Vasek was not familiar with the famous poet’s work, but he had been asked if he would be willing, for a small honorarium, to play a brief selection at the open and close of the memorial service.
Yes, he said, partly because he hoped that by doing it, he might make himself available to other such requests, and also because it was the department head who asked him, directly, after a private lesson one foggy Tuesday in mid-September. Ezra, his instructor, laughed and clapped him on the back after she departed.
“You’re a natural politician,” Ezra said, and Vasek could only shake his head in cold wonder at the remark, which was at once a compliment and an insult.
Vasek met his friend Martine for coffee downtown. They sat under the heating lamps at the grocery store cafeteria, watching as workers dragged and stacked the metal patio furniture, then drew tarps over the tables and locked them. Across the courtyard, the lights of the library were soft and gold, and from where they sat, Vasek and Martine could see children running back and forth, their little heads floating by the window. It was cooler than it had any reason to be in September, and Martine shivered despite the heating lamps. She had gotten soaked in the rain earlier in the day and had failed to sufficiently dry herself. Her hair was still damp and her clothing had a cold, clear smell.
The cafeteria was loud but muted, as if all the noise somehow canceled itself out, leaving only the impression of volume. Occasionally, someone dragged a table or a chair across the stone tiles, and there was a screeching, crying sound that Vasek felt in his body, discord like a jolt to the nerves. Martine’s coffee was exceptionally dark and thick, and he kept looking at it while she sipped. It deposited a creamy foam on her upper lip, which she licked away.
“If the weather’s going to be shit, I wish it would make up its mind about the kind of shit it’s going to be,” she said. “It’s getting out of hand.”
“It’s bad for the strings,” he said.
“What an exceptionally normal response.”
“It can’t be good for the clay either,” he said. “Or, I guess, maybe not. Maybe you guys have sophisticated HVAC over there. I know we do for our practice rooms.”
“No,” she said. “Actually, it’s pretty low-tech in our neck of the woods. But we do keep some humidifiers plugged in.”
“Yeah. It’s different though. You take violins through the world. The clay just stays.”
“That much is true,” she said with a shrug. “But it’s not the clay I’m worried about. I just get so anxious this time of the year. How do you dress, you know? For a blizzard? For constant rain? For thunderstorms? Tornados? Hurricanes?”
“Hurricanes? In Iowa. That I would pay to see.”
“No, you wouldn’t. You would flee, or you should, anyway.”
Martine laughed, but Vasek stared down into the dark surface of his coffee. His fingers were warmer than they had been when moving through the fog, which now sat like a solid thing in the center of town. It was true that there were no hurricanes in Iowa, but the odds of one trekking this far inland from the Gulf seemed like something that might be goaded into reality just by virtue of its impossibility. It always seemed somehow to him that things that were unlikely to occur had the greatest chance of happening, but he also knew that he felt that way because he had seen too many movies and read too many books. He considered himself part of a narrative, and it was difficult not to believe that his circumstances, no matter how unremarkable, were somehow extraordinary.
“I’m doing a memorial service,” he said.
“Oh? Who died?”
“I don’t know them. Some poet. They died. Recently.”
“We all gotta die sometime, I guess.”
“Yeah, well, I was asked to play at the service. Two things, short. Barely anything.”
“They paying you?”
“Yeah. I mean, pay. But yeah.”
Martine nodded, and Vasek tried to interpret whether the nod was supportive or bored or disinterested. He decided to believe she was saying he should do it, and that it was good he had said yes. Vasek and Martine had been friends for as long as either of them had been in graduate school in Iowa—three or four years, they blended together—Vasek in music and Martine in pottery. For most of his life, Vasek had only been friends with other musicians—those scrawny pale kids who spent all of their childhoods practicing Bach and Chopin, turning themselves into specialists in the evocation of a certain kind of feeling. It was strange that if you were young and a classical musician, the world knew what you were, a prodigy even if you were not actually a prodigy, but as you grew up, became an adult, the world knew less and less what to make of you. It was as if you had been born with a single remarkable thing, like a tiny light that burned out over time. And so here Vasek was, in his late twenties, lusterless, lightless. He would join the ranks of a regional orchestra or, if he was lucky, might get scouted to play film scores. He didn’t know what he wanted because the opportunities of the world did not flow to him but away from him, and he always had a hard time conceiving of things in absence of an example. He knew not what to ask unless something was asked of him.
Martine was different. She was strong and had a sense of herself. She made pottery to express this self. Her work was an argument with the world about herself and her place in it. For the last several months, she had been constructing a series of humanoid figures with various holes of various sizes and shapes punched through them. She said that she was interested in voids, but in the sense of a hole being called a void and the space in a thing which was voided, made empty, carved out, turned into negative space. What was not permitted, deemed relevant, viable. She talked most candidly about her work over warm beer and soft cheeses. At the bar downtown that the poets frequented, or else out at night, in the little bistro near the construction site, she sometimes flirted with the men in their dusty overalls, hauled up to the bar like fishermen in a coastal town. She sometimes went home with these men, ones with wedding rings and old scars and faded tattoos on their necks, skinny and bright-eyed and laughing as they went into the cool night. Once, she texted Vasek a picture of a bruise on her throat, not quite a set of fingers, but something spindly and purple. The picture accompanied an emoji of a shocked and blushing face, and when Vasek asked if she was alright, she just said that it was okay and wasn’t it funny when you could just tell that something was going to leave a bruise?
After they drank their coffees and went out into the fog, Martine put her arm through Vasek’s. They were almost the same height, just under six feet, Vasek a little shorter. Martine had played high school volleyball in Minnesota, and she had the gummy elasticity and bad knees of a former athlete. She wore boots and her steps echoed. They passed a playground where children were running and screaming, their cries emerging from the gray murk like those of people in peril, and Martine kept jumping every time a child darted in front of them.
“They need leashes,” she said.
“Child leash laws strikes me as a funny thing that might also be a crime.”
“Yes, but imagine the peace.”
They parted in front of Martine’s building, hugging tight. Vasek said that he would text later, after his evening class, and Martine said that they should just agree to meet at the bar anyway. He said he had to see if he felt up to it, and she said that was dumb, that he would definitely come, and that he should just do it. But Vasek also knew that this was not about expedience, it was that Martine wanted him to come, and she was trying to lock him in so that he couldn’t back out later. It was her way. Extracting promises, guarantees as insurance against uncertainty.
“Okay,” he said. “See you there.”
“Good,” she said, “Okay, great.”
When he was alone, Vasek took out his phone and looked up the name of the famous poet.