Steve Orlen, the bad son: 1 question for Buzz Poverman

This week, we're excited to present "Held Under," another excerpt from Buzz Poverman's novel Love By Drowning. In coming up with questions for this, our almost-weekly interview series, we had several on his writing - his wonderful story collections, and the poignant, at times searing novel we're excerpting. But also we wanted to ask him about his friend, the late poet Steve Orlen, who passed away last year. Following is Buzz's funny, moving tribute to Steve; we'll put the rest of our Q+A in a separate post.

It was from a mutual friend that I first heard Steve had been taken to the hospital by ambulance the night before. More news came back quickly and unhappily in the next few days: that Steve had lung cancer, and that perhaps it had spread. And then that he was home. As I was walking over to see him, I thought what can I possibly say to console him?

When I stepped into his bedroom, Steve gave me an easy smile, and with that smile, I felt better. I took his hand, “Hey, man...” Whatever truth had always been there, was still there—no need for poses or pretense. It was not different than if I had looked into his office to find him working on a poem, his desk sprinkled with yellow Post-it notes: a little news, some gossip, a few jokes, talk about writing, a truth between two friends that could hold up.

Over the next few days, I saw this exchange between every person who visited Steve—no self-pity from Steve, no fear or desperation, just this gratitude and pleasure that his friends were there to see him, along with an astonishing ease and grace. Steve was always interested first and foremost in you, the other person. That, of course, was his blessing.   

Twice in those last days Steve told me word for word the same story, which was simply this: When his father was on his deathbed in the hospital, Steve and his older brother went to see him. His father introduced them to the nurse: this is my good son, Jerry. And this is my bad son, Steve. Each time he told it, he had the same look on his face: sullen anger, resignation.

Everyone who knew Steve knew he smoked—not so secretly—in his office. Several times I was presumptuous enough to say, “Okay, Steve, enough. Stop now.” Steve allowed me my indiscretion. Once he said, “I know I’m going to have to pay for this someday, but I like to smoke.”

I’m kind of looking at you now, Steve, as I offer this next thought. Is this okay?

Over time, I came to believe that if whatever had failed between Steve and his father had taken a different turn, if he, too, could have been the good son—was there room for a second good son in that family script?—then he wouldn’t have needed to fill himself up with something as poisonous as smoke, might have known he was loved when he needed to reach down inside for something to carry him forward, might have lived on.

I’m listening for a few words back from Steve on this—that he might half entertain that conjecture, or scoff at it. Cut it, Steve? I think it might be true enough for me to offer it.

As it was, in the telling of his story about being the bad son, I knew he still ached for something not there, something lost; it was the look on his face that said it as much as the words.

I think about Sartre writing on Genet, who, early in childhood, labeled bad, a thief, took on the role—oh, I’m bad, am I?   If I’m bad, then I’ll show you bad.  I believe that Steve embraced his assignment, bad son, going against the grain when the situation called for the polite smile, that it had been Steve’s way of surviving, of staying connected to himself—and to others.

Perhaps the common currency of Steve’s being bad was to say the forbidden thing.

I saw him do this on many occasions. One example will serve. I ran into a former student of mine at a writers’ conference who told me she had just started a new love affair. She seemed elated about it. Hopeful. Steve didn’t know her, but simply asked, “Is he good in bed?”

Startled, she did a double-take.

From there, Steve joined the conversation.

Bad boy? Maybe on the face of it, but I believe that Steve’s real purpose was to break down the artifice and barriers between people.  Someone tells you he or she has a new lover...  We might wonder: good in bed? We don’t ask.  Steve asked.

He’d take a chance—risk looking bad—to make a real connection.

My litmus test is that I never saw Steve hurt anyone. Nor did I ever hear anything mean or hurtful or cruel from him. On the contrary, Steve had this amazing caress in his voice—for people, for the world; it was a lover’s voice, a truth teller’s voice. The irony is that Steve’s bad boy was the kindest, the gentlest, the most tender of men.   

Whenever I saw Steve at school, he’d say, “Give me a hug.” Or else he’d just hug me, which made me feel as I had at earlier times in my life, as a teenager, a student, a time when you had a buddy who in some wordless way got something heart to heart about you, had your back when push came to shove.

Steve, this is like the afternoon I was walking over to your place and wondering what I could possibly say, but I found we could go right on from where we’d always been.

I see you walking toward me. I hear you say, “Give me a hug.”

Steve, I give you a hug.