The arched ceiling lent the public library an air of tranquil liberty, as if it were easier to breathe inside than it was out on the street. Jerry sat down at one of the large rectangular tables between the rows of bookshelves, removed his notepad, his pocket Thesaurus, and three Bic pens. This day marked the commencement of a new kind of project for him. Moderate success as a novelist and short story writer had helped to supplement his VA benefits in recent years, but lately he’d felt like trying something new. Instead of another suspense novel or historical short fiction collection, he would embark on the creation of an epic poem in the tradition of Homer or Milton, a work to further distinguish him and solidify his literary legacy.
“Forests of the Meremac,” he wrote on the top line of his notepad, “Part I.” While contemplating the first image of the poem he noticed a woman three tables down, staring at him. A beautiful woman, relatively young, sad-looking, the skin around her eyes slightly puffy as though she had been crying. Upon making eye contact with him she smiled, awakening a brightness in her face that prompted him to smile back, and kindly nod a greeting.
The woman stood up, passed quietly up the aisle toward him, letting her fingertips graze the cotton fabric on Jerry’s shoulder, then proceeding out the door into the side lot of the library. After making love to her in his car, he learned that her name was Lana and she worked at the Thai restaurant about a mile away. She visited the library on her lunch break to enjoy its peace and quiet. She told him goodbye, she had to get back to work, and maybe she’d see him around sometime.
Returning to the table and unpacking his things, Jerry recommenced the writing of his poem, envisioning the landscapes he’d seen, the oceans, cliffs, rivers, plains, and forests in all the places he’d traveled to throughout the world. Finding no sufficiently powerful image to begin the piece, he turned to some of the books from which he hoped to draw inspiration.
First, he quoted Homer, the war metaphors of Agamemnon and his soldiers overwhelming the Trojan Army in The Iliad. “Even as a lion easily crushes the speechless young of a swift deer, coming into its lair, seizing them in its powerful teeth and taking away their tender life—”
Next, he drew from The Odyssey, Circe’s warning to Odysseus to resist the Sirens’ song. “If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.”
Third, he recalled the envious cry of Satan upon seeing Adam and Eve for the first time in Paradise Lost. “Into our room of bliss thus high advanc’t/Creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps/Not Spirits, yet to heav’nly Spirits bright/Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue/With wonder, and could love, so lively shines/In them Divine resemblance, and such grace/The hand that formd them on thir shape hath pourd.”
Again he tried putting his pen to paper, and again he found no image, nor even one word, to start with. Opting rather to devote the afternoon to promotional work, he collected his things and drove home to use his office computer. He lived alone, and that evening he thought of Lana, replaying the details of their encounter outside the library. He wondered if she might meet him again. It was possible she’d intended it as a one-time, no strings attached type of connection, although she did say, “See you around,” when they said goodbye. Jerry scratched the neck of his overfed border collie. “Same deal tomorrow, Saucer. We’ll try the poem again tomorrow.”
No sign of her the next day, or the next, or the next, and no matter how he struggled Jerry couldn’t produce a single line of his epic poem. He’d sit there pondering, for hours some days, mining his intellect for the ideal words, moods, and images to catapult his readers into a grand thrilling adventure. His fiction had practically written itself in the past, but poetry was different. With fiction all he had to do was ramble on like he was telling a story to a group of friends around a campfire. With poems each word had to count, every line had to radiate aesthetic power.
A week of fruitless writing sessions elapsed before he decided to stop by the Thai restaurant where Lana worked. Worst case scenario, she wouldn’t want to see him and would ask him to leave. Best case scenario, she’d be happy to see him and would go on a date that very evening. The restaurant was empty, which wasn’t surprising at two forty-five. No one at the desk to greet him. Behind the desk an enormous golden dragon, the length of a small car, sat mounted on a base of elaborately carved jade. The base rested on a wide cutout in the wall that looked designed to hold an aquarium of exotic fish. He stood admiring the dragon for a moment, beholding its dynamic posture, intricate features, and shiny gold scales, its blazing yellow eyes fixed on him.
“Can-help you, sir?” a man shouted through the cutout. One of the cooks, perhaps the only cook, had spotted him from the kitchen.
“Oh, hello. Is Lana here? I’m looking for Lana.”
“Lana went home. She gone today. Come back, tomorrow.”
“Do you happen to have her phone number?” Jerry raised his thumb and pinky to his ear. “Phone number?”
The cook peered over the dragon through the cutout. “Ah, yes. Wait a minute.” A minute later he marched around the wall to hand him a slip of paper. “Lana house. You friend. See you now. Bye.”
Jerry left, unfolding the paper as he walked down the sidewalk. It read: Lana Kendrol, 2103 Sentry St., Apt. 3-D1. He consulted his phone for directions.
The beige brick building was located in a courtyard with seven other identical buildings. The buzzer for 3-D1 had a blank plastic strip beside it, and made no sound when Jerry pressed it, so he started up the steps. Rounding the banister between the second and third floors, the words, “He who does not gather with me scatters,” spray-painted in tall black letters, halted him at the foot of the final set of stairs. “He who does not gather with me scatters,” he said slowly, lightly wheezing. The source of the words eluded him. They reminded him of a bedtime story his grandma used to read. Scratching his head, he carried on up the stairs and knocked loudly on Lana’s door. No sound inside, no music or voices, until she appeared.
“Hi, Lana,” he smiled. “I’m sorry to surprise you like this. You never gave me your number. The cook at your restaurant, he told me where you live. I just wanted your phone number, but he—I’m sorry, are you busy right now?”
“Well, it is my day off. I was trying to relax a bit. Food service is no joke. The pay isn’t bad, though.” Noticing his breathing, she invited him in.
“Nice place,” he said, glancing around the small yet stylishly decorated living room.
“Thank you, sir,” she handed him a beer. “So what brings you here?”
“Good question,” he laughed. “I’ve been trying to write this poem, it’s an epic poem, you know, like The Odyssey or Paradise Lost. That’s what I was doing at the library last week.”
Lana sipped her beer. “How’s it going so far?”
“No. For the first time in my career I can’t seem to start the damn thing. Usually the words just roll out like, like the gears of a clock.”
“Quite the metaphor,” she smiled.
“Simile, actually—not really important. Look, do you wanna go out sometime? I had a great time the other day and I’d like to see you again, more formally, hopefully, like a date.”
Lana froze with the glass halfway to her lips. “Jerry, I have a boyfriend.”
“Sorry, yeah, I thought you knew. What happened last Tuesday was… I just needed to feel better.”
He sat still for a second as the words sank in. “You mean your boyfriend doesn’t care if you…”
“It’s not like I tell him about it, but yeah, he knows. We have an agreement.”
“Huh… Alright. In that case, I guess I’ll be leaving.” He set his beer on the table and stood up.
“You’re not upset, are you?”
“Me? No, why should I be? I’m sorry to show up like this.”
“Don’t be. Please.” Lana’s eyes were kind, sincere.
On his drive home he switched the radio to the Classic Rock station. He drove slowly, carefully rounding corners, gradually applying the brakes and gas. One of his all-time favorite songs started playing, and he turned it up until it hurt his ears. Hey Jude, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song, and make it better…