e found our way to the basement of the bookstore, which was cavernous, with a low ceiling, a labyrinth beneath Cincinnati. We followed narrow brick passageways and I spied a skull among the rubble.
In a wide, low, dirty space, we came upon a circle of men. Pushing our way to the middle, we saw Dirk.
Wearing jeans and a torn tanktop, streaked with blood, Dirk, clutching a sharpened hardbound copy of The Maximus Poems, was warily circling, facing off a bloody undergraduate whose eyes were wild with rage, fear, and a criticism his underread mind was unable to properly articulate.
“Scott,” Rob said, “Dirk’s going to kill that kid.”
You could see the fire in Stratton’s eyes and it wasn’t pretty. The kid was some kind of business major—a stockbroker-in-training—you could tell by the cut of his ruined suit, whose silken shreds clung to his sweaty muscular flesh.
Dirk noticed us then.
“Oh, Rob, and… Rettberg. You’re here. Well, you mind scraping up William from off the floor over there? He was supposed to write a sonnet, but this—” with the speed of a cobra Dirk grabbed the kid and forced him up against the crumbling brick wall, punctuating his remarks by striking his opponent across the face with the book-length poem, with wide slaps against the young business major’s cheek, “scored some benzedrine and proffered it to the newspoet. Obviously, it was some other drug.”
My eyes adjusting to the dim chaos, I spied William’s figure sprawled on the floor, and went over to him. He was lying beside an open notebook and had apparently passed out halfway through writing a haiku - a bad sign.
And a bad haiku:
when in cinci with
Louis Friedman I ingest
oh mighty oh
I didn’t know how to react. I used to think that our project was about writing well and helping the kids. Now I didn’t know what to think.
Rob, meanwhile had gotten into the spirit of things. He had roused William with a topical application of a pitcher of bad local brew to the head and was dragging his lanky frame by the collar into a standing slouch. Rob’s tirade into William’s sopping ear was barely audible.
I heard fragments. “Hemingway’s typewriter… four ounce gloves… human chess… beloved 18th century.”
Galvanized, William gathered Dirk into a huddle with Rob and suddenly they spread into the room, barking orders at terrified undergrads who formed themselves into three ragged rows.
William and Rob stalked from kid to kid with black Marks-a-LotsTM, grabbing heads and writing capital letters on foreheads. Back row. Q. W E. R. T. Y. Middle row. A. S. D.… Front row. Z. X.…
They stepped back to survey their handiwork and Dirk faced the ranks of quaking poetastery, rolling his neck and flexing his massive deltoids.
Dirk turned to me, face speckled with blood and frosted with a malicious laugh. “Rettberg! Sonnet! First line!”
I drew a breath. “When tawdry taps… um… have near run dry…” I ventured.
Dirk jumped forward to the back row and cracked the kid with “W” on his face with a powerful left hammerblow Cantonese martial artists call Dragon Drills the Cave. “H” got a roundhouse kick to the groin. The young woman with the “E” on her head got an elbow to the throat, a move sometimes labeled Lohan Seeks Redemption.
What Rob and William had delivered to Dirk was a human keyboard, an interface of flesh, and I was writing poetry dredged from the sinews of the damned.
That was when Simon Leis strolled in whilst buggering Larry Flynt from behind his wheelchair. The room stopped and gasped. After them came Roxanne Qualls who quickly resolved the problem by administering to Dirk a sedative via a quick and easy suppository. She liked our politics. Tarbell liked our style. Mark Mallory bought us all drinks and we returned to our ongoing discussion of prison reform.