Roy and the Poet
by Andrew Plattner
From the poet who had the office three doors down, Roy stole A Green Bough by William Faulkner. This happened the day the poet moved out to start work at a university down in Virginia, where he would be teaching less and receiving better pay. There was a going-away party in the lobby of the English Department, with light refreshments. An ice cream cake, bowls of chips. Feeling vaguely sick to his stomach, Roy had bypassed all that. Well-wishers offered to carry boxes from the poet’s office down to his Audi. Roy, who envied and despised the poet, volunteered to help.
At one point, Roy found himself in the poet’s office alone with a box of books, the lid open, and he noticed the cloth-covered binding of the Faulkner book. He extracted it. Along with the poems, were mounted, modernist style illustrations. The paper was thick, the edges ragged. On the very last page, he was startled to see William Faulkner’s signature, written in blue ink, the letters quite small. A limited-edition book, just 360 copies made, the inscription said that. Roy made a stop by his office. He shoved A Green Bough into his laptop bag, hoisted the strap over his shoulder. Then he closed the lids of the box. In the faculty parking lot, the poet had a cluster of admirers gathered around his Audi. Roy guided the box in next to the others in the opened trunk. Roy then waved in the poet’s direction and said, “Hey, good luck!”
The poet dramatically walked over with his hand extended. He said, “You take good care, Roy. You are a great man.” Patronizing, as always. Everyone in the department knew that the poet had slept with Roy’s lover, Fiona. Roy ambled in the direction of his Hyundai Tucson. He thought that the poet could be suspicious of his help . . . open the box flaps. Wait a minute! You there!
Roy started his car, peeked once in the direction of the poet holding court by the Audi and drove away from the faculty lot. Fiona, who was still a graduate student and teaching composition classes, wouldn’t be home for another couple of hours. He made a bourbon and water, placed A Green Bough on his desk. A lovely book of poems. He wanted to chide the poet for having such a wonderful edition amongst his office books. Some people. Roy went to eBay to see what type of money this edition might fetch. Close to $1,200. It turned out this was the final collection of poetry published by Faulkner during his lifetime.
By the time Fiona arrived at their apartment, he’d hidden the book in a drawer, under a manuscript he’d written years ago. Fiona had, at best, a cursory interest in his writing. A Green Bough would remain his secret. Roy mentioned that today was the poet’s last day, and he’d even carried a box down the car for him. More than once, she had already apologized for sleeping with the poet, said it was due to her colossal insecurity. Roy and Fiona had dinner at their kitchen table, and he picked at dried-out barbecue chicken she’d brought from Whole Foods. He asked why she hadn’t stopped by to see off the poet. She’d already said goodbye, that was her response. He could see he shouldn’t say anything else about it. Roy had been hoping to impress her with his equanimity.
He didn’t come across the book he’d swiped for another year and a half. He still lived in the same apartment, though Fiona had left. After she completed her master’s, she was offered a job at a small college in Kentucky, and she wanted to head off for there by herself. He’d felt happy with her, and when they split, she said they should be grateful for the time they had together. Before she moved out, Roy asked her if she still had feelings for the poet. She said the poet had opened her eyes, but she wasn’t in love with him any more than he was in love with her. “Don’t blame him!” she’d said. “I just want more than this.” Roy wanted to respond that the poet had once referred to him as “a great man.” But the poet had probably said that because Roy hadn’t punched his lights out.
Roy adored Fiona, her gray-green eyes, the way she danced around the apartment to Tame Impala or rapped along with Megan Thee Stallion. He liked waking up with her and especially when he awakened to find their limbs intertwined. He took delight in the sound of her voice. Life in the apartment hadn’t been the same since she left.
At the college, the poet had been replaced by a professor who primarily focused on the intersection of narratology and game studies. A short man with a neatly trimmed beard, a man who instead of a first name, preferred to be referred to by a letter (L). Not long after L joined the faculty, his wife had a baby and subsequently L would duck out of a meeting or cancel a class because of “the baby.” Roy supposed there might be something seriously awry with the baby, though when L’s wife, Ginni came by the office, she would have the baby in her arms or in one of those backpack carriers and the baby would be laughing and drooling like babies did. Obviously, L would rather be home with his wife and child as opposed to sitting in a room listening to a dean talk about dropping enrollment rates. L seemed a minor talent if that. Roy didn’t dislike him.
Roy came upon the purloined Faulkner edition because of a notion he had about his own manuscript. It was time to look through it again. Who knew, it might read now like a dream. He might’ve been too hard on himself in a previous evaluation. It always took courage to read it. He had to use both hands to lift out the huge stack of pages and, below it, he spotted A Green Bough. He eased the stack of manuscript pages on the corner of the desk and reached for the book. He brought his fingers across the cloth cover.
He sat at his desk and turned the pages of the snatched edition. Outside the window, in the front yard of his apartment complex, were the pair of century-old black cherry trees. Their autumn leaves sparkled with ruby and gold. He tried to picture his life ten years in the future. Would he be in the same apartment, doing the same job? Twenty years? By then, would he have dumped that god-awful manuscript in the garbage? He didn’t want to live a life filled with regrets. Like A Green Bough. This wasn’t his book. Bitterness had gotten the better of him there.
The poet’s university was two states away, a morning’s drive from here, four hours maybe, if I-81 stayed clear. If Roy returned the book to him, how would that go exactly? Would he just tap on the door of the poet’s office, step inside and explain himself? I took this book from you. I didn’t mean to, I guess. But maybe I did mean to. Would the poet make a fuss? Turn angry? Or would the poet mostly be relieved? Would the poet surprisingly concede that he was an asshole, and consequently things like this were bound to happen? It was difficult to imagine what the poet would say because the poet was so capable with words. This was true when he’d been at Roy’s college. People had looked forward to the things he said, the way he expressed himself. They’d held onto his words.
Roy certainly didn’t want it getting around that he’d pinched the book. If he told the poet the story, the poet, who had left behind fans at Roy’s school, might spread it around. The chair might catch wind—could Roy be fired for this? He immediately understood it was possible. Again, on the corner of the desk, he eyed his own manuscript. The chair wouldn’t attempt to save him. Roy could mail A Green Bough to the poet. He could write a note, make up a lie about how it had come into his possession . . .
Lame, all of it. Default settings: pettiness, mediocrity. Wasn’t it time to break loose? It struck him that only thing to do would be to return A Green Bough in person. But did he need to speak the truth about how the book had come into his possession? What would Roy do if he were to be fired? Move back to Saginaw, scratch and claw for a living? Should he just stick around in his college’s town, try to hang on to his apartment, put on a green apron at Whole Foods?
How would the poet react? Roy kept coming back to this. He had a collection by the poet somewhere in this apartment. When the poet had first arrived at Roy’s college, there had a reading in his honor. Roy and Fiona attended that together as one of their first dates. Afterward, they’d each bought a book, the poet’s most recent collection, and stood in line for him to sign it. When it was their turn, the poet reached up to shake hands with Fiona. He said his first name after she said hers. When Roy said his name, the poet said, “Yes. Hello.”
Roy located the poet’s collection after searching his apartment. He skimmed the pages. Some of the poems were about growing up in rural Indiana. There were a couple about his grandfather who had Alzheimer’s. One had to do with losing his virginity to a middle-aged librarian and then to celebrate pan-broiled sunfish filets for her, but he got preoccupied with thoughts about what had just happened to him, he burned the fish and they wound up eating dry Lucky Charms from the box. This was not a vindictive person. This was not a person who would aim to get Roy fired. Out in the world, the poet seemed careless and spoiled. But the person who authored these poems had a heart.
Roy made the drive to the poet’s university on a sunny and chilly Thursday morning, a day when he had no classes to teach. He started south on I-81. The poet would be keeping office hours from 2-4 in the afternoon. Roy had checked on that with the university’s English Department. He’d hung up without saying why he wanted to know or who he was. The project made him feel strange and he still wasn’t certain as to what he would say to the poet. He listened to a jazz station on his Sirius radio. Life felt different to him on the drive. This was the whole point. Something else could happen, he needed to get booted from the path he’d found himself on. His parents had been factory workers, the last of the line at TRW Automotive. They lived in a modest, wood-frame house on East Genesee Avenue. They hadn’t turned into any thieves. He wanted to be the type of man who could correct a mistake. He drove on 81 through western Maryland, down to northern Virginia. Traffic was clotted, but he had given himself plenty of time. No doubt, he wouldn’t be back to his own apartment until after dark.
His used the Waze app on his phone for directions to the university, and then a school map to locate the English Building. The campus featured colonial-style buildings with terracotta roofs, lawns turned olive by autumn. Near the library, he discovered a parking lot for visitors. Once he’d switched off the engine, he remained behind the wheel. It was still a few minutes before two. He reached for the padded envelope riding in the passenger seat and pushed out of the car.
He pulled on his corduroy jacket and then carried the padded envelope at his side. The poet’s office was on the second floor. 263. Roy made a turn down a hallway in the direction of where he believed the poet’s office to be and there stood the poet in the hall, with his head bowed next to a tall, skinny male student in dreadlocks. Roy came to a stop. Classes must’ve just let out because a stream of students funneled past him. He shuffled closer to a section of the wall. The poet noticed him then, gave a nod. Then, he looked in Roy’s direction again, frowning. Roy smiled in a helpless way. The poet said Roy’s name and then held up his index finger. The student continued speaking, but he could see the poet had business. “Yes,” the poet said. “That’ll be fine.”
“Thank you,” the student said,
The poet turned in Roy’s direction and let his shoulders drop. “What on earth?” he said. He put out his hand and Roy reached forward to shake with him. “Are you here to see me?”
“Well, goodness . . . I’m right here.” He gestured to an open office doorway. He waited for Roy to step inside and after he did this, Roy wondered if the poet would close the door after them. He did not.
“Here,” Roy said, holding out the envelope as the poet passed by on his way to the desk. The poet, who must have been confused to some degree at least, opened the envelope while still on his feet.
“I don’t believe it,” the poet said. He held A Green Bough in one hand, had the envelope in the other.
“I wanted to return this to you,” Roy said. “It’s been in my possession . . .”
“Thought this was long gone,” the poet said. “Thank you, that’s very good of you . . . can’t believe this, actually. You don’t have any other business here?”
“How are you?’ Roy said. “How’re they treating you?”
The poet laughed softly. “It’s okay.” He placed the book on his desk. “You know how it is.”
Roy hoped he knew what the poet meant. Anyway, he said, “I do.”
The poet tapped at the cover of the book a couple of times. “I bought this in a bookstore in Montreal. I had to have it, spent every buck I had. Then . . .” He turned to Roy at this. In this moment, it seemed as if the poet were about to ask for an explanation. The poet might believe it had something to do with Fiona. That Fiona had pilfered the book and Roy was covering for her now. He said, “I’m trying to figure out when I last saw this.” His expression didn’t appear unkind.
Roy said, “It’s a beautiful book. I would have done the same thing. If I’d seen it . . . in Montreal.”
“Yes. So unusual,” the poet said. “Would you like a cup of coffee before you head back? We have a lounge area.”
“No,” Roy said, right away.
“I guess we never know . . . we up wake one day, and we think we know what will happen in that day, but we don’t know. Such a thoughtful gesture, I suppose . . .”
“It was a nice morning to drive,” Roy said. “I like Maryland . . . and Virginia.” In the next instant Roy wanted to say something about Fiona. That she had moved out earlier this spring and was working in Kentucky now. It was never going to work out between Roy and Fiona, but if the poet had left her alone maybe she would have stayed the summer, anyway.
“Yes,” the poet said.
“I’m going to head back,” Roy said. He found himself swallowing.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” Roy backed up a step. They didn’t have to shake hands again.
“Everything all right, Roy?” the poet said. He could sense there was more to it.
“Fuck you,” Roy said, his voice just above a murmur.
In a voice as quiet as Roy’s, the poet said, “Fuck you, too.”
Roy stayed in place for another moment. He departed the office. Hands in his pockets, he walked purposefully up the hallway. Outside the building, he glanced around, hoping to recall the lot where he’d parked his car. He felt adrenaline eeling down his back and shoulders. Overall, it had gone all right. Now, his mind was a bit crazy and wanted to get away from there as fast as possible.
On the clogged highway again, Roy had an image of the poet in his office turning the pages of the returned book. Trying to decipher exactly what Roy’s visit was all about. Was Roy covering for a deed done by Fiona, the spurned lover of the poet who in search of a memento had decided to steal a treasured book of his? Or, in the scuffle and shuffle of moving, had the poet himself somehow misplaced the book and through a series of events Roy had not only discovered the book but knew who its owner happened to be and out of his profound respect had driven all this way? Or, out of nothing more than spite, had Roy stolen the book and eventually come to regret his actions?
It seemed probable to Roy that the poet would land on the truth.
And now what would happen? Who would the poet tell the story to? Would he be upset at the chain of events that brought A Green Bough back to him? Demand an investigation? If the poet contacted Roy’s English Department would the chair have to pursue action? If so, would Roy confess? Resign? Roy tried to imagine a different life for himself . . . hello, Amazon warehouse worker! Have gave a quick salute to the horizon.
He could work at an Amazon warehouse, live ironically, at the far end of what he’d once dreamt for himself. What was likely to happen, that’s what he wanted to know. The poet, glad to have his book back, wouldn’t say a word about it. Everyone had already moved on. The poet would conclude that Roy was a sad, desperate, bitter man. This even though Roy had driven two states over to return a book. If only Roy hadn’t said, Fuck you. But he understood he’d made the trip so that he could say it. The color of the sky began to change as the sun sank for the western horizon. He reminded himself not to be impatient, that he would be back in his apartment soon enough. In the morning, it wouldn’t take long to prepare for his classes. He was using the same syllabus he had the previous fall.
When the traffic finally loosened, he began to feel hungry, ravenously so. Could he claim at least that today had been a step in getting on with his life? At the very least, he deserved better than fast food, yes? While going just over the speed limit, he managed to do a search on his phone. Hagerstown loomed just ahead, and he found the name of a diner there, on Eastern Boulevard. Incredible Eggs.
Inside, it turned out to be a something of a hipster joint. Young people, opened laptops, music by Arcade Fire. A waitress who might have been the age of either of his parents brought him a laminated menu. She poured him a cup of coffee. “What’s the most expensive thing you have?” he said.
“Crab cakes,” she said. “Twenty-six ninety-five, without the sides.”
“I guess what I mean is I’m really hungry.”
“We have the Big Bad Salad.”
“A lot of food?”
“You’ll be here till midnight. Twelve ninety-five.”
“I’ll go for that.”
“Want me to tell you what’s in it?” she said.
“It’ll be fine,” Roy said, holding the menu over to her. “Bleu cheese dressing, on the side.” After she walked off, he turned to the window and watched the traffic out on the street. It was dusk by then and the sky had turned the color of ripe plums. The poet had said, Fuck you, too. He had that ready. He’d seen right through Roy.
Roy wondered about the next drive he’d take—would it be down to Kentucky to surprise Fiona? It would be terrific to see her, but that wouldn’t go well, far worse than this had. It didn’t take a minute for him to understand that. The relationship felt more over than ever. For Thanksgiving, he might make the eight-hour drive for Saginaw through Youngstown, Akron, Toledo, Detroit, Flint. He’d nicknamed the drive from his college town to his hometown “The Rust Belt Limited.” He and his parents would watch the Lions game on TV with the aroma of his mother’s cornbread and sausage stuffing in the oven. The Lions would sometimes luck into winning one.
The waitress brought his dinner, which paused these images. The salad came in a big white bowl. A mound of lettuce, two whole boiled eggs, red onions, tuna fish, feta cheese, spinach, chicken, pine nuts, watercress. “Why, I will be here all night,” he said, in a good-natured way.
“Enjoy,” she said and slid the bill near the saucer that held his coffee cup, then stepped in the direction of another occupied table. After he unwrapped his silverware from the paper napkin, he saw the knife and spoon had water spots. On one of the fork tines, there seemed to be a bit of crusted something. He didn’t need to bother the waitress. For a moment, he scraped at it with his thumbnail. Then, he began to eat.
Andrew Plattner lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Earlier this year, Mercer University Press released his story collection, Tower. He has published stories of late in New World Writing Quarterly, October Hill Magazine, Litbreak, Sortes Magazine and The Spotlong Review. He has taught fiction writing at the University of So. Mississippi, Emory University, University of Tampa and Kennesaw State University.