A slight confession of sins

lower-case he and me

Late Thursday breakfast, at last I confessed myself 
to a poorly-dressed but well-bearded priest. 
This priest (I did not catch his name, so I will call him  
Father, or perhaps lower-case he), 
was a sleepy-eyed fool behind his drugstore specs, 
and he did not recall the extent of my sins even after 
I recited them from my torn sheet of foolscap. 

Distracted, he told me his dreams of 
a cemetery of trees,
of branches falling and ravens calling, 
and stale mausoleums filled 
with herbs and seeds.

There was no place for my words 
to brace against his filthy cassock. 
He seemed to be an aching arch of rumored bones 
and unpleasant knees,
and I was concerned for his soul — 
and sagging flesh and ash-stained hands and shallow chest — 
as much as I was for my own design of infinity 
and the fragility of my possible divinity. 

“The God you may know,” he said,
“he is one slow hijo de puta 
painting this canvas.” 
He paused for effect, which was odd and yet
he held 
his breath and, saith he:
“This place is his divine piece, you see, 
and we are what he has painted into the corners. 
The poets — I see you are one, from your long list 
of synonyms to best describe your best sins– 
mostly suffer from agraphia when regarding the faith 
of their pens. 
But I forgive you, I guess, if that makes you less 
inclined to bother me with your mistakes again.” 

“These are not mere mistakes,” I cryeth, 
“I have broken the Commandments, some of them 
several times, and one of them in a brothel.
Perhaps three of them in the same brothel, 
but at different times. 
Can I please be forgiven? 
What words can I say, what deeds need be committed 
to memory, compounded by shame? 
Give me the name of one who can forgive me,
if not you.”

Father and lower-case he, both being the same, 
paused again. 
“Son, I have committed these same misdeeds,” 
he said, 
“which is why I myself became a priest. 
My poor father. And my grievous mother! 
Ashamed! 
But I could not help myself. 
My sins were so wondrous,
and that was the curse given us,
given us all. 
To feel good is so shameful, is it not? 
And more so when you’re caught,
and even when you ought to know better! 
Say twenty-and-three Hail Mary’s and 
get thy gins behind thee, 
and I will join you, boy, bring your coins with ye, boy! 
Even now, in this comedy of errors, 
before the devil’s veiled terrors, 
I will join you in the brothel, 
(and I know that sounds so awful), 
but we will chant the prayers of the Lord, 
over Scotch whiskey and flaming swords. 
I am yet uncertain that it is not a sin, 
but pour that gin, boy, and then pour it again.”

With that, he removed his specs 
and wiped the lenses with his wet sleeve. 
“It has been so long since I last confessed 
my own misdeeds,” he said. 
“They are sins, of course, a horse
by any other name is still a good wager. 
I hear you belabor the forgiveness you seek, 
but for cab fare and a peek
at that place downtown, 
I will anoint your crown with my useless mercy. 
Agreed?”

“Indeed,” I said, learning nothing by and large.

“We borrow today to pay for tomorrow. 
If you agree to go onward, by tomorrow 
go forward, and sin no more.”

“Say no more,” saith I, 
and my friend Father and lower-case he
both being the same, 
stepped outside, beyond our prison’d door. 
There was no place for my words 
to brace against my filthy cassock. 
“Say no more,” saith I again 
to no one in particular, 
dreaming perpendicular, 
and then began to turn away.

soma

stars-and-clouds-at-nighttime-1229042

(Adult themes and language)

The East Coast light was delivered to them each morning on the cheap. It broke apart between the hand hewn beams Joanne loved so much, and then landed on her old West Coast quilt, miraculously complete. Dawn was the first trick of the day, she said: a ragged little something to make you believe you were waking up someplace else, somewhere more rugged, like Oregon or backwoods Appalachia. Goddamn Connecticut, she said. It fooled even smart people into thinking they belonged outside their natural state. 

Daniel’s father was not an architect, but he knew how to read a blueprint, how to lay hands upon brick and wood. This place was built as a wedding gift, and the old man died two days before they moved in. It was a heart attack at a traffic stop. Hardly the combative adieu most men hoped for, but it worked as decent after-dinner conversation.

On the first night in their marriage bed, Joanne told Daniel, “I’m the most tragic piece of ass you’re ever gonna find, Danny Boy.” 

He smiled and nodded. “Likewise, Jo. I hope.” 

They were a reasonably contented 20th century couple, cemented in stubbornness and tradition, until Gloria arrived. They did not invite her, of course, but they knew she would not change her schedule for them. And so they waited on her.

September 27, 1985 – 4:42 a.m.

Daniel at the helm of the bathroom mirror, inside it, stained inside it, exhaling Listerine, objecting to the flat space between the layers of his himness. Who is staring at whom, you might say, that certain cliché: am I real, the real deal, and who is this pretender before my throne? Am I firmly in place, consigned only as a load-bearer, as the pillar holding up all this shit and disgrace until it topples? Awful, yes, to consider there are these light fixtures and shiny polished faucets to maintain, oh, and the codified hand towels and ornamental soaps, the fuck is that about, eighteen dollar dollops of molded soap imprinted with cherubs, and I’m not even allowed to wash my hands with them? and the vodka still rages and it smells a little like mouthwash and a lot like backwash vomit. Fifty-two years old and still acting like a kid sneak-drinking Mateus, hiding the vino under the passenger-side seat of the old man’s wagon, except now it isn’t always vino, and it definitely isn’t rolling around in the back of the Olds. Joanne would have a cow. Is that the right expression, having a cow? No, she would have a fully-formed, prime Grade-A, fucking clot of beef if she knew I was still drinking five-dollar potato vodka. What do you say, Opposite-Me? I say go back to bed, asshole, it’s going to be the shittiest of shit days and she’s going to need you. Gloria’s on her way.

“You okay in there, hon?” moans Jo, her voice a blur, a smoker’s burr, barely aware under the quilt, barely awake but cognizant of his absence.

“I’m good, baby. Go back to sleep.”

“‘kay.”

“Rough day ahead,” he says, but it’s more to himself, because she already knows that, and why doesn’t he just do the right thing and fucking die already?

September 27, 1985 – 7:18 a.m.

Joanne at the edge of the bedroom mirror, beside it, hiding from her nakedness. She’d put on too many pounds since the Fourth. Maybe since before that, since last Christmas. Or maybe since forever. Fuck. Weight and shame, that’s all this was. All. This. Is. Daniel never said a word, not a tot of encouragement, not a nod of acknowledgement that she was suffering. What do you call this? The Middle-aged Blues? Might as well romanticize it, and why not? Growing old before you could really gather up all the facts of how you’ve lived so far? No one wrote songs about this kind of loneliness, did they? As your husband merrily lives a life outside of you. People have a way of forgetting the ways the other half fades. The primal organism of love, not just the smooth camera-ready surfaces, all the playful erections and generous curves and the wet boundaries of touch. They forget about the chambered heart, the damaged blood, the aching ligaments and the splintered bones. They forget about the ovarian cysts and the broken skin and ugly scars that still look like billboards in the dark. They only see the before and after in the photo album, and they nod and reminisce about the rocket-powered orgasms of newlywed bliss that always always always obscures the disappointments and stained regrets. We are childless, honey, because of me. We both know it and have never spoken it, not aloud, it’s not allowed, even when the other is asleep. And I weep. You know it, Danny, I weep. And you turn over in your sleep, and you turn the bottle over to your lips, and you pretend that we’re both too old for this nonsense, it doesn’t matter. But it matters. It has shaded us. And now we really can’t stand to look at each other, can we? But we do. For the sake of ourselves, we do. Because every morning, we awaken to the terror of our calamity. And calamity is what we know but haven’t quite expressed yet.

Will you be sober for the disaster of today? Because I really doubt you will be, and I really don’t need you to be. Because I know we’re going somewhere together, and I really hope we get there soon.

Daniel, yelling from the kitchen, “Are you ready for this, Jo? She might still miss us.”

His words don’t sound too blurred.

“Hurricanes never miss,” she says. “Who can ever be ready for something like this?” Did that sound like a chant, did it have a sing-song singularity to it, the proper note of resignation? She hoped so.

“I hope my dad built this place strong enough,” he says. “I think we might have a chance if Gloria turns a degree or two to the north.”

“Goddamn Connecticut,” says Jo. “Goddamn Gloria.” And, under her breath. “Goddamn us.”

Photo by Arnie Chou from Pexels

The birds

bird-birds-animal-bill

I did not think I would reach the age
where a decent 12-year-old single malt
would be considered
a regrettable choice.
I thought by now
I would be reading Chaucer,
maybe listening to an opera or two.
My second ex-wife says Pucccini is good,
though he’s no Frankie Sinatra.

Now I stand before this mess,
examining the sodium content
of my boil-in-a-bag chow mein.

Today I fed the last of my muffaletta bread
to the last of the winter sparrows
assembled in the Radio Shack parking lot.
There’s free parking around back
if you can navigate
between the crates of broken gin bottles
and plastic bits of modem.
The birds don’t seem to mind
the evaporation stains.

They leave wormy puddles on my door mat
when they come to regurgitate
breakfast to their scuttling chicks.
They don’t even try to aim anymore,
they’re like the tenured drunks
who fly to the urinals at Giuseppe’s Taproom
because because because because because
pissing on your pant cuffs is the secret code
that you’ve given up on the things
that make faith your last resort.

I did not think I would reach the age
where I would sit beside serious women
in a skatepark.
They wear the colors of homemade knit blankets
foaming across their laps,
and they carry pretzels in their purses to pass
to the finches flickering around that
lone
hibiscus
tree
with the petals blowing
onto the quarter pipe.
They share a flask of bourbon and tea,
and, yes, they are more interesting
than the rubber-boned 12-year-olds
still learning to appease the laceration gods.

Some of us never grow away from our choices.

(photo from Pexels.com)

Unintentional harm

There was a bruise on her thigh
the size of my eager young thumb,
the shape and color of a cat’s serving of
Neapolitan ice cream.
It was not my intention to cause her such a harm,
but it was the mark of my drowning eagerness for her,
a thoughtless expression of my wretched rawness.

I did kiss her quick,
a slight sweep upon her hip,
my lips a light touch upon her caramel skin.
She did not flinch or brush me away,
and in her eyes I saw a reflection of myself:
ragged, thin, braced against a cracked nighttime window
framing my narrow frame into a surprising self-portrait.

And I, unexpected, delivered her no preach of the affection
she had overwhelmed in me.
She poured over my every pore,
and my thirst for her was abated, though my heart was dispirited
that I caused her even this unintentional harm.

Soft brick window wells

do they still hold sleepovers
behind the textile plant,
on those burned-out chesterfields and
the la-z-boys with the brown foam
spilling out of the arms,

and do the bricks still smell like homemade
Portuguese wine
and wet takeout cartons

are the psalms still written on the plywood windows,
random angry verbs and treatises on
Vietnamese honey bees, and
big-G Gods and little-g goddamn ex-wives,
it’s all there, Mister Tinn, a written history
of living drunk on lower Caraway Street

but do you know what it is,
what it really is,
it’s all hidden in the uncomplicated folds of
the fabric of her skirt
like laurel leaves
under my fingers
that certain shade of green
and that certain breath she held
when she saw me approach her
and then

leave
and I’m

flicking cigarette butts into
coffee cans and soft brick window wells
clotted with three years worth of dead leaves
and I’m hoping
maybe something will ignite

and hey, there’s the new kid Carlos explaining again
the harmony of Samdhana yoga
to those with no fucking flexibility, he says
there was too much oneness between the sangria and his breath
when he tried his Yin posture on his teacher and her husband
swore he would beat the living shit out of him
if he tried that kind of

harmony
again

so do you think maybe he’s old enough
to end up dying here
with the rest of us

The state of the body

He looked so hollow in his little box, surrounded by God and all the unlit penny candles. The living lines of his face were erased. I could see the gray in his hair, a fine drift of curls I had not noticed before. His untamed eyebrows were freshly barbered, his flamboyant complexion struck butter-dull. This is what was left of my father: a plastic sculpture of what he looked like, not who he was. This was not the Papa-Monster who rubbed his 12-hour beard across my giggling face, or the Singing Papa Bear, his hushed baritone leading me to the good sleep beyond the bad dreams. 

The church was empty and I stood alone. Perhaps Father Miguel was behind me, watching me become a man at eleven years of age, perhaps waiting for the first manifestation of physical grief, I do not know. I did not cry or whimper or buckle. The church could have been full, it did not matter, I was still alone, and it was right that I should be. Alone with my father. The state of his body did not matter, except that it meant his soul was nearby, studying me, listening to me, reading my heart. He helped me to walk through the rest of that day, and the days that followed. My grief, I decided, would be a private thing, something between him and me.

The one before last

Your hands are still old frayed cloth,
hardly ever warm,
unadorned by rings or polish, but scratched up
from your cat Saint-Mary
whom nobody likes, but you’re too attached
to the rough animals that hurt you.
I ignore her when I visit you,
but still insist on serving the tea.

You say, sit down and warm up those slippers I gave you
Christmas last year
or the one before last.
Did I knit you that scarf, do you keep yourself warm,
do you remember that war,
no, you were too young for that war,
that was the year we left home to come here.
I remember that year better than
the one before last,
will you drink all your tea,
you’re a good boy
for remembering me.

You’re an old lady now
(you call yourself that),
filled with all sorts of living
that others can’t hear.
Do you still alphabetize your grocery list,
and grow rosemary in your kitchen?
Do you still draw those pictures
of the beach from before the war?
Your sister died then
and your mother did, too.
You loved that place, sadness and all

and then you disappear in front of me,
far away into the years as you watch
the sea wash over the sand,
when you were not the last one
left to listen for it.

Have I told you about when I was a girl,
you ask. Yes, you have,
and many times to the same sad end.
But I listen, you see, and I think Mary does too
because she stops biting into the slippers you made me
the year before last, and she watches
you with her cultured cat eyes.

For a while I disappear with you and we walk the beach
and feel the salt as it bites into our pores
and I press a smudged rag into
the flesh of my boots
and wipe away the sand
with the shoe polish you keep
beside the wooden box of milk bottles by the door,
and I hear the high laughter of girls,
all the sisters,
gone now,
all gone.

and then the air is dull again
with Lemon Pledge and cat food
and a motorcycle drives by
and I am still here and
you are still counting the rocks in the sand
and we are separated by the decades again.

Come visit me again, you say.
You know I will when I can, I say.
I know your hands are old frayed cloth
and are finer every day, like antique lace.
Mine are growing more finite and painful.
I wonder if you will still remember me once the tea is all drunk
and the years gather more space between us.
Will the beach still be there for you
when we are finished with this wander,
and will you remember to bring my slippers
for when I visit?
You still smell the sea,
but I will always smell the rosemary
growing in your kitchen.