Indolence and Rhyme

Fiction
Steve Passey


Photo Credit: Jim Mullhaupt/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Jim Mullhaupt/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean. —Socrates.

Tania spent the first four hours of every Saturday caring for a mentally handicapped adult man named Shiloh.

“Shiloh?”  She asked the program co-coordinator when she and Shiloh were introduced. “For real?”

“Shiloh,” the woman said. Her name was Gretchen and she had some problems herself.  Gretchen looked at Tania and said, “Don’t talk about him like he’s not here. There is a person inside there, just like you and I.”

“Terkle,” Shiloh said.

They settled into a routine quickly enough. Tania would walk him around the bike path down by the river. She’d ask him, “How did your parents come to name you ‘Shiloh’, Shiloh?”

And he’d say… “Terkle.” and point at the river.

They’d walk a little farther.

“So you are saying you named yourself? After an imaginary friend you had when you were nine? That’s actually pretty cool,” she’d say. Shiloh would laugh a half a laugh, like the last person in a room to get a joke but the one who enjoyed it the most. His laugh was the essence of his humanity, “Terkle” the essence of his “otherness.”

So four hours would pass, at eleven dollars per, and she’d be forty-four closer to making rent and feeding the cats. That’s what “Respite Worker” pays. She worked Mondays to Fridays at a call center. Mondays always started with an admonition to “upsell” and Fridays ended with people calling in sick in the morning and then other people quitting and walking out at noon. “I don’t need this shit,” they’d say, and they’d be gone and Tania and whoever was left that needed to make rent or feed the cats, would hang on.

Tania needed “the shit.” A thousand bucks a month base and then another six-hundred to seven-hundred in commission and she needed that shit. At least Shiloh was easygoing, as far as mentally-handicapped adults go. He never soiled himself. “Terkle” and a wave of his hand and that was that.

Forty-four dollars. But that was before taxes and withholdings.

After she took him back to the home she’d wait at the bus stop for the one p.m. to go home and feed her cats and smoke a fucking bowl with the TV on and the sound off. After a week in a headset Tania didn’t need to hear human voices. They would just disturb the equilibrium the bowl brought her. She’d fall asleep on the couch and dream sinsemilla dreams until Monday when she would have to get up and shower and go back to the call center and try to get people’s credit card numbers from them without being too-too clear about what the limitations were on the warranty they were buying. “You sell what’s good for the house,” her manager hissed at her once. The manager needed this shit too.

There was a card and gift shop next to the bus stop. If any creepy homeless fucks were in the stop she’d go into the card shop and idle around. Some of the cards were funny. A man sleeping in his own urine in a bus stop is not funny. In one section of the shop was a collection of journals, leather- or fabric-bound things with little brass clasps. Blue and black and red and brown. Some were blank; some had “My Journal” on them in embossed lettering.

Tania remembered when she used to write poetry, when she’d first started smoking, and she felt good all the time and always wrote high and was sure she was going to be something other than a call-center captive and wheelchair jockey. She and her friend Shellie would write poetry in their journals and read to each other and buy those “streak and style” kits from the discount pharmacy (or shoplift them when they didn’t have any money) and color each other’s hair with reds and greens.

Shellie’s poetry was good; it always rhymed. Sometimes Tania could not get hers to rhyme. One time they had smoked a little too much weed maybe, or written a little too much poetry longing for this boy or that or whatever and Shellie had written something nice about her. Tania could not remember the poem at all, but she did remember that they had made out a bit after Shellie read it to her and stopped after they had French-kissed and Tania didn’t know if she liked it or not. She opened up the journal to the frontispiece and read:

“Forever is Composed of Nows”

—Emily Dickinson

What if your nows all suck, she thought. My nows all suck. That’s why they feel like forever. She wished she could afford to smoke a bowl Saturday and Sunday. But “that’s how rich people live, not us,” she’d once told her cats, when thinking it out loud. Occasionally she allowed herself a bowl Thursday because Fridays were the sucky now, squared, at the call center. She wished that Shiloh had a prescription worth stealing but apparently he had nothing. “He’s off his meds” was never a phrase uttered in regards to Shiloh.

She took a pen out from her purse, looked around to see if anyone was watching, then wrote: “Go fuck yourself Emily”  under the quote and put the journal back.

She noted the price tag—$18.99—a little less than half of what she’d net pushing Shiloh around after taxes so she took the journal back out and wrote: “Yea, go fuck yourself, verily”  under her first phrase.

The rhyme made her happy and she was pleased that her printing was still neat. “I don’t print like a stoner with three cats and no life,” she thought.

She opened it again and wrote another line yet, to make it read:

Go fuck yourself Emily

Yea, go fuck yourself, verily,

You and your fucking nows

She put the journal back quickly then left the store and waited for the bus stop. $18.99 for a journal? She could pack a bowl for less and she needed the bowl more. Speaking of which: time to go home and pack that bowl. This was going to be a good one. She could feel it.

The next Saturday she picked Shiloh up. “Hey Shiloh! Wanna go Terkle-ing?” she said. He laughed his delayed-reaction laugh, pure and simple, and seemed really happy. Truthfully, she thought, he’s not hard to like, in his own weird way. Gretchen watched them walk out, and waved. Tania noticed that Gretchen had no hand, just a stump. Strange how I had not noticed that before, she thought. Maybe she’d had an appliance on. One of those plastic and metal contraptions. I wonder what happened?

When she brought Shiloh back she stopped to talk to Gretchen. “How much does this pay,” she asked, meaning Gretchen’s job. “To be honest, not much,” Gretchen said. “In fact, it’s a subsidized position anyways. I live from grant to grant. If they—the organization—don’t get the grant, I’m unemployed. Another fact: It’s grant application time now. If I’m not here in a month, you know what happened.”

“Did you always want to do this?” Tania asked.

“Nooooo,” said Gretchen, drawing out the “no” for emphasis. “Never even thought about it. I’m an introvert. I wanted to be a writer. A poet actually. How silly is that? I have a ton of little journals at home filled with my writing. No one has ever seen them. Then this happened.” She held up her stump.

“How did that happen?” Tania asked.

“Meh. It’s a long story.” Gretchen said, looking away. “Let’s just say it was electrical and leave it at that.”

“Electrical?”

“Yes. Electrical. The thing is I wrote everything in longhand. And I’m right-handed. Now with no right hand…” she sighed audibly. “I can’t write anything more than my name left-handed. Occupational therapy tried to teach me but that was it. Don’t even suggest typing. Typing is for data entry. You can’t type poetry. Maybe some can, but I can’t. It wouldn’t be right. For me anyways. Well, at some point in the process I told the rehab people I was a poet and they thought about it and found me this job. A grant came in and here I am.”

Tania nodded. She noticed that Gretchen had a lazy eye too. She wondered if that was “electrical.”

“You know, I like you Tania. That’s why I gave you Shiloh. He’s our star. Never shits his pants. Never grabs a boob.”

Shiloh wasn’t within earshot so it was all right to talk about him as if he wasn’t there.

She left Gretchen and her electrified stump and eye and went over to the gift shop and straight to the pink fabric-covered journal. She’d had one just like it when she and Shellie had kissed. The girl at the counter was texting on her cell phone and didn’t acknowledge Tania when she came in. The “Emily Dickinson” journal was still there. Tania smiled at that. She checked again and sure that she would not be seen opened the fabric journal near the middle. With her pen she printed:

You will read this

And then

You have twelve years

Nine months

And three days

Before you die

Use it well

Or not at all

It’s up to you

There is nothing else you can do

Try not to dwell on this

The thought of someone finding that after filling the previous pages with hearts and their “married” name when thinking of their crush really pleased her. She had an opinion of who bought fabric-covered journals and of what went into them. Rhymes about sadness never actually experienced personally, and ballpoint pen drawings of hearts and flowers and surnames from boys who would never talk to the writer because they were stupid and never knew what they were supposed to do. Her printing was neater than ever. Thank God she still had her right hand, she thought. At least I have that.

It did not rhyme, but Tania had never been a good at rhyming. She thought of Shellie and wondered if Shellie would be able to make it rhyme. They had lost touch but she did not wish to find her. What for? To talk about that one time they kissed and how they used to write poetry together but now no one could make ends meet even on two jobs and they all had roomfuls of cats and no one wrote anymore?

On the way out, the girl at the counter looked up at Tania. She was quite fat and spoke very nasally. “If you are thinking about buying one of the journals wait a week or two. It’s not official but the owner is shutting this place down. No one buys anything anymore. Those journals are $18.99 now but they’ll be half that in a month.”

“Thanks,” Tania said, and then, “I’ll be back. For sure.”

She walked out to the one p.m. Once she was home she smoked her fucking bowl and it was even better than the last one. She dreamt that she had no hands and was naked in a shopping mall. No one looked at her. She didn’t care. She was weightless, ascendant, and no one spoiled it by looking. Then Shellie came into the dream, Shellie, only one-hundred pounds heavier than she had been when they wrote poetry together all those times and even kissed. Shellie told her to “get her shit tighter” and all of a sudden Tania was dressed but still had no hands. “’Get your shit together’ doesn’t rhyme, Shellie,” she said, and Shellie said, “What are you talking about?” Shellie’s belly poked out from under her shirt and over her jeans. She was leading a small boy by the hand and Tania said, “Shiloh?” and the boy said, “Terkle” and laughed and Shellie yanked on his arm and led him away from Tania. Tania, heavy-legged and slow with the weight of sleep again, unascendant, could not keep up.

Tania woke up and wasn’t even mad. That was some excellent weed, she thought. The cats looked happy too. They can feel your mood but not dream your dreams. They dream of cat things. Murder, copulation, sleep—if it is possible to dream of sleep, cats would dream of it. She could not be sure how a little second-hand marijuana smoke affected them but they never complained.

Monday came and she started thinking about doing a Thursday bowl by 10 a.m.

Saturday came and she picked up Shiloh for their terkle-walk. Gretchen was with him.

“Guess what?” Gretchen said. She had her appliance on. It looked good, almost like a real hand. The nails even had red polish or were painted to look like polish so it looked like she’d just had her nails done.

“What?” Tania said.

“Less grant money this year. This is the last time you’ll see me. Technically I’m here to month-end but I have a bunch of unused holiday time they want me to take so I will take it and use the time to look for another job.”

“That’s terrible,” said Tania.

Gretchen’s electrically bad eye looked up and away, perhaps at her uncertain future. Or maybe a terkle. Who knows?

“No worries,” said Gretchen. “I’ll get something else. Maybe some call center work, they’re always hiring. I can handle a headset and I can work the phone keys easily. Especially if they have touch-screens. Ever work on a touch-screen computer? They’re awesome.  As long as I don’t have to write anything I’ll be ok and believe it or not I still qualify for some disability. Who knows but that I could be back here and you could be looking after me? Hey Shiloh? Wouldn’t that be something? We could all walk along the river and look for turtles.”

“Terkles,” Shiloh said, quite loudly. It was the happiest Tania had ever seen him.

“Turtles? Tania said.

“Yeah—turtles,” Gretchen said. Her bad eye had come around, she looked almost normal. “He likes turtles. He calls them “terkles” because he thinks it’s funny. Either that or they were called “terkles” back where he was from originally. He’s a bit of a hillbilly. I told you there is a person in there. You’re a bit of a joker, aren’t you Shiloh?”

She reached over and mock-punched him in the shoulder.

He laughed his easy laugh, quicker than usual, and longer. He beamed.

Gretchen kept on, “He thinks turtles live in the river. They don’t. Not in these parts. Too cold. Maybe they did back where he was from. But he’s pretty sure that one day, he’ll find one. I’m surprised he hasn’t told you. But he can be shy.”

Tania looked at Shiloh. He would not look back. He just smiled and waited.

“At any rate, you two look after each other.”

Tania took Shiloh out along the river. No turtles appeared.

After she returned him she went back to the card shop.

“One more week,” the counter girl said. “Then everything is on sale.”

Tania went to the journals. She picked handsome one, red leather with metal at the corners and a little clasp. She opened it and smelled the paper. Paper always smells good. The better the paper and the older it is the better it smells. This journal in particular smelled really good. She watched the counter-girl until she was sure the girl was engrossed in her phone again, then took out her pen and on the very last page of the journal wrote:

When I was young

If you had asked me

I would have said that all

I wanted to do was write poetry

I wanted to be a poet more than anything

Now I work in a call center

And look after a “cognitively impaired” man

I have three cats

I need the money

But it’s not always enough

I smoke a lot of weed

It gets me through

But it’s not always enough

I would be smoking every day

If I could afford it

And I don’t write anything, anymore

At all

Her printing was perfect, sublime. I wonder who will find that one, she thought. Someone is going to buy that journal someday, maybe for half-price, and some girl is going to get it and draw and write poetry—maybe with a friend—or maybe just by herself. No one will ever see it. She’ll fill the book and then she’ll get to that poem and she’ll be mad that she got a used journal or maybe she’ll think it was a friend and be mad at them for ruining her book or maybe she’ll think it’s a ghost and be excited and buy an Ouija board and try to contact the ghost of the writer. If I am a ghost, Tania thought, if I am that ghost, I won’t come when the Ouija board calls. Maybe, and more likely, she’ll never even see it because she’ll get about four pages into the journal and quit because she’s a popular girl and she doesn’t have to write poetry in a journal because she’ll have friends and boyfriends and play volleyball and get a car for her birthday and the journal will turn up in a garage sale her parents have twelve years after she got it and the cycle will start again with a new girl.

Tania went home and smoked her Saturday bowl and it was harsh and it burned and it was fucking wonderful and she slept deeply and dreamlessly for twelve hours. When she got up she fed the cats, restless with hunger and irritable, or possibly just filled with cat-ambition from their inscrutable feline dreams. The cats fed, she smoked her Thursday bowl on Sunday night with the TV on and the sound off.

pencilSteve Passey is from Southern Alberta. His fiction and poetry has been published in Canada, the UK, and the USA in publications ranging from Existere Journal, Minor Literature[s], and Chicago Literati. Email: steve.passey[at]hotmail.ca