I can see the dead on their faces. It’s in the way they wear their skin, you know: it’s the sorrow that is consecrated to the shapes of their mouths, the unrepaired seams around their eyes. Turn your head quickly and you can see it. It’s no mystery, certainly no secret. But it is a quiet thing, of course. The dead are always on their faces, yes, and I love them all.
I used to be a good man. There are memories, strong, of sitting on the porch with Marcie. We drank sweet tea from jelly jars. The porch was cluttered with flower pots and lawn chairs and Marcie’s rainbow of flipflops. I rested my hand on her thigh and we watched the alfalfa fields shift in the wind, like feathers rising from water, and imagined shapes in the chameleon clouds. Sometimes I plucked dandelions from the lawn and tucked one behind her ear. She laughed, then scowled, then laughed again. Eventually, the sweet tea became bourbon, and the laughter became the deepest part of our summer nights. We were young, so young. I remember I wanted her and she wanted me, and then somewhere, somehow, we became poison to each other. I was a good man once, but that might just be a dream, a desire for long-ago soundness.
They call me Balazar. I do not know why. I am old. Irrefutably old. And oh, how the years have poured through me. I have plucked the flesh of the immortals, scarred the tongues of those who speak my name, plundered their bones. I have wept for the stains I leave upon their torn breasts, but my tears are not sincere. I am not cruel. My work is fast, my appetite fierce. I watch them. They do not see.
They call me Balazar. I do not know why.
Darkness drips a minute at a time,
staining the sheets.
He traded in the suit and cape for a K-Mart tee and Levi 601’s. Tired of soaring, he took the subway downtown. He could still hear their cries and peek into their failing bones. He wept molten tears as he lay beneath burlap, and he wished for sleep. He waited for the yellow sun to give him back his faith.
Listen, please listen. You cannot hear my voice; I have none beyond the squelch and repetition that serve as memory. But think back: remember my eyes, my irregular climates, oh, how daring, and oh, how timid, so full of fear and fuck-it, by the drink and the contradictions. You will hear my voice if you listen, if you disregard the inconsequential noise that chokes your ears. If you truly knew, you would tell apart my voice by my pulse points and the wash of gray light upon my lips.
Listen, please listen, and I will be all that you hear.
The apartment, esthetically cold, calibrated for sparse, was assembled with stainless silver appliances and Pier One bar stools. There was a single Zulily mug on the industrial bronze cocktail table, lipstick smudged, overturned. A red silk sheet, torn and tangled with stockings and garters, lay between the kitchen and foyer, and a trail of blood smeared the linoleum.
Her alibi was solid.
The sign said, Abandon all yer hope, and the shack behind it said the same thing. The place was a simple timber frame with a dirt-packed floor and a plank porch. It was shaggy but sturdy, and looked abandoned, like a place of refuge rather than a home.
He heard piano music spill out the doorway,
Twas early day as poets say, just when the sun was rising,
A soldier stood on a log of wood and saw a sight surprising
but the tempo was wrong. It was rushed, more barrelhouse than sober, and Ethan could not recall hearing it played that way. It sounded almost salacious.
A sailor too in jerkin blue this strange appearance viewing
First damned his eyes in great surprise, then said “Some mischief’s brewing.”
After a hard night tracking for meat, he was still dithery about approaching. He could smell something cooking on the woodstove, though there was no wood smoke, and he couldn’t distinguish the scent. There was an undersmell of biscuits and coffee, and his belly grumbled. Whoever was inside could turn him away, or they could invite him in. There was no harm in asking.
The cannons roar from shore to shore, the small arms make a rattle
There was something wrong with the music. It was off-key and funereal. He heard the player’s enthusiasm but none of the joy. He heard a baby’s growl, and the scrape of fork-on-plate, and then a meaty burp. Growl?
Ethan knew only a few of the war songs, but his ear was unpracticed and thought this might be some local variation. There was meanness, a hauntedness, that was frightening. He walked towards the shack, and his legs felt unnaturally propelled. He intended to move on, but….
The wind shifted behind him, and it shimmered the pines. He thought he heard the crunching sound of boots on dry leaves.
He could not stop his own boots from moving forward.
Since war began I’m sure no man ere saw so strange a battle.*
*Lyrics from The Battle of the Kegs
We drank a lot of Pinot Noir that night,
the preferred drink of the cardiganed types (they said),
but we reveled in it, stranded here in the fuselage.
Brave (you said), and juicy like raspberries.
We toasted each other, and then our aspirations, unaccomplished,
oh, but we were still willing to fumble through the wreckage.
We stuffed a white candle in the neck of the bottle;
simple elegance (I said), and we watched the flame
sputter in the dark.
I pulled beans from the dirt this morning, before the storm arrived. I set them in in a bright orange tub of water. The early hours slink away like possums with needle-toothed grins, proud of their cunning. I’m late for work.
My hands are muddy from the dew, and my hair is matted from sleep sweat.
My ‘76 Datsun, low on gas, is a old man’s car, copper and rust, with a radiator that overheats, but it takes me to the promised land of the Cadillac Gift Shop.
The rabbit-eyed contraltos are posing at the counter when I arrive, and they cradle their Stella McCartney clutches like they were designer babies. Their Big Daddies stroke Platinum MasterCards with round pink thumbs. They match the Escalades with their shoes, white for casual, black for special, maybe an ATS-V Coupe for the hell of it, can we, sweetie?
We have baubles and shiny things for sale, and they aren’t cheap, but they are worthless. How about a key ring, 18 carats, or a crystal snow globe autographed by Kanye, koveted by Kim, or look here, a digital (platinum!) rectal thermometer for that Affenpinscher you store at the kennel.
Yes, there is dirt under my nails, and I could use a haircut, but all is well unless somebody pouts. But no one notices, because I’m not shiny, and I fade under the pink track lighting. No one ever saw the grimy work crew of the Yellow Brick Road and no one ever sees the man behind the counter of the Cadillac Gift Shop.
I work with the conviction of an insomniac, and think in soft colors on hard steel. Mr. Robinson appreciates my work ethic and every payday he pats my head as if I were a stray border collie. I am like the son whose name he never remembers.
He is in the trunk of my Datsun right now.
A supermodel’s mother asks me about the Ethan Murrow table setting. Her peasant blouse was hand-stitched in Portugal and her voice is like Meryl Streep and gin.
I have fresh beans waiting for me for supper.