(This story is a sequel to The Scream of nightingales and The Shoe Salesman. Read The Scream of nightingales first.)
When I met Jenny I was the bookkeeper for The Dead Cat, a ratty club that booked punk rock bands. Steve, who ran the place, came to me one afternoon and asked for a favor.
"John, I've got a problem. Be a friend and help me."
I met this with a cautious noise. Steve's "problems" were usually something a man had better not get involved with.
"You see, we've got the American Medical Association booked for next week and Bob, the drummer, has got, like, a problem. He's got a main squeeze, Jenny's her name, but he, uh, has some action lined up in town."
"So he's going to have this chick with him all week and Jenny needs a place to stay and I thought, well you don't have a woman of your own, and that maybe, well you know, put her up for the week."
This didn't sound too good to me but it wasn't as bad as some of the things Steve has come up with.
"How's Jenny with this."
"Oh, she's okay. Bob does this all the time. She's used to it. She's cool. You'll like her. She's easy on the eyes and sort of quiet. Nice chick. Bob really likes her but he's, you know, just not a one woman kind of man. She's, uh, friendly too. The only thing is, be sure you have plenty of grass. She sure does like her dope."
I argued for a bit and lost the argument like I always did when I tried to argue Steve out of one of his crazy ideas. The American Medical Association rolled into town one fine afternoon with all of their gear and Jenny in tow. We eyed each other like strange cats but didn't say much - there was too much to do to set up for the gig that night. I would have cut out and taken Jenny to dinner - I could care less about one more punk rock group - but I had to work the gate and act as bouncer so it wasn't until early morning when she and I split for my place.
I didn't know quite what to expect. I had a bachelor pad and no place for guests except a spare futon. She didn't argue but she made it clear that she assumed that she was going to share my bed. I didn't argue. Like Steve said she was easy on the eyes and she was clean. I was big on clean. We didn't do anything that night, not even talk, just hit the sack. Starting a new group is always tough and she was beat from traveling.
I liked Jenny; we got on good. After the club closed we would go back to my place, eat, smoke some dope, talk, and make love. I really liked Jenny. I think she really liked me. I asked her to stay with me after the group moved on. She said she'd like to but she just couldn't. It wasn't Bob the drummer, it was the life. She couldn't give up the life. I didn't press her. I understood. There was something inside me that always wanted to cut loose but I never did; I never could get all the way over the top. She had. She knew it and I knew it. She was never coming back and I couldn't follow her.
It was the last night that she was with me that she told me about the poet and the critic.
She had just had her last screaming fight with her parents. She moved in with a group of kids who had sort of a commune and got a job flipping burgers. There was this guy working there, sort of crazy, and thin like had forgotten to eat for the last two years. She liked him. They got to talking. He was a street poet, had been on the street for a couple of years or so, he wasn't sure. He read her some of his poems. She was impressed. She thought they were wonderful. They touched her.
They moved in together. They flipped burgers in the day and he wrote poetry at night. Only, after a while, bit by bit, he stopped writing poetry. It was as though he needed to be rock bottom to be a poet. They split up. He dropped out, became a shoe salesman or something like that. She didn't know for sure.
When he split he left behind a box of his poems. She thought he had forgotten about them; he just didn't care any more. She kept them.
About six months later she ran into this geezer in a coffee house. The geezer propositioned her. The word was out on the street on him. He was a big wig, wrote articles for the New York Review of Books, that kind of thing. Stuffy, but he liked the street, he definitely liked young flesh and he was generous.
Things were tough; she was up against it. She took him up on it. He bought her new clothes and took her to dinner at one of those rich little places that cater to the wealthy with sophisticated tastes. While they dined he talked about himself.
He told her about the poem.
He had, he said, had a poem pressed upon him by a street poet. He had expected it to be rubbish; instead it had turned out to be one of the finest poems ever in the English language in his opinion (and you could tell that he thought that his opinion mattered.) He had wrestled with the temptation to pass it off as his own and had burned it and was very sorry that he had. He described the poem.
Jenny was startled. She recognized the poem. It was her street poet.
She told the geezer about her poet and about the box of poems that he had left her. That changed things. The geezer wasn't hot for her any more, he was hot for that box of poems. He was smooth. Instead of asking for the poems outright he worked on her, offered to support as his mistress.
Jenny caught this. She turned down an offer to move in with him. She figured that she would be out on the street again once he got his hands on that box of poems. She was down and out, the old geezer would bleed generously, and she would work him.
He got her an apartment. She was cool. She stashed the box of poems with a friend. She would tease him with the poems, recite one every now and then to him. He didn't let on that he was salivating for that box but she knew. He wasn't in any rush; he liked young flesh and he was getting it.
It got to her. She was whoring for this bastard and she hated it. One night when he was coming over she snuck in the box of poems. He was into little dominance games, no S&M, just tricks with leather and tying each other up. When she had him tied up she pulled out the box of poems and burned them right in from of him. She never said a word, just burned the box of poems, and walked out, leaving him tied up in the living room.
We just sat there for a while, mellowed out, after she finished her story. Finally I asked her, "Was he any good, your poet."
"Oh, yeah, he was good. Really good. That old bastard knew what he was talking about."
"Didn't you feel bad, burning the poems?"
"Nah. I memorized them all. Couldn't forget them if I wanted to. You wanna hear one?"
"Let's see. I'll do the one the geezer liked, Homage to Keats."
She shut her eyes and started reciting. The words just rippled out. My God, it was beautiful. I started crying. I couldn't help it. I just sat there and bawled like a baby.
The next day Jenny and the American Medical Association headed out of town. I never saw her again. I heard she OD'd several years later in Frisco.
I was pretty stoned that night and I never had a head for remembering poetry so I don't remember much about how the poem went. I just remember how sad and how beautiful it was.
And, well, life has been pretty shitty for me. The club folded and me, well, I just haven't been making it. Every night I wake up in the middle of the night and I hear the scream of nightingales.
This page was last updated June 5, 1998.