4 min

My name is Sam

A 15-year-old Art Fag capture's Ivan's heart

Credit: Xtra West files

I was smoking a cigarette with the performance poet outside of the theatre. She smokes like a movie star, making sweeping semicircles with her forearms and revealing glamorous cheekbones every inhale. When she exhales, a perfectly lipsticked stream of silver escapes her mouth between bits of story. I could watch her smoke until the sun showed up. I’m a Player’s Light Regular peasant; she’s a Benson & Hedges Ultra Light King Size Menthol diva.

We were interrupted by a squeal that belonged to a permed and tinted blonde in a beige pantsuit and dyed-to-match pumps. She sniffed her way through our smoking circle to kiss the poet on both cheeks and hug her without really touching.

“Oh my God,” the blonde exclaimed, “I thought that was you. You look fabulous. Haven’t changed a bit. It’s been a long time. When did we graduate? 1970?”

The poet blanched, and interrupted her. “Ivan, this is…”

“Diane. I’m Diane. We went to high school together. Oh, I could tell you some stories.”

The poet cleared her throat and took a long drag from her cigarette.

“Well, actually, Diane, you graduated a few years ahead of me.”

Diane looked confused. I smiled. The performance poet has been lying to me about her age for several years now, and for me to do the math at this juncture would be ungentlemanly. To know her age in people years would be tantamount to seeing the bride in her dress before the ceremony. She is beautiful-years-old according to the diva calendar, and that is all I’ve ever needed to know.

Diane changes the subject. “Well, I married Richard of course. We have one son, 23, and one daughter, 21. They’re both at the University of Alberta, doing well, and I’m directing Fiddler on the Roof this summer, in the park right across the street. You should come by one night. We’re having a gas. The kids are just great. And you, are you still writing poetry?”

“Always.” The poet exhales, blinking.

“How interesting. We should do lunch one day, I’d love to hear all about it. Call me. I should be off, though, to round up the kids. It was nice to meet you.”

And she was gone, leaving only a hint of Oscar de la Renta in the air.

“She’s much older than me,” the poet whispers over the sound of Diane’s pumps retreating.

“Quite obviously so.” I grind my cigarette under the heel of my Daytons. “Let’s head in. I’m on in half an hour.”

Right at the end of my set, I heard a small kafuffle in the balcony. It was over quickly, and I thought no more of it.

Post show, we resumed our spot in the smokers’ circle, several hours and two beers later. There were five or six of us now, talking poetry and gossip and business.

A teenage boy paced around our circle a couple of times, took one huge breath, and strode up and stood beside me. He seemed nervous, his hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his too-big-for-him black blazer. He waited for a pause in the conversation, and then placed a long-fingered hand on my forearm.

“Sorry to interrupt you,” he stammered. “But I just have to thank you for your stories tonight. You just changed my life. My life is changed now. I really needed to hear what you just said. I’m a huge fan of spoken word and poetry.”

I tuned out everyone else except the boy. This was one of those moments, I could tell. One of those moments you conjure up when you’re trying to sleep on the cat pee couch in a chilly basement room on tour somewhere in Manitoba, to remind yourself why you choose to do this for a living. I extended my hand to him.

“My name is Sam. I’ve been reading Ferlinghetti and Rilke for years, and I’m a huge fan of Sheri-D Wilson…” He shook my hand with baby-soft palms. His bangs hung over his caterpillar lashes and brown eyes. He had a peace sign and a Sex Pistols button on his lapel. The knees of his jeans were peeled back to reveal doorknob kneecaps. His dress shoes were spit-shined. I loved him.

“This is Sheri-D right here, I’ll introduce you-she doesn’t bite, well not strangers, anyways.”

I tapped on the performance poet’s elbow. “Sheri-D, I’d like you to meet Sam. He loves poetry.”

Sam swallowed, overwhelmed. “Wow, pleased to meet you, all of you, the show was, well, it blew my mind, and I’d do it all over again, it was worth it all, even though I got into trouble.

Sheri-D furrowed her brow and looked sideways at Sam. “You got into trouble for coming to a poetry reading?”

“Well, I skipped out of our meeting after my show. I’m in the play across the street, in the park. I’m the boyfriend of the milkman’s daughter.”

Suddenly Diane and her pumps and perm were upon us. “There you are Sam, good, I wanted to talk to you. I want you to know, I’m not angry with you, just disappointed. You can’t take off like that without telling anyone where you are going. We were all concerned for your safety. This is downtown Calgary, and I am responsible for all of you. We had to call the police, and security.”

The whole picture became apparent to both Sheri-D and I at the same time, and we simultaneously clutched our aching chests with our right hands. Sheri-D spoke first.

“Sam is in trouble for skipping his notes to come and see Ivan tell stories?”

I thought about all the things I ever got busted for when I was 15. Poetry readings were not among them. My heart opened and swallowed Sam up.

Diane nodded. “We had to have security remove him from the theatre. They serve alcohol in there. We were looking all over for him. He’s been suspended from the play for two nights.”

“I’ll leave you two tickets at the door for tomorrow night then.” Sheri-D smiled at Sam. Diane fixed an acid stare on Sheri-D. “Well, he might as well, since he’s not working.”

I nodded. The boy needed poetry, that much was obvious.

“It is time to get you home, Sam.” Diane grabbed the sleeve of his jacket and steered him towards her minivan.

Sam called back over his shoulder to us as he was led away. “I’d do it all again. I loved it. They call me Art Fag at school.” The sliding door shut, and he was gone.

“What a bitch,” Sheri-D breathed sideways at me. “No wonder she looks so much older than I do.”

“Decades,” I agreed, and lit her next cigarette for her.