I was hanging out at Johnny's beach house with the band. Johnny's parents owned the place but let us rehearse there. Austin and I had been sort of living there all summer. It was our chance to share a bedroom and see what it was like having our own place. Of course he spent most of his time jamming with the band, ignoring me while he sang the lyrics I wrote.
I'd written a new poem called "Save Me" and the guys were trying to figure out the chord changes to sing it to. They weren't listening to my suggestions, even though I'd written the words. Finally Austin's sister and I decided to go to Nellie's. Mary and I hung around a lot, and Nellie's was our favorite bar. It was right on the beach, with its back door always open to the salty breeze.
Mary was talking about her friends Debbie and Denise. They were always squabbling; it was a never-ending soap opera. I nodded a noticed a guy across the circular bar trying to catch my eye. I adjusted myself so that Mary blocked my view.
"Don't look now," Mary said.
Before I could catch myself, I'd turned. He was circling around behind me from the other side of the bar. He was staring at me, rapt. It must be something emblazoned across my forehead that attracts every geek this side of Asbury Park. I don't know. I moaned.
He approached our table. He was small and looked like a ferret with a long, thin, sloping nose and thin, tight lips. The skin on his face was loose and gray. He smoked too much. He dragged on a cigarette. Then he did an odd thing. He dropped his hand to chest level. It just stopped there and sagged in the air.
"Hi," he said. Mary snickered into her glass of white wine.
He smiled expectantly. "What's so funny?"
I sighed and slid a cigarette out of the pack in my purse. The ferret fumbled for his lighter. As he did so, I took out my matches and struck one. I wasn't trying to be mean, but everybody knows matches are the best part of smoking.
"You beat me." His smile was cocky but with a glimmer of self-awareness. He said, "Your friend over there said you write poetry."
"What friend?" I asked. I couldn't see the other half of the bar from where we sat along the perimeter.
"Are you a serious poet?"
"Well yeah," I said. "At least to me I am."
This was kind of a sore spot with me. "Well, no. I'm not published."
"Got any poetry with you?" he asked.
"No!" I said. Some funny sound came out of my mouth. I think it might've been a chortle.
He slid a chair over from the next table and sat between me and Mary. "What poets do you like?" he asked.
I thought about it. "Leonard Cohen," I said off the top of my head.
"Isn't he mostly a lyricist?"
I smiled. At least he'd heard of him. I drew on my cigarette. "I guess my favorite poets are lyricists."
"You know," he said, leaning down toward me, "I edit a poetry journal in Arkansas."
I should get rid of him. Was I leading him on? Well, it wasn't my fault if he mistook my interest. "What kind of poetry journal?" I asked.
He smiled. His teeth were tiny and perfect. "The Arkansas Poetry Journal."
"Yeah?" I hadn't heard of it but that didn't mean anything.
"It's published out of the University of Arkansas." I must've looked pretty stupid because he said, "You have heard of the University of Arkansas, haven't you?" I didn't say anything. He said, not unkindly, "Well, it's a very prestigious university. I don't mean prestigious like it costs a lot of money or something, I mean it's a good school. It has a long standing literary tradition."
"Oh," I said uncomfortably. "So who told you I write, anyway?" He leaned back in his chair and waved to his friends. He pointed off to a corner where I couldn't see. They nodded.
Selena emerged from behind a pillar, saw me, and waved. Her fine white-blond hair was teased so high, I could see pockets of light glaring through it. Austin slept with her once when we were broken up.
"That's her," he said. "She's a pretty girl."
Mary and I exchanged a significant glance. He caught it. "What?" he said, checking our faces. "You girls don't like her? Why? She a fast little ticket?" He clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. "Or are you two jealous because she's pretty?"
I was in shock. Mary let out a bark of bitter laughter and said, "Her? Who says she's pretty?"
"Ah," he said. "Your friend speaks."
"Why don't you go talk to her if she's your type," I said.
He smiled, his eyes lingering uncomfortably on mine. "She's not my type." He turned to Mary. "Do you write too?"
I laughed suddenly. "Yeah!" I said. "We all write. We're a fucking little art community around here!"
"Is that funny?" he said. "I don't know New Jersey that well."
I was beside myself with laughter. Tears clouded up my eyes. Mary said, slightly embarrassed by me, "I've been keeping a journal since I was fourteen."
He immediately lost interest in her after hearing this. Journals didn't count. He turned back to me. "But you're the real writer?" I nodded, my laughter subsiding. "Do you have something with you?"
"What?" I said, letting out a final, residual laugh.
"Recite something off the top of your head."
"Go ahead!" Mary said. "Let him tell you if he thinks it's good."
She turned to him, her brown ponytail swinging through the gray smoky air. "You know, she's a great unknown poet. You'll be hearing of her soon. Not that I know anything about poetry writing, I mean, I do like it of course. I mean, I think poetry is great. It's like the Cadillac of writing, you know? But I'm no expert."
And journal writing was, I supposed, the moped of all writing.
"She wrote all the lyrics for my brother's band," Mary said. "Hey! Can you tell her who's supposed to get royalties and stuff?"
He turned to me. "You should be getting something"
"I'm just warning her," Mary said. "Just because he's my brother, doesn't mean I don't look out for my friend." She pointed at the ferret-man. She said, "I want you to know, I have known this girl all my life. We grew up side by side in the same two family house." She smiled warmly, ignoring the fact that he didn't seem to care.
He turned to me. "So let me hear some of this great stuff. Come on, it's in the great poetic tradition to recite! Show me you're the real thing."
He was taking me off guard. I didn't know what was going on. "If you're from Arkansas," I said, "how come you don't have an accent?"
"I'm originally from New Jersey," he said. He pointed to a couple of lonely losers at the bar. They had their noses in their greasy beer glasses. Even their beers looked sad pissy, no froth. "I came with those two guys over there."
"You know," I said. "I've always wondered. When you write poems, where do you break the line?"
He bent down so he was leaning across the table. I had to move my glass of wine, but I fought the impules to lean back. I wanted to hear the answer. Excruciatingly slow, he inched toward me. His eyes brightened until they were inches from mine. The smell of salami was rank on his breath. "You cut the line," he said, "WHERE IT'S PHYSICAL."
"Where it's physical?" I asked. Talk about pickup lines! Then I got it; it made perfect intuitive sense to me. "Oh!" I said. "I get it! Where it's physical." He was staring at me. I felt awkward and flush. Mary was staring at me too. "Physical." I sipped my drink.
Mary gave me a slightly disapproving look. "Hey," she said to the ferret, "is that your friend waving at you?"
He glanced up. "No."
In fact, one had been. He rose. He was tall and stooped. He approached the opposite direction the ferret had taken. He came up to our table. He seemed uncommonly tall, or maybe he was just one of those people who looked a different height when you were sitting.
He said to the ferret, "George, we really do have to be going."
He looked to me desperately. "Do you have a car? You could drop me off."
A poetry editor asking me for a ride home? It seemed unreal. Could he really be a poetry editor? He didn't seem like anything special. Still, what if this was my chance? What if this was my only chance? I was attracted to his attraction to me, if that made sense; but the thought of taking it any further seemed too crazy, too wanton, too fucking scary.
He turned to his friend and pleaded, "Just a little longer?"
"Sorry," the friend said. He stooped apologetically. "I really have to work tomorrow and it's really late and I'm really tired."
"Well!" He touched my arm. "Listen send me some of your poetry. Our address is in The Literary Marketplace . Address it to me. George Stanton. Poetry editor." I nodded. "Can't you recite me anything before I go?"
"I can sing you something from one of her songs," Mary offered.
"Yes!" he said.
"No," I said. I felt light-headed.
Mary cleared her throat, warming up. "La la! Okay. This is it!" She paused to compose a little introduction. "Okay! Lyrics by Janey Darc, music by Austin Ciccone my brother. Here goes." Mary, who'd spent her Sundays in the back row of the church choir, began singing in a voice that was surprisingly sweet.
"You said you said you'd save me time, by leaving me now instead of later.
But that's not what I meant when I said, 'This time, baby save me.'"
"More!" He clapped.
"That's all I remember," Mary said, flustered.
He turned to me. "We could drop you home if you want." I shook my head. "Oh well." I felt bad, as if I'd led him on. I could change my mind, I thought. But he was leaving. "Goodnight," he said with a sad sigh. I felt a twinge of regret and a big sense of relief.
George and his tall friend met up with their other friend at the door. He waved goodbye to Mary and me, we waved back, and then he waved goodbye to Selena. But she didn't see him. She was on the dance floor with Ben. He was a body builder in the winter, a lifeguard in the summer. Everybody had danced with him at one time or another. He was always around.
At work the next day, I found The Literary Marketplace in the reference section. I looked up The Arkansas Poetry Journal. Sure enough, there it was. George Stanton. My brush with fame.