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

woman-girl-evening-kitchen-4058703

(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

skeleton-fish-museum-fish-bones-9365

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

statue-angel-cemetery-96127

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.

The nineth part of a sparrow

(Adult language and sexual themes)

Thersites: Lo, lo, lo, lo, what modicums of wit he utters! his evasions have ears thus long. I have bobbed his brain more than he has beat my bones: I will buy nine sparrows for a penny, and his pia mater is not worth the nineth part of a sparrow. This lord, Achilles, Ajax, who wears his wit in his belly and his guts in his head, I’ll tell you what I say of him.

Troilus and Cressida – William Shakespeare

woman-s-face-3196977

Chorus: Yes, she, Lucy Finn, not known for her patience or statecraft. She is celebrated for her fearless interpretations, intolerant of theater critics, New York rib joints, men generally, ex-husbands particularly. She is esteemed, but not beloved. Now dying of some awful viral scourge, probably. Fevered, alone, reminiscent in her grief, with a beautiful and dead Venezuelan boy locked up in the spare bedroom, occupying too much of her attention.

Lucy Finn: Help me, Victorio, I believe I am dying.

Victorio: Rest, dear Lucille. Shall I bring you your cigarettes, or would you prefer a magnificent ripened orange? You have not told me what mood you’re in.

Chorus: (Snorts). Lucille? Victorio was her first husband, and the only man who would ever call her that. She despises that version of her name. People would compare her to that other redhead, that vaudevillian redhead, the one with the television program. Not a real actress, not by any measure. Only Victorio could call her by that name and make it sound so erotic. 

Lucy Finn: That fancy gin you bought me. Over crushed ice, please. With orange peel? My throat is so dry.

Victorio: Of course. 

Chorus: Lucy recalls Victorio has been dead for nearly thirty-seven years. A suicide. He liked the young boys, had a fondness for them, and she caught him in the back of their Lincoln Town Car, his soft brown fingers stretching a condom over a fifteen-year-old boy’s semi-flaccid cock.

Thersites:  Prithee, be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk; thou art thought to be Achilles’ male varlet.”

Lucy Finn: I loved that role. I was born to play it. And god-damn those critics who said it was not a woman’s role. It was an actor’s role. God-damn them all. I should have won the Drama Desk Award that year.

Davison Petre: You were volcanic, my love. You were Lawrence Olivier if Olivier were a woman. 

Lucy Finn: Or if he could be me, and a much better actor.

Davison Petre: Really, darling? You’re too much for your own good. What are you going to do about that dead boy in the bedroom? This is the middle of April, my sweet, and that corruption is practically in full blossom.

Lucy Finn: I don’t know, Davison. Could you help me? I’m really not feeling very well.

Chorus: Davison was really not there, of course. They divorced almost two years after Troilus and Cressida finished its brief Broadway run. It took them that long to realize they were not particularly tragic, just two semi-real people who did not like each other very much. Davison finished his career as a character actor in minor network sitcoms and movies-of-the-week. The last time Lucy heard from him, he was working on a memoir he hoped would be picked up by Random House. He was one of the first ‘celebrities’ to succumb to this new and outrageous virus. That was nine days ago. Sometimes Lucy forgets she was married to him.

Lucy Finn: Davison?

Daniel Large: I don’t know who that is. Was he an actor friend of yours?

Lucy Finn: He was… yes, something like that. Have you come here to help me with my little problem?

Daniel Large: Honey, I’m your big problem now. We signed a contract, remember? Branson, Missouri? That little theater gig you were supposed to headline? “Shakespeare and the Romulans”, or whatever it was called? You never showed up, and I gave you a lot of advance money. And now the devil has come for his due.

Lucy Finn: I don’t know you! I don’t remember you! I don’t think I would do such a thing. I’m practically retired now. I’m practically a legend now. Why would I ruin that? Why would I do something so foolish and… and so meaningless? I was the best Thersites, no matter what the reviewers wrote. I should have won for that performance, instead of Jessica Tandy for whatever bullshit play she was in. Poor dear, she was a pity-win, don’t you think?

Daniel Large: You asking me? Look here, you signed the papers. Old broads like you, I know you need your fancy boys and gigolos to help you believe you’re not past your best-before date, but sweetheart, you’re way past that now. You’re practically expired. You gonna get on that bus, or do I have to drag you there myself? And Jessica Tandy won for The Gin Game that year, and she was glorious.

Lucy Finn: You… you’re… you are not a very nice character. In fact, I would say you’re a cliché . This is not a 1970’s detective show, when that kind of acting was so commonplace. This is real life. You don’t belong here anymore.

Daniel Large: Ain’t nothing real about your life, lady. What about that boy in your spare room? Is he even real? Have you checked on him lately?

Thersites: “I would thou didst itch from head to foot and I had the scratching of thee; I would make thee the loathsomest scab in Greece. When thou art forth in the incursions, thou strikest as slow as another.”

Chorus: Daniel Large was an unemployed actor she met in 1997. He volunteered as a stagehand in a Trenton, New Jersey production of Henry VI, Part II. Lucy was cast as Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester. He was a large man in many ways, and Lucy took him to her bed throughout the entire run of the play, which was four performances. She was not even certain if ‘Large’ was his real name, but he was, and she enjoyed him, and never saw him again. She played the role of Eleanor indifferently, and can remember only one of her lines:

Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester: “What say’st thou? majesty! I am but grace.”

Lucy Finn: There are no small parts of me that do not ache for some comfort. To be held and reassured, and, yes, solaced by a perfumed whirlwind of adoration. You are all gone, all gone. If I pass, when I pass, it will be a surrender, not a walkaway, and none will remember me, by name, by scattered fortunes. The playbills have all faded, all cinders and dust now, inhaled by a morbid breeze. God-damn it, Roy, why did you send them away? I was ready! The wigs were freshly powdered, my contours smoothed and colored, the Bard’s words leaning strongly against my lips,  ready to rush… or walk… or tumble artfully in their proper exclamations of grief and submission. I was ready to go on! Roy! Why did you shutter the lights and empty all the seats?

Roy Alabaster:  None were seated, my dear. None! A few stray tickets, perhaps, collected by collectors to wipe their bums or freshen their ruined beds, but they were all taken by plague, all but a few who wander their rooms, starved for pity, seeking light, seeking better dreams than what currently adorns them. There are no lights to shutter, it is all gone dark now.

Lucy Finn: But what of the boy? Did he not attend to me? Did he wish to bear witness for me? I am blameless for my husband’s sins. There is no boy locked within that room, it is his ghost. Tell me so, I plead with you. There is no boy!

Roy Alabaster: Though you are not innocent, your reckoning will be kind, m’lady. T’is true. There is no boy, but for the one you project your own darkness upon. That boy ruined you as he himself was ruined. But he is gone, and now you too can rest, and peacefully, dear Lucy. Most peacefully.

Lucy Finn: Thank you Roy. You have been a good and kind manager to me. I think our business is done here now. I wish you well, old friend. May we both see clearly beyond our fevered imaginings, as we glance upon whatever truth rests beyond us.

Chorus: And Lucy slept, and she dreamed of certain things, and none of them could harm her.

Chorus: But wait! There is still the matter of  the beautiful and dead Venezuelan boy locked up in the spare bedroom, now occupying none of her attention.Lo, lo, lo, lo, what of he, dear friends, what of he?

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

 

Cinnamon Suites

hand-holding-a-flower2 (2)

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.

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.