BY CHRISTINE BRANDEL
Read by the author
You were reading my newspaper. The people who lived here before me had it delivered and once I’d moved in, it kept coming but no bill ever did.
I was standing at the kitchen window, looking out as far as I could see. I had a cup of tea in my hand, but it was too hot to drink yet.
“Glen Stephens died,” you said. I looked over at you and saw your right index finger resting on the newspaper. You were reading the obituaries. The name Glen Stephens meant nothing to me, so I turned back to the window.
You did not find this response satisfactory. “Wasn’t he your neighbor?”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Two houses up.” I couldn’t see the house from the window, but I imagined it.
“The one you said was a dick?” you asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Two houses up.”
“You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”
I took a sip of tea. It was still too hot, but now it was in my mouth so I had no choice but to swallow. I could tell you were dissatisfied. “I didn’t,” I said.
“You said he was a dick,” you reminded me.
“I said that when he was alive,” I said. “If anything, you’re the one speaking ill of the dead.”
You turned the page. The room was filled with your desire to say something more. Your eyes scanned the page. “I don’t speak ill of the dead,” you mumbled under your breath.
I took another drink. I turned my head towards you and then turned it back to the window. I was looking at nothing now, just looking out. “That’s a stupid rule anyway,” I said. I knew I was giving you what you wanted—words—and I guessed that was okay with me.
“It is not,” you said. “It’s good manners.”
“Hitler?” I said. “I’m not allowed to speak ill of Hitler?”
My head was still turned away, but I knew you were scowling. I quite liked your scowls actually.
“Don’t be contrary,” you said.
“I enjoy it,” I said. “Stalin?”
“Stop it,” you said even though you didn’t really want me to.
“What about that man who killed your dog when you were in elementary school? What was his name?”
“Old Man Flagstaff?”
I smiled. I couldn’t believe you actually used those words to refer to a human being. “Yeah, him. He must be dead by now. If I said he was a bastard, you’d be upset?”
“De mortuis nihil nisi bonum,” you said.
I did not know what that meant. I was neither impressed nor deterred. I took another drink of tea. Its temperature was good, its taste perfection. No one spoke for a moment. In another room my dog shook his head, the tags on his collar jangled. The morning sun outside the window was so bright, everything in the garden was white with light.
“Mugabe?” I broke the silence between us.
“He’s still alive,” you said.
“I’m making a point,” I said.
You folded the newspaper closed.
The Poets Registry Office
Read by the author
The office was in the center of the strip mall, between the Chinese buffet and the shop where everything costs a dollar. A white woman pulled open the glass door—the large bell hanging from the top crashed into it as it shut behind her. The glass did not break, but it was an accident waiting to happen.
There were a few people sitting at desks behind a counter. A woman in a blue blouse whose race is deliberately left unspecified stood up and approached. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“I’m here to register my white girl anger,” the white woman said. She set her bag on the counter.
“This is the Poets Registry Office, right?”
“Yeah, but . . .”
“Right,” the white woman said. “I’d like to register my white girl anger.”
“Um, that’s not what we do,” the other woman said. “We just take down poets’ names in case anyone in the media ever wants to know where to get a poet’s reaction to a news event.”
A white man at a desk laughed. Let’s say his name was Gregor because the author of this story is imagining him looking a bit like Kafka. The woman in the blue blouse turned and shot him a look. “Shut up, Gregor,” she said sharply. “They might one day.” She turned back to the white woman. “I think maybe you’ve got the wrong place,” she told her.
“But the thing is, I’m an angry poet. A woman. I’m allowed to be angry, you know,” the white woman said angrily.
“Right, sure, that’s cool,” the woman in the blue blouse said. “But um, what do you want me to do about it?”
“I have important things to say, but no one listens because I’m white. Do you know how unfair that is?” the white woman asked.
“Oh no you didn’t just say that to her,” a man in a pink shirt said. He shook his head, judging her as he filed away papers in his bottom drawer.
“I’m angry on your behalf as well, you know,” the white woman said to blue blouse. “And his,” she added, pointing. “I’m sure your poetry is very erotic. I find the gay stuff very sexy. I bet you only use the word bitch ironically. Same as me. Are you married now or what?”
“Are you talking to me?” the man in the pink shirt said.
“You deserve to be heard,” the white woman said.
“Oh, don’t worry, my voice gets heard,” pink shirt said.
“Everyone’s voice deserves to be heard,” Gregor said.
“Shut up, Gregor,” the pink shirt man and the woman in the blue blouse said in unison.
“Yeah,” the white woman said. Her hand tightened into a fist.
The woman in the blue blouse turned back towards the counter. “Listen, ma’am, we all appreciate your anger, but—”
“But you won’t let my voice be heard!” the white woman interrupted.
“We hear you loud and clear,” the woman in the blue blouse said. She was getting irritated now. She reached under the counter and pulled out a piece of paper. “You can fill this out. It’s all we’ve got—fill it out and we’ll put it in our files.”
“Can I write that even though I’m white, I’m also angry?” the white woman asked.
“I really couldn’t care less,” the other woman said.
“I need a pen,” the white woman said. “Sorry—I only write on my laptop now.”
“Of course you do,” another man said under his breath.
The white woman looked over and saw that he was missing his arms. “Are you a vet? You deserve to be heard,” she said. “I didn’t park in your parking space. I never do. Even for errands, I never do.”
The man stood up from his desk. He leaned over and picked up a pen with his mouth, walked to the counter and dropped it down. “Here, use this,” he said.
“That was amazing,” she said. She got a tissue out of her purse and wiped the pen before picking it up. “You’re so inspiring.”
“I fucking am, aren’t I?” the armless man said. He moved back to his desk, just as a phone rang. He, the man in the pink shirt, and Gregor looked at the woman in the blue blouse. She rolled her eyes and rushed to her desk.
“Poets Registry,” she answered. “Oh my god, when was this?”
The men looked up at her. The white woman also looked at her.
“Of course, of course,” the woman in the blue blouse said. “Yeah, I’ll hold.” She put her hand over the receiver and told the office, “There’s been a mass shooting at the girls’ school. And they want a poet’s reaction.”
The men jumped up from their desks eagerly. The white woman also looked eager. And angry.
“This is our chance,” the woman in the blue blouse said. She stretched the phone cord and moved towards the filing cabinet. “I wonder who they’ll want.”
The entire office stood and waited. There were police sirens in the distance.
“Yeah, I’m here,” the woman in the blue blouse said. “Uh huh, right.” She stepped back and turned, holding out the phone. “They want you, Gregor,” she said.
The glass door shattered.