Summer 2008

Table of Contents - Vol. IV, No. 2


Poetry    Translations    Non-Fiction    Fiction    Essays   

James Toupin


The Writing Lesson

Suppose you were to tell the story in your writing class.
You were maybe twenty-five, dark-haired and petite.
You dressed, then as now, always all in black.
Six or seven years, you had been making your way in New York.
One day, a woman asked if you’d like to join her escort service.
You’d be ideal, she smiled, for Japanese tourists who want their women small.
You listened long enough for her to tell you how much money you could make.
It was much more than you could make, then or now, with your great talent.
You thanked her, not too profusely, and, as you would tell the class, declined.

The instructor would look like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding have been set before him.
OK, he would say, now describe what the day was like.
This was New York: could you hear the traffic?
You were in an office, club, highrise condo, brownstone walkup?
What did she look like, what jewelry, what nails, what hair-style, what dress – and you?
Were you aware of how the material you wore felt against your skin?
What whisper had she heard of what you knew of men and how you had learned it?
And were you flattered, embarrassed, tempted, outraged?

Let’s say he asks you to tell the story twice again, from starting-points before and after.
You think back to your mother, how as a child you loved her sober and feared her drunk.
You cannot forget how, when you had yet to be with a man, she called you a whore.
You cannot remember if she was sober or drunk.
You wonder what her envy saw in you that would later find its way into the question.
You would rather have entered that life than hear what she would have said.
Now he is suggesting writing it down for others to read?
Sooner cut his eyes out.

Then there is always the retrospect of the future past.
A year or so later, you would fall deeply in love, the love of your life, you thought.
In that daze the offer would be forgotten.
You might have thought of it again, though, being told that he had taken a mistress.
First you might recall how giving your freedom to one man was a choice you could undo.
Then the fire of pride and anger would give way to the flush of humiliation.
What were women ever to men but something to be had and put aside?
Now another man wants to see what you can make of that.

Not only beauty, but even love, can be reduced to the disgrace of price.
The workshop wants you to make memory a vase, yourself a nude, to be seen from all sides.
If it is not beautiful, still, they say, it is true.
Write from what you know, the teacher says, and we will admire.
You can see them making of it what they will.
Writing what you know, you would write what you can never understand.
If you are to make anything, you will have to make it fiction.
You will not let it be like what a woman might show a tourist who will pay.


The Dead End, circa 1958

The curving strip of asphalt
Was the riverroad of our piracies,
Its coves and coverts known only to us.
We practiced our cruelties on each other.
A commerce of other usages
Surrounded us, only later perceived –
The rivalries of wives condemned to houses,
The privacy of the two young men of whom no one spoke,
The heavy charge, behind doors, of the blows
The bully conducted outside to us.
But most of all, beyond what the crew of boys could chart,
Was the other danger growing to womanhood.
There was Jeannie of the beehive hair, sixteen to my six,
To whose door the droning cars swarmed.
There was Helen across the street, twelve to my nine,
Who learned the ladylike with harp and chess,
Meant to rise above us like a meringue.
There was Cathy, just my age, whom, the guys jeered
Wrongly, I walked with one day.
To prove them mistaken, I never spoke to her,
Not even when I heard her mother,
Having hosed the tailpipe back into the car,
Had inhaled the unbreathable solitude.
I was scarcely a detail in their landscapes.



So this was being a victim. It must
Have seemed a provocation, how I stared
At the faces of slight young men. I looked
To recognize the one who had trailed me
Home from the corner store. He drew his gun
When I reached the doorstep of my new flat.

I saw him long enough. I should have known
Him later. But what I saw was not his face,
Rather the gun that he showed sparkling new
Like a generous housewarming present.
The handgun gathered streetlamp glow. He must
Have seen my wallet at the cashier’s stand.

I must have flashed cash from my first paycheck.
For this, he needed no introduction.
What I heard was not his voice, but the slide
And click of the gun cocking to convey
Impatience at how slow I was extracting
Billfold from pocket. Pistol, meet Wallet.

A young woman waited demurely in
Darkness ten feet behind him to his right.
Three days later, like a courtier bearing
A glass slipper, a city detective
Knocked on my door to show an envelope
Of pictures. He flipped faces one by one.

The girl, he said, had ID’d her boyfriend.
She did not buy this romance of easy
Pickings, wanted the dance of risk to end.
But she could not be seen dashing away.
I let her down. I could not pick him out,
Not ready when Prince Justice came to call.

I left them both to the unseeing city.
Now I found myself peering at strangers
To reassemble my fear, now scattered
Citywide, into features of one face.
Make the fear solid, nail it down. Have him,
Have me see that neither of us vanished.


© James Toupin



Poetry    Translations    Non-Fiction    Fiction    Essays   

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