by Stan Dryer
On a January morning over a year ago I came into my Clinic an hour before opening time, in hopes of getting through some paperwork before my first client arrived. The clinic is Total Compassion Associates, five professional psychologists, myself included, who got together to save on rent and the other costs that go with the business. The other Associates handle a variety of specialties, drug problems, depression, marriage counseling, you name it. I’ll take on anything except marriage counseling. I avoid the latter simply because having missed all the warning signs in my own marriage, I don’t feel qualified to fix up yours. In short, I was totally blindsided when my wife ran off with another woman, her beautician to be precise.
When I came in out of the cold at 8 a.m., there was Millie, sitting behind her desk. Millie is our Receptionist, Secretary and Accountant. A tall brunette with a bit of a dreamy look in her dark eyes, she is unperturbable in dealing with our business associates, our creditors and our clients. Of more importance, she knows how to flatter, cajole or, if necessary, threaten medical insurance companies into paying up.
“Millie,” I said, “what are you doing here at this hour? Didn’t you work past six last night?”
“I was hoping you’d come in early,” she said. “There’s something really important I need to talk to you about.”
“Personal?” Although Millie is totally aware of the details of all of the Associates’ personal lives, she is pretty tight lipped about her own.
“Well, kind of. I’m concerned about someone who you might be able to help.”
“Okay,” I said. “Come on in my office.”
In the office, I shrugged off my overcoat and hung it on the coat stand. Millie sat down in my client chair holding in her hand what looked like a bunch of newspaper clippings.
“Now what’s the problem?” I said.
“It’s Agatha Windwhisper. I’m worried about her.”
“Agatha Windwhisper. She writes a little column in the Gazette called “Daily Bread”. One poem a day. One beautiful poem a day. But I think she is suffering from a broken heart.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Listen to this.” Millie pulled out one of her clippings and read:
“Over the stubble of long dying fields,
The sun of our lost love declines.
Far away, far away, over the moors,
The call of the whooping crane twines.
“Where in the spring of our love we rejoiced,
Now through the silence I stand.
Here where in summer our passions unfurled,
Winter is now close at hand.
“Why did you leave me when autumn was nigh?
Will you remember me long?
These are the questings that throb in my heart,
This is my sun setting song.”
“And?” I said.
“That was her poem in Wednesday’s Gazette. Then on Thursday, came this one.” She pulled another clipping and read:
“You talked of ships that pass in the night,
And hadn’t it all been fun,
And no sad tears, and no regrets,
Or wishing it hadn’t begun.
“You said let’s drink a couple of drinks,
To the way it used to be,
And you patted my hand and I forced a smile,
And the darkness closed in on me.
“Aren’t those the saddest poems you’ve ever heard? Her heart is obviously breaking.”
“What makes you think that?” I said. “Maybe all her poems are sad.”
“Oh, no. She writes serious poems sometimes but much of her work is upbeat, happy stuff. Like “Butterfly Rhapsody”.”
“Yes.” Millie’s eyes took on a faraway look as she recited,
“I’d like to be buried in butterflies,
Up to my neck or higher.
In passionate shades of yellows and browns,
Setting my soul afire.”
“That certainly is more upbeat. But how do you know that she ever even had a boyfriend?”
“Because she told us about it a couple of months ago. Listen to this.” She pulled out another clipping and read.
“Red flares the passion of sunset,
At the end of a late summer day.
As we walked in the silence together,
And our hearts spoke what words wouldn’t say.
In the sibilant silence of sunset,
Our hearts cried what words couldn’t say.
“Hand touching hand as we wandered,
Through the fields heavy scented with hay,
Heart touching heart as we pondered,
The last crimson dying of day.”
“It does appear that she might have been emotionally involved with someone,” I said.
“Yes. Can’t you just see it. Both of them deeply in love. Then, suddenly, torn apart by some tragedy.”
“Well, I guess so.”
“Good,” said Millie. “I’m glad you feel that way.” All emotion was gone from her now. In fact, she was smiling that little smile that lets me know she has been up to something.
“Why do you say that?” I demanded.
“Well, I thought it might help if you’d talk to her. No long term commitment, just one session to see if you could help.”
“Wait a minute. You haven’t by any chance already set something up?”
“Well I thought it wouldn’t hurt to feel things out. So I called the Gazette and tried to talk to Agatha. They put me on to this very nice guy who said that she wasn’t there at the paper but that he could get a message to her if I’d let him know what it was all about.”
“So I explained what I was worried about and that I worked for this really empathetic psychologist who would just love to help out if he could.”
“But we don’t do that. You’re soliciting business. That’s unethical.”
“Not really business,” said Millie. “I said you’d do it for free. Just the first session, I mean. So we kind of made an appointment for her with you.”
“Well, more like actually. Seeing as Mrs. Wontrabe had to cancel because of that court hearing with her druggie son, eleven today was open so I figured why waste the hour.”
“You’re not supposed to know about Mrs. Wontrabe’s son. But more importantly, isn’t it the rule that I decide who I’m going to see?”
“Well you’re always telling me I should work on my executive decision making skills and not bother you when I’m perfectly capable…..”
“Okay, okay.” I knew I had lost this argument. “I’ll talk to her.”
“Oh you are a sweetheart,” said Millie. She bent over the desk and gave me a kiss on the cheek. Then she straightened up and said, “The guy said that Agatha was kind of shy and was there a way she could come in and not have to see anyone but you. So I told him to tell her to use your client entrance.”
Promptly at eleven, I opened the door to the little waiting room that was accessed by my client entrance. No Agatha was there but a man was sitting in one of the chairs. He looked like he was in his fifties, had probably forgotten to shave that morning and was dressed in a shabby grey suit.
“Excuse me,” I said, “I think you must have the wrong address. This is Total Compassion Associates.”
He smiled a bit guiltily. “You were expecting a woman named Agatha?”
“My name is Charlie Longtress but I’m also Agatha. What I mean is that I write the Agatha poems. I was the one your secretary talked to the other day.”
“Well come on in the office and let’s talk.” Supposedly nothing ever should surprise a psychologist, but I have to admit that I was a little shaken up by this flip of events.
Charlie ambled into the office and sat down in the client chair. I took the seat opposite. “So?” I said.
“Well,” Charlie said, “it’s a bit of a long story.”
“I’ve got lots of time.”
“You see, there was actually a real Agatha to start with. Some maiden aunt of the Gazette’s owner died and left him a bundle on the condition that some soupy poems she’d written had to be published anonymously in the Gazette. So we decided to print them one a day till the lot ran out.
“Thought you’d ask.” He reached into the inner pocket of his jacket, pulled out a sheaf of papers, leafed through them and handed me one. “This one should give you the idea.”
I read it to myself.
Love was with me for only a moment,
But gone like the flight of a fawn,
Leaving a memory like sunset,
Remembered at winter dawn.
Long, oh how long, I’ll remember,
The touch of your hand on my arm,
Laughter entwining with laughter,
Sounding my passion’s alarm.
“I get the idea,” I said. “So why are you here today?”
“The problem was, the whole thing caught on. I decided the poems ought to have a poet so I made up the name, Agatha Windwhisper. Then all of a sudden a bunch of Agatha fans came out of the woodwork. You won’t believe the e-mails we got when we ran out of poems and stopped publishing them. I don’t mean nice e-mails. Accusations that we’d murdered Agatha, stuff like that.”
“So what did you do?”
“I started writing the poems myself. At first it wasn’t too hard. The lost love remembered with a sunset or moor or two thrown in. I’d chuck in a pure nature one every now and then.”
“Like the butterfly one?”
“Yeah. I got the idea when I stepped on a dead butterfly on the sidewalk. I can’t believe what a hit that one was.”
“So what’s the problem? Why do you need to see me?”
“Poet’s block. I’m drying up, burned out. I lie awake nights trying but I can’t seem to hinge two rhymes together. I need someone to kick my muse’s ass.”
“Well,” I said, “I supposed that we could address the reasons for your problem. But that will take time. A rather large number of sessions, I suspect.”
“I can’t wait,” said Charlie. “I’m down to the last three poems in my reserve pile. I might pretend Agatha’s on a vacation for a week, but beyond that I’ll be facing the wrath of Agatha fandom.”
“I think I may be able to help.” I got out my key ring, unlocked the bottom right hand drawer of my desk and took out a sheaf of papers. I selected one of the printed sheets and handed it to Charlie. “Take a look at that.” Charlie took the sheet and read it aloud.
“The flame of hope within my breast,
Had flickered low in winter’s cold.
The winds of sadness and despair,
Have kept my soul in caution’s fold.
“I thought that spring would never come,
That snow would mound my early grave,
And nevermore the warmth of love,
Would come again my heart to lave.
“But friendship, kindness, laughter’s spark,
Begin to melt my drifted fear.
I watch in awe as burgeoning love,
Announce to me that spring is here.”
“Holy Tennison!” said Charlie. “You got any more of these?”
“Sure. How about a nature poem?” I found the sheet and read,
“I like to wake in the winter,
Before the dawn’s first glow,
And throwing wide the portal,
Drink in the virgin snow.
“It’s a time for all remembrance,
In a deep eternal mood,
With a winter world that’s waiting,
Unwakened and unwooed.”
“Eat your heart out, Robert Frost!” Charlie almost shouted in his excitement. “You willing to share? Can I use these?”
“Sure. I just want a small cut of the action when we hit big time.”
“We hit big time?”
“Look,” I said, “There’s Millie out at the desk. She’s a reasonably stable and intelligent woman. And she is gaga over Agatha. How many more Millie’s do you think are out there?”
“Well, I have had some queries about franchises. You know, the Bucolicsville Reporter, that kind of rag.”
“So why not go for it?”
“Well that’s my second problem. Agatha’s fans want to know more about her. You won’t believe the queries I get. How old is she? Does she have a sex life? Where did she get that Windwhisper name? So I tried feeding them a selfie poem or two.”
Charlie leafed through his papers and handed me the following:
Wild wind that whispers in my ear,
Tell me of visions far and near.
Aeolian secrets I fain would share,
With those who taste my daily fare.
“How did that work?” I said.
“Nada. Those rapacious fans want pictures, want to see her in the flesh, a real Agatha out there giving readings, signing her books. But if I show up and start reciting butterfly poems, I’m dead meat.”
“I have the solution.” I pushed the button and spoke into my intercom. “Millie, how would you like to meet Agatha? Come on in the office.”
Over the intercom came the sound of a chair crashing over. The door burst open and Millie faced us, her face immediately going totally puzzled. “Where’s Agatha?” she demanded.
“I know this may come to you as a bit of a shock, but Charlie here and I are Agatha.”
“No way. What have you done? Kidnapped her and stolen her poems?”
“No,” I said, “there actually was a real Agatha who wrote the first poems. Then she died and Charlie filled in for her. Now it turns out he’s running out of steam, poet’s block you might call it.”
“And what is exactly your role in this fraud?”
“Well, I’m helping Charlie out with a few poems I wrote myself.”
“You write poems? I don’t believe it.”
I handed her the sheaf of poems. She leafed slowly through, reading each one. By the fifth one I could see tears forming in the corners of her eyes. “Oh my God! Just how long have you been hiding this beautiful stuff?”
“Oh a year or two.”
Millie thought for a moment. Then her eyes went wide. “Did you start writing these when Sharona went lesbian?”
“You know about that?” I had thought that the reason for my wife’s departure was a personal secret.
“Everybody knows about that.”
“Well,” I said, “I guess I might have started writing them as a kind of therapy.”
“You psychologists,” said Millie.
“Forget about why I wrote them. Charlie here thinks he can use some of these in ‘Daily Bread’. But we need your help.”
“Need my help?”
“Millie, how would you like to portray Agatha?”
“How would you like to assume the role of Agatha. Tie up your hair in a knot, put on some horn rimmed glasses, dress up frowzy, get a pair of ugly low-heeled shoes and stand up in front of her fan base and read the poems you love.”
“No way. What makes you think I could even do that?
“Now we come to your little secret. I never knew you had thespian aspirations until by chance you left the intercom on last Wednesday. I heard that little phone call you made to your agent about a casting call.”
“So how about it?”
“No, I can’t do it. It would be fraud. I wouldn’t be the real Agatha, if there is a real Agatha.”
“Look, when Hal Holbrook did his Mark Twain portrayal, was he a fraud? When Julie Harris portrayed Emily Dickinson in Belle of Amherst, was she a fraud?”
Millie was obviously a bit shaken by my actually shallow knowledge of the theater. “It’s still a big gamble. How do I know you guys can keep being the true Agatha? How do I know you two won’t go off on some crazy masculine kick?
“Just a minute. Listen to this.” I had to think fast, compose on the fly.
“You say you cannot take the part,
Of poet deep but fey,
And yet your eyes define the role,
That only you can play.”
I glanced over at Charlie. “You got something to add?”
Charlie gave me the cornered look of a blocked poet. Then, realizing what was at stake, he reached back into his rhyme closet, kicked his muse awake and came up with:
“The frown you wear cannot deny,
The loving heart beneath,
Cold words you speak will not erase,
The passions you bequeath.”
Millie was in tears. “You guys,” she sobbed, “you fucking poets. Of course I’ll do it, frowzy look and all.”
And she did. I hope you’ve been to one of her readings. When she ends up with that bit about how grateful she is to be able to touch the souls of thousands of her fellow human beings, there is not a dry eye in the house, as we say in show business. Of course on the back of the program it reads, in relatively small print, “Agatha Windwhisper is portrayed by the actress Millicent Stedman.” No one believes that for a minute. There is Agatha up on the podium. There is her suffering and there are her delights. Those are her poems.
The business? Well, we’re syndicated in two hundred and twelve newspapers nationwide and growing. Charlie takes care of the PR part and keeps track of the loot. Two publishers are fighting over book rights. Of course my psychologist business is still going strong. After all, how long does it takes two mature men to whip out six poems a week?
When I expressed that last thought to Millie at the breakfast table the other morning, she paused, looked at me with her Agatha soul penetrating look and said, “I guess I buy into that, except for the mature part.”
Fortunately for me, Millie regards being married to a published poet as far more important than the reality of that poet’s many flaws.
About the Author:
Stan Dryer is the pen name for an author who lives in southern New Hampshire. He has been writing fiction for over 60 years. Prior to 1990 he published 17 short stories in magazines that included Playboy, Cosmopolitan and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He has now returned to fiction writing after a gap of 30 years. and has recently had three stories published (or accepted for publication) in Mystery Weekly Magazine, Adelaide Magazine (March 2019 isssue) and a Rogue Blades anthology. He is currently working on a humorous mystery novel.