Excerpt from Happiness Economics
Long, youthful body, long youthful hair; billowy, undisciplined words from seductive lips—her poetry was awful, but she—she was perfect. Will shifted uncomfortably on his hard wooden chair in the small, darkened basement of a Queen Street café which reeked of old beer, and was alarmed at himself. He stopped listening to her words and perused her body, which was much more interesting, instead.
She had a carelessly sexy look, at home in her body even while reading bad poetry in front of an audience, no mean feat. She wore jeans, snug along her long legs and riding low on her hips. Will found himself wondering if she had a tattoo, and if so, where it might be. Just above the buttocks, perhaps. He was not a fan of tattoos, which seemed to be everywhere nowadays. He was drawn to the deep V of her sweater, the undulations within. She was quite pale, with large eyes, and dark, twisting hair. Will found he couldn’t take his eyes off her.
“What do you think?” asked someone beside him, indicating the woman on the small wooden stage up at the front.
Will shrugged, deliberately noncommittal. He didn’t know where she’d come from. He hadn’t seen her around. He didn’t want the reading to stop, because as bad as she was there was something sublime about her, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to talk to her afterward because he was thoroughly intimidated by her very sensual beauty, and because he was unable to think of a single thing to say about her poetry, which was entirely forgettable.
When she was finished there was polite, limp-wristed applause. She got up off the stool and with the carriage of a dancer, left the stage and went straight to the bar.
Another poet took the stage and Will tried to listen, but all he could think about was rolling around on a bearskin rug, naked, with the girl poet at the bar. He’d never had a single thought in his whole life about a bearskin rug before, so this surprised him. He wondered what it meant—the particular image of the bearskin rug. It bothered him that it was so cliché, because he was a poet—he worked in images. He downed his scotch and moodily signalled the waiter for another.
He was twice her age and weight. He was far and away the better poet. He was married, and he supposed she was not. Young, gorgeous female poets tended not to be married. And this one had a wild, untamed look. However, it was completely irrelevant whether she was married or not, because he was. He had never been one to notice, much less hit on, the numerous attractive young women who seemed to hang around the fringes of poetry. He was a faithful man, steadfast; a man who stuck to things, regardless of whether or not they were working. He was committed to his poetry, and he was committed to his marriage. But he could certainly roll around on a bearskin rug with this woman in his imagination, cliché or not. His imagination was all he had. He still had that.
Will was rolling around on the bearskin rug, naked (they were both naked) grasping her ankle as she rolled playfully away from him, her breasts bouncing, when all hell broke loose.
A woman screamed.
A man shouted, “When did you get out of jail!”
And then there was a single gunshot. The bullet hit a light, and there was an accompaniment of splintering glass. And then there was a lot more screaming.
Poets aren’t generally people of action, but put them in peril, Will quickly realized, and they can stampede just as well as anybody else. He watched a whole herd of them head for the single, narrow exit which led up the stairs. It reminded him of how once, in Vegas with his wife (she’d been giving a keynote address), a shot had been fired outside their restaurant, and their waitress had flung their plates of food aside and dropped to the floor like a pro, while they’d watched in a polite, disbelieving, Canadian way. This time, after the briefest hesitation, Will dove to the floor and crawled under the table. Others had done the same thing, and they crouched and looked at one another in bug-eyed surprise. Will glanced up from under the table and saw the bottleneck at the exit; there was some shoving. Then he remembered, and looked over at the bar from where the shot had come.
It was just like a movie.
The beautiful, dark-haired poet had her arms locked behind her back by a rugged, unshaven brute. This made her back arch and her breasts project—just like in the movies. Also, her hair fell in an appealing way. She was very natural in this role, as if she’d been in this kind of situation before, or had at least been expecting it. In his other hand the man held a gun, which he cocked casually toward the ceiling, looking like he’d been born to this sort of thing.
It was probably the most exciting poetry reading any one there had ever attended, except perhaps for these two at the bar.
With the glut at the stairs, Will slowly realized, the police wouldn’t be able to get in. The bartender stood behind the bar with his hands up. One man—perhaps the one who’d yelled before, and probably with a few beers in him—suddenly rushed the man with the gun, who, with a certain economical grace, smashed him in the temple with the weapon, dropping him to the floor with a thump. The beautiful poet looked down at the inert body and said (it was unclear to Will which of the two men she was addressing) “You’re such an asshole, Dave.”
“Shut up baby,” the brute muttered close to her ear, an animal, possessive gesture that made Will realize—jealously, and with some pain—that he’d never experienced a moment like that in his entire life.
And he called himself a poet.
How could he be a poet? He was guilty of a terrible passivity—like J. Alfred Prufrock. How could he write great poetry when he never ventured beyond the edges of anything? He was a fraud. They were all frauds—the only authentic people in the whole room were the poet and her lover (he assumed he was her lover) and perhaps the bartender.
And so, as he watched from under the table, Will drunkenly asked himself what he should do. Parsimonious fate had finally tossed something his way!
But the situation was complicated. It wasn’t entirely clear whether the beautiful poet wanted to be rescued or not. Moreover, he had no idea how to rescue her. He was middle-aged and somewhat overweight; he was unarmed—all he could throw at them was poetry. Also, he simply couldn’t imagine himself as a hero—and there was the problem, the real failure. If he couldn’t imagine himself as a hero, then surely he couldn’t be a hero. Imagination was the prerequisite for everything.
He hiccupped, an embarrassing lapse. One of the others under the table turned away from him with distaste.
And yet—Will’s drunken reasoning went—wasn’t there something inherently heroic about being a poet these days? Suddenly, he wanted more than anything to be heroic. He wanted to live like a real poet. He wanted to surprise everyone, but especially this young woman. And himself. He wanted something extraordinary to happen to bind them together, some extraordinary moment, and if he had to be killed to have that moment, so be it—for he’d already drunk two beers and quite a lot of scotch.
Did he dare disturb the universe?
He scrambled boldly out from under the table, stood up to his full height—puffing a little—hiccupped again, and yelled, “Let her go!” The screaming had mostly stopped by now.
“Who the hell are you?” the man with the gun asked.
“Let her go,” Will repeated, a little abashed already at what he had done, “and no one will get hurt.”
“Right. Come on baby,” the gunman said, and half-pulled, half-dragged his captive around. Will noticed now what apparently no one else had seen—a second exit, right behind the gunman, its red EXIT sign burnt out.
They all heard the approaching siren at the same time. The gunman seemed to consider for the briefest of moments, kissed his hostage hard on the mouth, and then abruptly let her go and bolted for the door, the girl hesitating only a fraction of a second before grabbing her jacket and fleeing after him quite willingly. Amazing himself (even while asking himself what the point was, because the girl was no longer prisoner) Will took a clumsy running dive intending to tackle the gunman’s legs from behind. It was a pointless, spectacular belly flop; Will fell a considerable distance short of what he’d intended, striking his head hard on the corner of a table and shattering a chair.