THOMAS BATES


The Price of Air

"Don't squeeze them you terrible man" — the first thing my wife said to me. "Roll them gently between your palms, like this."

This was not an encouraging beginning. I had met other women in the produce section and crash-burned in the asparagus at little more than an awkward pause in the conversation. I'm awful at reinitiating dialogue once it tails off. Lump me with the shy and the bumbling.

"Like what?"

The awkward pause. I dropped my eyes from hers, which is how I deal with a huge silence. My wife wore a thin blue sweater. Her nipples sloped up through the knit, peaked by refrigeration. I stared at them.

"You're not one of those men who lurks in the supermarket just to ogle at women's chests, are you?" She carefully placed two oranges in her handbasket. Nodding — "It's important, you know, to take great care with them."

"Women?" I said. Now I was staring keenly at her fist tucked around the basket's handle, which, as far as I could tell, was the furthest extremity of her body.

"Yes. Women." She laughed. It was the laugh of a schoolteacher who knows a student wants her secretly, a light, incautious laugh. "Do you have one?"

"Excuse me?" I tried to match my eyes with hers but settled instead on a small scar on her left cheek that was unmistakably the shape of a piranha.

"A woman. Do you have a woman?"

"Well," I said, "one does not have a woman so much as a woman is there. I mean, a woman is not just there, but she is not a thing to be had." I stuttered. "She is certainly not a thing."

"Relax." She smiled. "It's nice to be objectified at times. It can make one feel strangely beautiful." For the first time, she seemed unsure of her words. "Ask me to dinner."

"Where will we go?" I was afraid to suggest Greek, my favorite.

"The place is not important."

*

"The Price of Air," I said between bites of my dolmathes. "A biography of the poet James Wright. I'm almost finished."

"Funny," she said. "I didn't peg you for a biographer." She hadn't touched her food. "That's really an awful title for a book, you know."

"It works in two ways, how I see it. One, with Wright's cancer—" I waved my fork at her as I spoke. It's an old, bad habit. "—Two, with his inability to escape the place into which he was born, to leave that regional niche for a new, wide-open air."

"Ferlinghetti."

"Huh?"

"Lawrence Ferlinghetti? Populist Manifesto?" She removed the napkin from her lap and spread it on the table in front of her. "You just quoted him."

"I believe Ferlinghetti's phrasing is 'a new, wide-open poetry'." I had her.

"Poetry, air — what's the difference?" My wife pulled at the edges of the napkin so it danced in the space above her undisturbed meal. "Both are human essentials."

"Wright thought so," I said. "While dying, he took the envelope that contained his last manuscript and ceremoniously scribbled the phrase, 'I can do no more.' Then he stopped breathing."

"What will you do just before you die?" she asked, dangling a corner of the napkin into the humus.

"Oh." I quickly chewed a mouthful. "I'll probably tell my wife that I love her very much."

"She will be there?" She cricked an eyebrow at me. "You will have her?"

"I guess I've never really thought about it."

"No," she said. "I guess you haven't."

"And what about you, Libby, what will you do?"

She closed her eyes and sighed elaborately. Her cheeks lifted with the motion so the piranha scar stretched into a clumsy heart-shape.

"I will be very quiet and very still."

*

The day I proposed to Libby, the scar was a piranha. I have been with her every day since and have seen the thing in only two stages: piranha, heart. She insists that every twenty years or so the scar is a little of both, and so I keep on looking.

I proposed to my wife in a car in the parking lot of a grocery store. We had been making out for almost an hour, and it seemed the sort of thing to do. I didn't have a ring or anything; she picked one out for herself a few weeks later. The whole business was spontaneous, out of barrel, like squeezing oranges instead of rolling them. Of course, we both knew we were ready for marriage. It was more an understanding, really, than a conscious decision.

*

The biography was finished shortly after that, published as The Ohio Poet: James Wright's Life and Work, a title suggested and selected by the publisher. The Price of Air was deemed far too abstruse to appeal to the common reader.

The book did well. Libby and I did well. I was tenured at the university and even managed to stop smoking cigarettes. Libby published three slim volumes of poetry, two of which were nominated for the National Book Award.

She worked as a cashier at a supermarket a few nights each week. She said it was so she didn't feel "entirely useless", but I think she liked to watch the odd array of people that trickled in to buy things from her. The late schedule also helped both of us cope with her insomnia: Libby said she felt productive working nights, and, well, I had a quiet, lightless house. We would eat breakfast together after those late shifts, read a poem or two by a favorite author we shared, Elizabeth Bishop, James Wright, you know, and then she would go to bed, and I would go to teach my classes.

Some evenings when I came home, Libby would still be asleep. I would climb in bed next to her and wait for her to start talking.

"I wouldn't want to drown." She rolled her body on top of mine. "But the shells, they're so pretty."

I waited.

"I was thinking last night about the shells—" Her voice lulled into a whisper. "—about how they get their shapes." The scar was all piranha. "The spirals especially. I wonder if the waves slowly lick them into a spiral, like water rushing down a bath drain."

"Sounds likely." I ran my fingers through her hair.

"So horrible to drown, to die choking like that."

"It's a good thing I've stopped smoking." I smiled.

"Poor James," she said. "Such a bright man. I wonder how many more poems he would have written."

"He could do no more. Remember?"

"I finished my manuscript early this morning." She sighed. "My last poor book of poems."

Libby was thirty-two.

"Have you thought of a title yet?" I asked.

"Of course. Of course, dear."