The bar wavered around Clay in bold, neon colors; it oscillated to the acoustic slush coming off a nearby stage. Long, perverse contrails of smoke curled about the cherry of his cigarette—rising to mask his tired, drunk face.
In front of him: a dirty, white picnic table was placed, littered with debris—dead glass-soldiers in reverie; smeared ash in the grain; a pack of cigarettes lonely, gasping in a puddle of condensation; a green lighter next to a notebook and pen with three words written on top of a solitary page—“possibly the truth”—and nothing else.
Clay was sitting outside on a chilly patio behind an Irish pub, an awning was spread overhead, wooden trellises in the place of walls. A portly, bearded man was playing an acoustic guitar from a small stage set at the far back of the scene; sweat glistening on his ruddy cheeks, lit by several long strands of red and green Christmas lights strung over and behind the modest setup.
Over the slush, words began to stream in a private river within Clay’s head; he began to write them down in the form of a poem, joining the three words already placed there.
It was then that a heavy hand came thundering down on Clay’s left shoulder, forcing his right-hand—the one holding the pen and writing a fever—to shirk off the page, leaving a blue streak, like a cut, across the white paper. The hand was rough: a digger’s hand. Its forearm was corded in muscle and ended past the elbow where a blue denim shirt began. Clay looked up into the eyes of heartbreak and saw his reflection nestled inside.
The man was deeply tanned, thick of neck and chest, with dirty jeans over dirty boots. His hair, a sun-stained blonde, was cut close to the skull.
A deep sadness welled abysmal in the core of this man, giving off heat.
The man quickly used his other muscled forearm, with a sudden, feral yelp of anguish, like a dog, to clear off Clay’s table, smashing bottle after bottle onto the rocky patio floor.
The notepad went airborne, along with the cigarettes and lighter, careening off the small rocks on the ground; the notepad settled below a patron’s hovering right heel. Clay stared at his words on the floor from a far; the pen still grasped in his right hand. A cigarette dangled from his pale, pink lips. His eyes raised from the distant notepad, found the man’s rage, no more than three feet from his eyelashes.
Sweat poured from the man’s jowls and down the open part of his denim shirt, causing his chest to glisten in the twinkling Christmas lights. He paced back and forth in front of Clay’s now barren table.
Clay sat immobile, watching this theater play out—something about this man struck him as familiar.
“Her hands…my hands,” the man started with wounded inflection. “Pressed into skin, as soft, like pillows are soft.”
The words struck Clay like a slap. Of course, he recognized them. Screaming, the man continued to recite.
“Smearing fingerprints, like paint, on each other—with heat: that weeping hollow inside us—; but I can fill it, if you let me.”
A vacuum seemed to be set between them. Clay only heard the man’s words, and light, delicate sounds between the lines, like microscopic punctuation points, from time to time.
“I can fill it, if you let me.” He repeated.
Anger bled into the man’s voice, laced with muscles bunching under denim-skin.
“With tangles of sweet intentions and fingers, lost in your hair, in your face, in your lips: where I long to be lost—that is where you’ll find me, always, when you want me found.”
The man’s voice mingled with the substance of Clay’s inner-thoughts…
Somewhere above the earth, a hearth warm enough for all beings hums along contentedly, cracking good-naturedly; it looks down, this fireplace, and smiles tenderly on all the poets, the heartbroken, and the weaker of the loved; those left dotted amongst the cracks on the surface of the planet. It smiles and nods its approval of their good work. It dips hands into a cup, insisting to all that what is cupped is pure for all to drink—a basin for all to be held within its embrace.
Free to all…
“Wet between what I’ve said and what I need: you hold me harder than I can perceive.”
The man’s voice/his words pull Clay from a metaphysical reverie he can’t explain. He stares earnestly into the man’s fury. He knows what will come next from the man’s clenched teeth.
But somehow, I feel you there.
“I feel you there…at the nexus of me. Like the beat of a shared heart, hitched to all that is meaningful and true. Do say, sweet girl, of whom I love, is it just me, with my tempered eyes of bark, that feels what is braced between us?
“Our hearts placed to hearth is warmth. Our mouths pressed to together is love.”
The pub began to give off a perceivable resonance to Clay’s ears, as if two poets were speaking at once: one in whispers, the other in hurt shouts.
The man paced and stomped in rain dance circles, and recited Clay’s poetry at him, like machine gun fire, relentless.
Cigarette smoke was there; the smell of broken, spilt beer bounced about in his nostrils. Spittle decorated his glasses. A mist of spit, poetry and glimpses into a not-too-distant past rained down—too painful to take all of its weight.
Something else added its weight to Clay’s dream state—something remembered…
Somewhere, a man sits in a booth at a smoky, red bar—a very old man with a story to tell. Clay was there and he heard this old man have his say. The old man told a tale of the day he found his wife dead, at home, by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Many decades ago, the old man was accustomed to storing guns in his house; he loved guns. Every kind of gun was poetry for this poor, weathered man. His wife, she had taken one of his .45s, early morning, Valentine’s Day, and put a hollow-point round into her heart. She timed it perfectly; twenty minutes, as she knew, before her husband arrived home from his job. He found her, as if asleep, on the couch. Her blood was gray in the low-light of dawn.
The old man had suggested a toast to Clay, eagerly raising his glass.
“To the bending.” The old man said.
“To the what?” Clay had asked.
“Always drink to the bending,” the old man continued. “The bending we all endure, but never break.
“Always drink to the bending.”
So they did. Glasses touched and a toast was made.
Clay murmured under his breath, coming back from his recollection, while staring at the angry denim man, whose sweat was now saturated into everything, as if anger was a new liquid only he could produce.
Clay looked at the jealous man. The man of whose wife he had slept with, wrote a poem about, and distributed around town in a zine of his own making called For All the Bending.
They locked eyes. Locked in what had come to be shared and disseminated between them. Carnal knowledge has that particular kind of residue to it, as both men knew. The angry man had made his point.
The earth seemed to take another turn before Clay came to realize he was sitting on the back patio of the pub all by himself. His cigarette a mere nub in his mouth, close enough to singe the skin of his lips.
He tossed the butt in the rocks, landing beside his now discarded notepad. The small cherry of the dying cigarette lit the lone page on display. Several more words now lay illuminated, beside a blue cut of ink:
“possibly the truth—
pitched wholly into the dark void of evening
now beer-stained and ashen within separate wet circles;
my words would be given time to breathe,
just out of sight, in the periphery, but close enough to count amongst the moisture of leaves.”
Rising from the chair, Clay walked to the main bar housed off the back patio, took a seat on an empty stool and lit another cigarette. The bartender walked over to Clay, leaned across the bar top, taking his patron in as if for the first time.
“What the hell was that all about?” he asked.
Clay took a long deep drag from his cigarette, exhaled violently.
“I slept with his wife, and then wrote a poem about her.”
The bartender went under the bar, retrieved some whiskey and two empty shot glasses. He poured an inch in both and handed one to Clay before titling the other back in a single motion down his yawning throat.
“Was it worth it?” The bartender asked after returning the empty shot glass to the bar top—inlaid with little shamrocks in see-through Lucite.
Clay threw back his own shot, trembled for a second as the drink shook his foundation. Dragged his smoke again and looked at the bartender with dead-on eyes, after placing his drained glass precisely over a four-leaf clover.
The bartender stared Clay down, discerning something off about his given response.
“I was talking about the girl.”
Never parting from the bartender’s eyes, Clay smiled, looking both serious and playful at the same time—but honest—yes, very possibly honest.
“I was talking about the poem.”