Something to say
Walter pulled the fat right tires of his truck onto the high curb by the red brick university building, removed a blue blazer from the cab and slipped it on after brushing sawdust from it. He tied his shoulder length hair into a pony tail and pulled on a scally cap. There was no security at the entrance of the student center.
Students moved through the corridors in clusters of two and three. Walter felt self-conscious and awkward in the presence of these fresh faced teens and twentysomethings. He passed a cork board plastered with layers of flyers and notices and noted a series of quarter-sheet bulletins photocopied on green paper advertising a poetry slam at a local cafe.
He made his way to the cafeteria, ordered an egg salad sandwich on wheat, and sat at a table in the corner with his back to the wall so he could watch the entrance. When he took a bite, a chunk of egg fell onto his sleeve; it left a dark greasy spot on the navy fabric when he wiped it with a wet napkin. Across the cafeteria, a man with a long dark beard arranged four chairs symmetrically around the table before sitting to eat, a book open in front of him; engrossed by his reading, he didn’t notice when he dipped his beard in the soup.
When the professor arrived, Walter recognized him immediately from his book jacket picture; a bit heavier with more lines around the eyes, but it was clearly the same white-haired gentleman who had peered up at him from the glossy inside flap. Once they had made their introductions and the professor was seated, Walter slid a thick manila folder across the table. Inside were dozens of scraps of paper: pages ripped from notebooks, the back of receipts, brown paper torn from a sandwich bag.
His lips moving silently, the professor tapped out the rhythm of the words with a long fingernail as he read. He moved quickly through the pieces, spending more time with some and less with others, and began neatly dividing them in two piles: one to his left, the other to his right. His knuckles were swollen from the onset of rheumatoid arthritis and he had a large, ink-stained callous on the first joint of his middle finger but otherwise, his hands were pristine. Rough and work-worn with a purple and black nail on his thumb, Walter fought the urge to hide his hand under the table.
Earlier, Walter was driving the last nail into a piece of primed pine when it happened. He let his mind wander and missed the end of the finish nail smashing the tip of his thumb against the door casing. He swore and shook his hand. Holding it up to the light he could see the blood pooling up beneath the nail, throbbing painfully with each heartbeat. He put pressure at the base of his finger and paced the hallway hoping the pain would subside. When it got worse he pulled a utility knife from his tool belt and extended the blade two clicks. Pressing the sharp tip against the swollen black spot on the nail he twisted the knife from side to side drilling a small hole through the keratin. Blood erupted through the perforation in a thin stream.
The professor held the last piece delicately between two fingers and let it fall, after a moment’s hesitation, on the larger pile to his left. He placed the palms of his hands on each pile and looked across at Walter. He tapped the much smaller pile on his right with the tips of his fingers. “These–are good–” and then tapped the larger pile on his right “–these–need more work.”
Walter felt his face flush with anger. He began shoving the rejects back into the manila folder, rescuing them. “These–” he mocked “are damn good. And if you disagree, you don’t know good poetry from the crap that they print in a Hallmark card–“
The professor held his hands out toward Walter, palms down, supplicating.
“I would not have agreed to meet with you if I did not recognize your talent. I work with students who are brilliant, students who have traveled around the world to be schooled alongside the best and the brightest, I have students who bring me binders with hundreds of pages of poems and yet–when I have finished reviewing them–this pile–” He again tapped the selected few to his right “–is smaller.”
“You see, they may be a genius with words, they may be able to chew up dreck and spit out diamonds, but it is all for nothing if you have nothing to say. And you–” again tapping the pile to the right “–have something to say.”
Humbled and allayed, Walter walked back towards his truck. After making sure nobody was looking, he tore down a green quarter-sheet flyer and stuffed it into his pocket.