Two years earlier, the Poet Laureate of Delaware stole a 95,000-dollar table from Jean's parents' dining room. She'd met him at a bar when she was still a year too young to drink legally. Her friend Robbie introduced him as Samson, an old pal from lacrosse camp. She danced with this Samson, a dark-eyed beauty with terrific forearms. He drove a red pickup truck and knew how to nae-nae. While he was off getting her a drink, Robbie mentioned that he was actually the Poet Laureate of Delaware, but he didn't like to tell people because it seemed like bragging and he'd feel pressure to be lyrical all the time. But Samson barely talked. He just wanted to get out on the dance floor and press her close. And when he needed her to follow him, he'd gesture sensually with his forefinger.
Jean's parents were out of town for the long weekend, so she took that laureate home to her mom's queen-sized where they went at it, on and off, for about three hours. When she woke up the next morning, he was gone, but he'd left a note: Sarah, sweet and stealthy, I will always remember you. Did he really think her name was Sarah? Or was that some literary reference? She just didn't know.
It was only after breakfast that she realized one of the dining room tables, the one they didn't eat on, was gone. It was a limited-edition Rheinspahn, and it had cost her stepfather nearly a hundred grand. When her parents got home, she pled ignorance. "Someone must have stolen it in the night—isn't that scary." It didn't seem like such a big deal to Jean. The thing was insured. And anyone who could afford to drop 95 grand on a table he didn't eat on could afford to lose it. Her stepdad accused her of being in on the crime, though he didn't bring that suspicion to the police. Her mother called Jean a spoiled, irresponsible dropout, living in unearned luxury. The fight, a long time in coming, was big and vicious. Ugly things were said that couldn't really be taken back because they were so obviously true. A lot of hair was pulled. Jean took a knee to the stomach.
She'd been on the road ever since, staying on couches when she was lucky, meeting some interesting people and some very dull people, making lots of spectacular mistakes. She lost an incisor, and in the winter she was always sick.
One January night she found herself standing outside a bookstore in Wilmington where she saw a sign in the window for a poetry reading: three local writers, including the Poet Laureate of Delaware. First the non-titled authors read. Jean didn't understand any of it. Even words she thought she knew well--gift, remains, shortchange--were used in ways she just didn't get. It all felt mean-spirited and wrong, but no one did anything to stop it.
The laureate went last. She was a wide, silver-haired lady named Elaine Lind. She read a poem about being stuck in an elevator with a spider and then one about learning to French-kiss at Dunkin' Donuts. Jean didn't really know whether she liked the poems, but there was something agreeable and perceptive in the woman's eyes, she thought.
When it was over, the two other poets had friends and relatives. The laureate had no one, but it didn't seem to bother her. She loaded her plate with cheese and slices of ham then sat in a folding chair near the back.
"In the elevator poem I'm glad that the spider didn't start to talk," Jean said to her.
Elaine Lind nodded. "Yes, a talking animal is almost always a bad idea. In a poem."
Soon after, they were drinking wine together under a poster of John Grisham, and Jean told the whole story:the laureate, the night in mom's bed, the stolen table.
"How heavy was the table?" Elaine asked.
"Yes. An estimate."
"It wasn't huge, but it was solid. I don't know."
"Could one man carry it out by himself?"
"Maybe a really strong guy."
"You said he had nice forearms. What's the word they use? Shredded? Was he all shredded, ripped, frayed, ruptured?"
"He was a strong guy. Maybe he could've done it alone."
"I'm just wondering if he would have needed a partner."
They were able to look up the table online. It weighed 170 pounds.
"I weigh 170 pounds," Elaine said. "A strong man could easily carry me out of a dining room. The truck he drove: Delaware plates?"
"No. I remember they were Connecticut plates. Local, you know."
"Maybe they spelled something clever, like Laureate69?"
"No. Sorry. Nothing I could remember."
"That's all right. Did you tell him about the table? You know, the night before, how much it was worth?"
"I don't remember. But I might have. I thought it was so stupid: a 95,000-dollar table. And I liked to tell people about the really stupid things my parents did."
On the laureate website, there was no one named Samson, and a look through the past 15 years of pictures didn't turn up anything either.
"Why are there so many of them?" Jean asked.
"The term is only six months. Not only that, for the past eleven years there have been two laureates at a time."
"Some feud between the governor's office and the state arts council. It's not important. Did you ever ask your friend Robbie about that night?"
"What do you mean?"
"The friend who introduced you."
Jean had never thought to do that, an obvious first step. Then again she hadn't really cared about the table or finding Samson. Now she did. It wasn't hard to track down Robbie's phone number. He worked a PR job in New York, and he answered on the first ring, happy to talk to a pretty girl from the old days.
"Yeah, I'd never met the guy before. He saw me talking to you, and he said he'd buy me a drink if I'd introduce him to you as an old friend. Then he said he'd buy me two more if I told you that he was chief poet of Louisiana or something."
"Okay, Delaware. Did you go home with him?"
The poet laureate wrote on a slip of paper—Details about Samson
"Can you tell me anything else about this guy? His real name, where he was from?"
"I don't really remember much about him. Handsome guy, though. Wouldn't think he'd have to play games to pick up girls. Hey, what's this about?"
Jean got off the phone, and for some reason she was a little embarrassed.
"I don't want you to think that I—you know—that I do that kind of thing all the time."
"What? Hook up with boys?"
"Nothing to be ashamed of. A few weeks ago, I had sex with a man who sells shrooms out of his car."
"Did you do it in the car?"
"Yes, actually. We made love in his Saab. We made love in his sob? No, that doesn't work." Elaine shook off the bad verse. "No, what matters is finding the man who stole your table. Let me think."
The bookstore was closing up, so they went to a bar down the block where they drank cheap vodka.
"I just don't think someone claims to be Poet Laureate of Delaware out of nowhere. There's something behind that," Elaine said. "Sarah, Sweet and Stealthy? Are you sure that's what he wrote?"
"Yes, I kept it for a while. The scrap of paper. I lost it somewhere."
Jean didn't retain possessions. At the moment, all she had was a small purse that she'd found--no cash, no wallet--outside a Burger King just before sunup about a week earlier.
"It must be from somewhere," Elaine said.
They did a simple search for the phrase, but nothing came up.
"I've got a friend out at UD. He might know something, and even if he doesn't, we can use his password to get into the journal database."
"It's got a ton of small literary journals on it, and we can do a phrase check on Sarah, sweet and stealthy."
"It checks every little magazine?"
"Not every single one, but a lot of them."
Elaine texted Dr. Sohn. He wrote back right away. He was still awake—come on over.
"Is it close?" Jean asked.
"It's Delaware, dear. Everything is close."
Dr. Sohn was about 70, a short man in an ancient bathrobe.
"But we have to keep it down. Dahlia is asleep," he said.
They gave him as much of the story as he needed to know. Dr. Sohn looked very familiar to Jean. It was as if she'd seen his face in connection with something dishonest and ugly.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Dr. Sohn said.
"I've seen you before. I think."
Jean felt tense, a little angry. On the road, she'd started to develop a sense, a very imperfect sense, of when she needed to bolt.
"Oh, I know," Elaine said with a little laugh. "You were looking at his picture only an hour ago."
He'd been laureate twelve years earlier.
"Yeah, I did my six months," he said. If you're a published poet in the state of Delaware you've probably been laureate at some point."
"The best part is when you accidentally rhyme and someone says you're a poet and don't even know it, you can just kind of give them a look," Elaine added.
Dr. Sohn poured out coffee.
"Sarah, sweet and stealthy," he said carefully.
They searched the phrase on the database. Nothing came up.
"Any students stand out to you: good-looking, fit?" Elaine asked.
"Always a lot of handsome boys. But none of them were fit until the late 80s. 1987, a guy comes into my class with deltoids." He stirred cream into his cup. "I have to say, though, the sweet and stealthy line. It does sound familiar."
"Like something a student wrote for class?"
"No, I feel like it's something I read, not something I heard out loud, which rules out anything a student wrote."
"You don't read your student's work?"
"Not for the past eight years. If they don't read it in class, I don't know about it."
"So we should check the journals not in the database?"
"And I would start eight years ago and work back."
"You stopped reading journals too?"
"The only poetry I read now is John Donne."
"So you haven't read anything of mine in the past eight years?"
"Elaine, I love you, but I'm not going to read your words."
Just then a very tired woman came into the kitchen in a thick nightgown.
"What is all this?"
"Sorry, we'll try to be more quiet."
The woman spotted Elaine.
"Good evening, Dahlia."
"He needs sleep. It's bad when he naps in a poetry seminar. That makes all of us look bad. You wouldn't understand that, Elaine."
"Honey, honey," Dr. Sohn said. "I'm fine. We're fine."
"And who is this?" Dahlia pointed to Jean. "Some homeless girl you brought into my house?"
"Maybe we should be going," Elaine said.
"I'd say look in Sonic Review, Pulsatwaney, and Matterhorn Review," Dr. Sohn said as Elaine and Jean made their way to the door. "I used to read those, but they aren't in the database."
With a few hours to kill before the library opened, Elaine and Jean drove to the Route 40 diner and had a big breakfast. Jean poured most of a bottle of syrup on her pancakes.
"Does it pay a lot?" she asked. "Being laureate?"
"No. No. Oh, no. God. No. Are you wondering how I can afford a feast like this?"
"You don't teach, right? How do you get by?"
"I'm sort of a detective."
"And people pay you? Because I can't."
"Sometimes people pay me. Usually they don't. I'm also pretty good at betting on college basketball."
Jean had nothing to say in response to that, so she ate everything on her plate and all of Elaine's bacon.
In the library, they found the old periodicals section and worked their way back through magazines that hid inside cheap leather. They started eight years ago then headed deeper into the past. To Jean the letters were like little bits of cereal on the page. She wasn't confident that she'd catch the phrase if she saw it, but Elaine worked efficiently and finally after two hours, she found it in a ten-year-old issue of Sonic Review.
"Hello, my friend."
It was there in a poem by a woman named Ruth O'Dowd who had attended Wesley College in Dover ten years earlier. She currently worked for a medical billing company in Chicago. They called to tell her how much they loved her poem.
"Sarah, sweet and stealthy," Elaine said. "That's a really interesting line. Do you remember where it came from?"
Ruth laughed. It sounded like she was walking on a crowded street, maybe on her way to work.
"Mark, the guy I was dating when I wrote that poem, he used to say it to me."
"Even though your name wasn't Sarah?"
"Yeah. He’d just learned the word stealthy, and he really wanted to use it. Like in a sentence."
"Was he a poet?"
"He seemed to think that anyone could just pick up a pen and call himself a poet."
"He was a good-looking guy, fit?"
"You have any pictures of him?"
"Why are you so interested?" For the first time Ruth's guard went up. It was time to level with her.
"We think he stole something from my friend."
"Yeah," Ruth said. "He stole from me also. About fifty dollars and all my olive oil."
"Just ran off?"
"I met him in a bar one night, he basically moved in for a month. Then he took off."
"What was his last name?"
"Ulanger. He didn't tell me that, but I took his license out of his pants one time. This was maybe ten years ago. Such a funny time. I wore these sweaters, and I sat out on the steps and wrote poems in a little notebook. I was kind of a wreck, but also I looked down on everyone, everyone who wasn't me."
She sent them a picture of Mark. It was a bad, one blurry side shot, but you could see the kind of charm he put out there. This was their man.
"Maybe it was worth 50 dollars," Ruth said. "The sex was all right. I don't really use olive oil. I got one line of poetry out of it."
Mark Ulanger was as an assistant manager at a store in Indianapolis called Houseware Needz. It looked like he worked until closing on a Wednesday night.
"So he's gone straight?" Jean asked.
"It would appear," Elaine said. "If we leave right now, we should be able to make it."
The ride was nearly ten hours. Along the way Jean found a newspaper article from eight years earlier about a genuine Rheinspahn table abandoned in a courtyard outside a New Haven apartment building, warped and worthless.
She also found a website where Mark Ulanger posted an ever-expanding narrative poem about a young man riding across the country on a motorcycle, bedding women, cooking meat over an open fire out in the desert, teaching children how to whittle with a Bowie knife, playing dominoes with elderly men. He liked to describe sounds in detail. Like a campfire: cruh-crack. Or a horse trotting: clip-a-clop. Or sexual penetration: squeesha-squeeesh. Jean was able to follow most of it, but she didn't think that meant it was good.
Elaine had Jean check on basketball scores of the previous night. She'd gone six-and-five.
"That barely even covers the vig."
It made Jean angry that there were so many words she didn't understand. Even a tiny word like vig was completely foreign to her. She seemed to remember a time when she was much smarter, much more alert. There was also a time when she didn't need to wipe her dripping nose constantly, and all she had was a shredded tissue dug out from deep in a jacket pocket. When they stopped for gas, Elaine bought a new box of Kleenex.
"Sometimes I think I should be grateful to him," Jean said. "In a way he liberated me."
"How do you feel now?"
"I feel like he stole a table and ruined my life."
They made it to Houseware Needz about an hour before closing. It wasn't crowded, and they spotted Mark right away, standing in an apron, helping a woman find the right ceramic pear. There seemed to be more extra chit-chat between them than necessary:we've also got some truly excellent salad bowls. He mimed the shape of a truly excellent salad bowl, and the woman nodded enthusiastically. Finally she went to checkout, and Jean moved in on Mark while Elaine hung back two steps.
"Samson," Jean said.
"Sorry, my name isn't Samson," he said with a sunny smile.
"I just want to talk."
Quick vague recognition came into his eyes.
"Do you want me to stay?" Elaine asked.
"No. I can do this."
Jean spoke with real conviction, and Elaine went back to the car. Mark didn't admit to anything, but he gestured Jean to the cutlery section that same old, lazy forefinger.
"I don't really need an apology," she said.
"So why are you here?"
"Look at my hand."
She spread her left hand on a solid metal table.
"Okay. What am I looking at?"
"Now you. Put your hand out like this."
He paused a moment, but then complied. "Why not?" His hands were large and veiny. She remembered how strong they were. When she grabbed a cleaver from the display and brought it down on his forefinger, she was surprised how neatly it severed. She put it in her purse. She was out the door before she the commotion began behind her. The car was parked around the corner.
"All right. I'm all done."
Elaine waited until they were back on the highway to speak.
"What did you do?"
"I cut off his finger."
"Is it in your purse?"
"Do you want to see it?"
"No, I don't."
"Do you think I did the right thing?"
"Well, it can't be changed now."
They drove another ten minutes.
"Where should I leave you?" Elaine asked.
"I don't see that it matters too much."
The Poet Laureate of Delaware left the girl in Cincinnati with 20 dollars, three Luna bars, and a purse that was beginning to drip. One drop just before she shut the car door: an image Elaine could use, that justified the whole night.
The Houseware Needz Slashing was well-covered in the Midwest. The prints off the knife were good, but they didn't match anyone in the system. There was no footage of the actual attack, only some blurry shots of the girl on her way in and then again on the way out. It was an eye-catching story for a few days, but it wasn't a murder or even an attempted murder. The investigation died out fairly soon. But exactly three months later, a nine-fingered man was appointed Poet Laureate of Indiana.