By Kevin Prufer
Feature Image: First Snow at Veneux-Nadon by Alfred Sisley, 1878
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
When I was twenty years old
and desperate and broke,
I worked part-time in a used bookstore
in Middletown, CT.
I hated my job, hated the cramped store,
hated the paperbacks
that came there as if to die
and more than anything,
I wanted to write something lasting,
a novel I scrawled in notebooks
called “Black Wing”
about a dark-haired girl,
prized during the day for her beauty and intellect,
who by night
killed off poseurs, the ill-read, the clumsy-of-mind,
the bombastic, thick-fingered, and mean.
Somehow, through incompetence or charity,
the young woman who owned the store
never quite fired me
though one morning, I found an old man
at my place at the cash register.
He wore a tight leather jacket, a turtleneck,
a thick moustache,
and when he saw me,
he took off his glasses
and set his book on the dust-speckled counter.
This is Chandler Brossard,
the owner told me.
You’ll work with him now.
He looked pale and sick.
It was meant to transcend mystery,
it was meant to
live in contradictions, to be existential and enigmatic—
the dark-haired girl
destroying what was not beautiful
and the ugly, one-legged detective who pursued her,
but could never apprehend her—
He was, the owner told me,
a famous writer once,
but now he was dying. Chandler Brossard’s
We Walk In Darkness grew yellow
on the shelf.
And he smelled like an old man, sweet
Vicks VapoRub and snuff
How the knife comes down, I thought,
typing away that night
while one of my roommates
burned his fingers on a joint
and the other
practiced his guitar—
the knife comes down
in the flesh of the critic,
in the sycophant, the vulgar,
and the room grew colder
because no one paid our bills—
and I wanted Chandler Brossard
to say something wise
but he was just an old man.
And when I finally told him about “Black Wing”
the plot seemed suddenly
ugly truth pursuing beauty, beauty
making our foibles
clear, the dark-haired girl
who posed the horrible bodies
for the one-legged detective to discover—
By then, I’d read one of Brossard’s novels
and found it full of squalor,
And he’d grown sicker, pale and unsteady,
though he still walked from the hospital each morning
and sat behind the counter selling paperbacks.
My boss didn’t know I’d been kicked out of my apartment,
that when I couldn’t find a friend to put me up,
I unrolled a sleeping bag in the bookstore
and what I remember most about those sad days
is lying on the floor
among stacks of dying books,
the sense of them rising above me in darkness.
So many minds at work,
so much captured
while at his apartment,
Chandler Brossard had a few months to live
and I slipped into sleep, dreamed of dark-haired
angels of squalor, angels of anger and forgetfulness
and strange mercy
in the black air above my head,
to smother me with beauty
and ambition an paper wings—
and even if the detective
caught her, what then?
Would he know something more
about immortal beauty?
He would still be nothing,
a dying, childless old man
who had preserved a bit of himself in a book—
Immortality figured as the workings of a mind
caught in the sunlit trap
how I wanted that to be true—
that sense of eternal light streaming
through store windows,
its fingers playing over my
warm and gentle, the scent of books and dust—
how lovely to lie there without meaning or ambition,
and Chandler Brossard
standing over me,
kicking me gently awake
with his boot.
Kevin Prufer’s most recent book, How He Loved Them (Four Way Books) won the Julie Suk Award and on the long list for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize. His next book, The Art of Fiction: Poems, will be published in 2021 by Four Way Books. You can find more about Kevin Prufer at http://www.kevinprufer.com.
Originally appeared in NOR 17