This story appeared in Lily Lit Review in April 2006. There’s a tradition of bankers, doctors, and insurance executives being secret poets (think T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Lowell, respectively) – why not a poet who’s a secret banker?
This morning I came downtown to meet my agent. He keeps an office in one of the towers across the street from the bank; through his window I can see the revolving doors that spin into the spacious lobby, and the mahogany desk in the sun-lit corner office on the tenth floor. While my agent speaks, I look over his shoulder at the suit coats and Italian shoes streaming in and out of the portals of commerce.
My agent is full of effusive praise, passed on from the editor of my last collection. He says that this summer I have my choice of workshops in Iowa and Vermont, and that a reading tour of Midwestern campuses is coming together for the fall. All I can think about is riding a train from Vermont’s green hills into the canyons of Manhattan and losing myself in ticker tape and call slips.
I keep a suit with the dry cleaner in my agent’s building. The stone-faced Korean who runs the shop never speaks when I collect the suit, pressed crisp, in the morning and bring it back a wrinkled mess in the afternoon. I only wear the suit when I visit my agent. Sometimes the cleaner keeps my suit for two or three weeks, but he never calls for me to come pick it up; he is quietly complicit in my perversion.
My agent has given me a key to the weight room and sauna in the basement, one of the amenities that comes with his rent. He thinks I should exercise more, that too many poets neglect the life of the body for the life of the mind. I put my poet’s uniform—khaki pants, flannel shirt, and cork-soled sandals—in an orange locker and change into my suit. I trade my shoulder bag for a tooled leather briefcase that I keep in the locker, transferring a few important papers before slamming the door. My agent thinks I’m on the treadmill when I’m roaming the streets downtown, admiring the cut of my suit in the plate glass windows.
Sometimes I walk only a block or two, enjoying my facelessness in the crowds of commuters unloading from buses, of secretaries going to lunch in groups of two or three, of young men in striped ties hurrying to meetings. Other times I make a day of it, riding elevators in tall buildings and buying “The Wall Street Journal” at the corner newsstand to carry rolled under my arm. Occasionally I will shadow someone, far enough back they don’t know I’m there, and imagine what it must be like to be on their daily errands.
Among my favorites is the man who sits at the mahogany desk; I know where he parks and where he lunches and what time he leaves with a nod to the secretary and receptionist. And I know, from my careful reconnaissance, that he is away this week, perhaps at a cabin up north with his family or at a mountain resort with his mistress. Maybe he’s even at a poets’ retreat in Iowa or Vermont, feeding a secret muse, but he doesn’t seem the type.
And I know that my suit, with its gray stripes and vest-pocket watch, can be my passkey into that corner office. I don’t even feel nervous on the elevator, arms crossed on my chest and my face wearing the serene look of a man who loves numbers; people in less-well-tailored suits stand away from me, like dun-colored grouse shamed beside a noble peacock.
Head high, face front, purposefully but not hurriedly, I walk down the hall toward the office. People pass and nod at my suit, not at me, but I don’t acknowledge them; I don’t have to.
I push open the glass door into the office suite, nod at the receptionist at her high desk who does not even look up from her magazine, and march across the rich burgundy carpet to the closed door of the office. The secretary’s desk beside the door is unoccupied, and I glance at my watch; it’s eleven o’clock, she must be at an early lunch on the boss’s last day away. My demeanor almost slips when I touch the doorknob, but it’s unlocked and then I’m inside at last, the door swinging softly shut behind me.
The office is as I imagined it, and more. Through the two floor-to-ceiling windows I can see the river on downtown’s northern border and the neighborhoods and church spires beyond; the downtown towers, glass and steel glittering in the bright, cloudless morning; the back of my agent’s head, going bald, in the office across the street. If he were to turn around, he could see me, but he could not know that it is really me at this high window.
Along the inside walls are bookshelves and credenzas—credenzas! There are almost as many little objets d’art, gilt-framed photographs, and certificates of merit on the shelves as there are books. The books are bound in green and red leather, heavy, substantial; taking one down would be an effort worthy of their content. There are no slim chapbooks, no light poems, no gossamer verses on these shelves.
In the soft leather chair, behind the shiny black desk, I can feel the bank’s weight beneath me. I’ve never felt so solid, so real. I open my briefcase on the desk’s blotter and take out my fountain pen and a bottle of ink; in the top drawer I find a sheaf of paper that is almost as thick as vellum, with a rough surface that drinks in my ink as I drag my pen across it.
I’m just starting to revise my memo—fourteen lines on diversifying the bank’s Asian stock holdings, ending in a rhymed couplet on “coin” and “join”—when the office door opens. The secretary is back from lunch, and she’s looking at me with her fists on her hips and her head cocked to the side. In other circumstances, I would think her handsome but not pretty in her navy blue suit and sensibly-bobbed hair; but right now I can only think of her as a spiteful harpy.
Who are you? She demands and scrunches her shoulders for emphasis.
I don’t answer. I toss my sonnet-memo into my briefcase along with my pen and ink. The ink bottle tips and dribbles inside, but I leave it to concentrate on shutting the lid. I can only get one clasp to close.
What are you doing here?
I stand and button my jacket, trying to regain the serenity that accompanied me into the office. If I look at the credenzas I feel more calm, centered, but the secretary is marching toward me with her clenched fists swinging at her side.
I’m calling security, she says, but keeps moving toward me.
She’s between me and the door, and I have no choice but to rush at her with my briefcase against my chest like a battering ram. I strike her only a glancing blow to the shoulder, but it’s enough to spin her sideways so I can dash to the open door. God help me, I have no choice.
The receptionist still won’t look up from her magazine; perhaps she’s used to men in suits running past her, mortified by the corner office. The secretary is running after me, but I have a good head start. Once in the hallway I slow to a brisk walk and move purposefully toward the elevators, paying no attention to the secretary yelling after me or the people peeking over their cubicle walls as I rush by.
I duck behind the door beyond the elevators and take a deep breath in the stairwell, then start down, two stairs at a time with an athletic leap onto the landings. My chest hurts and my shirt is damp under my jacket. My briefcase drips ink behind me like a wounded deer’s blood trail. An alarm sounds on the floor above me—a low regular tone like a luxury car’s gentle seatbelt reminder. It’s almost soothing, this alarm designed not to alarm.
Before I step out the door on the ground level, I straighten my tie and smooth back my hair with a sweaty palm. The door opens into the lobby and I hurry along the marble floor through the crowd of people on their lunchtime money errands. Some turn and stare as my shoulders brush theirs, but I don’t pause.
A blue-suited security guard bursts out of the door behind me and I hear him calling for me to stop. More people turn and look at me, but they part in front of me and I hasten my steps. I am so close to the revolving doors and the freedom of the anonymous streets.
And then coming through the revolving doors into the chaos of the lobby is my agent, deposit slip in hand, blinking at the change from the bright light outside to the dim glow of the bank. I stop and look for another exit, but he sees me and says my name, his voice rising like I’m a question.
And then the guard is beside me, his hand on my shoulder. I spin, thinking wildly that I will run back to the stairs, sprint up fifty-seven flights in Hermes’ wingtips, soar from rooftop to rooftop with my necktie fluttering loose behind me. But now the crowd that had parted before me is closing in around me, and my agent is repeating my name, and I crumple to the marble floor.
My briefcase falls open, spilling ink and paper and galley proofs. My hands are slick with ink, and I cannot reach my sonnet that has flown free in the breeze from the revolving door and is skittering across the floor, dodging legs and feet in its flight. I am naked under my suit and called by my name, and I hide my banker’s face against the cold marble.