Poets at the Boarding House
Poets at the Boarding House
By Craig Fishbane
Billy Collins used to visit me every morning. Those were the days when I lived on the top floor of a boarding house overlooking a small park with a playground. Before Billy started making regular appearances, I spent most of my time staring out the window, watching pigeons gather on lampposts. Seated on the edge of a twin bed, I would observe avian mating rituals and battles over slices of stale bread. I sat with a keyboard perched on my lap, waiting for new poems to flock to my fingers. I had started to wonder if my true calling was not literature but ornithology.
Billy made it habit of arriving at dawn, often greeting me with fresh coffee and blueberry muffins. I can’t say I ever enjoyed being roused from my dreams at sunrise, but something about the way he smiled under his wayward wisps of grey hair—and something about the smell of that Colombian brew—made me amenable to these daily visitations.
He usually tended to the room while I had breakfast, adjusting pictures on the wall and folding the down the bedding. After I had finished eating, he would wipe the dust off the screen of my laptop to reveal a welcoming whiteness, a clear cool surface that invited me to ice skate across the screen. He would lead me in a liquid-crystal dance each morning on the frozen pond of my PC. And when the final movement was completed, he would straighten his tie and excuse himself to tend to his garden.
I rarely had any more company until midnight. I took advantage of those empty hours to catch up on both my reading and my sleep. I had to. When Charles Bukowski showed up—as he did on most evenings—there was never any time to either rest or reflect. He would slam the door open, screaming to startle me out of bed. Then he’d toss me a can from a six-pack. We would drink for hours, swapping stories and dirty jokes. Some nights we visited the whores across the hall. When we were done, we’d go back to my room and trash the wallpaper and bed sheets. Even my lap-top got tossed out the window once or twice.
When I was with Bukowski, I didn’t need it. Everything I wrote was spray-painted on the walls: lyrics to songs you could only sing in a back alley. We would chant each chorus together, drinking from a bottle of Jack Daniels that we had stolen from the hookers. When we ran out of liquor, Bukowski would give me a playful punch on the shoulder and then head off to his own flophouse to sleep off the next day’s hangover.
I thought that things could go on like this forever but then one night Bukowski stayed too late. I had gotten a bottle of Wild Turkey for my birthday and he didn’t want to leave until we had finished it. By the time he stumbled to the door, the sun had already come up. Billy Collins was waiting on the other side, holding a paper bag that smelled of croissants and freshly-brewed espresso.
I don’t think either one of them knew what to do. Billy Collins forced himself to smile as Bukowski scratched his ass. He offered a pensive sigh when Bukowski farted. They continued to stand at the threshold, the outlaw and the laureate, sizing each other up, frozen in an unspoken impasse. I was afraid that they might never move until each man flinched at the sound of agitated footsteps approaching from the hallway. Emily Dickinson was shaking her head as she adjusted the bun in her hair.
She wanted to know which one of us was going to pay the rent.
-refers from the word window in CL Bledsoe’s poem Elegy for the Lawnmower