paul maliszewski

The Poet by Paul Maliszewski

The poet and his wife were young, and they were just married. 

They had an apartment near a grocery store and a post office. The poet walked most everywhere. The first floor of their building was brown-painted wood. The second floor was like imitation stucco. Rent on a second-floor apartment was $100 more per month on account of it being less noisy. 

You know, the woman from the rental office told them, nobody living above you and that sort of thing. 

They took a place on the first floor. They didn’t have much money then. 

The poet was, at the time, a promising writer. Several established poets had told him his work displayed a certain promise. He had entered his poems in a national contest, and while he didn’t win one of the prizes, the judges included his name on a list of poets to watch. He had also published a poem in a literary magazine, and an editor at another magazine read and passed on six of his new poems, but wrote a note at the bottom of his form rejection: pls try again. The poet’s wife had a good job, in a nice office that paid health-insurance benefits for their entire family. The poet had a job too, besides the poetry, stocking shelves at an office-supply outlet. It was fairly menial and mindless and didn’t pay well and offered no benefits save a slight discount on office supplies. 

When the baby came, the poet stayed at home with him. Daycare for the baby, when they looked into it, proved too expensive, many multiples more than what the poet earned from his job and his poetry. The choice was plain. 

Raising the baby was hard work. The poet told friends of theirs it was the hardest job he’d ever held, but also the best, far and away the best. That was his pat answer. When anybody asked how it was going, staying at home, he’d just deliver his sound bite. He didn’t even need to think. 

But like so many of the things he repeated, it seemed less true the more he said it. The poet had a friend with a young child and, like him, she stayed at home, caring for the boy. The poet’s friend lived far away, but they wrote back and forth when time permitted and sometimes talked on the phone. The poet felt close to her, though he hadn’t seen her for years. The poet simply could be more honest with her, especially if he took the time. Her child was older than his by a couple of years, so he listened keenly to her stories. She came from his future. She brought back detailed reports of life there. So when the poet’s friend asked him how it was going, being at home, he didn’t give her the usual sound bite. He would never. The poet’s answer, when it came, was halting, however, and confused. It’s weird, how time feels now, he told his friend. The baby affects everything. I mean, even my sense of time. Whole days can fly by, he said, but in another, maybe bigger scheme, everything seems longer somehow. Does that make sense? The poet knew it didn’t make any sense. He only ever asked if he was making sense when he knew full well he wasn’t. I’m afraid I can’t explain it, he said. 

A few days later, or maybe it was a few weeks, who could tell anymore, the poet talked to his friend again. His baby was napping, or was supposed to be, anyway. Her child was at preschool. I’ve been thinking, the poet said, about what I was saying before, about time. His friend said she remembered. Sometimes, the poet said, I don’t know what I do with a day or a week. I can’t tell you what I did yesterday. And if I tell my wife a story about something the baby did, I often try to say, This was yesterday or whatever, but I often can’t remember what day it was. I’ll say I don’t remember and apologize, but I’ll also say it doesn’t matter. Because when I think back to how much time has passed, the poet told his friend, it feels like a great deal of time. He paused, listening back over what he has just said. I’m not sure that’s any clearer, he told her.

The poet’s friend understood, though. I have a friend, she said. She once perfectly captured what you are trying to say. She had asked me how I was doing at home, as I asked you. Like you, I sort of stuttered out a response, not really making my point. Anyway, my friend nodded her head and said, The days are long, but the months are short.

The poet thought about that for a few seconds. It was like trying on a new shirt. You had to look at yourself in the mirror first, maybe turn a bit. The poet decided he liked it, he liked it quite a lot. What his friend’s friend said was true. It was, in fact, perfect. The poet repeated it to himself, listening to the words. That’s it exactly, he told his friend. The days are long. And the months are so short. The poet was impressed by people who could boil something down with no appreciable loss of complexity. There was real beauty in it. Epigrams—the poet thought that was the right word, though he often confused it with epigraphs—could be like sculptures. He wanted to walk around them, admiring them from every conceivable angle.