He slips his palm beneath a stack of pale lavender polo shirts and slides them off the shelf. The stack is listing, deflated.
Spencer Reece, assistant manager of the Brooks Brothers store in the Gardens Mall in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is filling some time on a slow Saturday afternoon when the number of shoppers is no match for the sales force.
He unfolds a shirt on a wide, hip-high counter top.
He repositions the sheet of crackly tissue paper, lays a stiff plastic rectangle on top and refolds the sleeves, then the waist.
"It's like building sandcastles on the shore," he says. "One person can come along like a wave and wash it all away."
Reece, 40, is lanky with close-cropped graying hair. He looks old and young all at once. When he speaks he animates the beginning of his sentences, letting them resolve quietly, as if to let the meaning sink in.
While he freshens the shirts, Reece talks about what it is like to lose everything, to start over, to find salvation in a modest job. And to turn all that into art.
Reece's first book of poetry, "The Clerk's Tale," won the prestigious Bakeless Prize from the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference and was published in April.
So spending time with him at his day job (which pays $30,000 a year) is a bit like visiting T.S. Eliot at the bank, or going on a house call with William Carlos Williams.
"When I was growing up, my family traveled all over. We had a house on Cape Cod. Two in the Keys.
"It used to kind of embarrass me," he says. "But they went bankrupt. Now that's all gone. It seems to be a recurring theme."
He extracts the plastic board and doubles the shirt over, so the Golden Fleece logo is plainly visible on the rolled edge, and then reassembles the stack.
"Doesn't that look better?" he says, replacing the shirts in the gap on the shelf.
He repeats the pattern with the turquoise and then again with the navy blue, seven neat motions to restore retail order.
Just then a stocky young man who has clearly grown up with salespeople waiting patiently at his shoulder enters the store with a small coterie of family. He paws over the 30 colors on display, asks his family's opinions about the pink, the coral, the peach. He is a big wave lapping at Reece's castle.
"You have to be at peace with it," Reece says with mock solemnity, looking over and then back to the small task at hand.
Getting the Words Out
"I just thought this wasn't going to happen," Reece says.
Depending on when you date the beginning of Reece's writing career, that feeling of futility lasted somewhere between a decade and 20 years. But "The Clerk's Tale" as a collection of work was 15 years in the making.
During that time he submitted most of the 50 poems individually or in batches to an uncounted number of magazines. He found takers in a handful of obscure journals, Poetry Wales and Painted Bride Quarterly among them.
But he had higher aspirations. Each year he would retype the collection and send it to 15 first-book contests. The major ones, of course: The Yale Younger Poets Series (which Sylvia Plath long coveted, but never won), the Walt Whitman Award from the Louisiana State University Press, and the Bakeless.
Last year, arriving home to his condo in Lantana, he had a message on his answering machine. Louise Gluck had called. Gluck is the United States' poet laureate, which means little to a society that is generally indifferent to poetry, but among poets she is legendary.
As the judge of the Bakeless contest, she had picked "The Clerk's Tale" from 850 submissions. One of the perks of the award, along with a spot at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont, is publication by Houghton Mifflin.
Over three months a little more than a year ago, Gluck guided Reece through a series of rewrites. They'd work in the morning for a couple of hours by telephone and then he would drive to work in his Neon.
The ending of the title poem went through 20 versions before everything fell into place with the line "Snow falls like rice." The image provided just the right echo of the marriage theme from Chaucer's original "Clerk's Tale."
Having deemed it ready, Gluck steered the title poem to Alice Quinn, the poetry editor at the New Yorker, who in June gave the poem the entire back page of its Debut Fiction issue.
When Quinn called with the news, Reece had a mouth full of pins as he tried to tailor the seat of a customer's pants.
In her foreword to the book, Gluck writes, "We do not expect virtuosity as the outward form of soul-making, nor do we associate generosity and humanity with such sophistication of means, such polished intelligence. Like all genuinely new work, Spencer Reece's compels a reevaluation of the possible."
Analogies fit awkwardly sometimes, but to understand the sudden acclaim Reece has received you might try to imagine an unknown middle-age pitcher arriving in the big leagues, having bypassed all three steps of the minors, only to throw a no-hitter.
His first reading was at the Library of Congress.
He cried in the middle of it. But once the publicity machine got hold of his quirky story, his acclaim began to spread beyond the literary world.
Reporters periodically fly in to interview him. (He is a headline writer's dream: The Bard of Brooks Brothers.) He has accepted an offer from a Palm Beach chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution to speak to them this Christmas.
"It's been very strange," he says.
The Family Circle
"My family," Reece says as he orders iced tea with dinner at a favorite fish house, "was at once fabulous and horrible." He likens them to the Tyrones in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night." Boozy, brilliant and corrosive.
His father was a successful pathologist. His mother was a nurse. They met in the early 1960s at a hospital in Hartford, Conn., where they were working.
Reece's grandfather was a chemical engineer who worked with enriched uranium for the Manhattan Project. His mother's great-aunt was a singer at the Metropolitan Opera.
"So one side of the family was focused on art, and the other was involved with the bomb," Reece says.
Wealth made many things possible when he was growing up. He went to boarding school in Minneapolis. One of his most vivid memories from the period was the effeminate young boy who hanged himself to escape the teasing of his classmates.
He attended Bowdoin College in Maine for two years before transferring to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he graduated in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in English literature.
Reece did some writing in college, short stories good enough to win him a coveted spot at Bread Loaf when he was just 19. He dismisses his poetry of that time as "juvenilia," though it won him an award from the Academy of American Poets.
"I was so immature then," he says, audibly wincing at the memory of himself: a clove cigarette-smoking, ultra-bohemian with a haircut somewhere between Laurie Anderson and the lead singer of the Cure. "One of the least favorite versions of myself."
Just before he graduated, he got a call that his cousin John had been killed after a bar fight in St. Augustine, Fla. "They took him to the river and drowned him," Reece said. "They found his body three days later."
Within the year Reece had given up alcohol. "We were on the same path of self-destruction," he said of his cousin.
Leaving Wesleyan, as some of his classmates headed for Broadway or west to Hollywood, Reece flew to England to study Renaissance poetry. He wrote his master's thesis on John Donne and George Herbert and the expression of humility in their poetry.
From there, looking for a job that would pay better than writing poems, which he had no intention of giving up, it was a short jump to a career in the ministry.
"John Donne and George Herbert were priests as well as poets," Reece said. "I said, 'I want to be like them.' " That led to Harvard's Divinity School, where he nurtured the idea that he would become a hospital chaplain. "My father was a doctor. It seemed like that would make sense." But almost as quickly, he realized that at 26 he was too callow to be of much useful counsel to anyone. He collected his second master's degree, this one in theology, but abandoned the idea of the ministry, retreating instead to his family's 100-acre farm south of Minneapolis.
The fields were in a government program that paid farmers to abandon them. Perfect.
Those lines come from his poem "Then." Reece loved that farm and what it did for him as a writer.
Three years I had there. Alone. At peace.
Often I awoke as the light began to cease.
The house breathed and shook like a lover
as I took for myself time needed to recover.
He worked on his father's medical newsletter to pay the bills. He had a basset hound named Bishop ("after Elizabeth'') and a cat named Frank ("after Frank O'Hara). He expected he would inherit the farm, live there forever.
But the family's finances collapsed and his parents began divesting property, including the farm. He hired a lawyer to block the sale. For a period the family members communicated through their attorneys.
In 1994, at the height of the legal battle, Reece suffered a nervous breakdown. At the urging of a friend he checked himself into a hospital. Reece calls it the "nuthouse."
When he returned after 10 days, it was only to collect his things. He gave away his books and his dog. He hasn't seen his parents since.
A Proper Fit
How many people can say that Brooks Brothers saved them?
We're not talking about bailing them out of a tight spot on a business trip, but fundamentally altering the trajectory of their lives.
When Reece left the hospital and then abandoned the farm, he moved in with a nurse who had cared for him. He'd made her cry by reciting an Elizabeth Bishop poem about the art of losing things. She and her husband offered him half of their living room. He supported himself, sort of, with a $6,000 grant he'd received from the Minnesota State Arts Board. When the money ran out, he went looking for a job.
He applied as a newspaper reporter and as a teacher at a prep school. "I wasn't interviewing very well back then," he says.
Reece knew a woman who lived in the small town where the farm was located. She was manager of the Brooks Brothers store in the vast Mall of America, the same store where his father had shopped for suits. Remembering that she'd once mentioned some openings at the store, Reece walked in one day and presented himself.
"She looked at my resume and said, 'Why on earth do you want to work here?' In a nice way. More concerned, like something might be wrong," he said.
He worked double shifts, sold half a million dollars' worth of clothes the first year, a record for the store. "The job brought me out of myself. It healed me," he says.
In the process he befriended Ralph, the man who would become the subject of "The Clerk's Tale."
My hair recedes and is going gray at the temples.
On my cheeks there are a few pimples.
For my terrible eyesight, horn-rimmed spectacles.
One of my fellow-workers is an old homosexual who works hard and wears bracelets with jewels.
Just before the poem was published in the New Yorker, editors were worried the poem's precise detail might create problems for Reece's former colleague. "I called Ralph. He loved it. 'That's great!' he said. Later he was handing out copies, saying, 'I'm the old homosexual!' " The job put Reece back on his feet, but it also showed him he needed to keep moving.
"One day some family friends came into the Mall of America," Reece says, recalling a chance encounter in 1998. "They said to me, 'What happened? What went wrong?' " He had to get away, or forever have to explain himself. He asked for a transfer to Florida. The Palm Beach store had an opening.
He sold his books, again, to raise cash. This time he sold his winter clothes, too. He sold several framed letters he'd received from James Merrill, the poet, and Annie Dillard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirist who had taught him creative writing at Wesleyan.
He bought a one-way plane ticket. In the mall, of course.
He settled in Lantana.
it is not Paris it is not Florence
but it has majesty in its anonymity
this town where people stop for gas
"Florida was liberating. It was whimsical. It was like a new frontier," he said. "Everybody's got a past.
"Everybody's starting over."
Florida can seem so empty on a hot day -- everyone shut away in air-conditioned cars and outlet malls -- but for Reece it was the "weather of poetry."
He wrote that line in a seven-part poem called "Florida Ghazals." In it he weaves strands of his past life (the slaying of his cousin, for example) and the life he was beginning to create. It's mesmerizing.
When I come out at last from the dark I am committed.
I press my fingers on the keys. There are no more locked wards.
The Palm Beach store closed and when it did he salvaged an IBM Selectric typewriter. He wrote while working at Ralph Lauren and at a high-end jewelry store. He kept writing when he moved two years ago to the Brooks Brothers location in Palm Beach Gardens.
He wrote about Bethesda-by-the-Sea, the Episcopal church in Palm Beach.
The ministers attend to the living, inserting wafers like coins dropped into slot machines.
He wrote about a prison escapee who padded himself with Playboy magazines before scaling the razor wire.
Juan sinks into the swamp thick with processed excrement.
Nude paper ladies sink him like cement, silencing him.
And he wrote about his own sexuality.
In the store there was a man more beautiful than his wife.
The man flirted with me, then showed a wallet, inside was a picture with children.
In all the years quarreling with his parents over his career and even his sexuality, Reece never confirmed that he was gay. For many years he had girlfriends, one with whom he almost moved to Paris.
"I had a hard time integrating that into my life," he says.
A year ago, just after the poem was published in the New Yorker and just after the death of a close friend who had for years encouraged his writing, Reece fell in love with a man he met through mutual friends.
The fact of that relationship signals to him he has finally found a version of himself that he likes.
Writing the book was, if not an act of self-definition, then a record of his growing self-awareness. It has helped him understand something that was unknowable before.
"I needed all that stuff. I needed that mother. I needed that job. I needed all those girlfriends. I needed the breakdown.
"It made me the writer I turned out to be," he says.
It has not mended the rift with his family. He often uses the phrase "losing my family," as if they were all dead.
They are not. They live in Connecticut. He has letters from them almost weekly. They are not congratulatory.
He doesn't answer them.
Repeated efforts over the past several days to reach Reece's parents by telephone were unsuccessful. Although he is not aware of all the details of Spencer Reece's estrangement from his parents, George Reece, his uncle, says Reece's father was "real disappointed in Spencer that he wasn't using all his education."
"I think he's using it now," George Reece says. "He seems to be coming into his own."
Spencer's younger brother, who was adopted when Reece was 7, showed up at a reading in New York this spring. The brother's appearance seemed almost like an answer to a beseeching poem called "To My Brother," which ends with the line, "another year passes still no word from you."
But the reunion "didn't go so well," Reece said.
Too much damage to be undone so quickly perhaps. But Reece offered his brother his address and phone number.
Two months have passed, he said. "I haven't heard anything."
Reece has a dog again.
Butch, a chocolate Lab, belongs to his partner, Paul. Butch has a number of phobias, of new things and of noises, the result of being confined to a box when he was a puppy. He's still learning to connect sounds with what makes them.
On a recent Sunday morning, Reece took Butch for a long walk along Juno Beach, letting the dog off the leash to race up and down the strand.
You might say "The Clerk's Tale" has unleashed Reece in a way as well.
He will spend a couple of weeks in Vermont at the writers conference. Coincidentally, the Brooks Brothers is closing in July for renovations. If ever there were a time to make a break, leave behind the hashing and sorting and stacking of the retail life, this would seem to be it.
He's not likely to quit his day job. He'd like to find a way to cut back his hours to allow more time for writing. But the job grounds him. It's not a publicity gimmick. It got him through, and he knows so many, like his cousin and Sylvia Plath, who didn't.
"I like that I endured," he says, putting Butch back on the leash. "That's the message.''