Famous Men

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I have met the famous men, the gaunt Caucasians with the powers you’ve heard about and thought you could fight, the men of letters, their names known to the captains of publishing, the teachers of literature, and the readers of Esquire, men successful enough to dress like fools and discard their manners.

The famous men fly from their cities to this Southern town. We assemble bonfire parties for them on the land owned by our second most prominent writer, with oysters, and grilled chickens, and salads, and steaks, and seviche, and beer, and whiskey. And all the women wear their summer skirts, with flowery prints and scalloped bodices. I smoke fat joints, alone behind the pickup trucks. By the light of the bonfire they inspect us, to see if there are any of us they’d like to buy.

The last famous man to come wore a safari suit, shiny boots, a broad hat. Some dunce among us asked him what he thought. “Well,” he said, driving the words like nails, “I’ve been struck by two things today. His wristwatch, and her tits.”

And we looked at the elegant Indian fellow’s chronograph as though it were a smashing novel, and the woman in her black dress stared down at the notebook she’d filled with the best words she knew.

Later: the fire down to embers, insects stinging, I was bloated from barbecue and beer, I should have been at a madhouse instead of in the company of the famous man. He handed me back my story and said, “Son: I respect your courtesies, I am tender towards your aims. But I can see this on any television program.” He was sober and old, I was drunk and young, his hair glittered in wisps. “I’ll tell you what, though, if you can steer the minx in the funeral dress to room 110 of the Comfort Inn, I’ll look at whatever product you cough up next.”

You know what? Once I had my own opinions. Once my fingers ran down the smooth spines of books, and I thought that each one made me smart.

Then there was the famous man who came and stood alone, out of the orange light, drinking not our whiskey but the wine he had brought. Around his neck was a purple scarf, under his arm a copy of his book, which you probably own, it sold a hundred thousand, but when he read from it, it was boring! and he read chapter after chapter in the crowded hall, while we squirmed in the back row, while our aspirations wilted like dollar bills.

At the party, he spoke to no one but the willowy blonde poet whom he wanted to fuck. We still tell jokes about him. But he is there, you know, close to the stars: he can pick up the phone and say, “This is H_______O________, famous Latin American writer,” and Christ, the booty rolls home: book contracts, grants, Gap ads, lucrative paperback and translation deals, cases of wine, flattering assessments in reputable journals, the grotty panties of undergraduates, buffet meals, commemorative medallions, financed junkets to major American cities, complete with the hospitality of employed literary women residing in the exciting urban neighborhoods, Wicker Park, Deep Ellum, Loisaida. Or sad-eyed dark boys, if preferred.

Even our feeble jokes, really, shiny with our wanting. Those too he owns. That’s the lot of the famous man.

I remain in this grim Southern town. From my windows I watch a strip of bars where women drink free, subsidized by the hunger of men. The neon ticks like a clock while I sleep, while all I once knew drains from the seams of my skull.

Are we all just in need of a good sound fucking? Really, did I once think that wordplay might suffice in this life?

Famous men, famous men, in my sheet-wound dreams I stand, roaring and shaking, over your piss-soaked graves.

Mike Newirth has received a Henfield-Transatlantic Review Award and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches composition and creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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