A Literary Feast

Why Can’t I be a Bureaucrat?

Posted on March 17th, 2014

Why can’t I be a bureaucrat

So tender, meek and mild?

And follow you all through your days

And bear your paper child?

 

Why can’t I sit down at that desk

And wile away my time?

Attending meetings, conference call

And earn productive dime.

 

I’d get it all so nice and neat

I’d get it down on time.

And when the day is nearly through

I’d spend my goodly dime.

 

On barrel-busting drink and food

On stuffing my old craw,

And look away each time I think

My God, My God, My God.

 

Why can’t I be a bureaucrat?

Deny myself the pleasure,

Of ever doing as I please

My unproductive leisure.

 

I’d embarrass you, my sloven mess

I’d make you think I’m wild.

You’d hardly recognize the one who bore

Your loveless paper child.

 

You Tell Me

Posted on March 17th, 2014

The first week I hid in the long grass until my body became vapor and when it reassembled and the light fell down into the water I got up and walked back to the house.

 

The first week, I catalogued the silences, and their names.  The time before the bird takes off and leaves the branch trembling.  The time of white steam from the brown bowl.  The space between saying the word and the word reaching you.  Hands behind glass, waving.

 

The first week opened the land and gave me new sentences.  I took the old ones out, and assembled their meanings:  our bodies, moving through the kitchen.  Our bodies spelling one kind of truth.  Our bodies breaking eggs into a dark pan, the yolk staring back.  Your body, and its capable hands.  Your mouth.  

The second week, I began to lose things.  One:  a handful of minutes, misplaced in a drawer.  Two:  Three syllables.  And so on.  

 

The second week I stood in the far field where the red deer go and had white wrists that hung below my coat sleeves and when the phone in my deep pocket began to ring I said no.  

 

When the book came from the far library, I said yes.  The second week, I learned all that I could about the hidden and how it creates the seen.

 

The third week, I set out to cross the wide country.

 

I will stop, when I reach you.  I know this much is true.

I put down the manuscript and looked across the wooden table to where Ina sat, waiting for whatever it was that I would have to say.  I kept probing the inside of my mouth, trying to fish a corn kernel out of a molar in a pause that I hoped passed for reflection because it was bad and I didn’t know how to say it, or, at least, it was something that I understood but was embarrassed to have read.  Some prose is like catching your friend with her drawers down, and you want, instead of pointing it out, to silently pull them back up and keep walking on into some unfocused middle distance, as a courtesy to you both.

 

“It’s about Curtis.”

 

“mhmmm.”

 

Curtis.  Of course it was.  Curtis was confused.  Ina wanted the confusion to Mean Something.  Maybe it did.  Maybe it didn’t.  The facts were that it created a lot of words, in the meantime, designed to fill the spaces where she thought Curtis should be, and he wasn’t.  I wanted a fried egg.  I had Ina, instead, waiting.

 

“It’s….interesting.”  She’d know what I meant, but, there are words you push across tables because they are what you have, rather than what you really mean.

 

Ina got up, gathering the papers in front of me, and walked out of the room.  “Cigarette” was the thing she tossed over her shoulder, and the screen door echoed it, clanging in the cold.  We’d never taken it down.  You figure it will be spring, eventually.

 

The thing was, I wasn’t without sympathy.  There’s no surer hell than to be bent out of shape about someone who doesn’t have the sense to see that they’re in love with you.  The entire back fence was dedicated to that situation, because every post was named ‘He’ and every wire said ‘is stupid’ and I’d put them all in, one hot week in August, and decided that enough was enough.  I had the fence.  Ina had the words.  Between the two of us, frustration had fattened, like so many melons in a deep dark place, in the way that sweetness, given time, turns over into something sharp.  February goes straggling through all of your soft places with indiscriminate hands.  It doesn’t care where the bruises are.  Or how many.

 

What I wanted to tell her, while splitting wood, because nothing stops cold from happening, was that it wasn’t worth it.  That people are so routinely stupid, it shouldn’t surprise her any more, the way we’ve all ceased to be startled by the earth’s roundness, the passage of light through space, gravity working on objects.  The instant someone begins to know something about himself is the instant he will make a grand mistake.  On principle.  As an objection.  As an illustration.  As something he almost can’t help, the way a dog will pee on a rug.

 

Leave it.

Leave all of it.

Pile the wood higher, instead.

The fourth week, I counted shells.  Every shell in the house, taken from the reservoir, taken from the sea, the whole ones, the half broken ones.  Seventy-eight.  The fourth week.  I wrote the tally, and put it in the mailbox by the side of the road, and waited.  On the fifth day, it was gone, and I thought oh, thank you.  The fourth week I began three different letters and their contents were rocks, bones, and feathers but their last line was I love you and I sent none of them.  The fourth week had many things that I wouldn’t say.  

 

The fifth week the wind came.  

 

The sixth week, the snow.

The point is the letting go, Ina.

 

No, the point is the giving in, that is the point.

 

I’m shoveling and she’s smoking, the long fingers of it sketching in space.  They seem like the same thing, and Ina says that in one, you fall backwards, and in the other you fall forwards, and there’s a sense to that.  We’ve cleared a path down to the chickens.  I am stacking the last heavy pile where the others have been, and there is something final and neat about it, even though it’s not true.  It can be true for now.  For the next hour.

 

I found the shells arranged according to some formula I couldn’t quite work out, on the dining room table.  The paper with the number.  When I came back from hauling wood, the entire assembly was gone.

 

I’m not sure what she’s writing, now, when she goes upstairs, only, I hear pen and paper, and it goes on for some time.  I want to caution her against giving the right things to the wrong people, but, it’s too late, for all that.  The stove unrolls its red tongue in the dimming living room, and I sit there, tired in the growing dark.

The seventh week, the pond disappeared or became a meadow, singing at night in a low long moan.  It was another thing that I would give you.  If I could.  If you wanted.

 

The eighth week I slowly scraped the hair from my legs in the bath and there was a cut and nothing to be done about it except waiting.  The water went cold.  I left with fingers and toes that had turned bloodless in the hour.  

 

The ninth week I knew:  you had never read them.  Never was where I had wandered into.

It snowed all through the night, and into the next day.  The stove went out, and my breath stayed in the air, clouding around the still rooms.  When no one came down for tea, I pulled the boots on in a crack of frozen hides, and set out, for the far wood pile, for the feather of birds, sleeping in the deep snow, in the dark hold of their murmuring coop.

 

I found her down in the yard, a whiteness in a whiteness.

 

The first month was a story, and you were in it.

 

 

 

A Hurdy Gurdy Song

Posted on March 17th, 2014

Sometimes when I sit still, if I sit still for long enough without moving much, I can start to feel my pulse throbbing behind and around my eyeballs. It’s not really painful or uncomfortable in any way but it is much more present than usual, pulsing rhythmically and making me think about how fragile my eyeballs and eye sockets are. I have no idea if that is true or not, anatomically speaking, but that is the sensation that I have when I can feel my pulse in my skull that way, and it usually leads to me trying to imagine the way my veins are connected to my eyeballs; in my imagination they curve around the edge of my eyesockets to reach my eyelids and the skin of my face. Somebody told me once that your eyes are basically the equivalent of having two open wounds on your face at all times, in terms of vulnerability to infection that is, and though I have no real reason to trust this person’s ideas about biology or infection the notion of eyes being especially vulnerable and fragile is one I’ve had a hard timeshaking. It doesn’t pop into my head that often, but when it does I find myself blinking incessantly as if the physical act of blinking will somehow clear the vulnerable area of any unwanted bacterial or viral invaders. Mostly this is fine when I am by myself, as there is no real danger in excessive blinking, but in public, as on the bus for example, it has garnered a wide range of reactions from people who might happen to be observing me at that moment, ranging from apparent disinterest to unconscious, or at least presumably unconscious, mimicry to visible discomfort at their proximity to an individual behaving in such a fashion. A chalky man in a slightly undersized suit in a St. Louis airport once apparently interpreted this tic as a kind of flirtation, since he promptly began sweating vehemently and eventually handed me a warm and slightly soggy business card as he got up to board his plane, and subsequently spent the entirety of his time in line trying very hard not to look at me to see how I had reacted to his gesture. Currently it is attracting the attention only of a young boy who is sitting directly across from me and seems to be comparing my face to the faces of the other people around to see if I am really blinking more frequently than them or not, or at least that is what I assume he is doing. The boy is pretty clearly not accompanied by an adult, which is something I once found very strange when I had just moved to the city and was used to children even several years older than this one going virtually nowhere without adult supervision other than school and a few areas in town which children had de facto exclusive use of for play, such as the playground adjacent to the community center and the athletic fields in the part of the park that was not widely used for picnicking, both of which were easily within walking distance of the main residential areas of my hometown. That sense of strangeness was reinforced by a basic conviction, which yes is a prejudice that I can support only anecdotally, that cities are basically less safe than areas that are not cities due to the greater diversity of kinds of people across the ethnic and socio-economic spectrums congregated into such a relatively tiny amount of space. What I had, of course, failed to consider is the infrastructure designed by urban planning professionals to accommodate safe and convenient transportation for people who do not own or operate cars, of which children comprise a no-negligible but often overlooked percentage. Said infrastructure is not widely found in suburbs, or at least not the ones with which I am primarily familiar and in which this prejudice vis-à-vis the relative safety of cities vs. non-cities was born in me. And this child in particular, the one who has apparently taken note of my aforementioned blinking habit that is, seems to be especially adept at negotiating the particulars of urban public transit, as for instance he had ready the exact amount of change for his fare as he boarded the bus, which to me indicates either especially conscientious parents or an especially astute child. People’s behaviors when doing things like boarding the bus, and their ability to handle interactions of minute scope, such as paying their bus fare, are phenomena for which I have a rather acute eye and keen memory, a trait of mine which has been noticed and pointed out by several acquaintances. I have fanaticized, on more than one occasion, about adopting a habit of journal-keeping to record such observations, and have imagined myself pouring over notebook after notebook of such entries as, “Ms. Saginal is careful not to be seen by Mr. Warengo when she goes to check her mail at the mailbox” and, “the mustachioed man who takes the Green Line from the Chapel St. stop at 7:30am on weekdays shines his shoes, or else has them shined, on Tuesday nights or early Wednesday mornings,” until these notebooks, piled high in chaotic-looking yet organized stacks, filled much of the open space of my small apartment, for no other reason than to imagine the puzzled relatives entering my apartment after my death who did not know me very well at all and who then would pour through said notebooks trying to figure out what it was that I had spent my life working on, the mystical aura such a discovery would lend to my memory, the growing consensus in the press and in certain academic circles that I had been a half-mad genius who was tragically misunderstood and ignored by his peers, the books that would be written by scholars claiming to have finally grasped the timeless and profound insights of my magnum opus, the school of angst-ridden bright young students who would read my work and struggle to make sense of it and eventually champion my memory and name me as one of their primary influences. In this I think I would be the summation of my generation and the scientific eye it turned downward and inward, the obsession it felt with observing and recording and classifying for no reason other than for the great observers and recorders and classifiers to find their place in a pantheon spoken of in reverent tones by lonely frightened people and then promptly die like mice in mouse-traps, caught unaware and happy with a belly full of peanut butter. These are the sorts of monuments to me I see forming in the tiny interactions of others. And now, as always happens when such fantasies start to fade and the world around me comes back into focus, I am overcome with a severe and overwhelming nausea, such that the sight of the young boy across from me turns quickly from an optimistic one to a thoroughly repulsive one, at least until the feeling fades. I tend to deal with this sickness by breathing in deeply, filling my lungs as fully as I can manage to and savoring the feeling of tension it engenders before breathing out slowly and methodically. It usually takes about a half-dozen or so such breaths to fully settle my stomach, and I’ve occasionally wondered if it is in fact the breathing itself or the refocusing of my attention away from my departing fantasy and onto the act of breathing that is actually the cure for my sickness. Either way, it can be tricky to maintain a proper rate of breathing such that my nausea is soothed but I do not become lightheaded and do not hyperventilate, but once I have calmed my nerves my mind inevitably returns to whatever is most immediately at hand, which at the moment is myself on a bus headed towards the King Street district to visit my mother. I visit my mother somewhat regularly, and increasingly often over the last year or so, out of a combination of something like guilt and a desire to be the focus of someone else’s attention. My mother lives in a facility that could not accurately be called an “asylum” but is really more like a rest home for people whose mental state makes them incapable of coping with ordinary public life and its demands. At times when events in my life have felt particularly taxing or burdensome I admit that I have felt some envy towards my mother and her lack of responsibility and the patient care of professionals which she enjoys at the expense of a trust fund set up for her by the estate of my late father, on whose dime I will admit I also live comfortably albeit somewhat less lavishly. Truth be told, I think that the pervasive antiseptic odor and neatly ordered stacks of uninteresting magazines that constitute the facility my mother lives in would make me rather uncomfortable were I surrounded by them more frequently than during my visits. Still, I can’t help but wonder if my father’s death were not so simply the deeply traumatic rupture from reality that her physicians make it out to be but was also to her an opportunity to step back from the world and enter something like an early retirement with the pity and support of my father’s family. These sorts of speculative musings are something I am rather prone to, especially in situations such as this, a bus ride that is, in which time must be passed with relatively little distraction, and which are, I believe, the more-or-less direct result of living in a city. Something about the sheer quantity of sensory input to which one is exposed in the course of even a day of city life forces an individual, almost as a matter of survival, inwards toward introspective and, frankly, obsessive patterns of thought. There is safety only inside oneself, I would say, and that turning outwards to anything external in the hopes of orienting oneself in the universe is a fool’s errand at best. It is therefore also the result of living in a city that what small amount of spirituality I might have brought with me from my hometown has been thoroughly eradicated from me; it is in cities, I believe, that one can really tell that God is, in fact, dead. In the country, of which I will make no attempt to pretend my rather well-to-do and thoroughly modern hometown was a part but which I have visited on several occasions and have grown quite fond of, and have wished to make it well known to acquaintances that at heart I am thoroughly a man of the country, one might almost be able to convince oneself that something like God is at work in the world, but here in the city it is clear that the only force of consequence that we humans can see evidence of at least is man’s desperate struggle to pretend he will not die. And now I’ve gone and made myself nauseous again. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Breathe deeply. One of the consequences of these sudden bursts of nausea, or perhaps it results from the subsequent heavy breathing, is that it often also produces a profuse sweating and flushing of the face, which similarly to the aforementioned blinking habit have little to no consequence in private but have a way of making strangers uncomfortable when occurring in public. There is little that can really be done about this other than waiting for it to pass. We should, at any rate, be arriving at the King Street station shortly, from which it is only a short walk to the facility my mother lives in. My visit with her will likely last just under an hour, beyond which she tends to grow tired from the strain of talking and focusing for so long, which I believe her medication makes difficult for her. Over the course of our last several visits she has made known to me a conviction, which she seems to have developed recently, that in her youth she was a patient of Jacques Lacan, and that not only did the two of them have a clinical relationship but also were lovers, and that this romance, and not the one she shared briefly with my father, which from all discernable evidence she seems to have forgotten completely, is the one around which her understanding of the narrative of her life is constructed. She has revealed to me that their affair went on for quite some time but was kept in the strictest secrecy, and that she used to refer to him affectionately as “[her] little Jacques” and “[her] sighing Jacques”, and that during intercourse, or as she would say, “when [she] gave [her]self to him in a wifely manner”, he had a peculiar habit of narrating the entire episode aloud in the present perfect tense, saying things such as “I have now unfastened and removed your brassiere,” “I have now penetrated you,” and “I have now ejaculated,” which rather than being off-putting or creepy my mother found delightful and quite stimulating and resulted in her finding their trysts more deeply and thoroughly satisfying than any others of her life. The fact that she has felt it appropriate to share such intimate, albeit fictional, details with me has left me convinced that she is no longer completely aware that I am her son. Despite this, I must say I am rather grateful for this development, since I have no doubt that this story is quite a bit more interesting than anything that could actually be happening in her life at the facility, and thus have spared our visits quite a bit of tedium. I will admit to having wondered if there were not some doctor or other staff member of the facility who were taking advantage of my mother’s confused state, seeing as despite her illness and somewhat unkempt appearance she is still rather pretty and has not lost much of her original charm that my father no doubt found so alluring, but if that is the case it seems to be doing her no apparent harm, and as I am at this point somewhat invested in seeing how this strange delusion develops I have decided not to investigate further for the time being. Should it ever appear that actual harm is being done I will of course intervene, but for now I am content to let sleeping dogs lie and observe the scenario during my visits. Perhaps it is selfish of me to risk my mother’s safety and comfort this way to spare myself some tedium and indulge a morbid curiosity. Well, I won’t deny that. In fact, I have increasingly become aware of a rather fundamental selfishness upon which the overwhelming majority of my thoughts and deeds are built, and I find myself much less upset by this realization than I might have assumed. I have come to terms with the fact that a basic narcissism is one of, if not the primary, foundational component of me. I am the heir to several generations of atheists and businessmen; how could I have been anything besides what I am? My children, should I ever have any, will no doubt ascend to heights of self-obsession that are forever beyond even my reach, and for their wonderful self-sufficiency and singularity of focus I envy them. I cannot manage to tear myself completely from the city around me, and as a result find myself pulled violently out of my soothing inwardness by the deafening sounds of civilization. What a burden it is, to have to share oneself with the world! But now I must rest here at this bus stop for a moment, and let this nausea subside before I go in to see my mother.

Guenevere, A Portrait

Posted on March 17th, 2014

Sheathe your tongues, gentlemen! You wrangle, you haggle over the law under the guise of righteousness. But a man with an angel’s face and a devil’s tongue is only mistaken for so long.

And a woman? A woman who knows her place perhaps does not speak amongst such noble gentlemen, amongst the chosen knights of the Table Round. Even a woman with a crown may keep her expressions to nods and glances, or as it suits her, a show of tears.

But what of a wife who does not protect the name of her husband when he has given her his name, and more than his name, his kingdom?

‘How dare I?’ I ask myself. I can only raise my voice amidst the din, against this rancor, out of love for my husband Arthur. Here you are, discussing my execution, my execution for treason, my execution as consequence and retribution for my betraying my husband. And I assert that I am one of the few here who loves him. And I am the only one who would hold my head still were he to swing the ax.

You discuss my execution, but not out of a love for the law and not out of a love for your king and my husband. You lust for control! Any sense of justice has fallen prey to your hedonistic sporting for advantage. Your whimsical play for power.

And I am the clown of your comedy. I am the fool. I am the joker now, fallen into your hand, and you mean to play me against my king.

I will not be possessed by you, gentlemen. I will not be shuffled and dealt. Though I have swallowed my tongue 1000 times, and though it may soon be cut out by your hands, I will not let the voices of impostors rise above my own.

I dare to speak out of love, however imperfect, for my king. It is only through his strength and his vision that any of us have a voice at this table. At this table, you may play at being king, but it is only because the true king has allowed it. King Arthur graced you with the opportunity to save yourselves from falling on your own swords, despite your steadfast determination. Through his leadership, we united and defeated countless invading forces. Through his wisdom, we turned our weapons and as much as we could of our hearts and minds to the Grail and its discovery.

There are empty seats at this table. Look about you. There are those who have died for our unity. There are those who have died on the sacred quest.

But there is one empty chair – I will make his report. I will make Lancelot’s report.

I will make Lancelot’s report to you, Arthur. I will make it to you and only you, though others may hear. I will make it to you, whom Lancelot and I love.

(Guenevere removes her crown and places it in the center of the table.)

I offer you Lancelot’s report humbly, as your wife and servant, if no longer your queen.

Let any of these men take my crown if they dare wear it. They will not take yours. Not these men, not these men who returned lost and defeated from the Quest. Not these men who could not find the road to the Castle of the Grail.

Lancelot returned while you were away, my king. But did he return defeated? His quest began without much hope. His powers were stripped. His armor was stolen. His sword broken.

He rediscovered prayer, my Lord. He rediscovered his service to you as a service to Christ. He rediscovered his service to Christ’s Cup as a service to you.

And there was his power – his strength, his armor and his sword.

There was his path! The road opened, my King. As you believed it would. And the road led to the door of a Church. And from the door of the Church, Lancelot saw the Grail itself.

My Arthur, this is the fruit of your Quest: The doors of the Church closed when Lancelot hesitated to pass through them.

Then he returned to us, my king. Not for your crown, but out of service. He returned to you and I with his story, with his questions and his doubt.

When Lancelot returned to Camelot, his home, he did not hesitate to enter. And he did not hesitate to find us, my Lord, though you were away. And he did not hesitate to enter my chamber, my king. He did not hesitate to discover what had come between him and God.

I received Lancelot and he told me of his Quest. And then we prayed. He had us pray, Arthur, with folded hands. And then our folded hands became our folded bodies. And we cried out of our longing for you, Arthur, and for peace.

This is my betrayal, Arthur, my husband and king. That out of service to your vision, I should find a road that leads me from your table to your dungeon and to my execution. And when the knights came to my chambers, to arrest us in your name, under your flag with their intentions – I did not flee because I knew my place as your wife. As a servant to your law.

Lancelot defeated all these belligerent knights and escaped. Each and every one. And these knights who crave his power and yours will put me to execution.

But you know, my King, as does Lancelot, and as I do now, delivering my message to the heart of your Table – we know that your power, and his, and mine are rooted in a power greater than our own. And out of service to this power, you offered the Quest for the Grail. Out of service to this power, Lancelot strove to fulfill it. Out of service to this power, and through its strength, I speak here that some meager voice of Truth may rise above the clamor of this hall and be heard.

These are not all bad men, my King. Those who are your servants. There are those who love you. Here again, I surrender myself to you and to them. To the table’s will.

I love you, my Arthur. May my last words as your wife be spoken here, here at your venerable table.

I believe in you, King Arthur. I believe your vision leads to greater peace.

The Grease Fire

Posted on March 17th, 2014

Like a meteor or some lesser Satan flung casually out of heaven, the cigarette, already stained a queasy brown by fingers that had rubbed, crushed, and worried it through four or five long minutes of staring at the second hand on a rusty watch face, flared one last time as it lapped the tainted air below the bar, arced through the lowest yard of booze fumes and boot stench, and died with an unheard fizzle on the damp and oily floor of the Dockyard.

Billy thrummed the fingers of his right hand, now empty and nervous as the yellowish foam that clung to the inside of his pint glass. Whatever he’d been drinking looked like it had been through once already. He didn’t like to think which end they’d tapped to get it out again. He’d heard they stored it in an open pit in the basement, a hole in the dirt floor ringed with the remains of rats who’d picked the wrong oasis. He’d had worse. He craned his neck to scan the room, muttered some halfhearted vulgarity, and lit another one.

In a darker corner, two children squabbled over a splintered piece of wood with a nail through one end that the younger, a blonde and unpleasantly freckled boy with a head shaped like a radish, had found under their table. It was Pancake Sunday, which meant someone in the kitchen had spread a tub of yellow paste onto the grill still seasoned with bits of last night’s hamburger patties. It wouldn’t matter after the syrup. Two years older if a little less vicious, his sister had the slight advantage of a firm grip on the end without the nail. One of their father’s arms lay across the table, cutting their head-sized discs of paste into manageable squares with the edge of his fork, carefully, as though each were a field on whose proper cultivation the life of the village depended. His other hand dug at the stubble under his chin, the color of pancakes.

Behind the bar, as far as possible from Billy, Thin Eddie leaned with his back against the taps and his chin on his ribs, wheezing through one nostril, arms crossed, dirty rag in one hand, long nails of the other hand digging into his calloused palm, foot tapping to what would have been on the radio if the speakers hadn’t blown out last Thursday. He hadn’t slept in a week and he didn’t miss it. Every Saturday night was a nightmare anyway, clumsy tongues yawping names of drinks unknown to the living, empty lips sucking down whatever swill he poured them.

Waking was enough. He hated them all.

In the kitchen, the man in the stained apron wiped his chin and turned the dial to high. The front door opened, admitting a gust of air that stirred up several weeks of odors from nooks that had never known the mop. Billy twisted half around, hope and panic folded together in the dry creases of his face. He squinted hard, checked his watch again, tossed his cigarette on the floor just in case, and waited. He didn’t want glasses. The constant blur he lived in was stark enough, realer than he liked. Either it was her or it wasn’t. She’d come over and sit down, or someone else wouldn’t. He waggled his hand toward Thin Eddie. He wanted a prop, and the beer, or whatever it was, was cheap enough.

Radish-head brought his heel down hard on his sister’s toes. It was a dirty move but it worked. She squealed in pain and he wrested the club away from her, giggling like a hysterical imp. Their father’s fork rose from the pancake plate, shaking a little, saying more than words.

“You two,” he said, and paused to sniffle, “behave.” He didn’t look them in the eyes. The sister glared down at the splinters in her palm, swearing revenge.

“Same thing,” asked Thin Eddie behind the bar, his voice flat, gummy. Billy didn’t bother nodding. The tap opened, spurting pale yellow liquid and bits of foam into the cloudy glass. “Another pint of the finest,” he said, and slid it down the bar. He crossed his arms again, closed his eyes. Better than dreaming, he thought. This dark room with its dirt floor was too full of dreams already. The diners dreamed each other, the drinkers dreamed themselves, the old and leaky building dreamed them all. When Thin Eddie closed his eyes he thought of the sun and fresh crabmeat, white pines and bobcats and no one left in the world, not even himself. His foot tapped on, oblivious.

In the kitchen, the man in the shredded apron dumped the devastated remnants of several potatoes into the boiling oil and laughed as it splattered his face.

Stepping inside, she spotted him right away. The back of his head was more familiar than his face. It wasn’t his fault. It was just a nothing face, empty and expressionless, made for turning away from things and losing curiosity. She breathed through her mouth and tried not to think about pancakes as she crossed from the front door to the bar, examined the surface of a vacant stool, thought better of sitting on it. “Hello, Billy,” she said.

The father of two put down his fork, thrust the plate toward his kids, and dug under his chair for the newspaper that someone had left there on—he picked it up, wiped his hands, checked—Wednesday. He opened to the Television section, scanned the page, grunted. Radish- head swung his club like a hammer, a wet red smile widening across his face with each gouge he cut in the wooden table. His sister picked out the soggiest piece of pancake, lifted it with bare fingers, carefully tested its weight, and took aim.

Billy looked up through his anesthetized haze. So it was her. He didn’t think she’d come. She usually slept in on Sundays. He tried to smile, coughed instead, and lit another cigarette. “We gotta talk,” he managed.

“There’s nothing left to talk about, Billy,” she said, holding her nose shut against the tobacco fumes.

“There’s always something,” he said.

In the kitchen, black smoke rose from the fryer. The man in the stained, shredded apron laughed as he grabbed everything within reach—an onion, the paring knife, a chipped porcelain angel, a canister of salt, next week’s shift schedule—and dropped each one with a round and satisfying plop into the boiling oil.

“Here,” said Billy, “I bought you something. Real nice something.” He reached inside his coat.

Thin Eddie sniffed at the air. It smelled more wrong than usual. He thought about opening his eyes, then dug his chin deeper into his collarbone.

Billy opened his hand. A silver chain, a tarnished pendant, someone’s face in profile,dirty white against a background black as soot.

The pancake hit Radish-head’s face with a wet smack. He howled in rage, eyes clenched shut against the blinding syrup. His sister roared in triumph. The newspaper crashed to the table and their father’s eyes burned like hellfire. “That’s it,” he said. No one listened.

“Dammit, Billy,” she said, shoving his hand away. “You didn’t buy that. That’s Mom’s.”

“Same difference.”

“You can’t just take whatever you want. There are rules, Billy.”

In the kitchen, the tired old cook in the worn-out apron roared with mad laughter as he lifted an armful of bottles from a case of high-proof vodka in the corner. One last test. One final recipe. He’d always wondered . . .

Billy shrugged. “I was broke.” He knocked his empty glass over, dropped the pale, dead cameo onto the bar, and hoisted himself mostly to his feet. “Worth more than the damn beer anyway,” he said. “Real silver—stuff.”

Thin Eddie heard the rattle of bottles in the kitchen, muffled by a low roar like wet dough plunging down a well. Something was definitely wrong. He’d count to ten and then he’d open his eyes. He’d count to nine—

Reeling, berserk, Radish-head slammed his club blindly downward. It stopped with a damp thud and then it wouldn’t move. His sister’s eyes widened, impressed. Their father looked down to where his own hand lay nailed to the table in a widening pool of cheap ketchup. Shock held off the pain for several seconds.

She left her brother half standing and started for the door, her teeth clenched fast against the fury inside her. Never again.

In the kitchen, the madman stood on the counter above the fryer, breathing the black smoke in great lungfuls, two bottles clutched by their necks in each of his broad hands. He opened his mouth wide to let out a bellow of triumph. He counted to three, and then he let go.

Heavy heels dug tracks in the floor. A pierced hand oozed. Two eyes shot open. A river of yellow foam rolled over a featureless and forgotten face. A great plop, a shatter of glass, the bright hiss of sudden rising fire. All the air rose together in a scream like the birth pains of the world, and everything vanished in light.

Up For Air

Posted on March 17th, 2014

The weight of the hatchet is heavy in my hands. I feel the heft of it, the worn-smooth grain of the wooden handle, the coolness of the metal head, and the sharpness of the blade. It’s the one used by my father, splintering the fallen branches that fed the backyard fires in the cold of winter. It’s in my hands and I’m standing in the shed, surrounded by the workshop bric-a-brac assembled by him over the years: baby food jar lids nailed onto a board, their matching jars screwed on and filled with nails of infinite varieties; dozens of hammers and saws in varying stages of rust and decay; lengths of rope, nylon and manila, new and frayed, dangling off hooks in the roof; buckets, large and small, plastic and metal, some with holes, because you never knew when you’d need an extra one. The detritus of the hard-won and short-lived escapes from the burdens he carried on his shoulders. And, I’m thinking, “What am I going to do with all of this?” By “this” I mean “everything.” These things in the shed. These things in the yard. Those things in the house. That thing in my heart. The heavy weight of sadness, loss, anger. How am I going to manage these things? Why do I have to take care of all of this? Why ME?

As I’m standing there, the November cold seeping into my feet, the hatchet is swinging slowly in my hands, matching the tempo of my thoughts. The phrase that repeats itself in my head is, “You’re the responsible one. You know what to do. I can count on you.” And, I’m remembering the story she told me, oft-repeated, where I’m sent to the store to get a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk and I come back with…a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk. Because I’m the responsible one. When she tells the story, I smile because I like being the responsible one, who causes little worry, who needs next to nothing. I make no trouble (except for the giant Hershey bar hidden under the bed that provides solace in place of the piano lessons/braces/things I can’t have and whose crumbs make brown spots in the rug). The responsible one. The responsible one. My pulse quickens. The hatchet swings, faster now, to the rhythm of the words in my head.

Well, what if I don’t want to be the responsible one? What if I use this hatchet, throw it and break these things, cut them down, create mayhem and drama, draw blood, shout and stomp and say, “No! I don’t know what to do!” What if? What then? Who would take care of these things? And, then I’m remembering the dream from the night before, when I woke up half- crying, half-laughing, recognizing in the words she spoke to me there that thing which I’ve always carried in my heart. In the dream, we were swimming; maybe it was the pond miles from the house, on a hot summer day. I’m rising up out of the water, my body smooth and pale, my hair in tendrils on my neck, my eyes catching the expression on her face, one of pleasure and recognition, and she says, “Oh! I see you! I know you! You are beautiful.”

So, there it is. That thing in my heart. A need, my need, next to nothing, to be seen. To have needs, small or big, frivolous or necessary, different from hers but the same. Outside of my dream, for whatever reason then, even now, she doesn’t speak those words. And, I want to throw the hatchet at her, have the sharp edge of the blade, my words, cut into her awareness, and draw them forth. But, she won’t or she can’t, and I’m tired of trying. I decide, in that moment in the shed, to lay the hatchet down.

Dorothy’s Ever After

Posted on January 18th, 2014

What could I tell them?

That behind the whirling curtain, “There’s a curtain. . . .”

All Em could say, after not letting me go (or go on) –

“What on Earth happened to your shoes, child?”

 

Before I met you: I loved dust; I gave up training Toto to speak;

Em squeezed my hand with every passing thunderbolt.

 

Do you see how we dress infinity in a bowtie?

 

Suspicions grew when Toto stopped aging. Eternal youth.

Em and Henry feared I had made some depraved pact.

We were all of us ever so grateful for your attentions:

You were a welcome cyclone.

 

You adore me. I am your door to happiness.

How do I tell you that behind the veil you lifted, “There’s another veil. . .”?

 

We rename the puppy every fifteen years: Toto, Bruno, Arlo.

We travel – dollar by happy dollar, we laud the wonders of this world.

 

Then the picnic on the shores of New Zealand,

“What’s a Chinese gooseberry?”

We shave our first kiwifruit –

 

I’m a girl in a white dress wearing glasses, with an Emerald City melting on my tongue.

 

That very night Toto-Bruno-Arlo wakes us, barking at thunder.

At curtains. . .whirling.

You get up but – “Leave it open,” I say.

“What is it?” You wipe my tear away.

 

“Husband, somewhere. . .(kiss).

Somewhere outside that window

We will find a man with a green flying balloon.

 

“And I want to live, to stop disappearing,

To settle and be with you and Arlo –

Wheresoever it lands, or

Never lands.”

I Was Hungry

Posted on January 18th, 2014

I was hungry.  Not that kind of hungry that people in office buildings get when they want expensive salads and talk about their blood sugar, the kind where you’re sick to your stomach and you have a headache and even just thinking really clearly about food makes you dizzy and instead of eating all you can think about is being hungry.  I got up from where I was sitting and walked around my kitchen.  There were things in the cabinets but none of them seemed to be anything that was of any use to me.  So I put on my coat and my boots and my hat and I stepped outside.  It was nighttime.  That stars were all moving around me in such a way that it felt like I was spinning even though I was standing still.  I lit a cigarette and stood in the middle of the street outside my house.  It can be a pretty busy street sometimes so I guess I was sort of lucky that no cars came by since I’m not sure I would have thought to do anything about it if they had.  That’s a weird idea anyway.  Being lucky, I mean.  I’ve never really been able to figure out what it’s supposed to be.  It’s not really a personified force in the world, like it’s not supposed to be god or jesus or something I don’t think.  Sometimes people talk about “lady luck” but I always figured that was more of a rhetorical device than an actual lady who walks around handing out luck or sprinkling people with luck dust or whatever.  It’s just really abstract, is what I’m saying.  Like if the word “luck” didn’t even exist and people just used the word “good” instead, like instead of saying “that was lucky that that guy didn’t see you” you just said it was “good” that that didn’t happen, I’m not sure anything would really be lost in the translation.  I started walking down the street towards the corner market where they sell junk food and magazines and lotto tickets and gasoline all night.  I made a little game out of walking on the two yellow lines in the very center of the road like they were some kind of tightrope.  I stuck my arms out at my sides like I was trying to keep my balance and made some really exaggerated stumbles but of course I didn’t really fall since I was just walking on regular flat road.  Some of the houses had their lights on but I didn’t see any people in them.  I wondered what the people in the houses were doing as I was walking by.  A lot of them are watching TV I bet, some of them are probably jerking off or having sex.  I bet at least one house or apartment that I walk past on my way to the store, I bet the people in there are doing something really strange, like eating raw meat or making their kids dress up weird or just lying butt naked in an inflatable pool full of thousand island dressing and laughing really hard.  There must be at least one thing that I do that someone who walked past my apartment thinking what I’m thinking would have thought was weird.  I’m not, like, really that interesting, so maybe they wouldn’t have.  You know what though there is one thing, sometimes I sit on my couch and look at the TV for a long time even though it’s not turned on.  It’s not like I’m deep in thought or anything, I just sit there looking off at nothing for like hours at a time, sometimes when I’m really tired but sometimes when I just can’t think of what else I might be doing.  I don’t think that’s that weird but I’ll bet someone would, some real type A who takes vacations to go rock climbing in our nation’s national parks or schedules their free time on their cell phone so they can reference later what they thought they should be doing.  I kept looking into the windows to see if anyone would look out at me but no one did.  I wonder what someone who saw me would think, walking down the center of the street with my arms out like a tightrope walker on a freezing cold night.  I’ll bet if some parents saw me they would worry that I might try to interact with their kids or damage their property.  I wonder if it is a tendency of parents that they are naturally more suspicious of people like me or if it is a sign of my immaturity that I worry about the inevitably, at least I assume inevitably, negative opinion that parents in general will have of me.  Weirder than walking past the lit up windows was walking past the dark ones. The people inside those houses must be asleep.  It felt somehow invasive to be walking past these people’s houses while they were asleep, like they might wake up and see a newspaper headline reading UNIDENTIFIED INDIVIDUAL WALKS STRANGELY PAST HOUSES: HOMEOWNERS NONE THE WISER and wonder if they should move to a different neighborhood.  I came to an intersection.  The market was on the corner diagonally opposite me.  I watched the traffic lights turn from green to red even though there were no cars at the intersection.  I don’t know why but I pressed the button and waited for the walk signal.  When the little white stick figure guy showed up on the crosswalk signal I hurried diagonally across the street, not quite running but not really walking either.  The market was a weird beacon of fluorescent white light beaming out from the hazy blue suburban twilight.  Adult contemporary alternative radio hits that were about as old as a decent bottle of inexpensive wine hummed softly, indistinctly really.  A case of premade sandwiches and burritos lined a wall adjacent to the syrup and ice drink making machine.  None of them appealed to me in any particular way so I chose one basically at random and walked towards the counter.  The cashier informed of the price of the sandwich I had chosen without looking directly at me, only generally in the direction of the front of the counter.  I thought about hurting him.  It would be misleading to say that I “considered” it because it’s not like I had any real reason to do so or had to come up with a reason not to or anything.  I just thought about how easy it would be and how little there was that was that prevented me from doing that.  I pictured myself grabbing the back of his head and slamming it into the counter.  I wondered if one slam would be enough to break his nose.  I wondered if five would be enough to kill him.  I wondered if I would be able to kill him by slamming his face into the counter at all, and if I would be able to do it quickly enough that it would be over before he really fully understood what was happening to him.  I wondered what would happen immediately after, if I started running right then and got on a bus and wound up in Mexico or something if I could actually escape the repercussions for having done that.  I wondered if I would feel guilty or not.  I handed him four one dollar bills and he gave me back thirty seven cents in change.  I thanked him by nodding curtly and turning around and walking out the door.  The thought occurred to me that part of thanking him involved not slamming his head into the counter but I guess in reflection that that was sort of ridiculous.  I walked outside and back across the street and started eating the sandwich as I walked home.  It was bland and cold and very slightly soggy and seemed like something that was intended to be microwaved although I sincerely doubted that spending time in a microwave would have done this particular sandwich any miracles.  As I was walking and eating a group of guys roughly my age were walking on the sidewalk on the same side of the street in the opposite direction, meaning that they were walking towards me.  At a distance they were talking pretty loudly and moving around a lot, but as we got closer to each other they quieted down a bit and all looked at me while trying not to seem like they were looking at me and I did the same to them.  At the very moment we passed each other I tensed up a little and I even made a fist in my pocket with my non-sandwich hand just in case it turned out they were looking for trouble.  Because I mean, you can never really tell what someone else is thinking.

Before and After

Posted on January 18th, 2014

On the day that Anson died we went down to the water in the flat grey light and I found a rock with a split white band across it like a web of heat and put it in my pocket.  Lorna has a jar of these that sits on a shelf in the kitchen, filled with water, so that she can see them as they had been when she found them, and I wondered if she’d prefer to fill Anson’s coffin with water too, for this same reason.  But, we didn’t.  His body was burnt up and then it was parceled out and it left our hands and went into the wind one shake at a time.  The shape of it rising was like some echo of the smoke that came out of that car that caught fire in the parking lot last winter.  The dishwasher came and got me and I put the knife down and we stood at the window, watching the glass pop and the darkness come out of the back of the truck and he said well, damn, and I agreed.  They thought it was electrical.  Antonio, the other dishwasher who wasn’t Kyle who was young and nineteen and loved speed metal and women with large rear ends, had parked his car next to the one that met its demise and said that he couldn’t get the smell out for love or money.  Which is a strange phrase, ‘love or money’, like someone is going to keep offering you that choice, or, offer it to you ever.  Anyway.  Anson left my hand and then I thought that some part of him might’ve stayed, and that night, I both did and did not want to wash my hands because of this.  I’ve been historically bad at making choices.  This one was no different.

 

There was the question of what to do with his boat and while it was still a question the boat sat under a loose tarp in the yard, facing seaward, the way a dog will wait by a door for someone.  I kept thinking that I should give it some word of encouragement when I passed it on my way to work, but then I’d get there, and I’d start cutting up vegetables and chickens and whatever else they passed my way and I’d forget.  Lorna asked if I was still thinking about graduate school, and I looked down at my cracked dry knuckles and their tendency towards blood and said I guess not.  You wonder if your hands will always recall certain things, or if they’ll forget.  Anson’s hands knew all of the knots, and now those things are some part of the atoms that make up the bay, but I haven’t woken up knowing any of the hitches in the line yet.  Lorna tells me that I’m young, and I don’t know how to explain to her the sense that I have, nightly, of running out of time.  Time for what, she’d say, and I would have to say I don’t know, time for everything.  For doing the right things.  For saying the right words.

 

I’m in love and I don’t know how much time there is for that, for instance.  It takes up some back otherwise unoccupied room in the house that I imagine is my brain, and that entire room is this one name, and I turn it over and over again in my palm, smoothing it like a stone.  I haven’t done anything about it, and I don’t know that I will, because I’m uncertain of its reception which Anson always said was a Human Problem.  You could see the capital letters.  His hands would be cleaning fish, and his mouth would form those words with a great solemnity and I would want to ask him what the solution was because his hands formed answers out of things that seemed like impossible messes.  And then he died.  And I’d run out of time for another thing.  And so now I just have this room with its one name instead, and the sense that, if my private feelings were reciprocated, surely there’d have been some sign by now, some motion.  The problem might be that my efforts have mostly been in the realm of trying to outrun the room and the name at night, and you can’t say to someone I spent this lone hour on the sidewalks trying to outrun love, like it’s a gift that you can give them and they’ll understand it.  In the film that I see while my feet run down the streets past the lit windows of other people’s dinners and arguments and silences and once, kisses, I don’t have to say anything at all.  It just happens.  There is a Before and then there is an After and also an Ongoing and we take ourselves up with the rhythm of the words and days and the feeling of that is that there’s suddenly enough time for everything.  Anson said that expectations were the source of all misery.  But they seem tied to hope, somehow, and I haven’t figured out how to have one without running it into the other.

 

Maybe it’s this problem that makes me stop on the way home and step over the sidewalk and into the yard to where the boat is.  Lorna is still calling out orders and filling mugs with black coffee and therefore doesn’t see that second when I decide to take it, which I am sure was written on my face the way that everything else has ever been.  I take the key to the truck.  I hitch the whole business together.  I don’t know why I’m doing it, only, it seems to have something to do with that back room.

It’s late in the afternoon and winter which means that the light is grey but also blushing faintly.  I do this when I’m talking to the Object of My Affection in an uncontrolled way that has nothing to do with the subject matter of our sentences, and is all the more galling for it.  But.  Here over the ocean it makes the air rounder, softer than its normal self, and I get fanciful and believe that Anson is somehow fine with my current boat business.  It slides back into the water over the concrete slabs.  No one’s out.  I lower the motor.  The sound of its start is loud but then swallowed up and then I’m cutting across the glassy mouth of the bay.  The liquid pulls away from the prow in a white line of lace.  I’m not sure, yet, what the point is.  I just figure at some point, my hand will remember.