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The Poet and the Fisherman

She came to the island with her two slim volumes of poems and the outfit she always wore to readings. The sweater jacket that her first husband, the artist, had given her. The slightly flared jeans from that store in Soho. And the patent leather flats that turned out to be completely wrong for walking on the thin ribbon of cement that the islanders called a sidewalk.

“Most of them are very short,” she apologized for her poems. As if listening to them were not a pleasure, but a task to get through, or a box that must be checked off.  She stood behind the lectern in the church, in front of the wooden cross. She always hated this moment, before the first poem, when she was just an idea and not a real person.  And then, the words opened up her lips. Her voice went into a high slow rhythm. An affectation and a defense. Her life’s work in her hands. Two slim volumes, each one revised 70 times.

On the ferry coming over, she had sat next to a group of men going to the island for a fishing tournament. Who could catch the biggest one? The day was windy, so the ferry swayed back and forth. The man next to her apologized when a tiny spray of beer from his plastic cup sloshed her way. His hands were big and rough around the cup. She imagined them digging into a pail of a bait and then gently hooking a small live fish on the sharp end. She shocked herself when she imagined how those hands would feel on her bare skin.

Her second husband, the musician, had fine, thin hands. When he told her, while crossing his legs on the living room couch, that he had fallen in love with the oboe player, he interlaced those long fingers with their buffed and gently rounded nails and clasped them around one knee.

“I’d guess you’re not going to the fishing tournament,” the man with the beer said as he eyed her and smiled.

“I might,” she said more flirtatiously than she intended, “if you were to come to my poetry reading.”

When she looked out into the audience that night, she saw him sitting there in his flannel shirt.  She forced herself to look around the room and not just at him.  She read her poems about the epistemology of knowledge, the idea of order in a small apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  As she read, she thought about that flannel shirt, and all that lay beneath it.

After the reading, a phalanx of young women approached her. They had followed her to this island. These were her fans. They carried her books like talismans and handed them over to her to be signed, as if her signature could protect them from what came next.  She knew how these young women lived because she, herself, had lived it. The third-floor walkup. The living room divided into two bedrooms by an Indian bedspread taped to the ceiling.  When she was 22, she had ended up in Philadelphia, not far from her dorm at Penn, in a brownstone with three other women. Oh, how she wrote! Poetry all night. Daytimes, she’d walk the two blocks to the West Philly multi-service center where she had used her sociology degree to get an entry level job helping people face their demons. She was, of course, underqualified and too young to understand that their demons were hers too. The poems came from the work, and they were, to be charitable, not good. A crossed-eyed man, rhythmically wrapping and unwrapping his pilling sweater around his sunken frame. A stringy-haired woman burning her Bible while hallucinating Joan of Arc. I will not save myself for an idea.

She was a poet out in the world, unprotected, so unprotected that her mother on the Upper East Side of Manhattan had asked her grandfather for money to hire a private detective to follow her around. The first time she noticed him, she was walking home from work, a slouchy bag filled with case files slung over one shoulder and a take-out salad in her hands. It had just started to get dark, and she felt a tall man walking behind her. She couldn’t see him, but she heard his footsteps echoing hers, and it made her uneasy.

It was six weeks into what would have been the school year, except she no longer went to school. The trees were starting to turn away from summer and flame into fall. On her way home, she passed the Penn dorm where she had lived freshman year and felt old and shut out. How dare they push her out into life with no map and no plan?

She walked a little faster. So did the man. She turned left on Walnut. So did the man.  Finally, she ducked into a WaWa, the unnatural light beckoning her with its brightness. She bought a candy bar and, as she paid, she looked over her shoulder. The man was bent over the news rack near the front door reading the headlines.  Emboldened by the light and by the round, fiftyish woman who had just taken her money, she confronted him.

“Why are you following me?” Her voice was low and demanding.

The woman behind the counter looked up from straightening the cash in the till and put one hand on the telephone next to the register.

The man was maybe ten years older than she was, good looking in that kind of jock way that she didn’t find attractive. He raised both palms as if in surrender. “Caught,” he said, smiling. The clerk took her hand off the phone and went back to counting money.

When he told her the story, she thought about how to get back at her mother, how she would tell her, maybe while sitting in the living room on the night before Thanksgiving, drinks in hand, watching The Philadelphia Story in black and white. She invited the man back to her apartment.  She maneuvered him past one roommate on the couch and another roommate in the kitchen until they reached her bedroom. It turned out his name was Tommy, and he was an ex-cop trying to make some extra money. Though she had known plenty of Toms, she had never known a Tommy.

They made small talk, none of it interesting to her. She had flirted in college by bringing up Nietzsche and Kafka and, of course, The Golden Notebook. It had been a litmus test. If a man knew Doris Lessing, she’d consider sleeping with him. She didn’t even ask Tommy the question because what was the point? She knew she would sleep with him for reasons that were between her and her mother.

Her mother was a type.  Thin, tall, elegant often with a cigarette in her hand. She had a special gift of being distant and intrusive at the same time. You wouldn’t know by looking at her that she was two generations removed from the shtetl. The–witzes of Lublin had sold their silver candlesticks and hidden diamonds in the lining of their coats. They had boarded a train to Rotterdam to find the cheapest passage on a ship that docked at Ellis Island at the turn of the twentieth century. The great-grandfather ragman sired the grandfather textile magnate, who raised her mother in the Manhattan luxury allowed to Jews in those days before World War II.  She was sharp and beautiful, and their money bought her entrance into Radcliffe. It had not bought her happiness.

The poet led the cop to her bed, and they both began to undress without even an introductory kiss.  He slid under the covers and then she. His body was harder than other bodies she had known. The sex was more tender than she had expected.  He was one of those men who had a code of honor, who treated women, if not equally, at least with respect.  She closed her eyes and imagined herself with an old-fashioned movie star, the strong silent type, maybe Gregory Peck.

The next day she called her mother.

“I met Tommy.”

She heard her mother draw in a long breath, or perhaps a drag from her cigarette.


“Tommy. I fucked him.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The conversation ended there, but the poet knew her words, the sharpness of the Germanic F and the hard K, had wounded her mother.

Of course, she had turned it into a poem. How could she not? And here on this island so many years later, she read “Tommy the Cop” slowly and melodically, with none of the anger that had fueled her to write it.

After she had signed her last autograph, she lifted her eyes and let them rest on the fisherman.  He was alone, still sitting in a pew, with an indulgent smile and his arms crossed.  She gathered up her books and her papers and her pen and walked slowly toward him.

“Would you like to try some night fishing?” he asked.

She wondered if it were a metaphor, but no, he meant it as it was said. He looked her up and down, and she instinctively crossed her arms against her chest.

“You might want to change your clothes. You’ll get those beautiful shoes mighty wet.”

She stood on the shore in the overalls and waders he had lent her. The moon made ripples of light on the ocean. He handed her a rod and a hook and pointed to a bucket of bait. She plunged her hand into the slime and came out with a small wriggling fish. She stabbed the sharp end of the hook into its eye and was surprised to find that it stayed there. He looked impressed. He came closer, so close that she smelled the beer on his breath and felt his warmth on her neck.

“Where’d you learn to do that?” he whispered.

He lay his two long arms on top of her delicate ones, and they stayed like that

as they fished. When the line tugged, their eyes met and they silently agreed not to move, so that after a time, fishing just became an excuse for a long embrace, and the embrace just an excuse for not having sex, until the warmth of not having sex felt like sex itself.

Finally, finally, it was sex itself, the beautiful kind on the beach that poets dream of, that she had dreamt of. In her dream, there had always been the sound of waves slapping against the shore, but never the sound of small fish tails slapping against the side of a plastic bucket.

On the ferry home, the water was rougher than on the way out.   It was then that she decided she would marry again.  The boat lifted and dipped, lifted and dipped, until salty water spilled onto the deck and spread under her feet. She rescued her briefcase just in time, the briefcase holding her poems.  She gripped it tightly, cradling it in her lap.  The fisherman sat next to her, and they both looked straight ahead at the horizon.

By the time they docked, she felt dizzy and weak. She put her briefcase down so they could say their goodbyes.  They patted each other awkwardly on their backs, a kind of hug that felt too chaste after what had happened between them. She wasn’t regretful, or even surprised. She knew all about the calm after the climax, the denouement, the reckoning, the end.  It had happened before, and it would happen again. She took a taxi to the train and then the train home. When she finally turned the key in the lock of the apartment that used to be her mother’s, she dropped her bags on the floor and breathed in the slightly stale air.

She kicked off her shoes, went straight to the bookcase in the front hall and slid out a fat paperback. She stretched out on the couch and opened it, but the spine was old and stressed and the pages became unmoored. They began falling out, one by one, like autumn leaves all over her mother’s Oriental rug.

She knelt and tried for a bit to put the Golden Notebook back together, but she soon realized she could not.  She lay back on the rug and closed her eyes and thought once more of the fisherman and the beach and the slapping sound of fish swimming away from the hook, announcing that they were alive.




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