The Quotable


“Excuse me?”

The voice behind him was insistent, but in the din of Saturday shoppers, could have been meant for anyone.

“Mr. Phillips?”

Jack Phillips had an uncomfortable moment as he ran down the short list of acquaintances he could possibly run into.

The voice did not sound old enough to be a friend, and so was likely a former student. As he turned to face what would almost certainly be an unwelcome pain in the ass, his wife looped a shopping bag over his forearm.

“I’m going in that shoe store. Why don’t you sit on that bench over there, the one in the shade.” She pointed a pudgy finger at a bench in a relatively shady spot of Palmer Square.

It occurred to him just how much he had grown to despise being micromanaged after forty years of marriage. Nonetheless he grunted a response.

“Mr. Jack Phillips?” The insistent pain in the ass cornered him as he settled his frame onto the bench across from P.J. Soles.

He looked up from his bench into the face of a woman in her mid-twenties. “Yes, I’m afraid so, what can I do for you?” He watched the sidewalk traffic weave around the young woman. She stared at him without speaking, measuring him. He wandered if she might be insane.

“Are you a former student?” He was becoming uncomfortable with her presence. The gargoyles atop the University loomed in the distance over her shoulder.

“I saw your photo on the faculty web page.” She shuffled her feet slightly.

“Ah yes, it seems they have neglected to remove my electronic presence. I retired last May.”

The woman continued to stand before him, occasionally buffeted by the passing throng of late summer shoppers, gawkers, and newly arrived freshman. A dizzying mix of packages, backpacks and ice cream cones.

“Did you say you were a student at the university?” Jack reached into the pocket of his sport jacket and retrieved a handkerchief and gently dabbed his brow. The morning had been cool and the jacket seemed like a reasonable plan as they set off to breakfast, but as the sun neared its zenith he wished he had left it at home.

“A junior. I recognized you from your book jacket photo. It’s a lot more current than the one on the faculty web page.”

“That’s the beauty of faculty web pages. One is permitted to remain whatever age they were when the photo was taken. That particular photo was taken during the sixties if I’m not mistaken.” Jack began to relax; he determined this woman was one of the few people to find themselves in possession of his most recent collected poetry.

“It was really just dumb luck. I was walking along, trying to find ‘the groove’ as you say in your book, and there you were. Like magic.”

“Magic, hmph. I promise you what you see here is little more than a couple of old folks shopping.” Jack removed the bag containing his wife’s purchases and set it between his too white sneakers.  He hated these shoes, he had often claimed that there was precious little as pathetic as an old man in athletic clothing. Somehow he had become one of them.

“Can I offer you a seat?”

The woman sat down and began rummaging through her own bag, eventually producing a copy of Jack’s book.

“Would you mind signing this for me?”

“So you’re the one who bought my book.” It was an old joke he dusted off whenever he was confronted with his own work. He reached into his pocket for the pen that had ridden in his jackets for over fifty years. He took the book and turned it over in his hands.

“Who should I make this out to?”

“It’s for my mother, Carol Burns.”

Jack started at the name, surely a coincidence. Carol Burns was the best kept secret of his adult life, a momentary flash of brilliance in a gray season.

“I think she was a student of yours, a few years back.”

Jack’s heart began to pound in his chest. A bead of sweat traced his spine, sliding down his back to the waistband of his boxers. He felt his testicles slam against his body, all but disappearing into his torso. He felt like a rabbit that had inadvertently wandered into a snare.

“Is that so?” He mustered every fiber of self-control he had.

“Yes, twenty-four years ago she was in your poetry class. She says it was the time of her life. That she enjoyed every minute of it.”

Jack could feel himself wilting under the gaze of this young woman.

“How wonderful.” Jack finished signing the book and handed it back to the woman. His hand trembled just slightly. He looked into her face, meeting her stare, unable to hold it. He mopped his forehead with his now soaked handkerchief.  Behind him the bell on the door clanged and he could hear his wife exchanging farewells with the shop keeper.

The woman before him was suddenly joined by another.

“Are you ready?” The newcomer asked the woman. She seemed to have quite a few tattoos on her forearms and a rather disturbing piercing through her nostril.

“Almost, I’ll be right there. Lyssa, this is Jack Phillips, the poet.”

Lyssa gave a dismissive wave, smiled and sat on a wall a few feet from away. She lit a cigarette and Jack felt the pang of a craving he hadn’t had for nearly twenty years. He had stopped smoking right around the same time he gave up drinking and started using low-fat milk in his coffee.

“I’m surprised you don’t remember her. She said you taught her a lot.”

She seemed to enjoy his discomfort.

Jack suddenly felt the urge to urinate. Sweat covered his entire body; his clothes began to smother him.

“It was a long time ago, too many years, too many students.” Jack looked directly at her.

“I’m sorry.”

Jack’s wife approached, joking, good-naturedly, with a passerby.

“C’mon Jacquie, let’s get going.” Lyssa came up and tugged at her friend’s elbow.

“It was nice to meet you.” Jacquie stood.

“My pleasure,” Jack said as she was pulled away by her friend. Jack watched her disappear into the crowd.

“Who was that?” His wife thrust another bag into his hands as he fumbled with his handkerchief.

“She had a copy of my book she wanted signed.”

His wife chuckled.

“So she’s the one, huh? I hope you thanked her for the royalty.  C’mon let’s get you of the sun. You’re covered in sweat.”

She linked her arm in his as he struggled with the bags. For a moment he was unsure of his footing; at last they rejoined the sidewalk.


Ray Setters lives in Newtown, PA with his wife and two children. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing.  He teaches English and American studies at Rider University and Bucks County Community College. His  fiction has appeared in Harvest Time, Milk Sugar Literary Journal and The Kelsea Review.

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The Quotable 9 Night and Day