I was browsing in a second-hand bookshop when I came across “Pictures of Fidelman” by Bernard Malamud. It was a hardback, complete with dust jacket, in excellent condition. When I opened it, I was pleased to see it was a first edition, and even more pleased to see that the bookseller had scribbled “60p”, in pencil, as the selling-price. I hadn’t read anything by Malamud (1914-86) at the time, but I knew he was a reputable American novelist, often catergorised with Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller and Philip Roth – all prominent writers in the American-Jewish tradition. Glancing at the blurb on the inside flap, I read: “Arthur Fidelman, born in the Bronx, New York City, self-confessed failure as a painter, comes to Italy to prepare a critical study of Giotto. In the six stories that follow, the search for perfection of the art and self is the theme, warmly spiced with Malamud’s pungent humour at its most characteristically comic. Fidelman, in his first adventure, tangles with the refugee Susskind, whose skeletal frame, knickerbockers, and desire for Fidelman’s spare suit hound him through the streets and alleys of Rome…” I splashed out my 60p without further hesitation, and have never regretted it; the book is probably the best “find” I’ve had in my many years of second-hand bookshop browsing.
The reason I mention “Pictures of Fidelman” now is because of the connection it has with my poem “Dodging the Dealer”. I recently had an encounter with a street-trader who pursued me with a fanatical determination to sell me his wares. Thinking about the incident, later, I thought it might make an interesting short story. Then I realised it would be along similar lines to “Last Mohican”, the first story in “Pictures of Fidelman”. The more I thought about it, the more I began to see that my story would end-up as a mere pale shadow of Malamud’s – for “Last Mohican” is, in my opinion, one of the finest short stories ever written. I finally decided to jettison the idea of writing the short story, but then started thinking about casting it in the form of a poem instead.
So, that’s what you have in “Dodging the Dealer”: a simple, narrative poem, in simple rhyming couplets. These days, you don’t often see poetry used to describe a narrative in this way – I’m sure it’s terribly unfashionable – but I feel better preserving the incident this way, rather than a futile attempt to match the brilliance of Bernard Malamud’s story “Last Mohican”!
DODGING THE DEALER:
I turned the corner, head in the clouds.
No worries, no pressures, just strolling around.
I was now on a street of ill-repute;
call girls and dossers rivals for my loot.
I blithely wandered on. In next to no time,
a hand was on my wrist; two eyes fixed on mine.
Scrawny, dark-skinned; loose-fitting white shirt.
He’d seen life in the raw, clambered up from the dirt.
“Come ‘ere, mate.” He whispered; looked quickly around.
He had the edge, now; I’d already lost ground.
He appraised me; frowned. “You a racist?” he said.
As if he’d just seen my tattoos, shaven head.
“No, I’m not.” The truth; what else could I say?
He showed me his boxes; watches on display.
“See these, mate. Best quality. Five quid each.”
But success, in this case, was out of his reach.
Harassed, all my life, by encounters like these;
my heart was now hardened; immune to such pleas.
My face must proclaim me an innocent mug;
but now, in these matters, I was more like a thug.
I was firm, unmoved by his confident spiel.
He persisted, still sure of sealing the deal.
He pushed three boxes into my bag, with a grin.
I pulled them back out, gave them straight back to him.
He pleaded: his family, his kids, their needs.
I walked off, impassive, taking no heed.
He pursued me, laid hands upon me, like a lout.
Now verging on wildness, eyes clouded with doubt.
Again the three boxes; again I refused.
I left him defeated, self-belief defused.
He stood, despairing; looked up at the skies.
I’d seen the look of disbelief in his eyes.
How was I so brutal, unfeeling, unkind?
I could sense the thoughts that rushed through his mind:
“I had you nailed as a mug, and I’m always right.
You were sure to roll over; no hassle, no fight.
You had the full treatment; the best I could do.
You bastard! There’s something WRONG about you!”