Where we go dancing

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

Me and Fo’ were well-digging since 6:30 that morning — same as every day since the middle of August — at Missus Bryant’s place near the edge of the Tallahatchie, and we looked exactly as what we claimed: gritty all the way under our hats and teeth. Miss Francine, Fo’s older cousin from Chicago, said she was curious about where folks went to dance in Dollar, and he told her, “in our kitchens, mostly. But sometimes in the grass when the night is particularly dark and clear. We take turns at the radio dial — we hope for some Dinah Washington, but maybe come across Buster Benton, or turn it up REAL loud when we finally find Little Richard (if we can find a station that plays him) — and when we’re not dancing, or listening, we watch for stray headlights that might be bringing bottles of Something Special to folks who carry more than just cherry Lifesavers and carpenter’s pencils in their pockets.” And that was the most expansive speech I ever heard Fo’ give, but I was aware that he wanted to impress Miss Francine, and was a little bit infatuated with her besides. He grunted at me when I asked him to explain how anyone he knew would bother with a carpenter pencil when it would be just as efficient to mark a measurement with a sharp stone. Miss Francine turned to me and she smiled her most famous big city smile and she asked me, “Do you dance, Bennett, and not just with scarecrows, but with real girls? I don’t expect you to know how to dance with a woman, so don’t you dare be nervous if you have to say no.” And I said, “Miss Francine, I can dance the ears off a row of corn when I have a mind to. Why, that corn becomes ashamed of itself and wishes it could be half as worthy as old dry cabbage or a leaf of backfield tobacco than have to endure another minute of the spectaculation of my feet.” Fo’ made a sound like the backfire from his uncle Joby’s Massey-Harris. “It’s Friday night, Bennett,” she said. “I suppose a boy like you knows where to find a hot spot to dance, other than a nearby cornfield. Or with an ear of corn.” I blushed. I did not know any dancing place nearby, but I told her: “Yes, ma’am, I do,” and Fo’ leaned over and jabbed a skinny knuckle just below my rib cage. “Boy,” he said, “you don’t even know where to find a working radio in your Mama’s house.” I meant to swat him, but he side-stepped me and I almost fell into the hood of Miss Francine’s Chevrolet, which would have had a ruinous effect after my dance story. “Steady there, corn boy,” Fo’ whispered. “There is a cotton gin barn in Glendora,” I said to Miss Francine, and Fo’ raised his eyebrows. “I heard that they sometimes hold dances there for young people. They keep ice buckets of Coca-Cola and sell them for two cents a bottle and they run a generator for a jukebox.” This was not entirely untrue, because both Fo’ and I heard the story from my sister’s boyfriend Henry, who was only unreliable half the time. We were also told that it was a place for older boys, nineteen- and twenty-year-olds, and that we should stay away from there unless we wanted  to trade our curiosity for a beating. Fo’ was fifteen and I was almost fourteen (but looked older). And Miss Francine was a grownup woman with a car, so I didn’t think it was necessarily a stupid idea. “That’s a stupid idea, Bennett,” Fo’ said, and Miss Francine only shrugged, and that was the end of that. So we spent most of that night behind Fo’s grandma’s house, drinking lemonade and ice water, and the place stood out for me like a sandcastle under a three-quart moon, fading in and out, washing away and retreating under all kinds of wavering shadows. We heard  cries in that still night, or what I thought were cries , and some screams, though I imagined and dreamed of all kinds of things in the days that followed. We heard about the boy the next day. Miss Francine’s brother RickyLee  drove her back home to Chicago soon after. We shook hands and said goodbye, and I could see the relief in her eyes that she’d never have to come back here. I wanted to go with her, and not just because I liked her (I did), but because I wanted to be far away from everything here that was so broken and mean. 

They found that boy’s body, the boy they called Bobo, and what was done to him, I can’t describe, and I won’t. It made me give up on learning how to be a boy. All at once, the idea of being foolish for the sake of being foolish seemed so badly foolish, and I ran from it fast. Me and Fo’, we stopped being boys right away. We gave up on digging wells for thirty-cents a day for Miss Bryant and her ilk, and spent a lot of time trying to figure out what kind of men we wanted be. Some days it still matters, I guess. I asked Fo’ years later what his grandma thought about us staying in her backyard that night. “Don’t think she stitched the two things together,” he said. “ But she was always kind about you, in spite of you sometimes being a world-class fool. ‘You boys act properly around Miss Francine? Ricky’s girl?’ ‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said. ‘We amused her plenty. She’s a nice girl and we were very respectful.’ Granny nodded, like that was what she expected. Then she rubbed her eyes, like she was suddenly weighed down by a lifetime of tiredness. ‘Nice is good, Fo’, she said. ‘Being reliable is good. But taking care of one another… making each other feel safe in the other’s company. That is especially good. And you are good, Fo’ You are especially good.’ And then she told me an old story about a dance contest she entered when she was a girl. I heard the story a hundred times before, but this time it gave me shivers, Bennett. You know? It still does. We could have gone dancing at the wrong place that night.” 

That was the only time we ever cried together, and it rained down hard out of our eyes.

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 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.

A place for departing saints

I watched the widowed mother

pause on the steps of

Matilde of the Sacred Heart,

a sight in black and white

posed in a black polyester dress,

maneuvering

cautiously down

cracked white concrete,

and I studied her

 

studying my children

across the street

in the

catholic park,

riding their bicycles and hiding

behind summer trees and sharing

their lovely laughter,

 

and it gave her

and it gave me

and it gave us

a précis of her new world.

 

she considered the words

spoken in

the privileged language

of prayer,

still, inside, chanting, inside,

in an idiotic, monotone

 

an old rubric

gutted by a god

prone to soliloquies

 

and

she hailed a cab

for someplace else.

Our usual fable

We wash the bone mud
from our torsos,
and if there is a word for this,
it is sorrow.

We see the frustration
in the lean faces of our children,
the dirt griming their arms,
the hollowness griming their bellies.

You and I will fumble with 
our usual fable:
this will pass
and it will pass soon
and it will pass as we sleep
and the land will turn green again
and the sun will turn warm again
and the fields will grow thick again
and we will rest all our doubts,
but yes, this will pass.

A malingering moon watches
over us,
and the baby studies the
cracked face through the worn curtains
in her room.
There is music downstairs
to accompany our fable:
I have my father’s old guitar and
you tap a pencil
on the kitchen table to 
the plink of wash water in
the beaten feed bucket.

You sing indistinguishable words,
soft enough
to be a prayer and perhaps that’s what it is,
you say it is,
but it fades into hushes until we
can barely hear the sounds you meant for God.
We take turns wrapping our hands
around each other’s fists, 
and then we rest them on the gathered tablecloth,
my guitar on my knee,
Sally on your lap,
and I thank God we cannot see each other’s eyes
because I know there is resignation in them
and I know there are ashes in them
where a fire once burned,
but the fire has burned away 
and I cannot see that in you again,
I will not see that in you again,
and yes, this will pass.

We take each other to our rest
in our crumpled bed, with its heavy iron posts
that flake with rust
that you wash away with a dry rag
every morning,
and you sweep away the dirt that falls
out of my cuffs and pockets 
every night.
We will pray about love
to each other
and we will pray about love
for each other
until sleep takes us
and it will.
Like the days before it,
this one has finally passed.

The middle of a very rainy afternoon

We heard the baritone command of the rain 
— it was a cello’s thrum, a wordless play —
upon the stone cobbles beneath shoe-less hooves.
We clouded together under the canopy
of a delicatessen and waited for the pastrami
to invite us inside, but it was typically mute
(as pastrami will be), and so we waited.

We had no umbrella,
and my suit was freshly laundered
and Dee’s hairstylist was profoundly anti-weather,
so we watched the sky and the gray passers-by,
and waited for a change:
perhaps a burr of sunlight,
or a morsel of blue above the Grand Theatre 
or William’s Mercantile?
But none availed itself to us.

My wristwatch was impatient,
for I had an appointment to somewhere,
and Dee was terribly afraid of catching
pneumonia or heart-faintness,
and the Delicatessen was about to close.
We would be stranded! in the middle of the city,
perhaps savaged by the wageless poor
that roamed the alleys behind the
dry-cleaning establishment.

The music of the rain no longer entertained us,
and our bones shuddered in the dampness.
Dee’s glasses were misted by her anxious tears,
and I longed for a cup of Earl Grey, strongly brewed,
and in a civilized setting. 
I sighted a taxi-cab passing by,
Off Duty, it suggested, and I waved,
and the attendant waved his finger back at me
— a charming fellow — but he still drove away.

And now here we wait, Dee and I,
impervious to this foul weather:
more resilient than most, and braver than many.
The afternoon has fallen upon us in a very hard way,
but my suit is still unassailable
and Dee’s curls still hold most successfully.

We will wait until our moral victory is assured
should the rain ever stop for a moment or two
or until the umbrella shop next door
re-opens its doors to us before
close of business today.
Still we hear the baritone command of the rain 
— it is a cello’s thrum, a wordless play —
upon the stone cobbles beneath shoe-less hooves.