My Favorite Unpublished Work

Joe, in Terror and Beauty

That winter my biography of a poet was published and a month later my husband moved out with his PC and black leather chair. The events may have been related.
In March I opened an envelope postmarked Louisville, Kentucky. The letter was written in green ink on thick cream paper in handwriting open and uneven. The writer praised my book and confided that the passion of his life was “liturature.” The letter was signed “Sincerly, Joe Travis.”
I replied, thanking Mr. Travis for his kind words and admitting that, as a scholar of nineteenth-century literature, I’d never read his idol, Jorge Louis Borges.
I didn’t think of him again until, weeks later I found a manilla envelope in my mailbox. It contained a copy of Borges’ Labyrinths. “This great Latin-American writer will revolutionize your life,” Joe Travis promised.
I re-read his cream pages, frowning, like a typical professor of English, over run-on sentences, concieves and thiers, uncapitalized first words and the always capitalized Him and He.  This letter contained two personal facts. Joe Travis was thirty-nine and a painter. Odd, I mused? a painter having such passion for the written word.
I read Borges, yet his labyrinths and forking paths disturbed me in  ways I didn’t like admiting to this stranger. Since the man gave no email address I dug out some stationery. “There is something in Borges I resist,” I wrote. “Of course I admire his prose.”
This time I waited for a reply.
“if you find Borges difficult and disturbing then you have understood Him,” replied Joe Travis, “because as a True witness and great artist He finds life difficult and disturbing.” He enclosed a poem of his own clipped from a magazine:

Rusting hills, grass smothered
in rotting leaves as the year
falls away. Less desperate now
I sift my vanities through the
sieve of reason: I too decay.

On the last page I learned that Joe Travis was divorced and painted houses.
He sent a photograph. It showed a slender man in a sport jacket, tall, with neatly combed black hair. The face was strong, the eyes averted. I persuaded myself it was only good manners to send a photo in return.
He “liked it.”
We wrote almost exclusively about writers. I learned a few things about him incidently: he was compulsively punctual, didn’t smoke, had left the Catholic church at ten after an argument with the priest about hell.
Then he invited me to stop by if I were ever in the vicinity of Louisville.
I read his letters again.
“Like Borges, I too have suffered from unreality all my life,” Joe wrote. “his Hero’s need is mine, a need to create a fictional planet to counter the pain of living in a world that wavers into madness. For me life is terror and beauty. do you understand what I mean? I think you do.”
On the last day of August I headed south in my small car. Chicago and Gary behind me, Indiana rushed mile after flat mile toward Louisville. Three sheets of directions lay on the seat beside me: Joe Travis was a careful man. Just after five I crossed a bridge arching the Ohio River. Below, Louisville was a blur of concrete embedded in hot fog. Traffic clotted; I watched anxiously for signs.
Suddenly I was there, thumb on door bell, then shaking his hand and seated with a glass of water I must have asked for. From the corner of a sofa across the room Joe Travis was asking whether I’d had a pleasant trip.
I could look at him since he rarely looked at me. I saw a man in wash khakis sitting quietly, one leg neatly folded over the other. Short and thick as a dog’s pelt, the black hair was silvering now. The mouth was wide and stubborn. The crouched vulnerable shoulders looks as though they ached.
“I’m drinking bourbon and Coca-Cola. Don’t imagine that might appeal to you?” His voice was well-deep.
“Bourbon and ice, thanks.” As he handed me the glass I felt a tremor surge through his hand and arm.
He pulled out a watch, consulted it earnestly. “I thought we’d go to a place on the river. Food’s nothing special but I think the view will please you.”
He drove his anonymous tan car like a person whose neurons had never adjusted to the hard facts of traffic.
“We’ll go by way of Lakeland. Think I sent you a poem?”
He had. Lakeland is the name of the Kentucky State Asylum for the Insane. Once the brick labyrinth had been surrounded by lakes but when, year after year, the captives threw themselves into the water by the light of the full moon, the lake had been drained, and now (I followed his directing hand) there were only grassy moats guarding the prison.
He swerved off the road into thick woods. “That’s the house I lived in when I was married,” he said, pointing to white brick sheltered by pines. Water shown through branches like a gray pearl.
“Pretty good for a house painter,” said Joe, reading my mind. He smiled and I felt a shock, as though a door had opened on nakedness.
“And your former wife?”
“Is still in the neighborhood.”
At the restaurant he seated me with my back to the window. After a server brought our fish and chips, I asked  whether I could sit next to him so I could see the view.
He shook his head in wonder. “Told you I’m not used to company.”
Between bites we talked about Louisville, the river, the Midwest.
“You’re not Midwest, you’re South.”
“Not at all,” said Joe, sounding as though he’d learned speech from the pages of Dreiser. “Louisville, Cincinnati and Indianapolis form a triangle of Ohio Valley cities, and the Ohio Valley is certainly Midwest.”
“Then what does that make me?”
“North,” said Joe with conviction. “When I think Wisconsin I think winter.”
After he paid the check, we walked into the breathless night. “Let’s go down to the river,” said Joe.
Boats nuzzled. On some of them people were laughing and drinking. Downriver a slow-moving wreath of light spangled the black water.
“What’s that?”
“Must be the River Belle. She’s a beautiful things, isn’t she.” He pulled his hands out of his pockets as the white paddle boat strung with lights came abreast. Dance music rippled ashore, silhouettes moved, perhaps waved.
“Looks like fun.”
He turned away. Climbing up the bank, I noticed that the ties of my blouse sleeve had come undone. I held my arm out to Joe. He took the silks in his hand; for a moment we stood connected in the dark.
“Once or twice?”
“Twice.”

He showed me my room. It was narrow, dark and cool. There was a single bed and a chest of drawers with a green vase set precisely in the center of a woven mat on top. He brought me two blue towels and a washcloth and pointed out the only bathroom. In the bathroom there was a toothbrush in a clean glass, five neatly stacked bars of Dove soap on a shelf, a bottle of Scope, nine tubes of Pepsodent, and nothing else.
“Well, goodnight then,” I said, not knowing what else to do. “Thank you for everything.”
“Thought you might want to take a look at my first editions. That is, if you’re not too tired.”
“Oh, yes.” I felt as though he’d dropped that shining gray pearl into my hand.
He had many first editions and files of correspondence with booksellers. But he wanted to talk about Robinson Jeffers.
“Read that,” he said, his deep voice breaking. He pointed to a page  and went to compose himself on the sofa, hand propping his chin. I read silently at first and then aloud.
“Tell me now,” he said when I finished. “Why isn’t Jeffers considered our greatest American poet when he’s so clearly our loftiest thinker? Who is better?”
I searched for names. “Frost, Lowell, Dickinsen. Emerson? Whitman.” I didn’t dare name my adored Billy Collins.
“Dickinson is a fine poet, but Jeffers is a great one.”
“You’re always ranking writers. I don’t ask Sexton to be Neruda,  Keats to be Wallace Stevens.”
“You’ve got to rank greatness.”
“Define greatness. Pope was the glory of the eighteenth century, unknown in ours.”
“Great passion,” said Joe, his voice breaking, “under great control. And illusions of the highest quality. And that is Jeffers. Terror and beauty: he embraced them both. I suppose,” he added with his rare smile, “I find him great because I view life the same. For me too life is terror and beauty.”

At one o’clock I noticed the time and apologized, for he’d told me how hard he worked: up at five, collect his men, paint under a broiling sun until three, home to shower, eat, check messages, then out again to give estimates.
“How else can I make a living at this point in my life? I know I could of done something in literature if I hadn’t always had to work so hard.” His voice was matter of fact. “It don’t matter it’s late. How often do I have a visitor? This is something special.”
I watched him check the locks and turn off the lights. We stood apart in the narrow hallway outside my bedroom door.
“Well,” said Joe, “I get up early, but you sleep as late as you want. There’s coffee and help yourself to anything else you can find. I won’t be seeing you in the morning so I wish you a safe trip now.”
“Thank you for everything, Joe.”
“It’s me that should thank you for coming, and I do.”
I looked at him with amused despair, but his eyes were nailed to a patch of wall over my left shoulder, so I said good night.
I undressed in the empty room, found my nightgown in the suitcase I’d overpacked so that when he lifted it, as I knew he would, it would weigh like a suitcase for the week in Charleston I’d lied about as an excuse to come to Louisville.
This journey was over now, our seven hours together spent. Tomorrow there would be nothing to do but leave. Too oppressed for tears I crawled into bed, scraped my cheek on the rough pillowcase. I’ll never sleep, I thought, was immediately unconscious.

Waking in the dark to a muffled sound, I opened the door, tying my robe around me. And Joe hadn’t gone, he was talking on the phone.
“Raining a bit. I’m of a mind to call it off.”
“Do call it off.” I went to him, touched his arm. “Don’t go.”
“You can tell your friends in Charleston you’ll be along tomorrow?”
“Oh, yes.”
“That’s fine.”
And I’m sure we did feel it fine, reprieved by rain.

We drove out of Louisville in gray drizzle, Joe smearing the steamy windshield with the back of his hand.
“May sound odd, but gray days are my favorite.”
“You associate sun with work and rain with leisure.”
“I know.”
As the miles went by he began to talk, willingly but without emotion.
“I was alone from thirteen on,” he said, taking a curve with caution. “Lived in hotel rooms, they was cheapest. Used to clean up at poker with the old men. I lived like that til I was thirty. It was too long to be alone.”
“Why did you leave home?”
“My mother’s death broke up the family. See that farm and pasture with the stream? I love that farm. Know what oxide of mercury is?”
“No.” I turned to look at him. He seldom looked at me.
“It’s a poison but not a very efficient one. My mother swallowed a bottle. Took her three days to die. Stupidest thing.”
“Her suicide?”
“Not that, she had a right to die if she couldn’t stand to live. I mean  oxide of mercury. Her tongue was so blistered she could hardly talk. The last thing she said was, ‘Don’t hit your little brother no more.”
“And did you?” I said, at a loss.
“ Of course.”
The city of Bloomington interrupted. When we reached country again he said: “I’ve observed that in marriage it’s the woman who’s dissatisfied. The man may be unhappy but is willing to go along with the situation. Have you found this to be true?”
“Quite the opposite,” I said with heat. “Usually the husband deserts a devoted wife for a chippy young enough to be his daughter.”
Finally Joe did look at me until crunching gravel reminded him of the road.
“That’s interesting. But with me, I’d come home, there’d be nothing to eat and she’d be gone. It took me fifteen years to realize it was hopeless. Her name was Maria. I met her on a trip across the border. She was good-looking and I– Well, men have a far harder sex drive than women, now that’s so, isn’t it?”
“For centuries women have been told they didn’t have any sex drive at all.”
He shook his head. “Women don’t suffer so much, they aren’t trapped by sex like men–”
“Of course women are trapped! If an unwanted pregnancy isn’t a trap, what is?”
He passed his hand over his silvering thatch of hair. “I guess I see that all right. If there’s anything good about getting older, it’s that some of he whips are laid off.”

In Nashville, Indiana, we ordered omelets in a restaurant with rooster wall paper and red-checked tablecloths. I felt uneasy, as though saddled with a total stranger. My omelet grew cold as I tried to make conversation. Nothing  seemed to interest him.
“You aren’t listening!”
“I’m listening,” said Joe, forking omelet, “but I’m very hungry.”
We explored touristy shops in shimmering heat. My bare arm brushed his as we turned a corner and I smelled male spoor, acrid as smoke. My knees trembled.
“Heat’s awful, isn’t it,” said Joe. “We’ll drive up to the park.”
We drove into the hills. At a lodge Joe stopped, got out of the car and returned with two cans of cola. We drove on to a lookout and parked. He reached across me into the glove compartment and I saw the fine black hairs and hard muscle of his reddened arm. He took out a pint of gin.
“It’s illegal to take liquor into parks, but a man’s got to break the law once in a while.”
I held the cans while he opened the trunk and extracted two folding chairs. We dragged the chairs into the shade on a ledge overlooking the foggy hills of Indiana. Joe dumped half his cola into the grass and replaced it with gin. I let him do the same for me.  Heat, gin, and desire, sharp as a stake driven into my groin, silenced me.
I stole a look at Joe. He seemed to be asleep.
Eventually he pulled out his watch. “This view is something special, isn’t it? But we’d best be heading back.”
We wound down the way we’d come through parching trees. Suddenly Joe braked hard.
“Terrapin,” he said, and I saw the big turtle inching across the road.          As we watched I heard another car approaching fast. I felt a shudder of anguish go through Joe. More horrified for him than for the turtle, I knew I’d scream if it went under the wheels. The car rushed by, then we saw the terrapin in one piece crawling into underbrush.
Joe said only, “They go so slow they’re bound to get hit.”

On the way back to Louisville we debated poets and recited favorite lines. Beneath the flow of conversation I heard minutes gnawing away the hours.
“Let’s get something at the cafeteria near my house. I eat there most nights.”
“Don’t you ever cook?”
“I open a can now and then.”
“Anybody can cook,” I said, furious, I didn’t know why.
“Maybe.”
Over plastic plates of meatloaf and mashed potatoes we talked again about marriage.
“I don’t believe love can help in the long run. What does Jeffers say? ‘There’s no help in humanity.’ Ultimately we face the pain of life alone.”
“That attitude could drive a woman mad.”
“It could.”
When he saw I’d finished, he stood up.
“Food here’s not so bad,” he said mildly, “and it’s all cooked and served out by black women and every one of them is big and fat.”
“Oh, you’re impossible!” I said angrily. As we walked past the cafeteria line I checked out the women behind the steaming vats. They were all big, fat and black.
He let us into his cool house. It was seven o’clock, our time was almost up: there’d be no sitting up over books tonight. As I stood uncertainly in the living room, the phone rang. Joe went to answer and I heard animated conversation, for Joe.
“My son, Geno,” he said, looking pleased. “Telling me about an Asimov story he’s just read. Seems there’s only hard beings, soft beings and medium beings. And the soft beings can’t mate with the hard beings without a medium being between.” He shook his head. “Three!  Surely it’s hard enough as it is with two.”
(Oh, Joe, is it?)
He pulled out his watch. “Let’s see. I want you to take along these books tomorrow.” He collected some paperbacks and began thumbing  them.
Anything but books. I wanted him to look at me, I wanted to kiss him, drag him to bed.
Instead I said: “Joe, you know how you’re always saying something’s special? Well, you too are something special.”
But he was leafing furiously through Borges and I gave up to release us both.
We settled about directions to Charleston, breakfast coffee, and the heavy fact that he’d be gone when I got up. Finally we stood in the lighted hallway as we had the night before.
“Thank you, Joe.”
“Thank you for coming.” His eyes finally met mine. “You’ll drop me a line sometime?”
“Yes.” (Oh, yes.)
“Well, now, I’ll say goodnight.”
I listened to the sounds of his going to bed, then went to the living room and picked up the folder of his poems from the night before.
(“I can hardly read your poems, Joe. They’re so full of pain.”
“That so? But I feel better, writing them.”
“Someday will you write a happier one?”
“I might try.”)
Now I tried to read them again. Wretched, I turned off the light and closed my eyes. Behind his door was Joe sleeping peacefully? I too finally slept.

I woke to a clash of gears as his truck drove away. I got up, raised the blinds, looked out the window. Nothing stirred except a yellow dog running on three legs.
I’d feel better if I knew he kept my letters.
His bedroom was as sparsely furnished as the guest room. Corduroy slippers aligned, folded pajamas. The bed, however, was unmade and I sank down to lay my head on his pillow until a noisy clock broke my dream. In the dresser socks in neat piles, folded handkerchiefs, stacked shirts. My cold fingers found a box, I opened it. Receipts packeted with rubber bands.
In a desk in the living room I found a box of the cream stationery I knew so well, books of stamps, sharpened pencils in a tray. In a cabinet in a small room off the kitchen I scrabbled through boxes of checks, account books, blocks of business stationery.
I searched every room, closet and drawer in the house and found nothing but the cold symmetry of business everywhere.
(“You are terrified of chaos, Joe.
“Yes, and so I keep my little corner of the world in order.”)
Blinded by tears, I threw things into my bag. I returned the folder of poetry to the living room. He had already–I don’t know when–reshelved the books he’d pulled out the first night. A walking stick he never used stood in an old-fashioned umbrella stand where two hats he never wore hung from pegs. A dish of wrapped candy he never touched stood on a table beneath a mirror into which I knew he never looked. I wheeled my suitcase to the kitchen door, pushed in the lock according to instructions, and stumbled out. The air was thick and warm. A wet branch brushed my cheek as I hurried down the drive. He would trim it soon.
I found my way out the way I’d come. Below the freeway Louisville smothered in its foggy bed. Traffic picked up, mist faded to a sickly yellow, and as I drove across the bridge that spanned the invisible Ohio a bloody sun broke through: terrible and beautiful.

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Published on May 16, 2011 at 8:34 am  Leave a Comment  

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