An Invitation He Couldn’t Refuse

Posted on February 8, 2017

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       To hear Matt Morrison talk you might believe that he’d created the poet/publisher/Gatherer-of-the-Tribes that he claimed to be out of sheer will and fortitude but in fact his life was a pool ball knocked here and there by forces he seldom perceived nor understood. Stubby forefinger darting here and there as though dotting dozens of invisible i’s he would pontificate “the great shamans believed…” before sliding into clichés about the Earth Mother and her children, bemoan society’s disregard of “real” poetry and hit you up for a contribution. Or a meal. Or a place to sleep.

Not that Matt was inert flotsam without gumption or volition. He was in fact a bit pushy in his hat-pulled-over-his-eyes backwoodsy way. For the nearly thirty years that he’d been a poet/publisher/Gatherer-of-the-Tribes he’d harangued, begged, cajoled, imposed broadsides, pamphlets, CDs and open mic appearances on hundreds of students, poetasters, publishers and coffeehousers in towns and cities from North Carolina to his “spiritual homeland” Berkeley (although he didn’t live in Berkeley but fifteen or twenty busstops away in a predominately Mexican barrio in Oakland).

Had you been in the student hangout near a university campus in northern California one shivery evening in early December he might have hit you up because—as happened all too frequently—he was stranded. In his all-so-friendly hey-we’re-all-brothers way he would have explained that the woman he’d thought could be a soul mate had led him to believe that the university would pay him to participate in a poetry presentation. The university—that is to say a little campus non-profit organization affiliated with the university—did pay him but not very much and the prospective soul mate told him to get lost because she misunderstood his suggesting that she take him home with her for the night.

“I wasn’t hitting on her. I hadn’t lined up a place to stay and thought, you know, a couch, something like that,” he explained to three graduate student types who looked like they might be interested in poets/publishers/Gatherers-of-the-Tribe.

They weren’t but suggested that “Elizabeth” knew a lot of hippie-artist-theater types who sometimes went to poetry readings. Elizabeth turned out to be the manager/cashier/waitress, a wispy blonde with wing-tipped glasses and faintly freckled cheeks.

With that semi-sophisticated air of a longtime student/dropout/reapply Elizabeth conceded that the coffeehouse sometimes hosted music or “artsy” events.

“Won-der-ful!” Matt responded in his sweetest Car’lina lisp and from a backpack crammed with copies of the last three issues of his poetry rag, CDs featuring Tribes readings and a bagfull of dirty socks extracted half-a-dozen rumpled but readable fliers  featuring Matt Morrison readings, chantings and declamations.

Elizabeth, duly under-impressed, took them and shrugged. “Nhh, maybe we can work something out. How long are you going to be in town.”

Matt shuffled a quirky two-step and explained that he wasn’t sure, he hadn’t lined up a place to say.

“Twelfth Street house,” one of the grad student types interrupted. The two with him laughed but Elizabeth shrugged.

“Why not? You seem to be their type.”

“What’s the Twelfth Street house?”

“Twelve blocks straight west, half a block to your left. Big brass ship’s bell hanging over the front door.”

Why a big brass ship’s bell would be hanging over the door seemed a bit disconcerting but Matt wasn’t one to ruminate about such things. Before he left the coffeehouse he thumb-tacked one of his fliers to its bulletin board and promised Elizabeth he’d be back for more “great French roast.” She jammed a half bagel in the toaster behind the counter without answering. Knowing what student/dropout/reapplies were like Matt didn’t take it as a brush off or lack of interest. Pack over his back he headed west.

The town’s hip boutique and chia and wine hangouts gave way to bead shop and bike repair fringe businesses before he got to the Twelfth Street corner: an old Dairy Queen converted into a liquor store with a steamy taco wagon parked in front. Matt hesitated, then just past a green-awninged warehouse detected what looked like a two-story beached Mississippi River paddlewheeler with a big brass bell hanging over the front porch. Adjusting his hat and Car’lina smile “Here we go” he murmured and headed towards the sagging front porch. As he shifted his backpack from one shoulder to the other one of the four front steps gave way beneath him and he lurched forward, the pack cracking the back of his head and knocking his hat over his eyes.

“Damn step. We’ve been meaning to fix the fucker. You okay?”

Hands against the top step Matt pushed himself half upright. A barefooted twenty-something swung out of the hammock tied to the front post pillar to peer at him.

“Startled me. I wasn’t lookin’, I guess.”

“Nhh, no problem.”

A bit taken aback that the twenty-something didn’t ask who he was or what he wanted Matt introduced himself “poet…reading at the university…Elizabeth in the coffeehouse…”

“Sure, fine, go on in.”

Matt hesitated, then offered a “thanks buddy” and pulled open the creaky screen door. “Hi,” he heard but none of those shuffling through the makeshift livingroom made a point of approaching him. Feeling he needed to establish his identity Matt explained his Gatherer-of-the-Tribes poetness singularly and plurally to a widehipped teenager who appeared to be the twenty-something’s girlfriend, a stumpy bespectacled hulk mumbling about student teaching, a wiry hyperactive type who claimed to be an actor and half-a-dozen others who lived in the paddlewheeler, hung out there or were friends of those who did.

“Lizbeth is okay,” a just-returned-from-Afghanistan re-entree affirmed, “a bit tight-assed but okay.” The others agreed, merging in and out of half-a-dozen conversations that seemed to involve everyone but no one in particular but that confirmed that Matt was welcome to crash and could have “the rug.”

“The rug” turned out to be a braided afghan sewn or pegged to a dilapidated mattress tossed on the floor of a somewhat screened in back porch. Not the Hyatt but comfortable enough for one who’d slept on harder surfaces more than once in his life. Matt thanked what seemed to be the leaderless gathering and chipped in for burritos and a big bag of corn chips that the self-proclaimed actor brought from the taco stand. Other than one scrawny mophead who conceded that peddling poetry might be “an okay gig” none of the dozen or more paddlewheeler in-and-outers conceded more than a minute or two to Matt’s tribal gatherings but bags of peanuts appeared along with half-pail of knobby green apples, the twenty-something twittered with a guitar and the student teacher hulk brought out a bong. Content, if a big confused by clattering surrounding him, Matt laughed, took a few hits, shared stories and as the interchanges diminished in tone and intensity made his way to the rug to chant himself contentedly to sleep.

The ship’s bell’s clanging shattered his dreaming.

“Raid! Raid! Raid!”

Matt shoved his feet into his shoes, grabbed his pack and blundered out the back door. The clanging had stopped but an alarm, apparently in the liquor store, was screeching. Half-crouching, half-running he scurried towards the warehouse but stepped on his own shoestring and plunged across a thistly patch of dying grass. As he pushed himself to his feet a brilliant white light enveloped him.

“Stay right where you are.”

Two forms approached him, one on either side.

“Let’s see your I.D.,” the one on his left gruffed, voice more bored than threatening.

“I, well, you see…” Matt forced himself to take a deep breath, trying to find within his temporary panic a bit of Car’lina charm, “I have here my, ah, food stamp certifica—”

“Driver’s  license,” the voice on his right, hoarse but feminine, interrupted.

“A while back, see, my car broke down and without it I couldn’t renew…” Aware his explanation was getting him nowhere Matt spread his hands to show the two cops his harmlessness and good will and explained that he was just visiting, he was a poet and—

“Oh Jesus, another one of those,” the female voice muttered. The male voice laughed. Matt started to explain how well his poetry had been received but the twenty-something’s voice interrupted.

“He’s stayin’ with us.”

“You get ‘em all, don’t you?”

The twenty-something laughed. As he looked around for the others Matt realized that he was the only one of the Paddlewheelers who’d fled the building.

“Damn kids, it’s the third time this month—”

“Yeah, they also set off the liquor store alarm.” The female cop checked a call on her radio and slid it back onto her belt. Matt looked down at his still untied shoes

“I was so sound asleep when I heard the clanging I—”

Neither of the cops was listening. Hat pushed back from his high forehead the male cop walked a few steps towards the paddlewheeler beside the twenty-something and the female cop turned towards Matt.

“Not the best place in the world to stay. You’d do better at Salvation Army.”

Matt cleared his throat and grinned. “Made an invitation I couldn’t rightly refuse,” he exaggerated his Car’lina drawl. The female cop groaned and the male cop laughed and Matt swung his pack off his shoulder. Before either of them could turn away:

“Y’know, I’ve got some great CDs here. Native chants, Gatherers-of-the-Tribes. Maybe you’d like to buy—?”

First published in 4ink7 #3, 2016  

 

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Posted in: Fiction