sub.stance

I remember when dust was more beautiful than substance, something uncatchable, something whisked into cat corners. This was home. This was being a child. 

There is a box of in-season lettuce on the sidewalk beside the glass doors of Karl’s Barber Shop. Ladybugs — many — are sitting on the cardboard folds. Do they sit or stand? I’ve always wondered. The box is set crooked against the chipped brick wall, and it has been filled many times before: for lettuce, now, perhaps for apples, once, or old dishes, frail, muffled by newspapers and crimped grandmother-pillows. 

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This, being a child:

My father stands at the door, and he exhales hues of cigarette smoke, blue and gray and an ivory plume in the shape of a Saturday morning. The smoke smells important and impatient, the scent of everything I know of him: his roughness, his capriciousness. He is still a young man, and he has created everything.

It is numbness more than ecstasy that will lift you, I would tell my five-year-old self.

“Morning, Johnny. Brought your boy with you today, huh?”

“He’s getting a little long behind the ears. Say hi, bubs.”

I say, “Hi.”

“Well, hey, little man. You turning into a hippy? That hair is looking wild.”

“No, sir. Daddy say I jus’ need a trim.”

“Just a trim, yessir. Hop on over here, son, let’s see what I can see. Look at you, grown two inches since last time. What you feeding him, John? Magic beans?”

“Spinach!” I shout.

“That right? Never could stand the stuff, but it must work for you. Same as usual, John?”

“Yeah,” says my father, who is already seated. “No. Cut it a little shorter. There’s talk of layoffs at the plant this fall. Might not see another haircut ‘til Christmastime. Go ahead and bean him.”

“Damn, Johnny. Hope things turn out okay.”

“Probably not. Goddamn Nixon. Just do the boy today, Karl. I’m driving cab tonight, and I don’t care how I look.”

“That so?”

“Part-time, cigarette and gas money, mostly.” He picks up a copy of Field and Stream. There is a picture of a trout on the cover. He showed it to me last time we were here. “This is a trout,” he said. “About half as long as you are, Joseph. Those colors above his belly tell me he is of the rainbow variety.”

“Really, Daddy?”

“You calling me a liar, son?”

“No, sir. Never saw a fish that big before, that’s all.”

“They get bigger,” he says, and shrugs. That was my father’s primary form of communication: the sharp grunt of the shrug, the shut-up-if-you-think-you-have-more-to-say shorthand that is so easily misunderstood. It can be difficult to translate when you’re five years old. When you’re fifty-five, even.

“Wasn’t expecting you ‘til next Saturday,” says Mister Karl. “Wasn’t this your old lady’s turn to look after him?”

“Bitch changed her plans,” Daddy says. “She knew I had things to do this weekend. Goddamn car payment, goddamn kid payment. She won’t be happy ‘til she sees me go bust.”

“Uh, John?”

“Now I’m stuck with you-know-who all weekend. Might be able to land a babysitter, I dunno, I doubt it. It’s already too late to call my usual sitter.”

“Johnny? Big ears here, son.”

Daddy looks over and sees Karl pointing at me. I can see him in the big mirror. I pretend not to notice, but my face feels red.

“Aw, hell,” Daddy finally says. “Joseph gets to ride in the front of the cab with me tonight, ain’t that right, bubs?”

I try to be cheerful. “Yes, sir. And we’re gonna have hotdogs for supper, Mister Karl. And watermelon!”

“And watermelon? Holy smoke, kid, you got a good Saturday planned, dontcha? Wish I were going with you, instead of cutting hair all day. And you get to spend time with your old man. You’re one lucky kid, you know that?”

“Yes, sir. And Mister Karl?”

“Yeah, Joe?”

“Why is there a box of lettuce out in front of your shop? You know there’s a bunch of ladybugs all over the box? Won’t they eat the lettuce?”

Mister Karl smiles. “Yeah, kid, I hope so.” And then to my father: “You know old Pierce over at the hardware store? His wife put up a garden again this summer — the whole backyard this time — and he can’t give stuff away fast enough. Some mornings, it’ll be green beans, next day it’s onions. Today, it’s lettuce. A whole box of it, as you can see. What do I want with that much lettuce? A few pounds of potatoes, sure, but lettuce? Do I look like a rabbit? If you want a head or five, grab some on your way home. Otherwise, let the bugs have it. At least it don’t stink, like those turnips did. Hey, you remember that, Johnny? A goddamn milk crate full of ‘em. I told Pierce, son, next time bring me some of your old lady’s brisket, not her turnips. Does he ever get tired of ignoring me? Not yet, he don’t.”

I listen to the cadence of Mister Karl’s voice, but not to most of his words. I  think he is a nice man, but he seems to be honestly confused by someone who has done a nice thing for him. Free vegetables? Free lettuce? Daddy calls lettuce a ruination of a good sandwich. I guess so. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem important enough to worry about it, or become angry over. Let the bugs have it, I guess. 

Mister Karl trims me very short. There is a big pile of hair beside the barber chair. I didn’t know there was so much of me to take. Daddy did not look at me the whole time, or at anything else, not even the old magazines. He nodded during Mister Karl’s speech about vegetables, but I don’t think he was even listening. Mister Karl dusts off my neck and shoulders with his little barber brush, and then helps me down. Daddy does not notice my haircut is finished.

“See you next week, Johnny? You’re getting a little long behind the ears, too, fella.”

“Yeah, maybe. We’ll see. Take it easy, Karl. Hell of a night tonight, I guess. Wish me luck.”

Mr. Karl hands me a penny for the gumball machine. “Good luck, son,” he says, and then he winks. This time, I get an orange gumball, one of the big ones.

Daddy takes one last look at the box of wilting lettuce outside and nudges it with the toe of his boot so that it’s flush to the wall. He lights up a cigarette and walks on ahead of me. I try to keep up, but fall further and further behind. 

This is being a child. This was being dust. This is being dust.

 

Detected in a moment of profound silence

It might as well be written in paraffin, she said,
the way this will all burn between us

Uncle Nathan would not regret choosing the white athletic socks
as an accoutrement to his burial suit,
nor his choice of “Love in Vain”
at his memorial service

and there he is, with a lavish depiction of goldfish
scales on his bow tie,
Yves Saint Laurent tidal-gray shirt and a fleur-de-lis
stitched
on the breast pocket of his forty-year-old wedding jacket

the nieces will be outraged and
the nephews, not so much
did he have any money
who was he, anyway?

might as well be buried
between two Valencia orange crates
as between these two half-grieving ex-wives
who study the pink in each other’s blouse:

Dee, the round, idiosyncratic blonde, fifteen years
younger than he / a subscriber to three
plant-based leggings franchises

and

Dorian, the angular other blonde, twenty-seven, smarter
than everyone else in the room, who still cannot measure
the time it took for him to dissolve their
prenup

he kept folded photocopies of his parents’
obituaries in his wallet and they have turned brown
and unimportantly crisp — like well-preserved October
leaves, or Ore-Ida tater tots

and

he kept his necessary papers — driver’s license,
blood donor card, theater
tickets — in his left shoe / told his grandchildren
he was wounded in some war / hence the perpetual
limp

and now

a flourish of ghosts gather
at the dais

today we say goodbye to
a fine man…

Aunt Marlene, a flask of high-octane bourbon
in the confounding folds of her dress / takes
a petite swallow / she’ll be damned
if she shares it with the impotent man pretending
to be her husband two seats down
from that shaggy empirical redhead
he tries to impress with the cut of his
motorcycle boots

in the sixty-seventh and final mortal year of our dear
Uncle Nathan

and then

there is that sacred moment between

‘can you give me’

and the conspicuous dirty silence,
when all the introspective heartbeats and
the slightly humid exclamations
stop

and

the sweat dangles from the lip
the tear struggles to define itself and fall
in a meaningful display of public mourning

and

the voice becomes
a bellicose yowl of unashamed grief

and

eternity is, all at once, undressed / then clothed
between the dry heaves of bored deprivation /pity,

and then

the sky pulls back its pretty laced veil
to reveal its demanding blistered face

‘an amen for brother Nathan?’

and amen

and

the nieces / nephews
stare at each other on their cellphones confused
and then make their plans
for when this
boring shit is over

Caius

backlit-blur-boys-brother-551591

we sleep above the roots
our legs knotted
our hands folded
beneath us
listening for the weeds to rinse
from our ears all
the twitches of the road

we have seen all there is,
you say,
and we will eat
what first must be blessed —
old hamburger meat
and flour tortillas from torn plastic bags
behind Trader Joe’s,
a feast for boys who first learned how to crawl
on a dirt kitchen floor

these things we must see
these things we must know:
these fallow graveyards the shape of oceans
these gravel pits filled with factory-defective coffins
with cracked lids and split silk liners —
deep discounts
for the dead on a budget

i see you run towards me in your sock feet your
leathered arms pumping
as if you were still a
child
as if I had the strength
to catch you in my arms

do you remember the
summery brine of sweat and rain
that dribbled down our faces
when we were boys
and did not think to be men
until much later

she has her chores, you said,
and I am one of them

brother Caius
you have become my chore now,
and I have become yours

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

Ruby, my dear

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(Inspired by Ruby, My Dear by Thelonious Monk)

She has forgotten the beats
of her lightness
the circadian rhythm of rest
of motion
of rest

each passing morning presses into her belly
and each passing day cinches around her hips
and each passing night brails across her breasts
and each passing year reaches a suffocating end

the years, Ruby, my dear, the years,
you’ll know that cry
when it finds the lowest
part of your heart,
sets its roots there
and
that cry is a lot like a cigarette ember
that sparks through your bra and bites
into your skin
or maybe it’s like that Alabama belt buckle
that cracked its weight
against your bare thigh
and dropped you to the kitchen floor

and made you notice the crumbs
you missed
in your rush for a quick smoke
outside

Ruby, my dear
you’ll recognize that cry when it holds you down
and you’ll carry it with you whenever you fall into
another broken moment,
forced to hide your grace
in a rush to be any place else but here

She forgets the name of the man
who pours her husband’s afternoon pints
in an unmarked barroom
somewhere downtown.

She can’t stand to hear the push of her name
leave his mouth

— Roooooby — he says and

she feels reduced to that sound he blows through his lips
every time he
comes around.

He is a peculiar fellow: tall,
narrow of bone, dressed in a way
that seems so elaborate
for a man who carries that kind of grin.

If we had stayed in Georgia, she thinks.
if we just left those few heartbreaks behind us
we might still be fine.

But here, in these shallow rooms
of petulant conversations
there’s just this constant rhythm
of widening fault lines
thrumming through the air
and not-so-hidden resentments
behind every rushed goodbye kiss

The avocado-colored bed sheets
she bought them for their 30th
two years ago
are already unthreading, bleach-stained,
or bourbon-stained,
depending on who you ask
and how drunk he is

the plumes of disinfectant
settle on the cupboards and
matching countertop appliances,
on the cuffs of the olive-green work shirts
he drags across the kitchen table
every morning when he drinks his morning coffee

the residue leaves a stain you hope he won’t notice
but he always notices
and he will always tell you
about him noticing, and when and why

but he won’t take a sick day
just because of a goddamn cold
so you end up counting the cough syrup spoons
and goopy yellowed tissues he tosses
on y’all’s TV trays
over the long weekend
when you were planning on sitting outside
and smelling the air,
maybe planting a small box of herbs
inside the dandelion courtyard
that he never mows

and she sits on the edge of the bed,
broken down to her essential parts,
box spring and mattress both removed,
both ruined.
The frame is not a comfortable sit,
but when the man tells you to wait,
you wait because
she has been trained to defer,
and has come to dislike that about herself.

She forgets the name of the man
who will deliver her new bed
and she does not wish to re-learn it
every time he
comes around
whistling her name in a single sour breath

— Roooooby — he says.

Ruby, my dear
Years, baby, years, all those beaten-down years
and those beats of neglected lightness are done.
Do you know it’s okay for you to leave now
Do you know you don’t have to rush now?

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Appomattox

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Sarah, the sky that overlooks you and me, it opened up again today. The light that fills up the dogwoods is the same that curdles the cemetery gardenias. This has become summer once more, so you probably remember how things are colored, and then erased, without me telling you.

We have taken to planting crops again after last year’s calamitous conditions. Mostly it is cabbages, but also some acres of hay for the last two horses. You should see their shaggy stances, the hollowness of lean shoulders, the awful grief in their countenance. They will be confiscated by the army soon, Pa says, if we can keep them out of rifle range.

Lord, a soul can grow tired of salt pork and dooryard plantain, and sometimes you need to take a meal with neighbors (the Sowers, do you remember them and their dour Baptist leaflets?) to affirm you’re not being poor alone. The men will likely share homespun tobacco, the women will exchange recipes, the boys (and Alice) will tear up the yard grass with their raw feet, because that is the nature of this life.

We are each blessed in our own way, according to Pastor Paul, who joined up the fight last summer. Have you seen him? He promised he would write, but so far he has not, not yet. 

“Maybe he was killed,” said Cousin Ivy.

Do you remember sassy Cousin Ivy, from the Elridge side of the family?

 “Maybe they ain’t found his body yet, so he ain’t on any list of the dead,” she said. 

“Maybe you don’t know nothin’,” I told her. 

“Maybe he’s too busy fighting to be writing. He got any kin around here?” 

“No, don’t think so. I think he’s from Miss’ippi someplace. Seems like he was a solitary sort of preacher.”

“Maybe he found himself a woman, and she’s more interesting than writing back a letter.”

“Maybe you don’t know nothin’,” I said again.

“You ain’t very romantic, are you?”

“I never said either way,” I said. “And what if I ain’t, what’s it to you?”

“Then you are a bother to me,” she said. “Hand me another nightcrawler, these muds ain’t biting today.”

“That’s because you tore up the top of the river with your poor casting,” I said. “You, being a girl, don’t know how to properly fish for muds.”

“And you, being a boy, don’t know how to properly shut your big ole mouth,” she said, and she thumped me hard upon my ear.

I pretended it didn’t hurt, and that raised a smile from her, so we settled back companionably, and we cast out and didn’t say much for a little while. 

“Your pa mention the war to you?” she asked. 

“Little bit,” I said. “Not much. He wanted to join up, but his leg….” 

“You almost sixteen, ain’t you?” 

“Yeah. Couple more weeks.” 

“Gonna join up?” 

“Yeah. If they’ll take me.” 

“You don’t look too weak,” she said. 

“Stronger than you.” 

“Probably not. But they ain’t taking girls. Not yet.” 

“Maybe not ever,” I said. “That just don’t sit right with me.” 

“And why not?” she asked.

“I’m not trying to be smart, Ivy,” I told her. “I just think it’s… it’s too mean a thing for a girl, that’s all. War is just plain mean.”

“I can be mean,” she said.

“No, you can’t be. Not that mean. I’d rather go instead of you.” 

She looked at me, curious to my serious. “You ain’t mean enough, either, Cousin Jim.” 

Something grabbed hold of her line, and she tugged hard enough to hook it. She was laughing the whole time, and I didn’t want to think about the war anymore. It was a big ole mud– at least six pounds, I’d say — and it would feed her folks well. Then I hooked one, and, after a while, she pulled in another two. I could smell the sweat on her neck, and I swear it was perfume, the smell of gardenias.

And now the hounds watch me and Pa settle in for the night. I slouch next to him as he smokes, and he watches me scrape the fishbones from his supper plate into the weeds. The dogs whine. They have already fed. 

“You been spending time with your Cousin Ivy?” he asks. He is hitching up his trousers and he tucks in his undershirt after they are hitched. 

“Been with her today by the river,” I tell him. “She caught three and I brung in two.” 

“You know what I mean, Jim.”

“Daddy, she is my cousin.” I ain’t called him Daddy in three or five years. “She is also a dependable friend.” 

“She is your cousin twice removed, a cousin to a side-cousin. You are allowed to be with her, if she is your preference.” 

Charlotte-Bee, our eldest hound, howled at something near the barn, but that dog is half-blind, so we often ignore her.

“Weren’t planning,” I says. “To be with her, I mean.”

“That side of the family is slow,” he says. “They ain’t deep thinkers, is my best way of saying it. The girl herself may not be slow, but she has inherited their dispositions. Probably she will turn mean. Her daddy has that meanness, you know that. And you ain’t exactly a boxful of cleverness yourself, boy. She would have you eating out of a flower pot and drinking out of your shoe if you was so inebriated by her femininity. You understand?” 

“Daddy, she’s my cousin,” I say again, for emphasis. “And she don’t look at me that way.” 

“But you look at her that way, yessir, and if your Mama was still here, she’d already be ironing the wedding napkins and sprucin’ up her hair for such an event.” 

“Ain’t no such event to participate in,” I say, and he spat into the weeds, hitched up his drooping britches, and no more was said about that.

Sarah, the rain fell again today, exhausted, and its silver collected in our big pond.

Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels

The last angel of the Lord

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I thought I was kneeling before the last angel of the Lord, knees crimped in a puddle of Oklahoma dirt, feet swole in my least pair of shoes.

“I am done being exhausted by you,” I cried out. “I have lived my years as well as I knew. I have worn my face as honest as I could, and if you don’t like what you see, you should remember me as a boy. I was not pretty or handsomely carved, but my sinew was as strong in sleep as it was awake. I never ran from a fight I thought I mightn’t win, and I never cheated when I knew I would be bloodied. So you can pierce me with whatever sword you carry in your scabbard, and I’ll lay down as humbly as I can. And the next time you see Him, after you’re finished stripping me of my guts, you can tell Him I wasn’t a bit sorry about crying out a little when you cut into my heart.”

But it was only Ma, come to ask me if I could fetch her that bucket of elderberries she’d been bullying me about for the past fifty-some years. She stepped out from behind the dense honeyed sunshine and revealed to me her homely face. She has held onto that expression — half exasperation, half astonishment — for all her life, and I never did figure if it was exclusive to me, or if it was for the world at large.

“You came back early,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting you ’til Sat’day. You can lift yourself from your knees now, go bring me my berries. Bucket’s beside the hand pump. You know where.” She shook her head, unsure. “You came back early.”

“I wasn’t particularly busy, but am disinclined to pick elderberries today,” I said. “It has been a long while, Ma.”

“It has,” she said, and she poked at a cold sore below her swollen lip. She looked frailer in her graveclothes. “I wasn’t complaining. You know I don’t complain.” She smiled, and then she asked me: “Did I really look like your angel?”

“I was expressing a confession, Ma,” I said. “You frightened me.” 

I watched the morning fall from the branches of the old sweetgum tree. It clutched at the leaves and left its debris at Ma’s feet. The tree had grown tall in the years I was away, and it was untidy with pale green flowers. There was a litter of old seed pods along the muddy driveway and surrounding the rotted flowerbeds. Time had halted, sped up, and halted again. Ma had not moved, and neither had I. Was I ten years old now, or almost seventy? I wasn’t sure, because both ages felt the same.

“Ma?”

“You brung me my berries? It has been an age since you brung me anything I wanted. There’s still ice cream in the ‘frigerator, your daddy purchased the vanilla especially for me.”

Daddy made his escape when he was still in his thirties, but he would not go away in her mind. She always had a story about him regarding the purchase of ice cream, or how he once buried a dog the wrong way, or that he was fucking that divorced woman in Eufaula back when I was still diapered, and how her hands were too unsteady to clean me when she found out. The curse words sounded like gravel coughed from her throat, but they almost brought her back to life. These were the memories she purchased for her old age. She was of an age when the scars didn’t care much about the damage that caused them.

“The house has gone to ruin,” I said.

“It has always been a difficult house,” she said. “The hardware store never kept the same colors of paint, and your daddy would not change his mind about it. He liked a particular shade of white. Funny, isn’t it, that white can be sold in so many shades? Some day, it will probably be invisible, and sold in a can just as plain as they want. They’ll sell you an armful of air, likely.”

“Mama, you need to get on,” I said. “ You don’t need to be locked to this place. Everyone is gone.”

“That’s not so. You’re still here. Not all the time, but you visit.”

“Because I have to remind you it’s time to move on. This place is an anchor.”

“You think your daddy liked that woman?”

“Mama, I was a child, I can’t remember him much. It’s been so many years. So many.”

“You gonna bring me my bucket? I can’t remember where I put it.”

“Mama, the elderberry bushes are all gone. They’ve been gone as long as me, you just don’t remember.”

She kicked at the dust underneath her. “This place has become so lonely,” she said. “Nobody visits no more, and you scarcely remember me. But where else is there? I don’t know any other place. Where do you go when you’re not here?”

“I don’t know,” I said, as honest as I could. “For a time, I’m here, waiting on the last angel to take me somewhere, and for a time, I am nowhere. I suppose I still don’t know how to lay still in death, and I still don’t know how to move through it.”

“I am sorry I brought you here,” she said, and I saw a shape fall before me.

My knees were crimped in a puddle of Oklahoma dirt, feet swole in my least pair of shoes.

“I am done being exhausted by you,” I cried out. “I have lived my years as well as I knew,” and it was the very first time for everything I knew.

An orange beach bucket on her 12th story balcony

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i. Alleluya
She sang
Alleluya for my mother
Alleluya for her husband
Alleluya for my father
Alleluya for his wife

ii. Songs for an audience of one
She sits as close to the sun as she can pull herself
in her Vaillancourt patio chair
an orange beach bucket beside her feet
Allah opp, motherfuckers, she yells
and then she laughs
and then she sings
in a sterling voice:

I am a girl disguised as kindness
between the camera and the water
my heart beats greedy raindrop beats
you see me but cannot see me,
it ain’t that easy.
You never could, mama
You never could, papa
You gone now, to each other
All gone now, I suspect,
but you can’t see me at all just yet
you can’t see me at all just yet.

She sees me in my fold-up lawn chair
fourteen-ninety-five on sale from Sears
three summers ago
with a can of Fresca in my good hand
untethered headphones in the other,
my naked legs a cry for help
and she waves at me, and smiles anyway,
drops her hand into the orange beach bucket beside her feet

Allah opp, motherfucker, she yells
and then laughs
One more for my audience of one
and in a sterling voice, she sings:

I am the mother of the children
who never knew me
who dream of unfading skin, glowing
unpaved roads that lead me
here to where they will never see me,
we all bleed the same without knowing it

and she drops her hand into the orange beach bucket beside her feet
and she is silent for a while
alone on her 12th story balcony
and I wave to her, tentatively
from the 12th story balcony
from a separate building
but she does not wave back
and it all feels hollow
except for her.

iii. Nightjar
We see each other from our distant places
above the spaces of plague and dissidence
almost every day or every other day she is there
just there
whenever she chooses and she sits
in her expensive coiled chair

and I lean back into my sagging lawn chair
and she sings and she chants and sometimes there is no rhyme
but there is a steady beat in her voice, strong enough
to open other tenants’ windows.
I am her only real audience, I think.

I cannot clearly see her face
I can feel the smile she sends me sad and disquiet
and I listen, never speak, because that is how she prefers it.

She wears a colorful modest skirt and blouse each time
and now I wear my best slacks, freshly pressed and laundered
every night
for her,
and a button-up shirt
and I brush my hair
and wear proper shoes and I sit and wait for her to show
and sometimes she comes out
and sometimes she does not
she is like a rare nightjar
and sometimes we both sit in our respective chairs
and say nothing
and sometimes she leaves without singing
and I sit a while longer
until the cold air brings me back inside.

Photo by Todd Trapani from Pexels

Cinnamon Suites

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Suite 1

Evelyn-Jean Jones knows she does not look like that beige-blonde girl on page 28 of her brother’s Field & Stream October issue — the page with the below-the-fold advertisement for Kodiak boots and, apparently, women’s shorty-shorts — the magazine he keeps buried under his collage of college brochures — the brochures he broodily ignores when he comes home from JFK #3 Collegiate High School — the school he enters every morning as if it were a trench filled with mustard gas. He hides that magazine with that girl on that page underneath all the constricting thoughts in his life: the colleges that don’t really care if he attends them; the unremarkable grades that seem flat to everyone but his parents; the girl he likes who sits beside him in homeroom and advanced trig, and who likely walks to each of her classes with the standard-issue High School Richter scale to measure anxiety due to: pimples, grades, assorted teenage cruelties, and a thousand different oscillations of bad vibrations such as: being measured for every pound of flesh, every bead of perspiration, every drop of blood she sheds that must be so obvious to absolutely everyone. She does not wear Kodiak boots, but she does wear Dollar Tree sandals that will soon need Krazy Glue to keep the insoles from snapping down the hallway like a pre-teen boy’s trail of farts. This is a thing that boys do, and if she has a brother, he has already confirmed this to her.

But back to Evelyn-Jean: she knows who she does not resemble, and that is Miss Page 28. However, she is generally unattached to the idea that this is who she’ll always be, and there’s a pretty good chance that all the big changes are pending. Fourteen years old, and she may already be wise. She does not pretend to be smarter than she is, unlike her bro, who thinks he could be the next Ian McEwan or maybe Ralph Ellison (urmm, thing to consider here, and I’m hawking this from Sister Oprah: my dude, maybe you should be the first you instead of some watered-down version of someone else. She never EVER says my dude, not even when she’s mainlining M&M’s and maintaining a wicked weekend Mountain Dew rush, but Coolio over there is a special case, an inert exception to that particular rule, so you go on ahead and be the new Edgar Allen Duck if that’s gonna be your next performance-art thingy, my dude).

Evelyn-Jean has met the girl to whom her brother is enamored (– is that word still up for grabs, or has it been permanently preserved in amber by Miss Jane Austin and her Lady Avengers, strictly reserved for suitably cotillion’d adjectives / so the loud-mouth’d verbs can leave now, okay? –) and she is a slight and pretty thing, in a vague CW teen vampire victim sort of way. Blonde, but not Page 28 blonde, casual no-name denim, not-too-blousy blouses, freshly-washed face, clean nails, yes, my lord, she will do as a bridesmaid, but not as the main course. The Chosen Girl knows who Evelyn-Jean’s brother is, probably, but other than the slightly hesitant name recognition attached to the face, he could be anyone to her: an actor in soft-focus to the left of Jason Priestley in a “90210 Reunion Special”, or an enfant terrible from one of the lesser state senates recently depositioned for three counts of Awfully Stupid. Is he your brother? Tell him I said hi, I guess. Oh, the burn of immortal love, bro, but you’re almost seventeen, so this is not your real life yet, unless it is, in which case, so sorry your soup is cold and we’re all out of those cinnamon bread sticks you like so much.

 

Suite 2

Evelyn-Jean Jones knows her brother does not look like that photograph on page 17, second column and above the fold, of the old obituary notices –a jejune black and white shot cropped from a blown-up photo from a lousy yearbook capture of him and his Math Crew celebrating whatever it is that math geeks celebrate when there are still Math Girls in the room: probably Batman, or a Skywalker, or a particularly cute cosplay. He did not look like that at all / so ill-defined / when he died, and Evelyn-Jean hurried past him so she wouldn’t have to remember what remained of him. That was a thing she would never say to anyone, not to any future husband / child /  god, should she ever go looking for that particular character again.

hand-holding-a-flower2 (1)“Ya’ll don’t know how this feels,” she says at her graduation. “You can push them all together, all them black and white newspaper dots, and still not see him. Not for what he did in his three-and-a-half years of high school, not for what he did outside the hallways and classrooms. But that ain’t the whole him. What he thought, how he felt — they shoulda called me up, I had real pictures of him. Good pictures. He was a real, real kind boy, an urgent kind of boy, and I teased him about it, and he brooded over my words, because he knew I was right. When he laughed,  it was a real thing. That boy could laugh when he wanted, and a lot of time, he did not want to. He felt all his moods, and he tried to be generous with them when they were good, and sometimes he failed at that. But we knew him. I knew him, his folks knew him, and they knew him to be a real sincere boy. His hurt was real, and he had a hard time showing it off to others. But I knew him. He was not as average as he thought he was. He would have been a good man, given a chance, given a few more years. But I guess you can’t put that into three paragraphs and a  show-nothing photograph taken by a ten-dollar camera, can ya?

“I did not stare at his gravesite. Why would I do that? Nothing there everlasting. And there ain’t no stone there to read, and there won’t likely be one until there’s money for one, because that’s the way those things get done. But it’ll get done. He’ll be remembered, stone or not. The preacher read things from his bible, and they were good and pure words, for sure. Words about faith and resurrection and the humble flesh we all wear. But the flesh ain’t all. I’m not a preacher, and you’re probably all tired hearing about such things right now. I’m not, but I am his sister, and I care about such things. I care about his spirit and about being one of the owners of his memory. Let me tell you what I saw as I stood there weeping, listening to the wind, listening to the spoken words, listening to myself weep and asking myself, and asking hard: why? Why him? Why was it my kind, uncertain, curious brother? Why him? Gunshot, ya’ll. Three times. Because he was carrying a pencil case and not a handgun. Why him? He was probably thinking about — and y’all listen to these words — he was thinking about / not doing about — asking a girl he liked to the senior prom. That was his big thing, his big deal for the day. Knowing him, it was probably his life commitment for that month. Just thinking about: Should I ask her? Maybe I’ll just stay home. Or should I just go ahead and ask her? That was the way he thought. Contractions and uncertainties. Should I have peanut butter on my toast or cinnamon? Should I write poetry or study for that math quiz some more? Should I, could I, if I. I get tired imagining the travails and the traveling those thoughts had to take, all those back roads and blind curves. And thoughts were what he had. And thoughts were taken from him, and taken from all of us. And now I’m the same age he was when he was taken. I ain’t been shot yet, but I may be, same as you. Same as any of us. Because we’re all hurting, but we’re all strong. And I think of my big brother, and I think, I know that boy. He wasn’t perfect, but at the same time, he was. I can’t be the only one who knows that.

“And I stared, not at his gravesite, but at the field across the way. A field with a lot of cows and… I think I saw a few goats. The dirt was reddish and raw, with the last of winter finally draining away. But there were long paths of laid-down hay, kind of in a swirling and rambling pattern, according to where the tractor had dragged the bales. And the cows were eating the hay, and the goats were with them, eating the grass, and I thought: that’s where we should all rest. In a cinnamon colored field with others not like us, but just like us, who want to be friendly with each other and share what’s good. And I liked that my brother’s place overlooked such a place. It gave me hope for all the disquiet we feel. Maybe that kind of place is our real home, and not some gold-plated stone road full of mansions and riches, but a place of tough grass and stubborn soil, and calmness, always calmness, always slow and relaxed, with plenty of time and space to think about the space we have and the time we have to share it. I like to think that whenever my thoughts turn hurtful and blue.”

Suite 3

“Damn,” Evelyn-Jean Jones says to her partner. “I don’t know how that boy could stand the taste of cinnamon on everything. Both the girls seem to like it, though, and I’m glad of that. Now, don’t be getting any of that stuff near my cereal bowl, you hear?” And then she smiled without knowing she was smiling, remembering him.

Photo 1 by Engin Akyurt from Pexels
Photo 2 by Raphael Brasileiro from Pexels

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.

Dimitri and me

abstract-background-beach-color-355288 (2)

Dimitri and me
we lived by the sea

we saw a horizon
hard and infinite 
a great ruthless sea
conversationally intimate
a sea so calm yet god so deliberate
we saw and we drank our darkest wines
and we watched the deepest ships unwind
ahead of us
far beyond us far between us

for a life beyond the greatest hope of us,
for a life we waited and we wished for both of us,
we promised it would be us one day
if courage one day
would be our blessing some day
but Dimitri was killed
in March of 1948
and so

I live in this place
of hush
where moon hides the darkest heart of 
me

of us

of foaming arrangements of the remainder you see
the brightest of lights of life upon sea
and my days and nights of Dimitri and me

that wash away
our ballast
into the sea
of me and Dimitri and we
stay behind and live inside 
a soft and infinite sea of us.

Dimitri and me
we live by the sea
and we see a horizon
wide and so infinite
beyond us a sea

of only Dimitri and me.

photo courtesy of Pixaby