Bertram Fitzgerald never found out I wrote him poetry.
Across the street, Bertram would work at his typewriter. He would churn out articles all about the impending war. I pictured steam coming off the keys. Puffs of smoke wafting from the “W” and the “A” and the “R” and all the other letters that make up words like “barrage” and “tyranny.” His articles always appeared in the Gazette on Wednesday’s and Friday’s. I would be the first in line at the newsstand holding out a quarter. Sometimes I would commit his words to memory. To this day, I must be the only person in history who can recite an announcement of foreign aggression that was published nearly fifty years ago.
While he was doing his best to inform the masses, I was seated at the small desk my father purchased for me after my mother died in the avalanche of ‘22. No typewriter, but a sheaf of paper and a fountain pen. Nothing of note to report, but poetry. Poetry in honor of Bertram Fitzgerald and his square jaw. A sonnet for his emerald eyes. A haiku for the hair that insisted on falling down his face. I would write lists of words to describe him and then I would invent new words as though I were Shakespeare. I fancied the idea of future historians discovering my work and marveling at my affection for the man across the street.
The air raid sirens went off on a Thursday.
I remember, because I was still memorizing Bertram’s article from the day before. My father was taking his second shower of the day. He leapt up the stairs to my room wearing only a towel and shouted for me to come down to the basement with him. We had covered a room in tinfoil. While I knew this would be pointless once the war began, it made my father feel better. I acquiesced. We sat down there in the room. He in his towel and me in my afternoon pajamas. We discussed stashing some extra clothes down in the basement so that we’d be prepared the next time. If there was a next time. An End-of-the-World room seems like something you would need to get right the first time.
We sat there for hours until the All Clear went off. I thought of nothing but Bertram the entire time. His shirts stained with typewriter ink. The small birthmark on the left side of his neck. The way he’d fall asleep at his desk after writing for eighteen hours straight.
Here was a man with passion. Here was a man who stood for something. My father was that kind of man until my mother heard news of an avalanche and drove her car to the foot of the mountain so as to let nature do for her what she never had the strength to do herself. My father was a geologist. He loved mountains and volcanoes and things that took lifetimes to evolve. My mother wanted to send him a message. They never recovered her body. It was my fourteenth birthday. She didn’t leave me a present.
The last sound I remember before the phone ringing and my father’s guttural scream of disbelief was the backfiring of a moving van muffler.
That was Bertram. He was moving in.
In some ways, he became the spiritual reincarnation of my mother. She went away and he appeared. My father stopped caring. He began editing geology textbooks. He never went out into the field. Not even when other scientists began calling him, asking him to look at aberrations that were appearing in their studies. Something was going on. Something deep inside the earth. He needed to pay attention and he needed to make others pay attention as well. He refused. He left the phone off the hook. Across the street, Bertram was trying to sound an alarm. Every alarm. There was poison in the soil, there was poison in the populace.
My father refused to panic or prepare. He simply went to the store and purchased enough tin foil to cover a small basement room. He would not do one thing more.
How do you love someone without uttering a word to them? How do you create the bond or connection necessary to imprint upon a person’s heart without so much as an exchange of pleasantries? A brief communication where basic personal information is presented and accepted. How did Bertram work his way inside me without even knowing how deeply he had burrowed? I had no answers for these questions. Love would not return my calls.
On Friday, the headline in the Gazette read “Evacuate.”
There was no article from Bertram. There was not much to the paper that day at all. A few articles about the skirmish overseas that had quickly escalated. Promises of more sirens. No more warnings, no more second chances. The animals were behaving erratically--even the domesticated ones. Dogs were underneath kitchen tables refusing to be moved. Food had suddenly lost its taste. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
I walked straight from the newsstand to Bertram’s house. There was no more time for anything but romance and catastrophe. The world had decided that waiting was no longer an option for any of us. I had a few poems tucked in my knapsack. Those would have to do. I would read them to Bertram. I would ask him to listen. If the sirens went off, I would speak over them. I would scream if I had to. I would make myself heard. Then, when I was done, he would ask me to go away with him. Somewhere underground where he could form a movement to recreate civilization in a better image. I would have to leave my father behind in his tin foil room. I was prepared to do so. I was prepared to lose what little I had left for the everything that was Bertram and my love for him. I would even abandon the rest of my poems.
He was standing at the front door when I got there. A box in his arms. The typewriter was inside it, I was sure. A few copies of the Gazette on top of it. He must have wanted to keep a few of his best memories. His publication legacy. An entire life in a box that could be held by those slender arms. I would hold it for him if he wanted me to. I would hold up the whole world.
“Oh,” he said, his very first word to me as I stood on the sidewalk facing his house, “Hello. Do you need something?”
I needed him to invite me inside. I needed him to tell me that there would be no underground. That there would be no resistance to any of what was coming, but what was coming was not a moving force, but a shifting of perception. We were already past the epilogue, but we told ourselves we weren’t, because we could still continue to turn all the blank pages. I needed him to be truthful with me and then I needed him to take me inside his house which I had only ever seen from my small bedroom window. I needed him to lay down with me on his bed, put his arms around me, and let me fall asleep knowing that I might not wake up.
Knowing that it might be better if I didn’t.
You’re Bertram Fitzgerald, I wanted to say, You saved my life and you didn’t even know it.
It was true. A man to love--or, more accurately, fixate on. Articles to read and digest and absorb into my mind. Something to create a steadiness as the world around me tilted. He had given me all of this and I wanted to tell him so.
The lips part.
The words form.
The voice prepares.
He’s looking at me.
I know I’m out of time.
The sirens blare.
He looks up.
Then back at me.
A shrug of the shoulders seems to say “I’m sorry,” but that may be an adjustment of my recollection. He might have just--
Run away from me.
Had I spoken before the sirens went off, he may have stayed. He may have been too curious to run even with danger looming. He may have wanted to know how he saved my life. He may have wanted to save me again in spite of knowing how he had done it the first time. He may have given me more time in the face of time flashing out in front of us.
He may, he may, he may.
Bertram Fitzgerald was never published or heard from again. The pages turned past the epilogue, but none of them featured his name. I kept writing poetry. I wrote a poem everyday for three years, and then I took what I had, burned it, and began again.
Six collections later, I now get to give talks like these in places that were built after we realized that some of us were going to survive the unsurvivable. One of the collections was dedicated to my mother. Another to my father. The rest were dedicated to Bertram.
Each poem is a poem I would have liked him to hear. To read. In many ways, he taught me how to be a writer even if journalism and poetry would often make for an unhappy marriage.
Had I managed to speak that day, I might never have written the poems that began to recreate the culture we currently have. Not to pat myself on the back, but I have been given the honor of First New World Poet, and it’s a duty I take seriously. I believe I’ve done some good. The same way Bertram did good. The same way my father refused to even though I no longer blame him for it. He was alive until last year even though he never left the house again after the day we were ordered to evacuate and didn’t. It took me months just to get him out of the tin foil room. It took even longer to get him to read my poems.
When he finally did, he asked me who they were about. Who had brought about all this inspiration in me?
“His name was Bertram,” I said, hoping the sirens wouldn’t go off again until I could get the words out, “He lived across the street.”