The old building stood on a large lot just outside the center of the city; with money from stimulus grants renovations were undertaken and the building was for a time covered with a lacework of lattices and blue tarps that flapped in the occasional breezes. When the improvements were done it was seen that they primarily focused on the children’s section, with new electronics, sound-absorbing bamboo floors and soft rugs on which children sat, entranced, turning the pages of colorful books.

But held in a lower level room, two stories beneath the gleaming children’s section, the town had long funded a writing class. Fluted mahogany columns ran from floor to ceiling, where a circular lamp provided dim illumination, and the heavy dark rectangular table was surrounded by spartan wooden chairs. For more than eight years Joyce had watched the writers come, and stay, and eventually leave after discovering that, among the many things they may have been, writers they were not. They were generally no better or worse than her regular students from the community college, other than the surprisingly unimportant fact that they were there because they wanted to be there, rather than because social inertia or a parent’s urging mandated their presence.

Unlike her regular classes, which required hard-working stageplay and sometimes frantic efforts to elicit a response from the rows of tired, distracted students, even from a veteran teacher like herself, the writers’ group allowed ample time for simple observation. She bore silent witness to the faces of participants (for it seemed both presumptuous and disrespectful to call them students) as they anxiously presented their creations, often smiling nervously at the beginning and voicing preemptive self-deprecating comments. The participants were overwhelmingly older women whose lives had at last left them the space for some creative self-expression, and Joyce could see that the encounter carried all the weight of baggage of their long lives, could see it on the trembling lips, hear it in the quavering voice.

“I’m not very good,” they would say, “I’ve only just started.” This even though they had been writing for decades, filled volumes and boxes with text, had thought for years, as they folded laundry or typed numbers into forms, of this very moment, and how, if it went just as they hoped, it might redeem them. “Be gentle,” they would warn, smiling anxiously before beginning, and of course the other women were gentle, but the presenter knew that what that gentleness concealed would never be revealed.

Joyce well knew it was a terrible, terrible cliff to stand atop, particularly in the high, gusting winds of projected self-consciousness, with no net below, just the looming depths of self-abnegation. She also knew that it was her job to lessen the risk with cushioning jokes and laughter and playful comments to make it all light, light, light; to gently lead them away from the cliff that threatened the loss of a last dream of self-realization, toward a safe park picnic area where they all might share cucumber sandwiches and tea and everyone got home safely. “Till next month!” she called, waving.

But since Sam’s death three years before Joyce had much, much less motivation, or patience, for such trivialities. She knew, and even felt, that she should be kind, but with each passing month kindness seemed to have less sense or purpose. Sam had been a nice man, mildly corpulent and thoroughly jocular, a life’s companion who not only understood her but sensed her, looked at her with those blue eyes as he prepared fish for dinner and saw all. She immediately exhaled the toxins of the day, plopping her books on the counter. “Ah,” he said, not even bothering to interrupt his cutting, “So that’s how it is,” he said knowingly. And sure enough, that how it was and how it had been, for a long time.
He had vacated the stage quickly as such men do and she rushed to the hospital to find him already dead. She looked at his strange blue face as he lay on the gurney in the emergency room, where they had given her fifteen precious minutes for “transition”, and felt only shock, anger, disbelief. She even understood, from all of her reading and listening, that such reactions were entirely predictable, and she detested herself for having such thoughts. She wanted only to tear them out of her brain and smash them over the insipid self-important emergency room doctor’s head, thus demolishing him and rejuvenating her dear husband. But she could not reach the thoughts or remove them and so stared for her fifteen minutes at Sam’s blue face and went home.

She went home and stood in the silent kitchen; there were even implements on the counter, still damp, from his abbreviated preparation of the day’s meal. She reached out her arm and swept them way, then screamed harshly, all the while thinking that here she was, doing the requisite screaming – was it primal enough?

Thereafter she sat alone in the kitchen eating some concoction she thawed or microwaved. Eating seemed offensive, blasphemous and she ate with a decisive anger, shoving the food down her throat to get the job of living done. Co-workers, long time colleagues and friends, urged her to take some time off, it was such a blow, give herself time to “heal”, to “come to acceptance.” Take time off for what? To grieve? What difference did grief make? What would she do, stand in her kitchen like a post for six months? If she thought that it would make a difference she would do it, but she didn’t, not at all. When an old friend of hers, apologizing, said that after her cat died she no longer wanted to live Joyce almost removed the mushroom from her fork and stabbed her in the eye. Her friend, ever sensitive, saw the impulse, fell silent, apologized again, acknowledging the triviality of her comment, and Joyce felt terrible, knowing that she was acting like a child deprived of her favorite toy, everybody had to go through these things, so hurry up and deaden up and get on with what’s left of your life, as a wiser, deader, stiffer person.

These were the thoughts she had as she ate some food and prepared for the month’s writing class. Picking up her books and stuffing them in her satchel, the same one Sam had given her just a few weeks before his death, she turned and headed through the breezeway to the garage. As always, she was besieged by thoughts, the first was whether she should hook a pipe up to the exhaust and have it done with; but she sensed she would screw it up and besides it was melodramatic and vain and stupid. She knew all the narcissistic writers who had killed themselves, from Hemingway to Plath to Mishima to Crane, all motivated by and forever remembered for their preoccupation with themselves as well as their artistry. Then she thought about the sensitive faces of her participants, and her impulse to scream at them, “Don’t you know it doesn’t matter? Not at all? What the fuck are you so worried about?” But she knew that such a response would be stupid and hurtful and would accomplish nothing. So she went on, driving through the gathering evening until she pulled up to the old library, pulled open the wide glass doors, and, her head resolutely bent forward, walked in.


As usual she arrived a little early, particularly since older writers, those who have, or at least believe they have, responsibilities at home as well as their covert sense that, as evolving writers, they should rebel against constraints, even those of time, typically rushed in five or ten minutes late, unaware that thirty seconds before at least two of their classmates had done precisely the same.

But seated this time at the other end of the long table, in the only other chair with restraining arms, having arrived even before her, was a stolid-looking grey-bearded man who lay thick fingers along the pile of books before him. He nodded to her without smiling when she entered. She introduced herself as Joyce, the instructor for the class, and he said, hello Joyce, I’m Nicholas.

“What do you like to be called, Nicholas? Nick? Nicky?”
“Nicholas,” he said, again without smiling.
“Okay,” she said, “Nicholas it shall be.”

The other participants arrived and settled themselves. Nicholas was introduced and really revealed very little about himself, just that he appreciated being allowed into the group (no one who paid the nominal fee and wanted to participate was ever rejected) and hoped he could contribute something.

The first presenter of the evening was Barbara, an older woman who read an essay about being laid off from a job at which she had been employed for many years. The essay described the unfairness of the situation and her sadness at being treated unfairly, at being rejected by those who she thought would protect her. Though the general tenor of the essay was angry, Barbara became tearful in a rather fierce, proud way. The essay did not have any suspense or narrative structure but simply described an unfortunate event in her life. When she was done she firmly placed her notebook on the table, briefly apologized for her tears, then said,

“There. I feel a little better.”
“Good, good,” another participant cooed, “it’s good to get that out.”
“Such a difficult situation – it’s terrible when unfair things happen,” said Rebecca, a thin woman with striking blue eyes and a soft voice.
Joyce wanted to say something about setting up the event by discussing what had happened before, perhaps her career at the company, as well as how the event had changed her, when Nicholas leaned his bulk forward and everyone fell silent, waiting for him to say something.
“Was it a complete surprise?” he asked, “Were there any warning signs?”
Barbara fidgeted, “Well, I had received written warnings over the previous couple of years, I was in the hospital…”
“Oh, were you ill?” Nicholas asked, matter of factly.
Barbara hesitated, silent for a while as everyone patiently waited, “Well, yes, it was alcohol, there was so much pressure, and I relapsed a couple of times…”

“That would have been interesting to hear about,” Nicholas said, before Joyce could interject the same comment, “Was the court involved?”

There was a general indraw of breath around the table, and Joyce leaned forward and raised an arm to begin to interject her soliloquy about this not being a therapy group, about participants’ right to hold clear boundaries, but Barbara reacted quickly.

“No! Certainly not!”

Nicholas put his hands on the table and said, “No?”

All eyes flashed back to Barbara. Her raised head slowly lowered, “Well, after I was arrested, a judge, he was really very nice, said that I couldn’t do all this myself, that I needed to let myself get some help…”

There was silence for a while. “We all need help,” another woman said.
Nicholas leaned back in his chair. “Are you sober now?”

Barbara straightened back up, jutting her chin. Joyce broke in, “Barbara, you don’t have to say anything you don’t want. This isn’t…” she almost said, “a courtroom” but thought better of it.

“Oh, it’s okay,” Barbara said, her head lowering again, “I’ve been sober for six months – since the day they let me go…” She looked at Nicholas.

“That’s the story,” he said.

Joyce talked a little then about rising action, tension, looking occasionally at Barbara, who was nodding.

Rebecca read a piece about traveling in the west and meeting some Native Americans. It was well written and refreshingly vapid after the drama of Barbara’s disclosure. Other participants commented on how they felt like they were really there, that they could see and hear the people involved.

“Nicholas, are you ready to present something?” Joyce looked at her watch, “Then again, there isn’t a lot of time…”

“I may as well do something,” he said, “That’s why I’m here.”
“At least get started,” Joyce said.

Nicholas pulled a notebook from the pile before him and turned pages. “It’s a poem.”

It was a poem about loss. Nicholas looked directly at her occasionally as he read it. It was about a certain kind of loss, trying to do something of significance and almost doing it but then realizing that one has failed and it is not going to be done. It was a poem about the loss of uncompleted things. He even used a phrase about “a post in the rain” on the sidewalk at midnight. When he looked at her Joyce wondered, a little absurdly, if this was some kind of setup, if Nicholas knew about her situation and had come to create this moment. The poem was powerful and Nicholas had a deep reading voice that carried the drama well. When he was done there was silence as the other participants struggled to deal with the power of the presentation as well as the realization that his work was far superior to their own. There was the difficult realization that not only was he a man among women, but he was a man who appeared to be more skilled than the women who were called upon to accept him. Uncomfortable hierarchies were recreated in the room.

Nicholas may have realized the situation but just closed his notebook as if familiar with the circumstances. “Thank you,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” Joyce said, quickly, “Well, we can begin again next class…”


When Joyce arrived home that night she was aware that she felt different, a little excited and apprehensive about what was going on, as she had so many years ago when she was just beginning to teach. The class had some real drama, with Barbara’s revelation and Nicholas’ powerful poem. She realized that, as with all good classes she was walking a fine line between the task of educating participants about the subject at hand and the expression of human feeling and impulse that was beyond anything that could be contained in a classroom. But they weren’t really students and it wasn’t really school, it wasn’t even happening on campus, they were a group of older people finding their way… She fixed a cup of tea and sat, thinking, for once not about Sam and her loneliness and anger. She wondered again if Nicholas somehow knew about her situation and had come, or was sent to bring some message to her. She remembered how her mother, an immigrant, had believed all that nonsense about fate and how life was a delicate dance with unseen forces and how every thought, every gesture, had meaning and influence. Joyce had progressed in school in part to get away from the paralyzing effect of such superstitions. Joyce suddenly realized that her mother too had died while she was away, far away at graduate school in California, and she had returned only to view her mother’s body at the wake. Was there something about that, being away during people’s final moments of crisis, was it her destiny to view the bodies of the departed, to be the coin collector at the entrance to Hades?

For the first time in a long time Joyce laughed softly, shaking her head as if to rid herself of the nonsense within. But she found herself thinking of the first time she had met Sam, at a conference at which he was selling books about cooking. She was wasting time wandering between workshops and, in passing, she commented, when he greeted her, that she knew nothing about cooking or food, except how to eat it, and even with that she sometimes had trouble. As she walked past he had asked her if she was willing to learn, and she turned back and said, a little sharply, frankly, no, it seems like an awful bother about simple sustenance. Well then, he said, smiling at her, completely unaffected by her mild abrasiveness, perhaps you will let me take care of you in that way.

She then really looked at him, realizing what was going on and that this moment might at least be more important than wandering around the huge hall. He was short and rounded in an appealing way, as if he enjoyed what he did and understood, unlike her, that momentary pleasures were important, in fact critical. They ate together that evening and slept together that night and in the subsequent years he had a calming effect on her agitation, with his immediacy and awareness. He had entered into her life unbidden and departed without warning.

She wondered again if she should have done more with Sam, said more, appreciated more. She wished she had known, but of course it is impossible to know, life is just the kind of cluster fuck that happens, or almost happens, or happens too often or, perhaps, never happens at all. It had been what it had been and she had done what she had done and that was the end of it.

“So fuck it,” she said aloud to no one, putting her empty cup carefully down on the counter, “Fuck it all.” She thought that she needed to learn better to say fuck it, to let go of things without over –examining them. But then she wondered if she really should say fuck it less, that she had been passing over moments without really seeing them and so felt a need to go back and reclaim precious moments that had been missed. Both observations seemed to have value, to let go, to leave behind, and yet to pay attention, but so often they were in conflict…

After a subsequent class meeting Joyce dawdled afterwards as she typically did, so any of the participants could approach her. She found herself alone with Nicholas, who had delivered another powerful poem that night and seemed to be moving a little more slowly, not gathering his things and departing decisively as he usually did.

“So Nicholas, are you retired?”

He stopped and gave a small smile. “I suppose so. If what you’re asking is am I no longer doing what I did to support myself financially for most of my life.”

“Yes,” she said, “I suppose it is a more complicated question than it appears. And what is it that you did?”

He said that he had been a family physician, nothing glorious, just another office-bound health service provider, cranking out the requisite number of units each day.

“A difficult job,” Joyce said, “and it sounds like it was difficult.”

He looked at her and was silent for long moments. “Well,” he said eventually, “Over the course of a day or a week or a month people came in and told their stories. They blurted it out, what worried them.” He squinted and looked off to the side, ”You know, I noticed eventually they would be surrounded by a kind of light as they talked, as they said what their problem was at that moment. Poverty, anxiety, loneliness, chronic pain, fear of death.” He shook his head. “Problems I could do virtually nothing about. So I said something inane or gave them a script for some pills and sent them out into the hallway and invited the next one in.” He looked at her again. “Doing that a few thousand times makes you a very special, high class kind of asshole.”
There was silence for a while.
“Maybe that’s why you write about loss,” Joyce said.

“Yes. I was asked to dance over and over but was never able to dance, never free to move, or at least I thought so. That and other things…”

“Nicholas,” Joyce said, suddenly “I’d like to ask you to read your poetry at a conference that’s happening in a few months.” In fact she had been thinking about asking him for weeks, the conference had openings for new writers and Joyce hadn’t offered anyone for years. “Just think about it and we can talk sometime.”

For the first time Joyce saw Nicholas smile fully. “Well, isn’t that nice. Thank you for that kind offer. I don’t know if I feel ready to do it but… I’ve been preparing these things for years, like everyone…”

“It’s been my pleasure,” she said, piling her books and papers, “You have talent, experience, you read well. Fundamentally,” she found herself saying for the first time, “Writing is about giving to others. I know in this day and age of over-publication it sounds a bit inane, but…”

Nicholas laughed shortly, “You mean writing poetry is not about becoming rich and famous?”

“Face it,” Joyce said, picking up her things and walking toward the door, “Like everyone else, you want to be heard.”

As the weeks transpired Joyce found herself a little lighter; she knew that it wouldn’t make any difference to Sam, but somehow it made it a little easier to understand that he would not want her to miss anything significant. Her class was alive in a way it had not been for many years. Even the older women were preparing stories and poems that meant something to them, that grew from risk rather than attempts at safety.

One class Nicholas read a poem about a woman he had loved. He believed she loved him too but then there were complications, reservations. He gave his heart fully but it was not received and so existed in this nether land where love is offered but only a shadow of it meets with the other. The heart is forever suspended there, out in the open, vulnerable, doomed.

Some of the women wept after he finished reading the poem, having gotten beyond the gender thing. One winter night Joyce decided to take the subway in to avoid having to drive back at night. When class was over she asked Nicholas to wait for a moment; when they were alone she told him that the poetry conference was in a few weeks and asked whether he would be reading.

He looked a bit more puffy than usual. He dropped his head then looked at Joyce.

“I won’t be reading at the conference, Joyce. I’ve been wanting to let you know.” He hesitated. ”I’ve been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Stage four. It’s metastasized to the bone and brain… This is my last class.”

Joyce had difficulty breathing. Something erupted in her, unknown and unknowable.

“I want to thank you for all you’ve done… I was only able to get started,” Nicholas went on, “I wanted to tell the class, but I just didn’t have it in me.” He looked at Joyce again, “I know it was hard having me in the class. It was great for a while…”

Joyce had recovered enough to speak. “I’m so sorry, Nicholas. Is there anything I can do? Of course you’re welcome to read at the conference anyway… if you can…”

“No,” he said shaking his head as he leaned with both hands on the table, “I can’t do the dying poet thing, with the mandatory applause at my courage and sacrifice.” He gave a small laugh. “Not that.”

On the way home on the subway Joyce found her heart pounding. She wondered if she had done the right thing, for him, for all of it. Tears were streaming down her face. A man in a suit approached her and asked her if she was alright and if he could do anything to help.

“No, no” she said, looking up at him through glistening eyes, “It’s just the way is it.”

He nodded, backing away across the car.

Two months later, after reading Nicholas’s obituary in the paper, Joyce did read Nicholas’ poetry at the conference. She talked a little about him and read a selection of his work, including the poem about almost being loved. The audience, just as he predicted, applauded dutifully and commented with forced smiles about the quality of the work, but no one asked to see it or hear it again.