Beyond the Western
Bereft John, it was widely known, wanted to be a poet. His hair hung shaggy, he wore comfortable tan-colored sweaters a bit large for him, and was a good volunteer for civic tasks, but he was getting no place in the heady and select craft he pined for. And each rejection slip, with attendant emotion, was posted on the walls of a small room he had set aside for that gruesome collection. The pang of each rejection hung on him for a whole day, harsh as a dog bite.
As the mailman came up the front walkway on this new day, thumbing the one letter of his delivery, John Caliber, looking through the front window of his little house, moaned when he saw the long white envelope. If it was lined with a solid black edge or was gauged and tied with a purple ribbon, it could not have been plainer. “Another rejection,” he muttered, making the announcement to no one in general and the whole world in particular. “Damn,” he said, and said it again, and with it the weight of a rock fell down through his body.
In the small town of Saxon he was about the saddest man that people knew. Many called him Bereft John, always asking favors, always thinking his prayers were never answered, walking through life with a frown though he was on more normal days a bright-eyed man who knew how to smile in usual circumstances. John lived alone, wanting it that way he believed.
The few people who had entered his small house came away with one remembrance; the walls of a small room were covered with rejection slips from publishers or editors of magazines, journals, periodicals and daily newspapers. The walls were not figuratively covered but were literally covered, top to bottom, end to end, square, rectangular, often in yellow or pale green. He posted them artistically, arranging them in both collage and mélange of rejection that seemed to suit him… by size, by color, by density of ink, by geographic or demographic slight. It was a cave, a grotto of dejection and depression, a time-consuming room that had taken hold of his life.
And the collage grew, rounding corners, meeting molding and wainscoting, setting vibrant or flat patterns in their paneled geography.
Every once in a while, when asked about the mass of rejections, he’d say, “Someday I’ll show every one of those damned editors.” Then he’d brusquely walk away.
Soon, his sister Mary thought on one visit, he’d have to use the ceiling of that room, for hundreds and hundreds of rejection slips were stuck on the walls, where available space was nearly gone. She noted pink slips and white ones and ones edged in black and apologetic ones and cursory ones, and sometimes a stamp slapped down hard on his own cover letter. Those, she knew, hurt John most of all, not using their own stationery but his. He tried not to think mean of them, but it was difficult.
“Why don’t they like your work?” Mary said so many times, shrugging her shoulders, not being a poet herself or a writer. “I think your poems are lovely, but I’m no editor. Do they even read them, these people who send them back? Perhaps they do not have time to read them, or get so many they have to shut off the supply and send all the late ones back. Do minions on the low end of the pay scale exact anger this way?” Her mother’s voice came back to her each time John’s problem gained momentum, each time she saw a new rejection posted on an open surface: “John needs someone to pat him on the shoulder all the time. Do what you can for him.” It was an order as much as a plea.
John, at Mary’s insistence, framed his own answers. “I don’t know if they like my work or not, if they have space for it or not, if I am not a member of some coterie or what. But I want it so badly I hurt.” Pain of the cruelest kind leaped in his face, for Mary was the only sounding board left for him. Once it had been his mother, now gone, her last words hanging almost breathless in remembrance, “Stay with it, John, your voice will come. You will find yourself and the manner of your expression. From the other side I will pray for you.” That assurance and confidence had gone in an instant, her eyes closing after the last look up at him from the hospital bed, her mouth closing like a clothespin.
But John’s poetry did not improve, no matter how hard he tried, how he experimented, or how he sought a whole new vocabulary. “I am doomed to be nothing,” he would say countless times, his mouth beginning to hurt with his own words, his chest paining where he knew the words were building up a new charge for outlet. Some days Bereft John swore he would explode, the tight drum of words in him pounding to get free, him not knowing a way to let them loose.
“Dear Contributor,” it began, “We are pleasantly surprised by your work but find it not suitable for us at the present time. We wish you luck in placing it elsewhere. Thank you, The Editors.” He thought, I thought editors are supposed to seek new language, new imagery. How come they say the same thing in the same way all the time? Perplexity was at him, riding him as if he were forever saddled with that hard rider.
And so that was the first piece to go on the ceiling of the small room. The walls were covered by then, every available inch. And too soon now he would be entombed, buried in rejection slips. Life was a cruel host, he heard himself say in the heart of the dark room. As usual he went off to church to pray for an outlet, for some way for the words piled up in his mind, in his heart, to break free, to soar the way he intended them. The power was rampant in his mind, in his body, in his blood. He could feel it boiling and roiling, an energy just waiting to burst the dam. His mother’s words were there too, coming back continually as they did, a faint but relentless surge of words out of a dim haziness. “Stay with it, John. Stay with it. Your voice will come.” Over and over again the words came at him. Somehow they added to the roiling and the boiling and the power that had built within him, coursing his veins, threatening to explode from the top of his head.
Bereft John was a canister ready to detonate, a shell in flight, a tossed grenade, a stick of dynamite hurried by a lit fuse. Everything in life, he’d often say, was so unfair.
In church he knelt, his knees hard on the bare boards of the kneeler, his hands clutching each other with such force the blood was stopped in them and made the skin a gloss of red. “Lord, deliver me of this plight. Let my words be known. It’s all that I know and all I know how to do. I seek only acceptance. I have harmed no soul in my life, and ask only this. In your infinite wisdom, show me the way.”
From a distant vein, from a thin sheet of forgotten thermal heat, from that place where mystery begins and abounds, something came at him. He was privy to some sense of creation; at least, he could swear he was. The fading blue of his mother’s eyes returned from a long journey, their convergence coming back at him, her twisted mouth saying old words again. He saw his sister’s anguished look when she had seen the first rejection pasted on the ceiling. Words anew tried again to form a line in the back part of his mind, a simple verse or two, a grand couplet, like stones or bricks in a wall, but they crumpled too quickly for memory. He knew he was possessed, and would suffer. It was inevitable.
At the altar the old pastor spoke. “Before she starts with the entrance hymn, please be advised that Margaret’s has had a bad cold and is just now recovering. If she falters, she asks that you help her out when you can.” His eyebrows raised themselves in announcement.
The procession started down the main aisle and Margaret began singing. Her recovery, obviously, was not complete. Her voice sounded terrible, a cracking dissonance pounding through the church, punching at ears, hardly approaching music at all. It was horrible; the old pastor flinched under the onslaught, his shoulders shrugging in his feeble acceptance, the loudspeakers in the corners of the church under attack. And Margaret unable to let go, routine as always with her and in her.
“Oh, what is this?” John said to himself, for then it happened, slowly at first, like an idea breaking, or an image without clear edges, foggy, elusive, bearing promise, yet so much like an incomplete sentence, or a scene not finished working in his mind. It came in small gulps, in quick breaths, in random and incomprehensible ways, as though measurements were being taken and not divulged. Space escaped. Yardage. Acreage. He shook his head. It would not go away, but grew in prominence, in reality. He didn’t know what it was, something breaking loose, coming apart, gaining a force of its own. It was then that the dam burst, the top of his head coming off, the explosion in his chest rampant. Something broke fully loose, a stampede of sorts. A vein leaped across another vein, wildly, a highway transformed, removed. A nerve, twisted in its own way, lost its order of things. The torrent came, oh ghostly torrent from nowhere ever known in his body, his mind, his psyche, from his long and arduous dreams.
Bereft John stood to his utmost height to help poor Margaret through her ordeal. The dreamy poet began to sing, a most remarkable tenor, sonorous and golden-toned, operatic, out of the Metropolitan Opera House or La Scala itself, like Pavarotti or Placido or The Blind One, a tenor the church had never heard, a marvelous tenor such that the old pastor released immediate tears. Margaret’s mouth stuck open with an unuttered “Oh” caught in it. Hundreds of parishioners turned to look at Bereft John in the back row singing gloriously, his head back, the beautiful torrent loose in his voice, the words, all the words at last free, free of all the bindings, free of himself, free of dreams, free of the terror of failure.
For many years now, standing tall as ever dreamed, his voice is world-renowned, the finest tenor the church has ever known, a man devoted to the hymns devoted to a kind Lord.
Back at Bereft John’s small house, over these same late years, his sister Mary has seen the rejection slips eventually falling from the walls the way the leaves of autumn fall. When the door is open the rejections rustle like leaves and fly like leaves and disappear like leaves.
Now and then a neighbor rakes up a piece of paper with the simple clutter along a fence line and can barely make out the word “Sorry” printed there.