I took to spending time with a rising star of the literary world. He was the kind of man everyone talked about because everyone talked about him. Tweedy, insincere, and unflappable, yet to do anything substantial but boast, threaten spankings, and call secret meetings of the "Burnhouse Society." He could be effeminate on call, somewhat predatory, but otherwise the average white boy.
His name was Emmit Something. Professors called him Professor. He published a novel. The novel. The kind of thing I would avoid reading for fear of disappointment- or of real greatness.
He took me under his wing."Take note," he flirted, "One can never plagarize one's own experience. Even involuntary thoughts are public domain."
Later, when we heard him comment on our mannerisms, style of shoes, or breathing patterns in one of his darling essays on NPR, this disclaimer came to mind. Not that he had anything to say, but that he said it: the flimsy run-out things from his poorly translated dreams, the dislocated backsides of our conversations. He said it better, in a faux british accent, he commanded that somebody listen. And at least in the circles where it counted, they heard him. I tagged along, I admit, to see what a Movement looked like.
Emmit, the Andy Warhol of the English major set, associated with genuine neighborhood eccentrics. Potential "characters" for his potential masterpieces. I met him at a shut-in's Christmas party, ladling eggnog amid a thousand small Santa figurines.
"That comment deserves a spanking," the hostess said to me that night. Just declared it. Don’t even remember what I said to provoke her. I was minding my own business, petting the collie politely. She was sucking on a Santa Claus cigarette. Her long black hair down the sides of her face, too close to her burning cigarette— unflicked and unbecoming for her age.
"O gracious, yes. A spanking," Emmit cried. He must've seen something genius about her because he agreed with each of those throaty outbursts. I could see that he was in "project mode," filing away her details for the next manifesto. About the spanking, any other editor would have promptly turned himself over in Emmit's lap. I did an unconscious shimmy, caught myself, and refused.
"Out of the question."
"Then go downstairs and sit in the chair as punishment. Sit and don’t touch anything," he ordered. The Christmas crone agreed.
Insanity, I muttered and clumped down to the basement. Which chair? And why do I obey? Surely he won’t mind if I leaf through this manuscript as I sit here? I thunk, my nose growing cold in the concrete room. Surely not, if it’s his Novel.
So that was our introduction. A narrow escape and 48 forgettable pages of the masterpiece.
Soon after, he called a meeting of the now legendary Burnhouse Society and all the publishing world was aflutter. There was to be a serious announcement. A great big deal. A hundred-thousand tiny emails. Many otherwise faithful husbands lied to their wives about their whereabouts that night as they congregated, late, on Main Street for the meeting.
Emmit told me that women were never allowed into the meetings. Only men slid through the secret hallway in the back of Christian’s Pharmacy and down the elevators inlaid with dark wood. These men took their seats under the grand dome of the Hall, its glass topped roof still hidden in those days by surrounding trees. Nowadays, to keep the place out of the red, Burns Hall hosts a Sunday dinner for the whole family— open to the informed friends and relatives of that illustrious fraternity or anyone else with $6.50. Overcooked carrots and butter rolls. Great Men in loosened Sunday School ties.
But before those days, he snuck me in the service entrance.
I waited in the kitchen, watching through a grimy vent 2 inches above the tile floor. The schedule consisted of a lot of ceremonial trash I quickly forgot, boy’s club routines. I was hunting through the cupboards for something more fun than Sweet n Low and styrofoam cups when I found a stack of old poems. Mine, in fact. Someone had bound them into a few paper-clipped stacks— originals from the time I was 14 up until a few weeks prior— and stashed them in an empty cupboard.
Mindful of Emmit, I paged through the stack. God knows how he got these papers— still marked with teachers' comments, my own marginalia and possible coffee stains. The flattery rose in my throat and turned to violation, then worry. It was somehow forgivable that I crashed the secret pow wow, but to get caught ravishing my own old poetry. . .
Half embarrassed, half sentimental. Bad fonts and colors. All the things I thought sounded like poetry before I got to be so anal retentive. Shitty lines about loneliness and "inner feelings" crusting up a few almost impressive phrases. There was one piece illustrated with a great orange cat and another titled "Interstitial Eye Color." I couldn’t possibly have written that. I am allergic to cats.
Of course Emmit dashed into the room just as I bumped the cupboard shut with my butt. The kitchen door swung wildly behind him as a smirk spread up from his chin.
"It is a great compliment, sir" I stuttered, "that you would even make the effort to read," I corrected myself, "collect my. um. Works."
He spared a moment to look me over. "I have been told that I'm something of a guru at spotting talent."
I listened to Emmit fill a pitcher of water, mortified and suddenly needing to pee.
He passed back through the swinging door and then, as an afterthought, reentered and took the papers from the cupboard. "Remind me to show you my collection of Eurotrash collectibles sometime."
I always tried to speak to him in my best vocabulary. Which means I did alot of self-correcting, spoke with the plodding deliberation of a debutante, and rarely had a comeback lined up for such a comment. Why compete with him and his ilk? I put my cheek to the floor again and watched my poems, tucked under his arm, infiltrating his notes, as he marched toward the podium. He will rip me off, if he hasn't already, I thought, urgently wishing I'd read the Novel.