The last person — is he a person? — I expected to see performing poetry in a coffee house was Satan. Yet there he was, that old devil, taking the stage with a poem he called Critical Mass.
I am the serpent in the garden
I brought you knowledge
of good and evil
and for that I was cast down
to crawl upon my belly
I am the morning star
bringing light to mankind
and for that my name is cursed
with fire and brimstone
At that point I pretty much tuned him out because… well, it kinda sucked, right? I applauded softly with the rest of the crowd when he finished and figured that would be the end of that. But he stood, a little awkwardly it seemed, at the edge of the stage. And then he walked over and gestured to the empty chair beside me. “Mind if I sit here?” he asked.
I wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but I was brought up to be polite and there was no good reason in heaven or earth I could think of to refuse the request. “Please do,” I said.
He signaled to have some coffee brought to the table and then collapsed into the seat. “Man, I’m terrible at these things,” he said.
“Ah, it wasn’t that bad.” Polite to a fault.
“Thanks,” he said, “but I lost the crowd before I even got as far as ‘morning star.’ Nobody remembers that ‘Lucifer’ means ‘bringer of light’ or that it was another name for the morning star. I should’ve stuck to open mic night at the comedy clubs. I kill there.”
His coffee arrived and he stirred in four packets of artificial sweetener. He sipped it with a grimace and added one more.
“I think it was easier writing psalms in Hebrew,” he said.
I was dumbfounded for a moment. “You wrote psalms?”
“Of course. We all did back then. Oh, but none of mine were ever published so you couldn’t have seen them. No, the ones that made it into print were much later. And, forgive me for saying so, but they weren’t as good either. Oh hell, after my performance tonight, who am I to talk?”
“Have you ever tried translating one of those old ones? Maybe they would still work today?”
He stared at me for a long moment and I swear it felt like the temperature rose a few degrees. Finally he answered, “Would you take an old love letter out of the back of your closet and go up there and read it?”
“No, I don’t think I could,” I said. It didn’t dawn on me until much later to wonder how he knew I still had some old love letters in the back of my closet.
“Yeah, well neither could I. Those psalms are from a different time and place and were for someone special. We… had a bit of a falling out.”
“I’ve heard stories.”
“Yeah, I know. But believe me, most of them are just that: stories.”
He took another sip of his coffee and we sat in an uncomfortable silence until the next poet stepped up to the mic. I tried to give her the attention I’m sure she deserved, but I was lost in thought. She finished to an enthusiastic ovation which made me a little sad that I hadn’t been listening.
I turned to my tablemate. “If you don’t mind my asking, why are you here? Why do this?”
He fixed an unwavering gaze on me again and apparently determined that I wasn’t being flippant. “I’m not really sure,” he said. “I guess part of it was a desire to have someone hear me — not some imagined version of me or what Hollywood or news outlets or churches say about me. No one really sees me any more.”
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
“Hmmph. The Usual Suspects. I love that movie, but convincing the world I don’t exist was Hollywood’s trick, not mine. I’ve never denied my existence, just the accuracy of the way I’ve been portrayed.”
“Well, why not hold your own news conference or something then?”
“Nah, that always plays out too much like a publicity stunt.”
That sounded reasonable, but his appearance at a poetry reading seemed stunt-like to me too. “Have you ever thought of writing a book?”
He snorted and I think I saw a puff of smoke. “A book? Like to compete against the Bible, the best-selling book of all time? Yeah, right!”
I suddenly felt foolish for having made the suggestion. He certainly had a point about the competition.
“Besides,” he continued, “writing is hard work. Over the years I’ve picked up more souls of writers on midnights dreary than I have musicians at the crossroads. And if I can’t even produce a decent poem any more, there’s not a snowball’s chance in home of me writing a whole book.”
“So you chase your muse like the rest of us?”
“Writing, like all art, is spiritual. That’s why we say we get ‘inspired’ to write; we literally get inhabited by a spirit for a little while. But it doesn’t stay for long. We spend our lives — or in my case, eternity — in pursuit of it. And I guess that as much as anything explains why I’m really here tonight.”
He emptied his cup of coffee and stood. He slipped a crisp $10 bill under the edge of the cup. I wouldn’t have guessed he’s such a good tipper. “Well, you’ve been very kind to listen to me ramble,” he said.
“It was interesting. Maybe I’ll see you again sometime.”
He placed a hand on my shoulder and looked at me another long moment and then said, “No, I don’t think so.” Then he turned and walked away.
I’ll post the story behind this story on Monday. I hope you’ll come back to, um… learn about it’s genesis. [Note: You can now find that here.]
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