Joseph and the Poets

2020 / 5370 words

As he stepped off the train, Joseph’s mind raced with all the thoughts resulting from the scene that had just transpired. The drunk man was a poet. As he had lumbered down the train car towards him, Joseph recognized him, certain to be the only person to ever have recognized him in this state. Joseph had gone to a small auditorium at the university two years prior to seeing the poet speak. The small audience was scattered throughout the venue. Joseph himself dared not sit in any of the empty front few rows, instead finding a dark section along the side. The poet read some of his work, told a short story from his youth, and asked if there were any questions. There were not, so he posed his own. “Why?” He played the part of someone who could answer, gesticulating across the stage in his corduroy pants and tweed jacket. Joseph no longer remembers the content of the answer, but he knows the consequence: Joseph became a writer. And now, two weeks after returning from his book tour, he was confronted with the poet, drunk, on a train.

He walked down the aisle and plopped down right next to Joseph. He smelled.

At first, it was only the poet’s odor that invaded Joseph’s personal space. Joseph pulled his coat tighter over his chest and tried to subtly get some of the collar to cover his nose. He was unsuccessful. Sweet alcohol mixed with dirt and body odor. The poet’s hands were dirty but still slight, his fingers thin. His eyes glazed over, his gaze in the distance. Why he chose to sit so close by, Joseph could not understand.

Then his head turned, his eyes focused, and he stared. Joseph felt very awkward. The poet clearly did not. His eyebrows tightened towards the middle. He held his stare for many beats too long, then looked again, longingly, at the distance.

“The roold breaks erryone,” he said.

“What?” Joseph asked, not realizing he did so out loud.

The poet again looked at him, then back away.

Hemingway, Joseph realized after replaying the phrase in his mind in not-drunk-speak. The world breaks everyone. Why would he be quoting Hemingway? Only in his apparent drinking habits could he ever be considered to have the slightest association with Hemingway. Not in his work, not in his looks, not even, one would guess, in his library.

“The world breaks everyone.”

This time the poet said it as clearly as if he were standing on that stage at the university.

“It kills, he said!” he said, pointing his finger into the air, “It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave!”

At this, the poet belched and the smell of numerous alcoholic beverages mixed together filled the entire section of the train car.

“Joseph, however, remains unbroken!” the poet exclaimed, and with that, stood, took three staggered steps and stumbled out the doors, just as they slid open.

“Wha…?” Joseph quietly spoke out loud as he watched the man walk away, the doors sliding closed and the train lurching forward once again. The right questions couldn’t form in his brain fast enough. He wanted to run after the man, to win back enough time to think of what to ask, but it was too late.

“What the actual fuck,” he managed. He looked around in disbelief as if he were breaking the fourth wall. There were only a few other passengers in the train car, and they were just far away enough to have not noticed the exchange, faces buried in their phones, earbuds creating safe isolation.

Joseph found himself rattled as he himself stepped off the train a few stops later and started his walk home. He wasn’t used to weird experiences that couldn’t be explained rationally. He wasn’t capable of holding two versions of the poet in his mind: the successful academic writer and the dirty drunk on the train. And he was particularly troubled by the juxtaposition of their two seemingly opposite trajectories.

Joseph’s agent had told him that the success of his first novel was a statistical anomaly. The fact that the worn pages he had typed–on his vintage electric typewriter–made it off the slush pile was a major miracle. That it went on to make it onto the New York Times Best Seller list was inconceivable. But deep down inside, Joseph believed it was his talent, not luck, that had determined his literary fate.

His book tour was a pleasant series of flattering interactions. Joseph didn’t mind it at all. He’d hardly traveled in the 10 years since graduating from high school, and the constant string of flights and hired cars was a delight, even if they were Spirit flights and Uber rides. Each city was a new adventure. Of course, the book was already doing rather well by that point; the tour itself was a fun surprise.

He had spent his days since returning commuting by train to various coffee shops downtown. He still lived in the same loft apartment; he figured he wouldn’t find much better without spending considerably more anyway. His needs hadn’t changed, so he didn’t see the point in spending any of his newfound funds on extravagances; it was the freedom that he enjoyed. Reading, writing some, thinking, watching YouTube and Netflix. (The new TV wasn’t extravagant.) His was a solitary life, just as it had been for the last ten years, and he still didn’t mind. There was enough noise always around him in the city; he didn’t need to add to it.

But this encounter on the train, it wouldn’t leave him. He was able to forget it for a time that evening while he watched TV, and he fell asleep on his couch as usual, but as soon as he woke up the next morning it was right there in the front of his mind.

“The world breaks everyone.”

What had happened to the poet? Surely he was never that well off to begin with; he was a poet after all. But he was successful by those standards. After all, one is not invited to speak at universities without a fair amount of professional clout.

He was clearly a broken man, but what of the world had broken him? Was it personal? A breakup; a betrayal; a loss? Was it professional? A slight; a loss of position; a series of failed publications? Was it financial? A debt come to bear; a loss of income? Was it dramatic? A run-in with the mob; a hacker set on destroying his life?

Or was it more subtle, more insidious? Had life become a series of cuts that wouldn’t heal, a spreading infection, a chronic pain?

Joseph struggled with these questions as he prepared his morning coffee, the sense of unease neither dissipating nor growing, just sitting there inside his soul. He was again able to distract himself for a short time while he checked his email. There was his agent, with his daily report on the numbers. They didn’t change as dramatically day-to-day anymore.

He decided to go ahead and make the trip downtown again. He had a fear he would run into the poet again but was able to dispose of the thought with a mental exercise involving a calculation of the population of his ever-growing city. With wallet, phone, Kindle, notebook, pen, and various sundries stowed in his Fjallraven, he put one foot in front of the other towards the train station.

That day he tried a new coffee shop. It was relatively new and a little bit outside of what could be considered core downtown. A nearly flawless interior design complimented the 100-year-old building, with exposed brick peeking through decades-old layers of plaster. The tables were all handmade wood. The chairs all mismatched but somehow collectively in perfect continuity with their surroundings.

Ceramic cups were the default. To-go had to be requested. A mug was a medium. There was no large. The coffee was local but no-nonsense. Strong but smooth. No thin brews with “fruit notes” here.

Joseph was well pleased.

He sat and sipped and scribbled. He read the paper. He read his meticulously chosen two books. (He was careful to only ever read two books at a time, but had a digital collection of hundreds of unread books.)

It was a little bit cold inside, just the way he liked it.

And then he saw her. He hadn’t noticed her walk in, but in an eye-resting glance towards the bar, he saw her pick up her coffee and tip-toe towards a seat.

Joseph had never been in love before. He was confused by the chemical changes occurring in his body and mind. It wasn’t the coffee.

She had a certain walk like a lilting voice. It spoke to Joseph as she walked across the coffee shop. The blond hair–was it natural or dyed? No glasses. That was weird. He thought he only liked women with glasses. Like if they hadn’t strained their eyes against enough pages they weren’t bookish enough for him, even though he knew that had nothing to do with it. She had a certain pixie quality to her, but a toughness. A pixie with death spells.

He tried not to stare, but progress in his book was impossible. He ordered more coffee. She read. She pulled out the tiniest of laptops and began typing. Her foot tapped the air rhythmically. She stopped and looked out the window. He looked back at his Kindle.

Finally, she closed her laptop and packed her things. She floated out of the door. He didn’t go talk to her. Of course he didn’t talk to her. What would he say? What would she think? People don’t talk to strangers at coffee shops anymore, if they ever did. They talk to strangers on their phones, after swiping in the appropriate direction.

But he did decide to go to the same coffee shop the next day.

She met the poet in another state, while an English undergrad. He was a visiting professor. His reputation proceeded him, as did his aura before he entered a room. She managed to get into one of his few classes that semester and before long was attending every available office hour window. She finally shared some of her work with him and he was encouraging but carefully critical. She really felt like her poems benefitted from the time they spent with him. She would read his books repeatedly, skipping around, referencing them like sacred texts.

So for post-grad, she would go to the city where he lived. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t teaching anywhere at the time. She found out where he would hang out and attempt to appear casual as she sometimes literally bumped into him, showering him with compliments and speaking nostalgically about her time in his class during undergrad.

Eventually, she would find her way into his rare and semi-secret workshops. He remembered her older work, so his compliments–and critiques–had a richer context and a deeper meaning.

She was falling for him, but of course she wasn’t going to admit it. She wasn’t a fool.

“Why?” he asked.

“Why do this? Why spend hours writing the same 50, 100, 150 words over and over, tweaking this word or that 20 times, drinking coffee at midnight because you have to get this right for the sun to rise in the morning, the entire world relies on these words working themselves into their destined place, by your hand?!”

He needed to tell them because he needed to tell himself.

“Because you have to? No, you don’t! You could watch TV and go to sleep at a normal hour and spend time with your family and friends like a regular, happy person! You don’t have to do this.

“‘Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television,’” he quoted. None of the millennials in the crowd knew the reference.

“You do it because at that moment when you’re putting the words on the page, manipulating language according to your will, pushing towards perfection… at that moment there is nothing else but your craft. You are at equals with the greats. You are a classical sculptor with a chisel, the romantic with his paints, the composer with her concerto. You are the master of the universe!”

“You have the power!” He smiled and laughed on the inside. No one got that one either.

He paused, came out from behind the podium, and looked out. The small theater was about one-quarter full, but they were spread out all over the place. Most of them looked bored, but a few were clearly, at the very least, wondering where this was going.

“You are simultaneously God on the 6th day and Christ on the cross. You started this, but you must bleed onto the page to make mankind whole again. No one is there to help you. These are the last miles of your marathon and it is your body against your will.”

He needed to start working out again.

“To create is to be the most alive. But not just alive; in control of your destiny.

“Do you want to be in control of your destiny?” He smiled and reached out his arm to grab the top of the podium as if he needed to steady himself. But he didn’t need to steady himself. He needed to be able to fling himself out of there, far away, and never see these people again.

“Any other questions?” he asked. Of course there weren’t any questions.

“Well thank you,” he smiled a different smile, sheepish instead of wry, and walked quickly down the stairs at the front of the stage, towards her.

She loved him so much. She thought about all the things she was going to do to him later that night.

Today Joseph decided to doctor his coffee. He stared at the clouds inside the cup as the cream swirled and joined the rest of the liquid. He continued to stare after he found a seat and unpacked his things.

He was waiting, hoping to see the woman again, but his mind was split.

“Joseph, however, remains unbroken!”

How the fuck did that guy know his name? Joseph had read a couple of his books, gone to one talk, and never interacted with him in real life, ever. The only rational explanation he could come up with was that there was the picture on the inside cover of his novel. But why would the poet have read his novel, known his face and remembered his name? The book had only been out about five months, and popular for two or three. Joseph imagined the destitute, drunk poet casually stealing the book from one of the few bookshops remaining in the city, then reading it in an alley, laughing as he read at the immaturity of the text. Joseph still would have been flattered.

But no, that was impossible.

She never arrived at the coffee shop that day, so Joseph went back the next. And eventually, there she was, light cast around her body as she walked through the front door. She looked familiar. More so than before. It felt like he knew her already.

No, he would have remembered. It was just his heart playing tricks on his mind.

“So of course I googled you,” she said as she ran her finger around the rim of her water glass. Oh my god, how she ran her finger around the rim of her water glass.

“I hadn’t heard of your book. Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” Joseph said sheepishly.

“I did read some reviews.”

“They have been mixed.”

“Yeah, I noticed that. But apparently some people liked it,” she said and smiled in a way that made him feel proud, almost warm inside. “I’ve picked up a copy, it’s sitting on my Kindle with the other 100 books I need to read, but I’ll make sure to put it on the top of the list, even if this doesn’t go so well and I never see you again,” again that smile, this time accompanied with a soft chuckle. Joseph melted and the viscous fluid that was his body poured off his chair onto the floor.

“Thanks,” he said again. Why couldn’t he think of anything witty to say? He was being incredibly boring already.

“So you teach?” he asked.

“Yeah, and try to get published, just like everyone. The dog eat dog world of professional poetry. You know.”

This time he chuckled. He wondered if he should have chuckled. He actually didn’t have the slightest idea how much of what she said was sarcastic and how much was serious.

“Date number three!” she said as she sat down at the table across from him.

“Indeed,” he said and nodded his head slightly as if tipping an invisible hat.

“I read your book,” she said.

“Fantastic. And what did you think?”

“It read like poetry,” she said.

“That’s good,” he said.

“I liked the second chapter,” she said.

“Twenty percent!” he said with a smile.

“They are rather long chapters,” she said.

“Indeed,” he said again. He really needed to work on his vocabulary. He was a writer, after all.

“I liked how it moved the plot forward,” she said.

“The plot?”

“Yeah, you know, the plot,” she said and then laughed, that laugh that stopped time.

They had dinner and talked about politics and journalism and popular writers and the weather, in no particular order. She looked at her phone and said it was getting late and she had to go work on some things for school. She got up, placing her napkin on the table, taking a final sip of wine while she stood across from him, every part of her some kind of perfection. She pulled her bag off the back of her chair, they said their goodbyes and she left.

Joseph looked at his phone and simultaneously, instinctively pulled his notepad and pen from his pocket. He was going to write about her later that night.

The poet looked around the restaurant, picked up the book laying on the table, and opened it. He was going to write about her later that night.

When she laid next to him, she felt at home. A warm nostalgia coursed through her. He reminded her of the past, linking the distant past with the present, skipping that problematic recent past. She would lay there and stare at his details, his hair, his beard, his ears, his nipples. She could feel the air around her, not too hot, not too cold. The smell of the loft, the concrete palpable in her nostrils, contrasted with the soft sheets imbued faintly with laundry detergent.

She loved his bookshelves. They reminded her of his intelligence. She loved his glasses and his wardrobe. She loved to wake up first and make coffee in the kitchen, close as it was to the bed. She would sit at the small table while she drank and watch the city come to life through the window. It was particularly satisfying on cold, rainy days, for some reason.

Everything was good. After the coffee and maybe some food, she would either find some fresh clothes from her bag or make the quick trip home before work. He would just be waking up, pleased to find the coffee made, shuffling around somewhat aimlessly, admiringly observing her movements around the apartment. She would give him a peck goodbye, lingering to breathe in his scent, and walk with a slight skip out the door.

It was at the art show where things started to go wrong. The poet wanted to buy her the piece, the one he could tell she had really fallen in love with. He loved her and wanted her to have the things she loved. But he couldn’t get it for her for a multitude of complex reasons.

He couldn’t get it for her because of his past, because of her past, because of the present, because of the future. He couldn’t get it for her because of this person or that person, what they would think, what they would say, what they would do. He couldn’t get it for her because of the house on Long Island, the one he had inherited from his parents but had taken out a new loan on, and was about to be foreclosed on. He couldn’t get it for her because this life he had chosen, which was the only life he could have chosen, couldn’t keep him in the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed, and it wasn’t really an unreasonable lifestyle besides.

Because of all those things and one more, he couldn’t go back to the gallery and speak with the curator and make arrangements to buy the painting and surprise her with it and see the joy on her face, the face he loved more than anything in that moment; and that one additional thing was the real killer: it was his mind.

He was starting to know things, things he shouldn’t know; those things were starting to tear him apart from the inside out.

It started with just random, weird thoughts. Thoughts he wouldn’t normally have.

“I wonder how Judy is doing?” He didn’t know anyone named Judy. Maybe she was a forgotten classmate from elementary school?

“Damn it I forgot my homework again!” It had been a long time since he had any homework due.

“Good God she is kinky. I think I like that.” Maybe true, but the thought came out of nowhere while he was walking down the street. He had just been thinking about a poem he was composing for a collection being published by his former employer, an academic institution in another state. It had nothing to do with sex.

Then the thoughts became longer and more intrusive.

“If I don’t get this done by tomorrow, they’re going to fire me, and I can’t let her know I’ve been fired. She’ll never respect me again. God, she barely respects me now.” Cutting a little close to home, but he could not currently be fired. He was living off the grant and the money from the cash-out refinance of his parents’ house.

Then there was the time at a restaurant when he had an intrusive thought and then immediately heard the same content in conversation from an adjacent table. That started to give it away.

Once he figured out what it was and that it was based on distance, he had a little fun with it. He would sit next to attractive women. It was voyeurism to the extreme. Sometimes it was innocent. Sometimes they were really dealing with something intense. Sometimes they immediately became unattractive for the sake of their vapidness.

Occasionally he could use his newfound power to his advantage. If only he was a salesman, it would have been gold. As it was, he won a couple of arguments at the bar.

Mostly it just confirmed for him what he already knew: that people were complex, and stupid, and egocentric, and desperate for love, and troubled, and innocent, and anxious about things they shouldn’t be worried about, and thoughtless about the things they should be focused on.

Then the thoughts turned into others’ thoughts and their accompanying feelings. That’s when it started to become a real burden. He often had to move around. Train rides were sometimes intolerable. There was once a meal at his favorite restaurant involving a nearby couple trying to save their marriage with a tortured date night. He had to leave his food and some cash on the table and leave.

Then the effective distance started to grow.

The drinks helped, at first. They quieted the voices in his head to a low roar. Once his own apartment was no longer a refuge, he was forced to stay in some state of inebriation at all times. But he could keep it all under control with a delicate balancing act; enough drink to not go crazy from the voices, not so much drink as to become crazy from the drink.

She started to lose patience with him. He couldn’t concentrate on much of anything anymore, let alone her or the words coming out of her mouth. There was far too much competition for his ears. When he started to smell of alcohol more-or-less around the clock, she naturally blamed it for their troubles. “Why?” she would ask, and he would shrug. Obviously, he couldn’t tell her what was really happening.

Eventually lost patience turned into desperation. Even if she didn’t communicate it, he could feel it. Literally. And he was desperate too. He had been for a while now.

He knew this meant the end of their relationship. He knew it meant the end of all relationships. The mind of the other isn’t to be fully known. To be able to, it turns out, is certain madness.

There he was again. Joseph braced. He was headed towards him, same train, same drunken trudging.

The poet was looking at him as he approached and grabbed the pole nearest Joseph dramatically. His eyes were wild. Joseph felt afraid.

The poet’s eyes calmed slightly as they focused on Joseph. He didn’t want to, but Joseph made eye contact with as much laissez-faire as he could muster given the circumstances.

“I wish you would stay away from her,” the poet said.

“Excuse me?” replied Joseph.

“You are dating a particular woman. I would prefer you not.”

“Have you been following me, you fucking creep?”

The poet laughed a deep laugh. “No,” he said convincingly, then continued down the train car into the next. Joseph was again sat in stunned silence.

He would have considered it just a weird encounter and the random words of any unstable street person if it weren’t for their previous meeting and the solid look the poet gave him this time. Somehow Joseph believed the poet did know who he was dating, and he was even more happy and self-satisfied to be headed to another date with her now. He buried his unease deep within and exited the train some minutes later with a smile on his face.

There was one place where the poet could find ease from his disease. One day one of his favorite musicians was playing in a small club in the hip part of town, and despite all he was enduring–the thoughts, the emotions, the loss of his girlfriend, the near-total loss of his sanity, his alcoholic levels of drinking–he decided well in advance to get tickets and go to this show.

As the night approached, the weather was terrible–it had been raining for days and the temperature was headed down towards the freezing mark. He was tired of hearing everyone’s dire thoughts about the weather–how much mental space did this world devote to sour feelings towards something they had absolutely no control over?! He enjoyed the rain and the cold–people were inside, watching a lot of Netflix, having fewer thoughts, and he could hide with relatively more peace in his apartment. He always liked cold, gloomy weather anyway.

He arrived at the show not on time but not late either, and the opening act was pleasant. It was when the main act–the man he had come to see–took the stage that the poet had his epiphany.

All he could hear was the music.

That first show was ecstasy. The crowd was quiet, both literally and in his head, and each song took him on a wondrous journey. The newfound peace washed over the poet, leading him to places he had not been even before he found himself afflicted with other’s thoughts.

It was the most beautiful hour of his life.

After the artist left the stage and voices came back, quickly growing to the deafening din he was now accustomed to. He quickly had a shot of whiskey at the bar and walked home.

The poet immediately looked for new shows to attend every night. He had mixed results. Some music didn’t work at all. Some quieted things a little bit. The occasional show was like that first one, and in those times he would softly cry in joy.

He started to create an informal rubric to help him decide which show to go to any given night, based on what type of music seemed to work the best, what kind of artist, the venue, the part of town.

But the moments of peace were too short-lived and the daytimes were still filled with torture. Drink was still required to sooth the sounds of the world, and the money was running out. Between the drinks, the tickets and the ride-sharing cost his expenses were climbing, and his income nonexistent. He tried just listening to music, he tried listening to the artists that had worked when he heard them live, he tried turning it up really loud in the best headphones he had. It wasn’t the same.

The problem with the ears
The ears that can hear all
The mind that sees all
Is that I don’t want to know

Even more than you
Don’t want me to know
I don’t want to
It’s impossible

Insufferable sounds
Your moaning and anger
Your wins and your losses
Snowflakes that stay on your nose and eyelashes

Suzy loves Joey
And Joey loves Jill
And Jill loves Suzy
You’re pathetic, is what you are

You’re a book
An audiobook
That’s thousands of pages long
With no plot

No, millions of pages long
Poorly acted
Written even worse
Tropes galore

Let me sleep
You’ll never let me sleep
Do not disturb me
Let me be

You won’t let me be. You won’t let me be. You won’t let me be. You won’t let me be. You won’t let me be. You won’t let me be. You won’t let me be. You won’t let me be. You won’t let me be. You won’t let me be. You won’t let me be. You won’t let me be. You won’t let me be. You won’t let me be. You won’t let me be.

You won’t leave me alone

Leave me alone

Leave me








It took him days to write even the shittiest of poems.

Things were going great. Dates had turned into nights spent at each other’s apartments. Joseph was phenomenally happy. She was…happy.

He thought about the future. She thought about the past.

When he saw the short article on the poet’s death, he was disturbed. His few brief interactions with the poet had an impact on him. The poet was a force, even in those odd exchanges on the train. When she saw the article, she was incredibly sad. She still loved him. Joseph showed it to her, and she feigned ignorance of who he was while Joseph told her of his run-ins with the poet.

“I can’t believe it. I wonder what happened? God…he was very strange and not in good shape, but I’m still a little shocked…” Joseph trailed off, stood up, and slowly walked away to continue his morning routine.

But when she got home, she cried. She cried for a long time.

She and Joseph’s relationship continued, and the past gained distance, as it always does. She enjoyed almost every aspect of their time together, especially discussing his new book, and drinking coffee in his loft in the morning. The hole inside her was closing but it did seem as though it was never going to close completely.

Joseph was ecstatic. He had had very few significant others in his life, and her charm, beauty, and intelligence were as close to his ideal as he had ever thought he could experience in another. He was writing frenetically. He was enjoying life.

And then the voices started.