Sport 23: Spring 1999
Barbara Anderson — The Right Sort of Ears
Why, thought the poet sourly, am I here? I should go home. ‘Return to my mountains of light and mauve melancholy.’ Just piss off.
He looked around him, glancing left, right, and left again beneath lowered eyelids. The effect was to make his face inscrutable, or rather more so. The expression on his well-planned face had been non-commital since early youth. The darting glances, the heavy lids, merely increased its air of detachment, almost, one could say, its reptilian aspect. One would not have been surprised, or not as surprised as usual, to have seen a forked tongue flick lightning-fast then disappear. Such astonishments are seldom seen, but poets are different from others and this one was more different than most.
And why had the wretched people chosen this place for interrogation? Outdoors; shadowed by trees and deep in sparrows, crumbs, and clutter, the place left much to be desired. Pigeons, pigeons for God's sake, were swooping. The place was alive with hazards. A downtown café they had called it. A downtown café with knobs on.
He looked at the blackboard menu on the wall and found no comfort. Focaccia with hummus, beetroot, tofu and pan-roasted vegetables, smoked chicken and avocado salad, bacon, tomato and lettuce salad, cream cheese, kiwifruit and God knows what salad. As always, there were repellent muffins; broccoli and feta cheese, cauliflower, brie and sesame seeds. And buns. Buns to the right of them, buns to the left of them. Bagels were present.
How had it come about, this dreadful food? he wondered. Why had he not noticed this infuriating lurch towards health and indigestible muck before it was too late? Where was the food of his youth; the chop and the sausage; the pie, the pea and the pud? The glories of the Pie Cart, the chips with everything had suited him well, and now look at it.
Recently he had attended a dinner after some Writers and Readers page 112 shindig and found, to his pleasure but not surprise, that he was seated next to the guest of honour. Miss Phoebe Glass was a poet of international renown, a woman of intellectual vigour and at ease with words. He had hoped for intelligent converse with this handsome being, an exchange of sentiments, a marriage of true minds to which no one would have the nerve to admit impediment. This had not happened. Miss Glass had talked about little else other than her indigestion. She did enquire, not tenderly, no one could call it tenderly, but at least she had asked whether he suffered from this complaint. When he said no, she had sighed, had left him sitting beside her belchfree and heartburn-negative, had picked up the conversational reins and cantered on. The pain, she said, the sleepless nights. She discussed alternative palliatives available and their comparative efficacy, she gave him names—Slowburn, Quickees, and all shades between. She couldn't, she told him, move without them. She rummaged in her bag, produced a packet of tablets and sucked a couple before resuming her wistful poking at a side salad.
The poet smiled his reptilian smile. ‘Bismuth before pleasure,’ he murmured.
Miss Glass gave him a long cool stare and turned a shoulder.
They were late, these people. Americans are meant to be punctual, to appreciate, to astound you with the depth of their perceptions, their sensitivity to the more arcane aspects of your work. But above all to be punctual. Where the hell were they?
He gave more glances to right and left. Not a glimpse of them: no one beneath the artificial palm, nobody crouching behind the nude female statue who drooped beside a small and dingy pool.
The nude was made of concrete; the grey lumps of her breasts seemed to have been slapped on to the rest of her arbitrarily, without any reference or knowledge, let alone admiration for the female form. He could imagine the scene. A handful of concrete this side, Bong! And another over here to match, Bong! Now she's apples.
The result depressed him. These rounded orbs of beauty, these concrete hills of passion with protuberant mud-grey nipples, were as extraneous, as sexless and oddly attached to the torso as those of page 113 Michelangelo's figures of Night and Dawn in his Tombs of the Medici in Florence. He remembered standing before them many years ago, discussing the topic with his then wife, Mildred.
‘Very odd. Do you think it was because he was a homosexual?’
‘No,’ said Mildred. ‘I think it was because he couldn't do breasts.’ Nor could this one. Useless.
There were, understandably, not many other people in the place. Even waitresses were few and far between. One with an exuberant mass of yellow hair had asked if she could take his order. He had explained the position and she had departed, virtually skipping with the relief of it all.
In one corner sat two women, sisters without a doubt. Grey-haired, pleasant, and faded to monotones, they were sharing a large slice of carrot cake. One wore wheat on sand, the other pink on rose. They put sugar in their respective cappuccinos and giggled. The poet knew, as surely as though they had semaphored the intelligence to him with small coloured flags, that they did not normally take sugar, that this was a treat and why not. Life, they signalled, was for living.
At a table nearer to hand sat Father, Mother, and two small girls. Again the occupants of this table were neatly dressed and somewhat anachronistic in appearance. Both Father and Mother were bluff, portly, dark-suited and well-shod. The twins, for such they must be, wore dresses which could have been designed for the little princesses Lilibet and Margaret Rose. They were blue, these frocks, they were smocked, they had bows. They were as identical as their blond-haired wearers who sat eating cake and being good. Their fork work was competent and their white socks had frills.
Nevertheless, they palled. The poet glanced at his watch. Bugger this. He had half risen to his feet when he was engulfed, overwhelmed by a tsunami of apologies which began at the door, surged forward and knocked him sideways. Harold and Bea Benderman couldn't begin to say how sorry they were. They had gotten lost, would you believe. Could the poet ever forgive them? They had gotten lost, would you believe. Could the poet ever forgive them? They had walked to the Art Gallery and gotten lost. Their arms indicated astonishment, their knees, their whole bodies, begged for pardon.page 114
‘Not at all, said the poet. ‘Shall we sit down?’
They sat, they ordered, they smiled. Harold explained to the waitress that he wanted hot chocolate with water not milk. The young woman was puzzled. Even her hair looked startled. ‘Like no milk at all?’
‘Like no milk at all.’
‘Not even cold?’
‘Nope. Just a bagel.’
‘Not even the marshmallow?’
‘You get a free marshmallow.’
Harold raised a hand. ‘Hold it.’
She gave up. ‘OK,’ she said and drifted away.
‘We can only hope,’ murmured the poet, now grooming himself in preparation for questions. A hand wiped each side of his head, one carried on to smooth his front hair forward.
The odd thing was, he thought, his eyes still flicking and his mouth firm, that Harold and his sister, Bea Benderman, were so alike. The place seemed to be filling up with clones, twinned identi-kits, double-goers. Harold and Bea (first names, please) both had flat faces. They had flat little noses, flat foreheads and almost nonexistent chins. Their ears were flat, their hair was fair and their eyes were small. The poet was reminded of photographs demonstrating the flat profiles of maggots; the straight fronts of railcars; the sliced-off ends of sidewalk canopies.
‘Of course, Doctor,’ said Harold, after some discussion had taken place, ‘I'm thinking that your place in posterity is assured. There can be no doubt about that. And I'm wondering whether you would you care to tell me how you feel about this?’
Oh God. The poet gave a small crank-up cough. ‘I have nothing against posterity,’ he said.
Harold and Bea laughed merrily. Harold stopped first. ‘Your body of work, its universal excellence, the respect in which your entire oeuvre is held throughout the world, both in academia, and,’ a hand tossed, ‘the general public. You even,’ confided Harold, ‘sell.’
The poet stared at his boots. ‘Yes,’ he said.page 115
Harold leaned forward. He wore a gold chain around his neck. Why would a man with a flat face wear such a thing?
‘Can I ask a question?’ asked Bea, her small eyes bright with daring.
‘Why is it, do you think, that your poetry is so universally admired?’
The poet glanced at the concrete maiden. The sands were running, the tide would soon be on the turn, there could well be whitebait. ‘Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.’ Or should be.
He made a major effort, looked into her eyes and smiled. Her face, when he looked at it closely, was not as flat as her brother's. It was longer, finer, a serene medieval face with unexpectedly bright eyes. He looked with attention at her ears. As he had hoped, they not only lay flat against her head, but were lobeless. He had always had a weakness for lobeless medieval ears. He could not lie to those ears.
‘Because,’ he said, ‘it's good.’
Bea clapped her hands, gave a little bounce. ‘Sure,’ she said. ‘But why is it so good?’
‘Because I can do words. I can find the right ones to say what I need.’
Her long neck drooped, a hand touched her mouth. ‘Could you enlarge on that a little, Doctor? Harold and I have both always been so … well, it's just so mind-blowing to even like, meet you, let alone talk.’
There must be something sensible he could say. ‘I do a lot of thinking,’ he said finally. ‘Is that any help?’
‘To find le mot juste?’ yelped Harold.
‘Yes. And la pensée.’
It was now Harold who was bouncing about. ‘“What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed”?’ he cried.
‘If you say so,’ said the poet. He smoothed his front hair once more. ‘Nice word “Ne'er”, I must look it up.’
‘It'll just say “poet or arch”,’ murmured Bea.
She seemed to have gone rather wistful. He must help her. ‘Tell me some words you like, Bea.’
‘Sundance, quicksilver, heartsease.’page 116
‘For Chrissake, Bea,’ snapped Harold, ‘don't go all peasbody on us.’
The poet did not enjoy seeing a woman discomfited, especially a serious, gentle woman with the right sort of ears. He smiled at her. ‘There's nothing wrong with the word “peasbody” as long as it is taken to mean the body of a pea. I can't say I care for it as a name.’
Bea smiled back. Between them, unexpected and munificent as light from glow-worms, flowed sympathy, understanding, empathy—all the good ones. Harold was on the outer, a dead duck in need of plucking.
‘Tell me some words you don't like,’ said Bea.
They were interrupted by a minor commotion from beside the pool. The two small girls were inspecting the naked lady. One of them put out a tentative hand to stroke a concrete breast. The other, overcome with giggles, snatched it away. ‘Mummy,’ she squealed, ‘Ella's going to touch the lady's boosies, and she shouldn't, should she, Mummy?’
Ella gave the sneak a passing swipe and danced back to the table.
‘Rosie,’ called Mother. ‘Come here.’
The poet put one hand over Bea's long, tapering fingers. ‘Boosies,’ he said, ‘is a disaster. Promise me, Beatrice, you will never use the word “boosies”.’
‘I promise.’ Beatrice glanced at their hands for a second and laughed. Her voice lightened, her bright eyes snapped. ‘Tell me more words,’ she said. ‘All the words you know. Tell me.’