"You know I don't like this game."
"Play along, please, Maude. It's important."
"Well," sighed the lady, "I guess she has a lot on her mind."
"Exactly," concurred Auden, "and nowhere else to take it."
"So we have to help her."
"What do you mean 'help her'? And when did you become a philanthropist?"
Auden's tone moved from insistent to pleading. "She needs us. Maude, this may be the most important thing we ever do. Please!"
"But why her? Why now? Why here?"
|Wystan Hugh Auden (1907 – 1973)|
"Stop quoting your namesake," sighed Maude, "and tell me what's so different about this girl."
"Don't ask questions you don't want answered."
"I do want it answered. That's why I asked."
The man scratched his pointed nose, then folded his arms in front of him and cleared his throat before delivering the verdict.
"She's The One."
Maude's eyes popped open and her hands flew up.
"Oh, my God! Not this again!"
Her friend nodded.
"Have you lost your mind? Again? Don't you remember what happened last time?"
"Well, that didn't work out well..."
"Audy, Chernoble 'didn't work out well.' The Hindenberg 'didn't work out well.' The Titanic 'didn't work out well.' This was a cataclysm!"
"We can't let a little setback--"
"A 'little setback'? That's like calling World War II 'those last unpleasantries in Europe.' You lost your job, your house, your wife, your friends. This is the first time you've been out in almost three years!"
"This isn't about me."
"Then make it about you! Forget this wild goose chase. Sit back. Enjoy things for a change. You've retired. It's time to start acting like it."
Auden smirked, shook his head, leaned toward his companion and said "You know that isn't going to happen."
Maude sighed. Auden gave her a few moments to process and accept the inevitable before adding that he'd need her assistance.
"Well, there's a surprise," she muttered.
"Okay," he continued conspiratorially, "now we need someone with enough grace and charm to get her to join us."
"Preferably someone who hasn't been staring at her for half an hour, you mean?"
"Exactly. Got anyone in mind?"
"Well, I could get my son. Todd would--"
"No," Auden interjected. "I said with grace and charm."
"Nope. Can't think of anyone."
The old man looked indulgently at his friend, waiting for her to relent. Eventually, she exhaled sharply and nodded.
"I suspect she'll need a place to stay," Auden prompted, peering expectantly at his peer. "Not mine, obviously."
"Who would guess that a young woman wouldn't want to go home with a sloppy, leering sixty year old geezer from a café?"
"And his sarcastic sidekick, let's not forget."
"It's funny that you think I'm the sidekick here."
"Of course, if she stays with me Todd will have to move in with you."
Auden winced. "Hmm...maybe I haven't thought this through..."
"How did it go?" asked her partner anxiously.
"Well, at first she said she doesn't do threesomes. When I stopped giggling I told her we weren't even a twosome. I mentioned the open mic in half an hour and how they'd need all the tables fully occupied. She said she'd move on. I asked her to stay, that we had a job that might interest her. She wasn't sure...and I don't see her budging yet."
Before Maude could answer, her buddy saw the girl flip a page in her book, pretend to read the last page in that chapter, close up, get up and trudge toward them. Spotting this movement, Maude batted her eyes and drawled theatrically: "Audie, do you know anyone able to resist me?"
"No," Auden conceded, rising to pull out a chair for their visitor, "but I know hundreds who wish they had."
"Your gratitude overwhelms."
Only as their guest come close to earshot did Auden whisper: "Thank you."
As Auden got the newcomer settled Maude made the introductions: "Kemla, this is Professor Auden Willard Niloc. I am Maude MacKinnon. My son, Todd, will be arriving later, once he's done with his lesson."
After an awkward lull, she expanded. "They call us 'The Odd Squad': Aud, Maude and Todd."
"'Kemla', is it?" Auden wondered, eying the tome she was carrying. The girl nodded.
"Can I ask which of your parents is the book collector, Kemla?"
"Both," replied Kemla, blushing. "How did you know I brought this from home?"
"You don't find that book in libraries," the Professor asserted. "Or book stores. Have you read it?"
"What's your favorite part?"
"When she turns the priest away, saying 'My life is epilogue.'"
"Am I missing something here?" Maude interjected.
"It's nothing," Auden assured her. "Kemla, please, tell us about yourself."
"Not much to tell, really. College dropout. No job, no prospects."
The Professor continued peppering her with questions.
"Live at home?"
"Like I said, 'no prospects'."
"Cowboys or Seahawks?"
"Beatles or Stones?"
"You mean 'The Who'."
"No, I mean 'Who?'"
|Actor Avery Brooks as "Captain Cisco"|
"That's a choice?"
"I mean Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner, or Captain Cisco, played by Avery Brooks."
"I know. And those are my choices?"
Auden thanked her and asked Maude if she had any questions. No.
After a moment's rest the girl brought up the offer of employment.
"When will you be interviewing me for the job?"
"We just did," came the response.
Auden nodded. Maude shrugged her shoulders.
"Did I pass?"
"Like a Beamer behind a boat."
Kemla turned to Maude, whispered "Is that a yes?" and was answered by two thumbs up and a wide-eyed nod.
|Margaret Ann Griffiths, born May 23, 1947|
The girl seemed about to decline when her host applied a full court press. "The chef here prepares it only once a year, especially for us. It would be a shame to waste it. This may be your only chance to taste it. And everything is on the house."
"Okay, then. If you insist." After a moment, Kemla inquired about the person being honored. A young waiter appeared, carrying the coffee she'd left behind. It had grown cold so he offered a refill. Maude suggested everyone switch to tea because it was "more British". She smelled baking and inquired if the latest batch of buns was ready yet.
"Just out of the oven now," the boy responded. The woman convinced everyone to "cheat" by having dessert after the soup and well before the entrée. She ordered daily special soups, tea with crumpets, and fresh cinnamon rolls for everyone. The waiter, "Rick", left.
Maude observed with a smirk that the chef had the hottest buns in town. Her companion was more serious, though.
"Kemla, can you describe the server who was just here?" he wondered.
"Polite. Efficient. A kind voice."
"Physically. Can you tell us what he looked like?"
"No," she confessed. "He was behind me. I didn't turn around to look."
"We'll work on that," the old man declared.
"Speaking of 'work'," Kemla countered, "what exactly would I be doing for you? I really don't have any particular skill--"
"You have a talent," the old man interjected. "It'll be our job to make it a skill."
"And what talent is it that you think I have?"
"You really don't know, do you?" Maude asked. Kemla looked back blankly. Auden could only shake his head in amazement.
"We'll see soon enough," he assured her.
Suddenly the older woman stood up, waved her right arm and shouted: "Todd! Over here!" A young man let the door close behind him and joined them barely long enough to announce that he was going to sit at a greenie instead.
"A 'greenie'?" Kemla wondered.
Maude explained how, here at "Meetings", stations with red placemats were for old acquaintances; if interested in making new ones a person sat at a table with green placemats. They had poems on them. The reds catered to the less adventurous with maps, news, stories and jokes.
Maude introduced Todd to their new friend. The young man said "Pleased to meet you" before excusing himself. He stopped after a few steps, though, returning to warn Kemla: "In case you're wondering, no, they don't have filters. Or 'OFF' switches." Then we was gone.
Embarrassed by her offspring, Maude joked that Kemla was forbidden to fall in love with him. Auden snorted as the two companions continued to tease each other.
"That shouldn't be a problem. He has the sex appeal of an Edsel."
"That's my son!"
"Everyone has their cross to bear."
With this the man stood up, pulled his wallet out and placed his credit card on the table. He explained that the position didn't involve a salary, per se, but she could put whatever she needed on his card.
"Hold on," the girl sputtered as she paused to process the offer. "Do you normally give out your plastic to strangers you've just met in a café?"
"We aren't strangers anymore."
Auden pulled out his cell phone, announced that he needed to run off a page, and asked to use Maude's printer. The woman pointed down the street and bellowed "Kinkos!" to no avail, as the man was already closing her office door behind him.
"You're the manager here?" Kemla inquired.
"Floor Manager and co-owner, along with the chef, Lucy. I'm also the Events Coordinator, as you'll see in a few minutes."
The girl stopped sipping her tea and soup, gestured toward the empty chair and asked: "What's his story?"
"Nothing special. He's 62...no, 63 now. English professor. Retired and divorced three years ago. Bit of a nerd."
"Does he always act this way?"
"No. He's never this excited. Hasn't been out in years. Running into you was an incredible fluke."
"I still don't understand what he sees--"
"Don't worry about that. He's made a lot of mistakes in his life. I'm beginning to think this isn't one of them, though. I may not see it. Hell, you might not see it, but he does...and if he's right this time the world may see it soon enough."
Maude stopped, put down her tea and spoon, and wrung her hands together thoughtfully. She turned to Kemla and spoke gravely: "Don't worry about breaking his heart. That is inevitable. Just know that you've made an old man happier than I've seen him in years."
"That is him happy?"
"Oh, yes. When you decided to join us he was beaming like a lighthouse. He's usually not this sympathetic."
Auden returned, complaining about the printer.
"You jammed it? Again?"
"I had to write the text in freehand on the back of a placemat."
The Professor ignored the restaurateuse.
"Kemla, I need to ask a favor."
The girl nodded. Setting the sheet down, he continued.
"Will you do this poem at the end of the open mic?"
"It's an elegy, commemorating--"
"But I've never done that before."
"I understand. We're hoping everyone will take part, though."
When Kemla hesitated Auden pushed the sheet toward her and pleaded: "Humor an old man?"
These readings were sponsored by the regional Arts Council as community outreach, featuring grad students and teachers from the local university mingling with the masses. Maude and Auden saw it the other way around: an opportunity for instructors to learn the value and basics of presentation. Needless to say, both sides failed miserably but the process invariably yielded a few laughs. For example, everyone remembered the academic who, after anaesthetizing his audience by "monodroning" gibberish for half an hour, asked the dozens of experienced performers there if they had any questions about writing or presenting poetry.
As always, the speaker overexplained everything before delivering it with a voice, enunciation, pausing, pace and accenting that was peculiar to poetry readings of that epoch. The material itself was also typical: self-absorbed, artless, whiney text that could have been written as email from rehab. Half the crowd, including all of the smokers, braved the cool evening air while the others stayed slouched in their chairs, waiting patiently for the ordeal to end. The poet's three attending students clapped much more enthusiastically than others. (The rest of the college faculty let their absence speak for them.) To her credit, this particular guest did stick around to watch some of the open mic before slinking out at halftime. The only thing these "townie" and "Ivory Tower" artists had in common was the pride they took in having nothing in common with each other.
As MC, Maude called for a fifteen minute break with her trademark phrase: "So mingle, already." Meals and drinks were served. Habitués conversed. The open mic commenced after collecting the "smokers, tokers, evaders and evokers" from outside, herding them back to their seats.
Then she introduced the theme of the night.
"Tonight we celebrate the birthday of Margaret Ann Griffiths, whom we know as 'Maz' or 'Grasshopper'. We honor the life of that great poet with a first-ever performance of her signature work, "Studying Savonarola", by my darling son, Todd MacKinnon."
Studying Savonarola (by Margaret Griffiths) from Earl Gray on Vimeo.
The young man stepped onstage to warm applause, announced the full title and began the poem.
Studying Savonarola, he considers his lover as kindling
With your amber eyes, yellow and red
of you, sun-sign heart like a blood orange
suspended in a porcelain cage, say you burn
in a courtyard and your ichor drips like honey
on the firewood, on the branches bound in fasces,
flesh fumed in the air, dark as molasses,
Todd struggled slightly during these opening strophes, as the writing does, but from here on his pace and passion continued to rise to the crescendo at the end.
but what you are hovers as mist, as the spirit
of water is invisible until steam makes the sky
waver. Say you die, scorched into ashes, say
you pass from here to there, with your marigold
eyes, the garden darker for lack of one golden flower,
would bees mourn, would crickets keen, drawing long
blue chords on their thighs like cellists?
Say you disperse like petals on the wind,
the bright stem of you still a living stroke
in memory, still green, still spring, still the tint
and the tang of you in my throat, unconsumed.
Ms. Marek might have felt upstaged or ambushed, but any hard feelings would have been assuaged when the MC retook the stage, shook her head at her son and teased: "Geez, child, you could have mailed it in." The gathering chuckled.
Maude announced the first name on her list and the open mic began. When she returned to the table only Auden and his credit card were still there.
"I'm sorry, Audy," the woman whispered. "I know how much you were hoping--"
"It's okay. She'll be back."
"Did she say she would be?"
He tried changing the subject, asking why Rick hadn't cleared the table yet.
The open mic was the usual parade of regulars, the "Three Minute Men and Women", along with an occasional newcomer. Every aspect of the spectrum was well represented: droners, slambasters, messiahs, corazoners, thumpers, whiners, and narcissists. One of the two comedians was actually funny. A girl with a guitar showed up. No one had the heart to tell her that Monday, not Tuesday, was Music Night. Maude let her play a song, handed her a schedule and graciously invited her back in six days. There was a 15 minute intermission at half time.
|Margaret Ann Griffiths (1947-2009)|
"No," he answered. "Kemla will."
"But she's gone."
"She'll be back. You just call her name, okay?"
"Alright, but if she's not here I'm calling yours next. Got it?"
"She'll be here."
At the evening's end, the MC spoke about Ms. Griffiths' untimely death in 2008 and how the next speaker would do the elegy. At Auden's insistence, she called out Kemla's name. Once. Twice. Pause. Three times.
"Well, in her place we have another volunteer--"
Suddenly, a voice from the entrance called out: "I believe I'm the girl you're looking for."
"Kemla! You made it! People, let's give warm 'Meetings' greetings to a first time reader: Kemla!"
Grasshopper from Earl Gray on Vimeo.
At this point the Professor switched on his old, 1080 dpi camcorder and focused it on the girl mounting the stage. Kemla approached the microphone timidly. Stopping in front of it, she looked down and began to read from the placemat she'd been given. The girl spoke in a tentative, wooden voice, similar to that of Ms. Marek.
The world won't change for one so small
that teardrops wound with gravity.
We braced ourselves with weights and walls.
You faced strict winds with levity,
with your coat buttoned tight, still green
and brown with Dead Sea mud and kelp.
The crowd became boneless in their seats, sprawling as if to avoid detection. They shaded their eyes to avoid witnessing the train wreck onstage. As the girl finished the first stanza, some patrons glanced at each other and grinned indulgently. Others rolled their eyes.
When what was whole is lost we lean
on rain, on roots and suds for help.
What happened next changed the world.
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