The indefatigable Carl Wendt, not quite Charles Baudelaire, not quite Charles Bukowski, poet of all ages, private eye to the gods, is following up on the death of performance artist Valerie Richards, an old girlfriend and one of the true loves of his life, for a tribute in his Poetry Month feature in the weekly and stumbles across a connection between her and a recent apparent suicide, a street poet by the name of Jeremy Beljahr, aka Jeremessiah, and a mysterious “fat” man—is there a serial killer of poets on the loose in Frisco?
excerpt from Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius
a fiction by Pat Nolan
Lorna Dune ran the Vivisection Lounge. She was a large woman with Biker Bitch tattooed in gothic script on her inner left forearm. And she was the only person Wendt knew who actually looked good in a crew cut. He remembered her from when she’d been the bartender at Puss ‘N Boots, the biker dyke bar in the Castro. He had asked if she knew Val and when was the last time she saw her.
“Yeah, shame that. Lipstick doll, a real heartbreaker with that crooked smile. Yeah, I remember her. Why you asking?”
“She’s a friend of mine, was a friend, and I’m writing a piece on her for the weekly.”
“Yeah, I thought I recognized your mug. What’re you gonna write about her?”
“Kind of a memorial and a tribute to her talents.” Wendt indicated a refill on the shot. He unfolded the flyer and pointed to the name. “Know how I can get in touch with Lillian Belfry?”
Lorna lifted the phone on the back bar and stabbed a number. She spoke into the arcane handset. “You’ll never guess who’s out here askin’ after you?” She listened with a wince. “Alright, alright. What’s his name, the guy you read in the weekly?” She motioned to Wendt with her chin, “Wendt?” and Wendt nodded back. “Yeah, that’s him.”
Lorna poured the shot as Lillian Belfry flew out of the door that read Employees Only. “Well, if it isn’t Carl Wendt, poet killer.”
“Hey, hey, I had nothing to do with Reg Meyer’s untimely, or timely, as the case may be, demise.”
“I’m not talking about Reg Meyer.” She stood at Wendt’s shoulder and he met her eyes. “Val Richards, that’s who I’m talking about. You killed her, Wendt, you killed her with indifference.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I know you’re gutless. I’m woman enough to know you’re missing a pair. You coulda gone into that burning building and saved her.”
“I’m not a fireman.”
“You’re barely a man!”
Wendt glanced at Lorna who beamed a smile of great satisfaction. He turned back to Lillian whose head appeared to have been transformed into a giant long eye-lashed gape mouthed cartoon of a dime store goldfish. He nodded, understanding that Val intended to haunt him with memories of his churlishness and cowardice. “I’m writing a memorial as a feature article for the weekly. That’s why I’m asking around. Who did she see last, what was she doing? That sort of thing.”
“And you think that because you’re writing this memorial it’s going to absolve you of any guilt for your heartless neglect?”
Wendt nodded and stared at the shot glass in his hand and then put it back on the bar untouched. “Yeah, something like that. I feel guilty I didn’t do more even though I knew there wasn’t anything I could do, nothing anyone could do. You know that as well as me. Something got off track and that happened long after. . . .” he said with a wave of his hand to indicate what would remain unspoken. “The whole performance thing, I mean, it was spectacular, but it took its visceral toll. She should have stuck to poetry. She would have been just as miserable, more obscure, and maybe not as dead.” He shrugged and knocked the shot back. “But what the hell do I know?”
Lillian fixed him with a gaze that had lost some of its harshness. “She always loved poetry, you know, that never changed. Ever wonder why she threw that whole poetry thing over, Carl? Think about it. She was in love with you. And she was a better poet. She knew that you couldn’t take the competition.”
“That’s crazy talk.”
“Really, Carl? Didn’t she change her name to Valentina Fox soon after the publication of Book Of Pain, her first collection of poems? Which, I might add, received unprecedented critical acclaim for a first book. All of a sudden she didn’t want to be a poet anymore. You were there then, Carl. What happened?”
“It was an esthetic decision. I had nothing to do with it. In fact, I supported her.”
“We were drifting apart. I wished her well. I mean, I knew something was wrong, the pills, and the lies, the lies and the pills. You can deal with one or the other, but not both, and most of the time, they don’t come alone.” He shrugged, “And she was in the process of changing her sexual preference.”
“That hurt, didn’t it?”
Wendt screwed up an eye like he was considering the comment. “Actually I have a tendency to turn women toward lesbianism. I’m part lesbian myself.”
Some people have a sense of humor about their unorthodox proclivities, and it’s usually dark. Wendt should have been knocked off his stool lying flat on the floor for that crack. Instead Lorna poured another shot. Lillian didn’t quite put away her hostility but at least she coughed up some info. Val liked to come by and be part of the reading scene which, considering the moderator, was heavily femme.
“If she was on something, she’d be quiet, unassertive and sweet. If she were coming down, she’d be agitated and heckle the poets. But at least she was participating in the scene again. People would buy her drinks to try to get in bed with her but when she was drunk she was like a sopping wet dish rag and all she could talk about was this famous poet she knew and how she had written the best book of poems ever and how he had never said anything good about it except ‘that’s nice.’ She went ballistic if someone even said, ‘that’s nice’ to her.”
Wendt was familiar with that particular flash point.
Lillian indicated that Val was writing poetry again, but it wasn’t for herself. “She was hustling this guy who wanted her to write poems that he could publish under his own name, and he was paying her. So she said. Kinda like a poetry sugar daddy. Her and the kid who I guess is the one introduced her to this patron of the arts. Well, you know, with Val, you were never sure of how firm a grasp she had on reality.”
“Ok, back up a bit there. A kid? Who was this kid?”
“Some street monkey, a crackster I’m sure.”
“Get a name?”
“Messiah?” She glanced at Lorna for confirmation.
“Yeah, something like that, Messiah. I had to boot him. He was creeping people out.”
“I think he was writing poems for this guy, too. That’s the impression I got, anyway.”
Lorna nodded. “That’s it, frickin’ freak is what I say.”
“You know him?”
Wendt sighed. “It’s a long story.”
Lillian looked at her watch. “And I’ve just run out of time.”
“Yeah, third floor, three ten. You from the paper? The weekly? Yeah, he said he was a poet. What do I know? I thought they was all in the schools. You writing something about him? Funny critter. Used to call me his corn-sage. That means apartment manager in French. He said he could speak French. He tried some out on me. But what do I know. Come on in.”
Gray limp hair hung from her surprisingly small head like unraveled yarn. Her shoulders were broad, and her arms jutted out in installments from the garishly bright orange and yellow sleeveless dress. She’d forgotten her teeth. “’scuse a min.” She came back shortly with her smile. The widescreen TV seemed out of place in the cramped shabbiness of the tiny room. The sound was off and the images flickered disconcertingly without context. “Funny that when he was alive he hardly had any visitors. Now that he’s. . .you know, there’s always someone asking after him.”
“Oh yeah, like who?”
“Well, cops, for one.”
“Yeah, yeah, but she come later, after the uniforms got done taking statements.”
“A guy. I think I seen him with Jeremy once, before. . .you know.”
Wendt nodded. “What did he look like?”
“I dunno, big guy. Looked like he ate well.”
“Younger than us, I’d say, older than the kid.”
“You talk to him?”
“Only once, after the. . .you know. Wanted to look in the room. I told him the cops took everything.”
“Say what he was looking for?”
“Books. Notebooks. Said the kid had some of his books.”
“I showed him these over here in the corner.” She pointed to a bundle of spiral notebooks on the floor next to the chipped and dinged white nightstand. “They’re still in the shrink wrap. He didn’t want them though. Had to have writing on them. I said he could have them anyway. They’re brand new. You want them? You can have them. I ain’t gonna use them. They was Jeremy’s. He’d just bought them. Figured he wouldn’t need them and I could give them to the neighborhood kids to do their homework. That’s something I didn’t know.”
“Kids don’t do homework anymore.”
Wendt pulled his attention away from the dancing shapes on the flat screen. “Think he had a girlfriend?”
The corn-sage said, “I did see him with a woman,” when she finished coughing and laughing. “Didn’t think she was his girlfriend. Older. Redhead. Dyed red, you could tell.” And without prompting, she blurted, “He give me that TV so I ain’t gonna say nothing bad on him.”
“Nice TV. New?”
“Said he come by some money and just had to have it. Impulse buy, he called it. Didn’t matter. Said he’d be getting more money soon. He had a deal with some guy to write for him. Said I could borrow the TV anytime I wanted. So when he. . .you know. . .I figured that it would be as good a time as any to borrow it seeing as how he weren’t gonna ask for it back.”
When Wendt said nothing she insisted, “He said I could borrow it!” He didn’t care about that. Why would the kid buy new notebooks if he was going to take a dive? Another impulse buy? Or maybe the euphoria of the moment when possibilities seem infinite.
Wendt also thought to check some old trap lines among the margin dwellers. Apollinara and Jacob, known to everyone as Polly and Jake, were an East European couple in their 70’s whose apartment was on a block south of Market scheduled for demolition to make room for more parking garages. He remembered that Val had a special affection for them because they were so old world, and she was particularly fond of old world. Polly was a papier-mâché artist while Jake was a junk artist.
“So much more junk in America! My art improve one hundred percent!”
The walls and ceiling were covered with papier-mâché stalactites and odd organic protuberances painted a variety of colors but giving off a slime yellow-green aura like the inside of a giant gut. Jake’s repurposed found objects were niched and incorporated into the ever-changing irregular surroundings.
“The things people throw away would make a man rich in my country.”
They were always busy creating, Polly tearing strips of newspaper, a cigarette permanently lodged in the corner of her lipstick rouged mouth, one eye squinting from the trickle of smoke, a ratty blond wig on her head, thin diaphanous kimono thrown over narrow bony shoulders, a stained satin slip showing underneath, and when she paused, one hand on her hip, to take the cigarette from her mouth to blow a cloud of smoke and consider the progress of her latest creation, she resembled a bad parody of Marlene Dietrich.
Jake, a tall stooped man always attired in the same suit coat and matching brown trousers, a perfect crust of day-old white whiskers clinging to the hangdog jowls, mouth a liver red smear beneath cavernous nostrils and, despite their inflamed sockets, blue eyes twinkling with glee, joy, and mischief.
A constant stream of people passed through the small two room apartment, mostly neighbors, druggies, conmen, common criminals, and street toughs. No one ever overstayed their welcome for fear of becoming a part of the incessant collage going up around them. And it was because of one of Val’s drug connections that he had first been dragged down the dead end alley and up the short flight of creaking wood steps.
“What’s the matter these people? They don’t have memorial for her friends should honor her?” Polly squeezed the life out of a tea bag that had seen better days into a cracked tea cup missing a handle. “You want sweet? We got pink and we got blue, no real. Just like political party, yes?”
Wendt examined his own cup and tried to discern color in the liquid. Was it darker than hot water or was that just a shadow?
“She come here with skinny crazy boy who must always talk not so long ago. Looking for Gordo.” Polly shrugged. “Each their own.”
“Just her and the kid? Anyone else?” Wendt noticed Jake eying the used tea bag on the saucer as if it had a numinous presence.
Polly carefully emptied two packs of the pink sweetener into her hot water and then set them aside with the pile of used pink and blue packages that would eventually be collaged to a section of wall.
“Fat man.” Jake said looking up from the tea bag. It sounded like he said ‘fete’ man.
“Last time she come with fat man.” He made a slope shoulder gesture with his arms held away from his side.
“He was money,” Polly added.
“How do you know?”
She shrugged. “Because Valentina say so. Gordo come, they get big score.”
“I guess I’m gonna have to talk to Gordo.”
“No good. Hit run.” She waved a nicotine stained hand toward the outside, relegating it to another world. “In hospital, maybe die.”
Wendt now considered City of Assassinations as the title of his feature on Granahan, Val, the kid, and now something on Ian Blake which would also serve to announce his presence at the memorial, and maybe Morgan Tilson. Both of them had been associated with New Arts Institute, Frisco, as adjuncts. He figured he could glean enough background from Stoddard Leary.
Mikhail, the bartender at the Backed Inn, a block down from the NAIF campus, had said “regular as clockwork” and at three on the button, Stoddard pushed in the door and momentarily reveled like a man in the desert suddenly happening upon an oasis. He didn’t object when Wendt offered to buy him a drink.
They touched glasses. “I thought I’d see you at Granahan’s funeral.”
Stoddard made a face and waved a hand in dismissal. “My ride never showed up!”
Wendt knew this was bullshit as Nate Silveri had complained to him at the funeral that he was late because he’d waited around for Stoddard who never showed up at their agreed upon meeting place.
“Shame. Wasn’t he instrumental in getting you the position at NAIF?”
Stoddard looked at him like he had just uttered nonsense. “No. . . ,” he shook his head slowly. “As a matter of fact, he had recommended someone else. I got it because the provost at the time was Joel Fischer, an old classmate from Iowa. Granahan, if I remember correctly, wanted you to take his place.”
Wendt nodded, receiving the memory like a bad odor. He’d missed the interview. It had something to do with a woman and too much to drink or a drink and too much woman, either way he didn’t want to think about it. “Ah yes, the Iowa connection.”
“You’re just jealous.”
“Doesn’t IOWA stand for Inbred Ontologically Witless Assholes?”
Stoddard chuckled. “You could be describing any writing program in the country. But, yeah, Iowa is certainly the model. Need I remind you that Valerie went to Iowa.”
“For less than six months. She said the sexual predation was disconcerting. And provincial.”
Stoddard toasted Val, another painful memory. “Here’s to a sweet angel. She will be missed.”
Wendt raised his glass before knocking it back.
“And to Reg Meyer, who won’t be missed.” Stoddard called for another round. “Are congratulations or thanks or commendations in order? You did the world of literature a great service.”
Wendt shook his head. “I didn’t do it. On the other hand there’s no shortage of people who would have done it. I didn’t realize he grated on you, too.”
“He was after my job!”
“No kidding? Reg?”
“Yeah, Reg. He didn’t have any idea how unpopular he was with the board of directors. It may have been that lawsuit he filed against the school a couple years back. Remember that? It was a nuisance suit. Corporations have very long memories.” After a belch, he added, “They’re called databases.”
That was neither here nor there, what could he tell him about Tilson and Blake.
“They both wanted my job!”
“What do you mean? At NAIF?”
“And they didn’t stop at stabbing in the back whoever was in their way. Of course they aren’t the only ones. There are others. Everyone wants my job. It’s the perfect poet’s job. The pay is decent and you don’t have to do anything except talk about what you do to a bunch of cross-eyed trust fund morons.” Stod had the bartender bring over another setup. It was as if he were preparing to go to work, the work of getting obliterated. “It does have a price, though. Who would have thought that it would be so soul negating. It’s not the art. It’s the people you have to deal with. Vampires are real, my friend, they drink a figurative literary blood. And when they’re done with you, you’re about as useful as a burnt out match.”
“They’re dead, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. I just wish there was a way I could thank them.”
“No love lost?”
“The Blake kid was alright. He had a lot of energy, and it showed in his writing. But when you’re the cute up-and-coming literary property and make a point of being seen at all the correct occasions and then act like that somehow gives you some kind of privilege, it can be a pain in the ass.”
“What about Tilson?”
“He was an alien.” Stod savored some of his drink. “A walk-in. Maybe even a robot. I could never connect with the guy. Totally devoid of viscera. His method was interesting, but not the end result. And very ambitious. They both were. Now they’re just a boring subject.” He turned his attention to finishing his drink and hunched his shoulders like he was done for now.
Wendt signaled the bartender for another round. “C’mon Stod, don’t clam up. You got me curious. Who else do you think is after your job?”
The bartender removed the empties and Stoddard moved the new setup into position. He didn’t want to be bothered.
“Like three of the people who were after your job are now dead. Is that just a coincidence?”
“I can’t help it if I’m lucky.”
“With luck like that you don’t need friends.”
Stoddard shrugged. “I heard your friend from Kansas is angling for the job, too.”
“And Charles St Charles.”
Wendt shook his head. “No way. St Charles is old school University material. Where’s he teaching, Yale, Princeton? He’s not going to go after something at a barely accredited diploma mill. That’d be like putting a brass doorknob on a beaded curtain.”
Stoddard giggled. “Where have you been, Wendt? Don’t you know? The old guard is being sloughed off like last season’s exoskeleton. There’s a new breed of insect, of climbers on the bricks of academe. Ruthless untutored young pups. And they’re pushing the old dogs out. St Charles is out here looking over the prospects.”
“If I hear he’s met with an accident I’m going to get real suspicious.”
“How come you haven’t queued up to stab me in the back, Wendt? Waiting for the field to narrow down?”
“Lack of experience more than anything else. Impatient would be another.”
“You’ve got the rep though. That’s all the kids want, to have some of your name rub off on them. Then they can say, I studied under Stoddard Leary. Or Carl Wendt.”
“Quite a few can already say that, but it has nothing to do with poetry. I’m not a teacher.”
“You’d be good, Wendt, I’d even consider passing the baton to you if I didn’t have rent to pay. But you’d still have to contend with Mitch Tjantor and his asshole friends.”
“Tjantor? Who are his friends.”
“Greg Peck, the Hunt brothers. Tjantor has Berkeley sewn up. He has his shadow, Mira Marks, at State poised to jump into the head job at Mills. Hunt or Peck would then move into that vacated position, and the other would be looking to slipping one between my ribs.”
Wendt laid out Jeremy’s notebooks on his bed. Some had been curled, tube-like, for so long they looked like the Dead Sea Scrolls. The newer ones were merely creased down the middle. Jeremy didn’t date his entries but he did date the beginning and end dates on the cover of each spiral bound. Wendt ordered them and then discovered that some notebooks were copies in a better hand rather than random jottings, drawings, scribbles and notes. There was a method to the madness but it would take an archivist to figure it out. Among the notebooks were typescripts, some from a typewriter and others, by the faded script, the product of a computer printer low on ink. They were certainly more legible. Wendt freed a page from a folded sheaf and read.
The radical question posed by poetry is circumscribed by the interest linked to membership in the literary field, that is to say, the very existence of this field and its corresponding censorships. That field is an historical product of the labor of successive poets who have defined poetry by forcing on it commentary, discussion, critique, and polemic. But the problems, theories, themes, or concepts which constitute objectified poetry impose themselves as a sort of autonomous world on would-be poets who must not only know them, as items of culture, but recognize them as items of belief—failing to would disqualify them as poets. All those who profess to be poets have a life or death interest, as poets, in the existence of this repository of consecrated texts, a mastery of which constitutes their specific capital. Thus, short of jeopardizing their own existence as poets and the symbolic powers ensuing from this title, they can never carry through the breaks which imply a practical suspension of the existence of poetry —that is, a denouncement of the tacit contract defining the conditions of membership in the field, a repudiation of the fundamental belief in the conventions of the game and the value of the stakes, a refusal to grant the indisputable signs of recognition—reference and reverence, obsequiousness, respect for convention even in their outrages—in short everything which secures recognition of their membership.
Wendt found that one of the notebooks was stuck to the back of another by the syrupy residue of spilled soda. Separating the two he saw that Jeremy had written a long Ginsbergian poem a la Howl entitled Bay. It was dedicated In Memoriam Angel Headed Hipster, and began I am the beast mind of my generation, wool in sheepish clothing. . . . Wendt chuckled and read a little further then gave a brow raised low whistle. “Well, hello Rimbaud.”
Disquieting were the names on the inside cover of an apparently newer spiral notebook. They were a list of dead poets, very old dead poets whose names underpinned literature, as well as the obscure though remarkable in their day, and more recent names that meant something to Wendt personally. Paul Simon Legris, Dee Dee Wrell, Cornaio Gibaldi, Mark Broms, Dick Granahan. Morgan Tilson, Ian Blake. It saddened him to see Val’s name. Reg Meyer. Andy Porter’s name had been penciled in. That didn’t scan. As was his.
Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia. He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and three novels. His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society. His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.