"The Seventh Iteration of Albert Poe"
Albert Poe sat alone in the hallway outside of Mr. Martinez’s fifth grade classroom in one of the three green plastic chairs that lined the wall. He strained to overhear what was being said inside. He wasn't sure why his parents, Adam and William Poe, had been called in for a parent-teacher meeting, though he suspected it had something to do with the story he turned in as part of a class assignment on Caesar and ancient Rome. Especially given Mr. Martinez’s reaction after reading it.
Inside the classroom, William and Adam sat in two of the desks in the front row. The lights had been turned off but for the two over Mr. Martinez’s desk, one of them flickering, giving Adam a migraine.
“I’m not sure I follow,” Adam said. “What exactly are you saying?”
Mr. Martinez laid his hands flat on his desk, fingers spread wide. “Look, Albert’s a good kid. In the weeks I’ve known him, he hasn't given me any problems, despite his condition. But he’s constantly off in his own world, staring out the window or counting the seconds along with the clock on the wall. He’s not the most… attentive student.” He paused for a moment, his palms now raised so that just his fingertips touched the desk. He took a deep breath and exhaled sharply. “He didn't write this. That's all I’m saying. He couldn't have.”
“You think someone else wrote it?” William asked.
“I do, yes.”
William scratched his head and then tucked a tuft of hair behind his ear. “And you know who this person is—you know who wrote the story?”
“That's why you’re here. I was hoping maybe you could tell me. Let me ask you something: are either of you writers?”
Adam, whose right eye was now temporarily closed due to his migraine, said, “Us?” He let loose a single chuckle, glancing over at William, who was now looking down and shaking his head in annoyance. “You think we wrote his story, huh?” Adam asked.
“That’s what I was thinking.”
“Well, to answer your question—no—we’re not writers,” Adam said. “I’m an accounts manager at Dr. Pepper and William is an architect.” He stood up, annoyed. “What would ever give you that idea, that we’d write our son’s story?”
“And that we’re writers,” William said, chiming in.
Mr. Martinez leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. “Would you like to read it? Because if you haven’t, I really think you should. It’s something.” He slid a copy across the desk. “We’ve been studying the Roman Empire. I asked them to write a story about Caesar’s campaign in Gaul. Just a simple story about the people of that time and how they lived.”
William picked up the story, furrowed his brow, then handed the story to Adam, who sat back down. The two leaned closer to each other and read the story together. When they finished, Adam put the story on the desk. William picked it up again. “It’s a good story,” William said. “It certainly paints a picture of life then, I would say.”
“No. It’s not a good story,” Mr. Martinez said. “It’s a brilliant story, Mr. Poe. It’s the kind of story that deserves an audience. Perhaps a Pushcart.”
“A pushcart?” Adam queried.
“A prize, Mr. Poe. A big one.”
“Have you thought about giving it to him instead of calling us down here, making us miss work, accusing him of plagiarism without a shred of evidence?” William asked.
Mr. Martinez laughed. “I’m afraid it’s not mine to give, but if I thought he actually wrote it, I would see that it was submitted.”
“But you don’t think he wrote it,” William said. “You think we did.”
Adam pulled an Advil bottle from his pocket and popped four red pills into his mouth. “We did not write his story.”
“No, it doesn't look like you did,” Mr. Martinez agreed, “which begs the question...”
William began to read the story for a second time. When he got halfway through he said, “Maybe he’s a prodigy. You ever consider that? He could be an autistic savant, right? I read about those people all the time. Sort of a Rain Man with words.”
Mr. Martinez stood up from his desk, straightened the pleats on his khakis, walked around his desk, and sat on it, directly in front of Albert’s parents. “There are no writing prodigies. No autistic savants writing canonized stories. There are no ten-year-olds writing like Ernest Hemingway in the world, Mr. Poe. You can't write The Old Man and the Sea unless you have lived, traveled the world, experienced death, loss and love. What does Albert know of war and famine? How could he know what a body strewn battlefield smelled like?”
William and Adam eyed one another for a few moments, a quiet intensity in their glare like only longtime partners can have. A silent conversation. Then Adam shook his head, saying to William, stand down, stay quiet.
“What if he had—”
“Billy!” Adam grabbed William’s arm. “What are you doing? Not like this, not with—”
“If not now, when?” William turned his attention back to Mr. Martinez, who was intrigued by the conversation between the Poes. “Are you a religious man, Mr. Martinez?”
Mr. Martinez shrugged. “I’m not sure that’s—”
“Relevant?” asked William.
“I was going to say appropriate.”
“Suppose it is. Suppose it’s both relevant and appropriate.”
Adam dropped his head, pulled the bottle of Advil back out, and popped two more pills into his mouth and swallowed hard. “We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up a second. I don’t want Albert to be singled out for anything we tell you. I want your word that this stays between us.” He paused for a moment. “And we’re not religious, by the way.” He looked at William. “I mean, I don’t guess we are, right?” Adam shook his head like he was the one confused, then looked back toward Mr. Martinez. “I’m going to need you to promise.”
Mr. Martinez rubbed the back of his neck as if a knot had suddenly appeared. “I don’t know if I can make that promise. Bound by law to report some things. I can promise that if I don't have to tell anyone, I won’t. Will that work?”
Adam and William looked at one another and then back at Mr. Martinez. “That sounds fair,” William said, and looked at Adam. “You good?”
Adam closed his eyes. “I’m good,” he said a little too loudly.
William started with the nightmares, which began when Albert was seven. “They got worse over time,” he said. “He’d wake up screaming, so sweaty that you could see a perfect imprint of his body on the sheets. We changed them sometimes three or four times a night. At first, he wouldn’t tell us anything about them, then he started to share a little here and there. It was unsettling. They were too vivid and accurate to be dreams. Also, he has spoken of the Romans before. He said that—” William hesitated. “Perhaps you should hear it from Albert.”
Mr. Martinez thought about this for a moment, then got up and walked over to the door and opened it. Albert was still sitting quietly in the green plastic chair, his hands folded neatly in his lap, his thumbs tapping together, counting. “Albert, you want to come in,” he said. Albert followed Mr. Martinez into the classroom and joined his dads, sitting down at the desk Adam had pulled up between he and William.
William said, “I was telling Mr. Martinez about your nightmares, your other… well. Tell him what you've told us.”
Albert was scared. He knew what telling his teacher could mean, or at least he thought he did. He knew he had to be careful, that’s for sure. He looked at his dads, first at William, then Adam. Adam gave him a reassuring nod of permission. He looked down, staring at his hands for what seemed like forever before he finally spoke. “I don't remember everything,” he said, staring at his hands. “The first was so long ago. I mostly remember the smell. They left thousands of bodies on the battlefield. Just left them there to rot in the sun. The smell was gut-wrenching and lasted for years.”
Mr. Martinez cocked his head a little to the side, then leaned forward and asked, “I’m sorry, Albert—who left the bodies on the battlefield?”
Albert looked up briefly. “The Romans soldiers and that horrible Caesar.” Mr. Martinez nodded subtly and Albert continued. “Some lives were mundane. Uneventful. Like I said, I don't remember the oldest ones that well. Fragments really. I remember the last one most. I can never remember my names, though, but sometimes when people say other names, I think they’re mine for a second and turn.” Albert raised his shoulders and dropped them suddenly. “They are always meant for someone else. It doesn’t happen too often.”
Albert stopped talking for a moment, his hands now clutched tight in a sweaty heap. William rubbed his back. “Okay. It’s okay, Albert,” he said, “go on.”
“I was a writer, I think, in the last one, but I’m not sure. If I was, I don't remember anything I wrote. It's hard to explain. It's like there are thousands of words in my head, but they’re all out of order. I feel closest to that me when I write, so I write as often as I can.”
Mr. Martinez spoke in a quality of indulgence, like he didn't believe Albert but was captivated by the story and had to hear more. “Oh, you’ve written other stories?”
“Hundreds,” Albert said. “I like to stand when I write, with my Mac on top of my dresser. Sometimes the pull to write is so intense that I write all night.” Albert paused. “I was a very sad man then. I was sad all that life. Few things made me happy—other than writing and the island, that is. I lived everywhere, it seems, but I loved the island the most. That I am sure of.” Again, Albert paused, his fingers twisted into knots like tiny tree roots. “In the end, I killed myself.” Albert began to cry. Not hard, just a gentle, uninterrupted stream that trickled down his face. “I can’t explain what happened after that. I remember nothing other than the place shimmered like sometimes the moon does when it bounces off the water. It was peaceful.”
“Are you saying you went to heaven, Albert?” Mr. Martinez asked.
“No. All thinking men are atheist,” Albert said, “but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more. Something else.”
Mr. Martinez suddenly lurched forward in excited haste. “What did you just say?”
“That doesn't mean—”
“No! Before that.”
“All thinking men are atheist?”
Engulfed by frenzy, Mr. Martinez said, “Wh-Where, where did you read that?”
“Read what?” Albert asked.
“Dear God,” Mr. Martinez whispered, “you’re…” He caught his breath. “You say you stand up when you write—and your computer—you like to have it on top of your dresser?”
“Oh, yes. I like writing like that very much.”
Mr. Martinez was now laughing, shaking his head wildly, and mumbling. “I, I, I don’t… this isn’t…”
“Okay, I think that’s enough for today, Mr. Martinez.” Adam said. He put his arm around Albert. “Come on, bud,” he said. The Poes all got up in unison, thanked Mr. Martinez for his time, and began to walk out of the classroom.
“We expect that promise to be kept,” William said.
“Yes. Of course. And Albert, I’m giving you a hundred on your story. Okay?”
Albert smiled, his face alight. “Thank you.”
Just as they reached the door, Mr. Martinez said, “Ernest.”
Albert turned around. “Yeah?”
Mr. Martinez stood up from his desk, exhaling any lingering disbelief. “Te gustariá ir a pescar alguna vez?”
Albert looked Mr. Martinez in the eye, nodded his head, and smiled. “Absolutely.”
Billy Dennis studies creative writing at the University of Texas at Dallas. He is also a student of Writing Workshops Dallas, where he studies under his mentor, Blake Kimzey. His work has appeared in the Alternative Magazine, The Et Certera, and The Dallas Morning News, where he wrote about his disability and trouble with opioids and pain doctors.
Billy was the victim of a head-on collision with a drunk driver. He broke nearly every bone in his body from the chest down. He has endured 55 major operations, the last being an amputation of the left leg (below the knee) in July of 2016. He uses his disability as a way of reaching and helping others. Before his wreck Billy was a PGA golf professional, so he now gives back to the community by providing free golf lessons to amputees.
This story was inspired by his 10-year-old nephew who is autistic. He wowed him one day with the level of his writing knowledge, so he asked the question: could there truly ever be a young writing prodigy?