By Benjamin J. Gohs
Poet Peter Mann believed not in muses nor inspiration but trusted in the cruelty of all wretched scribes to pilfer that which was true and necessary from the unwitting.
“Let them callous their hands and burden they hearts, dear mother. For I am an artiste! And God alone—choose which ye may like—has set me loose upon his creation to craft me masterpiece.”
“Hush now, me boyo, fore your blasphemy stirs a wave what drowns us all, suffer and sin.”
Having lost his father to a gnashing of conveyor and cog where the sardines are squeezed into so many metaphors by the labors of their kin, Poet Peter Mann struggled to earn coppers enough for daily bread and butter let alone a cup of coffee what weren’t burnt to death and mildew rank.
Six mornings to the week, Poet Peter Mann worked his workings. For Sunday was the Lord’s day and Lord knows no man more pious than Poet Peter Mann. And if it weren’t for he felled each Sunday with ailments chronic as addlepations mysterious, that flat fanny would have been the first in pew and the last to shake the gnarled hand of the priest.
And of those mornings, young Poet Peter Mann found hisself, for he was never truly lost, in the plaza. Long strides on stovepipe legs. Easy swing of those light pole arms. Even under the pull of papa’s duck canvas valise anchored sixteen pound by the Underwood typer Grandmother Mann used to compose death threats to various members of the state assembly, President William McKinley, the milkman, and her twin brother Manfred.
Poet Peter Mann sat hisself cross-legged of the street edge with the old typer atop the suitcase. Handbill hung out front what read: POEMS A PENNY WHILE YOU WAIT. He went early enough most days to steal two pockets of chicken feed from the granary. But this day he was late. Tomorrow they would go without porridge.
Sometimes the notice unstuck. When this happened, Poet Peter Mann reaffixed with old chewing gum, worm guts, or pus if he had any.
Three years of practice, and every day when he returned home to give dear mother his earnings, she would say to him, “Peter John Murphy David Paul Sylvester Mann, quit this nonsense while you still can.”
“Oh, me mother, ye can’t rush genius. Did Royce shovel coal? Hell no! Did Spearfish peel potatoes? I don’t think so. Did Lemmingway drive cab? Don’t be ab … surd.”
He clapped a paw to his maw, sneered and winced.
“What troubles me o’son?”
“One of me chewers’s tearing a hole in me jaw.”
“Where’ve ye been putting that naughty mouth of yours?”
“Porridge and pencils only, me swear.”
“There’ll be no swearing in the Mann house, me son.”
“Maybe me mouth is sore from kissing the world’s arse.’
“It’ll be your arse that’s sore if ye don’t mind ye manners young man Poet Peter Mann. Now go on git, off to toil with ye, and be sure to stop at the dock and swish some seawater so she’ll soothe that tooth to be sure.”
The toothache remained, never more nor less painful than that first day but a steady thrum for week on month. The Mann family existed in this fashion for a literary amount of time, living off resentment and that daily handful of pennies. Then, one turn of the world, for all events of note begin thusly, there came the ugliest woman Poet Peter Mann had ever seen.
“Hey, mister poet man, how’s about writin Lady de Havilland a ditty?”
There was a beauty in her homeliness but Poet Peter Mann recognized it not for his jawbone pained him so. His eyes rode the slope of her wide nose and weighed her sagging stomach and let his thinks wander the raspberry bramble until it stumbled on a jack pine root—the sour stink of pitch blinding his nose. His mind tumbled in the dust and his fingers leapt to their strange stage and kicked and pirouetted and his thumbs two-stepped and the typer said chikit-chikit-chikit-ding-zerp-clack!
When he’d finished, Poet Peter Mann took a pencil stub from his shirt pocket and wrote #937 at the top of the page. He gave it the woman and she read: “the children’s tears rivaled only the gasps of old women in their babushkas burdens burdensome corsets their only smiles upon her heels that voice of God or whatever when he made her she walks the earth yardstick against which all smited onlookers for the lord maketh wo(man) in the shadow of he own insecurity the ugly girl thinning hair passes oblivion for she is not just hideous not only misshapen but tremendously vapid.”
She read at first with chubby cheeks and bright eyes, but he watched her chin narrow and lower and then the grinning girl was gone and the sad lady with dark slitted eyes sparkled and leaked. She took a coin from her purse, laid it gently on the sidewalk and folded the poem and tucked it into her cleavage and curtsied and lady de Havilland’s sobbing rose on the wind before her, her hips as the tips of sorrow’s wings tilting almost imperceptibly alerting those in the vicinity of her impending crash.
Poet Peter Mann watched her wiggle away and regarded the dull black hair, tall fleshy form, Gorgon’s countenance, and it struck him then that she was the most beautiful bit of hideous in the world.
“Miss! Wait!” Poet Peter Mann rubbed his face and closed his eyes and followed the throb as it broke trail across his cheekbone, portaged round the temple, and landed at the shore of his fontanel which still hadn’t healed. “Please! I’m sorry!”
But at these pleadings that bizarre creature lifted her hem to her boot tops and disappeared into the crowd.
Poet Peter Mann examined the coin at first thinking he’d been tricked with foil or candy wrapper but what he scooped was a peace dollar. Breathed fog onto the coin and shined it on his knee and felt the dull fangs of his own meanness gnawing at his insides.
“You gimme this as a test, you Trollope! Right? Think I’ll be giving her back then you’re surely ill-advised.”
Poet Peter Mann rubbed his jaw and eyed both sides the street. None of the prancing petticoats nor jittering John Bulls looked in need of stanzas or couplets and he had to onomatopoeia so badly his teeth itched.
“You’ll not do better than this me fine young chap.”
And with that he packed the typer into father’s suitcase and heel-toed for home. And as he went, he jitterbugged in step and whistled that one song he thought of when the glee got him. You know the one.
However happy he, that big grinder still growed and pulsed and grumbled and tore and this time when he passed the pub on the edge of town he stopped. Poet Peter Mann usually stopped there, where stench from slaughterhouse district stood mile-wide and three-hundred-feet-high, including crenelations, halted by a wall of sweet rot from the gut lagoons perfumed of copper, tin, brimstone, shite—where the bits even dogs refuse tower in decay.
“She give it. It’s yours. Don’t be a fool, man.” Poet Peter Mann stood fondling the coin in his pocket. A virgin fearfully fingering his pecker anticipating Mama’s disappointment the day he gathers the courage to violate his first stray cat. And not a good Catholic kitty, neither.
“You’re going in or gonna stand here pulling your pudd all day?” Man sweeping the sidewalk snatched him a half cigarette from the dry gutter and lit it with a snap and waved the tiny wood stick with a gray sulfur flourish and swept his pile onto Poet Peter Mann’s feet and the boy bleated and shuffled into the door and took the handle and hesitated some more. Then his feet went inside and he figured he’d better follow.
First time he ever sat a stool, ordered a whisky, spent two bits, felt the burn. The liquor stung his seawater cankers and those tears joined those tears of relief from what do you suppose dears but the bad old tooth. Held the drink in his mouth a long time before he swallowed. And then he tongued the thimble glass clean and stood the bar a quarter-hour and called another and the ripping plague these many days dulled away and just as sweet relief … from behind there came an imposing growl.
“Ye the fellow made me wife cry?”
And all around there rushed ghostly a chorus in hiss and hush of two words—no—one—whalebone. That ethereal choir in unison sibilated the words-word again and again as the North Wind whispers of a November night.
“Whalebone … Whalebone … Whalebone.”
Over that storm and perhaps even through it, sailed the grizzled grumble of the angry husband. The one who said it was tall, too. Taller than the tallest man in the room, taller even than Poet Peter Mann.
“I say, lad, are ye the fellow who put me bride to tears?”
He was tall to be sure but thick as oak plank and his brutal features—much like the wife’s—glowed like ptarmigan down as though a sunrise had never pinched him.
Poet Peter Mann swam the edge of his drink and laughed. He laughed in exasperation and he spoke in hysterics. Poetically of course.
“Snatched her cobbler and cobbled her snatch and figured her honorably for oy cannot lick me fingers with pencils in me mouth and the nonchalant echoes from the never-was to the hope-to-be oy made your woman cry you bet … and that’s how I found her true beauty.”
The taller man pulled his lips away, opening curtains for a stage of sharkteeth, and the yellow eyes in that giant head widened and the mouth bloomed and stretched the face into an awful albino jack-o-lantern where blackholes from broken teeth framed their horseshoe stumps ringed in russet.
Poet Peter Mann laughed no longer. Put his hands to his own throat after the invisible grubbers choking him already and tried to free the wind to speak. “Hello Jack.”
“Must have me mistaken with some other fellow, me o’boy. Tooken me for a fool now ain’t that right?”
Then she appeared on her knees, lady de Havilland’s arms wrapped around her husband’s thick leg. “That the boy. He the mean one.”
Whalebone leaned and whispered his rotten steam of mustard and sardine and Poet Peter Mann listened without hearing and put a hand to his ear and the tall man slapped it away and told again.
“But I ain’t got no sawbuck.”
“Long walk home it is, lad.”
“Howsabout a new poem? Splendiferous musings on your bride’s pulchritude.”
Poet Peter Mann saw now that the taller man wore no shirt under his eight-button peacoat and his pale chest was ribbed with scars and burns so that the skin took on a texture like that of a mistreated lizard’s.
“Here, it’s all I’ve got.” Poet Peter Mann offered a palm containing the remaining fifty cents.
“You’ve that case, there, fancy boy. Fancy boy with him fancy words.”
“N-n-no sir.” Poet Peter Mann had never stuttered in his life but now tongue and teeth betrayed him so natural he didn’t think he’d ever stop. “P-p-please. That’s m-my l-l-life.”
“Oh, it ain’t your life. But you’ll learn that, too. Soon enough.”
The wife opened her poem and crumpled and threw it at Poet Peter Mann and her man lowered his chin as if to skylight his own forehead and the black dots vanished as the bulges of his buttery eyes rolled up and up into those snowy brows.
“You keep it for now.”
With that, Whalebone pulled up his white trousers and retied his rope belt. The frayed fingers of hemp like feelers from some fantastical wicker bug. He helped his woman off the floor and she followed him out into the afternoon haze.
When they’d gone, Poet Peter Mann, still in a daze, couldn’t remember them having left though he’d followed to the door. He was about to go out when he felt his empty hands, looked around for what he did not know.
“Hey, string bean.”
The keep seemed to be pointing the bar and Poet Peter Mann stared and tilted and stared and stepped and stared and pawed his hair.
“Forgot your junk, damn fool.”
The boy’s face roasted and the clatter and murmur returned and faded to an undulating echo and he dashed between the builders in their overalls drinking their lunches and took his suitcase lifting and lowering thrice to ensure its weight and out on the street he spied window and door for the ghoulish couple. But they were no more.
Row after row of livestock barn writhing with the cries of nervous hogs, chickens, and cattle. Tall wooden fencing penned great courtyards of those beasts about to be processed. What a tidy word—processed. Meatpacking house was last. Three-story brown brick with papered over windows meant home was just a hop-skip-and-a-scream away.
He was sweating more than he ought in the autumn air and Poet Peter Mann had never been so happy to turn down the green walls of Hoopskirt Alley. He was just into the place where the street noise dies away when the ever-lovin thump mashed his neck and shoulders and sent him pinwheeling to the gravel and grit.
Wrung his stung hands and rolled over.
“Cash in my hand or blood on my knife.”
“I already told. I’m all of four bits.” Poet Peter Mann tossed the money.
The wife opened the suitcase. “Lookit here.”
“Well ain’t she pretty.”
“Please no. It’s all I have.”
“And now it’s all you don’t have.” Whalebone knelt and patted Poet Peter Mann on one knee and with the other hand sunk all three inches of a jackknife into the boy’s thigh. “Lesson in respect, lad.”
Poet Peter Man stopped breathing in honor of such divine agony. The pain strolled his mind, snuffing each of the candles he’d lit for worry, fear, greed, yesterday and tomorrow. All went dark but one, the singular illumination a rumination on the one lie he’d always never told himself—and now it was as obvious as the hole in his leg.
“Me mulligan!” Poet Peter Mann Shrieked as the great white whale of a stick figure absconded with lanky grace. Not to be confused with Grace Lanky, star of coatroom and pantry.
Tinny smell of the blood sluices and fresh throwaways bound for the knackery and the squealing of those aware of their own genocide. But no more from Poet Peter Mann. The stunner’s mallet and the skinner’s blade ripping like ground glass and Poet Peter Mann fell to sleeping warm and painfree thinking he’d have liked to uttered a cleverer phrase for his own final oink.
He dreamed of angels in the dark. Stubby little circus birds, heads hidden in grain sacks, stunted limbs wriggling in their sockets without purpose, or one of their own knowing. They helped him up and laced his leg in binder twine and dusty muslin and walked him in the dirty tangelo glow of the streetlamp path. And when he woke of a morning—for he was unawares of what time had passed—he found him in his boyhood bed and the wound all but healed.
“Oh, me son. You’re come home at last. Oh, how me heart has fretted. Tell me true, where have ye been?”
Poet Peter Mann shielded eyes from the window bright and looked around the barren gray and sniffed familiar fungus and sawdust and his neck tingled and itched and he put his hand to it and felt those whiskers that poked him. And a mustache too!
“A mirror, mother, a must!”
She brought him the scrap she’d picked from the barbershop rubble after the great fire of eleventy-seventy and held it before her hirsuted son. The boy was gone and only the man Poet Peter Mann remained.
“How long, mother?”
“Why, me son, you’re slept all these week and a fortnight til I lost count.”
Then he remembered the pale man and his wife.
The whisper drew dear mother’s ear and she knelt the bedside and tipped her head.
“What’s that, me o’son?”
“I say I’ve found me mulligan.”
He started out of bed and she shoved him back and scolded.
“Sit down before ye fall down.”
“But I must do it. I have it now. Can’t not wait no longer none at’tall.”
“It’s rest you be needin.”
“But my opus magnum opus.”
“I’ll opus magnum opus you! Now stay put while I fetch ye victuals. You’ll eat and rest and eat some more. Your bonny sister’s taken on at the Scrimp & Sons Bawdyhouse. So we’ve plenty.”
When dear mother left, Poet Peter Mann reached under his bunk for the stock of bright red writing tablets and cigar box of penny pencils and his father’s bone handle pocketknife. Scraped a fresh nib of lead and opened the middle pad and found the first fresh page and wrote at the top one word: WHALEBONE
He’d written three pages when the soup came. After lunch, he had seven. By dark there were twenty. He wrote through the night and into the day following and to dark again and in three days’ time, the tablet was filled and Poet Peter Mann babbled in the grip of exhaustion until sleep took him for good.