The silver Zippo in Ken Anderson’s left hand had belonged to his father and clicked as he flipped it across his wedding ring. He was sitting in a cold, metal chair outside a cafe in New Orleans, a stone’s throw from the bustle of Bourbon Street. It was mid-November. The wind was pushing red and gold leaves down the cracked sidewalks. People were strolling past, chattering about the Saints recent loss.
Ken was trying not to stare at the woman across the table. Her name was Josephine Beasley. She and Ken had occupied the same rooms at the same times in the same school for four years. That was the extent of their relationship, mostly because Ken had stared at her in awe for several weeks before realizing he was being creepy. He’d never recovered. Decades passed, until one day Josephine asked Ken to meet for coffee via a strongly-worded message on Facebook.
At the cafe, she shifted in her seat and fiddled with a gold wedding band on her left hand before brushing a strand of brunette hair from her face, revealing a pair of dark brown eyes that would have made Mozart write better symphonies… a pair of eyes Da Vinci couldn’t have captured with infinite time, paint and canvas… a pair of eyes that were quite angry.
“What the fuck is your problem?” she hissed, reaching into her purse to pull out a small red book. She held it between her fingers as if it were a stranger’s discarded tissue. “What the hell is this? Did you really write a bunch of terrible poems about me?”
Ken nodded, shyly. In fact he’d written two books of terrible poetry. One was about basketball and the old west. The other was about Josephine and her eyes. Neither had sold more than a few copies. She dropped the book on the table and pushed it towards him with a look of total disgust.
“Here,” she said. “Take this. I have no use for poems.”
“Neither do I,” Ken replied. “I like them less than you do, Josephine. Trust me.”
She scoffed. The waiter approached. Ken watched as the garcon fell under her spell and stood in slack-jawed reverence. Josephine smiled and declined to order. The waiter walked away without asking if Ken needed a coffee refill.
“Have you been carrying a torch for me all these years?” she asked. Ken shook his head. “Then why…?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t explain any of this … not in a few minutes, at least.”
She nodded. So did he. A moment passed. Ken sighed. He wanted to discuss energies and patterns and things going on in unseen spaces . He wanted to tell Josephine she was the most intriguing individual he’d ever seen. He wanted her to know how impressive she came across at a glance and how much he wanted to get know her. Instead he asked, “So … do you have a dog or a cat or kids or anything?”
Josephine shook her head and sighed, then squinted at Ken and leaned in close.
“Let me tell you something, Mr. Anderson,” she growled, pointing a finger at his face. “I don’t like you. I’ve never liked you. You were a pain in the ass when we were kids. I’m sure you’re an even bigger asshole now, based on the fact that you’re writing about me. I only came here today to tell you never to do it again.”
Ken chuckled, softly and glanced at his book on the table. Josephine wasn’t finished.
“Who do you think you are? T.S. Elliot? Carl Sandburg? Do you think you’re some kind of big shot because you can bash your fists against a keyboard and produce words that rhyme? Do you expect me to be like, ‘Ohmigod! It’s Ken Anderson! He’s a big time writer! I should just go ahead and mail him my panties!'”
People looked over. Ken blushed in embarrassment and sunk down in his chair. Josephine smirked.
“I mean, like … I am so impressed. A big time writer! Oh Hemingway! Do me! Do me right now!” she mocked, in a faux-New York accent.
Ken took a deep breath and said nothing. Josephine shook her head and giggled.
“No. You’re a terrible writer. None of your poems make any sense, except for the ones about me. Those make too much sense. They’re so pathetically obvious that I almost feel sorry for you, but then I laugh…”
“You laugh?” Ken asked, a bit too hopefully.
“Not because you want me to,” Josephine snarled. “I laugh at you. I laugh at how sad it is that you were too intimidated by me to talk to me when we were kids and how you turned to poems as an adult to make your point. I laugh harder when I think about how piss-poor your writing is. What your wife must think about the things you say. How awful must your life be?”
Ken smiled, sadly. Josephine moved in for the coup de grace.
“And by the way,” she said, pausing to savor the moment. “I showed your stupid book to my girlfriends. We all laughed at you together. You’re a joke. You should … I don’t know … just go kill yourself, or something. You didn’t matter then and you don’t matter now. Go to Hell, Ken.”
“I’m already there,” he mumbled. Josephine pushed back her chair, stood up and adjusted her coat and scarf. Before she walked away, Ken asked, “Hey Josephine, what did your husband say?”
“What do you mean?” she asked, pausing near the table.
“You said you laughed.” Ken said. “You said your girlfriends laughed. I’m pretty sure your husband didn’t laugh. I know my wife didn’t when I told her about you before I wrote the first word. I’m just wondering what he thought when you told him.”
“You told your wife about me?” she stammered.
Ken nodded. “Of course. Do you think she believes those poems are about her? She’s too smart for that. I told her everything before I wrote a word.”
Josephine sat back down in her chair and took a deep breath.
“OK asshole,” she said, finally. “Let me make this as clear as Crystal Pepsi: I will never, ever have sex with you. Never. Ever. I don’t know why you chose to write poems about me and quite frankly, I don’t care. Don’t ever do it again. I am not interested in you and never will be.”
“Fair enough,” Ken replied. “But please don’t make the mistake of thinking I did this because I want to sleep with you. Sex has nothing to do with this. Yes, you are the prettiest person I’ve ever seen. You’re the prettiest anything I’ve ever seen, but you’re pretty the way a painting’s pretty. I don’t want to bang a painting, I want to look at it for a while and try to find out what makes it so interesting to look at.”
Josephine said nothing. Ken dropped his eyes to the ground.
“I look at you and see the future I dreamt of when I was young. I saw hope in your eyes and an air of elegance in your essence, whatever that means. Still, I’d rather look at you than a sack of kittens or a mountain stream or the redwood goddamned forest. That’s not real, though. That’s just the surface. Fact is, there was always something about you I couldn’t explain. When we were kids, I couldn’t talk to you, but I desperately wanted to, so I pretended you didn’t exist … I think. I don’t remember. That’s what most of this is about. I had to get all these ridiculous residual feelings out and this is how I chose to do it. Through poetry. Awful poetry.”
“You can say that again,” Josephine snorted.
“I know it,” Ken grinned. “I mostly write poems because I dislike poetry. I wrote poems about you, but I figured there’s no way in hell you’d ever see them. Speaking of which, why did you see them? It’s not like I told you about them or sent you a copy of this book.”
“That’s not the point,” Josephine said. “What about my privacy?”
“Josephine,” he began, “I respect your privacy so much that I never use your name. With Dante it was Beatrice this and Beatrice that. When I write about you, only you should know it’s about you. And like I said, I never expected you to read it. I just wrote it to write it. I’m sure I don’t mean anything to you, but for some strange reason you mean something to me. In fact, you mean more to me than just about anyone in my past. It hurts to think about you and I don’t know why. It doesn’t make sense. I guess that’s why I write … to figure things out.”
Josephine said nothing. Ken chuckled.
“The funny thing is, even if I were to use your real name and personal details, you wouldn’t have to worry about people reading it. No one reads poetry, Josephine. Watch…”
Ken picked up his book and turned to the handsome couple at the table beside them.
“Excuse me,” he said with a smile. “Would either of you like a free book of poems?”
The couple snickered, then broke into raucous laughter. It was a moment they’d recall decades later while sitting on their porch swing sipping fresh mint juleps and staring out at a lovely pink and turquoise sunset.