Table of Contents
The thought on the tip of their tongues, by Joy Carter
i am, by Shantell Bennett
Psalm CH-53E, by Bob Gidcumb
I Saw Dad Cry,Once, When He Thought an Anaconda had Strangled the Crocodile Hunter, by Brian McCarty
“My Favorite Things” Live in Belgium, ’65, by Thor Bacon
Sleep, by Michael Absher
Pressed Poppy, by Benjamin Smith
The Acts, by Benjamin Smith
Shakey, by Jared Morningstar
From Georgia O’Keeffe’s Arroyo, by Carol Hamilton
Transit of Venus, by CJ Giroux
Enter Camera, by Tomas Laverty
Emily As a Puma Crosses, by Darren Demaree
Emily As the Earthquake Won’t Come, by Darren Demaree
Emily as the Blackbird Melodies The Intellectual Goo, by Darren Demaree
Pleasure, by Erik F. Potere
Fake Christians, by Benjamin Schmitt
I Built a House, by Dallas Woodward
The Poetics of Schizophrenia, by Grace Anne Carey
Observatorio de Tulum/ Luna Azul, by J.D. Trej-Maya
Small Game, by Chris Ames
By Scrub Pines, by William C. Blome
Pockets of Music, by Brendon Vayo
Greatest Hits, by Preston Hagerman
The thought on the tip of their tongues
Mother taught me to cook scrambled eggs,
standing in awe as she cracked fragile
porcelain apart, released miniature suns
swimming in whites, drowned them in milk,
cooked to just the wrong side of done.
Taking a bite, I marveled at how they tasted like me,
like skin I bit off fingers, around the nail
until mother smacked them from my lips.
I doused them in salt, too much pepper, trying to strangle taste,
wondering how yolk turned to indignant birds who nipped
my fingers when I stole eggs, and if they realized
I tasted just like their babies would, once they were broken
out of their shells, fed to daddy and me.
And if the taste made them wish for something more
than seed, more like the bitter-sharp of pepper
to drive that thought off their tongues.
i am from harsh tongues
and heavy hands
i am from a little red brick house
i am from concrete skylines
and the northeast side of the ghetto
i am from a family with no traditions
and hung over holidays
i am from the fearsome
i am from angries and hurtfuls
i am from a victim
to a drunken brawl on Saturday night
to church on Sunday morning for forgiveness
i am from Detroit
and unknown origins
and government cheese
from the addicts and scapegoats
to the wounded
again and again
i am from a pictureless childhood
ripped to pieces by cold hearted hands
a past now worthless but wished for
I am everything opposite of where I am from
They gaped upon us three,
Toothy mouthed, predatory black-eyed fish and fin.
With bones out of joint and honeycombed hearts
Our lives poured out like JP8 onto the water,
And melted in the salty brine of the Indian Ocean.
And my soul ached for the island beach in the distance…
On the sand my strength was drowned.
The brackish air split my lips.
And my brothers left me behind.
All those years ago.
But now, you produce the piercing bite, and leave me behind.
I have found the wound that buries survivors.
Anaconda had Strangled the Crocodile Hunter
He kept his drinking a secret, would vanish for hours after work every night into his backroom bunker (formerly a guest bedroom—the guests stopped coming long ago)
and prowl conspiracy sites and adult chat lines while he inhaled
the better part of a case of blue label Beast.
Beer cans were stashed all over the house: behind encyclopedias, in the green paper shredded beneath the breakfast nook’s plastic palm. I once found a crushed can submerged in the toilet’s reservoir.
I’d flip a coin with my best friend Jeff to decide
which version of Dad would stumble into the living room:
the pal who’d buy us beer and guffaw at Beavis and Butthead
or the fugitive from justice, who’d stalk us with catty-cornered eyes while plotting escapes to the Yucatan jungle.
This particular evening we noticed, besides his simulated-sober gait, his eyes, redder than normal and clotted with tears.
As he broke the news he was almost inconsolable;
his tongue, heavy with grief and beer, tripping over the “ana-ana-ana” until we assumed that Anna Nicole Smith,
had somehow offed Steve Irwin.
Jeff shook his head. “Is there no end to her mischief?”
Finally Dad spit it out: an anaconda had strangled the Crocodile Hunter.
He then leaned over and, graceful as a giraffe, began to eat the plastic palm—nibble by nibble he gnawed away at a top leaf. I looked at Jeff, who was still shaking his head:
“The crocodile hunter…what a buffoon…what a clown.”
“My Favorite Things” Live in Belgium, ‘65
Down along the Flint River in Michigan
At the factory they proudly called “Chevy in the Hole”
The chain-link fences around the cracked
Concrete and cackling weeds
Lean like slave ships under sail.
The shackles in the old stockade
On Gorée Island, Senegal,
Seem very far away from here
Land of pie-chart smiles, bar-graph skylines
The numbers all in a row.
Now it’s block-after-block of abandoned homes
Plywood drill-gunned over dreamless doors
Where the shadows the spreadsheets tried to imprison
Riot like the suffocated air in hollow handles
Of Paul Revere’s tea pots on display back East.
Such silence is an appendix about to burst,
Claws of the bodice, waistcoats of gentlemen
Gorged on red meat in sitting rooms
The well-oiled chains of grandfather clock weights
Sinking slowly as no one speaks.
The piano-forte’s steel strings
Cannot cut the mute air
Heavy as an anchor
The corroded, barbed grin
Hanging from the drowned crossbar.
Sleep slipped like a stripper onto his lap
then pressed herself against his body
holding him in place,
(she was surprisingly strong)
so very slowly
pressed a pillow over his face,
humming softly and purring
as it got darker and darker.
Sleep loved that Ben Webster album
Atmosphere for Lovers and Thieves;
when the record ended
she danced like moonlight on water
to the crackles and pops of the vinyl
she danced to his low, shallow breaths
she curled up next to him
and listened to him snore
and waited for morning.
You are flat, you are flat,
Fixed between two slides like
A germ, firm. Flat. I lionize.
Brother of the cry of the back door,
Brother of the bat.
Trimmed of matter, trimmed
Of fat. Witnessed only in nudged knick
Knacks, or in a touch, a paralytic pressing
Of this, of that. You seem disappointed, though.
You seem a bit detached.
Black concentrate. The same as
In your grandmother’s frames –
You are monochrome, revolving in an
In-between state, yet to navigate to grip
The knob. There is no knob. Not yet.
A cross-stitch wheel with your thread
A bridal train. It scrapes like a butcher’s babe
And here it is, the rift. Mobile in daylight, twilight,
All light, you walk. O look at those limbs,
Slim, black legumes in a crystal suit.
Ironclad, it accommodates.
You asked. Implored. Now mother moons lend
A poor, poor excuse for a voice. A sharpened sigh
At night, an audible frieze. Flat, pressed
Poppy, the glass is not your crutch.
It boxed you up all Christmas-like, all
So lustrous, so compact, scalp smoothed
By the stuff of trees.
Dry, indelible, flat. Pellucid, with an upright riddled
Facsimile rightfully cast. The onus of a
Caryatid, holding up this crust.
It made you useful, little loaf beneath the
Garden. Glassy aftermath – you hang horizons
On your shoulders like stoles, like holes unbidden
In the matte. It heard you ask and ask and
Ask. That swindler. That savior. That ashen acrobat.
A man outside the pharmacy
Beside the carmine crust of a
Truck asked me if I was okay.
Months ago. I think, I sleep and
Wake on slabs, on slabs
Like rootless rafts – I had forgotten
Him. His trim face deep with
Wise wells. And a billed hat.
There was a rap of pistons on glass,
Pallid phalanges, and the
Coiled hair, manikin fairy, eyes
Mined from a geode. She strode
In unwelcome air, placed the cleaver
In my hand. She did not know the
Hazard, rutted brain, the
Blemished land. We spoke of writing.
Why do clocks look more like Shiva,
Blades of planes chopping days
To a fog of pills. I had forgotten him.
Fire halo, the monocle. Thrashing
Through molasses that is today,
Is tomorrow. Dicing up these acts.
Fonts are fractal, jagged lines each
Stamped with the time. Where is the
Advancement in that? The calligraphy?
Common names: Connie,
They are kind to me. Middle-aged
Mysteries I’ll never meet.
They are kind to me.
Surrounded by faded buildings
decades past their prime,
he hobbles down broken sidewalks
followed by the stench of strong urine
and dead fish.
unaware of the icy December wind
and the stab of the falling snow,
he continues his limp march
looking for what little hope resides
in Coca-Cola treasure.
From Georgia O’Keeffe’s Arroyo
Before dawn I skirted the cattle guard
and the chain set against the desert road
and each day ran the morning into being.
This gypsum chunk I lifted there
as I passed her house does not cry out
of theft from the bookcase where it sits
with other gathered stones.
Its veined white silk of softest rock
glistens and is smooth to touch.
On the same shelf sharks’ teeth
imbedded in limestone sit,
glassy still with life after eons,
and sheets of slate hold imprints of fern.
Red striated layers of sandstone
shed themselves away year after year
like the gypsum natural bridge
we used to photograph the children
standing on. Also here wait rosy lepidolite
and an arrowhead, some barite crystals
called rose rock, these all legitimate
takings. The purloined hunk of soft rock
may never crumble and disappear
like the stones of the former bridge
or O’Keeffe herself.
My unlawful gathering
was not a willful sin,
but perhaps she would have screeched
at me as she did the children
who stopped at her door to beg water.
Still, given time and rationalization,
I now call it rescue.
Transit of Venus
Atop the planetarium,
its grid of concrete, steel,
docents dramatize darkness.
Saturn’s rings, my ten-year-old replies,
are ice, dirt, debris;
Uranus still remains the butt of jokes;
Jupiter’s evil eye—
a giant pimple, tropical turmoil,
I rest on rounded walls
to spy on Venus, all mean-girl wannabe,
a blackhead on the sun.
My daughter spins
beyond peripheral vision,
leans against ledges,
counts boats on the bay,
cars crawling below.
Cotton catches concrete.
I feign sight, fight vertigo,
spin ever closer to solstice shadows,
out of touch, balance, breath,
as she practices planets’ placement:
her textbook still puts Pluto
on the edge.
Last in line, last chosen,
poor Pluto, she sighs in her solar glasses,
despite her teacher’s corrections.
As the guide drawls of 2117
for Venus’s voyeurs,
describing disaster, distress, death,
my golden child sees her future
as a meteor shower, streams of light
in the Milky Way,
but I worry about black holes, blood moons,
contemplate dusty deserts in ellipses,
each revolution 248 years, hell.
(go to this link to hear a rad audio piece!)
Emily as a Puma Crosses
A day without the tan
rags of Ohio,
I saw Emily walk naked
across our front lawn,
she was drunk, aware
that we can’t have drunks
in our house anymore
& without a single tear
or regret for her state,
she stalked our home,
moving faster, smoother,
without a look to the neighbors
that were lining up to see
the last bit of her girlishness
be swallowed up by time
& her inebriation. It takes
an hour for each drink
to vanish from our system
& at dawn, Emily knocked
on the door, still naked,
still a mother of two,
yet somehow more dangerous
than she had been before.
She napped all day. I didn’t want
to shake her, for what if
she was still dreaming as a girl,
as a puma, without any fear.
Emily As the Earthquake Won’t Come
of my marriage to Emily,
we are angry with each other
& since it is not awful
& we hold our love
as a collection of time
& many, many opportunities
to leave, we get in bed
quietly, to not to do as such.
Emily as the Blackbird Melodies the Intellectual Goo
Nothing can break the insincere
songs that tangle up the five-petal blooms
of our loosely strewn cures
& spurred on by the inventiveness
& how fucking clever they all are,
those birds have only blackness to hold
& any note they warble is a comment
on the comment of the idea of an emotion
a person might hold. It’s worthless
& since they’ve written me a letter,
seven blackbirds wrote and signed a letter
to me about these Emily poems
& how I have written so many of them
that they have begun to be comments
on my comments on ways Emily used to be,
I’ve decided to arch their feathers over
a tea cup to see if any blood will collect.
None will. They don’t deal in blood.
The window above the kitchen sink
releases the sounds of songbirds unfamiliar.
Snow hangs in small tufts like
dust on fan blades. Winter lifts
its onerous paw off my
back to let me catch my breath,
my lungs are shriveled from
harboring autumn fugitives.
I’ll open the window
an inch further, let the breeze
carry in the scent of muddy worms.
A few weeks ago
I joined a Christian group in my neighborhood
to meet women.
Tonight I stumbled in late
and told everyone
I quit my job.
Esther, a college student from Arkansas,
thanked me for coming and after quoting a Bible verse
told me everything was going to be alright. Admitting
to my inebriation I added
that I would like to burn
until I become a garden of dark flowers
pollinated by the indifference of the Internet age.
An attractive Korean named Jennifer looked away.
Esther quoted another Bible verse. I told her
God is the audience
that has dwindled from my traumatic sitcom life.
Amy, a blond with two kids from Missouri, said
God must have done this for a reason. I told her
about the knife in my kitchen,
how I love to hold it
sometimes pressing it
against my wrists. Scott, Amy’s husband, asked
if I had talked to Pastor Dave about this.
His face contorted when I shared my opinion
about Pastor Dave. Then I asked the group what I should do
when my prayers aren’t being answered.
Dallas, a brunette from Dallas, said
God would never give up on me
and that He is not answering my prayers
because I don’t believe. She is pretty but I
stood up and walked out the door
but not before asking God to stay with me.
I Built a House
I built a house in Idun.
For the price it was the best.
I later fled to Ludvig,
Before taxes took the rest.
I built a house in Shang,
Just a hammock and a shed.
Yonato came a-knocking,
Then I lived there instead.
I built a house in Fericele,
But couldn’t stand the waves.
Thought I’d try some time in Zukar,
But couldn’t stand the slaves.
I settled in Kivista.
It’s the best, I hear.
I never went so far as Melber.
I smell it well enough from here.
The Poetics of Schizophrenia
All social science aside, I pretend to be a professional
While secretly betraying my exquisite specimen
Who doesn’t realize I’ve been taking years of notes:
Field log, 11 July: subject courting madness,
Writing all over self. Masochistic.
Sometimes I wonder if she knows she’s being watched
And dissected like a high school laboratory turtle
With internal organs laid out beside her body
So the students can record the fluttering of a heart
For several seconds after removal.
Promise me you won’t tell her we are voyeurs –
I wouldn’t want to ruin such perfect test conditions.
Keep feeding her plumbs of self-deprecating infatuation
Like the 1960s housewives on LSD for science.
This experiment is only just beginning.
Observatorio de Tulum/ Luna Azul
The title reads: Observatory of Tulum/Blue Moon.
First glimpse upon threading the white sand
what colors the full moon underwater?
Besides these words there are thirteen
steps to reach the top of the Caracol or
farther still to get to El Castillo.
Besides the observatory of white marble/stone
of another people that saw in the sky
relics set in relief of Constellations.
Beyond your time lapse
second glimpse blue freeze sky:
what colors the horizon amidst the water?
Besides these words there are thirteen
cycles to see the return of Venus or
an acute symmetry in the ceiling
constellations froze evenly.
The title reads: Observatory of Tulum/Black Moon.
Third glimpse now the canopy engulfs the view:
what colors the shore next to granite?
Relics set in relief of calculations
check your calendars beyond stuck.
Ilhuicamatiliztli o ilhuicaxicalmatiliztli
Fourth glimpse conocimiento del cielo.
The title reads: Observatory of Tulum/Red Moon.
As the telescope in your eyes translates
the last glimpse of the last stanza
shatters what you know….
The first thing Mallory and I killed weighed less than eight pounds. In our backyard, our parents put up a barbed wired fence to keep animals from eating the basil, the mint, the plums. We were told over and over again: stay away from the fence. You’ll hurt yourself. But when they left for work, it was always the same. We’d put on our father’s boots, unscrew the handles from the broomsticks, and march into the garden. Onwards.
The sound of the garage door opening signaled the end of the game.
Then El Niño came swelling and sweeping across the western Pacific, soaking all of Southern California in a wet blanket. It flooded the garden. It churned the shoe-box graves of my former pets. When the storm settled, something lay caught in the fence. It was a fat, milky rabbit. Bulgy-eyed and twitching like the second hand of a watch.
I turn to Mallory. She goes: It broke the rules.”
“Yup,” I say, pulling the elastic of my father’s gym socks to my upper thigh.
“What d’ya wanna do?”
She plucks a mint leaf and rolls it in her thumb until it falls apart.
“Pop says stay away from the fence or else.”
“So let’s punish him.”
I take the butt end of the broomstick and gently touch it to the soft underbelly of the rabbit. It
“Not like that,” she says. “Like Pop does.”
A little harder now, I prod the rabbit in the forehead. It goes cross-eyed for a moment. Blinks.
“What, you never been in trouble?” she asks. “That’s just like you, Warren. Pop’s little angel. Daddy’s boy. You’ve never seen him go off. I mean really go off.”
“Oh you’re all talk. He doesn’t hit you that hard.”
“I’m not talking about me,” she says.
I look at the rabbit. Its eyes are soft, almost greasy looking. They’re saying: run.
“See, you just don’t have the appetite,” she says.
“I could be like him.”
“You’re too full—”
“Full of nothing,” she says, and walks back towards the house.
The rabbit starts to wrangle itself free.
Just before she reaches the door, Mallory turns and yells, “Just like Pop says, ‘There are indoor cats and there are outdoor cats.’ And Warren, you wouldn’t—”
I raise the corkscrewed end of the broomstick and bring it straight down. It slides into the belly of the rabbit. Never seen so much red. It leaks over the dirt and fills the air with the smell of rust, of pennies. We couldn’t have known the rabbit was pregnant. I couldn’t have.
Mallory washes off my boots while I dig a hole. Like all our other pets, we bury it with its favorite meal. Mom says the dead shouldn’t go hungry. We throw in a whole pack of baby carrots just to be safe.
The next morning during breakfast, Mallory’s eyes will not meet mine. Mom serves eggs, sunny side up, on little beds of toasted rye.
“Everything okay, Mal?” Mom asks.
Mallory is raking her butter knife across the head of an egg yolk.
Brushing our teeth, we’re taking turns spitting into the sink. Mildew lines the pink mouth of the drain.
“That was a dirty thing to do,” she says.
“A rotten thing.”
“You’re the one who—”
I want to say something to make it better, but my whole mouth begins to feel dry like envelope glue. At school we watch a video on our changing bodies. The boys and girls are separated. At lunch, everybody seems different. I chase the cherry tomato in my salad around with a fork.
By the time I get home Mallory is already in the backyard. I’m watching her from inside the kitchen. I’m thinking, I need a bigger word than sorry. If I knew it, I’d go out there, hug her, and whisper it over and over. I watch Mallory peel off her left sock and fill it up with rocks, twisting off the excess slack. She walks over to the plum tree and starts taking full swings, bashing the dark fruit into chunks of purple meat that plop in the grass. If only I knew that bigger word, I’d sing it low and soft. She empties the sock, puts it back on, and marches into the house, leaving little purple footprints on the carpet.
“That could stain,” I say.
“Better get to it, then,” she says.
I blot out her steps with bleach and dry working from the outside in. Rinse thoroughly with clean water. Then blot again. Mom says never scrub. It just lets the spill soak through to the roots. Bleach crawls in between the cracks in my hands and underneath the fingernail beds. My white knuckles go red.
This will stain.
By Scrub Pines
I can see the bastard June’s with today (some Neanderthal who ambles along to the name of Sloan) likes her lower body, can’t seem to get enough of it, but she knows she hasn’t always had that pillowy ass and when it first started to get that way both her boyfriends at the time touched it often enough that horny June began to pile down donuts in the morning, Swiss cheese and bagels every lunch, then pasta at eventide, and in less than a year you could hear her rear resound on a fine day like this to the slaps of her companion on the beach. (I think it’s fun to picture June grabbing a new boyfriend’s hand and patiently walking him through her preferred protocol of being turned around just-so and getting slapped hard on that mushy ass.)
Now today’s the hottest day of the year, and most of the folks on the sand here keep pivoting between the wet of the river and the wet of their own perspiration. I think it’s respectful to mention that yet another of June’s boyfriends has been missing up in North Dakota since last winter; he got off the train at Minot, rented a car to go ice fishing near Granville, and just has not been seen or heard from since. His name was Hammond. But if Sloan is able to grab a spot later on behind the privacy of one of the beach’s scrub pines, I can guess June’s going to want him to pull her swimsuit bottom down and smack the daylights out of the globe of her ass—she’s really grown that crazy over it. (My goddamn hand’s evidently too small or something to render the desired impact.)
Going further down the beach and up a-ways from the shoreline, you’ll spot a scrub pine with a bright red blanket spread out underneath. No one’s on the blanket right now, but ten minutes earlier there was an old guy there with a small boy, undoubtedly grandfather and grandson. Both had on swim trunks though neither seemed particularly interested in going in the water. What they did seem interested in—in fact, the reason they seem to be here today—was to mix into some of the beach sand large buckets of sand the grandfather took years ago from a place in Vietnam. Don’t ask me how he ever got it home, but I can tell you it’s from the very spot on the South China Sea where granddad-the-then-young-dude first popped his cherry, and he thinks the time is ripe for his grandson to coat himself in these particular good-luck grains of sand. (Gramps must be a strong believer that it’s never too early or late in life for a fellow to get prepped for pussy.) At the moment, my guess is both of these guys are at their station wagon, hauling out more Vietnamese sand, and they’ll probably be back any minute now. I’m also figuring that when they’re ready, the ritual will be for the boy to scoop out a place for himself in the beach and lie down as gramps tosses buckets of foreign sand on top of him. I’m also surmising the grandfather will command the boy to remain motionless while granddad keeps repeating the ritual of shuffling down to the water, filling both buckets, and waddling back to douse the boy. Finally, I’m saying the old man will bide his time—may even take several puffs on his pipe and/or eat the peanuts he earlier stuffed in his shirt pocket—before he solemnly stands over the child, brushes away all the covering sand, and pulls down the front of his grandson’s trunks. Then, using a scratched-up magnifying glass, he’ll verify in detail just how much that little penis has already come of age.
There’s another, even littler kid out here today, one who I hear has been rescued from the jaws of death no less than three times in her four-year life. Right now she’s gnawing on the lowest branch of a scrub pine that’s rooted more or less in the middle of the beach. She sure doesn’t seem repulsed by whatever taste she’s getting out of the tree, and the fact that she’s been at it for nearly ten minutes would seem to attest to there being something tasty in the twig. The little girl improbably responds to the name of Bruiser, and I think the common element in all three of Bruiser’s scrapes with death (as well as her current munching on the pine) is a pair of neglectful parents. Onlookers would correctly assume what I have: that mom and dad are together in the blue water right now, floating and diving and farting and frolicking as if there were no tomorrow, and certainly as if there was no brat in their care today. And truthfully, there’s not much new here: I’d easily bet that Bruiser’s parents weren’t around two Novembers ago when she swallowed an emerald. Before that, I just know they were somewhere else when Bruiser toppled into a wash tub half-full of butcher knives that someone had slid under a counter in an eastside tavern. And most recently—though this time I picture both parents being no more than an aisle away—no one was alert to the fact that Bruiser was rubbing pretty yellow sulfur in her eyes as she played with an old chemistry set on the floor of a Goodwill store.
“Wouldn’t you think they would have planted a tree or two more out here? At least a hundred folk having fun on a typical summer day like this, and there’s just three damned trees on the entire beach. We’d have to get here at nine in the morning just to nail down one of the few shady spots, and I think that’s too fucking early,” Jade said, speaking to me at last.
I shifted about somewhat unevenly on the sand. Not only didn’t we have any shade, I hadn’t brought a blanket along or anything else to lie on. It was very hot now, and I decided I didn’t feel like shooting the shit with Jade. So I decided to go non sequitur: “Argentine guy named Rocca was a wrestler famous for his flying dropkicks. Imagine the sex we could have if either one of us had even a smidgen of the gaucho’s genes.”
But Jade continued more or less on the same track she’d been on: “Imagine how excited and tingly I’d feel if there was a pinecone near my feet, something I could push into our sunlight with my foot and use as a cap on that dick of yourn.”
This sure didn’t seem to be the time to jettison going non sequitur, so I countered with, “How slick would it be if, inside some garden somewhere, nasturtiums could wail on appropriately-scaled little trumpets, rather than having to use just scent and color to beckon weary bees, and if it might—just might—have required no more than three strong clowns pushing and sweating in unison to fell the ole Tower of Babel.”
Well, maybe I was right, maybe I was wrong to have pursued non sequitur chatter, but from my last comment forward, Jade was not willing to make reply. Within just over a minute of quiet, Jade cleared her throat and postured to all the world as if she were going to respond, but no utterance came forth, and silence reigned. Silence reigned, though June and Sloan eventually grew sore and headed home. Silence reigned, though grandfather and grandson eventually used up all their foreign sand. And silence eventually completed its conquest, with little Bruiser consuming nearly an inch more scrub pine before everyone on the beach reached unspoken agreement that this day was as good as done.
Pockets of Music
Men and women disgust me in equal ways.
He pauses to eavesdrop on the conversation and assess the attractive woman leading it, but no one at her table speaks. Is he too close? Did he say something? Why not say something?
The group seems more surprised than annoyed at his interruption. How could he be smoother with—warm hands clamp his shoulders—transitions? A man in a tuxedo says: Excuse me, buddy.
One friend twiddles her thumbs and raises her eyebrows, but a tinkle of notes from the piano belies the rejection to come.
The man in a tuxedo plays the introductory notes of a song that is popular yet not readily identifiable. Someone asks for a cigarette, says this tune goes well with a smoke, and winks. A woman golf-claps. Arms slide over the backs of chairs. Eyes follow long fingers through flickering lighters and churning pockets of smoke.
The man’s face is blank; his eyes remain fixed on his lap. Why not engage them, at least nod at his pretty fan? The man’s fingers thunder. Someone yelps out of surprise or excitement. They are not hearing a popular song at all.
He finds himself swaying with the others, wonders how he can hear drums and a bass when the stage is clearly empty. Intuition warms him, and, without warning, he runs beneath a frosty sky, runs as fast as his lungs will take him, runs toward a red or brown or gray barn that is a misshapen, geometric nightmare. Perhaps no one can agree on the details much in the same way he does not recognize the characters from his favorite books in the actors who adapt them for the screen. And anyway, he was raised in the city; the closest he came to a barn was the one or two he would pass on the highway.
A shadow settles on the tuxedo man’s shoulder. It is a hand for some time, but he does not recognize it until someone gasps. The light burns white, reveals an elderly man condensing behind the man in a tuxedo. Disappointment settles over him. Does it have to do with… pharmacy school? He thinks so, though even now doubt smolders beneath his vision. Perhaps this is some sort of elaborate hoax.
The chords punch him through the smoke, make him climb a staircase. He knows his father will never accept his love of music, so he will never see him again. He sees himself pack, sees himself throb with agony, sees himself disillusioned by the indifferent turning of time. And, for the thinnest of moments, he glimpses himself as a stranger free from his job, able to pursue an art of his own.
But… what did the barn have to do with the tuxedo man’s father; or for that matter, the house (which they never saw from the outside)? And that last part—that was his life, not the man in a tuxedo’s. Wasn’t it?
The talent has turned wild.
On the patio, many complain about a cold draft that snakes through the open windows. Others seem unaware of the tears that slide down their cheeks. The man in a tuxedo thuds into a solo while in the middle of the chorus, strikes flats instead of the major chords. Patrons wince. Some try to leave but the man in a tuxedo hammers them into place.
The outro builds to a crescendo only to begin again once, twice, thrice—will it not end?, someone wails—but apparently not, not until the patrons are poised to mutiny does the perspiring man in a tuxedo wind to the song’s closing notes before gasping and turning to face the beach.
Outside, silver sparks shoot from a crashing wave. The dissonant chords shudder through the floorboards. As they fade, the patrons are reminded about the glass bowl where they may drop their tips. But now the man in a tuxedo stands alone. His father is gone.
The woman says: Sorry, you were saying?
He follows her non-sequitur perfectly, realizes he was saying; he asks if she was not, by chance, attached?
The woman says: You can see that I am not.
He says: Fair enough. I meant only—
The woman says: Is there a Neanderthal waiting at home to drag me by my hair? Might he be stronger than you?
One friend props her cheek against her fist, blinks when jostled. Her companions scoop her up, mumble about a fresh start, offer reptilian smiles.
The woman sighs and says: Ah, dominance.
He says: Hm?
The woman says: Derived from the weak for short-term aims, but, let me ask you—if a woman did submit, and I mean in all ways, would you want her still?
He says: I suppose I could become everything you wanted, with all those oh-so-helpful comments to thank for it.
The woman says: We play and we prey, but we do not love.
He says: You’re right. About men and women.
And he blushes, relieved that he can risk not being funny.
The transition is unclear, though not without a nostalgic sense of importance.
In the dark, she is warm and senseless beneath him. He snaps awake in mid-entanglement, cannot recall where he is or how he got there.
When the air clicks off, he wonders what time it is. Maybe his eyes adjusted; he notices bookshelves stocked with neat and clean covers, sees floating prints of Pollock’s work.
She says: How about this—no matter what happens, I’ll never feel anything for you. Before you respond, know that too many times a man has lain on the side of the bed you’re on right now and said an arrangement like this is fine. But a man contaminates good sex with feelings even if he’d never admit it. Of course, they always admit it to me.
He says: You meant what you said. Earlier. About there being no such thing as love.
She says: You have good hands. I like your hands, but too many times I’ve seen a man grow quiet, get moody, forget his game, fumble with my buttons, and for what? All in the pursuit of confessing something, even if it isn’t and can’t ever be true? It reminds me of… you remember the piano player, right?
He inhales, reluctant for their conversation to include the man in a tuxedo. The song allowed him to live a fantasy in which he quit his job; had it made her fantasize about exposing love as a sham?
When she prods his chest, he says: I think I understand.
She says: There’s probably nothing fatal about you. It’s just… I can’t care. And I mean ever.
He says: Well. First of all, if I can just… I love, and by that I mean I am thrilled, that we’re just getting it out there. On the first night.
She says: I know. It’s exciting, isn’t it?
He coughs and says: I’m not someone who stays.
She says: Stays?
He says: Marriage. Exchanging apartment keys, moving in together?
She says: Um.
He says: It’s not against you or a particular someone buried in the past, some girl I think I’ve gotten over because I haven’t seen her in a long time. I won’t call you the pet name I used to call her. I won’t give you the ring I bought for her.
She says: Do, do you still have it?
He says: It’s a two-thousand dollar rock and the pawn shops won’t pony more than seventy bucks for it, so it’s like…?
She rubs his belly and he finds the gesture emboldening.
He says: So one day? I shall live in the woods.
She says: Did you say the woods?
He says: I’ll quit my job, abandon every possession I own, and the ones I haven’t paid off yet, and live without any memories of the person I was.
She says: The… woods.
He says: I’m talking a complete rejection of civilization. And I don’t want anyone to come with me. I don’t want to spend my life with an Eve or a Jane and have beautiful children.
She says: Are you running from something?
He says: No. Do you understand that?
A streetlight splashes across the ceiling, veils the details of her face. He wraps his arm around her neck, she settles across his hip. He rests a fingertip on his lip and tries to duplicate the memory of their first kiss.
When a hurricane advances, they spend four days huddled in her condo. She tells him of her days: the papers she signs, the merger she negotiates. She tells him that while all ended well, dark times had fallen. Many on her team despaired before she kicked a field goal as time expired, slammed a corner kick into the back of the net, raked a two-run double off the wall. He understands few of the metaphors, but he finds that he cares.
He does not tell her about how ignorant or immature his kids are, his time not-with-her. He takes her at her word that she does not care. On occasion, though, he recalls a pimpled philistine who came in to complain about a low grade. Though he had skimmed the argument and wrote nothing in the margins, he defended the D+ by pointing to errors that he gave up correcting long ago—a paragraph composed of fragments, an infestation of the indefinable and abstract “you”, a smattering of undocumented sources. Long after the dejected boy left his office, he marveled at the lack of effort he put into everything now, even teaching. He wonders if this step is the first in becoming a mediocre person. While she appears to listen, she never responds to his question.
Some days, she does not speak at all, and he is grateful that not once does she deprecate his plan to cast aside (more or less) four centuries of human progress and survive only on what he can hunt or gather. He appreciates her tacit acceptance not only because she is the first person to hear his plan, but also because he is sensitive to the ridicule an average person would provide under the guise of questions: Where would you move to? What tools, if any, would you bring? What about a phone, in case of emergencies (they have pre-paid disposables now)?
Maybe she’s relieved that each of them has a strong impulse the other does not share and could never understand. Or maybe she wants him to stay? Sometimes she wakes him by dropping her hand on his face. Sometimes she tightens her grip when he needs to slip into the bathroom. Maybe she senses his need to steal off into the night, and perhaps his desire also serves as the mirror image of her greatest fear.
Or is it too simple, too neat? Sex seems simple, but with her, it is filthy. After, she sighs at the ceiling and they navigate around the wet part on the sheets. Sometimes he sleeps too late and she is gone when he wakes. Sometimes he laughs to himself. That he will compromise on his goals is something he always suspected, a theory without form that fills him with sober reflection but not regret. Sometimes he wonders: If the situation changes so slowly I am hardly aware of it, is it changing me, or am I changing it?
Sometimes, when he searches for his clothes, she says something like: You can spend the night, if you want. Sometimes he does.
And sometimes he lays on his back, listens to the bloody thump of his slowing heart. Sometimes he wonders if the barrier that dissolves within him also weakens inside her. Sometimes he wants to tell her he loves her, loves the smell of her stomach, loves that she will never love him back.
Months pass. The weather turns mild and the days shrink, but the hours yawn forever. They had plans to spend two weeks in a beach house somewhere for the holidays, but last-minute obligations leave him hopelessly alone. He travels up 95, but the prospect of cool temperatures and dark forests makes him reconsider his plan to investigate remote areas to resettle, and once again he returns to the flat and green land that is home. He follows the exit to the beach, stops at the bar where he first met her. Only two cars are in the parking lot. He buttons his coat, pushes through a heavy door.
Milk-cream lights crowd the shadows of an empty bar. He traces the ivory keys, leaves a streak in the dust from one end to the other, feels the cold travel up his arms. He knows that it is the death that went into their making.
He forms a note he has watched other people play, but it sounds off-key, makes the piano sound out of tune. The chord resonates through the shadows, courses around the pockets of light. This is the first time he tries to imagine feeling as indifferent as she feels, and he cannot express his sadness any more than he can explain how his nose or mouth took shape. He is angry with music for its inability to substitute itself for an image; words, too, seem unable to express the depth of his loss.
A man says: Thought I heard someone in here.
He sees someone he recognizes, though for a moment he is confused that the man is dressed not in a tuxedo but as a bartender.
The man says: Rough night?
He says: Would you teach me to play? I mean really play, the way you do, so I can see again?
With the man here, his hands seem larger and yet delicate. Oil coats his fingertips, heightens his awareness of each key and the thin width between them. The man says: The journey is long and difficult. Except his lips do not move. He watches the man’s dancing eyes, then a voice floods his head, sounds something like: Most would rather hear a pop song, but listen. With the metallic pump of instinct thudding in his ears, he understands that while words cannot translate how much he cares for her into an image, every once in a while he can try, like the man, to confess a secret to a crowd of strangers. Warm and buzzing, he bows his head and unravels his fingers so they stretch farther than they ever have before, but he plays no chord anyone would recognize.
It is over. He was there when it happened—there but not present. Even as he types this he regrets falling asleep more than any mistake he made before. He spent every second of every minute by her side in the final days; the grief of anticipation caused him to shut down. He was asleep next to her in the hospital bed the night it happened. But she fell asleep before he did. As she rested he wondered where she drifted off to, what sort of world her mind conceived. Wherever it was he wanted to be there.
“Take me with you,” he said, brushing his fingers through her hair and kissing her forehead.
Had the whine of her flat-line not awoken him, he may have had a good night’s rest for the first time in months. As he watched the bright green line stretch across the monitor he felt numb. The tiniest spark of life once given light within him was extinguished by the great many deaths her absence would signify: no more late night walk chats ‘til dawn; no more wordless conversations of the eyes; no more half-seen flicks missed by her distraction; no more nostalgic eves of blanket forts and Nick at Nite; no more people-watching on a bench at Castle Park; no more 90-minute two-way treks of tunes and processed food to school in fall; no more home in her or haven from the hell of living with himself. He now knows that the brighter a moment the harder it is when the lights fade out.
Even if he were able to rid the catch in his throat and mumble a plea for help, she had been adamant about not being resuscitated. So the fight was over. Six years of imperfection were done; so much finalized in a single moment. He composed himself long enough to cup the back of her head in his hands and kiss her lips one last time.
“Take me with you,” he said. “Please. Please take me with you.”
“Take me with you” is the last thing he ever said to her. A plead really—a begging and bartering of the soul and every earthly possession he owned. She had done some bargaining too; in the days leading up to her departure from his world she prayed to the long absent father in whom she never believed to spare her love of their inevitable fate.
While she could not take him with her, he took her with him instead, the final remnants of all that she was or ever would have been contained in a corked-vial the size of a salt shaker, hung over his neck with a leather bootlace. This part of her he carried was in congruence with his two greatest missions: to make her happy in life and death. So when she asked him to relive their greatest hits when she passed, he took her with him.
He remembers their final conversation perfectly. He can recite it for you if you ask him.
ACT TWO, FINAL SCENE
SHE: There’s so much I want to say to you but I can’t and won’t. Not yet.
HE: Why not?
SHE: Because you won’t believe what I have to say right after I’m gone. Only when you have let me go will you understand the words I need to say.
HE: How will I know?
[She gestures to an envelope on the table.]
SHE: I trust you will only read what I have to say when you no longer need me.
HE: I will never stop needing you.
SHE: If that’s true then you will never know or understand what I have to say. Promise me that you try to let me go.
HE: I promise
When he was 16 and she was 15 they both had roles in the community theater’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. He was Fyedka, she was the fiddler. During intermission, hidden within the shadow of the alley beside the theater, he first told her how he felt about her. It was there that he first kissed her and first knew what it meant to love someone first and foremost—above all else.
ACT ONE, SCENE ONE[Lights up center stage. Curtains open to Him crossing stage left where She is standing off to the side, resting against the outer wall of the building with a fiddle next to her on the ground.]
SHE: (removing her yarmulke and letting her hair down) Is it intermission already?
HE: Yep. 15 minutes, and I have a couple of scenes until I reappear during the second act. (He crosses stage right, heading for the alley.)
SHE: Where are you going?
HE: For a walk—
SHE: Take me with you.
[They cross stage right to the alley. The lights dim on stage left and center on them. He removes a flask from his jacket and takes a sip. He offers but she declines. From his other jacket pocket he removes a box of malt balls.]
HE: You know, you’re pretty cute for a Jewish dude.
SHE: You think I’m cute?
HE: The cutest.
SHE: So you like me then?
HE: I didn’t say that.
SHE: So you don’t like me then?
HE: I didn’t say that either.
SHE: You don’t say much of anything, do you?
HE: You’re the first to ever say that.
SHE: (laughing) Well, it’s true. You’re kind of the quiet mysterious type, aren’t you?
HE: (beat) I like you.
SHE: That was sudden.
HE: I’m sorry.
SHE: Don’t be.
HE: I’m not. Not really.
SHE: Lies aren’t a good way to start off a relationship.
HE: So we’re in a relationship?
SHE: (stammering) Oh God, I meant—I didn’t mean anything by it.
HE: Too bad.
SHE: How so?
HE: Maybe I like the idea of being in a relationship with you.
SHE: Maybe I do too.
HE: Maybe I want to kiss you.
SHE: (stepping slightly closer to him) Maybe I want you to.
HE: (stepping even closer to her, speaking quietly) Maybe I should.
SHE: (stepping inches away from him, speaking quieter as she removes her gum and places it on the wall behind her) Yeah. Maybe you should.
[He wraps his arms around her and kisses her. Lights fade to black. Curtains close.]
This is the first place he feels he should sprinkle a tiny parcel of what was left of her in this world. When he steps onto Wright Avenue he is simultaneously imbued by the glow of the theater’s marquee and gut punched by the agonizing reminder of things which could not possibly be forgotten. He stops for a moment long enough to appreciate the gravity of what it means to return to the conception of something so beautiful and pure. While she and he had passed this spot many times in the six years they were given, they had never returned to the place where it all began, something up until now he had regretted. He presses on—with dilated eyes he presses on against the light.
He stands at the edge of the gravel lot which leads to the alley—to their alley. The fear of happy remembrance and the pang of recognition prevents him from walking any further.
Only for a moment.
When he reaches the alley he is overcome with grief. This is the place which conceived the short beautiful life they had built together and while in their youth they were foolish enough to believe their ardor empire indestructible, they failed to realize that nothing lasts forever.
He stands in the alley, places the palm of his hand against the chalk-graffiti covered wall, and swears to himself that he can still feel their warmth. He removes the vial from his neck, examines it for a brief moment, and sprinkles a tiny amount of her ashes in a crevice—the same crevice where she stashed her gum before their first kiss. He wants to say something as he stands there, anything to commemorate this moment, but he can’t. He says nothing and presses on.
She spent the better half of the hottest summer in recent memory working at the state capitol as an intern for a State Rep., a rising star. They lived an hour away from each other but they communicated so well that it was like she wasn’t gone at all.
“I made us a picnic,” was the first thing she said to him when she saw him again.
“Peek inside the basket.”
“Sandwiches, beer, a blanket, and condoms? Just what I always wanted!”
They drove to an abandoned baseball field where the bleachers had long been removed. But the dugout and bases remained, obscured by weeds.
“We’re almost there,” she said, leading him down a trail to a fresh cut patch of grass, an ancient oak at its center.
This is his favorite memory of her. Being the second stop on his greatest hits tour, it is also one of the few places he and she never revisited during their time together. He returns here six years later to sit under the tree with his back to the bark.
He pats his leg and feels the outline of the folded envelope in his pocket. “This is the last thing you’ll ever say to me. I don’t want to wait. But I keep my promises.” He sprinkles ashes at the base of the tree and plucks a handful of purple tea leaves to spread upon it.
“One more stop.”
He sat next to her on a tree stump with her family on the night they first arrived in Manistee, fixated by the ember glow of the campsite’s pit. Though his thousand-yard stare into the flames suggested an absence of thought, in reality his mind was teeming with thoughts and sights and sounds that seemed to gorge themselves on the remaining crumbs of his sanity.
“Excuse me,” he said, rising to his feet. “I’m going for a walk on the beach.” He turned from the fire but she grabbed his hand.
“Take me with you,” she said.
He did not need convincing. With her arm in his and her free hand pin-pointing the constellations, assigning them names from her favorite Sunday funnies, they disappeared into the trees and headed for the beach. When they arrived she removed her shoes as he slipped a sip of Bushmills from his flask. The gesture did not go unnoticed.
“You know I don’t like it when you drink like that,” she said in that shy Minnie Mouse voice, the voice he used to hate but would give anything to hear one more time. He shrugged and said nothing as they continued along the white shoreline. She stopped walking long enough to appreciate the sensation of cool wet sand squishing between her tiny toes.
She gave him ‘the look’; the look which has no other name but which all men know to fear and loath.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I wonder where you go on these late night walks. And I don’t mean your destination either.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Well…where do you go? Where do you arrive?”
“Some things can’t be said. Sometimes words aren’t enough.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” she said, moving her long brown hair away from her shoulder to reveal a large scar.
He brushed the tips of his fingers along the pink vein shaped scar which ran down the side of her neck and collarbone. She did not need to tell him that this seemingly normal scar was not simply some childhood accident; she did not need to tell him that this beautiful symbol of anguish was the key to her shy shuddering withdrawal upon every amorous touch. Their most effective communication was articulated primarily by what they didn’t say.
It was at this moment that he began to understand his love for her as something more than teenage romance. The empathy of another person is the most valuable possession a person can have. And hers meant more to him than his definition of worth.
“I’m going back to the tent. Take your time to brood,” she teased and turned to walk away. But he grabbed her hand.
“Take me with you,” he said.
As they left the beach and made for the path back to camp he told her things; a great many horrible things he has not and would never tell anyone else and while he related to her all of his sufferings he did so without uttering a single word. And yet she knew—she knew as though she had been a fly on the green-walled room where he lost himself so many years ago. The hurt and hate and horror in his eyes told his story and emulated her own, confirming what she so desperately hoped wasn’t true. He knew she would have suffered alone to spare him his pain. And that was one more reason why he loved her.
He returns to the shores of Manistee almost exactly four years later. It is the final stop on his greatest hits tour. As he stands upon the white shores of the grey body before him he is not overcome with the same degree of grief as before. He is undoubtedly sad and irreparably broken, and yet, strangely optimistic. He removes the vial from around his neck and kisses it as he has so many times before.
“You knew me before but this is where you discovered me,” he says. “Thank you.” He pours the last bit of her onto an edge of the shore and smiles as the water overtakes and dissolves it, making Her indistinguishable from the sand.
He retrieves the envelope from his pocket and hesitates for several moments before deciding to open it. He is eager yet horrified to know that whatever the contents of her final words to him are, they are just that…final. He opens the envelope and unfolds the letter. And this is what it reads:
You will be okay.