09 May 2009


“Kee-rist,” the Old Man’d say when he settled into his chair, some kind of cheap fake Laz-E-Boy recliner maybe even from the Salvation Army or, like he said it, “Salivation Army.” If anybody’d ask him, “Say, Pop, just where did that chair come from? Where’d you get it, Pop?” he’d just say “Watch a you seff” and that was that. Maybe we’d laugh about it, you know, but not so’s he could see.

The Old Man liked to do things one-handed; boy I remember that, whether it was splitting the tax stamp on a pint of Jim Beam or, like he said it, “Mr. Bem” like that, or lighting a match for a usable White Owl stump or giving one of us a crack on the back of the head with those thick, hard knuckles of his. It used to bug me a bunch, but I think I know why he liked to do it, why being able to do things with one hand like that made him feel like he knew what he was doing and it showed when he could do it. The Old Man loved it when he’d catch one of us trying to do something one-handed. He’d grin, you know, he’d be “bemming” from ear to ear.

Came in handy, too, that habit, when the Old Man got one of his paws jammed up in his lathe, split it down the middle like a codfish and in those days they weren’t trying to save nothing, they weren’t sewing nothing back on. It was, like, “There you go, Mister, there’s your hook and there’s a couple grand, too. Send one of your boys around when he’s big enough to stand in your spot and do what you did for the rest of his life.” Even those days a couple a grand didn’t go too damn far and when it was gone, it was just gone and that was that.

08 May 2009

The Fish in the Little Pool by the Patio

are colored red, black, and pearl swimming.
Though her hair remains quite brunette,
her skin has paled and swollen.
The carp that brush her face
remind me of my own and no less sucker-like lips
that wandered there, too. Once.

But, the fish themselves are thinking food thoughts.
They don't remember her long hands with lacquered nails
that scattered freeze-dried insect eggs over our trembling waters,
the ornaments that hung from her wrists, or
the ways her gifts are wasted on them now.

07 May 2009

Vanilla Construct*

a sonnet

A brittle atmosphere out there
before the silhouette was described
in the steam created from your breath.
There is a way the world comes boiling
right after having been seen,
becomes startled rolling lumen
after having been through your eyes.
And for extra friction
there's a way you sort of lean eager to gather in
the noises the valley dogs make when they start howling.

From a matrix torn from vanilla
another kind of meter may be extracted.

* under certain circumstances, the topical lip ointment marketed under the name CARMEX has been known to smell remarkably like the long capsular fruit of a vanilla plant (esp. Vanilla planifolia) though no such ingredient is used in the formula

06 May 2009

Anticipating Steak

Toward the end of the summer of 1966, Pop decided to build a brick barbecue grill in the backyard. One weekend, he took me to the public library and parked me and Tanya, my big floppy doll, in the children’s section while he looked through various how-to kinds of books and Sunset Magazine pamphlets until he found a plan that he liked. Pop checked out his books and I checked out mine. I’d had my own library card since first grade.

A couple of evenings during the next week, after he’d finished his shift and come home from the plant, we’d go out back with the tape measure and the beam level and plan it out. Pop did some experiments; he stood at the spot he would be standing if that were the spot we decided to build the barbecue.

“Okay now, son,” he said. “Go in the kitchen and pretend to bring me a big platter of T-bone steaks.”

I’d go inside through the sliding glass door, count to ten, and Tanya like it was the Melmac platter piled up with meat. Pop would watch me carefully while my mom would watch us both through the kitchen window. He watched how I came out and where I was walking.

“How was that?” I’d ask him after serving him Tanya.

“Pretty good, pretty good,” he’d answer. “I think a few more feet back and maybe over toward the willow some.” Pop wanted the layout to be efficient, to not require waste in travel time. He’d move and we’d repeat the experiment.

“Nadine,” he’d call to my mom. “Nadine. What do you think about this spot?” She’d wave her hands through the glass and he’d move an inch or two in that direction and then I’d go back into the house with Tanya for another dry run.

“Hey, these steaks are going to be good,” Pop told me as he pretended to cook them.

The weekend after, we went to the brickyard with a list of materials, mostly bricks and mortar, that we’d need to build the grill. The parking lot was full of other pickup trucks.

Pop took his list and started looking at the piles of bricks in the yard. All different sizes, shapes, and colors, they formed what to me looked like a small city with streets and alleys. I sort of tagged along behind him, wandering this way and that, while Tanya sort of drug in the dirt behind me. I liked the way it smelled there.

Up ahead of us, I saw my father stop and start talking to one of the other men looking through the bricks, a man named Fisher Martin who worked at another factory but his kids went to the same school as me, a boy in the third grade like me and twin girls in sixth. I kept wandering but let myself gravitate toward where they learned against a pile of cinder blocks. They were smoking cigarettes.

After just a little while, there I was right next to them, knee level, and looking up.

“Hey, Mr. Martin,” I said.

He just looked down at me for a moment.

“Well, hey there,” he finally said.

“Is Nelson here?” I asked him in reference to his boy.

Mr. Martin just kept looking at me and I noticed he was also looking at Tanya a bit and I got embarrassed. I mean, I was a little kid and all, but not too little to know what some people thought about me dragging a doll around.

“He’s playing ball,” Mr. Martin told me.

“Umm.” I made that noise because I was sure out of things to say and pretty much wished I hadn’t said anything. Pop was looking at Mr. Martin and I felt pretty bad for him there in the brickyard with me and Tanya.

“You ever play much ball, son?” Mr. Martin continued. “I mean, I don’t see you too much down to the ball fields. You ever think about playing ball?”

I started feeling even worse then. Pop wasn’t saying anything at all and I really wished I’d left Tanya at home. I just wasn’t thinking. Mr. Martin didn’t like all that quiet and had to fill it up.

“How old are you?” he asked me, but he was looking at Pop. “I mean, how come I never see you playing with the boys and such? And just what is that you’re dragging around behind you? It ain’t a big old doll, is it?”

I couldn’t think of a thing to say to answer him. He’d asked too many questions and the answers weren’t lining up in my head to give him. I just looked down into the brickyard dust.

There was a flurry of quick movement in the corner of my eye and the next thing I knew, there was Mr. Martin down there in the dirt. I was a little surprised to see him there.

“Whoa, Fisher,” I heard Pop say and he was leaning down to pull Mr. Martin up to his feet. Mr. Martin was red and wheezing and Pop just sort of handled him. “You oughta be a whole lot more careful. Looks like you slipped or something there.”

Pop leaned Mr. Martin up against the cinder blocks and patted some of the dust off him.

“You better just rest a minute there, Fisher,” Pop told him. “Think some about safety.”

He had Mr. Martin’s cap in his hand and whacked it a few times against his thigh before he set it back on Mr. Martin’s head. It was a little crooked up there and Mr. Martin was still wheezing, his eyes were wet looking, and he couldn’t seem to catch his breath.

Pop reached down and took my hand.

“Come on, son,” he said. “Let’s let old Fisher Martin catch his wind here and we’ll go get us some bricks.”

05 May 2009

Our First Spring in the Wilderness

The house was a duplex surrounded by an acre or so of palmetto scrub. It was a quarter of a mile from the library but still nicely secluded. Gas and electric were paid.

My neighbors, the Vinges, were both deaf. The landlady made a point of telling me that when I first came to look at the house. They rarely came in contact with me; they always went directly from the bus stop into their side of the house. Sometimes I would see them walking sideways down the road together so they could talk to each other with their hands. I could play my stereo as loud as I wanted anytime.

Once, I got a catalog from the Walter Drake Company addressed to the Vinges mixed up in my mail. The postman had made a mistake. I had not intended to do anything other than slip the catalog into their mailbox until I saw their crudely installed doorbell. I just had to push it.

Mrs. Vinge looked through the window at me. I smiled and held up the catalog for her to see. Mr. Vinge, however, opened the door. I tried to speak clearly and slowly so he could see my lips move. I didn't shout.

"I found this in my box. It is addressed to you and I've brought it over." Mr. Vinge watched my mouth closely and then stepped back for a broader view. Nodding, he reached for the catalog vaguely smiling and, I assumed, vaguely saying thank you. As he closed the door, it appeared to me that there was nothing but a single folding chair in their living room.

The next morning, long before the postman ever came, I found a letter from the registrar, a postcard from my friend Matthew, and the previous tenant's final phone bill in my mailbox.

Late one night, about three weeks later, I heard a noise from next door. I had been drowsing in bed trying to finish off Beowulf when I heard a noise like glass sliding across glass and then I was extremely awake because I heard a voice.

"Aaaooo." The voice was very soft, only just carrying through the common wall. I couldn't tell if the voice belonged to a man or a woman, to Mr. or to Mrs. Vinge. I could hear it for a long, long time that night and I couldn't stop listening to it.


04 May 2009

Number 3 Bus, Late Afternoon, A Wednesday

Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, The People’s Republic of China, 1986

And the kid is a drooler,
Downs Syndrome it looks like,
maybe not so terribly severe
but bad enough,
looks 35 or 40
but that doesn’t mean much
and the old man who sits
next to him,
who regularly holds
a white cotton handkerchief
to his son’s or maybe his grandson’s lips,
that old man looks 60 or 90.
Again, hard to tell.

They get off the bus
at the Bell Tower stop
just inside the city’s ancient wall.
As the rest of us pull away toward the city center,
a flash of white cotton
marks their path
across the crowded avenue
toward what really should be home.

03 May 2009

There are Hibiscus the Size of Dinner Plates

outside the window, along the wall.
They are sluggish mouths and
they are stealing our air.
I would tear them from our house
but, instead, collapse to the floor.
I am forgetting what to look for.

When I have caught my breath,
she starts talking
(as if nothing had happened)
the vision ground into her eyes.
Her tiny anguish, her tiny shames
are confusing, are making me tired.

I know the ways to keep her quiet
and say okay, okay on my knees
to strap her thigh
to bring up her veins.
Okay, okay is the junkie song I sing her.
I can't help it anymore,
it comes out by itself.