t care about corny. The poet wondered sometimes if the entirety of his education, all the books and all the classes, the seminars and presentations, taught him little except how to detect trace amounts of corniness, just a few noxious parts per million, and then he wondered what the point of that was, finally, to be so sensitive to what was just a little bit corny.
riends who came over to see the baby often asked when the poet and his wife were going to get started on the next baby. Friends said, That baby’s going to need a brother, right? Or perhaps a younger sister, someone to look out for?
Usually it seemed like a joke, so the poet just laughed it off.
They weren’t ready, he and his wife. He wasn’t sure when they would be ready either, or if they would ever be. They were barely managing as it was.
The poet’s wife told friends, Just show me where we’re going to put another baby.
They didn’t have enough room or enough money. They didn’t have enough anything. It wouldn’t work. It just wouldn’t. Neither the poet nor his wife could imagine another child.
A month and a half later, one Saturday morning, they were taking a shower when the poet’s wife told him that she thought she was pregnant.
You think? he said. Or you’re sure?
I’m pretty sure, she said.
He didn’t know what to say. He lowered his head and closed his eyes and, for a few seconds, just let the water beat on the back of his neck. Well, congratulations to us, he said. Now what are we going to do?
What do you mean? his wife said.
I mean, he said, and then he said nothing. He didn’t know what he meant. But wasn’t it obvious, what they had to do? He for one thought it was. There just was no acceptable way to hint around. What was he supposed to do, raise two children while she worked? Had she not said, very recently, that they couldn’t swing it? He just felt it wasn’t fair. He was back to that again, to the unfairness of it all, which he understood to mean the immense unfairness to him.
What do you want to do? the poet asked.
His wife shrugged. I know it’s not what we wanted, she said.
But, he thought.
But whatever happens, she said, we’ll figure it out together, right?
Of course, the poet said. He hugged her to him and felt her back, slick and clean. Of course, he said again.
That weekend the poet found a time—there was no good time—to tell his wife that he had been thinking and wondered if maybe they shouldn’t perhaps terminate the pregnancy, or at least discuss all the options. He hated these words—terminate, options, discuss. He hated to hear himself speak them aloud, but he could find no substitutes.
When his wife asked him why, he said, Because I thought that’s what we had decided. I thought we were in agreement here.
The poet’s wife said she knew. And she understood, she did. She really did. But that was in the abstract, she said. This was different now.
In the abstract. What a phrase. Nothing’s ever really in the abstract, he said. I mean, am I going to look after two kids—two babies, let’s be clear—in the abstract?
She was turning away. He looked at the side of her face, and then her brow and her nose. What is it? he asked.
He always asked the same question when he knew he’d done some wrong. He just wanted her to talk, to say something, so he asked his stupid question. It was as if he just walked into the room, as if he had no knowledge, as if he hadn’t been sitting there, beside her, the whole time, as if he hadn’t said what he said, as if he never hurt her.
She was looking toward the kitchen, maybe at nothing.
He was going about this all wrong. He knew he was, but he dug in anyway and kept fighting, he didn’t know why. Am I going to raise two children in the fucking abstract? he said.
She looked at him. Do you hear yourself? she asked. Because you make almost no sense when you’re angry.
Later, for several weeks after the procedure, the poet’s wife was visited by terrible dreams in which their baby was put in peril and she had somehow to rescue him. The dreams were vivid, in both their detail and the many predicaments her mind devised. A deep sleeper ordinarily, she woke up from these dreams feeling addled, unsure where she was and what was real. She woke her husband, too, no matter the time, because he insisted and because he got mad if, the next morning, she told him she’d had another bad dream.
The poet was sweet to his wife after the procedure, inordinately and impossibly sweet. He held her from behind and spoke quietly into her ear, asking about her latest dream, telling her she was OK now, that it was all right, that the awful dreams would go away with time and everything would be all right again.
One night, they were lying together, and she had her head next to his head, so that their foreheads were touching, and they were whispering when he felt tears roll down his cheek, and he had to ask himself, Am I crying? He really wasn’t sure. He felt sad, a little, but he didn’t think he was crying. And then he realized, they were his wife’s tears. They were her tears rolling down his cheek.
Sometimes the poet asked what he had been doing in her dream, what part he played in the drama. But he wasn’t in any of the baby dreams. Not ever. Not even his absence was explained. He simply wasn’t there. The poet’s wife always made something up, though, giving him some essential task and telling him exactly how he saw it through. The poet listened to his wife. How he liked to hear her talk. Her voice.
In the middle of the night, with his wife in his arms, the poet made certain promises. He spoke about their future and said they could always try again, when they were ready. We’ll do it right this time, he said. With a plan. It won’t be a surprise.
The poet’s wife thought he was being absurd, talking of a plan. A plan for what? For life?
But she also took some comfort from what he said, to hear him describe a future in which they were together in spite of everything—their arguments no matter—and living in the country somewhere, in a house with many rooms, a library, even, for all his books, and outside, fenced in with rabbit wire, her little vegetable garden. She wasn’t sure he would ever think they were truly ready again, but she still took some comfort in his promises, she couldn’t help it, she guessed.
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