Have you heard of haibun? Well, I’d never encountered haibun prior to becoming a blogger. Through blogging I’ve become acquainted with Mek, who shares her creative writing practice with readers at her blog, 10000 hours left. I love the way her writing makes me think about things in surprising ways. She has a gift for crafting succinct language that always contains more meanings than meets the eye. Mek asked if I would be interested in collaborating with her on half a haibun: I was to send her a 50-word prose piece about the internal life of a character and then she would write a haiku inspired from it. In this case, she wrote the haiku and then invited me to come up with two more 7-syllable lines, to make a tanka. Both haiku and tanka are Japanese poetry forms that adhere to specific patterns of syllables per line. Please visit this page on Mek’s blog to check out our finished piece. We would love to know what you think! What follows here, is the expanded version of the story behind the 50 words I shared with Mek.
by Leslie Reese
A number of years ago I used to stop at a bar after work some nights. I imagined myself to be rather experienced and “writerly,” and, after paying for my drink with a ten- or twenty-dollar bill, would place the remaining money on the bar underneath my cigarette case and lighter while sipping, blowing smoke through my nose, and writing intently in my journal about the day’s events and people I’d encountered.
This particular afternoon, I was having the blues – a mood, I understood, that writers experienced, frequently – and didn’t really want to be sociable. A woman came in and situated herself next to me and my accessories at the bar. I could sense that she was going to try and engage me, and I thought: I’m not in the mood, today, God.
“So I see that you’re writing!” she said. I nodded my head without looking up to make eye contact.
“I know a bit about writing, myself.”
“Hey bartender!” She held her hand up like a student waiting to be acknowledged in a classroom. I inspected her looks closely and saw that the texture of her brown hair was like a worn knit sweater. It was short, parted on the side, and combed behind her ears without any body or curl. Her t-shirt was shapeless, the fabric faded; and she was wearing a nondescript pair of slacks and white sneakers. The bartender was in the midst of pouring some freshly shaken liquids between two chilled glasses.
“Just a minute.”
“Damn!” she said, under her breath.
“So what are you writing?” Her focus returned to me and now I looked and saw that she was patting herself around her hips as though she’d misplaced something.
“I’m writing in my journal.” I said, hoping my voice didn’t sound friendly. The bartender showed up, wearing a scowl.
“What took you so long, man? I’m thirsty!”
“Can I get you something?”
“Well, yeah! I”m sitting at the bar, ain’t I?”
The tension between them built, then dissipated while they swapped stares.
“Give me a Budweiser!” She acted as if the bartender should have known her drink. The draft beers were at the other end of the bar and so he left. The woman had located a soft coin purse inside one of her hip pockets and now she emptied its contents onto the surface of the bar.
“Now. Where were we?” she said, turning back to me. I noticed then that while her skin – the color of brown mustard – lacked luster, her eyes had a brightness to them, the corners around her mouth seemed ready for a laugh.
“Oh I remember now: we were talking about poetry!”
The bartender placed a glass of beer down in front of her, the sound of it bumping against the bare surface of the bar.
“Don’t I get a napkin or something?”
After the bartender shoved a cocktail napkin in her direction she told him “Don’t worry: I brought my be-cool pills!” Then she turned to me and said “If he’s trying to make me feel unwelcome he’s doing a good job of it!” We both laughed. I had to stop pretending that my journal was more interesting than she was but I held onto my pen, anyway. Pleased, she gulped from her beer, and then sighed.
The music, the sounds of other patrons’ conversations, the bell the chefs rang in the window when food was ready, and the bartender’s sounds of clanking glasses and drink pours – all faded into the background while I mentally rewound and re-played her expression: Be-cool pills. I had never heard it before, and wondered if she was referring to real or imagined medications.
“Have you heard of Langston Hughes?” she asked.
“Of course I have.”
“You probably know this one, then,” and she began:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?”
Her recitation was dignified, slightly theatrical, and I was aware that I didn’t know the poem – “Harlem” – by heart, as she did. The only thing I could remember was something about the raisin becoming “like a syrupy sweet.”
“Well,” she sighed and maybe it was purely nostalgic, but I wondered if she had wanted me to finish reciting the rest of the poem? She placed her hand on top of my cigarette case and glanced at me with a raised eyebrow.
The case – one my sister had brought me from a trip to India – was hand-carved of sandalwood and had a clever way of opening. I flipped it open so she could help herself from one of the ten holes that kept each cigarette separate from the rest. She took one and then inclined her head ceremoniously so I could light it for her. She inhaled with deep satisfaction.
“My name is Naomi, by the way. So pleased to make your acquaintance.” She stuck her hand out and I shook it; a little outdone, yet, amused with myself for having felt superior to her, and for enjoying her charisma.
My drink was getting low and so was Naomi’s when the bartender came to collect her tab. We became aware of his presence while she was in the midst of regaling me with her knowledge of the Harlem Renaissance. Naomi didn’t appreciate having the flow of her talk interrupted.
The bartender smirked and said “I hope you have enough money to pay for your beer, this time.”
The look she gave him said “Eat Dirt!” while aloud she said “It’s right there, anybody can see it!” He scooped the coins into his hand and with his moist lips slightly open, counted out the money.
“You’re short sixty-five cents.” His voice broadcast, finally, to everyone sitting at the bar. Naomi raised her head high and surveyed everyone who was looking at her. When they stopped looking, she turned to me and – with a flourish – asked, “Will you do the honors?”