by Steven K-Brooks
The sign reads, “Fresh Poems.” A handsome young fellow with dark, curly hair sits on a folding chair, his fingers caressing his Smith-Corona. Today this young man’s saxophone is nowhere in sight. Today is dedicated exclusively to poems.
A man slows down as he approaches. Then he stops, reads everything on the sign, Weddings, Memorials, Blessings, Blasphemies, Bar Mitzvahs, but nowhere on the sign is there a mention of money. The man wonders how much is the fee. He walks on and into the Co-op to buy a lemon.
Over the years, this man has developed a knack for selecting lemons: Not shriveled, not green, not beyond fresh. Ripe. . . perfectly ripe!
The checkouts are crowded. Even the 10-or-fewer items register has a long line.
So the man walks back to produce. He puts the lemon back, in a particular spot, with the point up and at a certain angle so that he will spot the best lemon quickly upon his return, but it will stay under everyone else’s radar.
Now, outside again, the man is sitting on the bench near the Co-op’s exit (this was awhile ago, at the old Co-op building). He watches people come and go, and thinks about the poem that he would like to request. A woman he knows sits down next to him.
“This is the first time,” she says, “that I have been out since my knee surgery.”
“Did you get any pain killers?” he asks. Is is a mischievous question, meant to start banter.
“No,” she says almost sternly, “I don’t need them. I’m fine.”
She is worried that the woman who is taking her home may not realize that she is outside. She sees a car which looks like her friend’s.
She gets up, slowly pushing her full shopping cart toward the curb. Leaving the cart, she hobbles on her aluminum cane toward the car as quickly as she can. Then, slightly embarrassed, she sees that it is someone else and she hobbles back.
Almost immediately, her ride appears, she takes leave and is gone.
The man thinks about the poem. “How much does a poem cost?” he wonders. “It must be, ‘pay what you think it is worth.’” But the man does not want to pay what he thinks a poem is worth, it is too much.
The man thinks: “Maybe I’ll give him a five, that doesn’t seem too bad.” But in his heart he knows that a poem is worth at least four times as much, and he does not want to give up a twenty. He has five crisp twenties in his wallet. It feels good to have a hundred dollars and he does not want to give up feeling good. He has not felt good for too long.
It occurs to him that it might take only two minutes for the fellow to pound out a poem on his well-oiled manual. “Even if I gave him two dollars, that comes to $120 an hour,” he thinks. But his conscience will not allow it.
The man imagines what he would tell the poet:
“I want you to write a poem about a man who bids farewell to a scorpion who has clamped down on the inside of the man’s right thigh, next to his genitals. The man has been released after having endured the scorpion’s grip for the past twenty years.
“Actually, it has only been for the past ten years, but I want you to put into the poem that the man exaggerates, and asks the poet to write that it has been twenty years.”
This dishonesty does not bother the man at all: Enduring a scorpions’ continual sting for ten years is bad enough to warrant some exaggeration.
When the man looks up, he sees that a small crowd has surrounded the poet. He walks over. The poet is writing a poem for a little girl who, standing on the other side of the typewriter, is eagerly leaning toward the poet and telling him how much she loves ice cream, and her favorite flavor, which the poet captures for posterity.
After awhile the man walks on. He is just beginning to feel like maybe he can trust the relief he feels at walking for the first time in so many years; not in the grasp of the scorpion’s claw with the ugly, segmented body ending in the narrow tail and stinger, dangling from the man’s inner thigh, primed to strike with venom whenever the scorpion did not like something the man said.
The scorpion has left, but the man still feels sore when he walks. It is a good soreness. It is the soreness of a wound which can heal, now that the cause is gone.
The man wants to say, “farewell scorpion,” but only in his own mind and heart. He does not want to say anything to the scorpion itself. He does not want the scorpion to have any reason to think about him or return.