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The Poet

ISSUE:  Spring 1936

In the spring of that year a strange young man began coming into my father’s grocery. Surely he was a poet, for his eyes were so large and sad. He was tall and gaunt, wore a dark suit which hung from his shoulders, and his pale face was so pinched by hunger that his cheekbones stuck out. And to add to this gloomy ensemble he wore a large black hat which morbidly shaded his brow. His age appeared to be about twenty-three or so. My father, after the first visit of this young man, said to us: “He must be one of those poets, he looks so hungry.” At that time I was about ten years old and, though I had taken to scribbling under the influence of several “wild Westerns,” I had never heard of a poet before. I pressed my father for information, but all I received was a mumbled phrase or two.

“They live in little rooms where they scribble and starve to death.”

These few words, dropping casually from his lips, made a deep impression on me and there loomed in my mind the pale face of the mysterious young man.

The young fellow thereafter came into our store every day and purchased a bottle of milk. He drank it right before us so that he wouldn’t have to pay two cents extra for the deposit on the bottle. He bought a large bottle, a quart, and after shaking it a bit from side to side, in order to send the cream at the top to all points inside the bottle, he took off the cap with his finger nails and tilted the bottle up in the air. As his head went back I could see that though the fellow was very young his neck already was growing corded like some of the old men’s who came in to buy plug tobacco.

I stood there looking at him, watching the milk gurgling down his throat. When he was finished he set the bottle down, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and went out.

Two or three times a week he purchased a five-cent box of crackers, breaking the package open before us and eating the contents with his milk. He would stuff two or three crackers into his mouth at one time, until his sallow cheeks would bulge with the dry particles; then he would take a deep and prolonged swallow. He never spoke to us—outside of asking for milk and crackers—and in a week I was bursting with curiosity.

In a neighborhood of poor working people, where everybody lived in two-storey frame cottages hard by the railroad tracks, such a personage could not long go unnoticed. People began to talk about him and wondered who he was. I followed him home one day and found that he went into Mrs. Foley’s rooming house, a dilapidated building flush against the railroad tracks. The old house reared itself above the automatic signal towers and I imagined him lying awake nights, listening to the trains.

I went back to the store and told my father of my findings. Upon hearing that the young man had gone into Mrs. Foley’s my father said:

“He must be living in the attic, then. She couldn’t rent it for a year, she told me. The ceiling is too low, it bumps your head.”

I walked past the house again in the afternoon and stared up at the windows. It was a dismal street, ending dead-end at the railroad embankment, with the only traffic an occasional huckster’s wagon, and the only sound rising above the freights the peddler’s weary voice shouting out his wares.

When I came back to the store I asked my father what the young man could be writing, but my father, already tired of my questions, told me to go out into the lots to play ball with the boys.

In a few weeks the whole neighborhood had noticed him and speculated as to his pursuits. Some of the neighbors felt like questioning Mrs. Foley, but Mrs. Foley, a small, thin-lipped individual, was known to have as her motto: “A tongue wags, so does a dog’s tail”; and so the burden fell upon my father. “You ask her,” urged the housewives. “She comes into your store, first talk about the weather.” So my father, the next time: she came in, gathered up his courage and inquired if she had rented out her attic She saw immediately what he was driving at and answered that she had. But the firm way in which her lips were held together convinced my father that further prying might mean the loss of her trade. So he started putting some groceries into a bag and said he was glad to hear it. She left the store, leaving an atmosphere of close silence behind.

The spring passed into summer with no one finding out who or what the young man was. His tall gaunt figure, swinging along near the curbing of the sidewalk, became familiar in the neighborhood until he drew only a curious stare. At first some of the children threw handfuls of pebbles after him and ran, but when he did not pursue them they soon tired of the sport and stopped. But he continued to fascinate me and I followed him around. He emerged from his room only twice a day—at noon when he came into our store for his “appetizer” (as my father called it), and early in the evening when he took his “constitutional” along the Lake Street Elevated, just as dusk was falling. My mother once felt like talking to him and asking him to eat a good meal with us in our flat, but my father put a stop to that right away.

“Poets are queer,” said my father, getting his wisdom from God knows where. “If you let them starve, they’re happy. He’s getting thinner every week, but he still walks along pretty good yet.”

He said this to cover up the fact that for the last two weeks he had given the young man his daily bottle of milk on credit.

“How long he’ll hold out I don’t know,” added my father. “It ain’t natural, he’s a young boy yet.”

“Then why shouldn’t he eat with us?” my mother asked.

“Why? Because he’d turn you down. Don’t I know? I’ve asked him twice already!”

We were all astonished at this and after that my curiosity began to mount higher than ever. For the next few days I trailed him like a dog. When he left his room in the evening I was slinking along the shadows. From the paper-bound thrillers which I had been reading for over a year I had learned how to slink like a panther of the wilds. The supports of the Elevated, as I went along, threw their thick blocks of shade and gave me ample cover. I followed him “scientifically,” dodging behind each “L” support like a redskin in the forest. But I learned nothing about him, absolutely nothing. He would walk six or seven blocks east on Lake Street, then would walk back. On another night he would walk six or seven blocks west on Lake Street, then would turn back. He met nobody, made no strange gestures, and I saw no bulge in his back pocket hinting of a pistol or a bowie knife. When a train of Elevated cars roared by overhead I looked keenly aloft but saw no maiden wave frantically or throw down her handkerchief as a signal of desperation. But I kept at it, feeling confident that he would some day give himself away. In a few of the books I had read, the heroes had trailed their prey for years before getting the goods on them.

Pretty soon the days grew warmer and warmer. All the kids in the neighborhood went barefoot, and there was swimming in the lagoon in Union Park. Then the dog days came in earnest, days of such uncomfortable heat that even the old settlers who had lived in Chicago for sixty years and had seen some hot summers had to admit that the present heat wave was pretty bad. Teams of horses took short rests under the shadow of the Elevated while the drivers came into our store for buckets of water to splash over the animals.

Men walked in shirt sleeves, and even Doctor Hilton, the dressy dentist who had offices on the corner, took off his jacket and carried it over his arm.

But the poet still wore that wide black hat of his and didn’t take off his coat at all. He must have perspired terribly. His hatband turned green where the brim met the crown, and at the back of his jacket, right between his protruding shoulder blades, there was always a long dark spot, darker than his suit. My father, who could control himself no longer, one day asked the young man if he didn’t feel warm, wearing that heavy jacket. The poet stared blankly, then said he didn’t mind it.

At that time the Hearst papers ran a weekly “scientific” section in their Sunday supplements, and one day, going through the papers, I came upon some startling news. I brought the paper to my father’s attention and told him to read an article. It was a half-column feature stating that it was possible to live years on a daily diet of milk. For those with less rigorous constitutions a few slices of bread or an occasional cracker or two would suffice. The article was accompanied by a “scientific” chart of proteins and calories and was signed by a writer who was named Count Leo Torantto.

“Well, what about it?” asked my father shortly. “What about it?”

I looked at him. Then he caught on. The news excited me. My father, however, scoffed at the idea; but though we never came across any proof, to this day I am convinced that that unfortunate young man authored the article I showed to my father.

At any rate, when the poet came in again I saw my father stare at the young man quizzically. I stood off to one side, looking at his face with a hawkish eye myself. A count, think of it!

“An, my count!” I wanted to say, “you stand there, but you can’t fool Old Gimlet Eye, the best scout on the plains.

You are of the famous Torantto family.” My jaw must have been working, for my father, glancing my way, frowned at me.

The poet shook the bottle. His long bony fingers gripped the neck of it and shook it hard. Perspiration was rolling down the hollows of his cheeks. My father watched him, then stared the other way. It was plain to see that the man was starved and sick. Picking the paper cap from the bottle, he tilted it up in the air and started gulping hurriedly. He gulped a few times, then his hand trembled and in another moment the white milk was splashing down over his jacket, all over the front of it. The bottle fell from his hands and rolled around the floor, the contents mixing with the sawdust of the store.

The fellow sat down on a packing box and held his head between his hands. He told my father, who had become alarmed, that it was nothing, he had had such dizzy spells before.

“Well, sit awhile then,” said my father. “No one is chasing you out. It’s shady here but hot as fire on the sidewalks. You’ll drink your milk later.”

The young man shook his head. “I can’t finish it.”

“All right, I’ll give you a pint then,” said my father. “And a box of crackers.”

A little later, when he drank the milk and ate the crackers, slowly, he did it sitting down. My father, now that the ice was broken, began to scold him.

“What kind of a living is this?” he asked of the young man. “A boy has to eat, he has to live, he has to talk to folks. You don’t look like a fool—pardon me—but you need to mix with people.”

He went on talking, but as soon as the young man was finished with the milk and crackers he left.

That night I heard my father talking to my mother. He told her something must be done about it. So the next noon, when the poet came in, my mother was in the store. He was half-finished with the bottle when she started to talk to him. Had it been my father I am sure he would have left the store and gone away, never to come back again, but because it was my mother talking he listened.

In a few simple words she invited him to have supper with us that evening.

“We’re plain people, we don’t fuss much, but the food I make tastes good,” she said.

He tried to get out of it, but my mother stood firm.

“If you’re not there by half-past six, I’ll send two of my big sons after you,” she said. “We live at 1607 Walnut Street, on the second floor.”

He left the store, paving no promises.

But at six-thirty we heard a knock on the door and my sister, who was thirteen, opened it. She stood there shyly for a while.

“Hello,” she said, “please come in.”

He came in and took his hat off, placing it on a chair. His lank dark hair, ragged and uncut, fell sidewards over his ears and he smelled of strong tar soap and faintly of carbolic. He must have spent a good part of the afternoon scrubbing his face and hands, for his cheeks looked hot and raw and his hands were like pieces of meat.

My oldest brother Milt, home from the place he worked and reading the baseball sheet, got up and introduced himself. Milt wore a natty shirt and a natty tie and his brown soft hair swept back in a well-trained wave. “A nut,” he must have thought, looking at our guest.

“All right,” my mother said, “the table is set, everybody start eating. The soup is hot, don’t eat too fast.”

All of us sat down, Eating with us had always been a solemn business; we never said a word until our plates were clean. But that evening the old routine was broken; we ate a little, broke our bread, then stared around a while. The young man, sitting between Milt and our mother, fumbled his fork in his hands. His shark-like jaws moved slowly. My mother, speaking’ softly, urged him to eat more, it was good for him, but after a while she grew silent. He was the only one sitting in his jacket (Milt had his fresh, laundered sleeves rolled to the elbow), and his gaunt figure, clothed in black, loomed over us like a shadow.

By the time the pie came around he said he was full, he couldn’t eat any more. His great eyes, now that he was really satiated, stared glassily, slack and sleepy like a well-fed hound’s.

After the meal we moved our chairs near the windows. The Elevated trains shot by, roaring as they passed. Once or twice Milt tried to start a conversation with the poet, but, getting no co-operation, he picked up the newspaper and raised it before his eyes. My mother coughed, so he lowered it again.

“I see where the Cubs beat the Giants in a double-header,” he put forward, by way of finding out if our guest took an interest in big league games. But the young man, sitting lank, his bony hands on his knees, did not take up the conversation. He sat there like a gaunt sad hat-rack, staring out the windows. My sister, braiding her hair in a corner, stared and stared at him. The young man must have felt her gaze, for he made a movement as if he wanted to turn around, but continued to gaze blankly beyond the windows where a gloomy line of rooftops could be seen jutting up like teeth on the other side of the Elevated.

Finally Milt got up, flecked a few imaginary specks of dust from his sporty trousers, frowned, and said he was going out for a while. From the way he said it and because he was wearing his new shirt with the narrow brown and blue stripes in it, we all knew he was going sparking with one of the neighbors’ daughters down the block.

“I’ll be home presently,” he told my mother, frowning at the wall, then went into his bedroom to get his new straw hat. “I’m just going for a walk,” he said.

“Don’t be borne late,” my mother called out softly. “Remember, you haven’t got the key.”

“All right, all right,” Milt muttered, then grumbled something about his being twenty years old already. He went out half-sullenly, slamming the door. My mother smiled proudly, watching him go down the street, then turned to the stranger and said with warmth: “Just think, he’s only nineteen and already his company is thinking of sending him out on the road to sell.”

The gaunt young man opened his square jaws, looked as if he ought to say something, then closed them again. My mother smiled at him. “It’s so hot, why don’t you take your coat off?” she urged. But he did not answer, only staring past her out the window. And as he sat he began to perspire more. The hollows in his forehead began to move as if in breathing. Small as I was, I saw he would have given five years of his life to escape my mother’s goodness. But he lacked the courage to stand up and go from our flat. My mother began to talk to him, trying to draw him out. She spoke about various matters, then asked about his family. He answered in monosyllables, evasively, and his voice was flat, with hardly any timbre to it.

Well, this could not go on forever; the day was slowly fading and he began to sit on pins and needles. He sat like that for a whole half-hour, looking like an undertaker, while my mother, with her chair near the window, sat watching the children in the street, feeling a faint breeze against her arm. In her mind she must have figured that this hour or two in the bosom of a friendly family was a rare and precious interlude for our guest. But it must have been torture for him. My kid brother, about seven at the time, began prowling in the corners and shooting with his rubber bands. He shot pins and aimed at the stranger’s legs. He shot once, twice, three, and four times, and the pins must have stung like grape shot. The stranger, whenever he was hit, merely clenched his jaws and winced. I went around behind my brother and started cruelly twisting his arm. But as soon as my mother shouted at me to stop, my kid brother got down to business again. He must have shot over thirty or forty pins, and when his aim was poor—and it was seldom so—I could hear the pins rattle faintly against the legs of the stranger’s chair.

But at last the fellow could endure the pain no longer: he stood up awkwardly and said he had to go. My kid brother, as a parting salutation, hid himself behind the sofa and shot him straight into the rear.

My mother rose and came forward, giving the young man her hand.

“Come often, don’t be bashful,” she told him, “we always have plenty to eat.”

He thanked her awkwardly, still damp with perspiration, and knocking his knees over a chair my kid brother had placed behind him, stumbled and almost fell down the stairs. “Be sure and come often,” my mother called after him, and in another moment she was leaning with her plump arm upon the window sill, watching him striding hurriedly, ungainly up the noisy street.

But he never came over to our flat again, thougli he still made his daily trips to our store for milk. And after my mother pressed my father to urge the young man to eat with us again—which my father refused to do—the poet went back to his old routine, crackers and milk, or just milk alone.

Things went on like this for another month, until the time came for Mrs. Foley to make her annual visit to her married son in Springfield. Before she left, Mrs. Foley came into our store and paid my father her bill and, before leaving, as an afterthought at the door, she said: “I’ll be gone two weeks; if the young man wants any groceries on credit, give it to him, coffee, beans, or bacon. I’ll stand good for it; I’ll pay you when I get back.”

But he never came into our store again, so we figured he must be using Mrs. Foley’s kitchen for his cooking. The days went by and he kept away. Sometimes, along toward evening when the hot sun was already gone and the heat had died, he came out to walk under the thunder of the “L” a way, keeping his eyes on the ground. His walks became shorter with each passing day and I trailed him like a hound. At the end of the first week he had cut his “constitutionals” to two blocks, then to one block, then he did not come out of the house near the tracks again.

And that was the last time I ever saw him alive. When Mrs. Foley returned from Springfield, a full week later, she found him stretched out in bed. He was fully dressed, his mouth was wide open, and his arms were flung out like the wings of a hawk. Mrs. Foley shook him and, getting no response, hurried to my father, shrieking out the news. My father took it calmly, realizing his importance. He had the only telephone in the neighborhood, right behind the icebox, so he raised his fat arm and rang up the police. “Headquarters?” he said in his full slow bass. “There’s been an accident,” and after giving out the details, he put a lock upon the door and accompanied Mrs. Foley back to her rooming house. I trailed along, keeping to one side.

In fifteen minutes the ambulance arrived. My father took charge of the situation, talking to the cops. “There’s been an accident,” he said with importance. The trains were roaring along the embankment, smoke hung in the sky, and soon, sniffing disaster, the grimy doors of the neighbors were flung ajar. The hospital limousine stood stately, its expensive engine throbbing. A young interne went up, came quickly down again. “A starvation case,” he muttered to the chauffeur. Mrs. Foley stood plucking at her finger tips; she knew nothing about the poet’s family and repeated to the police: “He came to me one day for a room, I gave it to him, he never paid me and I never bothered him,” she said. And my father, in a rather pompous solid voice, told the cops about the youth’s meals of milk and crackers or just milk alone. He caught sight of me in the pauses and motioned at me to go home.

I stood around, however, filled with morbidity. I hung about the knot of folk, listening to the talk. Once or twice I stared up at what had been his solitary window. It stood directly under the eaves and a grackle’s nest was there. I stood there looking on, until the small crowd parted. The police made a lane for two men with a burden and I crept peering closer, standing with bated breath.

Coming through the lane of folk, on a stretcher, a gaunt form lay lank and still. He had been covered over with a blanket but the descent of the stairs had slipped it halfway off his chest. His mouth was still open and the hollows of his forehead were very deep. They hoisted him into the ambulance and rolled him deep within the car. Unaware of me, my father had come up close by, so that I felt his presence near. He stood behind me speaking, so that his words, spoken slowly, would be impressive, for the curse of the pen was already upon me and he wanted to cure me of such a pernicious habit. “They live in little rooms,” he repeated, “where they scribble and starve to death.”

And that was the first and only lecture from his lips. The limousine drove away, humming up the street. For a while the small knot stood about gossiping, then broke up, thinning, until all were gone. The housewives disbanded and went into their homes again. The gray grim doors banged shut. From a dull, leaden sky a few large drops began to fall. “Come, it’s raining,” said my father, and I followed him back to the store.


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