The Price of
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.
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.
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
"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.
She laughed. It was the laugh of a schoolteacher who knows a student
wants her secretly, a light, incautious laugh. "Do you have one?"
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."
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."
we go?" I was afraid to suggest Greek, my favorite.
"The place is
of Air," I said between bites of my dolmathes. "A biography of
the poet James Wright. I'm almost finished."
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."
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.
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."
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
"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.
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.
when I came home, Libby would still be asleep. I would climb in bed
next to her and wait for her to start talking.
want to drown." She rolled her body on top of mine. "But the shells,
they're so pretty."
"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."
I ran my fingers through her hair.
to drown, to die choking like that."
"It's a good
thing I've stopped smoking." I smiled.
she said. "Such a bright man. I wonder how many more poems he would
"He could do
no more. Remember?"
my manuscript early this morning." She sighed. "My last poor book
Libby was thirty-two.
"Have you thought
of a title yet?" I asked.
Of course, dear."