On the week after his thirtieth birthday at the onset of the Great Recession in June of 2008, the day after his girlfriend of two years had dumped him, Bennington A. Rhodes IV lost his job at Citigroup.
On that Thursday at her condo in the early evening, Amy had lowered the axe, explaining that their relationship had “plateaued upon a plain.”
“So being with me,” Bennington had asked, “is, like, a long, boring stretch of Kansas Interstate?”
Amy, a slender, doe-eyed only child with a tiny mouth and incredibly meticulous handwriting, was going places, and Bennington had liked to imagine that he’d be tagging along. He meekly stormed out of her building (an emphatic door shut, carpeted condo stomp) and headed downtown to drown his sorrows in a tsunami of single malts. (After unwadding the $68 bar tab the next day, he came close to weeping when he saw the $32 tip).
When Zaubi called him into his office at five the next afternoon, Bennington was still feeling terrible, suffering the worst hangover since Kappa Alpha. As Zaubi’s soothing baritone – the voice of reason – clicked off the numbers, Bennington sat there across the desk dumb. It wasn’t as if getting laid off was such a shock – he was the most recent hire – but psychologically the timing couldn’t have been worse. It seemed like a curse.
Axed, and then, axed, whack, whack.
Amy had assured him that there was no one else in the picture and perhaps their relationship might resume somehow in the vague future, but that had been four months ago, and he’d only seen her once since, at Rue de Jean’s among a too loud table enjoying a late lunch that had stretched to four on a Friday afternoon. Sitting at the bar nursing a Miller, Bennington glanced over to his left to try to catch Amy’s eye, but every time it seemed her head was tilted back in open-mouthed laughter. The table was raucous – there were nine of them – ricocheting guffaws off the dark brick walls of the converted warehouse. Bennington, pointing to the table with his thumb, asked the bartender Smoak if he had a taser he could borrow, and Smoak said he’d put on music to create some background noise. Somehow, when Bennington was in the toilet, Amy had disappeared. He was running out of money. The economy was tanking, He was heartsick.
Saturdays had become especially grim. No longer able to afford the sports bars, he sat alone in his mortgaged condo in front of his no-money-down flat screen TV watching SEC football, pulling for his alma mater Vanderbilt, whose games were virtually never broadcast in the Charleston market. He watched whatever SEC game was on, keeping a vigil to catch the current Vandy score that periodically crawled across the bottom of the screen. Today’s CBS broadcast, Georgia vs. LSU, was a blowout. However, if Vandy could beat lowly Duke this afternoon, the Commodores would become bowl eligible for the first time since 1982 – since Ronald Reagan. The bad news, though, was that they were down early, so Bennington sat on a beanbag chair munching Cheese Nips, keeping an eye peeled for the score. How he used to look forward to Saturdays, furloughs from panicky investors and irksome emails; now he dreaded Saturdays the way he once had dreaded Mondays.
The final score crawled across the screen: Duke 10 Vandy 7.
He had to get out. To rent a DVD from the library, to read a good biography, to somehow shake off the lethargy. With gas prices soaring, he thought about walking to the Library on Calhoun, but it was too far, especially round trip, so he drove instead, crossing the bridge with the top down, the wind ruffling his hair, a month past its usual close-cropping. Parking was free under the library building if you got your ticket stamped, but as it turned out, traffic was light, so he snatched an open space on the street.
Once inside, Bennington decided to scan new book releases before heading to biographies and then the DVD section. This new library, open and airy, was so unlike the old one on King Street with its dusty stacks and down-and-out warmth-seekers. Here, high school students paraded past t-ball moms laden with stacks of books while retirees stared into computer monitors. In the new releases section, Bennington toyed with picking up Hot, Flat, and Crowded, hoping that the imminent destruction of the planet and all its life forms might put his own puny problems into better perspective, but he left it there and made his way upstairs to check out the biographies.
On his way through the stacks, walking slowly, he ran his finger across spines of volumes of poetry making a soft rat-a-tat when one of the titles caught his eye: From the Green Horseshoe: The Poetry of James Dickey’s Students. Marisa, a summer Vandy fling, had been one of the last of Dickey’s students. Maybe one of her poems had made it into the anthology. He removed the volume and opened it, rifling the pages, looking for her name.
Whoa! Wait a minute! What was that? He thumbed through more slowly, and it was there, a $100 bill. Excited, he flipped the note over to assure himself it was legal tender. Someone had written something above the trees and steeple of Independence Hall. A message?
Bennington pocketed the bill and read the poem:
From the Porch of Her Glass House, the Duchess of Doggerel Chunks Rocks at the Grave of Joyce Kilmer
By Delaney Dodd
The metronomic tick-tock of his maudlin verse
is like Chinese water torture, only worse.
Worse, because his sugary singsong strut
goosesteps across your forehead, then stomps down your gut.
And those monosyllabic Dollar Tree words!
Plopping in sequence like marshmallow turds!
Sure, Joyce, trees are worthy of our veneration,
even if they’re the products of random mutation.
But, dude, it’s great poetry, like Milton’s, that a-stone-ishes me,
not the prosaic process that produces a tree.
Bennington wasn’t a fan of poetry. He had often wondered in school why they made you read it all the time. At least this poem rhymed. But it didn’t flow right. Should he call this woman? He was guessing it was a woman. Would she want the hundred back? She had to be crazy. Desperate for attention.
Really, really, lonely.
Her answering machine engaged: “Leave a message.”
“Uh, Delaney. I found your note and the money in the book.”
“Hello.” Her voice was breathy. “What’s your name?”
“Uh, Bennington Rhodes.”
“I see. A man of truth.”
“Like, it says on my Caller I.D. ‘Bennington Rhodes.’ You’d be surprised how many Bobs claim to be Antoines.”
He wondered how many c-notes she had distributed in libraries. “Really? Why?”
“To cop a cool vibe from a new name. Like, Bennington, your name screams Republican, municipal bonds, bow ties. You might think, ‘I’ll punk this chick by copping the name Slade Rucker.’ Now what kind of vibe do you get from Slade Rucker?”
“Sounds like a cross between a private eye and some sort of industrial machinery.”
She laughed. “Bingo! Look, Benny, I hear you’ve come into some cash. How bout buying me a drink?”
“Where are you, Benny?”
“Great, I’m just around the corner on Heart Attack and Vine. Say fifteen minutes at The Roof Top Bar on Vendue?”
“But how will I know you are you?”
“Don’t worry. I’m me.”
On the short drive to Vendue, Bennington suffered a pang of buyer’s remorse. He’d read about people hooking up on-line with imposters, sultry-sounding sirens who were actually hairy-backed bald-guys in wifebeaters. This woman sounded young, but she could be in her fifties for all he knew. Though he didn’t hang with artistic types, his poet friend Marisa had been stuck on herself, as if her tendency to see dewdrops on eucalyptus leaves as symbols made her somehow precious.
The bar was on top of the Vendue Inn, a quaint hotel with dark pine floors and Oriental runners. In a narrow hall, he waited for a tiny elevator, the kind you might find in a European hotel. As the elevator door opened, an attractive twenty-something blonde in jeans and a black turtleneck hurried through the lobby, so Bennington pressed the open-door button to wait for her. Could this actually be Delaney? No way his luck could be this good.
“Thanks,” she said, as the elevator jerked into motion.
“Read any good poetry lately?”
“Can’t say that I have,” she said coldly, staring at her toe cleavage.
The bar was nearly empty. Bennington ordered a Yuengling and sat at a table outside on the uncovered terrace. The first beer disappeared, and he wondered if she might not show. Poets who put $100 bills in library books were probably not the most dependable people. He walked back to the bar and ordered another Yuengling. He’d down that, and then, if she didn’t show, he was out of there.
Leaning over the bar, he felt someone touch his shoulder.
Jumping back, he said, “Damn, Amy!”
“C’mon, what kind of greeting is that?” She was smiling, those big brown eyes wide open.
“Hey, I heard about you getting laid off. Sorry.”
“Who’d you hear it from?”
“Phil. I keep up with you through Phil, though he says he hasn’t seen you lately.”
He hoped to God that she wasn’t seeing Phil.
“Well, you could have called. I would have told you how I was doing.”
“I thought it might be awkward, you know.”
A tall woman in black slacks and a black vest and sporting a backwards tweed Irish cap stepped up from the elevator pit and strolled across to the bar. A long black scarf dangled from her neck.
“Well,” Bennington said. “I think I see my date. So long, Amy.”
He left her standing there and approached the woman, who was somewhat older, well a lot older now that he got a closer look at her, in her forties with salt and pepper shoulder length hair. She was attractive, what his mother would call dark Irish, with very brown eyes and a small upturned nose.
He gave it another try. “Read any good poetry lately?”
“You must be Ben-ning-ton.”
“And you must be Delaney.”
“My friends call me the Duchess.”
“The Duchess, huh?”
“Just Duchess will do.”
“What are you drinking, Duchess?”
He glanced over his shoulder. I thought it would be awkward, you know.
“Somebody tailing you, Bennington? A stalker?”
“Naw, just Ol’ Man Trouble.”
“Benny, I like you already. You in the mood to hear my life story?”
“Does it rhyme?”
She hacked a smoker’s laugh. “Tell me something.”
“How’s Ol’ Man Trouble been messing with you?”
“Stole my job and my girl.”
“Look on the bright side.”
“The bright side?”
“Today’s your lucky day.”
Bennington wasn’t too sure about that, but at least he wasn’t sitting at home watching two Big Ten teams clash. Though this tough talk Bogey and Bacall business would probably get old soon, he did have the feeling that his luck might be changing.
I thought it would be awkward, you know.
The martini and the Yuengling arrived.
The Duchess tapped his glass. “To the New World Order of Obamarama,” she said. “The times they are a-changin’.”
He raised his bottle and managed a smile.
“How’s that beer, Benny?”
“Okay. How’s the martini?
“I take it that means good.”
“Better than good. But hey, tell me about the poem. Did you dig the poem?”
“Yeah, sort of. I’m not going to lie. Poetry’s not my thing.”
“I, too, dislike it.”
“Benny boy, you got a lot to learn, but, like I said, this is your lucky day.”
“Who’s your favorite poet?” he asked.
“You mean besides me?”
She clinked her glass with his bottle again and took another sip of her martini. “Not Joyce Kilmer,” she said.
“Hey, you want to go sit out there on the terrace?”
She led the way, not exactly swaggering but sort of stalking, thrusting one foot in front of the other as if she were headed up the aisle to receive her Oscar. She chose a table in the corner at one juncture of the wrought iron railings that wrapped around the terrace to keep people from wandering too close to the edge.
She sat facing the harbor and he just around the corner to her right. Scraping her chair closer to the table, she looked at Bennington. “Hey, Benny – I hope you don’t mind me calling you Benny-“
“Not unless you mind me calling you Dutch.”
She smiled. “Well, then Bennington,” she said in a mock patrician voice, “I have a question for you.”
“If poetry’s not your ‘thing,’ how come you’re checking out poetry anthologies?”
He smiled sheepishly, scratching the label of his beer with his thumb. “Well, I happened to be passing by and noticed the name James Dickey. I had a friend, Marissa, who studied under Dickey. She was a poet, and I thought she might have a poem in there.”
“And it might have been about you?”
“No, not at all.”
“What was Marisa’s last name?”
Bennington started. “How did you know her name was Marisa?”
“I’m clairvoyant,” she deadpanned.
He leaned back slightly in his chair.
Again, she gently touched his arm. “Bennington, earlier you said her name, Marisa. Look, I’m going up to the bar and grab us another round. Before a waitress intrudes herself.”
“Put it on my tab,” he said.
While she was away, Bennington looked around. The Roof Top was becoming more crowded. Two couples and a triple had grabbed tables on the terrace, and the bar was about full. This Delaney woman was intriguing, entertaining, though full of it. Her rough words didn’t match her light touch. She talked like a toughie, but when she leaned over and touched your arm, it was almost maternal, then again, not at all maternal.
She returned with a new martini and yet another Yuengling.
“Now, it’s my turn for a question,” Bennington said, “Why in the world did you put a hundred dollar bill in that book? How long has it been there?”
“Let’s see. The first question’s easier. I did it on a bet, a bet with my Ex. She bet me that no one would ever check out that book, in other words, that no one would ever read my poem, and I bet her a hundred dollars someone would.”
Bennington was disappointed. Why was she flirting with him if her ex wasn’t a he? There went one of his more hopeful scenarios.
“So how long did it take?” he asked. “I mean, for me to find your message.”
“Let’s see,” she hummed. “A decade give or take.”
“And let me tell you, something, Benn-ing-ton, a hundred dollars was real money way back then in the last mil-len-ni-um.” She huffed it out like a hip-hop artist.
“Well,” he said. “Are you still in touch? Can you collect?”
“Not only does someone have to read the poem, but I have to write a short story about them, about you as it turns out, about you finding the poem and me meeting you.”
“A story about meeting me?”
“What would you write?”
“More or less the truth. You call me. We meet here at the Roof Top. The autumn sun’s melting like butterscotch. Having you unemployed and heartbroken is a plus. I wasn’t counting on being so lucky – no offense.”
“My turn to fetch the libations,” he said and noticed Amy leaving with her sister Jill.
When he returned, Delaney had an unlit cigarette in her hand, holding it between her fingers as if she were smoking it.
“Anyway,” he said, glancing at the cigarette and then away. “How does it end? The story, I mean.”
For the first time, she seemed entirely sincere. “Don’t ask me if you don’t really want to know.”
He waited for a smile.
“No, really, I want to know.”
“Bennington, here’s where fiction is much better than real life. By meeting me, the Duchess of Doggerel, you realize that being a Republican ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be, that the system’s played you for chump. Thanks to unregulated markets, you’re out of a job – I’m guessing insurance, something like that – and that you own a condo whose equity has deflated in this housing meltdown like a post parade Macy’s Day Snoopy. And, look, don’t take this personally – I see your ex as a – forgive me – as a vapid, spoiled woman who color codes her to-do list. In other words, boring. You realize after our chance meeting that there’s more to life, that ultimately your ex is small-minded, materialistic, so you end up being a so-called developing character, which makes the story much cooler.”
“Damn,” Bennington said smiling goofily, “You’re good. You about got Amy nailed.”
“But seriously, Bennington, that’s not how real life works. It’s too big of a change in too short of a time. Even the Duchess’s charismatic personality can’t undo a quarter century of Republicanism in twenty minutes.”
“Wait,” Bennington said. “How did you know I was a Republican? I’m thinking seriously about voting for Obama.”
“What’s this? The end of Perry Mason? Look, Bennington, puh-lease. You winced when I toasted Obama; your name is Bennington; you don’t like to be called Benny; and you’re wearing a polo shirt and khakis for godssake. Case closed. But, let’s forget all of this mumbo jumbo and go out and have a good time, okay? You up for an early dinner? My treat. Look, I like you Benny. If I didn’t, I’d drop you like a bank stock.”
Bennington looked out beyond the steeples at the river and remembered that daylight savings time was over tonight, that tonight he could turn back the hands of time. A whole extra hour and then the Sabbath to recover and nowhere to go Monday except maybe up to the mountains to see his good friend John Woodmansee.
“Hey Dutch, I like you, too. You’re a character.”
“No, Benny, you’re the character, remember, and don’t hand me any static. We’re going to have us a little denouement tonight. How does Snapper Jack’s sound?”
She downed what was left of her martini. Pushing her chair back from the table, she stood, flicking her hair away from her eyes and throwing her scarf over her shoulder. Bennington followed her out into the night. It wasn’t until they rounded the corner of Vendue and East Bay that he realized that they hadn’t paid.