02 May 2009

Xipe Totec

Nakedness begins and ends with dermis,
a nervous exposure,
and the odor of being bared.

Those senses newly opened
reel with sensation;
flayed palms and
flayed soles
begin to understand the anatomy of sand.

soft eyes witness
new smooth selfness
and wonder why
such immediacy
so sweetly terrifies,
why nerves displayed
shrink from the pressures of atmosphere.

Atop a pyramid of skulls,
a mound of still-beating hearts,
comes down the thin lines from flutes, low moaning.

(Click on the title for more information about Xipe Totec)

01 May 2009

Words In My Mouth, Don't Put Them; Ideas In My Head, Neither.

I am divided, I find, when faced by window-slat shadows,
how this light is like that light buried there inside my head,
layer by layer through iron bars and glass
and a pattern of split bamboo and a roll of yellow paper,
how this light is modified by the filters through which it is passing.

A tangible slab of sunlight seems solid enough to hang from and
is a territory that dust may enter to become illuminated.
it apportions these spaces and helps to make them manageable,
sheds light on the objects with which these spaces will be filled:

this is a chenille bedspread

this a pillow

these are the walls

this is a Rand McNally globe

these are the small cars called Hot Wheels

those are friendly stars that glow upon the ceiling

these are the clothes to be worn to school this morning

I wonder if that trinity of fruit trees will ever flourish,
if they will grow large enough to attract a Catholic vision--
a saint or two or three sitting quietly among strong blossoms.
I will always know that I will never get
the chance to see them, the trees, if they do.
There will always be other windows but
they will all be somewhere else.

A steady wash of river noise and lake
or of traffic or of air and thick pine,
a howl of electric wire out there and crooked moonlight,
are the constant markers for memories,
the things that will manage to make one place
pretty much like any other place.


The boundary between the water and the atmosphere
is diminished by steam and the way it rises
from her shoulders,
from her arms,
from the tops of her breasts.

These are animal nights and we sit inside the water
and wait for dog sounds and night birds and
white-tail deer over the fences like rolling surf.
The part of the sky that glows, we call "stars"
and we begin to name them.

These are wicked times, we both agree, yet
so difficult to remember wickedness or how to be wicked.
It is so much softer than that,
an Egyptian posture and a pair of wings spread low over the pool,
a line of holy figures from old orchards turning back upon itself
at the edge of the road and the horses murmur;
they grind their teeth and the big one, the appaloosa,
shifts his hips to move his right hind leg into an angle.

Our date was in the abandoned aquarium on the outskirts of town;
candles shed themselves upon us,
upon the scales of foreign fishes long dead,
upon the bones of performing penguins.
It was one of the best, that date,
and empty bleachers near the empty dolphin tanks made it more so.
We danced our newly learned dance-steps
in our new shoes and careful of the dust on the amphitheater floor;
we moved in looping ovals that drew closer and closer to themselves
and when we looked back to where we'd spun
we saw that we had surely been there.

Originally published in Blue Mesa Review #7 (click on title or image for more information)

30 April 2009

My Best Friend's Corpse

I was best friends with Kyle DeManais from the time we met on the first day of kindergarten until the day he died. I don't think any of us really recovered after a drunk driver smashed him into a coma, a coma that lasted for almost two weeks and left him, left all of us, hovering there between life and death.

I remember sitting in the waiting room one afternoon after school with Kyle's mother. I'd been there almost every day and sometimes she ignored me like I was a reminder that he'd been on his way to my house, that if he hadn't been on the way to my house he'd still be healthy and alive.

"Oh, Lisa, honey," Mrs. DeManais said one day toward the end and she brushed a lock of hair behind my ear in the exact same way my mother did. "You really should show your face. You're so pretty."

I immediately pulled the hair free, just like I did when my own mother tucked it back there. I didn't feel pretty and especially not while sitting with my best friend's mother in a hospital waiting room.

The doctors never gave his family any real hope that he would recover or, that if he did miraculously recover, he'd be anything close to the same as he'd been before the accident. They predicted something they called a "vegetative state."

His parents' marriage lasted just under a year after they'd pulled the plugs and buried Kyle and they both moved to completely different cities as if putting that much distance between themselves and the accident, between themselves and each other, would somehow make it easier to deal with the senseless death of their only child. I don't know; maybe it helped them. I just know that I never saw either one of them again.

"Sometimes, something like this makes people change," my parents told me. "Maybe it's for the best. Maybe this is what the Mr. and Mrs. DeManais need to do."

I had no way to find out if running away to another city was the answer. Maybe I would have liked to run away, too, but I had to stay here in this town and it sure didn't help me deal with the loss of my friend or get over it or move on or anything else people say you're supposed to do. What I did was sort of hover in an my own emotional coma, neither depressed about nor reconciled to Kyle's death, not moving on but certainly not staying stuck. I was all over the place, all churning on the inside and placid on the outside.

What are the five stages of grief? I was in all of them and none of them simultaneously. I was 13 and I'd lost my first boyfriend before we'd had time to become involved "in that way." But then the zombie plague descended, and all that grief and all those feelings just got pushed aside under the onslaught of terror and bloodshed and atrocity. I just remember one long scream that seemed to go on for weeks and weeks and weeks.

After the things settled down, after those long weeks of protracted chaos and panic and courage and cowardice, our little suburban community had reorganized itself into a living-dead-free enclave with tenuous connections to other such enclaves along the Eastern Seaboard. We were all learning as we went while surrounded by the shuffling, idiotic horde of zombies just outside our increasingly strengthened barrier.

We got irregular and usually pointless updates from the government-in-exile in Colorado, and we exchanged information with other survivors via short wave and CB radio, most in our general area but some as far away as Europe or South America. Our dads would huddle over those radio sets for hours and come away with ideas they deemed good and ideas they deemed terrible. They pooled their weapons and their limited ammunition and whatever skills they had. They learned new skills and improvised or adapted when forced.

Sometimes one of their contacts went off the air. Once, it was rumored, they could hear the screaming through the radio until it went dead. Other times, there was no way to know. Someone somewhere would stop answering, would stop broadcasting their call sign and whether overrun by blood-hungry zombies or just out of batteries, we could never be sure, but the grown-ups always took it very hard when they lost communication with another group. It seemed to make them feel more alone, but I couldn't understand how anyone could feel more alone than we already were.

Our lush, green, well-watered suburban lawns were replanted with carefully irrigated corn, beans, and squash. We stopped having pets and started breeding dogs and cats and rabbits and guinea pigs for animal protein. Eventually, we even started having school again with grown-ups and high school kids as volunteer teachers.

It was weird, I'll admit, but not much weirder to my barely adolescent eyes than the world had been already. Adults were still too bossy and intrusive, maybe even more so. Little children were still too much of a reminder of how young I really was. It was a different world, to be sure, but all the barbed wire and reinforced checkpoints weren't that much different than curfews and hall passes had been. I still had fights with my parents because they didn't understand me. I still sat on the swings in the schoolyard watching little kids play their little kid games and feeling like I'd like to join them and knowing that I could never join them again.

"Lisa," my dad told me during a basic radio operation workshop. "This is a different world and in order to survive, you're going to have to take on responsibilities you never imagined."

"Lisa," my mom told me during gunnery training. "It's a different world now and you're going to have to learn things we never imagined you'd have to learn.

"I know," I'd scream back at them. "I know."

But I didn't.

I was on junior perimeter patrol one afternoon with three of my so-called peers and an adult supervisor. Mr. Halloway was armed with a Mossberg .12 gauge pump shotgun and a 9mm pistol on his hip. The four of us kids carried chopping weapons—cleavers and axes and garden tools. We'd have to wait until we'd gotten our firearms certificates and reached the age of 18 before we'd get to wield any of the community guns. Sometimes I got the impression that Mr. Halloway would have preferred to turn the shotgun on us, as surly and sarcastic a bunch of teens as ever existed before the zombie plague. We didn't much like each other, we'd been thrown together merely because of our ages, but we certainly didn't like Mr. Halloway and made fun of him not quite completely behind his back.

"Two words," Mark Abeyta stage-whispered. "Comb. Over."

Mr. Halloway pretended not to hear. It was too much trouble to acknowledge that he heard us.

"Plumber's. Crack," Erin Lackmore continued.

"Mo. Ron," I contributed and we all snickered enough to elicit a response.

"Just shut up, you guys, and keep your eyes open."

We rolled our eyes for each other's benefit but we also turned them back toward the barrier.
Rising twelve-feet above the ground, the barrier was cobbled together from chain-link, barbed wire, sheet metal, and automobile body-parts like hoods and trunk lids. As usual, the living dead pressed silently forward and against it, eyeing us like the meat we were to them and making small groaning noises.

Some of them had been there since the very beginning, since the barricades first went up and the crowds of zombies began to press against them. We’d given them nicknames like “Grandma,” what had once been someone’s cookie-baking, $5-in-the-birthday-card grandmother and was now just a blue-green corpse, eyeless with black loops of intestines hanging from her rotten belly. There was “Elvis” with his Grecian formula hair still waxed into a greasy pompadour though he lacked a lower jaw, his liver-colored tongue wagging against his mottled throat. “Plato” pressed against the sheet-metal wall wearing only a toga-like hospital gown. “Hasselhoff” must have been a body-builder in his youth before he got middle-aged and before he died to be reborn as a zombie, his ribs visible where his pectorals once flexed.

All of them, those with names and those we just called zombies and deadheads and meat-puppets, spent their days and their nights roiling against the barrier in their mindless press wanting only to get inside our sanctuary and kill us and eat us and turn us into more of them.

It was hard to believe we'd grown accustomed to this. It was hard to look at all those zombies in varying degrees of decomposition but it was impossible not to look, not to loathe and fear the danger they represented to us all.

Every person, every family, seemed to have at least one story of putting down a loved one, of being attacked by a former friend turned living dead, of recognizing a grandmother or an uncle or a next-door neighbor in the virulent horde that was always waiting to attack and tear us to pieces.

I'd thought about it enough times and once even dreamed it, but still I felt unprepared when Martin Bush pointed him out.

"Holy shit," he said and I followed his outstretched arm and pointed finger. "Isn't that Kyle DeManais?"

"Who?" Mr. Halloway asked.

"Kyle DeManais," Martin answered. "He used to go to our school."

"He used to be Lisa's boyfriend," Erin added.

"Shut up," I told them. "He was not. And it's not him anyway."

"Look," Mark said. "It's got to be him"

And, of course, it was. Dressed in the suit they'd buried him wearing, covered with the dirt he'd clawed his way through to emerge from his grave, Kyle DeManais had come home to the only place he knew. He'd joined the ranks of those who sought to break into our community and eat us. His dead, dull eyes looked at us, looked at me, and there was nothing there but dead, dull hunger.

"Kyle," I whispered to myself using the name that hadn't filled my mouth since the day of the funeral.

"Lisa and Kyle, sittin' in a tree…," Martin started to sing but a sharp nudge from Erin cut him short.

"What?" he asked her.

"Just shut up," she replied.

"What are you guys screwing around with now?" Mr. Halloway asked us.

"Nothing," we answered in unison.

He grumbled something to himself that was probably something like "goddamned stupid kids" and turned his attention back to leading the patrol. I couldn't take my attention away from Kyle, away from what used to be Kyle, from what used to be my best friend and could have quite probably been my first boyfriend until our patrol rounded a corner and he was lost to my sight.
Later that night after dinner, after I'd eaten a nutritious meal of Labrador retriever, pumpkin, and salad greens, after I'd gone to bed and turned my kerosene lamp down low, I cried as softly as I could. I didn't know what else to do.

I must have cried harder than I thought because soon my mother was sitting on the edge of my bed. She reached out and brushed my hair behind my ears with her fingers.

"Oh, honey," she murmured. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing," I told her. "I don't know. Everything."

"I know it's hard," she said. "Everything has changed and nobody asked you about any of it."

"It's not that."

"Tell me, then."

"I saw Kyle today," I finally told her and I could feel her stiffen when I did.

"Who did you see?" she asked me.

"Kyle," I said. "I saw Kyle today."

"Where did you see Kyle today, sweetheart?"

"Where do you think I saw him?" and I instantly regretted the harsh tone I'd used. It wasn't her fault that he was dead and undead and moving around outside there in the darkness beyond the perimeter and waiting to eat us.

"I was afraid this would happen. This or something like this," she said.

"Like what?" I demanded. "Like my best friend would turn into a zombie? Like the only boy I ever really cared about would become a rotten corpse that wants to split me open and eat my brains? Like the only person I could ever really trust would turn against me?"

"Well, not exactly those things," Mom answered. "But I was afraid that someone would break your heart someday."

"Your wish came true."

She didn't say anything for a long time.

"It wasn't my wish," she finally said. "But it is something that I knew would probably happen sooner or later. Not in this way, of course, but in some way, some way more normal, more like the things used to be. I was afraid that some boy would take your affection and your love and then hurt you more than you'd ever been hurt before."

I didn't say anything.

"All I can tell you," she continued, "is the same thing my mother told me. Time. Time is what you need and time is the only thing that will heal these wounds. I know you probably feel so bad that you wish you could die, but in a week or two weeks or twenty weeks, this pain will go and you won't feel so bad anymore. You may never forget this pain and I know you'll never forget Kyle and the way he was before all this started, but it will be different and you will survive and you will grow up and maybe someday you'll have a daughter of your own and you'll have a talk like this with her. At least I hope you will."

The next day after school, I told Mr. Halloway that I had cramps and couldn't go on junior perimeter patrol. Instead, I went home to my empty house. Dad was working the vegetable gardens and Mom was sorting what was left of the supermarket's canned goods that day so there was no one around to bother me. I put my iPod's earbuds in and listened to music by people who were probably either dead or living dead. I stretched out on my bed and looked at the posters of movie stars and models and musicians who were probably either dead or living dead. I looked at the plastic horses on my bookshelves, at the books I'd already read about a hundred times each, at the stupid souvenirs I'd collected during a life that seemed a lifetime removed from the life I was living now. There were photos of Kyle and photos of Kyle and me together and I looked at them, too. I thought about what my mom had told me the night before and I wondered how long it would take before the ache would disappear or if it would keep coming back, coming back dead and dirty like Kyle came back.

I heard the door close and open downstairs as first one and then the other of my parents came home. I could hear their muffled talk when I removed the earbuds, but I just put them back in and lay there on my bed. Later, I heard my mom knock softly on my door and call my name. I didn't answer and she went away. A while after that, she came again and knocked again and said the word "dinner" but I ignored her again and, again, she went away.

Eventually, I fell asleep.

The next day, I again told Mr. Halloway about my nonexistent cramps, he again let me go home, and I again returned to my empty house.

I heard my parents come home and I heard them talking downstairs but this time it was my father who knocked on the door.

"Lisa," he said. "Open up."

I stood up and opened the door but I didn't move away and I didn't take my hand from the knob.
He'd been working all day on one of the teardowns, on dismantling one of the houses near the perimeter so the kill-zone would be wider, so the lumber, pipes, wires, insulation, and appliances could be recycled and reused. He'd barely washed his hands or his face and stood there dusty, dirty, tired, and haggard.

"Can't you just leave me alone?" I asked him.

"No," he answered. "No, honey. I can't."

I just stood there and tried to glare.

"Your mother told me what happened. And I can't tell you how sorry I am. You know how much we both liked Kyle."

Still, I just stood there.

"If things were normal," he continued, "I might be able to let you stay in your room and ignore the rest of us and what has happened to us. But, I can't. There are too many people depending on you, on all of us, to do our parts so that all of us can survive this thing, so that we can build something safe for all of us. And, as much as it hurts you, as much as maybe you don't believe it, you are a part of us, of this whole community. And we all need you just as much as you need all of us to do our parts together so that we are all safe together."

I listened to him but I still didn't move.

"All right, Lisa," he finally said. "All right. You've got some fast growing up to do and you can stay up here for now and think about what I said. You can think about what I said and decide if you want to rejoin us. Just please remember that we are hurt, too, by the news about Kyle and about everything that has happened since this terrible thing first started. Just remember that we need you, too."

I heard everything that he said, but I couldn't make myself do anything but stand there and act like I hadn't.

"Are you finished?" I finally asked.

"For now."

"Fine," I said, and I closed my door in his face and felt terrible about it even as I was doing it. It was a long time before I heard him walk away down the hall and I could put the earbuds back in my ears and not think about anything at all.

The next day after school, I didn't tell Mr. Halloway about cramps and he didn't say a word about it. Neither did Erin, Mark, or Martin. We just all grabbed our stuff and went back out on perimeter patrol. Actually, nobody said much of anything that day, no clowning and no making fun of Mr. Halloway, as if they were all of a sudden sensitive to my feelings or something. I hated it.

When we got to the place we'd seen Kyle three days previously, everyone seemed super-tense. They'd been on patrol the days I hadn't gone and they knew for sure what I was certain of: Kyle was still there.

He pressed forward in the mass pressing against the barrier. He moaned softly from whatever hunger and fear and self-loathing the zombies carry inside what is left of whatever is human about them. His eyes traveled up to look at us while a long thread of mucus dangled from his open, dirty mouth.

"Are you okay, Lisa?" Mr. Halloway asked without looking at me.

"Yeah, I guess so," I answered and shifted the hatchet I carried from my right hand to my left.

"Attagirl," he said.

We passed one of the teardowns on our circuit of the perimeter and I saw my mom coming out of the door with a bundle of copper piping. She looked up and saw me. Since her arms were full, she couldn't wave. Instead, she tilted her chin up in my direction.

"Hi, honey," she called.

Embarrassed as any other teenager who unexpectedly has to acknowledge that she has parents, I lifted my hand and half-heartedly called back.

"Hi, mom."

"How are you doing today?" she yelled out as if I wanted to have a shouted conversation with my mother in front of other people.

"It's okay," I said and I could tell she couldn't hear me but had probably read my lips.

"Okay, then," she shouted. "I'll see you at home."

I waved again and turned back to the group.

"Sorry," I told the other kids.

"No big deal," Martin said and the others seemed to agree.

Below us, the zombie horde acted like nothing had happened and continued to mill about.

"Anyone want to take a shot?" Mr. Halloway uncharacteristically asked. Officially, it was against all sorts of different rules about putting guns in the hands of unlicensed teenagers and wasting ammunition on less than critical situations.

"Hell, yeah," Erin, Mark, and Martin said almost simultaneously.

I just stood there.

"Lisa?" he asked while the other three watched me carefully.

"I dunno," I sort of mumbled. "I mean, isn't it against the rules?"

"Jeez, Lisa," Martin said.

And he was sort of right. Under other circumstances, it would have been fun to loose a few rounds of double-aught buckshot into the crowded undead. Shooting guns is fun, even for a girl, and ever since the plague, we'd all become familiar with firearms and their use. At least once a week, we spent time at the makeshift shooting range studying marksmanship, gunsmithing, and gun maintenance. I'd fired a shotgun many, many times. In fact, I'd probably fired the very same shotgun Mr. Halloway was holding out to us like a treat.

"No," Mr. Halloway finally said. "Lisa's probably right. I shouldn't even have offered. Sorry."
I got eye-daggers from the other kids, but there was no way I was going to walk up to the perimeter and point a gun in Kyle's direction. I didn't care what any of them thought.

That night at dinner, I used my fork to push the food around my plate but I put very little of it into my mouth. My parents made small talk about the day's events, the gossip a community as small and isolated as ours generated, and what movie was going to play at the community center on Friday night. It was Godfather II again for about the tenth time and I could never really understand why the adults liked to watch it so much even if the supply of DVDs was so limited. Mom and Dad both agreed that it was better than watching another Land Before Time disc even if the little kids loved them so much. It was sort of like my iPod. I'd never download another song again so I'd gotten used to listening to the same ones over and over again, even the ones I didn't really like.

Eventually, there was a lull in their conversation.

"Well, Lisa," my dad said. "Your mother says she saw you on patrol today."

"Yeah," I answered.

"And how did that go?"


"Did anything unusual happen?"

I just stared down at my plate of zucchini and rabbit, rabbit that was the great-great-great-granddaughter of some kid's pet rabbit about a million years ago.

"I don't know," I finally said.

"I mean…did you…was there…?" he said.

I couldn't help myself. I stood up at the table and threw my napkin onto my plate.

"Do you mean, 'Did you see Kyle today?'" I screamed. "Did I see my best friend the zombie today? Well, the answer is 'Yes.' The answer is 'Yes, I did see my best friend covered in grave-dirt with a big glop of zombie drool coming out of his mouth. Yes. Yes. Yes.' Are you happy now?"

And I turned to run upstairs, run to my bedroom, run to my iPod. I saw my mother place her hand on my father's arm and pull him back down into his chair.

I lay on my bed looking at posters of dead people and listening to dead people's music and I cried as silently as I could make myself cry.

Sneaking out of the house had been no big deal, really. I'd done it a few times before the plague. It was just a matter of opening my window quietly and slipping out onto the roof, sliding over to the trellis, and easing my way down through the ivy that grew there.

Nowadays, however, with armed night patrols of heavily armed grown-ups, searchlights, and even motion detectors, sneaking out was a different matter altogether. It was all moving slowly and waiting, moving and waiting and watching, moving and waiting and watching some more. Getting caught was one thing. Getting shot would be a different matter altogether.

Once down the street, I had to really keep low and keep my eyes open to avoid being seen. I guessed it took me almost two hours to reach the edge of the kill zone and slip into one of the teardowns still standing. From an upstairs window, I could look out at the perimeter, at the patrols going by under the glare of the searchlights, without much chance of being spotted. Once I was there, though, all I had was time to think about what I was doing there, what I wanted to see, what I wanted to do about it.

Up there in that abandoned house, hugging my knees and looking out the window, I started thinking about a song from one of my parents' oldies records (they still had vinyl). Back in the old days before the zombie plague, my mom would sometimes put that record on while she was doing housework and sort of dance around while she was dusting or mopping or whatever.

"Honey," she'd laugh. "These songs were oldies when I was your age. But I can still love them even if they are from someone else's past."

The song that I was thinking about was by a girl-group from the 60s called The Angels and it went:

My boyfriend's back
and you're gonna be in trouble.
Hey la, hey la,
my boyfriend's back.

I didn't think The Angels had the present situation in mind when they were singing that song back in nineteen-sixty-whatever, but it sure seemed to fit.

I started thinking about Romeo and Juliet, about star-crossed lovers divided by their differences and by their fates. I started thinking about what other boys I could ever love, about whether I could ever feel about Martin or Mark the same things I'd felt about Kyle.

I watched the patrols go by, I watched the searchlights sweep the barrier, and I watched the formless mass of the undead moving and moaning stretched back into the darkness and I just wanted to die. I just didn't want to live in this world anymore.

I don't know how long I sat there in that abandoned house except that it was getting to be dawn when I finally stood up. I waited until it was fully light before slipping out of the teardown and walking back home where I was pretty sure my parents were getting panicky and frantic if they'd discovered I wasn't up in my room.

"Hey, la, hey la," I whisper-sang to myself as I started walking home in the middle of another suburban undead dawn. I wasn't sure if mom and dad had noticed my absence yet so I really didn't know what I was walking toward. I was probably going to be in all sorts of trouble. I was probably going to be grounded, get my iPod taken away, get extra chores, and who knew what else. I did, however, know exactly what I was walking away from.

(published in Scalped, 2009. Click on title for more information.)

28 April 2009

Some Waitresses I Have Known

She was a steamed pudding,
a dumpling,
a moist soft pastry with a shining face and
greasy fingers
ladling huge ladles of noodle soup,
of cabbage and potatoes,
of boiled pork and
the dark spikes of her dark dark hair
escaped from under her white white cotton cap
plastered to her skin with sweat and by steam,
followed the lines of her face, of her cheeks and
if there was ever such a thing possible
as a communist Madonna
in a white cotton apron and
revealed to us all through clouds of kitchen steam
from the communal soup kettle,
she would be one of those.

I’d sit at the dark end of the cantina
for the last hour of the evening
waiting for her to get off work
so I could drive us to her house and
I watched her steal from the drunks and
the flirts when they weren’t looking by
slipping their money off the table and
by adding my drinks to their tabs and
by altering their credit card receipts to reflect
surprising generosity, an acute appreciation
of her skills as a cocktail temptress.

On more than many more than one occasion
as we sat in my car in the parking lot and
waited for the engine to warm up,
for the heater to kick in,
she would fan her cash
in front of my face and
it was usually a lot and
she would ask me "What did you make today?" and
she knew I hadn’t made anything.

I once watched her chase a bad tipper
into the parking lot and
fling the silver he’d left her
like it was dirt to bounce off his car windows,
his mouth a frightened circle and moist,
some quarters and a dime on an $80 tab
scattered in the dust and pea-sized gravel,
dull gray in mercury-vapor lamplight.

She was a giantess among Japanese
and she was therefore obliged to buy kimono at the special gaijin kimono store and pay those special gaijin prices
but she was a natural blond.
At the bottle club in the Roppongi district where she worked,
near the Hard Rock Tokyo where she never went,
somewhere east of the enormous television screen on the side of the enormous building that showed the endless loop of dolphins swimming and leaping between
an emerald tropical sea and a turquoise tropical sky,
somewhere down there on a side street above a restaurant where it always rained or at least dripped from the innumerable gray clouds in the city’s gray sky and the innumerable drips and leaks and overflows from all the surrounding buildings,
somewhere where the streets were still to narrow for automobiles,
she would pause in the tidal ebb of the unending flood of very small people with a limitless number of umbrellas
and she would try to remember how to count.

The sound of the interstate is like a river,
white noise constant with its own rise and fall,
waves or rapids or the surge from a sudden downpour
of diesel washing a steady flow of trucks ahead and forward and past this empty crossroads with the 200-ft. sign
and from the backdoor facing south with the sun setting like it always does on the right and the first stars of another night like always on the left,
she’ll smoke another More down to its filter,
the clatter of thick dishes being washed and
a jukebox version of another hit song behind her and
she’ll look south across an unimpeded plain of soybeans and cotton, of oil pumps and feedlots full of stumbling cattle,
a perfectly flat plain spreading out and away from all highway diners and all the way to Mexico,
just another place she’s never been.

Born a slave, she always served,
was so highly trained, so closely educated
as to preclude even the capacity to conceive of any life
other than service and
she was bred to beauty, to a certain proportion and
scale as to bring pleasure to her masters' eyes and
sometimes to their beds though
for the longest and the most number of days in the short years of her chattel-life she was ignored as a machine or an animal is ignored,
as a device or as one among identical many
is taken for granted.

But what her masters never saw or felt
was the small clear burning of her hatred
nor did they know that
what she brought them when she served them
at their table and at their bath,
whether on her belly or on her knees,
what she gave them was poison, always poison.

27 April 2009

My First Trip To A Casino

It sounds stupid now, but I had my heart set on a Checker cab and I wouldn’t ride in any other. That wouldn’t have been hard to do ten or maybe fifteen years ago, but the Checker Company folded some time back and most of the yellow or green cars for hire are Chevys or Fords these days. I just wanted some room to stretch out on what I hoped would be leather seats, the kind of leather that is soft and starting to even crumble at the corners and there should be a kind of dimple there where a million people just like me have parked their butts and taken a ride. When I finally saw a Checker cab, I waved like crazy but not too crazy I guess because it stopped and I climbed in.

The cabby barely glanced at me as I slid across that soft, leather, dimpled bench. She was making marks on her clipboard. There were jump seats facing me and a laminated copy of her hack license. I smiled at the notion of jump seats, that I was in an automobile large enough to be equipped with something extra like a fold-down stool, and remembered how I had liked riding backwards and looking at the adults when I was a little kid. Her license said her name was “Connie Lieberman” which was short for Constance probably, a good Pilgrim name, and meant First Man in German. Her picture was not flattering though she seemed to be an attractive woman in real life but I suppose that was the best idea for any woman driving a graveyard shift Checker cab.

“Where are you going tonight?” she asked and she had the microphone in her hand ready to call it in.

“I really don’t know,” I answered. “Could you just drive around for a while?”

“We don’t do that, mister,” she said. “I need a destination to call in.”

I leaned forward enough to let a fifty drop over the front seat.

She scooped it up and eyed the mic.

“Forty-five, pick-up at the Marriot for Sandia Bingo Palace,” she said and dragged the flag down and put the car in gear and we were both moving off into the sodium-lit night.

I wasn’t bleeding much at all but I knew that it was probably bad. I just tried to keep the towel against the wound. I could stretch out and I did and I just rested while all sort of things went past my vision but I only looked at a few of them.


I remember when the doctor came out to tell me Polly had “lost” the baby and my first thought was “Well, find it. You’re a doctor.” and then I sort of knew what he meant and then I didn’t really care anymore.

It was like a big, thick blanket had been dropped over the part of me that could care about things like that. There was a dim outline of that part of me but it was too indistinct to identify and certainly too covered up to actually feel. Then he said that Polly was resting and under sedation and that I could see her if I wanted but that I shouldn’t say or do anything.

I thought about asking him, “Just exactly how smart do you have to be to be a doctor?”
Of course I wanted to see her and just what did he think I might say or do? Did he think I was responsible? Did he know or really understand or even care to understand the ways I was exactly responsible?

She was laid out flat in that hospital bed and right there, that was wrong. Polly always curls up on her side when she sleeps and I can slip into bed behind her and kind of spoon up my arms around her and the top one goes between her little breasts and the bottom one is under her head and my top leg just fits between hers. Flat on her back like that with little sweaty bits of hair stuck to her face was wrong. I picked up her hand and put it between my own but that was wrong, too. I had to quickly and shamefully admit that I would never do that kind of thing unless I thought someone might see me holding my girlfriend’s unconscious hand. What I really would have done was I would have crawled into bed with her, rolled her onto her side and folded myself around her spoon-wise but I wisely guessed that was against a rule.

Her eyes kind of rolled open and she seemed to see me.

“Hey,” I said as softly as I could. “Hey there.”

Polly didn’t quite focus on me and she was looking past me and around me to figure out where we were.

“Hey, kitty,” I said. “It’s me.”

The sound of my voice seemed to give her a reference and her hand tightened up a little tiny bit on mine. I could see right into her heart. I swear it, like all skin and bones and muscles and fat were a kind of tricky glass, and I could see her mashed-up, messed-up heart just quivering.

“I fucked up,” she whispered. “I really fucked up.”

“Shh,” I said and there was a nurse at the door. “You just rest now. Everything is going to be okay.”

There were little tiny tears in Polly’s eyes and she was already drifting back to where it wouldn’t matter for a while.

Out in the hallway, the nurse put her hand on my right forearm. Her laminated ID badge said her names were “Dolores C.deBaca” which means Sorrowful Cow Head in Spanish.

“She’ll be fine,” Dolores said. “She just needs to sleep and to get better. But now, what about you?”

I was surprised by that kind of kindness. I hadn’t expected anyone to even notice me and all night the nurses and orderlies had been checking up on me and giving me coffee and once even a sweet-roll. The doctors, as I’ve mentioned, weren’t that great, but it was an emergency room so I didn’t expect much of anything at all.

“Oh, I’ll be fine,” I said. “I just need to take care of a few odds and ends. How soon before she wakes up for real?”

“It’s going to be a while. Probably not until tomorrow afternoon, really. Or this afternoon. Maybe,” Dolores said as she looked at her watch.

“Think I could go out and take care of those odds and ends? Would anyone mind if I took off for a while and came back?”

“You go do whatever you need to do, sweetie,” Dolores said and she said it like she maybe had a general idea of what it was I was gong to do. “We’ll take extra-good care of your girlfriend until you get back.”

“You guys are really nice,” I said. “Thank you.”

On my way past the nurses station, they all gave me eye contact and that kind of smile that isn’t a happy smile but sure isn’t a fake smile, either. Even the janitor, his ID said his names were “Ernest Lamberson” which means Sincere Son of a Shepherd said, “Take it easy, man. Hang in there.”

I decided I would do both.


Connie was taking us up on to the freeway.

“Hey,” I said. “Could you just take surface streets?”

“I don’t care,” she replied and did something technically illegal to keep us off the interstate.

I leaned forward to drop another fifty beside her. I could feel a tug and a little rip where I had been stabbed and I figured there was going to be a little more blood.

“Would you describe me, please?” I asked her.

She looked at me in her mirror, looked at the bill and looked at me again.

“I see a middle-aged black man wearing a dark suit and tie. You talk with a southern accent and told me your name was Edgar and that you sell medical equipment all over the country. How’s that?”

“Got me pegged,” I told her and Connie knew a lot about her job, but I expect that from a Checker driver.


When I left the hospital I knew I needed to think about where I was going. It had taken so much frantic effort to get there that I really hadn’t thought about much else.

Then, it had been just “get to the hospital get to the hospital get to the hospital” over and over and over in my head and that thought had pushed everything else out of my head. There was no room for anything other than that. Polly was moaning and limp and the bed sheet I pressed between her legs was heavy with blood and I didn’t know there was that much blood in my sweetheart and I wasn’t thrilled to find it out. She was bleeding to death and having a miscarriage and that was all I could think about. I had to get her to a hospital and that was what I did and that was all I had time to think about or do.

After, though, was different. I started to think a whole bunch of other things and I started to think them real clearly.


Connie was taking us up North 4th Street and we were in that area where it’s light industry--factories and warehouses and massage parlors inside mobile homes with hot tubs and signs outside that said Fantasy Island and Cherry Blossoms and Seven Seas. Convenience stores every couple of miles. A strip mall with a nail salon and an auto parts store every five miles or so.

“You from Albuquerque?” I asked her.

Her eyes flickered in the mirror.

“Look, mister,” she said. “You just gave me one hundred dollars to keep quiet. You want your money back?”

“Sorry,” I said. “You’re right.” And I shut my mouth. The farther we got from the hospital, the more the scenery changed to what it once had been before it started changing into the way they were making it look now. There was an alfalfa field; there was an old wooden house and a huge cottonwood tree. There was a real dairy. It seemed like I was scabbing up pretty good but I didn’t want to look.


I left the hospital, left Polly floating between agony and oblivion, and I started walking back downtown, back to the Marriot. It wasn’t that far and it was going to be a lot shorter walking than it had been in a hotel courtesy van with Polly in my arms and me holding that mess between her legs and rocking her back and forth saying, “Okay, sweetheart, okay, it’s going to be okay” as calmly as I could and she was merely whimpering.

It was going to be a lot easier to walk back into that hotel than it had been to stumble out. My fear was changing into something sharp that glittered with hard points of clear light. I wasn’t scared that Polly was going to do something because I knew she wasn’t and I wasn’t scared that the baby was in trouble because it was too late to worry about the baby. I was still afraid, but it was a clear feeling and it was changing and it was getting clearer and it wasn’t so much a fear of what would happen if I didn’t do everything right and perfect but it was a clear awareness of what was going to happen when I actually did do everything right and perfect.
It was getting near 3 a.m. and the orange sodium-vapor lights along the streets made everything look even more gray than usual and I thought that was weird and spent a few minutes thinking about how an orange light took every color away from every thing. How did it do that?

I stuck my hands in my jacket pockets and took a little detour to walk past a house I used to live in a long time ago when I was still in school at the University of New Mexico and hadn’t even met Polly yet and hadn’t met Milo. I looked at it but I wasn’t sad or anything. I just wondered who lived there now and what they were doing and how they were getting along. I wondered if the hardwood floors were holding up. I wondered if in a few years these tenants were going to be as surprised as I was to find out where they’d ended up. I sort of doubted it, but you never can tell. They might have been in that house at that instant making big mistakes and wrong choices and not even knowing it. Or everything might be going great. Who knew? I didn’t stop walking to dwell on those ideas but I did whisper, “Be careful, you guys.”

I started thinking about what I was going to do and how that was going to fit in with all the other things I’ve done and all the things I still want to do and all the things I was still hoping would happen for Polly and me. I was trying to talk myself into believing that I had some kind of plan and that I knew what I was doing and that I fully appreciated the consequences of what had been done to Polly and that I knew what I was going to do about it.

Looking back, it is easy to say what I should and shouldn’t have done starting with I shouldn’t have let Polly go up to Milo’s room by herself because I knew that something bad was going to happen and I should have listened to the hesitation in my own head and in Polly’s voice when we talked it over in the bar before she went up there. I shouldn’t have listened to her when she said it would be okay, that she and that we could handle it and put it behind us and we could move on to a better place and better things. I should have said something other that what I said and I should have stopped her because I already knew that it couldn’t be okay, even if it all went right, that we wouldn’t be okay. But I didn’t and I was going to have to do something about it.

I could see the Marriot all lit up with steam coming out of the red pyramid on top of the building. I didn’t want to walk under the railroad tracks so I cut over and down to the Grand Street overpass and started getting closer and closer to the hotel. When I got inside, the desk clerk recognized me. His plastic nametag said his name was “Anthony” and I don’t know what that means. Hours ago, when I was carrying Polly out the door, he had called the Marriot courtesy shuttle van to take us up to Presbyterian Hospital.

“Hey, man,” he called. “How’s your wife?”

“She’s going to be all right,” I told him. “I really want to thank you for all your help. I really appreciate it.”

“Oh, man. No problem. I just hope she’s going to be okay.”

“Yeah. Me, too.”

We didn’t know what else to say to each other then, so I walked to the elevator and pushed the “up” button. The elevator doors opened and I got in. When I turned around to push the “7” button, he gave me a what-can-I-say? look and I gave him an I-really-don’t-know look back and the elevator doors slid shut and I was going up to have a visit with Milo.


I must have dozed a bit because when Connie stopped the cab, all the bright lights surprised me. She turned around to look at me.

“Now what?” she asked.

“I think I’ll just get out here.”

She shrugged and said, “Twenty-six fifty.”

I gave her forty and got out. I zippered up my jacket and the towel seemed to be pretty well stuck to my wound and even though I could feel everything clotted and scabbed tug again but it didn’t split wide open up fresh again. Connie wrote something on her clipboard and headed up to take the freeway back to town. Even though it was past four a.m., there were still plenty of cars in the casino parking lot.


Milo opened the door a crack and he’d left the chain on.

“Oh, shit,” he said. “Mikey, man, come in.”

And he closed the door, slipped the chain and opened the door again. He was in a thin bathrobe and he had that greasy cocaine sweat all over him.

“Oh, shit, Mikey,” he said. “I mean, shit, is she okay?”

“She’ll be fine, Milo,” I said and I looked around the room. It looked like he’d tried to clean things up. He sat down on the bed with his hands spread back behind him and his left hand was pretty near a pillow. I knew what was up.

“Shit, man, I’m sorry,” he continued. “Things just got a little out of hand. I really don’t know what happened. Is she going to be all right? I mean, shit. This is so fucked up.”

“Milo,” I said. “Don’t worry. It’s all going to be taken care of. Don’t worry about it. We’re going to be just fine. Everything’s okay.”

He wiped his face with his right hand and his left hand stayed where it was.

“Did you take her to the hospital?” he asked and I knew he was waiting for the right answer.

“No way, man. You crazy?” I sort of laughed. “She’s not that bad. I just took her home and got the bleeding stopped. It always looks a lot worse than it really is.”

“Oh, man,” he said and he seemed to relax a little bit but I knew he wasn’t because Milo never relaxes. “I am glad to hear that. It would be fucked if you’d taken her to a hospital.”

I knew what he was thinking because I knew he knew where we lived.


“Grab a beer and get me one,” he said and I figured he’d think I would put a bottle in each hand but I pulled two Coronas out of the ice-chest with my left hand and held both out for him to take the one he wanted. I was actually ready when he grabbed my wrist instead. His left hand was under the pillow and then out with a blade and rather than attempt to block the knife or pull my wrist away, I came down and in and close, shoving him back flat onto the bed and I just let him stab me in the side before his thrust gathered any strength. Then, I grabbed that wrist of his so he couldn’t twist the knife inside me or pull it out and away for another stab. I kept that hand of his busy and I knew I should take some pain.

I did that little inside twist to broke his grip on my left and quickly knocked his lower jaw off-kilter away with the heel of my newly liberated hand. The next few seconds were a little frantic. I couldn’t really feel any pain; my hand stung a little as I started breaking things on Milo’s face, but my belly felt fine. A little warm but fine. Adrenaline, I guess, and Milo was too coked to feel much of anything except paranoid selfishness and goofy confusion and it took me a little while to finally beat his skull open with an icy cold bottle of imported Mexican beer.

I washed up as best as I could and I jammed a hand towel against my side against the knife wound there and I buttoned my torn shirt over it. I took the money. I took Polly’s purse. I took some of the drugs and I left Milo dead on the floor between the window and the bed.

On the way through the lobby, the clerk looked up and asked a question with his eyebrows.

“Back to the hospital,” I answered. I put $300 on the desk. “For any inconvenience I may have caused.”

“Good luck, man,” he said and pushed the money back toward me. “Come back and see us again.”

“Thanks,” I said and I picked up the money, jammed it back in my pocket.


The greeter at the door to the Sandia Indian Bingo Palace was sleepy but he swept the door open for me. The embossed tag on his greeter’s jacket said his names were “David Maestas” and I knew that “David” means “beloved” and that David killed Goliath and was the Second King of Judea and that he wrote a bunch of the Bible but I had no idea what Maestas meant except that it was a pretty common Spanish surname around here. Sort of like Johnson or Anderson for Anglo names. Not quite Smith or Jones, but not too unusual at all. The sound of slot machines, electronic sound effects, background music, bells, ice in glasses and the sound of a huge room full of people breathing, talking, laughing, smoking at 4 a.m. and the sound of a man calling bingo numbers poured out of the building when the greeter tugged the glass panel open for me.

“Good morning, sir,” he said. “Feeling lucky this morning?”

“What?” I said. “Oh, yeah. I guess I do feel pretty lucky today. Lucky is what I feel like.”

The noise was clearer when I was in the lobby, blackjack to the left of me and bingo to the right, slots right down the middle. I heard that bingo caller man’s voice say “G-19. Life is but a dream” several times and then he said “O-24. We all want a little more” but before he could say the whole thing again, I could hear a woman’s voice shouting: “BINGO! BINGO! I’VE GOT A BINGO!”

26 April 2009

Campfire Memories

(for Carl, sort of)

She told me about how when she was a little girl she would sometimes be awakened in the middle of the night and how she heard her father playing his concertina and singing cowboy songs.

I’m not sure if it was the music, I think she would tell me. Sometimes I think it was just that I knew he was awake, that anybody was awake, and then I would be awake, too, but it would take me a while to even hear him. He would be out on the back deck or, if it was winter and cold outside, he’d be downstairs in the ping-pong room maybe sitting on the hearth of the fireplace down there. I would wake up in my bed with the moon in my eyes and I would gradually start to hear the thin reedy sound of his playing and the low mumble grumble rumble of him singing these old cowboy songs like they were lullabies and I guess they were.

I think that when she was telling me stories like this, we were living in an apartment and trouble, the real trouble, was still months away and still out there waiting for us out at the end of a dirt road in a remodeled adobe with a leaking roof and a built-in dynasty of striped cats.

That was when we lived near Urban Park, before we moved to Barranca Mesa, and I still shared a room with Angela and I would be awake and I would listen to her breath, the sound of her breathing, and I would listen to whatever noises were outside like crickets or the wind, and I could hear Daddy from wherever he was.

And she’d sing to me a little bit in her whisper voice:

“...I spied a young cowboy all wrapped in white linen,

All wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay...”

And I also think that when she was telling me these stories, we were probably often sitting on the tiny little balcony attached to that apartment. We could have had some music on the stereo just loud enough for us to hear it out there probably sitting in chairs and drinking white wine. We probably spoke in low voices anyway and probably stopped speaking altogether when we saw someone walking on the paths connecting the buildings below us. I’m almost positive about that.

I can remember just laying there in my bed, completely relaxed and comfortable and not tired at all but still just hovering there on the very edge of the best kind of sleep, that sweet kind of sleeping that wraps itself around you like a warm foam, and there would be starlight through the window glass and Angela sprawled out on her stomach with a pillow between her legs. Maybe one of our cats would be on the windowsill staring at me and just barely twitching the end of her tail. And just barely I could also hear her dad.

And sometimes now when you’re asleep, I remember her saying this so clearly, and sometimes now when you’re asleep, when you’re completely out and the light from the street lamps comes in through the bedroom window sulfur and pink, I pretend I can hear him outside, maybe down there by the mailboxes, and he’s singing:

“…Oh, beat the drum slowly, and play the fife lowly
And play the dead march as you carry me along
Take me to the green valley and lay the earth o'er me
For I'm a poor cowboy and I know I've done wrong…”

And I know that part’s true no matter what else.