Gun in the Hot Dog Cart

Once, I took a poetry workshop, because I thought Iwas a poet and because I thought I could get an easyA. There was a little knot of us, around a big table,in sweatshirts and jeans and stocking caps pulled overunwashed hair. There was a professor with a beard andglasses who always seemed to be half asleep. And therewas one student from Africa, a fat guy in a whiteshirt who had a loud laugh. His skin gleamed. The restof us were Americans, and our skins were dull whitesand yellows and browns. The African guy was a businessstudent. We figured he was there for an easy A.

We brought in our poems on thin white paper, printedoff twenty-three times, for twenty-two students andone professor. They were poems with vengeful babiesand witty dragons and groping old stepfathers andstolen kisses in the boys' locker room. They werebrilliant; they shone with glittery words, wesurprised each other. We gushed about each other'spoems. We said, This made me cry, and, Oh my God, Ishivered.

The African guy wrote love poems, with balloons andhot dogs and cottony clouds drifting through the sky.They were awful, but we still said nice things aboutthem. Like, Yeah man, I've seen clouds like that.

Then one afternoon, we left the windows open. Therewas a gust of wind, and a shower of leaves blew in,covering us in red and yellow and brown. The professorseemed to wake up.

Why are you all so goddamned nice? he asked, pullingleaves out of his hair. Are these your real opinions?For instance, he said, looking around the room. TheAfrican guy was absent that day, his usual spot empty.

For instance, he said. Hot dogs. Cotton clouds.Balloons. Doesn't this seem a little, what, trite toyou all? A little?

We giggled and he fell back into his stupor, pullingoff his glasses and staring at him.

At the next workshop, the African guy came in withtwenty-three copies of another love poem. Again, therewere hot dogs and ice cream cones, balloons, cottonyclouds. Everyone was quiet. The professor was quiet.

Again with the cottony clouds, I said, my voicebooming out. I glanced down at my notebook, which hadPOETRY WORKSHOP neatly lettered on the front. Againwith the hot dogs. Doesn't it seem a little, what,trite? I asked. The other students tittered.

Have you ever even been in love? I asked. Then Ilooked up at his gleaming face.

Love, he said, staring at me, his mouth open. Hestared until I opened my notebook and started toscribble something there.

I fell in love when I was five years old, he said. Mylove and I got sand in our drawers together. We foundseashells with holes in them, and called them ringsfor engagement. We grew tall together. Her fathercalled me his son, and we planned to marry as soon asI got back with my degree.

But in my country, he said, stopping.

In my country, there are stupid young men who wanderthe streets with guns, with blood in their teeth. Mylove was walking home from the market when she was setupon by these men. No one told me what had happened, he said. His chairscraped against the floor. His voice took up the wholeroom.

I would have returned, he said. I would have marriedher that instant.

But no one told me what happened. She wrote me aletter, a last letter, and cut herself with herfather's knife until her life bled out.

The African man was silent. The classroom was silent,except for the sound of someone's raggedy breathing.

The professor had his glasses off, and he looked atthem. Why don't you write about that? he asked.

The African man stared. That is what I do write about,he said.

All twenty-three of us, even the professor, glanceddown at his poem. We read it to ourselves, lipsmoving, sounds rising in our heads. Some peoplestarted to smirk, and looked up at the clock, watchingthe second hand tick slowly forward. But I slippedinside the poem, carefully, and walked around there. Icould taste it: blood inside the ice cream, balloonsabout to explode around me. I knew there was a gun inthe hot-dog cart. Someone was reaching for the gun andI scrambled out of the poem, racing back into theclassroom, knocking against the walls, against ourdull skin and unwashed hair.

About the author:

Marcia Lynx Qualey lives in Cairo, Egypt, where she writes for magazines in the Middle East and North America and struggles to teach her one-year-old son not to pull the tails of feral cats.