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Two Old Poets, One in a Rush | A Poem by Donal Mahoney

Tom was having trouble with outgoing emails. Some would come back with a message from the “mail administrator” about a server problem, a message Tom didn’t understand. He had no other problems with his computer that day. And he couldn’t tell from the message which server was at fault—his or the server on the receiving end.

So he decided to send an email to Bill, an old friend whose
technological savvy was probably less than his. He wanted to see if
Bill would receive the message and send a reply, confirming that
someone, anyone, was getting his emails.

It’s best to admit upfront that both Tom and Bill are less than
technologically astute. Perhaps that’s because they’re closer to
eternity than most. Computers came late into their lives. Both are now in the home stretch, so to speak.

According to Tom, Bill is so old he wrote his first poem with
cuneiform when that was all the rage. And Bill tells their
friends–those still above ground–that Tom wrote his first poem with a quill. All this may or may not be true with both men given to hyperbole in lighter moments, few as those moments now may be.

Tom’s memory isn’t what it once was, either. Nevertheless, he had
high hopes of getting in touch with his old friend when he sent his
email to Bill but he received no response for days. Finally Bill’s
answer arrived.

Bill wrote, “I got your email today when I checked my more than 100
messages awaiting my immediate response. I read two Larkin poems after breakfast.”

That was the sum total of Bill’s email. Tom’s old friend didn’t have anything else to say. It had been 60 years since the two men last worked together putting out a print magazine, but Tom could tell from his message–the first one he had received from Bill in a couple of years–that despite his pacemaker and a couple of stents, he was doing okay.

Bill wasn’t at all pleased when that cardiologist put foreign
objects in his chest to keep him alive but he got used to the idea.
And from his response, Tom could tell that life was still good for
Bill. He was reading poetry and probably still writing it. Maybe a
short story now and then as well. He was not a man to waste words. He always got right to the point if there was one.

It was obvious to Tom as well that Bill was still not in a rush about anything. Backed up with 100 or so unanswered emails, Bill was instead attending to more important stuff—reading Philip Larkin’s poetry, for example, after breakfast. Retirement has its rewards and Bill was savoring every one of them.

But then, Bill had never been in a rush, Tom remembered, except when the two of them were on deadline putting out a monthly magazine. They both were in a rush then because they were the whole staff. They had no other help.

Bill moved pretty fast in those days. More importantly, perhaps, he
had skills. He could write, as could Tom, and he knew grammar and had a sense of layout. The two of them served as their own art director. Budget constraints made this possible.

Over the years Tom had learned a lot about layout from Bill, something that helped a great deal in other editorial jobs later in life.

In his personal life, however, Bill did very little and did it very
slowly, reading good fiction and poetry and doing his best to write
well himself. His writings had been published in good places over the years so he had succeeded to some degree but not to his own
satisfaction.

After giving Bill’s response considerable thought, Tom wrote back to his old friend and said,

“Great to hear from you again and happy to see the world has not
changed your lifestyle. I can almost hear your groan after you read
that word “lifestyle” in the previous sentence. But I’ll bet
lifestyle is in the Oxford English Dictionary, assuming someone is
still publishing it.

“The OED is probably not in print anymore but it’s likely online.
Your old edition probably wouldn’t have lifestyle in it but the book itself might be worth quite a bit of money at a rare bookstore. I know you would rather part with your left arm than your OED.

“Bill, I promise not to bother you again until after Memorial Day
and then only to let you know I’m still alive. I promise to put the
subject line in all caps so you will know it’s from me. I don’t want my email to die in cyberspace among all the others you’ve left
unopened.

“God forbid anything should happen to you in the meantime but if it
does ask your sister to let me know.

“I gave my wife a stamped letter to mail to you should anything happen to me. If she dies first, I’ll guess you’ll never find out.

“Until then keep reading Philip Larkin and maybe throw in a little
Wallace Stevens now and then as a chaser.”

Tom sent the email to Bill but never received a response, and he may not until he writes to him again after Memorial Day to confirm that one or both of them is still alive. By then Bill might have as many as 300 unopened emails and Tom’s may be added to that list.

At his age, Bill is not in a rush. And Tom admits he’s slowing down
a bit himself. He still writes every day to stay awake and sends stuff out to publishers. Some of it gets published, some of it not. Tom knows he and Bill won’t be around that much longer. But he hopes he has enough time left to send another email to Bill after Memorial Day—and that Bill is there to get it whether he opens it or not.

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