The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez (9 page)

BOOK: The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez
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Our “Friendly” Poetry Exercise

onday comes way too slowly, because I work all weekend to finish the night crawler poem. I'm excited about stumping everyone while showing Claudine you can write a good poem without rhymes or line breaks. I'm up so late Sunday that I'm half asleep when Jocko and Beanie ring the doorbell.

“My dad's taking me today,” I say.

Beanie's sitting on his BMX, wearing what looks like a leather beret.

“What's that?” I say. “Halloween's two weeks away.”

“It's poetry day. I'm looking poetic.”

“No, you're looking stupid,” Jocko says.

I agree with Jocko and watch as they turn their bikes around and speed off.

Halfway to school, my father gets cut off by a woman in a Volvo.

“Late for Pilates?” he says, then suggests that the roads are crawling with “ignoramuses,” and this gets him going. “You ever wonder, Benny, why the plural of ‘ignoramus' isn't ‘ignorami'? I mean, the plural of ‘octopus' is ‘octopi.'”

“Not something I've thought about lately,” I say.

“I'm serious. You're the one who's supposed to dig words.”

“Dig” is not a word I've heard him use before. “Appreciate” fits that bald head and those wire-rimmed glasses better.

“The plural of ‘octopus' comes from Latin, right?”

“Yeah, the deadest of dead languages.”

“Don't tell Claudine that.”

“The girl you think is tormenting you?”

“No, the girl I'm sure is tormenting me.”

“Is she pretty?”

“Why does everyone harp on that?”

“Just asking. Well, you'll get your way today. You happy with your poem?”

“Yeah, it's about Grandpa and me getting night crawlers.”

“You want to read it to me now?”

“Maybe tonight.”

“Darn,” he says as we pass the elementary school where Crash goes. “Here's another mindless citizen, the woman who double-parks to drop off her kids.”

“Especially when the kids take five minutes to find their backpacks in the backseat.”

“Well said, Benny, but you know what your mom would say,” and we sing in one voice, “‘There're two ways to look at this situation.'” Then he adds, “She actually believes people have reasons for doing inane things.”

“What blows me away,” I say, “is that she's never disappointed by anything, even if it's completely unexpected.”

“Yeah, at least the Alvarez boys are always prepared for a horror show, almost disappointed when it doesn't happen.” He's smiling again, and I can't decide how serious he is.

Finally the woman who's double-parked moves on, and we pass the elementary school. “Just think,” I say, “right now Crash is probably ruining some poor teacher's day.”

“But they love him. He's like the neighborhood dog that barks all day, but you know he just needs to be petted. Last year, his teacher called him ‘adorable.'”


“That's what she said.”

“Did they ever say that about me?”

“Sad to say, no, Benny. The word they used most often was ‘confrontational.' But this new teacher likes you, and you know that being ‘confrontational' is fine with me, as long as you aren't disrespectful.”

We pull up to my school's entrance right before classes start. I get through homeroom, but later, it's hard to concentrate in Mr. Congo's class, even though he has his pep back and is teaching a new concept. I keep opening my folder and rereading the night crawler poem. Claudine's doing the same with her poem, and when she looks up, I want to challenge her to an arm wrestle, ending our conflict once and for all.

When Mr. Congo's class is over, I hang around so I won't bump into Claudine in the hall. Everything's going fine until I notice Sara hovering outside Ms. D's classroom. There's something different about her. She's all dressed up, wearing a short blue skirt and powder-blue sweater. Snug around her neck is a necklace made from small, blue, shiny stones. She looks worried.

“You were supposed to email me,” she says.

I completely forgot. I didn't even check my account over the weekend.

“Oh, man, I'm really sorry.” So I hand her a copy of the poem before we take our normal seats, with her sitting in a group behind me.

Caulfield's in his lifeguard position, looking spiffy in jeans, a white dress shirt, a tweed sports coat, and black penny loafers with copper pennies staring out from the slits. He looks more like a lawyer than a poet.

But here's the odd part. Ms. D is also sitting on the desk with her feet up on a chair, so their thighs are almost touching, and I'm wondering how much weight this desk can hold. She's dressed in light-green slacks and a white short-sleeve blouse, and I can smell her perfume from a mile away. I look around the room and notice almost every girl has dressed up for this event. Before I refocus on Caulfield and Ms. D, I turn to see Sara gaping at me. I give her a “Wassup?” motion with my hands, and when she points to our poem, I realize I forgot to rewrite her copy in line breaks. That was my plan: to write mine in prose, and hers in verse. Who would know the difference when I read it?

Caulfield stands, spreading his hands like a preacher. He solemnly says, “I have gathered you today to celebrate the Word.” Then he and Ms. D break out laughing.

“Seriously, though,” he says. “I'm looking forward to us guessing the titles of your poems, and I've brought some prizes.” Then he holds up a few books, all of which are written by him.

Next it's Ms. D's turn, and she explains her complicated way of choosing the order of readers.

Paige goes first, with Big Joe shuffling behind her toward the front of the classroom. When they get settled, he jams his hands in his front pockets and stares at the ceiling, while Paige glares at everyone, as if to say, “I'm going to read my poem, and if you don't like it, I'm going to smack you.”

“Should I explain the poem,” she asks Caulfield, “or just read it?”

“No, no explanations. The poem should speak for itself.”

Paige takes a deep breath, followed by:


“The king of every party,

I'm dragged by a white worm

and loved by everyone.

I'm a punching bag,

an enemy of tiny birds.

Grab me tightly, and

don't let go.”


“Ah,” Caulfield says, “read it once more.”

“You want to read it, Joe?” she asks, trying to be polite.

“Read what?” he says, and the class laughs. Then Paige recites the poem again.

Meanwhile, I look at Beanie and mouth the word “balloon.” Forgetting to wait for us, Caulfield says the same thing, then gives a short lecture on a few of the images. Most kids couldn't care less about his analysis, though I agree that comparing a string to a white worm is very cool.

A few groups follow Paige and Big Joe, and we all have a pretty easy time guessing the titles. My favorite is Beanie and Bethany's poem:


“I take the sun and

turn it into shade.

Winter stinks! Summer rocks!

And I'm here to prove it.

Unlike sunscreen, everyone loves me,

though there are more kinds of me's

than bathing suits.

I'm a cheap mirror,

I'm mainly worn by teens and rock stars.”


Before anyone can guess the title, Beanie says, “It's sunglasses. Get it?”

We all laugh, and Caulfield almost faints with excitement at “Summer rocks!” but I like the idea of a thousand little mirrors staring up at me as I walk down the beach. I wouldn't have thought of that.

Now there're only two groups left, Claudine and Bob Langley and Sara and me. Claudine and Bob are up first. Claudine is looking a bit wild, her curly red hair puffed out at the sides, like she just stuck her finger in a light socket. She's wearing a red top and tight black jeans. But it's her shoes that get your attention, bright red and pointy, like she's auditioning for
The Wizard of Oz
. She's staring at everyone very seriously while Bob, in baggy jeans and a Red Sox T-shirt, looks like he'd rather be shooting hoops. I'm waiting for Claudine to begin reading, but she throws me a curve by reciting from memory:


“Boundaries of water,

enclosing miniatures of the world—

houses, lawns, and tiny trees.

And then the house trembles—

currents of snow made

by your shaking hand.”


Caulfield is clearly puzzled by the poem, so he asks us for help, but we don't have a clue. He has to respond in some way, so he says, “Very intense, Claudine, very intense,” which is like saying nothing. Then he asks her to recite the poem a second and third time. Claudine is in some poetic happy-happy land, probably thinking if no one can understand the poem, it must be good.

Finally, the class and Caulfield give up. Rather than telling us the title, Claudine goes to her desk and very dramatically retrieves something from her backpack, hiding it until she's back in front of the class. She smiles broadly and lifts a glass ball over her head, shaking it. It's a snow globe.

“Excellent, Claudine,” Caulfield says, asking her to recite the poem again, trying to make us account for every image, though even he can't make sense of the “boundaries of water,” and for a good reason, because it doesn't make sense.

When it's Sara's and my turn, we have to walk past Claudine, who has a glow on, like she just got back from the beach, and I'd really like to upstage her with our poem.

Sara and I get situated, and she still looks very unhappy.

“Finally, a boy carrying the torch for us males,” Caulfield says.

“Whatever,” I almost say, then begin:


“The last automobile of night passes. Grandpa and I crawl on a blanket of grass, surrounded by silence, except for opening and closing of tiny dark doors. Flashlight in my right hand, creatures scatter under its enormous eye, or my grandpa grabs them, half out of holes, or damp noses breaking the surface. Strange creatures, soft-bellied fragments. My grandpa and I, two buddies to the end, reach for a handful of them.”


“A true guy poem,” Caulfield says, “especially if you've ever gone fishing. Am I correct in guessing the title is ‘Night Crawler'?”

I think, and tell him him he's right.

“Will you read it one more time?” And I do. Then he asks to look at my copy, and much to my amazement, he becomes ecstatic over the metaphors, asking the class what the “tiny dark doors” are and to explain how a flashlight can have an eye. I interrupt to say that all the good images are Sara's and that I focused mostly on the memory of my grandfather. This confession seems to be winning over Sara until Caulfield's eyes widen. What he says next ends up being very bad for me. In fact, it would've been better if he had pushed me off a bridge with an unattached bungee cord.

“Is this a prose poem, Benny?” he asks.

I start dancing. “Actually, there's a version with line breaks, but I forgot to bring it.”

“No need, Mr. Wordsmith, because this wonderful poem proves that paragraphs and poetry aren't enemies. But that's not why I'm giving it a prize. Sara's imagery brings the power, but the poem also tells a story about a grandfather and grandson. Your two sensibilities complement each other nicely.”

I look at Sara, who leans over and whispers one word, “Anonymous,” then adds, “That was my whole point, Benny, and you left it out. I think it's sweet you love your grandpa, but we made a deal, and you know I didn't want the poem to be a paragraph.” Finished, she exchanges glances with Claudine, who's looking at me as if I had just kicked Hobo around the block.

Before I can explain myself, tears begin to spot Sara's cheeks, and I finally get how big a deal this is for her.

Caulfield misunderstands the cause of Sara's tears and says, “This is what good poetry can do.” He reaches inside his sports coat and retrieves a clean handkerchief, which he offers to Sara, but she wants no part of it.

“Benny Alvarez,” I hear. I'm expecting to see my mother, but it's Claudine's voice.

Ms. D and Caulfield realize something strange is going on and ask for an explanation, which Claudine, speaking for Sara and every girl in class, is more than happy to provide. She says I didn't send Sara the final version, and that the girls don't think prose poetry is poetry anyway.

“You think we believe Bob wrote any of your poem?” I counter, and I'm not surprised to see every guy in the classroom nodding, though it's clear this discussion isn't about poetry anymore. Most of the guys couldn't care less about poetry. But I'm sure they remember the past classes when the girls took over and treated us like a bunch of morons.

“It might be best for me and Mr. Jones to step outside for a minute,” Ms. D says, obviously wanting to find a solution to this conflict.

To be honest, I'm not too crazy about them leaving right now. I'm wondering if when they get back, I'll be huddled in a corner, tied up, beaten, and gagged. I look around the room, and everyone seems kind of confused. Fortunately, it doesn't take long for Ms. D and Caulfield to return.

“First of all,” Ms. D says, “Mr. Jones and I don't think any prizes should be given. Everyone's poem is so good that we don't want to exclude anyone. Second, we have a question. Are we correct in thinking that most of the girls believe poetry can only be in verse and should rhyme, and that most of the boys think it doesn't matter?” She forgets the other alternative, that most of the boys don't care.

BOOK: The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez
7.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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