By Peter Crowther
(From his up-and-coming collection from Cemetery Dance; THINGS I DIDNT KNOW MY FATHER KNEW)
Hey…hey!’ The man on the stage was trying to make himself hear, laughing while he was doing it and waving his hands conspiratorially, as though he were Billy Crystal in the Mr. Saturday Night movie. But the sound that he was trying to drown out was not the sound of people enjoying him but rather of them enjoying each other or their food or their drinks.
‘Yeah, Hillary Clinton.’ The man frowned and shook his hand as though he had picked up something that was too hot to hold. ‘You heard…you heard Bill wants six more secret service agents assigned to her, yeah? Well,’ he reasoned with a shrug, ‘after all, if anything happened to her, he’d have to become President.’
In humor terms, it was one step—a small one—up from Take my wife…please! but somebody let out a loud guffaw and David MacDonald turned around on his seat to see who it had been. At one of the tables over by the coat racks two men were laughing, but it was clearly not at Jack Rilla.
‘Thanks, Don,’ Jack Rilla shouted into his microphone. ‘My brother Don,’ he added for the audience’s benefit. ‘Nice boy.’
The man at the table—who was clearly no relation to the comedian—turned to face the stage and gave Jack Rilla the bird, receiving a warm burst of applause.
Macdonald had never enjoyed seeing somebody die on stage, so he turned back to his food.
He was enjoying the anonymity. All the effete photographers and the snot-nosed journos had gone, taken up their cameras and their tape recorders and walked. Gone back to the city.
He was no longer news. “The most innovative poet of his generation”, The New York Times had trilled, mentioning—in the 18-paragraph, front page lead devoted to his quest—the names of early pioneers such as William Carlos Williams, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Ezra Pound; Kenneth Fearing, to whom they attached the appellation “The Ring Lardner of American verse”; the so-called war poets, including Richard Eberhart, Randall Jarrell, and Karl Shapiro—the Pulitzer winner whose “Auto Wreck” had been widely (and wrongly!) cited as the inspiration behind MacDonald’s own “The Downer”, and even some of the Black Mountain College graduates, in particular Robert Creely and the college’s head honcho, Charles Olson. This latter ‘revelation’ enabled the hack responsible for the piece to tie it all back again to Williams and Pound, who, with their respective paeons “Patterson” and “Cantos”, were commonly regarded as being among the North Carolina college’s—and particularly Olson’s—chief inspirations.
A neat job, but, in the main, entirely wrong.
MacDonald loved e. e. cummings, born a generation after Williams but infinitely more eloquent in his embrace of nature and naturalness and, to the end, delightfully, whimsical. Similarly, he preferred Carl Sandburg—whose “Limited” he had used in its entirety (all six lines!) as the frontispiece to Walton Flats, a surreal and fabulous (in the true sense of the word) novel-length tale of godhood and redemption which he had written in collaboration with Jimmy Lovegrove—to the Runyonesque Kenneth Fearing. And as for the “war poets”, Macdonald rated Randall Jarrell above all the others—Shapiro and his “V-Letter” included—even to the point of learning Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” when he was only twelve years old.
When it came to open verse, MacDonald settled for the Beats—Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti in particular—over the inferior Black Mountain scribes, a fact which seemingly never ceased to amaze the self-styled poetry pundits. But it was their amazement that so astonished MacDonald, just as it astonished him now how nobody seemed to give credit to the “Harlem Renaissance” and the fine work produced in the field of poetry by the likes of Etheridge Knight (of course), plus forerunners of the stature of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, and contempories such as Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. As much as anyone—if not more than, in many cases—these writers, in MacDonald’s opinion, were fundamental in recording the consciousness of a country at odds with itself, as he had gone to great pains to explain to a surprised David Letterman on live television a little over three years ago. Quoting the final few lines from Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa”—in which the poet comments on the patronizing of the whites—MacDonald took great relish in Letterman’s damp forehead.
Sitting at the bar, MacDonald recalled the piece.
‘…I really hope that no white person ever has cause to write about me because they never understand Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.’
But the attention he had received in the press the following day was nothing to the coverage afforded his bold announcement that he was to forgo the novel on which he was working and, instead, go in search of Weldon Kees.
That was almost a year ago now.
The newspapers and the magazines had all followed: followed him to dry California towns, tracked him into the wastes of New Mexico, dogged his footsteps into the inhospitable Texas plains and now, back in the sleepy Nebraskan township of Beatrice, they had grown bored. After all, a fanatic is only of interest so long as she either looks like succeeding or looks like dying. Simple failure just isn’t news.
Now no flashbulbs flashed as he walked still another dust-blown, night-time Main Street in some godforsaken town, in its own way just one more boil on the fat backside of indulgence, a lazy, going-nowhere/seen-nothing grouping of weatherworn buildings and choked-up autos clustered around an obligatory general store and wooden-floored bar…with maybe a railroad track where no trains stopped any more thrown in for good measure.
Now no microphones were jammed between his mouth and some under- or overcooked indigenous delicacy as he continued his quest even through physical replenishment. Sometimes the questions had been more rewarding than the food. But the answers he gave were always the same, and the novelty had plain worn off.
Beatrice, Nebraska. A small, slow, company town lacerated by railroad tracks and gripped for eleven months of the year by permafrost or heat wave.
This was where he had started and, now, this was where it all ended. It was the latest—and, MacDonald now believed, the last—stop on this particular tour. Eleven months in the wilderness was enough for any man: Even Moses only spent forty days, for Crissakes.
Whitman’s America had come to a dead-end on the shores of the Pacific and, like the land itself, rolled lazily down to the waterline seeing only oblivion. MacDonald was tired. Tired of honky-tonk bars where he would search through a maze of good ol’ boys and raunchy women, rubbing against tattoos and beer bellies, straining to see and hear through cigarette smile and jukebox rhythms, carrying home with him the secondhand, hybrid musk of sweat and cheap perfume; tired of the revivalist espresso houses in the Village, where he would search through intense poets and poetesses, all wearing only dark colors and frowns, the de rigeur uniform. They, like him, searching, always searching.
He pushed the plate forward on the table, the meal unfinished. It had been a bean-bedecked and fat-congealed mush that maybe could have passed for gumbo if he’d been about 1,500 miles to the southwest. He wiped his mouth across a napkin from a pile on the corner of the bar, their edges yellowed with age, and noted the faded photograph of a town square with picket fences that wouldn’t have been out of place in an Archie comic book or a Rockwell painting. He’d walked through that town square—in reality, little more than a pause for breath between developments in what was merely a typical Nebraskan suburb—to get to the bar in which he was now sitting. There had been no sign of the picket fence.
Just like Rockwell himself, it was long gone. But he had seen from the swinging racks in the drugstore that Archie was still around, though his hair was longer now. Nothing stays the same forever. Maybe this town had been Rockwell once, but now it was Hopper, filled up with aimless people like Jack Rilla, the unfunny comedian, all living aimless lives, staring unsmiling out of seedy rooming house windows at the telegraph poles and their promise of distance.
Weldon Kees, where are you? he thought.
The bartender slouched over to him and lifted up the plate quizzically. ‘No good?’ he said, his jowls shaking to the movement of his mouth.
MacDonald frowned and shook his head, rubbing his stomach with both hands. ‘Au contraire,’ he said, effecting an English accent, ‘merely that you are too generous with your portions.’
The bartender narrowed his eyes. ‘Aw what?’
‘He said you gave him too much.’
MacDonald turned in the direction of the voice to see a man in his early forties chasing an olive around a highball glass with a tiny yellow, plastic sword. The man looked like a movie star from the late fifties/early sixties, like maybe Tony Curtis or someone like that. He wore a plaid sportscoat, oxford button-down with a red-and-green striped necktie, and black pants rucked up at the knees to preserve two of the sharpest creases MacDonald had ever seen. Covering his feet, which rested lazily on the rail of his stool, were a pair of heavily polished Scotch grain shoes and, within them, a pair of gaudy argyle socks. MacDonald’s eyes took it all in and then drifted back to the glass. There was no liquid in it. He hadn’t noticed the man before, but then he wouldn’t have. The bar was crowded to capacity, a good turnout for the amateur talent night promised on a rash of handbills pasted around the town.
The bartender nodded and, with another puzzled glance at MacDonald, he turned around and slid the plate across the serving hatch. ‘Empties!’ he shouted.
MacDonald swizzled the plastic palm tree in his club soda, twisted around on his seat and smiled. ‘Thanks. You want that freshened?’
The man turned to him and gave him a long, studied look, taking in MacDonald’s plain gray jacket and pants, green, soft-collared sport shirt buttoned all the way to the neck, and nodded. ‘Yeah, why not, thanks. Vodka martini. On the rocks. Thanks again.’
MacDonald raised his hand a few inches off the bar, and the bartender acknowledged with a short nod that looked more like a physical affliction.
‘You here for the competition?’
MacDonald took a long drink and put his own glass back onto the bar. ‘That’s right. You?’
‘In a way,’ he said. ‘But really only to enjoy the efforts of others. I’m actually a performer myself.’ The strange and self-knowing smile suggested hidden complexities in the statement.
MacDonald nodded and glanced at the stage, ignoring the opportunities to probe. At this stage of the journey he had had it with barroom confessions. Jack Rilla was telling a story about three men from different countries being sentenced to die…but being given a choice of the method of their execution. It was horrible.
‘How about you?’ the man said. ‘Are you a performer?’
‘There’s some that might say so,’ MacDonald replied, grateful to be able to turn away from what Jack Rilla was doing to stand-up comedy.
‘What do you do?’
‘I write poetry.’
‘That so?’ The interest seemed genuine.
MacDonald nodded again and drained his glass as a crackly fanfare of trumpets sounded across the PA system to signal the end of the comedian. Nobody seemed to be clapping.
Turning around so they could watch the small stage at the end of the adjoining room, they saw a fat man with a Stetson starting to announce the next act. By his side were two younger men holding guitars and shuffling nervously from one foot to the other. The fat man led the half-hearted applause and backed away to the edge of the stage. The duo took a minute or so to tune their instruments and then lurched uneasily into a nasal rendition of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’
MacDonald shook his head and held up the empty glass to the bartender, who had apparently forgotten them and had now taken to slouching against the back counter. ‘Refills over here,’ he shouted. The bartender lumbered over and refilled the glasses, all the while mouthing the words to the song. MacDonald took a sip of the soda.
‘Not too good, huh?’ the stranger said.
‘The service or the entertainment?’
The man jerked his head at the stage.
‘I’ve heard better,’ MacDonald said. ‘It’s probably safe to say that Dylan’ll sleep easy.’
The man smiled and nodded. ‘I knew a poet once,’ he said.
‘Uh-huh.’ He lifted the glass and drained it in one perfectly fluid motion. MacDonald recognized the art of serious drinking…drinking purely to forget or to remember. He had watched somebody he used to know quite well doing just the same thing over a couple of years…watched him in a thousand bar mirrors. He called those his wilderness years. The man set the glass down again and cleared his throat. ‘What kind of poetry you write?’
‘Kind? It’s just poetry.’
‘The rhyming kind?’
MacDonald gave a half-nod. ‘Sometimes,’ he said. ‘Depends on how I feel.’
The pair of troubadours finished up their first song, receiving a smattering of applause, and launched immediately into another. This one was their own. It showed.
MacDonald reached into his pocket and pulled out the plastic button. The number on it was 23. He looked at the board at the side of the stage: beneath the number 22 was a piece of wipe-off card bearing the legend Willis and Dobbs.
While Willis and Dobbs crooned about some truck driver whose wife had left him for another woman—modern times!—a small group of four men and two women chatted animatedly at the table right down in front of the stage. A tall spindle of metal stood proud in the table center and boasted the word JUDGES. They didn’t seem to be talking about Willis and Dobbs. Maybe it was just that they didn’t like country music.
Willis and Dobbs finished their song almost in unison and bowed while the audience applauded and whistled with relief. As the duo shuffled off the stage, the fat man with the Stetson shuffled on the other side, also applauding. As the fat man reached the microphone, MacDonald took another swig of the club soda and slid off his stool. ‘Wish me luck,’ he said to the stranger.
The man looked around. ‘You on now? Hey, break a leg,’ he said, slapping MacDonald on the arms as he walked past him.
The usual nervousness was there. It was always there. He made his way through the people standing up in the bar section and then walked down the two steps to the adjoining room where he threaded his way among the tables to the stage. All the time he walked he was memorizing the lines, though he knew them by heart. He reached the stage as the fat man told the audience to give a big hand to Davis MacDonald. The timing was impeccable.
He walked over to the microphone and nodded to the room, raising his hand in greeting. ‘Hi there,’ he said.
A smattering of nods and waves and mumbled returns acknowledged him. The man at the bar had turned full around on his stool to watch him. He raised his glass—which MacDonald saw had been replenished—and nodded. MacDonald nodded back. Then he faced the audience and lifted one finger to his mouth.
As always, the silence was almost immediate. It flowed over and around the people sitting at the tables, flowed through and into them, touching their insides and calming their heads. The only way you could recite poetry and feel it—whether reading it yourself or listening to it being read by others—was to do it in silence. After all, whoever heard of a painter painting onto a canvas that already had something on it?
There were a few nervous shuffles as MacDonald paced from one side of the stage to the other, his hands thrust deep into his pants pocket. At last, satisfied that this was as good as it was going to get, he removed the micro-phone, pointed over the heads of the onlookers to some impossible distance, and began.
‘She’s down! ‘Like a wounded mammoth, her body sags and, across the sidewalk, in a shower of fabled jewels, she spills the contents of her bags. ‘The empty street becomes alive with do-gooders, tourists and passersby, all holding breath. Transfixed, and with mouths agape, they see her features lighten under death while, alongside, the treasures once so richly cherished— a loaf, some toothpaste, matches, relish— lie discarded on the paving slabs. ‘And ooohs and aaahs, the silence stabs. ‘It takes some time but, action done, the audience turns away its eye and, with a thought as though of one. thinks there one day goes I.’
On the final line, MacDonald turned his back on the audience, walked slowly back to the microphone stand and replaced the microphone. A smattering of applause broke out around the tables. MacDonald nodded and raised his hand, mouthing the words thank you, thank you. He caught sight of the man at the bar. He looked as though he had seen a ghost.
After ‘The Downer,’ MacDonald recited his ‘Ode To the City.’
‘Beneath the legends of the stars the drunks cry out in a thousand bars while pushers prowl in speeding cars... civilization is never far in the city. ‘Bronchitic winos cough up more phlegm to mouth the glassy teat again, and venereal ladies stalk the concrete glens... though love has long since left the city. ‘The neons wink cold, thoughtless lies, to flood the dark and strain the eyes, while the flasher opens wide his flies... because nothing hides inside the city.’
MacDonald lifted the microphone from the stand again and walked across to the left of the stage.
‘Smoke-bred cancers maim the flesh, the addict chokes his vein to strike the next while the abortionist clears away the mess... as all life dies within the city. ‘The dropouts pass around the joint and the rapist hammers home his point, but the suicide doth himself anoint in the fetid, stagnant waters of the city. ‘The kidnapper pastes together a note and then binds his charge with silken rope while frantic parents give us hope... which so long ago left the city.’
And now, as ever, the audience was his.
“In Mendaala When It Rains” came next, followed by “Dear Diary” and “Conversation”. Then MacDonald paused and, unfastening the top button of his sport shirt, sat down on the front edge of the stage. ‘I want to finish up now with a couple of poems written by a man I never met,’ he said, the words coming softly, ‘but who I feel I’ve known all of my life.’
‘This man stole from us. He stole something which we possessed without even realizing…something which we could never replace. The thing he took from us…was himself.’ He shrugged out of his jacket and dropped it in a pile at his side. ‘On July twentieth, nineteen fifty-five, Harry Weldon Kees, one of your…’ he pointed, sweeping his outstretched arm across the audience, ‘…your town’s…most famous sons—disappeared from the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.
‘He left…he left many things behind him—not least a fifty-five Plymouth with the keys still in the ignition—but the worst things that he left were holes.’
The faces in the audience looked puzzled.
‘Those holes, ladies and gentlemen,’ MacDonald went on, ‘were the spaces that he would have filled with his poetry. Yes, he was a poet, Weldon Kees, and I’m here…here tonight, in Beatrice, Nebraska…his hometown…at the tail end of what has been almost a year-long search for him. Because, back in nineteen fifty-five, Weldon’s body was never found. And because there have been some stories that he is still alive…somewhere out there. And if that’s true, then I felt I had to find him.’ He stood up, shrugged, and said, ‘Well, I tried.’
‘Weldon…wherever you are…these are for you.’
Reciting from heart, as he did with all of his “readings”, Davis MacDonald recounted Kees’ “Aspects Of Robinson” and, to finish, “Late Evening Song”.
‘For a while Let it be enough: The responsive smile, Through effort goes into it. Across the warm room Shared in candlelight, This look beyond shame, Possible now, at night, Goes out to yours. Hidden by day And shaped by fires Grown dead, gone gray, That burned in other rooms I knew Too long ago to mark. It forms again. I look at you Across those fires and the dark.’
‘Thank you, ladies and gentlemen…thank you for listening to me.’ MacDonald replaced the microphone and ran from the stage, leaving tumultuous applause behind and around him.
When he got back to the bar and slumped onto his stool, he saw that the man next to him was nursing his drink in his hands and his head tilted back, staring into the long but narrow angled mirror above the bar. MacDonald followed his stare and saw it all then: the bar, the back of the bartender’s head as he moved by, the man’s highball glass, and himself staring. But there was no reflection of the man himself.
He turned around quickly, mouth open, to stare right into the man’s face and saw immediately that he had been crying.
‘I’m Robinson,’ he said. ‘A friend of Weldon Kees.’
MacDonald looked back at the mirror and shook his head. Then he looked back at the man and said, ‘How do you do that?’
‘You tell a good story in your poems,’ he said. ‘I have a story, also, though I’m no weaver of words like you and Harry.’
MacDonald slumped his elbows on the bar. ‘I think I need a drink.’
The man stood up and straightened his jacket. ‘Come on, you can have one back at my place.’
‘Is…is Weldon Kees still alive?’
‘Did he die that night?’ Did he jump off the bridge?’
The man shook his head. ‘Let’s go. I’ll explain on the way.’
When they left the bar, the sidewalks were wet and shiny, reflecting shimmering neon signs and window displays. As they walked, MacDonald could also see his own malformed shape in the puddles but not that of the man who walked beside him. ‘I think I’m going mad,’ he said.
The man gave out a short, sharp laugh. ‘No, you’re not.’
MacDonald turned to him and grabbed hold of the arm in the plaid jacket—
Robinson in Glen plaid jacket, Scotch grain shoes, Black four-in-hand and oxford button-down
The words of the poem he had just recited hit him suddenly and he pulled his hand back as though he had been burned. ‘How can you be Robinson? Robinson would have to be—’ He thought for a moment. He’d have to be around eighty or ninety years old.’
‘I’m actually much older even than that,’ the man said.
MacDonald looked down at the sidewalk, saw his reflection…alone. He pointed at the puddle. ‘And what about that?’
‘The mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall,
Reflects nothing at all. The glass is black.’
He smiled and shrugged.
‘Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.’
‘What are you?’ MacDonald asked.
The man stared into MacDonald’s eyes for what seemed to be an eternity, so long
His own head turned with mine And fixed me with dilated, terrifying eyes That stopped my blood. His voice Came at me like an echo in the dark.
that MacDonald thought he was not ever going to answer his question. The worst part of that was that, while he stared, he simply did not care. ‘I think you can guess,’ he said, suddenly, releasing MacDonald for his gaze.
‘Oh, come on!’ MacDonald laughed. ‘A vampire? You’re telling me you’re a vampire?’
The man started to walk again. Over his shoulder, he said, ‘My kind go by many names. And, yes, vampire is one of them.’ MacDonald started after him, his mind ablaze with stanzas from Weldon Kees’ poetry.
The dog stops barking after Robinson has gone. His act is over.
These are the rooms of Robinson. Bleached, wan, and colorless this light, as though All the blurred daybreaks of the spring Found an asylum here, perhaps for Robinson alone.
This sleep is from exhaustion, but his old desire To die like this had known a lessening. Now there is only this coldness that he has to wear. But not in sleep.—Observant scholar, traveler, Or uncouth bearded figure squatting in a cave, A keen-eyed sniper on the barricades, A heretic in catacombs, a famed roué, A beggar on the streets, the confidant of Popes— All these are Robinsons in sleep, who mumbles as he turns, ‘There is something in this madhouse that I symbolize— This city-nightmare-black—’ He wakes in sweat To the terrible moonlight and what might be Silence. It drones like wires far beyond the roofs, And the long curtains blow into the room.
MacDonald suddenly realized that he was running…running to catch up with the man. But, while the man was only walking, MacDonald was getting no nearer to him. Good God, he thought, it’s true. All of it.
The man turned up some steps and stopped at the door of a house. As MacDonald reached the man, he stepped inside and waved for MacDonald to enter.
Inside, the house smelled of age and dirt. A narrow hallway gave onto some stairs and continued past two doors to a third door which was partly open. ‘I’ll get you that drink,’ the man said and he walked along the hall to the end door. MacDonald followed without saying a word.
The room was a kitchen. Dirty dishes that looked as though they had been that way for weeks were piled up in and beside the sink. In the center of the room, a wooden table with a worn Formica top was strewn with packets and opened cans. MacDonald saw several cockroaches scurrying in the spilled food.
The man opened a cupboard and pulled out a bottle of Jim Beam and two glasses. He poured bourbon into the glasses and handed one to MacDonald. ‘I first met Harry back in 1943. He was writing for Time magazine and The Nation where he did an arts column.’ He pointed to a chair littered with newspapers. ‘Sit down.’ MacDonald sat and sipped his drink. The man continued with the story.
‘He was also doing some newsreel scripts for Paramount—he’d just done the one about the first atomic bomb tests—and he had recently taken up painting. He was as good at that as he was at anything, exhibiting with Willem de Kooning, Rothko—’ He paused and shook his head. ‘I’m sorry…are you acquainted with these names at all?’
‘Ah, good. Yes, with Rothko and Pollock—and he was holding a few one-man shows. So, I guess it’s fair to say that life for him was good.
‘I met him one night in Washington Square. I say one night when, actually, it was well into the early hours of the morning.’ He paused took a drink. ‘I was hunting.’
‘Yes. I was out looking for food.’
‘Are we back to the vampire shtick now?’
The man ignored the tone and continued. ‘I usually arise in the early evening. If it’s too light outside, I stay indoors until the sun is about to set. Contrary to fable, we can exist in the sunlight although it hurts our eyes and causes headaches like your migraines. So we don’t do it. Not usually.
‘This particular evening, I had already fed upon a young woman down near Port Authority. She had arrived in town from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and she offered me herself for twenty dollars. That was a steep price for a prostitute back in 1943, I can tell you. But she was an attractive girl and she knew it. How could I refuse?
‘I killed her in an alley, and drank my fill.’ He drained his glass and waved it at MacDonald. ‘More?’
‘Huh? Oh, no. No more, thanks. I’m fine with this.’
The man turned around and poured himself another three fingers. ‘Always the truth is simpler than the fiction, don’t you find?’ he said as he turned back to face MacDonald. ‘The truth is that we do not have to hunt every night. A complete feed will sustain us for many days—sometimes a couple of weeks—before we start to grow hungry again. Vampires, as you call us, are not naturally aggressive…any more than humans, we hunt and kill merely to feed.’
‘Anyway…where was I? Ah, yes. When I met Harry—he was calling himself Harry back then, and I guess I just never lost the habit—when I met Harry, he was working on notes for his second book. He was walking through the Square where I was sitting. I was completely sated at this time, having—’ He waved his hand. ‘The girl and so on.’
MacDonald nodded and took a drink, eyeing the open door at his side.
‘Anyway, he sat down beside me and we started to talk. We talked about the city and the night—both of which I know well—and then he mentioned that he was a writer. I think that’s what Harry regarded himself as more than anything else: a writer.
‘And he asked me if I enjoyed reading. I told him not very much at all. Then he mentioned his poetry: Did I like poetry? I told him I really wasn’t qualified to comment on it. I did have some books, I told him, but, I said, frankly they might as well be filled with blank pages for all the good they are to me.
‘Sometime later, of course,’ he said, leaning forward from his place against the kitchen counter, ‘he wrote—in the first of what I came to regard as my poems—
The pages in the books are blank. The books that Robinson has read.’
MacDonald took another drink and hiccupped. ‘Did he know…did he know that you were a, you know…?’
‘Not immediately. But, eventually, of course, yes.’ He took a drink and rubbed his hand against the glass. ‘We were…we were alike, you know. Alike in so many ways.’
‘Well, alienated. I suppose you could say that we were both outcasts from society. In those days I lived in New York.
‘I have, of course, lived in many places—I won’t bore you with the details: Harry covered some of them in his “Robinson At Home”…uncouth bearded figure; keen-eyed sniper; a beggar on the streets; confidant of popes—but when I lived in New York, it grew too hot for me in the summertime. I used to go up to Maine, to a little coastal village called Wells. Do you know it?’
MacDonald shook his head. Holding out his empty glass, he said, ‘I think I will have that refill now.’
The man took the glass. ‘Of course.’ He filled it to the brim and handed it back. ‘Harry didn’t like me going off in the summer. He said it made him feel lonely.’
‘Lonely? Were you both…were you living together at the time?’
‘Oh, gracious no. Harry was married—Ann was her name: nice girl, but entirely unable to cope with living with someone like Harry. And, of course, as he became more and more taken with my…shall we say, company, he became even less livable with.’ He sniggered. ‘Is there such a phrase as “livable with”?’
MacDonald shrugged why not? And took another drink. The man smiled in agreement. ‘So, Ann took more and more to drinking. In 1954 she went into the hospital and—oh, of course, by this time we were in San Francisco. Did I mention that? We moved across to the West Coast in 1950. Harry took up with some new friends—Phyllis Diller, the comedienne? And Kenneth Rexroth?’
MacDonald nodded to both names.
‘Wonderful poet. Ken Rexroth. Wonderful.’ He took a drink.
We moved out West because, as I say, Harry hated the summers in New York when I was away. You remember “Relating To Robinson?”
I knew, was out of town: he summers at a place in Maine,
Sometime on Fire Island, sometimes on the Cape,
Leaves town in June and comes back after Labor Day.)’
He laughed suddenly. ‘I tell you, I never—never—went to Fire Island. Or the Cape. That was Harry. He was just so pissed off with me for leaving him.’ He shook his head and stared down into the swirling brown liquid in his glass. ‘So pissed off,’ he said again, but quieter.
‘So—San Francisco. It was fine for a while, but Ann grew more and more restless. Harry had taken up playing jazz. He was good, too. Incredible man. So versatile. But our relationship—and the constraints placed upon it by his being married—was starting to take its toll. You see, Harry was growing older…I was not.
‘In 1953, he wrote ‘The lacerating effects of middle age are dreadful. God knows…what the routes along this particular terrain are, I wish I knew. The trick of repeating It can’t get any worse is certainly no good, when all the evidence points to quite the opposite.’ He shuffled around and lifted the bottle of Jim Beam. ‘You see,’ he said, flicking off the screw cap with his thumb, ‘I wanted Harry to let me taint him.’
‘Taint him? How do you mean?’ MacDonald watched the cap roll to a stop on the dirty floor. Its sides were flattened.
‘I mean…to make him like me.’
‘A vampire. He would have had eternal life, you see. It doesn’t happen every time. Not every time we feed. That’s another thing the legends have got wrong. We only taint our victim if we allow our own saliva to enter the wound. Most times, we do not.
‘But, no, Harry wouldn’t hear of it. He said that life was too precious—which was a paradox of a thing for him to say—and he couldn’t face the prospect of hunting for his food. I told him that I would do all of that for him…but it was no use.’
MacDonald took a deep breath and asked the question he had wanted to ask for several minutes. ‘Were you lovers?’
The man’s eyes narrowed as he considered the question, and then he said, ‘Of a sort, yes. But not in the physical sense. We were soul mates, he and I. I had the information and the experiences of the millennia and Harry…Harry had the means to put them into words. Such beautiful words.’ He fell silent and, lifting the bottle to his mouth, took a long drink.
‘By the time 1955 was upon us, we both knew that we couldn’t carry on this way. In his poem ‘January,’ Harry wrote:
This wakening, this breath No longer real, this deep Darkness where we toss, Cover a life at the last.’
And MacDonald added: ‘Sleep is too short a death.’
‘You know it?’ the man said, clearly amazed and apparently quite delighted.
‘I know them all.’
‘Of course, you would.
‘Well, that year, we decided that Harry would have to disappear. I suppose we had known it for some time. Harry had often toyed with the idea of his suicide—even before he met me. He kept a scrapbook of cuttings and notes, and a chronological list of writers who had killed themselves or simply disappeared. One of his favorites, you know, was Hart Crane. He threw himself off a ship.
‘Yes, I know. His poem ‘Voyages’ is one of my own favorites.’
‘Harry’s, too,’ said the man. He sighed and continued. ‘And so we decided that he would jump—or appear to have jumped—from the Golden Gate Bridge. The day he did it was one year to the day since his official separation from Ann.’
‘Where did you go?’
‘Mexico. Mexico City. He lived in Mexico—we lived in Mexico, I should say—very happily. We led as close to a normal life as we could—which was very close indeed.
‘Harry wrote poetry and short stories—many of them published under noms de plume—and we spent the nights together, talking. I would tell him of all the things that I had seen and experienced and Harry would put them into poems and stories.
‘Then, in 1987, a journalist for the San Francisco Examiner wrote that he had met Harry in a bar in Mexico City back in 1957.’
‘That was true, then, that story?’
The man nodded enthusiastically. ‘Every word. Absolutely true. The journalist was Peter Hamill.’
‘Harry was pretty zilched-out that night, I remember,’ the man said wistfully. ‘He’d been drinking Jack Daniel’s and then, because it was my night to hunt, he went off by himself—something he did very rarely—and polished off several bowls of marinated shrimp and most of a bottle of mescal. We thought nothing more about it until, like three decades later, for crissakes, the story appeared in the Examiner. Needless to say, we left Mexico City within a few days.’
‘Where did you go then?’
‘Oh, different places. Central America at first, but then Harry got to hankering for the States so we moved up to Texas.’ He took another drink from the bottle. ‘Then, when Harry’s health got really bad, we moved back to Beatrice.’
‘What was it? What was wrong with him?’
‘Cancer. He was riddled in the end. He died three weeks ago. I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to cope.’
MacDonald didn’t know what to say.
‘Even in the final days, I begged him to reconsider. If he’d let me taint him, he could have conquered the cancer. Then we could have lived forever. But he wouldn’t.’ The man dropped the bottle and slid down the side of the counter to the floor. MacDonald jumped unsteadily from his chair and went to help him. He found a cloth by the side of the sink and ran cold water over it, flicking pieces of food and a couple of dead bugs into the sink. Then he rubbed the cloth over the man’s face.
‘I want…I want you to see him,’ he said. His voice was shaky and slurred.
‘See him? I thought you said he was dead?’
The man nodded. ‘He is.’
‘He’s dead and he’s still here? Here in the house?’
‘Upstairs. In his room.’
MacDonald turned around and glanced back down the corridor towards the front door. Suddenly the smell of decay which permeated the house made sense. Kees had died three weeks ago. The weather was warm.
The man shuffled himself back up to a crouched position. ‘I…I want you to see him now.’
MacDonald took his arm and helped him up. ‘Okay, okay.’
‘C’mon, then, let’s go.’ The liquor was clearly having an effect. On MacDonald, it seemed to be having no effect at all. He felt as though he had never had a drink of alcohol in his entire life.
They staggered down the dark corridor to the foot of the stairs. ‘You sure you want to do this?’ MacDonald asked.
‘Sh—’ he belched loudly and hiccupped. ‘Sure. Harry’d want to meet you.’
They started up the stairs, swaying from side to side, MacDonald against the handrail and the man called Robinson buffeting against the wall.
At the top of the stairs, the smell was deeper and thicker. It was now pure decay.
‘Thish way,’ Robinson said, and he took off by himself along the narrow corridor toward the end room. He reached it with a thud and took two steps backward, stretching his right hand out toward the handle.
MacDonald ran forward. ‘Here, let me,’ he said, against his better judgment. Robinson stepped aside.
MacDonald took hold of the handle and turned it. His first impression was that the air that escaped from the ancient pyramids must have smelled like this, only milder. It stank. He lifted his hand to his mouth and swallowed the bile that was even then shooting up his throat. He pushed the door open and stepped into the room.
It was almost pitch-black. The curtains were drawn across the narrow window, but a small night-light glowed beside a wide bed that ran from the side wall into the room. In front of the bed and along to the side beneath the window, stretched a long desk strewn with huge piles of manuscripts and sheets of paper. On the table was a typewriter, a confusion of pens and pencils and erasers, a half-full—or half-empty—bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and an army of empty glasses, some upright and some on their sides.
On the bed itself was a body, though its resemblance to anything that might once have lived was tenuous. It was dark and wizened, and seemed to move and writhe where it lay. MacDonald realized that Harry Weldon Kees now provided a home for a multitude of insects and larvae.
The door clicked shut behind him.
MacDonald spun around and faced Robinson. ‘You…you’re not drunk,’ he said.
The man smiled. ‘Sorry. I’ve had what you might say was a lot of practice in holding my liquor.’ Then he opened a cupboard by his side. ‘I have a job for you.’
‘A…a job? What kind of job?’
‘I want you to kill me.’
MacDonald laughed and made a move toward the door. ‘What the hell is this…? I’m getting out—’
Robinson pushed him back and MacDonald stumbled against the bed, throwing his arm out to steady himself. MacDonald’s hand sank into something which seemed damp and clammy. He felt things pop under its weight. ‘Oh, Jesus!’ He jumped away from the bed and looked at his hand. It was covered in what looked leafmold. He shook it frantically. ‘Oh, God,’ he said. ‘Oh, Jesus…’
‘Here.’ Robinson reached into the open cupboard. He pulled out a flat-headed wooden hammer and handed it to MacDonald.
MacDonald took it and said, ‘Oh, Jesus!’
Then Robinson reached in again and pulled out a wooden pole, its end sharpened to a fine point.
MacDonald started to whimper.
‘Here. You’ll need this, too.’
‘No, I won’t.’
‘I’m not doing it. I’m not doing anything else, I’m getting out of this—’
Robinson took hold of MacDonald’s jacket, crumpled it in his fist, and pulled the man toward him. ‘You’ll do what I say you’ll do…if you do want to get out of here.’
MacDonald started shaking and stepped back, away from Robinson. The man had spoken right into his face, breathed right over him…but the smell had not been of Jim Beam, it had been of blood. Heavy and metallic. ‘Why? Why do you want me to do this? Why me?’
‘Because I want to sleep the long sleep. Because…because I’m lonely. And because you are here.’
‘Is…is there no other way?’
Robinson shook his head. ‘At least one of the legends is true. A stake through the heart. It’s the only way.’
MacDonald looked at Robinson and fought off looking around at the thing on the bed. ‘What if I don’t?’
‘I’ll kill you.’
It didn’t take long for them to get things organized. Robinson stretched out on the bed next to Weldon Kees and held the stake’s point above his chest with his left hand. With his right hand, he held the hand of the body by his side.
While he thought about trying to make a break for it, MacDonald heard Robinson sigh a long, deep sigh. ‘It feels funny,’ he said. ‘Funny to be lying here at last, lying here waiting to die.
‘I’ve come close a couple of times—well, more than a couple, I’d guess—but I’ve always managed to turn things to my advantage.’ He turned his head to Weldon Kees and smiled. ‘Old friend,’ he said softly. ‘You and me, forever now.’ He looked up at MacDonald, smiled at the man’s shaking hands around the shaft of the hammer. ‘You’ve no idea, have you?’ he said.
‘About what?’ MacDonald lowered the hammer, grateful for the pause.
‘Loneliness. The ache of ages spent completely alone. I thought that loneliness was all behind me. I thought Harry would eventually relent and let me taint him. But it was not to be. He even begged me not to bite him if he should slip into some kind of coma before the end. He said if I did, then he would never speak to me again.’ He shook his head. ‘I couldn’t live without Harry’s words. I cannot live without his words. Death can only be release.’ He closed his eyes and shook the stake gently. ‘Do it. Do it now.’
MacDonald lifted the hammer high. As he started to bring it down, Robinson’s eyes opened and fixed upon him. ‘Burn us when you’re through.’
The hammer hit the stake squarely, as though MacDonald’s hand had been guided right to the very end. The pole went into the body hard and lodged in the mattress beneath it. Robinson’s body arched once, high in the air, and then slipped back.
MacDonald watched in fascination as the skin shriveled and pulled back, exposing teeth that looked nothing like what he expected a vampire’s teeth to look like. The eyeballs jellied in their sockets and sank back out of sight. The flesh and muscle atrophied, the bones powdered, and within seconds Robinson’s clothes sank back onto the dust. There was no blood.
As if in a daze, MacDonald put down the hammer and walked across to the desk. He lifted a pile of papers and scattered them about the desktop. He could not help himself. As he threw the sheets around, he tried to read some of the lines…some of the title pages. He started to cry.
He threw sheets onto the floor…high into the air, and watched them flutter onto the lone body on the bed. ‘Please…please, God, let me take just one sheet…’
In his head, amidst the confusion, he heard a voice he did not recognize. It was an old voice, but it sounded gently and wise. It said, Take one sheet, then…but only one.
MacDonald grabbed a sheet and jammed it into his sportscoat pocket. Then he picked up a book of matches, struck one, and ignited the whole book. He tossed it onto the scattered sheets, turned calmly around, and left the room.
The fire took longer to get going than he expected.
In the movies, the conflagration is always immediate. But here in reality, it took almost an hour. MacDonald watched it from across the street, watched the first flames reach up to the waiting curtains, watched the first glow in one of the downstairs rooms, smelled the first smoke-filled breeze blowing across the sidewalk.
Then it was done. And only then did MacDonald feel released from the power of Robinson’s eyes.
As he started back to the heart of Beatrice, a gentle rain began to fall. MacDonald pulled the crumpled sheet from his pocket and, in the occasional glow of the streetlights, started to read. It was a poem. A complete work captured on a single sheet of paper. It was called ‘Robinson At Rest.’ It began:
Robinson watching a movie, safe In the darkness. The world outside spills by Along sidewalks freshened by rain. He says to the man by his side, ‘Is that clock correct?’ ‘No,’ the answer comes. ‘It’s stopped At last.’
And seventeen lines later it ended:
—Weldon Kees (1914-1993)