by Fred Longworth

He was the kind of poet who threatened
to commit suicide right there at the microphone
if the audience didn't clap loud or long enough,
or if they didn't drop enough money into the tip jar,
or if somebody in the back was jabbering with a friend.

He would pull out this big, serrated commando knife
from a sheath on his hip and wave it around.
Of course, everybody who'd seen it before
knew it was a gimmick, so they didn't take him seriously,
and besides most of us thought it was a rubber knife
--so what if he stabbed himself?

But one Friday night he was drinking,
and slurring his words, and though he had his poems
with him on the stage inside a file folder,
he was trying to recite them all from memory,
and he was messing up his lines.
His images began to fall to pieces
as if someone had taken out too many nuts and bolts.
People were giving each other the look,
and coughing, and recrossing their legs,
and scooting chairs, and whispering.

That was when he suddenly stopped reading,
wadded up his poems, and threw them on the floor.
He pulled out a real commando knife
and raked it across his palm.
He opened up a cut about four inches long
and half an inch deep.

Blood began pouring all over the stage,
and he held up his hand like a trophy for all to see.
I stood up and went over to him,
pulling out a handkerchief to press against his palm,
but he wouldn't let me touch him.

He bolted down the aisle to the front door
of the coffee house, the blood running a staccato line
along the carpet like a red pencil
striking out the poorly written passages of his life.
He charged into the street,
and though the four or five of us who cared
enough to give him chase were right behind,
somehow he evaded our eyes.

After we'd searched the streets and alleys
for several blocks around,
we came back to the coffee house and called 911.
They of course could do nothing except alert the police
to be on the lookout for a crazy motherfucker
with a self-inflicted wound across his palm.

We sat there stunned, the way you sometimes do
when you come upon an intersection
where you often run the light,
and see the wreckage of a car
that risked the same as you, but didn't make it.

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