KEATS IN BOSTON
At this hour, Byron's calls were interrupting people’s dinners.
Look madam, I’m not, as you say, peddling nature encyclopedias or vacuum cleaners. I work for the Honorable Andy Roots. Please listen carefully. With your single vote, he will become our next U.S. Senator. Quite simply, that’s all it takes. What we need from you . . .
Her jowls bulging with tuna casserole, the harridan on the other end coughed, snarled something unintelligible, and cut the connection. Byron ruefully leaned back to stretch, the auditorium chair creaking. The other six canvassers in the room, lips pressed to red plastic receivers, were talking blue streaks to stir any buzz for Andy.
Dickey, their manager who was a poly sci major two years out of graduate school, peered over. Then, the next minute, she winked, and so at 10 o'clock, after she’d released the crew, Byron stuck around. While she computed the day’s tally, he emptied the trashcans into a paper shredder. Padlocking the doors, their footfall scuffed across a ratty carpet. Inside, the elevator light made Dickey’s cropped hair appear ashen. She wasn’t beautiful, Byron determined, but she was attractive.
"It's been one crazy day." She smiled as he held open the lobby door.
The pavement outside was wet, the air exceedingly raw. Her late-model Valiant grazed in the alley behind their building. Dickey was fussing about how her landlady coddled cats. They didn't have names, only numbers her landlady clucked in pidgin Spanish.
"I'll die if that voice snivels ‘Where's my little Uno?’ one more time." Dickey fumbled in her shoulder bag for her keys, leaned over.
Byron's loafers scraped on broken bottle glass. "Cats aren’t vile. We have two."
"Oh, why am I so bitchy? It's just that I despise campaign work anymore." Standing up, Dickey brushed back her hair. "And my nerves? Here, watch my hands." When she extended them, her fingers were trembling. “Are you on the schedule for tomorrow a.m.?”
"No," Byron replied. “I have a mid-term.”
Dickey inhaled. "Oh God, I'm too wired to sleep. Listen, Byron, pop down to the bar with me. Order whatever you goody two-shoes drink." His coat sleeve was tugged and she sidled up beside him. “Come on. I’ll pay.”
"I shouldn't. This mid-term's a bear," Byron confided. She smelled of Clorets gum, her face bright and vigorous.
"C'mon, you'll ace it." Slumping her shoulders, Dickey pretended to pout.
"Keats and the Romantics? Somehow I doubt it," explained Byron. Surprised, he detected the scent of tobacco on her coat for the first time. "You're a smoker?" he exclaimed.
"Huh? You need a cig?" Dickey started to unzip her shoulder bag.
"No, I don't use tobacco." He tried to move past his embarrassment. "I'll take a rain check if you’ll let me, though."
Dickey relinquished his sleeve, stepped backward. "All right. Maybe tomorrow night."
"Uh-huh," murmured Byron. He waved while she crept down the alley, turned right and with only one headlight flaring sped off to spend the night with the eccentric landlady and her pampered cats.
* * *
The next morning, when Byron waded into the kitchen, the wall telephone dangled off its hook. His grandmother hunched over the steel sink was hosing the faucet over a colander of grapes. She was humming "Rambling Rose.”
"You sure beat the pants off Nat King Cole," announced Byron.
Throwing up her mottled hands, his grandmother yelped, "O merciful Jesus, boy, you startled me. Tie some bells to your toes, please."
"Sorry, grams. Why is the phone disconnected?"
"Pollsters again," his grandmother chirped over the running garbage disposal. She jounced the colander over the drain board. "Did the ringing wake you?"
"Nope. I've been up studying."
"Taste these grapes. I picked them this morning." After his grandmother unlatched the dishwasher, one of the cats pattered inside to curl up on the bottom rack. She retrieved a bowel and a drinking glass. "How about oatmeal, honey?"
Yawning, Byron responded, "No, I believe I’ll whip us up a stack of waffles." He munched a grape, spat out the seeds. “Go ahead and sit down.”
Instead, his grandmother's mules shuffled across the linoleum. She was an amputee, her own tangled toes the casualties of rheumatoid arthritis. Reaching behind the sugar and flour canisters, she dragged out the electric waffle iron bought with her saved S&H stamps.
“Grams, I’ll do that.” Byron reached, but not securely enough. The waffle iron clattered to the floor, broken components sent scattering.
"Sorry. Guess we’ll opt for oatmeal, after all," Byron muttered, disgusted with himself.
* * *
The brisk morning air inexplicably flushed Byron's mind with purple. Strolling along Upshur Street, he saw that the asters and mums were tinted purple. A lone Latino girl feeding purple finches on a basketball court pranced in purple leotards. Overhead, windswept clouds churned their billowy purple sails. At a traffic signal, glancing above
a hollyhock hedge, Byron spotted kids kicking a purple soccer ball back and forth. Then, the idea of writing essays on Keats and the Romantics soured his carefree purple to a repugnant yellow. Frankly, who cared what young Keats had scribbled in 1819? Mr. Killdeer, the swing manager at Jiffy Lube, only cared if Byron were man enough to apply a strap wrench and decipher “10W30 SAE” stamped on the oilcans.
His parents, both long since deceased, had salted away a small savings account for his college education. Aboard the same Braniff 707, they had been en route home from an Easter vacation in the Barbados, right smack dab in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle, when their plane plunged into the sea. In the tragedy’s aftermath, Byron continued to
reside with his grandmother. As he grew older and better understood his orphan status, Byron lay awake in darkness wondering just what greatness his parents had expected of him. What kind of a future had they seen? How outlandish were their dreams? What brass ring was he destined to snag? By his early teens, Byron grew convinced deep in his heart about one thing -- he was on his own.
Barging through the record store’s turnstile, Byron first cased the discounted LP bins. Nothing sparked until he flipped to a Leon Russell bootleg album. Would Dickey treasure it? At the counter, a scrawny Oriental man chattering gibberish on the telephone snickered, frowned once, lifted and drooped his free hand encircled by copper bracelets. Byron walked out, the LP in plain view.
Conquering the stairs two at a bound, mid-way up, Byron paused to browse the album’s cover. "Lady Blue." "Walk on the Tightrope." Yes, all of Leon Russell's hits were there. Pleased, he stripped off the shrink-wrap and pursed the album. It was, of course, empty. Still, the shot of Leon pummeling a jazz piano behind the fog machine was snazzy. Once upstairs, he eased by the reception’s post. The telephone bank
surrounding him was jamming.
From behind came a female’s greeting. "Well, hi there, stranger. I didn’t expect to see you this morning."
Pivoting, Byron cleared his throat, twice. "Er, howdy. My mid-term, you see, was canceled. And so, here I am."
Dickey half smiled. This morning she sat beaming in a spunky rose ribbed cardigan in place of yesterday's severe blue blazer and slacks. Levitating from the corner desk, she advanced, khaki twills hardly masking her languid glide that heated the blood. "Okay Gomer. Fair warning, though. I'll work you to the nub."
By day, Dickey was strikingly pretty. Quite the picture. This fresh perspective excited Byron; her fingers -- no ring -- gently squeezing his forearm added a palpable charge. Her eyes -- yes, they were purple, or no, more violet -- embraced his. Her tall, svelte frame pleasantly stunned him.
"C'mon," Dickey mewed. "I saved a phone out, a special one just for you."
Towed by the arm, the insistence of her touch alerted Byron that his physical attraction roamed well beyond any visual inspection of the merchandise. Bending down to plug in the telephone jack accentuated the curve to her buttocks.
She cupped the receiver to her ear, the green pierced earring in her palm. "Hey, how about that? It’s a keeper," Dickie pronounced. "Here, give it a listen."
Her voice, moreover, differed from the previous night. Less hoarse, less mature. Despite the nagging uncertainty, Byron couldn't peg her exact age. Mid to late-twenties had to be miles over the mark.
Returning the receiver, she said, "I apologize for this antiquity. My landlady donated it to the cause." In a lower, confidential whisper, she went on. "Also, for my behavior. It was -- as I realized this morning -- abysmal last night. Can you forgive me?"
Scooting the chair up to the table, Byron rejoined, "That and a thousand times over that, milady.”
Dickey scoffed his shoulder, playfully. "Now stop it, Byron. I meant what I said."
"Oh cut it out," Byron scolded her in mock seriousness. "Everything went fine. Now scram so I can woo Andy some critical votes."
"Andy Roots is a horse’s petunia," snickered Dickey, her eyebrows unknitting.
"Yeah, maybe he is," Byron agreed. He spun the rotary dial; it shimmied back around. "This contraption is straight out of a film noir," he laughed.
Throughout the morning, during lunch and all afternoon into late evening, Byron dialed numbers, scratched voters’ names off a computer printout. Sooner or later, his rehearsed script was rudely interrupted. Most listeners, thankfully, acted civil. Spinsters with only emcee Richard Dawson on Family Feud for company loved to gab his ear off. One baritone on 9124 Bramble Place launched into a lecture on supply-side economics. An out-of-work software engineer, bored with his pet seahorses, inquired if Andy Root supported research funding for cryogenics. A velvety voice, address: 812 Mosby Towers, spawned an erotic nympho tale touting Vaseline and flyswatters.
Nevertheless, Dickie was there. Quite simply, that enthralled Byron. At lunch, she brought an opened bottle of Fresca and an unsealed bag of cashew nuts over to his table.
Out the corner of his eye, Byron couldn't resist ogling her. Every then and now on the sly, she’d cast him a mischievous grin, once kissing her fingertip to his nose from afar.
"How about dinner? I won't accept no for an answer." Dickey was posting the day’s dismal polling charts. Byron stacked the manila folders on her In-tray. It was getting on late, a little past ten.
"Does your bar serve chow?" Fingers grabbing the doorjamb, Byron leaned back, bending the cricks out of his spine.
"No worse than a thousand other dives," Dickey rejoined. “I’ve had their spinach quiche. It’s good.”
Downstairs on the nearly deserted street, they invaded a gritty haze. A city ordinance banned outdoor bonfires but few residents chose to obey it. Christmas trimmings -- and it was three weeks until Thanksgiving! -- of plastic holly, fake mistletoe, and tacky tree lights ornamented the window fronts. Street lamps tapped ashes on them. A cinder lodged beneath Byron's sock. They passed restaurants specializing in kielbasa and pizzas. Hot air vented from a Lebanese Laundromat mussed their hair. Dickey drifted no more than six inches off his right shoulder. Suddenly, behind a Dumpster, tomcats growled and shrieked.
"They sound like my sister's kids throwing a temper-tantrum," remarked Dickey.
Dickey's favorite bar, a throwback to the sixties, was impressive. A cocktail piano was shoved under the hat rack. A jukebox throbbed Van Morrison and Them on the original romp of "Gloria." Track lighting softened the bar’s gaunt edges. Dickey threaded them to a booth, its tabletop cluttered with Heineken bottles and half-gnawed Buffalo wings.
"Does your landlady own many cats?" Byron yelled across the table.
"Mmm, maybe a dozen." Dickey displayed the sum with her fingers. Her accessories were limited. Just the green earrings, a nice quaint touch he liked.
Byron grinned, bobbed his head. The bombastic lyrics were spelling: G-L-O-R-I-A. He had no condoms. The blue plate special was leftover meatloaf or smoked salmon. Tepid Heineken hosed it down, barely. On and on, Dickey chatted. Byron tried to read her lips. So far, so good. This lovely creature had yet to sprout wings and fly away from him.
"Does Andy Roots stand a snowball’s chance?" he asked when conversation lagged.
"His numbers are anemic, at best, " admitted Dickey. "On the other hand, his deep pockets provide me a steady paycheck, so why sweat it?"
"Excuse me." Kidneys fit to split, Byron stumbled to the rear of the bar.
At the urinal, Byron heard somebody shove through the door, shuffle behind, and plant himself to his left.
"How you hitting ‘em?" the stranger casually asked, unstrapping himself.
"About even," Byron replied. "And yourself?"
The stranger, studying the graffiti verse on the wall in front of him, intoned: "Likewise, thanks."
"That's good then," stated Byron. His right hand was getting cramped.
"Could be worse," the stranger drawled. He hustled himself, zipped up. "That lady with you, is she a pal or something?" He twisted on the faucet. A rusty trickle.
"That and way more. We're virtually engaged," Byron enunciated distinctly, then replaced the stranger at the sink. The hand soap dispenser was dry as a gourd.
The stranger yanked on the filthy cloth roll. "No offense intended, but she's easy on the eyes."
"None taken, but to reiterate, she's mine," Byron exclaimed. His pugnacious scowl nailed on the stranger's eyes. They twinkled hazel-gray and indifferent.
"Got it. Some free advice, though. Treat her good. She’s the best you’ll ever do. Trust me," the stranger professed. Before the scummy mirror, he combed his halo with a flourish, nodded at Byron, strutted bowlegged back into the bar.
What was that all about? fumed Byron. He left the faucet dribbling.
Dickey had ordered another round of Heinekens. Byron scanned across the barstools and billiard tables, but the stranger had vanished.
"What’s the matter? You loose your cat?" Dickey rasped like Lauren Bacall. Her bare foot under the booth nuzzled his ankle.
"I bumped into some Yahoo in the head," Byron explained between sips. His beer tasted watered down.
"The guy who came out before you? That's my godfather, John Keats. Why, what did he say?"
"Nothing of any consequence." Byron dismissed her humor.
"I would’ve introduced you, but he stays pretty busy," Dickey carried on. Then, during the lengthening silence, her eyebrows knitted into a more sober expression. "Hey, you're not sore at me?"
"No. Nothing like that. Forget it, all right?"
Dickey signaled the waitress. "My treat, okay?"
Byron wrinkled his forehead. "Okay by me. I'm broke as a doorknob."
The streets were now mute as deep space. Security grilles barred the boutiques and locksmith shop. A yellow taxi whisked by, made a U-turn, but Dickey motioned him on. At a paper box, they stopped for an evening edition of The Washington Star. Dickey foolishly nibbled Byron's earlobe as he stooped to clink in a quarter. That excited him. He didn't care why. He tucked the folded tabloid inside his coat.
"Did you notice I didn't smoke today?" posed Dickey.
"Huh? Yeah, I guess I did. But why? Did you quit?" Byron stared at the record store's flickering neon sign.
"Well, kind of. You're so squeaky clean, and I sensed how it bummed you out." The invigorating night air cleared her huskiness; her tone sounded confident.
“Shall we venture back to my place?” Dickey proposed. Keys jingling, her precise heels clacked on pavement to the driver side of the Valiant.
Byron breathed in and out. Folded into the passenger seat, his knees next banged against the glove compartment. The orange-faced clock on the dash was petrified at 10:10. Fright knotted up inside his ribcage. Despite the soft seat, he felt out of place, like a fruit tramp illicitly traveling on a boxcar. Raindrops plastered the windshield
just as Dickey twirled the ignition key, their taillights bleeding into Boston’s brown murk.
Surely, by bluff and bravado, Byron convinced himself on the way, he could skate through his first time as cleverly as the next frat boy could. Besides, with any luck, Dickey would shortly fall asleep, and he’d steal away like the fog off Bunker Hill.