Do I contradict myself?
Very well I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 51
TED SULLIVAN STOOD ON THE MAKESHIFT STAGE, anxiously waiting for the high-pitch crackle of the microphone to die down. Were his hands shaking? Of course they were. Was he sweating profusely? Who wouldn’t be? The flex room at the Bessborough Presbyterian Church was packed. The six rows of chairs he’d set up earlier in the day with Debbie White, Bessborough Poet Society President, were full of butts. At least 60 butts. So many butts that he’d had to go out to buy more coffee and biscuits at the Sobey’s around the corner, delaying the start of the readings by over 15 minutes. Had this turned the crowd against him? Would they hold him responsible for the delay? Maybe. No shit his hands were shaking. This was The Real Deal.
The microphone lulled and the crackling came to an end. Ted closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It was time. “Ode to a boy at war,” he started. The crowd went silent. Ted opened his eyes. There was no turning back now.
“When I was a child, in the empty lot around the corner, I found a branch the shape of a handgun...”
The words felt good rolling off his tongue. This was a solid poem. Ted knew it. There was no way people wouldn’t like it.
“Without a second thought, I picked it up and pointed it towards a neighbourhood boy...”
With every word, Ted’s confidence grew. His hands had grown steady, his demeanour cool and composed. Of course the crowd would love the poem. The words had been meticulously chosen; the scenes were alive with sounds and smells. He read on:
“That night I went to bed clutching my handgun as if I were holding onto my youth, and when I opened my eyes again I was in a marsh in Hue or in Hoi Anh Or who knows where…”
Was that a gasp from the crowd? Indeed, it was! The tension was rising and would soon be resolved. The inevitability of death would come thundering down on their poor souls like a summer storm. Ted flew past the next few lines, taking the crowd on a journey through a distant war zone—the mosquitoes, the darkness, the expectant silence—and then back to a childhood bed. When he reached the last line, he paused, letting the tension linger in the air. Before reading, he stared defiantly at the crowd. “Like fireflies in the night,” he punched out. The fireflies were not fireflies: they were bullets tracing through the dark sky. Ted closed his eyes and lowered his head. Claps. Growing claps! Effusive claps! Was the crowd about to stand? A standing ovation for him, Ted Sullivan? He opened his eyes and looked up. Not quite. No standing. But still, fantastic clapping, right? Yes. Fantastic clapping, indeed.
Ted Sullivan walked back to his seat near the far end of the makeshift stage. He was beaming with pride. It had been a fantastic reading. Probably the best the Bessborough Poet Society had ever seen. He thought back to all the readings he’d been to over the years. He’d never seen anything like this: never such a big crowd; never so effusive of an ovation. He looked over at the two other poets sitting on stage. Beat that, suckers!
Debbie White, Bessborough Poet Society president, stood up and made her way to the podium. Ted Sullivan smiled at her. Debbie had beady green eyes and a black turtleneck and short hair that encased her head in a greying helmet. When she reached the microphone, Ted clapped and cheered her on. But what he really felt for her was pity. How could she possibly follow his act? How could she rouse the same reaction from the crowd as he had? Her performance would be a bust. There was no doubt about that! A small scoff burst out from the bottom of his belly. He hid it quickly, burying it under a mask of claps and cheers. Show grace in victory, his Mum had taught him. If she were there, Mum would be proud of him. For the reading and for cheering Debbie on. He had turned out to be a good person, hadn’t he? A very good person, indeed.
“Thank you, Ted. That was beautiful.” Debbie White looked at Ted and smiled. The crowd was fidgety. Debbie cleared her throat. Then she started reading. Her poem was short and sweet. Provincial, Ted thought as he stared at her from his place on the stage. Rolling fields and beautiful flowers and a warm breeze that made people feel Good About Life. Nice images, adequate word choice, consistent cadence. No death. No love. No drama. But still… Nice. When she was done, good claps came from the crowd. Nothing like the ones he’d gotten, of course, but decent claps, nonetheless. Ted joined in with the crowd. Clap, clap, clap. I’m so proud of you, Debbie. You’re great. Well done, my friend. Well done.
“Thank you. You are all too kind!” said Debbie. She was visibly moved by the crowd’s affection. Her eyes filled with tears. She began searching her pockets for a Kleenex. Typical Debbie, getting emotional like that. “Thank you so much,” she said, and blew her nose into the microphone.
It took far longer than it should have, but when she finally finished collecting herself, Debbie clutched the microphone out of the stand and looked back at the three chairs that sat behind her. Was she staring at him? She was, wasn’t she? Debbie smiled. Ted smiled back. Was she going to ask him to go back to the podium to read another poem? Ted always prepared an extra piece for precisely this occasion. He felt the inside pocket of his tweed jacket. The poem was there, ready to be read.
“Are you all ready?” Debbie yelled out. Her voice and energy had changed. She seemed like a new person: half soccer mom, half washed-up WWF announcer. The crowd yelled in unison. They were, in fact, ready. “Good, because coming up now is the man you’ve all been waiting to see: Bessborough’s first Poet Laureate. The man who has single-handedly put our small town on the literary map…Give it up for the shining star in our Bessborough Poet Society, our very own, Albert Saunders!”
Albert had been occupying the third seat on the stage. As he stood, he gave Ted a pat on the shoulder. Then he said something that Ted didn’t quite catch. Good job, buddy? Good job!? What the hell did that mean? Ted Sullivan glared at him as he walked across the stage. The crowd had started clapping. Effusively clapping. Clapping and cheering. Cheering and whooping. Standing and clapping. Ted couldn’t believe it. What the hell was this all about? Albert wasn’t even that good. Sure, he looked great in his tailored navy suit and the light blue shirt that hugged his broad chest. But come on, he wasn’t a real poet.
Albert tapped on the microphone twice and smiled his charming, toothy smile. The microphone did not crackle at him, the lucky bastard.
“Thank you so much, Bessborough!” Albert yelled out. Who did this guy think he was? Mick-fucking-Jagger? “First of all, I want to thank my friends, Debbie and Ted, for organizing this beautiful event. Without their support and the support of this whole community, I wouldn’t be standing here with you today.”
Whoops and cheers from the crowd. Ted cheered too. Not effusively – the jerk didn’t deserve that – but with enough gusto to make sure that anyone looking would know he was a good guy: a friend of his friends; a stalwart of the community.
“What should we start with?” Albert asked. He sounded like a clown at a child’s birthday party. Indecipherable sounds splashed out of the sea of folding chairs. Then a crisp cry from the front row. “Spinning yarn!” yelled the voice. Ridiculous. Albert had probably arranged for one of his old factory buddies to say that. What a phony!
“Spinning yarn it is!” replied Albert, pointing at the creep. He reached into his blazer and pulled out a thick stack of papers from the inside pocket. He brought his index finger to his mouth a licked it before leafing through the stack. When he found the sheet he was looking for he took a sip of water from the fancy plastic bottle that he had brought with him, and started reading.
Ted Sullivan was livid. Spoken word isn’t really poetry, you know? This was NOT what Ted had taught him. Had he not learned anything during the years of lessons Ted had given him in the back room of the Bessborough Community Library? Did he even remember how Ted had found him looking through the poetry section like a lost puppy in his stained blue overalls?
“I want to write poems,” Albert had said when Ted introduced himself as the librarian and asked him what he was looking for.
Ted took a quick glance at him and knew exactly what to say: “To write poetry, you must read poetry first,” he’d said very intelligently. Then he walked to the shelves and carefully pulled out three books that he handed to Albert. “Start here. Come back when you’re done reading them, and if you’re still up for it, I’ll recommend a couple more.”
A few days later, Albert had returned. They discussed the books — Shakespeare, Whitman, Langston Hughes — and Albert asked for more. Before long, a weekly routine was established. Eventually, Albert started bringing his own work. Ted read it and gave him his feedback. Albert could barely spell. He had no idea about rhythm or flow. But there was something there. A kernel of truth. Ted had always recognized that. He’d nurtured it; helped Albert express that truth in an intelligible way. It was thanks to Ted that Albert had learned to write poetry. When he got good enough, it was Ted who invited him to join the Poet Society. That was five years ago. Look where he was now. The bastard. If only Ted had dedicated that time for himself, he’d probably be the one in the fancy jacket…
A rolling wave of applause crashed against Ted Sullivan, dragging him back to the flex space of the Bessborough Presbyterian Church. The room was buzzing with excitement. Albert had just finished another poem.
“Ah folks. Thank you so much for letting me share my work with you,” Albert said. “Really. It’s been a pleasure!” He held his hands against his chest and closed his eyes, bowing his head slightly towards the crowd like a Buddhist. The crowd exploded into applause. Ted was immediately revolted.
Debbie White got up and walked towards the podium. She grabbed the mic. “Give it up for Albert Saunders. Thank YOU, Albert—or shall I say…a.a.?”
Debbie held her arms out towards Albert as a wave of complicit laughter rolled through the crowd. He looked back at her with a disarming “you-got-me” smile. Then they hugged.
“Before we put an end to this wonderful night, we have a few minutes for a quick Q&A with our poets,” Debbie said. “Please raise your hands, I’ll call on you.”
Hands went up, tentatively at first, then with more confidence. Debbie White pointed at them. One-by-one their owners lobbed innocuous questions at Albert. Where do you find inspiration? When do you write? Why did you start writing? Ted was growing impatient. None of the questions were directed at him. He looked out at the crowd. Sitting in the fourth row was a woman he recognized from the library. Her hand was up, and she seemed to be looking at him. Ted sat up. Her question would definitely be for him.
When Debbie finally called on her, the woman stood up. As she did, she grabbed onto her teenage son, pulling him up by the sleeve of his hoodie.
“My son here says he wants to be a writer just like you,” she said, looking at the boy with a hint of disdain. “Do you have any advice for him, Albert?”
Albert? Advice? That was it. What kind of advice could Albert Saunders give this boy? A factory worker giving advice to aspiring writers? No sir. Ted Sullivan would not stand for that. The lunacy had to stop. He would answer this question himself.
“Son, I’m going to tell you a secret…” Albert was quicker to the draw, and Ted sank back into his chair. “I’m not a writer,” he said. “I’ve never been a writer, and, frankly, I don’t want to be a writer. I’m just a factory worker who likes writing. The best advice I can give you is for you to drop your dream of being a writer and just write. Sit down with a notebook and the rest will come on its own.”
Uhhs and ahhs emerged from the crowd. Then effusive clapping.
“Wow,” said Debbie White, Bessborough Poet Society President. She was clutching another Kleenex, keeping it close to her chest. She stepped towards the microphone and stared into Albert’s eyes. Then she put a hand on his shoulder. “That was beautiful,” she said, turning towards the crowd. “This seems like the perfect place for us to end this fantastic evening, don’t you all think?” The crowd was agreeable to this idea and at once erupted into a thundering ovation. “Thank you so much for coming out,” said Debbie. “Help yourselves to more coffee and snacks…and have a great evening!”
Ted needed fresh air. Was he angry? Of course he was angry. Did he want to punch Albert in the face and knock out every one of his pearly white teeth? You betcha. His heart raced as he stormed off the stage and pushed his way through the crowd. Outside he could feel his whole body shaking. He wanted to yell. To vomit. To cry. He dragged himself towards the far corner of the courtyard and leaned against a tree. What had just happened? How dare that asshole speak like that? Just write…Just write?! Writing is hard work. Sacrifice. Dedication. None of this, I just write, crap. Nobody just writes.
Ted was imagining exactly how he’d tell Albert off, when a tap on the shoulder jolted him back to reality. There was Albert, smiling at as he held a small package in his right hand. The package was wrapped in construction paper and tied with twine. Albert stepped in for a hug and Ted obliged. The summer night was clean and calm.
“Great job in there,” Ted Sullivan said, patting Albert on the arm as he did his best to hide his anger.
“Thanks, buddy.” Albert’s eyes drifted out of focus, his words carrying lazily into the night. “It’s crazy, isn’t it? Who would have guessed that this would ever happen?”
No one could have guessed this, Albert. No one.
“Ah well, you deserve it,” said Ted.
“Thanks man!” Albert said, his thoughts returning to the parking lot of the Bessborough Presbyterian Church. “By the way, I loved your piece. Great work!”
Ted smiled but didn’t say a thing. What could he say?
Albert raised his right arm and shook the package in Ted’s face. “Wanna grab a beer?” he asked. “I have something I want to show you.” By the shape of it, Ted could guess what it was.
“Sorry, but I can’t tonight. Peggy and the girls are waiting at home with a roast.”
Albert was taken aback. He seemed genuinely disappointed at Ted’s answer. Ted didn’t care. There was no roast waiting for him at home. Just a can of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. But he had made up his mind: he would never have another beer with Albert. Not today. Not ever.
“Well… I just want to give this to you. Give me a call when you open it, ok?”
Albert pushed the package into Ted’s arms. “Rain check on the beer?” he asked.
“Sure,” lied Ted, turning away.
“Give Pegs a hug from me.”
Ted walked briskly towards his car. When he got to his Subaru, he yanked the door open and threw the package into the passenger seat. He had no intention of opening it. Not today. Not ever. Before backing out of his spot, he rolled down the window. Albert was staring at him. He waved at Ted. Ted waved back. As he drove away from the church, he felt the wind on his face. Where would he go? He didn’t want to go home. Peggy would ask how the event had gone. She’d beg for him to read her his poem. He’d read it and she’d say, “Wow, that’s really good” and continue on with her day as if nothing had happened. It drove him mad. Would he go to a bar? The library? It didn’t matter. Just not home. He turned right and made his way towards Wheeler. Maybe he’d get on the highway. Maybe he’d leave town.
About an hour later, Ted pulled over. He hadn’t gotten on the highway after all. He was in the parking lot of the old high school, a few block away from his house. He looked across the front seat. The package stared back at him tauntingly. He picked it up and sighed. It was heavier than he expected. He shook his head and ripped the package open, shredding the wrapping paper to bits. The cover was entirely black. The background had a sleek matte finish and the words “poems by a. a. saunders” were printed in a shinny, satin lettering in the top right corner. Ted ran his fingers over the words. They felt cool and smooth. Who the fuck writes their name like that anyway? What a joke. Ted opened the book and the spine crackled as it bent backwards. The book smelled new. He slowly made his way through the first few pages. The title page, the frontispiece, the accolades (which were glowing), the copyright page. He always read these: it was a habit he had picked up when he was studying to become a librarian. Then he got to the dedication page. As he read it, a wave of nausea rolled through his stomach.
Ted Sullivan shook his head in disbelief, tears welling in his eyes. How dare that asshole do this to him? He tossed the book back onto the passenger seat. It landed with a heavy thump. He started the car and began driving with purpose. Up Main Street, a right on Bonnacord, a left on St. George. He’d show Albert exactly how he felt. Was he going to yell or punch him? Would he push him to the ground? Kick him? Slap him? Oh yeah, thought Ted Sullivan: a good slap would do the trick.
He turned left onto Mount Royal and pulled into a long driveway halfway down the block. Before getting out of the car he picked up the book and looked at the dedication page once again. To Ted, who taught me everything I need to know about poetry and life. He shut the book and put it down. Then he stormed out of his car, marching towards the front door, hatred bursting from his eyes.
Knock. Knock. Knock. Three loud thumps on the door with the side of his fist. A warning sign of his intentions. At first, silence. Then some scurrying inside the house. The noises were getting closer. Ted Sullivan took a step back to make sure he had enough room to swing his right arm. Some fumbling at the door. Would the coward come out? Of course he would.
The rest, happened so fast that Ted couldn’t even register it: An unlatching of a lock, the door swinging open, and a.a., still in his light blue shirt, smiling his pearly white smile, looking dashing and comfortable, stepping out the door. And Ted Sullivan, smiling back at him, tears in his eyes, stepping in for a massive embrace.
“Congratulations, buddy,” said Ted Sullivan as he held onto Albert’s neck, tears moistening his shoulder. “You deserve this. I’m so damn proud of you.”
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