The Poet Ray Brown
by John Yohe
Billy Kidder read the poet Ray Brown for the first time in his first-year creative writing class at Michigan State University. His teacher made everybody do a presentation on a famous contemporary poet, and gave the class a list of names to choose from. Billy chose Brown by chance, then went to the Barnes & Noble on Grand River Ave., in what pretended to be a downtown of East Lansing but was really a three block section of street across from the university. The poetry section had three of Brown’s books of poetry: Streets of Cruelty and Shame, Grey Sky Forgetting, and Children of Rust Belt. Billy chose Streets of Cruelty and Shame and opened it randomly to the poem “and you too” and at first was confused because it didn’t seem like poetry, or not like the poetry that he’d had to read in his high school english books, which amounted basically to Edgar Allen Poe. First of all, this poem didn’t rhyme. And, it was funny, about the poet getting in an argument with a “whore” who lived in the apartment above him.Billy looked at the cover again, to double-check. A poem about whores? He checked the back cover, with a black and white photo of Brown, a middle-aged african-american man standing next to an old boxcar, looking cold and miserable. He read the short bio at the bottom, and learned that Brown was from Michigan, from Jackson, the city half an hour south of East Lansing.
He bought the book, and went over to the Espresso Royale café a block east, where he bought a coffee and sat down to read. The next poem he flipped to randomly was a conversation between two guys who worked at a factory, about a third guy’s wife who they had both slept with. Again, funny. Though also sad somehow. Or that’s how Billy felt, but he wasn’t sure that’s what a person was supposed to feel about poetry. That is, he’d been expecting that, since it was poetry, he wouldn’t understand it. That was what made poetry good, right? Or if it rhymed and had ravens in it. And yet, he also felt like there was something that he wasn’t understanding about the poem. Something lurking in the background.
For his class presentation, he brought in copies of the whore poem for everybody, and said something about how important Brown was because he was from Michigan and worked in factories and represented that life. But when Billy’s creative writing teacher asked the class if there were any questions, Billy was surprised to find out that people hated the poem. Not like he hated Poe, like about how boring Poe was and therefore he hated having to read him, but like Brown was a real person. One girl said Brown sounded like an asshole. A boy tried to sneer (though really he was too young to truly know how) and say that this wasn’t poetry. Another girl said it was racist for Brown, a black man, to write about a white woman like that, to which a black boy on the other side of the room asked, what’s wrong with a black man fucking a white woman? The girl, surprised that no everyone felt exactly the same way she did, didn’t know what to say, and almost started to cry, and their teacher interrupted, thanking Billy and asking who’s presentation was next.
Rick Cassidy’s first Brown book was Factory Blues, the first book Brown ever published. He found it used in an independent bookstore in Toronto in his third year of university. What Rick liked about Brown’s (and this was true mainly only of that first book, but also of Grey Sky Forgetting, his second book, a little too) was the mix of gritty realness (cold miserable city streets, the suffocating old efficiency apartments, the dirty melting snow) juxtaposed with the strange images of animals of animals like tigers and Kodo dragons that appeared, with violence, out of sewers and refrigerators. Plus the poems about beautiful women.
Rick had studied biology at university, but also semi-secretly wrote poetry, even before he’d discovered Brown, and when he graduated, as a treat to himself, he decided to enter into one of the multiple Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs in the United States, to give himself two years to devote to poetry. The fact that Brown, his favorite poet, had never gone to college, and wrote poetry without having devoted himself to it for two years at the master’s level didn’t really seem ironic to Rick. The only way he could do it would be to obtain a TA-ship to cover all expenses, and of the places he applied, in New York and Michigan, only Western Michigan University offered a good stipend along with free tuition. He accepted without even visiting the campus, intrigued by the city name, Kalamazoo, where WMU was located, and leaving things up to fate. His choice of Western was also made in part by it’s nearness to Jackson, where Brown continued to live and write. Though he didn’t say it to anybody, he secretly thought that maybe he would be able to meet Brown in person and show him his poems, which he felt sure Brown would like.
Guadalupe Rodríguez Ochera, Lupe for short, grew up in an affluent neighborhood of the Districto Federal (el DF) which is also called la Ciudad Mexico, or in english, Mexico City. Her father was a successful businessman, the owner of a fleet of trucks, whose business boomed with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He also owned a house in San Diego, where he made sure that his three children (Lupe had two older brothers) spent plenty of time, so they could learn english and prepare themselves for moving into the family business, though with Lupe, his not so unobvious goal was to marry her off to a well-connected american.
Of course Lupe, and to a lesser extent her brothers, rebelled against her father’s plans for her by hanging out with the most horrifying groups of people her father could imagine: creative liberals. In San Diego she made friends with tragic goth girls who wore lots of black despite the fact that the sun shone almost every day (Lupe had the advantage of not having to dye her hair black). But in Mexico City, where she spent most of her time, she liked to hang out with the older college kids, or the college dropouts, and smoke lots of mota and talk about painting and poetry and writing and independent film from all over the world.
Lupe herself wasn’t a poet. She liked to paint, and also dabbled with creative graphic design, and if she didn’t spend so much time talking in smoky university cafes she might have been more productive. But product wasn’t the point. She liked the creative process, which was just as fun as anything else, so if anything was going on, she was just as likely to be doing that.
Lupe discovered Brown through her older guy friends, the poets, who raved about him as the new black Kerouac, though she wasn’t really clear on what that meant at first. Brown, they claimed, spoke for the real America, for the workers, the proletariat, instead of the canned capitalist America forced down the throats of the world through Hollywood movies and tv shows. Things got kind of deep with the pot-smoking mexican poets and she wasn’t sure about it all exactly, but she liked when guys got passionate about things, that’s where they’re most interesting and attractive. She borrowed a copy of Streets of Cruelty and Shame (Calles de crueldad y verguénza) to see what was so interesting. The translator was actually spanish, the book published by a Spanish publishing company, so the spanish was a little different, like when Brown would call women tías instead of chavas, but Lupe decided that added to the humor.
Brown appealed to Lupe in part because (like her friends had said) he did reject upper class people, the owners of the factories, the landlords, the rich people eating in nice restaurants while los pobres walked by outside in the cold. But she also liked Brown’s celebratory attitude, of finding beauty in the ugliness of being poor. Lupe liked the idea of the poor life being beautiful, which tied in with rejecting her father, and her father’s world.
Lupe didn’t choose to go to the University of Michigan because Ann Arbor was nearby Jackson. She didn’t get to choose at all really. Her father just wanted all his children to go to good american schools. Her oldest brother had gone to the University of California, Berkeley, and her other brother to the University of Texas, Austin. Both of the brothers majored in International Business. Lupe was only allowed to major in something ‘practical.’ Which meant no art. The only interesting thing she could convince her father to let her major in was english, by arguing that english was the international business language and a valuable skill to have in the globalization of business markets.
Lupe was surprised to discover that none of her fellow english majors even knew who Brown was. When she asked her professor of Contemporary American Literature about him, he rolled his eyes and started to talk about Thomas Pynchon and the postmodern american novel. Not even in her African-American Literature class did they discuss him, mostly because la profesora seemed to prefer female authors like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.
Gabrielle du Mont actually preferred Brown’s prose to his poetry. Or rather, his short prose. She felt that he would eventually be thought of as one of the most incredible short story writers on the early twenty-first century. She also liked his collection of ‘essays’ or ‘articles’ (if they could really be called that, since some were fiction (she hoped) which she liked to call ‘structured rants’ that he’d written for a weekly magazine out of Detroit called the Jam Rag. But it was his first collection of short stories, Break The Glass With Your Fists, that had made her fall in love with him, especially the first, and maybe most traditionally written, story, an autobiographical story about a black factory worker who falls in love with a white alcoholic divorcée coworker.
Though there weren’t many black men in Quebec City, Gabrielle had been attracted to black men all her life, and her interest in Brown’s work was how the lives of black men and white women intersected, both sexually and romantically, and even politically, and she felt that only in american literature could this subject really come up and be spoken about, though learning about his lack of popularity in his own country made her second guess that idea.
Again, Gabrielle hadn’t planned on coming to grad school in Michigan because she would be close to Brown. It was that she planned on becoming a public school teacher and wanted to supplement her Canadian teaching degree with a Master’s in Children’s Literature, which was only available in the US, because the US is weird and non-traditional that way, at least as long as there are upper middle-class people who actually want to study Children’s Lit. And one of the only Children’s Lit programs in the country was at Eastern Michigan University, which is the ugly little sister of the University of Michigan, just east of Ann Arbor in Ypsilanti.
Rick realized his mistake soon after coming to Kalamazoo: that there just wasn’t much to do. He lived in an apartment in the student ghetto east of campus, which was somewhat more safer than Gabrielle’s in Ypsilanti, but far from any cultural center, though then he realized that Kalamazoo didn’t have a cultural center. Like Gabrielle, he was used to hanging out with friends in quieter taverns or cafes over pints of beer (at night) or coffee (in the afternoon) but Kalamazoo basically consists of isolated strip malls on corners, some of which might have a bar or two, or a take out chinese restaurant. Undergrads living off-campus tended to fill this gap by playing a drinking game called beer-pong out on the front lawns of the house they were renting, while playing loud rock and rap music.
For how small Kalamazoo was compared to Toronto, Rick found it amazing how spread out everything was. For example, he had to head to a Barnes & Noble by an I-94 exit in order to buy a book, but then go downtown if he wanted to hang out at Club Soda for live music. And since he didn’t have a car, and busses in American just don’t run as well or conveniently as they do in Toronto, he did a lot of walking. Which was fine, except he was the only one that seemed to be doing it off of campus. But it was fall, the air cool but not cold, the leaves starting to change. He always carried a notebook, since he found poems tended to come to him when he walked.
At the time that Billy started his Ray Brown fan club group on FaceBook, he was twenty, in his sophomore year. When she joined that next year, Gabrielle was twenty-four, in the first year of graduate school. Rick was also in the first year of his MFA Program and also twenty-four. Lupe, the youngest, was nineteen. Although Billy had a group of ‘real life’ friends, the others were foreigners and new, using FaceBook to make connections, though Billy, as the only american, had been on Facebook ever since high school. None of them had known about each other, or had met online before joining the fan club group. They each tended only to browse people in their own cities, though of course the girls got invitations to be what are called ‘friends’ from guys all over the state, and even the country.
Lupe liked to go out every weekend (which in Ann Arbor starts on Thursday) to bars like The Red Hook and Ashley’s, or for music, clubs like The Eight Ball and The Blind Pig. Gabrielle tended to stay in her apartment making notations in the margins of Harry Potter books, not because she wasn’t unsocial (in fact as a quebecoise she prided herself on her european culture of sitting in cafes and smoking and actually talking with people) but because around her one bedroom apartment on Washtenaw, west of campus, the only culture was a couple of take-out pizza places, and a Starbucks about a mile away in front of a strip mall. There was a downtown Ypsilanti, on Michigan, about two blocks long, with one cafe and four bars, filled with drunk undergrads, but she’d been advised by other GAs at EMU never to walk over there, that she risked being shot, stabbed, mugged, or worse. Which was true, but it was also too bad because on some nights there was jazz and blues music, and black men.
Rick did use FaceBook, but as a guy, he didn’t get invitations and he was kind of shy anyways, and at twenty-four he was starting to feel a little old for online social networking. Lupe accepted every invitation she got. To Lupe, FaceBook was just another extension of her social life at U of M. The more friends the better, and she’d already known people online before she even got to Ann Arbor, so that she already had invitations to parties her first weekend there. Gabrielle didn’t accept any invitations. She would never have admitted to her fellow EMU GAs that she was even on FaceBook, since it seemed to her a place where people who didn’t have any real friends could go and pretend they did. The problem was, she didn’t have any real friends, at least not there, and there are only so many quiet nights home alone with The Golden Compass Trilogy that a girl can take. She thought putting herself ‘out there’ (where ever ‘there’ was) and looking at other people’s pages, would give her a sense of being social. But it didn’t really. Sometimes she thought being online made her feel more lonesome. But then she’d think that the next invitation to be ‘friends’ would be from that someone special she’d been expecting. But no, it would be a middle-aged married guy from Toledo.
When Billy started the Ray Brown Fan Club Group on FaceBook, he was surprised at how active it became, and stayed, with people from all over the country, even other countries. Especially other countries. In fact, Brown seemed more popular on the two coasts, and in Europe, than he seemed to be in Michigan. Some of the more popular post topics for the group had titles like “Favorite Poem and Why”, “Favorite Lines”, “Brown’s favorite authors” and “Who should I read next?” Billy also started a Michigan Fan Club post, where the four of them first started getting to know each other.
The group had been up and running for over a year before Rick finally joined in the beginning of October, followed by Gabrielle and Lupe. Once the girls joined and began posting, both Rick and Billy started to post more, though truly everyone did want to talk about Brown, his poetry, his stories, even his novel, RUST, set in his home town of Jackson, Michigan, about a young white boy named Danny. Though never a best-seller, it had an underground reputation, Like some of his shorter work,, there was no resolution, nor was the book even linear. Most people on that thread agreed they loved it, but they also agreed that it wasn’t his best work, nor very accessible to the general public, though there were some diehards, especially from France and Germany, who thought it was the best thing he’d ever done. Lupe put it best in a post: Our expectations of wanting a resolution is the point. The lives of people in a mid-western rust belt cities don’t really connect. Everyone feels separated from everyone else. Life is ambiguous and non-linear.
Because he had the time, and the place to do it, Rick decided to see if he could get his department to host Brown at WMU. And, because students rarely show the initiative about anything like that, the director of the MFA program gave him a budget of three hundred dollars and said if Rick would do all the organizing, he was more than ok to do it. The only catch being it had to be in December at the end of the semester, because the program had already organized other poetry readings in the preceding months (including two poets from U of M, one from Central Michigan University, and one from MSU).
Rick got online to find Brown’s publisher’s website, which was an independent company called Black Crow Press out of Cleveland, run by the editor/publisher Martin Birch. The website just had one page, with no links, listing the various writers they had published, who Rick had never heard of, with Brown’s name at the top and an excerpt from a magazine review talking about Black Crow’s philosophy of publishing (which could be looked at as ‘we basically have no plans to ever make any money doing this’). At the bottom of the page was the mailing address, which actually was the same one at the front pages of Brown’s books. So Rick wrote out a short letter explaining that he wanted to host Brown at Western and asking how he could get in touch with Brown. At the beginning of November he got a letter back from the publisher stating Brown’s reading fee, which was $500, and if Rick could come up with that, to send Birch the date, time and place, and have the check waiting.
Rick quickly had to beg $200 more dollars from the department, which the director approved only if Rick could promise him that Brown would attend a party at the director’s house afterwards, since the director was having some poet friends and he thought it would be interesting (and a feather in his cap) to have a meeting of the minds. Rick wasn’t sure he could do that, but lied and said yes, and sent Birch back a letter saying ok, and giving all the info, then sat worrying whether the event would actually happen or not, not receiving back a reply break that Brown would be there until just before Thanksgiving.
Rick informed his Facebook clan in a new topic thread, and invited them over for the reading, and of course they all said they would come. Gabrielle and Lupe decided to go together by bus until Billy wrote, horrified, that in America, busses are for crazy poor people and that he would drive down to Ann Arbor and pick them up.
The two girls were already real life friends by then. When she had seen that Gabrielle was from Ypsilanti, Lupe PMed her, inviting her out with some friends, and though they were all younger than her, Gabrielle appreciated the opportunity to get out of explore Ann Arbor, which was really only five miles away by bus, but ended up seeming like a different country to people in Ypsilanti.
Gabrielle had taken to coming over to Ann Arbor on Saturdays and Sundays, and sometimes on Fridays, to study in a cafe downtown, Espresso Royale, just so she could not go crazy in her apartment and get out and be around people talking and interacting and studying. Even if she wasn’t exactly doing anything with them, it made her feel at least somewhat social, somewhat human. So at least once a week Lupe would find her in the cafe with all her books and drag her out for drinks.
On the day they went to Kalamazoo, Billy picked them up in his old Ford Escort, after a little confusion about how to find Lupe’s apartment once he got in town, because Ann Arbor is basically almost all one way streets, except not in a grid system kind of way, just all over the place, and neither of the girls really knew the town beyond the major streets, and even then only by pedestrian-friendly landmarks.
The reading ended up being on Friday night, a horrible night to have a poetry reading on a university, because most of the students who might have drifted in out of curiosity and/or boredom were either gone for the weekend, or full-on into a night of drinking and in no way interested in coming back to campus for an event. It was also maybe in the worst place to have a poetry reading: the blackbox Gilmore Theatre, which Rick requested because it held more people than a room at Waldo Library. But the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra was playing next door in the Miller Auditorium, so there were people in tuxes and black dresses everywhere, staring down their noses at the college kids in jeans and t-shirts.
The three of them met Rick early for dinner at a Bilbo’s Pizza and found him to be a nervous wreck. He hadn’t received any word that Brown would actually show, though he’d already reserved the hall, spent the department’s money on flyers, put ads in the local papers, even had the check for $500 ready, and his professor was expecting everybody to come to a party later. The only thought that made him feel good was when Gabrielle congratulated him on what a great organizer he was. Anything a man can do to get a woman to smile at him is worth it. And Gabrielle was more attractive than her FaceBook picture.
Rick wasn’t even sure he would recognize Brown, since all his books featured the same photo (Brown cold and miserable in front of the boxcar) which had to have been years old, until Gabrielle pointed out that, at a college poetry reading in Michigan, Brown would probably be the only black man in the room. To which they all nodded.
The crowd in the hall was more than Rick had feared it would be. A couple of Rick’s professors were there, the Director of the Program, as well as the Chair of the English Department, with his wife and his two guest poets and their spouses. Some curious MFAers, and at least a dozen undergrads, dressed in army surplus clothes and reeking of pot. Plus also three well-dressed black students, a boy and two girls, looking a little uncomfortable. So overall, a good crowd.
There was a table on the stage, with a mic and three bottles of water. The reading was supposed to started at seven, but by seven there was no Brown and Rick started to sweat. —Jesus I need a beer.
Billy opened his backpack and showed him the six-pack of Bud he had stashed inside. —I was going to give this to Brown, but maybe you could have one.
Rick tore off a can, ducked behind a column, and downed it. Just then there was commotion at the double doors leading into the hall.
—I’m here! I’m here! Where’s Dick at? I need Dick! Hey, that’s a good one. I need Dick!
Brown still looked exactly like his book photo. Tall, wide, with a big beer belly, only slightly balding and with more than a touch of grey hair. He was holding an old beat up backpack in one hand, and had his other arm around a younger black woman in a tight black dress and high heels, looking incredibly bored already.
All heads turned around to look at them and they stopped. Brown looked around the room. —God damn, is this a KKK meeting? I thought I was coming to a poetry reading. Who’s got the noose?
There were whispers and mutterings from the adults and giggles from some of the undergrads. Rick ran back —Mr. Brown, hello, welcome.
—Are you Dick?
—Rick. Rick Cassidy.
Brown smiled even wider. —Rick. My man.
Brown held out his hand and Rick shook it, smiling. —Welcome Mr. Brown.
—Mister? Man, just call me Ray.
—Ok Ray. We’re um, all ready for you.
—Aw shit. Here we go. Where’s my check?
—Um, it’s right here.
—Let’s see it.
Rick took the envelope out of his back pocket and held it out to him, hearing the people in the room talking louder and laughing. Brown grabbed the envelope, opened it, looked at the check, then smiled at Rick. —Alright Rick my man. Let’s get the crucifixion underway.
As they walked to the front of the hall, Brown looked around some more and did a double-take on the three young black people. —Oh shit, there is some black folks here. How you doing? I didn’t recognize you at first, you all dressed up like white folk.
The black kids stared at him, silent, with deer-in-the-headlights eyes. He shrugged and kept walking.
Ray dropped off his girlfriend (or whatever she was) in the front row next to Lupe, Billy and Gabrielle, and walked up to the table. From his other pocket, Rick produced an introduction he had written and unfolded it. Brown saw it and waved his hand. —Aw man, you’re kidding me. Let’s just start the blood-letting and get it over with. Either they know who I am or who gives a fuck.
Gasps from the audience.
Rick, red-faced by then, kind of stepped to the side of the stage. —Ok, um, ladies and gentlemen, Ray Brown!
All the younger people clapped and yelled. Billy whistled and Lupe did the high-pitched mexican ay-ay-ay thing that can’t be described with words.
Brown sat in the chair, hands on the table, looking out at the audience, though the lights had been dimmed. —Alright motherfuckers, I’ve come from Jackson to put Kalamazoo on the map!
The kids laughed and clapped again. The poet guests of the director had started giving him sidelong looks, while he sat in his chair, rigid. From his backpack, Brown took out a few of his books, tossing them on the table. He had started to sweat. —Goddamn I need a drink.
He looked at the bottles of water, then down at Rick, who had taken a seat next to Gabrielle. —Rick my man. Is that actually water in those bottles?
—Um, yeah? Sorry.
Brown sighed, and looked at the bottles again. —Oh fuck. This is going to be a long night.
Suddenly, from the back, somebody yelled, —Read a fucking poem already!
Brown peered into the darkness, trying to find the person. —Finally, an honest person. Rare in the world of poetry. Ok, this one’s for you motherfucker.
He grabbed his latest book, Winter Madness, and seemingly at random, opened it and started reading his poem, “black pussy white pussy” (96).
By the end, the director of the MFA program was pale, the Chair’s face crimson, and his guests and their spouses silent, though actually Rick’s poetry workshop professor and some others had laughed halfway through. The three african-american kids got up and started to leave.
Brown wiped some sweat from his forehead and looked at them. —What’s the matter? Not black enough for you? Should I announce that I’m converting to Islam and changing my name to Amiri Farrakhan or something?
The kids said nothing and hurried out. He set his book down. —Fuck I need a beer.
Billy reached into his backpack and tore off one of the cans of Bud, holding it up. Brown saw it and smiled —My man. Toss that motherfucker up here.
Billy threw it and Brown caught it, cracking it open immediately and taking a long swig.
The Chair of the Department stood up. —Mr. Brown, there are no alcoholic beverages allowed in the hall!
Brown looked at him while sucking down the rest of the beer. When he was done, he crushed the can and threw it on the floor. —Shut the fuck up motherfucker. Have a drink. Kid, you got anymore tasty beverages in that there backpack of yours?
The Chair remained standing. —Mr. Brown, I’m serious, we can’t allow the drinking of alcoholic beverages!
—Man, fuck you.
—Mr. Brown, I’m the Chair of the English Department here. I’m serious.
—The what? The Chair? Well, I’m the couch, motherfucker!
The undergrads cheered. Someone in back started to chant, —Let him drink! Let him drink!
Billy took out the other four cans and put them up on the table. Brown grabbed another can and cracked it open. The director looked around at what was becoming a mob and his wife pulled him back down in his seat, where they whispered to each other, arguing.
Brown re-opened Winter Madness and read two poems, one right after the other. The first was “against the clock” (10) which ends with his floor supervisor at the factory getting drunk and admitting he is gay, which some people laughed at, though Brown didn’t smile, and the second was actually a poem about a girlfriend who “had the best legs he’d ever known” (13) dying in the hospital, coughing up blood. The room became silent after that. Brown opened up another beer.
Someone from the back, a girl actually, yelled out, —Read one of your whore poems!
Brown flipped through his book. —That was one of my whore poems.
—Read one of the funny ones!
—None of my poems are funny, bitch.
The crowd laughed. He grabbed Streets of Cruelty and Shame and started thumbing through it. Lupe took out a bottle from her purse and put it up on the table. Brown looked at it, then at her. —What’s this?
—Un regalo para tí! It’s tequila!
—Tequila! Oh shit. What kind?
—Oh fuck girl, you’re trying to kill me. Where you from? You sure ain’t from Michigan.
—Mexico? I’ve never had mexican pussy before.
There were some gasps, but Lupe laughed. —Best you’ll ever have!
Everybody roared. Or, most everybody. Two more people, and older couple, got up and left. Brown grinned, opening the bottle of Patrón. He smelled it, making a face. —Goddamn!
Then he upended it, taking three big swallows. Even Lupe gasped. Brown sat back, tequila dribbling down his chin, coughing. —Oh fuck!
The Chair stood up again. —Ok, that’s it! Mr. Brown, please. That is not allowed, and I can’t have you talking to people that way.
People started to boo, though it wasn’t clear at who. Some more bodies were getting up to leave. Gabrielle turned around and yelled at the director, —Let him read! Who cares!
An empty bottle of beer flew out of the darkness and landed on the stage, miraculously not breaking. Brown, tequila in hand, thumbed through to another page. —I’m gonna read another goddamn poem you fucking white motherfuckers. Not because you deserve it, but because it’s true.
He started into “freeway commute fantasy” (73), one of Rick’s favorites actually, but only got about halfway through before the Chair and his wife got up and left, though their guests actually stayed. A half-empty bottle of Mountain Dew came sailing up on the stage. Brown went on to another poem, sweating and sucking the tequila between stanzas.
The whole time, his girlfriend (or whatever she was) sat with her purse in her lap, legs crossed, looking bored.
Brown had gotten through two more poems, with no more people leaving, before the Chair came back into the hall with two campus police officers. Brown saw them and rolled his eyes. —Alright, here we go.
The room erupted in screaming. The cops looking horrified. One of them started talking into the radio mic attached to his shoulder. The Chair pointed at the stage. —Mr. Brown! You will leave the stage now!
Another Mountain Dew bottle flew out of the dark and bounced off of the Chair’s head. Kids cheered. Brown leaned down so his mouth was right next to the mic and said, —Can’t we all just get along?
The lights came on, and everyone was already standing, some people out in the aisles trying to leave, while others were trying to come down to the stage. Rick leaned over to Billy and Lupe and Gabrielle. —You guys, we’ve got to get him out of here. I think there’s an exit backstage.
While Rick hopped on stage, Billy took the girlfriend (or whatever) by the hand and started leading her to the side of the hall, while Gabrielle and Lupe tried to run interference. The two campus police were trying to find the Mountain Dew thrower, and two Kalamazoo city police officers had appeared at the door. Rick went over to the back of the stage where there was a master light switch and shut every light off, leaving the whole hall dark except for the entrance doors. People screamed. Rick led Brown to the side door, and Gabrielle held it open while they all slipped through. By then Billy had found an emergency exit door and led them to it. The six of them stood there, Brown still holding the Patrón, his other arm back around his lady’s waist while she rolled her eyes. The four kids were smiling at the poet. He turned to them. —Well?
Billy pushed open the door and the alarm started sounding. They walked outside and the door slammed shut behind them. Rick shook Brown’s hand. —I’m going to get in so much trouble for this. Thank you. You were great.
The air cold and wet, though still above freezing. The parking lot lights just over a small grassy hill. Rick pointed. —I think your car is probably over there. You should probably hurry.
Brown whispered something to the woman, and without even looking back at them, the two of them started up the snowy grass out into the gloom.
Rick put his face in his hands. —Holy fuck.
Billy slapped him on the back. —Dude! That was the best fucking poetry reading I’ve ever been to!
Gabrielle smiling, still looking after Brown. —I thought it was wonderful.
After meeting the ladies in person, both Billy and Rick thought they were even more attractive than before, though they didn’t know what the girls thought. They never knew what girls thought.
Rick was a little in love with both of them, in part because, how many girls actually would like Brown’s poetry? That meant they would/might like Rick’s poetry. That meant they would/might understand him and like him for what he truly was, which is what guys want. Plus hot sex. And both Lupe and Gabrielle seemed to exude the promise of hot sex. Lupe more obviously, because she was more outgoing and flirtatious (she smiled a lot) but Gabrielle more because she was obviously fucking smart, and there’s nothing hotter than a smart woman who likes sex. Like, that she likes it almost knowing she should know better, like she can’t help it and must give in to her carnal desires. Hot.
Unfortunately, one, he didn’t have a car, and two, he was in grad school (though it was only a MFA and not a real degree) and therefore busy with teaching a comp class and reading lots and writing lots, and three, both girls were outside his acceptable line of logistical dating, which most men put at around 45 miles/minutes. Note that the acceptable line of guaranteed sex is much more extensive, with some men up to an eight hour radius.
The girls were within Billy’s acceptable line of logistical dating, just barely, though actually not really, but close enough to make it tempting. But though he did think Gabrielle was hot, she was also, one, smarter than him, and two, a couple years older than him, which in about five years would not matter so much (and in fact he might even discover the pleasure of a much older woman at some point, if he was lucky) in college, two, or even one year’s difference, when the guy is the younger one, can feel like a decade.
But Lupe was hot and he became totally infatuated with her and eventually PMed her one time and asked her if she wanted to ‘hang out’ sometimes, that maybe he could come down to Ann Arbor sometimes. And…she said yes, but in the context of him hanging out with her and a bunch of her friends. Which Billy took to mean that she only thought of him in the context of a being only a friend, which may not really have been the case but he felt like if he was driving all the way to be with her that if she were really interested she’d just hang out just with him, which potentially betrayed where his thoughts were perhaps, as in sex, but to be fair Lupe was just a social butterfly type person and might not have been uninterested. In Mexico it was very common for younger people potentially interested in each other romantically to hang out in groups, but that’s where the acceptable line of logistical dating proves to be not so acceptable. That is, if Lupe had lived in East Lansing and proposed the same thing, Billy would have probably at least tried it, but the potential for driving all that ways and not even really being able to talk with Lupe that much was enough to make him politely decline.
Still, a bond had been established between the four of them, and after they had all come back from the holidays and were back in school, it was Billy who first proposed (in a FaceBook thread) a pilgrimage to Jackson to visit Brown. It was centrally located to all of them, Rick would have the longest bus ride, an hour from Kalamazoo, and worse case scenario: they could share a motel room for the night and go back the next day.
They had to decide how to get a hold of Brown, since he didn’t have an email address that they knew of. Rick didn’t want to have to write another snail mail letter to Brown’s publisher, though if only he’d not hogged the idea (that he was the only one who could now write Black Crow) with any authority, Gabrielle or Lupe might have gotten a response, especially if they’d included pictures of them in their underwear. Poets like that kind of stuff.
Gabrielle half-jokingly suggested they pinpoint his apartment from the directions he left in his poems and stories, since he was famous for describing the routes, including street names, that he took to bars and strip joints and court. Rick took her seriously and tried to draw lines over a city map of Jackson he bought, but soon discovered that the apartment locations varied from book to book.
Finally, in an act of research that would have made his first year composition instructor proud, Billy went over to the MSU library, found a Jackson phone book, and looked in the B’s. And there it was: Brown, Ray. He copied the phone number down and got online to share his discovery with his friends, though he himself was too chicken to call the number. He thought Rick should call since Rick was the reading organizer and Brown would recognize him. Rick wasn’t even sure Brown wanted to hear from him again after that fiasco, and thought Lupe should call him because she was cute, and mexican, and had brought the tequila, which he certainly would remember. But Lupe said she couldn’t because she didn’t feel comfortable speaking on the phone in english for something as important as that. So then it came down to Gabrielle, who would do it, except she didn’t think he would remember her at all. There was never any discussion about whether they should call. They automatically assumed Brown would want to see them, because what writer wouldn’t want their fans stopping by to visit?
She called on Saturday afternoon at around twelve-thirty, since she figured he would be awake by then if he had been drunk the night before. So she sat on her living room floor and called on her cellphone.
He answered on the third ring, sounding like she’d just woken him, and that he wasn’t happy about it. —Hello?!
—Hi, Mr. Brown?
—Who the fuck is this? How much do I owe you?
She paused, in shock, and almost hung up, but knew her friends would never forgive her. —Nothing. My name is Gabrielle.
—Do I know you? Are you that married chick I fucked on New Year’s?
—Um, no. I’m a fan.
He moaned, as if he had a migraine. —Oh fuck.
—Are you ok?
—Yeah. Ok, you’re a fan.
—Yes. I was at your Kalamazoo reading last month.
He laughed. A short, bark-like laugh. —Ha! And you’re still a fan?
—Wait a minute. Are you that mexican chick that gave me the tequila?
—Um, no, actually she’s my friend. I was sitting next to her.
—Well, where you from? You sound like you got some kind of accent.
—I’m from Quebec.
—Ah, ma belle!
—Mais, vous parlez français alors?
—Nah, I just remember that line from that Beatles song. You sound sexy when you speak french though. Say something else.
—Like I want to suck your cock.
—Nevermind. Where you at right now?
—Too bad. Want to come over?
—Well actually my friends and I were wondering if we could come visit you sometime.
—One of them is. The mexican girl that bought you the tequila.
—Oh christ yes! When can you get your asses over here?
Gabrielle didn’t know what to say, what to commit to, without consulting her friends. —Well, um, would next weekend be ok? Perhaps Saturday? In a week?
Brown sighed. —Yes. Perhaps.
He gave her his address quickly, she almost wasn’t able to copy it down, and she told him they’d be there for dinner and drink afterwards.
—Man, what, are you fucking planning a cocktail party or something?
They hung up and Gabrielle immediately called Lupe to tell her what had happened and Lupe wanted to hear every detail, though that took a while with their English. Afterward Gabrielle got online and wrote a group email to Billy and Rick, and Lupe again, just in case she had left something out.
Gabrielle and Lupe took the Greyhound bus together to Jackson, Lupe felt weird about Billy picking them up again, and Rick took one from Kalamazoo, arriving a little after them. Billy drove his car down and met them all at the downtown bus station at around five-thirty. The temperature in the low 40s, and dropping, the sky grey, like it had been for about a month. the streets wet, with only puddles in the gutters. Downtown Jackson almost seemed like a ghost town. Nobody out on the sidewalks, most of the parking lots deserted. The only life from where they were was the occasional mostly empty city bus pulling into the station. But all the taller buildings they could see, a few up to ten stories, all looked deserted and old. To the foreigners, it was bizarre to have a city center so empty, but Billy, who was from Flint, said that was normal in America.
They were sitting in his car, drinking beer from the case of Bud he’d brought with him. Gabrielle looked at the three big old churches to their north, which also looked deserted and miserable. —But…je ne comprends pas. What do people do? Like, for fun? It’s saturday.
Billy thought about it while he sipped a beer. —Well, I don’t know. Rent a movie. Somebody will probably have a party later. And there’s like, bars and stuff. Like, somewhere.
—But there’s no one place where everyone goes?
He shrugged. —Um, no. We just hang out with our friends. I’m not saying it’s exciting. I fucking hate Flint. I was glad to leave. This place reminds me of it.
Even though they had Brown’s address, and Billy MapQuested directions, they decided to have Gabrielle call him before they went over, but no one answered, and there wasn’t a message machine. So they decided to drive around and see more of Jackson, if there was more.
And they discovered there was a little bit, once they drove over to Michigan Ave and found a small two-block area of three restaurants and two bars, one of which was a strip bar. They took a right on Mechanic and found another restaurant, a mexican place, The Crazy Cowboy, and a tattoo shop, along with some other greasy spoon places that were closed, and adult bookstore, and a pawn shop. And a small real book store that was still open, which they found bizarre and therefore had to get out and look inside. Billy parked in a spot right on Mechanic, and they went in.
There was a small cafe, so Lupe bought everyone some variant of coffee and they asked the two employees about Jackson and what there was to do there. The employees laughed and recommended the mexican place a few doors down for dinner, but other than that they didn’t know, they weren’t actually from Jackson, and were just students at a small christian missionary college nearby. Rick checked the poetry section, which turned out to be about half a shelf next to comedy. No Brown. He asked the employees if they carried his books but they’d never heard of him, and were surprised when they learned he was from Jackson.
Gabrielle tried calling Brown again, but there was still no answer. They went into the restaurant and immediately felt weird because although there were people, most of the tables were occupied actually, everyone stared at them when they came in. They got a booth and asked Billy why. He smiled and said he thought it was because they looked like college students. That is, like they didn’t belong in Jackson.
Gabrielle tried calling one last time while they were eating, and Brown finally answered, sounding just as grumpy as last time. —Hello?!
—Check’s in the mail.
—Mr. Brown, this is Gabrielle du Mont. We spoke last week.
—Oh yeah! That french chick!
The restaurant had turned up the music and she had to yell over The Rolling Stones. The others silent, listening. —I’m from Quebec!
—Oh yeah. Michelle ma belle. How you doing?
—I’m fine! We’re here in Jackson!
—We? Oh, you and that mexican señorita chick?
—Yes. My friends Billy and Rick too.
—Oh, well, got any tequila?
Gabrielle covered the phone with her hand. —Lupe, did you bring tequila?
Gabrielle continued. —Yes, and Billy brought beer. We’d like to come visit you?
—Yeah, I figured.
—Would that be alright?
—Do I have a choice?
—Well, we don’t want to bother you.
—No. Well, you got a car?
She verified the directions and hung up, telling them what he’d said. They finished eating and paid and got back in Billy’s car. Brown’s apartment was in an old three story building not too far from downtown, further east down Michigan Ave, near the hospital. They parked, got out, went in the building, Billy carrying the beer. The hallway smelled like piss. They went up to his apartment on the third floor, and knocked on the door, Gabrielle and Lupe in front. When Brown opened the door, he saw them first and smiled. —Ladies! Welcome.
He looked at the two guys and his smiled lessened a little. Rick held out his hand. —Mr. Brown, I’m Rick Cassidy, I organized that reading at Western.
Brown nodded. —I remember you. That was a night. Stop with the mister bullshit. I’m Ray.
He shook Rick’s hand and focused on the case of beer in Billy’s arms. —My man. That’s what I’m talking about.
Billy held out the whole case, like an offering, and Brown took it, reaching in for a can. They stood awkwardly in the living room. There were two couches, and one end-table with a lamp. Off to one side a little L-shaped nook with a table and chairs, leading into a small kitchen, with and old dirty gas oven and even older refrigerator.
Brown sat with Gabrielle and Lupe on the bigger couch, in between them. Billy and Rick sat on the other couch. Brown handed a beer to each of the girls and tossed one each to the two boys. He lifted the box and smiled at Billy. —My man, we’re running low already. You might have to do a beer run soon.
Billy nodded, smiling. —Ok. Cool. No problem.
Brown sipped his beer with one hand and rubbed Lupe’s thigh with the other. —Hello baby. Aren’t you kinda cold all the way up here in Michigan?
Lupe smiling. —Yes. I really like your poetry.
—Of course you do. You understand me and all that bullshit, right?
She nodded. —Yes. I think when you read someone, no matter what they write about, it is really about them.
—Your parents paying all that money for you to learn that in college?
—I think what you do is an act, but I can tell the sadness in your poetry. You are a sad man.
He crushed his can and threw it across the room.
Gabrielle had been watching him, half-facing him. —It’s true. Your poetry is very sad.
He cracked open another beer and took a long gulp. —Baby, I don’t want to talk about poetry. You ever been with a black man before?
She kept studying him. —No.
—You’ll never go back.
He looked at Lupe. —Explain that to your friend.
Lupe kept smiling. —I don’t know either. Go back to what?
He rolled his eyes and looked at Billy and Rick. —Boys, would you care to explain to your girlfriends what it means to never go back?
They squirmed on the couch, looking down at the floor, or the walls. Gabrielle said, —Actually, we’re all just friends.
Brown nodded. —Sure you are.
He looked at Billy again. —Son, I think we’re needing that beer run.
Billy jumped up. Rick got up more slowly, trying to make eye-contact with Gabrielle, but she was still watching Brown closely.
Brown got up and showed the boys to the door, opening it and stepping out in the hall with them. He put a hand on Rick’s shoulder and smiled. —Boys, why don’t you take your time? I’d like to get to know the ladies a little better, ok?
Rick tried one last time. —Mr. Brown, I just wanted to say that your poetry has really influenced—
Brown put up his hand to stop him. —Take your time fellas. Take your time.
He went back in his apartment and closed the door. The bolt clicked. They stood there a second, staring at each other. Rick shrugged. —Well….
Billy shrugged and nodded. Then he smiled. —Yeah.
They went out to Billy’s car. Snow had started to fall, covering everything, softening the background city noise. It was almost beautiful.
Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe grew up in Michigan and lives in Oregon. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, deckhand/oiler, bike messenger, wilderness ranger and fire lookout. Fiction Editor for Deep Wild Journal. www.johnyohe.com