CONTENDER

Not yet a short story but longer than Flash Fiction. Is this going any further. Maybe.

CONTENDER

So this guy walks up to me in a bar and says:

‘Wanna be a star?’

My first reaction is to punch the little creep in the head and get back to my beer.

But I know Louis, the bar keep, doesn’t like blood about the place on account of it bringing back too many happy memories and he is currently working on a case of existential angst and does not want to be distracted into levity, so I keep my hand in my pocket and shake my head.

The guy fingers my sleeve for a second and I guess he feels the muscles kind of tensing up in there because he moves the offending digits pretty quick and shoots me a glimpse of his orthodontic work.

I give him the stone eye routine to back up the biceps and he takes a step back.

‘No offence mister.’ he says, ‘but I have a proposition which could leave you and me both in a healthier position financially and socially.’

I ask him if he is suggesting that I am in need of extra monetary largesse or that I am in some way requiring elevation in either class or style.

At this point he realises he has tried to mash the wrong potato and takes a hike while he still has an ambulatory capacity. I make sure he has departed my immediate vicinity before returning to my beverage and the contemplation of the female form across the room. It is at this point that Louis decides to break with his homework on melancholia and enters the conversation, which technically has ended some seconds before, but for the purposes of narrative continuity we will pretend is still extant.

‘What did the Mike want?’ he asks.

‘The Mike?’ I repeat knowing that I have made something of a faux pas if I am correct in decoding this individual’s nickname or alter ego. ‘The Mike’ was a performance poet extraordinaire, and is now the publisher of “100 Ways to Versify” and “The Longer Conga Songa Book”.

‘You sure it was him?’ I ask staring across the room where the little creep is disappearing out of the bar.

‘You may not know this,’ says Louis, ‘but I used to rhyme myself a few years ago. With the right publisher I coulda been a contender. I had a shot at the T S Elliot and I once went three stanzas with Heaney.’

I looked at him. He had gone too far and he knew it.

‘We was only sparring, you know. But I still caught him with a spondee in the second.’

I nodded. We’d all been a few stanzas with Heaney. Some of us had beaten him, caught him with an iambic pentameter or two and then finished him off, sometimes with a spondee in the second. Most of us usually woke up though and didn’t mention our dreams to anyone afterwards. Louis had gone to that place where reality and poetry meet and meld and it’s a very difficult gig to come back from. Louis had given up trying.

‘You sure it was him?’ I asked again.

‘Can’t be two of the Mike.’ he said reverently.

I didn’t think so either, but I thought it gratefully, not reverently. He was a fixer, a maker and breaker of poets. He’d been a mean versifier himself once but the constant composition had got to him. He’d been up there on stage every night, the rhyming, the scansion it had all taken its toll. But he couldn’t let go and when he played an open Mic gig one Thursday in a mean, low, writers group in the back of a busted down library he hit the skids. He thought he was still a big shot but a new kid called Zephania comes at him with lefts and rights, its dub poetry and the Mike ain’t never heard anything like it before. It was all over in a couple of minutes. It could have been seconds but the Zeph had heard Mike once and had some respect for him so he played him along for a few stanzas and then boom! He let him have it.

I never heard of the Mike composing anything except a contract after that. But he could tie up a metrical foot on one of those all right. He’d run the best on the way up and quite of few of those who should have been but they hadn’t been able to escape the Mike. He worked them like they were prose writers. Once he’d got a short volume out of them he’d put them on the road. They’d read till they bled. He’d squeeze them till they couldn’t tell their Dactylic Hexameter from their Trochaic octameter and then he’d dump them. The lucky ones ended up dead pretty fast. There were worse ends. I knew a couple who had hung on for years working the Hallmark Cards gig. He liked performance poets the best of course. I wondered what he wanted with me.

Don’t get me wrong I had a pretty high opinion of myself but there were a hundred raw hungry kids out there snapping at my heels. Hughes murmured about me once before he croaked. Duffy has said some good words and I noticed she’s always avoided me. Heaney. I’m not talking about that. I ain’t no Walter Mitty so it stays between me and him and he’s gone now, God rest him. But I’m glad I had the chance even if it was in an unlicensed gig in a Dublin backstreet. Now I know my limitations.

I thought I knew where I was. A contender? Sure. But for what? Now the Mike was making me an offer. Did that mean I was on the way up or the way down?

I downed my drink and ran after him into the street to find out.

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