He had a reputation to uphold. There were two books of his poetry and a play, the latter still occasionally studied at a college or two. He’d survived to the age of ninety-four, so far. On the Maine island to which he and Eleasa relocated twenty years ago, they’d bought the defunct town library, and made it their home. In the perfectly square building with four-sided red tile roof and tiny cupola, the library’s sign-out desk now held their kitchen crockery. It was comforting to be an old couple with a reputation, and his wife still did her part: Eleasa went out almost every day and did watercolors, and her doing that– being so active and talking to people– somehow kept their story alive. She was insistent on always telling anyone she met– locals and visitors to the island in summer– that her husband was, in fact, America’s best known, oldest living published poet.
The only problem at the moment was that a relative of Eleasa’s, with her husband, was arriving on the island on a vacation and expected to see them. It might require a performance, so to speak. It might be only the urinal story, which niece Matty no doubt remembered hearing from Eleasa. Some years ago Jacob had made a bit of a joke of it. The former library, used mostly by students, had a lavatory for the boys, of course. With two urinals side by side, rather than tear them down, the old boys’ room became a kind of tabernacle, a room into which Jacob would invite a male guest as a kind of island secret place, for men only, to show off: stand at the urinal and talk about the art of poetry and invite the other male, whoever he was, to pee at the other one. The urinals were tall, wide and perfect, a style no longer built. For many years it was a kind of diversion, to see how the young male pup—particularly if he had artistic ambitions—would react to the side by side peeing while Jacob talked to him about the art of writing poetry.
“Going out?” he asked Eleasa this morning. As though he didn’t know.
“It’s all out there, the world,” she said, her wooden paint box under one arm and her easel under the other. “I look, I breath, I paint. While you sit in your study and think. You old fart, don’t worry about it.”
“Can’t they stay at the motel?” he implored.
“The motel had a fire. And she’s my grandniece,” said Eleasa.
So Jacob went to his study, under the eaves of the four-sided roof of the library with the cock at the top, and he didn’t have to go outside to see from the weathervane that the wind was coming from the northeast because the water pattern told him so. He sat down with pen in hand. He couldn’t write a word. So he went out after all, and walked around the house five times, through the windblown high grass that threatened to trip him. At 94, five times around was not bad, but he got no new ideas for a poem or play out of it. Meantime his wife, who was not a particularly good painter, was out feeling alive and productive doing a bad watercolor. He had no idea why her jumpy, colorful paintings of island rocks, sea, and birds sold out in her annual late-summer show on the island. Perhaps it was partly because, when they attended the opening every Labor Day, she was the 91-year-old artist wife of America’s oldest living published poet, and the little pony act they put on for the tourists visiting the island affected her sales.
Predictably, long after he’d had an apple and a piece of chocolate cake for lunch, at around four Eleasa arrived back in her flurry of enthusiasm. Her long gray hair, once red and curly, was tangled by wind, wound up behind her neck. “I think I caught it!” she breathed. “The wind above the rocks at the Point.” There it was, her new effort, a large piece of watercolor paper with a sweep of color and some kind of angles of dark rocks underneath—positioned on the table so the young guests could not avoid seeing it later. Then Eleasa began to prepare a salad and baby lamb chops from a local raiser so that the meal would seem like something very special for the guests. Show time.
“You’re in charge of the drinks,” she said.
“I know,” he replied.
Their green Landrover—what a cliché choice of car, he thought—pulled up a little before six.
“Aunt Eleasa, it’s been so long!” said the woman. Big hug. Everyone hugged now, it seemed.
“I hope we’re not imposing,” said the large young man, who, bizarrely, wore a blue blazer, as though he’d come to a yachting event.
Named Vernon, the young man turned out to be a very poor conversationalist. He was a bond trader working in New York and apparently felt rather out of place on a nowhere Maine island. No doubt his wife, niece Matty, had dragged him there after many years of telling the bond trader that she had an eccentric aunt who lived with America’s oldest living published poet. Eleasa and Matty carried the dinner conversation, for which Jacob was somewhat thankful. He poured the wine, a claret, and no doubt his slightly wavering, jiggling performance—he did the same joke, pretending to almost pour where there was no glass—got a delighted laugh out of Matty but a dour look of fake concern out of her boorish husband.
The after-dinner liqueurs—artichoke from Sicily or Madeira—softened them up for the “tour” of the house. The switch was that, to Jacob’s surprise, the young man backed off from the urinal challenge and almost insisted—preferred– to rise prematurely to their prepared bedroom and bath on the second floor, where Eleasa would show him, out their window, the view past the roof eaves of the Point in the distance.
Left with Matty, Jacob found himself getting more enthusiasm from her than he wanted.
“I read—my class read—your play in college,” she said. “I’ve read it over several times since and it’s wonderful.”
“I should hope so,” he said.
“I wondered if you might help me a bit with my own… writing efforts before we leave tomorrow.”
“What do you write?” he asked, not really wanting to know.
“Very bad poetry,” she said.
Most young females, he thought, aren’t aware of how bad their poetry is. He had to admit that her answer was a relatively good sign.
She leaned closer to him at the table to tell him her secret. “I talked my husband into going out with your wife tomorrow morning to see how she does her painting. That way you and I might have time together to talk about writing.”
There was no point arguing with a young woman like her. It was obviously a done deal.
“So humor her if you have to,” said Eleasa at bedtime. “What harm can it do?”
“She managed the whole thing,” he said, settling his head into his pillow. “Do you think that thug gives a rat’s ass about your painting?”
“You’re such an old coot, as cynical as ever,” she said.
In the morning the art couple were ahead of schedule, and Vernon would drive them to the Point, where. no doubt, Eleasa would give him some kind of art demonstration, and maybe even shame him into putting down some color himself—his “feelings’’—on the extra pad that she’d convinced him to carry under his arm.
“You two have a literary meeting of the minds,” she told them before exiting the kitchen door into the bright, breezy Maine weather.
He invited the girl into his writing room, with the window that looked east out to the Atlantic. No doubt she’d have a sheaf of her poetry to ask his opinion about. But to his surprise, she’d brought none of her scribblings. He was at a loss. She sat in his guest’s chair by the window and said, “I hoped you’d show me some of your new work.”
He had no new work, to speak of. His hand, as he put it up to the shelves where he kept his published work and the thin manila folder where he’d put a few lines of inevitably false starts, looked so old. There is a point when what are called “age spots” overwhelm the color on one’s entire hand. And it was not shaking on purpose. He glanced back at this rather bullying young woman, who wore a purple-and-white-print summer dress and who kept smiling at him as though she expected something special to spew from his mouth. Some advice about writing.
He pulled his hand down from the folder. “I’m afraid we are at an impasse,” he said.
“What I’d really like,” she said, “is to see your famous boys’ room. Is that allowed?”
“That was, and still is, the boys’ room,” he replied.
“Oh, who cares,” she said. “I’ve heard about it for so long. Please?”
“I suppose you’d want to smoke a cigar in there, as well,” he said. “That’s how it used to go.”
That was true. When Jacob had still felt proud of his published work, he’d offer a cigar to the man– or men– who’d come over for a cocktail or dinner. The two urinals were really just a joke, a kind of excuse to act in a writerly manner, to have some fun.
Matty rose to her feet.
Well, there was a first time for anything, he supposed. He gave the woman his best old man, cynical and writerly grimace, but she would not desist.
He lead her to the door of the boys’ room, which still had the library, grammar school-style simple metal plate on it that said “BOYS.” She followed him in. Jacob tried to think of that witty remark he used to make about that piece of art in the ’30s, the found object urinal put in a museum by…but he could not remember the name of that famous surrealist artist. He felt tongue-tied, as nervous as a child.
The woman laughed, bent over at the waist with her hands over her face, and said, “I heard about this from Eleasa so long ago. You’re going to think I’m so silly, but I imagined being a man writer and coming here and being able to stand—just there. Do you mind?”
He was thunderstruck, felt a bit light-headed. He could only shrug and then mutter, “Not at all.”
She stepped toward the urinal on the right, right up to it. And then looked at him. “Come,” she said, “humor me.”
Well, he thought, you only live once. At least this was something new, something unanticipated. He could attribute it to his dotage, if necessary. So he slowly stepped up to the urinal beside her. Perhaps if he could think of something literary to say at this moment?
What happened next was too real to be a dream. Somehow it reminded him of his wife bubbling over about the breeze and the world out there that made it so easy for her to put paint on paper. For, after he’d placed himself at the urinal, this woman looked at him. She unbuttoned a button on the thin top of her dress and pulled down the print pattern, letting her bare left breast completely out. “I have a gift for you,” she whispered, lifting her breast, and to his own amazement, Jacob bent down his old head and accepted her gift.