Night and Nothing
I wanted to be a poet. I still guarded my collegiate ambitions, then, that one last weekend, that last time Mike and I would ever go to New York City.
I saw everything in metaphor. I carried a small notebook and a pen in a coat pocket, as I awaited my inspirations. The pages in my notebook were almost all blank, but I could see in my imagination the cover of my first book, gold letters stamped into fine red leather, Abyss by Gilbert Dori.
When I left behind for a few evening hours the marginal, suburban world of my upbringing, I imagined how I might, one day, live in the midst of the great people of New York City. I would not be what I had once been in high school as I had struggled to keep up with the favored students in my classes. I would not be teased and mocked. I would be welcomed in New York as one of the bright, the gifted, and—oh please—one of the chosen cognoscenti of those vaunted streets. I would be respected as a poet rarely was in the present world. Those hidden dreams, wispy though they would have seemed to others, were as much company to me as was Mike when I traveled there.
Over the prior year and a half, the two of us had staged a series of minor sorties into “The City,” vulnerable as it seemed as it tottered towards bankruptcy. Invading by train, advancing from our college and crossing under the river, all in 50 minute’s time, we held our tiny, glinting ground for several hours before we retreated, yet again, to New Jersey.
Certainly, Mike Cook was very bright. He seemed a perfect friend for me and for my ambitious, desperate hopes to escape from the drab prospects of a life of office work that my dull, rusticated background seemed to condemn me to. I imagined us to be two stars in the poetic constellation of the coming re-enlightenment. I imitated him when I could. Yet, I knew the ties that bound Mike and I were ephemeral. We were our college’s only classics majors, both from the area, and, both, sophomores. Nothing more.
Not only was that our last trip, it was our longest. By a studied accident—more or less at my instigation when I suggested we stop off for two beers at a “writers’ bar” after seeing a late-night Fellini movie—we missed the last returning train of the night, and, with little money left in our pockets and few options open at 3 am, we peered into the seedier parts of New York City. We paced the most infamous stretch of West 42nd Street, where, for a while, we watched a very tall streetwalker light a cigarette and propose grimy physical acts to passing men. We ambled, slowly, me leading, Mike after, following the girl or peeking up at a still and black sky like a massive inverted cup that loomed over us and over every lamp post and every building, as time stopped. When we lost her, we sipped at coffee and shared a can of beer, and we waited for whatever wasn’t going to come next.
I was an expert at waiting for nothing. I had never been a popular boy. Always short and always overlooked, even as a college student I barely made five foot seven. At the beginning of my first year in college, I hadn’t seen the purpose in even deigning to turn my head enough to notice the other students in my classes, until, in the middle of translating Horace’s Satire I.x., Professor Ensor had said, “Maybe, Gilbert, you can do some background research into this piece with Mike over there..., as the school’s only classics majors.” Looking across the classroom at him, I noted, vaguely, that I’d seen Mike Cook in several. He had seemed like someone who would be tall and well liked. Mike nodded back at me, and, after that, he always spoke to me before and after classes. His smile always seemed open and frank, his comments dotted with perceptive observations and criticisms of the school, girls and the world. From just that we abandoned ourselves to New York City—the original excuse had been the research and the museums—and, thus, wrapping ourselves in the greasy mysteries of the night, we passed from avenue to avenue and witnessed mundane miracles.
I see, now, I was emboldened by his easy acceptance of me. My isolation was deeper than I knew, living as a hopeful poet in an imagined reconstruction of the antique world, and sleeping off-campus in an incredibly small room provided by cautious, working-class parents. Yes, “acceptance” seems the perfect word, more precise than “friendship,” more definite than “propinquity,” to explain the time we spent together. We were almost like distant cousins, both strangers, and, yet, free to speak without constraints. Between us I saw a kind of parity; he learned his vocabulary for the ancient authors more quickly, but I liked my ideas more, as I dashed forward to Nietzsche and, then, backwards to Lucretius and Plato. Neither of us seemed to sense the inner soul of the other, or, certainly, I didn’t. I never wondered. Released from the world I hated, we were each an audience for the other and we were free to declaim and hone our own satyric styles.
And practice my satiric style I certainly did, there in the small hours of the morning, under the iron-black night of New York. Juvenal and Horace never saw an uglier Rome than I found, or so I thought, as I stood, growing gitty on the corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue.
“Mike,” I said, grinning and wide-eyed, “look at that,” and I motioned with my chin toward a very fat girl—clearly at work—stuffed into a tiny dress of stiff blue chiffon.
“Christ,” he said, thoughtfully. “A frog in a dress. And sticking out her tongue at the men.... Their flies must be her flies.”
Laughing and pointing, I loved my cleverness, expanded my diatribes, staring and howling at taxicabs. I kept writing phrases in my notebook, like “insidious insinuations” or “a leadened love,” at least until two men, with no light in their eyes, stood close over us. They shoved us off the corner. In the process, Mike was punched. The frog girl made a face at me, as I backed away, but, I noticed, when she looked at Mike, she stopped for a moment, frowning, fatly squinting at him, then her eyelids fluttered and she looked away, down at the sidewalk.
And it was then that I supposed Mike must have been what people considered good looking, just as I was not. For the first time I looked at him carefully. I considered his pale skin, dark eyes, dark brows, and blue-black hair waving and spiraling. He attributed the vivid contrast of dark and light in his coloring to the small tincture of Spanish blood washed up on distant Irish shores with the straggly survivors of the sunken Armada. Thus Mike had become an excellent, dramatic character in my tiny world. A cavalier. In Latin recitation he’d yank a handful of that hair out of his eyes, and spit out another sentence, each of his words laced with a droning irony. The class was always amused and charmed. His friendship gave me authority. And, now, his cheek was punched.
I also understood, as I stood there, that we were no match in brutality for the steel and broken glass of overnight midtown. “And you for a witness,” Mike muttered. We wandered. We bought a can of beer, and another or two, until we had almost nothing left in our pockets but our return tickets.
And, as always, our meandering path led us, under the lifeless night, to Greenwich Village. We stopped and stared into the window of the bookstore on Sheridan Square that had been closed for hours, and wouldn’t be opening for many more. I glanced down at each book cover, pronounced judgment on it and moved my attention to the next.
“Nothing on frog women,” Mike muttered, looking down at the books in the window, a small bruise showing on his cheek, “or their wormish protectors.”
I looked at his face, lit by a dull light coming from within the store. His dark eyes darted from book to book. His lips tightened angrily.
“They ganged up,” he said to the window, “and they didn’t even take a life. They just try to degrade someone because that’s their job.” Then he told the window, “the world is vile. Only because of people.... Stupid. Stupid. Get rid of the people. Only that can end the horror.”
“Get rid of the people?” I repeated.
He continued looking into the store, his dark reflection facing him, then he said, “I know. It’s impossible. There’s only escape.”
“Good luck,” I said and shrugged. I concluded I was in control of myself in the world, and that he was not.
After a while, we sat in the dark on the cold front step to the yard of Saint Luke’s church, the locked gate against our backs, knees almost to our chins, and a centuries old stone-slab sidewalk under our shoes. The sounds of the city subsided to stillness. Though we looked nothing alike, I imagined that we formed between us an amazing and unseen tableau of twin poets out carousing for the evening—even as the sour smell of the overturned soil in the church garden and the curdling beer in our stomachs rendered us both an identical pale fleshy green—I felt we had become part of a Roman wall painting with truth, irony and history frozen in it, but one that would never be captured, or ever be struck again. A loss to poetic history, I lamented, a true loss.
I heard Mike laugh to himself. And, before my eyes, the quiet objects around me—a tree, a parking meter, a man hole cover—seemed to become a collection of bright and fragile statuary, waiting to break open, teeming below the surface, mysterious, even dangerous and alive. I no longer sat in a city, but in a diorama mounted I guessed for me alone. I silently wondered at what I was seeing.
I sat there, motionlessly watching and listening, until Mike said, “Look.”
“What?” I asked, studying his pale face in street light and shadow.
He smiled sharply. “It’s the rosy fingered dawn.”
He pointed up over the building at the next intersection, where, the month before, we had sat in the doorway of the all night deli until the owner had come out to chased us away, and where Mike had demanded, “What are you talking about?” but where at least I had finally seen the sense of the deli man stopping us from sitting there where a customer would have had to step over us to come in. “Petty merchants,” Mike had concluded, “nothing changes in two thousand years,” and the man had become part of our shared mythology. Since then, the month had swirled and twisted passed. We sat quietly a minute, just looking in that direction, the sky faintly lightening.
At that moment, I felt I saw a dark mystical glow—a ghostly river—flowing over the open streets. What was happening, I wondered and, right there, I concluded I was “seeing.” Seeing. I must have been having an “epiphany,” I reasoned, one I had been so waiting for. With revived Roman eyes I was seeing their ancient spirits hidden and lost in all objects. I was seeing. Seeing Truth. I was a poet.
I took my notebook out of my pocket and wrote on a page, “Ideas—cool ghosts,” but I didn’t like “idea” and wanted to avoid the allusion of “cool” as in “cool, man.” I crossed out the line and wrote under it, “Thoughts—cold ghosts of forgotten nights—the streets their canals.” That might work, I decided. I put my notebook back in my pocket.
Then, I heard Mike say, “Let’s go back there. If that deli guy is still in, maybe I should tell him something about his business.”
I turned and watched as he gritted his teeth. I stared at the disparate strands of eyebrow, the whirlpool of uncombed hair—I was enjoying the details of my new vision—then I pointed at the bee sting like mark on his cheek and laughed.
“You’re still bleeding from your last debate.”
Mike looked toward me, but not at me, his eyes slowly sweeping one way and another. The muscles in his face tightened.
“The first touch of the blood-caked finger of dawn. Christ,” he said, looking up over the building and yanking his hair furiously away from his eyes, “but is my cheek still red?”
“Not really. Don’t think about it,” I said, letting a hint of a superior smile show.
“Haven’t been in a fight since third grade!” he grumbled.
I felt I could interpret the motivation of everyone and everything; I watched a lone taxi, both dull and brilliant, timidly hesitate before rolling through the meaningless threat of a red light. Then I said, “Though, technically, you can say you still haven’t, because you weren’t really in a fight. The guy that hit you—he was in a fight. You just thought you were.”
Mike glared at the intersection, then said, “True.”
The two of us stared across the street for a while, before Mike said, “What do we do now? Do we buy another beer? Think he’d sell us one?”
“I don’t know.” I pondered the idea a moment. “Probably. He only cared about the money.”
“True,” Mike said.
“And there he goes anyway.”
We both stared up the block. A man with a blue windbreaker pulled over deli whites was crossing the abandoned intersection.
“That problem’s solved,” I said, feeling wise.
As we stood up, I rubbed the cold out of my seat and started to shiver.
Mike said, “I wonder if I can argue them out of a free beer.”
“Forget it,” I advised.
He and, then, I twisted our eyes up at the church clock.
“Still forty-five minutes before the station opens,” I said.
Mike nodded, and I tightened the muscles in my arms, back and legs to warm myself.
“—Oh, our books,” I said and picked my scrunched paper bag up from were it had fallen.
“Where’s mine?” Mike asked.
“Check all your pockets.”
“No. Damn,” Mike said bitterly, as he continued to pat his pockets.
“You must have dropped it.”
Mike stopped patting himself down and sighed in disgust.
“No kidding. Ezra Pound lost in the gutter of 42nd Street. And John Dryden safe in your care. Figures.”
We walked to the intersection. The gaudy lights of the deli repelled us. Still, we stared.
“Imagine greasy Professor Ensor in there.” Mike laughed bitterly. “No classroom or his horn rim glasses or his chalk, but in there in an apron and holding a ham. Perfect.”
I grinned too, “Sandwiches instead of grant money.”
“Grant money,” Mike spit. “Rancid meat,” and he laughed, for the third time that night, over how lucky Professor Ensor was that someone had taught him Latin. No one had taught him to wash his hair.
“Easy, easy,” I said, and laughed back at him, and I kept laughing—sagely, I felt—until Mike stuck his hands in his pockets and started to laugh too, ridiculing himself for displaying what he called “the angst of the tone deaf poets.”
The first hint of clear blue shown for us in the early morning sky. Amidst the unswept paper plates and cigarette butts on the sidewalk, we kicked an empty shoebox as we walked, the hollow thunks of each kick amazingly loud in the still. Such simple acts seemed to me so noble in their smallness. Trivial matters, touched and elevated by our attention, pleased me. Whimsies of the poets. Suddenly, inspired, I paused, and then I kicked to the side and bounced the box off Mike’s knees. I grinned at him. Mike blinked and stared at me a moment. He gritted his teeth, his lips pulled tight, and he swung hard with his leg. His foot missed the box entirely and he flipped backward straight onto his back.
“Oh,” an aged woman grunted, shocked by his fall just in front of her, then frightened by the two of us. She held onto the knob of a red painted door.
Mike looked up at her from the sidewalk; he snarled, “Ah, laugh away, you... silly... whatever you are,” and banged a foot on the sidewalk. Which the lady didn’t take well.
“Enjoying the view?” I asked him and held out a hand.
Mike grumbled, “Idiot,” and picked himself up. The woman turned away which made Mike laugh sharply. I looked left and right and out into the street, where a police car rolled slowly by. I decided that my worthy but misguided fellow poet needed some sort of immediate distraction. I would take command of the situation.
“Maybe,” I said, “this place is open,” and I pointed at the windows of a coffee shop with the décor, more or less, of a fifties suburban dining room—pale wood high-backed chairs and speckled tan formica tabletops. “There are people in there.”
“Look at them,” Mike said. “It’s almost conceivable the place was closed with them still inside. The cook will just plug them in in the morning.”
“Then we’re in luck,” I said. “Someone left the front door open.”
“Great,” Mike muttered, brushing off his pants.
I held the door open for him. In the restaurant, the owner looked at us with suspicion and I sat down at the counter—remembering how little money we must have had left. Mike dropped onto the next stool. Of course, being watched by me and by the owner, Mike began his grumbling, and he started shoveling coins onto the counter, the bruise on his cheek showing in the brighter light of the diner. When he patted his back pockets, he looked up between the thick, curled black loops of his hair, and saw the owner staring at him.
Through his teeth, Mike said, “What do you want?”
“I knew it—you’re wasting my time,” the owner said. “Just forget it and get out of here.”
“We have it for coffee!” Mike snapped.
“Just get out,” he said and pulled five dollars out of his shirt. “Don’t even pick up your money,” he said and threw the five at Mike that stuck on the counter in front of us.
“I can’t stand it!” Mike shouted and stood up. “Fucking stupid people!”
I felt I had no choice, with everyone staring at us. I reached up for Mike’s elbow and pulled him, struggling and twisting, out the door of the diner. I even left the five dollars along with the change.
People were looking at us through the windows of the diner.
I made the decision that I would have to take over the situation entirely. I gave up on the idea of doing anything more until the station opened. I’d already learned Mike could be sharp with his tongue, and rage against the human race, but this was too much. Ignoble. My revised plan was simply to get him back to the gate of the train station and keep him there until it was unlocked. That was the wisest course.
“Must be about time,” I said with a demonstration of calm, and I pointed toward the station. Mike turned away from me. Then he turned back, looked me in the eye and he punched me on the cheek. I blurted out, “What was that for?”
“Just shut up,” he snarled at me and started walking for the station. “Stupid,” he grumbled, “stupid.”
I was more shocked and flustered than angry, as I followed him. I wondered, watching the back of his head and his rigid back, what he could be thinking and what I could have done to anger him so much. I rubbed my cheek bone, but didn’t feel anything much.
When we got to the station, Mike leaned against the iron gate and stared at the empty air in front of him. I noted the world had lost most of its occult glow.
The station’s iron gates were opened. We crossed under the river, and rode, silently, knee to knee on ancient rattan seats, across the hundred-year-old suburbs of New Jersey.
About midway back, I did ask, “Are you ever going to have anything to say?”
“Stupid,” he said to no one and nothing. “It’s too much!” As the train began breaking for the next station he grabbed a clump of his hair in his fist and he repeated, “Too much. I’m getting off here. No one will be home.”
Glancing out the window, I saw the Maplewood station and I recalled only that he lived with his family somewhere around. The train clunked to a stop and he got up.
“See you..., there,” I said.
He looked at me and then said, “Yeah.”
As the train pulled out, I tried to glimpse him on the station platform, but I couldn’t. The morning sunlight and the shadows of old oaks cut through the car. I tried to read my Dryden, but he didn’t speak to me. I stared down at the pages.
On Monday, I waited for Mike in the hallway outside the classroom. I was trying to conjure the mystical sensations of that Saturday night, but I failed. Still, I held onto the memory of it. I looked at the other students passing me. I could only think they didn’t know or see as I saw and knew. I wondered if Mike hand an inkling of my epiphany. I wanted to ask him, but he didn’t appear. I didn’t see him for afternoon class either. I tried to imagine what he was going to tell me to excuse his madness that night.
On Wednesday morning, I entered class late. Professor Ensor was standing beside the chalkboard, and blocked my way. He looked down at me, not smiling, just blinking through his thick, dandruff-flecked glasses.
“Well,” he said finally. “Now that you’re here.” He motioned for me to sit. I acknowledged no one, though I noted Mike’s seat was empty as I took my place. Then Ensor scanned the room and said, “How do I put this? I got a call from Mike Cook’s mother. Mike apparently tried to kill himself over the weekend.”
“What?” I heard myself say. He smiled faintly at me. “... How can that...?”
Ensor exhaled. “I suppose I must say. She said pills and alcohol. None of his family was home.” I just stared toward Ensor with his dirty hair plastered around his head. “He was staggering around the house breaking windows, when his Mother got home. He’s in the hospital, now. She doubts he will want to come back to class.”
“Stupid,” I said to myself.
I’d thought I wouldn’t be heard, but the whole class gasped and I heard the girl behind me demanded, “How can you say that?”
I just stared down at my open notebook, and I repeated, softly, “Stupid.” I had thought I’d deciphered the world. I remembered the back of his head when I had walked behind him to the station, his twisting blue-black hair dimly lit. He was just being willful, I told myself.
“I gather,” Ensor said, wrinkling his nose and staring first at his chapped hands, then at me, “apparently, he finds us all here too galling to continue.”
The classroom was silent. I just stared at Ensor’s hands. I felt myself blushing. I had gotten everything one hundred percent wrong, I thought. I was the one who had failed to see the satire. I still couldn’t quite formulate it. A poet’s vision hadn’t filled me that night. That had been nothing, nothing at all. I was just nothing. Not a poet. I could only sit there, in the classroom, and whisper guiltily, dumbly, “Stupid.”
Wayne Conti has placed stories with Open City, The Brooklyn Rail, Chicago Quarterly Review, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, Anderbo and Pindeldyboz. One of his stories was adapted for radio and played on public radio stations around the country. He is a resident of Downtown NYC, where he is the proprietor of Mercer Street Books.