Stealing Your Best Lines

for Maugham, for Crowley

…the cuffs of his sleeves stained with graphite, soft testifying to the rare conversation on the terrace of the cafe. He didn’t say much, he wasn’t a talker — he stuttered, and was self-conscious about it — then, too, his was a long wit, not a quick one; he had a knack for shaping a scene, but he had to tumble it around in his mouth first like one of those rock-polishing machines hapless uncles give to twelve year old boys. By the time he’d found the words he needed, the moment had receded, carried away on the tide of conversation, so much driftwood on a sea of good cheer.

But he recognized wit when he heard it, and cherished it. His pockets were stuffed with scraps of paper, pieces of overheard conversations, fragments of personalities; they overflowed onto his shirt sleeves, his pant legs (if he had a pen), the inside of his arms. He taught himself shorthand, and to write it ambidextrously, so he’d double his writing space. At the end of a particularly fruitful night, he’d stumble home, face tattooed like a sailor’s, words written backwards so he could read them out of the mirror in the tepid light of dawn.

He was never more than a poor typist, but he’d pound out all his notes during the day, fingers hunting uncertainly, laboriously among the keys, getting it all down.

Years later, the cafe found themselves transformed, pinned like butterflies in his novels and his plays. Fruitlessly they cast through their memories for his face, his voice; he faded from them like a ghost, the hitch of his stutter echoing meaninglessly away.