Mr. BubbleHead & Other Stuff

Mr. BubbleHead
By
Kyle Hemmings

Table of Contents
I. Tractatus BubbleHead Logicus
II. Mr. Bubblehead and Dark Swan
III. Master BubbleHead Goes to Live with Auntie Griselda
IV. Mr. BubbleHead Loses his Head
V. Mr. BubbleHead and the Experience of Death
VI. Mr. BubbleHead Does the Moonwalk on Canis Calida
VII. BubbleHead and Teddy Bear
VIII. Mr. BubbleHead Has an Exciting Day

-->



Tractatus BubbleHead Logicus

1. Mr. BubbleHead considered distance and velocity and time to be subsets of Fate and all of it could victimize the pedestrian, either perfect in their A.D.D. spaces or luckless as grapefruits. He reasoned thusly: When he was a kid, he tagged behind a gang of rowdies led by Art Finkel. Art Finkel always wore toy guns to class and extorted his teachers, especially the ones who cheated on their spouses with Art’s older sister, a shapely vixen named Ginny, who dreamed of mud orgies with P.T.A. members or anal sex with cowboys without pretense. One Halloween, the group went trick or treating and an old woman answered the door. Art Finkel threw an egg through the woman’s house, while she was bent over, picking little bags of assorted candies. But Mr. BubbleHead never saw where the egg landed nor heard it smash against a solid, ie., a wall, a piece of furniture. Some twenty years later, Mr. BubbleHead was walking down a quiet street late at night, considering himself luckier than most birds because safe landing is always an issue, when an egg smashed and splattered all over his face.

2. After a succession of caretakers, Mr. BubbleHead lived alone in an apartment off Blonde Street. He was particularly upset when the last home health aide left, a beautiful young nursing student who often found Mr. BubbleHead leaning his head against a wall, eyes closed. He tried to tell her that he felt some kind of connection but it came out in inverted sequences. Frustrated by his withdrawal, his sporadic gushing of words making no sense, and his inability to focus on her simple commands, she resigned. Some time later, a murder occurred in the apartment next door—a young brunette, barely out of her twenties strangled by a mechanic with thick hands and the tattoo of a street gang-a monkey covering its ears. When questioned by the police, Mr. Bubblehead slurred his words and made non sequitur statements. The interrogators gave up, but a young female detective smiled at him, perhaps fascinated by his disability or uber ability, depending how one looked at it. One day, Mr. BubbleHead walked into the police station and demanded to talk to the detective with chestnut eyes that had dropped into his dreams. At her desk, he spewed out the words of the two arguing, the night of the murder–he imitated the voice of each. He had his ear to the wall, had spent more time next to it since his caretaker abandoned him, and his eyes to a crack in the ceiling that was like a voice, falling.

3. Mr. BubbleHead lived in a homeless shelter south of Springer and north of what of most people would consider cold. In the shelter, he met an old woman who constantly rattled on about an only daughter who abandoned her, the girl calling the mother a “filthy whore.” The old woman went on how she had always provided for the girl, even though there was never a husband, always a succession of tricksters. One day, Mr. BubbleHead gave this woman a box. He presented it as a gift and said it contained Happiness. She shook it, put her ear to it, and said, “There’s nothing inside. Just another trick.” “No,” said Mr. BubbleHead, “it has everything inside.” The woman died several weeks later of what was most likely aspiration pneumonia. Mr. BubbleHead sat facing a corner, knowing that she died without ever knowing happiness. He opened the box and took back what he once tried to give.

4. Mr. BubbleHead is discovered at a disco, his feet and arms moving like ingenious self-automated warriors of joy. He doesn’t even break out in a sweat. Someone discovers he can sing to. He wins top place on Abolish Me with Your Ability and Dance Your Plimsolls Off. He’s now bigger than Michael Jackson. To be a savant with an upward self-forgetful gaze is considered chic in many circles. His trademark, adopted by the greatest fashion designers, is spats, top hat, and the kind of cane Fred Astaire once used in movies. Then, one day, someone tries to assassinate Mr. BubbleHead. Young girls across the nation feint or complain of mysterious symptoms. Young men smash their heads against car windows. Mr. BubbleHead withdraws to a country house, quits show business, only talks to his mom.

5. Mr. BubbleHead is in love with the girl in Apt 7b. He tries to talk to her but every time, he says It’s a Nice Day, Isn’t It? (even though it’s snowing or raining), she says Yes, and I’m Really in a Hurry, Late for Work. For weeks, months, all Mr. BubbleHead can think about is walking down into sewers, travelling through tunnels under streets. His mother takes him to a therapist. When the therapist asks what’s bothering him, he says the tunnels are not sturdy enough. His mother tells him that this is a waste of money, even though the sessions were her idea. Meanwhile, the girl finds out that her boyfriend is married, has a child on the way, and once signed a petition promoting the killing of walruses with a single parent. She decides to climb to the top floor of a skyscraper and jump. She does and lands on Mr. BubbleHead who just happened to be passing by. In a tunnel, further down than any other, they find each other in the darkness, hold hands, and tell each other that what is above ground, what is happening in loveless rooms, the endless circular scenarios with partners groping for new alphabets, is now irrelevant.


Mr. Bubblehead and Dark Swan

The receptionist from Medical Records, the one whose eyes sometimes drooped like dead roses, forty-ish with too many sick calls, whose soft, slightly mispronounced words stayed with coworkers like the taste of strange spices, yes, she was the one who had a crush on him. It was a playful, lingering kind of attraction, the type that could take up an entire childhood and leave her too old for adolescence.

During her breaks, she searched for Mr. BubbleHead, who worked in Materials Management, and said "I think it's time for lunch." He usually looked at his watch and said something like "Okay, just one more minute. I have to phone in some orders to Scrub and Gown."

After work, she took classes in jazz and tap dance. That was when the polyneuropathy rooted in childhood didn’t flare up. On her good days, she danced and she wanted to be a child. It was nearing Christmas and she volunteered at the homeless shelter because she wanted to be loved. Her doctor had told her that her prognosis was poor.

Doing something for someone is the sure way to inner peace, her mother once said.

As a child she was perceived as a misfit swan in a town where everyone drank or floated upon dirty water. As a young girl with a slithering body, she daydreamed of ballerinas in the orange thick-brick heat of day. With eyes closed, she aged and lived near windows. Her disease played hide-and-seek with her. She decided she was in love with Mr. BubbleHead because he was kind and genuine, even though he reminded her of broken glass or horses with a bad leg.

As for Mr. BubbleHead, he claimed he rarely dreamed but one time he went on for minutes about how in this one dream he counted the number of disjunctives in a Dear John letter. He had watched a movie about a soldier coming home to no one. He bought the DVD and memorized the credits and what birthday belonged to which actor.

She looked for him in the company cafeteria, finding him ordering the same meal: hamburger well done, bun on the side, a half-scoop of cottage cheese. His trousers were the same color as the day before and they were baggy as the ones her father wore so many years before, driving a local bus. She tried to find some kind of mathematical symmetry in all of it, but she was not good with numbers. At the employee tables, she handed him a box of heart-shaped chocolates. "It’s your birthday," she said, with that wingspan of a careless smile.

“Yes,” he said in flat tone, “April 17, 1952. The same day that President Truman signed Executive Order 10346.”

She waited for him to acknowledge the gift.

"Thank you," he said with a slight nod of the head.

They sat and ate in a dense silence. It was the others who made noise with words, hit or miss, receptors and transmitters, she wanted to count the number of linkages, then gaze into his eyes. She decided no matter how deeply buried, or how distracted by the rush of sensations, there was a longing and a history of hurt inside him.

He studied the box, touching it carefully, as if a new baby brother.

Mentally, he counted the number of candies within each row, without breaking the ribbon. After all, the box was shaped like a heart. He could deduce and calculate. They sat and ate the candies on opposite sides of the long cafeteria table; dark smudges on their lips. Finally, she rose and said with defiant un-subtlety--I Love You-- as if an occasion for a simple parade. She looked down at his glazed eyes that reminded her of quail eggs, or how easily anything could break by a simple mispronunciation of a word. The left side of her lip quivered slightly.

Mr. BubbleHead broke open another chocolate, mesmerized by the soft gooey syrup, coating his fingers like some weak glue. He said he didn't like the cherries. They would make him dream of too many zeroes and this could lead to disjunctions and null sets.

She watched as he ate only the dark sweetened shells. What do I taste like? She wanted to ask. But that would be in another dream. In this life, she concluded, her dreams were all wrong, full of irrational numbers and combinations.

At home in her Soho apartment, she watched a TV game of spinning numbers for prizes and began to cry.

On the other side of town, Mr. BubbleHead was watching the same show, calculating the odds for each contestant wearing dark shirts with the same number of buttons as his own.

I won, he said softly to himself.

Master Bubblehead Goes to Live with Auntie Griselda

His mother stood before him at the gates of the castle. She embraced him without touching. “Don’t look back,” she said, her voice thin as her winter scarf. “It will only bring pain to the two of us.” Her breath smelled like this morning’s mocha flavored coffee. Her eyes were a more murky blue than usual and they reflected back nothing.

“Just remember that I’m doing this because I love you.”

Mama! he yelled as she walked away and became unreal.

In the castle, Auntie Griselda put young Master BubbleHead on a strict diet of Do’s, Don’ts, and Don’t-Eat-It-Unless-I-Eat-It-first. Her words were always sharp and sometimes they bore tunnels. In the upstairs room over three levels of serpentine stairs, Master BubbleHead was the savant performing mathematical calculations, configuring logarithms and square roots in his head. I’m so good with numbers, he thought, but none of it will bring back mummy.

One day, while exploring the basement, he discovered a file, a large one, the kind that craftsmen use to sharpen tools. Surely, Master BubbleHead thought, this could be put to good use. This could turn me into a badger or an anteater, burrowing its way towards home, towards freedom. He began to sharpen his teeth with the file, then, gnawed at the old woman’s furniture, at cupboard handles and doors, even licking varnish. He disappeared.

Auntie called the family’s physician, Dr. Gustav Friendless. She said she discovered her nephew’s tunnels.

“I’m afraid,” the doctor said, “that it sounds like he has a rare autoimmune disorder where the brain can’t make the proper switches. The differential diagnosis is the beetle’s shadow across a cat scan.”

“Is it genetic?” asked Auntie.

That night Auntie Griselda had the sensation of something eating its way through her sleep.



Mr. BubbleHead Loses his Head

He woke up from a bed of sacrilegious stains. There were scimitar shapes, etchings of oval little women that ventured deeper into the heart of the mattress. Where’s my head? he exclaimed in savant-like rushes of quadruplet despair.

The mother came in like a flimsy tornado. Then, the father, who always joked about his own head being attached by epoxy and old resin from machine parts. Then the sister entered breathless with the fleshy goose-bumpety bump legs the color of so many de-saturated autumns outside a jar.

“Oh no,” she said, looking for her new iPod to text a friend whose father worked in Missing as in Persons. “He went and lost his head again. You went and lost your head again, brother, brother. Without your head, you can’t go to school, you can’t be seen by others. The teachers will give you thirty days of detention and demand you wear a jug over what’s missing. And through a jug, the world might sound differently or not at all. You might be echoing the rest of your life. It happened to Franny Kane.” Her text message could not go through.

The mother reprimanded Miss BubbleSister. “We’re not like other people. We’re more mathematically inclined and tend to cling to surfaces. Please don’t bring up Franny’s name unless she’s in this house.”

So the four of them searched. They searched under beds, in cubbyholes that lead down and over, in attic crawlspaces that were buffered by insulation and the smell of dead birds, in tunnels that oozed from under the concrete floors of the cellar. They searched inside the washing machine and inside the dishwasher that was only automatic when it didn’t work. They even interrogated the cat named Algiers who spoke in deep guttural hums and deceptive purrs.

Mr. BubbleHead stood before them, a tree stump with frayed nerve longings. His left foot tickled but he couldn’t remember the word.

“I’ll be an outcast for the rest of my defoliated days,” he announced.

The father placed a warm hand on his shoulder splattered with blood.

“Don’t worry, son, we’ll get your head back even if I have to steal one from a less precise variety of human.”

“Dad, I want my old one. It really grew on me.”

Just then the sister came running in holding Mr. BubbleHead’s old head.

“Oh where was it?” yelled the mother always excitable without three yellow pills and a blue one for counter effect.

The BubbleSister shrugged like it was nothing, nothing at all, and pointed at a large glass tank that held water and her dead pet eel named Stu. The sister denied the moray eel was dead. She rationalized that movement is not a necessary and sufficient condition for life. Her teachers had pronounced her as precocious and perpendicular to painful adjustments.

“It was in Stu’s tank. It must have fallen off when brother brother stared at his own reflection and thought water was his new home. Remember when it happened last Easter?”

Father gave BubbleSister a big hug. Then the two adults carefully fitted the head back on Mr. BubbleHead.

“Don’t move, son, it has to be fitted with perfect alignment. There. All done. Good as new.”

“Go look in the mirror,” said BubbleMother.

He did and he shrieked.

“It’s on backwards! You always do this. You always always always always always always always always always always always put my head on backwards.”

The father put an arm around his pontificating and number crunching son and said "We’ll do it again. It’s not a problem.”

“Do you know what the teacher will do if I walk into class with my head on backwards? She’ll make me count the number of pyramids it takes to stand on a cloud. And not just any cloud. But a cloud that is machine washable.”

“Don’t worry, dear. Father will pull it off and put it on the right way, this time. Or else I’ll whip him in the outhouse.”

The sister giggled then displayed a serious face.

They struggled and pulled it off. It fell from father’s hands.

“Oh, no,” they cried in oblique unison.

Scattered along the floor were broken bits of glass words, voices giving directions to the nearest pyramids, formulas involving fourth degree equations. The three got down on their knees and stuffed everything back into Mr. BubbleHead’s personal space.
This time, Father took the precaution of drilling holes into Mr. BubbleHead’s neck and secured his head by a series of well-placed screws.

“Okay, son. It looks perfect. Even backward compatible. Okay. Sorry. I know it’s no time to joke.”

Mr. BubbleHead turned his shoulders in the mirror, a beaming smile on his face.

“You see, my clever darlings,” the BubbleMother said throwing her arms over the other members of a set,” a family that rebuilds together stays together.”

Isn’t it the truth said the dad, holding the drill up to his ear, forgetting to shut it off.



Mr. BubbleHead and the Experience of Death

As a child, Mr. BubbleHead couldn't understand the concept of death, especially when everyone answered him in terms of zeros and non-summations. "It's a form of not being," said his star-stuck teacher at the special school for children of special needs, especially those who spoke in logarithms. Later, she devised her own method of de-existing when her boyfriend left her for a material girl of exact and highly arousing technique. When his father died after being hit by a contingency on four wheels, Mr. BubbleHead sat by his mother before three lit electric candles. The room was cold, bleeding pink, and shadowy.

"Where's daddy?" Mr. BubbleHead kept repeating until his words achieved a circular form of chasteness. In cocoons made to fit his growing in centimeters, Mr. BubbleHead sometimes called him Babur.

She assured him he was not dead. "Something cannot become nothing. It's just that the world has a way of making people harder to see." A chain smoker of Slim Victorias, she rolled her eyes towards the undulations of smoke. "If you add or subtract the right numbers, play with their combinations and permutations, you will arrive at the juncture of World Soul and The Only One. You will get your wish and you will be freed from the tasteless joke that is this life." Mr. BubbleHead sat watching her with mouth agape and brain foghorn-numb.

When his mother died of lung cancer, Mr. BubbleHead discovered the absolute value of zeros and was placed under custody of an uncle who had lost all five fingers on the non-dominant hand in a war of absurdly reductive deserts. For hours or for years, Mr. BubbleHead sat alone in a room and counted backwards. It was the closest he could get to the feeling of death, which was null. An empty coffee cup. Zilch.

Over the years, Mr. BubbleHead became so good at adding and subtracting and calculating derivatives that he astounded women without futures and men with losing stocks. In casinos, he won money and lost it to hookers for whom he refused to undress. He said: Can you show me The World Soul? They offered him the opposite breast.

Then one day Mr. BubbleHead came up with an idea. It was the beauty of the idea that plucked him. Like the idea of green grass to a prehistoric ruminant. He would walk to the other side of the city, which he believed was the world, and count the exact number of footsteps it would take. That number, he decided, would be a magic number and would make his baba and babur re-evolve before him. He said to his uncle, "I'll see you in a million or so footfalls." His uncle was busy clearing his sinus problems with white powder gods.

The city was dark, cold, and rained upon. Mr. BubbleHead kept counting and shivered like a kitten born and abandoned in an alley. By the time, he reached Two Heads Park, he found a homeless woman sitting on a bench. He didn't really know that she was homeless. What did homeless mean? Does anyone really know where is home?

He sat next to her and she immediately recognized him as her illegitimate son. She told him a story of her life: How she was once a nun and then she took the body of a man of God but left his soul for the birds. Mr. BubbleHead looked up and counted raindrops. He wanted to give her this number, which would be the value of happiness.

She asked what was he doing out in this weather. He said, he had to find Death and bring his baba and babur back to life. They held hands and they directed their gazes past each other. She said good-bye and that the lord forgives almost everyone.

Approaching the edge of town, Mr. BubbleHead began to cough and stagger. He lost and regained count of his crazy footsteps. He made his way back to a main street. For warmth, he made his way into a church. He stopped.

He stood before the crucifix of Christ. He began to subtract the number of steps it took to get here from the number of steps to get to the average of anywhere. He came up with the number--33.

He looked up at the face of Jesus. 33 he said to himself. It was Christ's age when he died. It's a special number.

Suddenly, Jesus looked down upon Mr. BubbleHead. A flood of orange light showered him. On either side of Christ, Mr. BubbleHead saw his mother and father. They wept for him with a symmetrical equality of tears.
Then Christ spoke, He said, Only I can make something from nothing. And you are a special person. My kingdom is yours. No one here is a zero.

And Mr. BubbleHead knew that he had reached a confluence between what can be and what could not. And at that moment, he met the absolute zero of eternity and left his body to the sum of rain.




Mr. BubbleHead Does the Moonwalk on Canis Calida

Across the country, families sat glued to their TVs. It was a historic event. Historic in the sense of never exactly before, like eating chocolate buttercups with cheese dip. Mr. BubbleHead planted the first flag on the planet, Canis Calida, then turned toward the camera and waved through his awkward space suit.

At the NASA control room, a burst of applause erupted, then stopped abruptly. Two engineers stood in front of the video that was real time. “Why he is planting that flag?” the ex-astronaut said, pointing to the letters CHARLIE’S WIENERS DON’T TREAD ON TASTE.

“Because,” said the head NASA technician, Erin Fogg, “his father started the franchise. It’s a kind of family honor thing. And BubbleHead is obsessed with Charlie’s wieners and mocha chip cookies. He lives on them. Like Pluto with those damn hamburgers. It was Pluto, wasn’t it?”

There was an even closer close up shot. The letters were wrapped around a man in a chef’s hat and the man was holding a spatula. The man was actually Mr. BubbleHead’s father and the flag was constructed by Mrs. Emma BubbleHead, who had a hero worship of Betsy Ross as a child. “Someday,” Mrs. Emma BubbleHead said to her son, “you’re going to plant our flag on that faraway planet, Canis Calida. You’ll make this set of rational family members proud.”

After returning to earth, waving to crowds from the back of a limousine, showered with confetti and mocha chips, Mr. BubbleHead was made honorary chairman of Charlie’s Fiddle Fries & Wake Up Wieners. He also invented The Solipsistic Charlie Grill, which not only cooked the wiener, but could change it into one of 64 different shapes, including dogs and grandmothers. The kids loved it.

In his last years, Mr. BubbleHead developed appendicitis and became a hardcore vegan. He resigned from his position at Charlie’s. On a gorgeous summer night, he was found dead face down in his neighbor’s lettuce bed. No charges were pressed for trespassing because Mr. BubbleHead had already crossed a certain boundary.

As for the planet, Canis Calida, its status was later demoted to that of a Grade B star and eventually, like a tummy subjected to long bouts of indigestion, it exploded.


BubbleHead and Teddy Bear

Gifted. Gifted with a photographic memory and a lightening-speed decoder of a mind. Me. Gritch. No. It’s a curse. I am Alan Turing’s research associate and first jilted lover. I still carry a torch and I’m jealous as ever. Today, he is putting the finishing touches on a robot he’s named BubbleHead. It’s going to be bigger than the Enigma Machine, more efficient than a Markov Chain, he says, built on Boolean algorithms and fuzzy logic, posterior probabilities and normalizing constants. In the corner, Alan’s old teddy bear, the one he used to take with him to college, stares at me with outstretched arms and a parabolic grin. Make the Bitch talk, I tell Allen.

In machine language, Alan asks BubbleHead what crawls on two legs in the morning, three by afternoon, and stands upright by evening. The glass egg-shaped head of BubbleHead lights up in phosphorescent colors. “Fuck you,” the tiny ticker tape coiling out of its mouth reads, “that’s too easy. Anyway, you screwed up the sequencing.”

Alan types in another question into BubbleHead’s terminal. “Why is my life so rancid with emptiness?”

Teddy Bear’s eyes across the room, eyes that are brimming with Inclusive ORs, twinkle at me.

“Because life is a bitch,” the tiny paper reads. The print reminds me of the kind found in Chinese cookies. I must squint to read.

Alan, flushed, pouting, turns to me and says. “It’s making fun of us.”

“Now the big question and no nuisance answers,” Alan says.

The next question reads: “Why am I such a discombobulated fop?”

BubbleHead is silent for a moment. Then the lights in its obloid head begin to spin and the answer rolls out. It reads: “Because you are attracted to other operators with your same body parts . . . 000100101001 001 110. . .. .in summation of all previous answers, it can be said with all judiciousness that death is the only answer to life.”

Teddy Bear’s eyes are loving me at a distance.

Alan begins to weep, walks over to BubbleHead and embraces it. Slowly, I walk over to the A/C outlet and unplug BubbleHead. Later, it dies of battery drainage and Alan, from the endless looping of his heart.

I take Teddy Bear home with me and place him on an old folding chair in the attic. There, we stare at each other for hours. In time, we will become good friends.




Mr. BubbleHead Has an Exciting Day


It happened at the airport around noon. Mr. BubbleHead was all fine with the typed instructions from his aunt whom he visited in a quaint small town where flowers grew in colorblind families. There were houses that reminded him of sponge cake. His aunt gave him extra money for the cab and said Don't Forget The Tip. Her words, which were now his, echoed in his mind.

He was walking towards the door of the airport when the imbroglio occurred. It involved three men dressed like college students and five guards 6 feet and over. Someone from behind pushed Mr. BubbleHead and sent him flying. His suitcase slid across the floor then disappeared. But Mr. BubbleHead knew that something cannot become nothing. Even though he was scared . He knew this much. He was breathing hard. People were shouting around him. It reminded him of the Christmas when the lights on the big silver tree went out because one blew. One bad light in a series circuit and it affects everything. Mr. BubbleHead cried. His mother tried to hold him, to make him understand.

A suitcase appeared before him and Mr. BubbleHead concluded that this was his. He rose and rushed and grabbed the suitcase. Someone shouted. But Mr. BubbleHead was not sure if this was meant for him. That he must exit the door and wave down a cab was what must be done because his aunt had given him instructions. She went to such incredible lengths. She was a nice lady.

In the back of the cab, Mr. BubbleHead rambled off his address then said it again much slower because the driver could not understand the first time. The first time is always hardest, then it gets easier. It was like that when Mr. BubbleHead calculated fractions for his teachers. Sometimes he astounded them at the special school and there was something nice about the way they smiled at him. One teacher had a fake blue eye and that always reminded Mr. BubbleHead that adults have secrets too.

The driver had a long mustache and dark skin. He might have been from somewhere else. He tried to make small talk with Mr. BubbleHead. But Mr. BubbleHead was too busy memorizing license plates. As a kid, Mr. BubbleHead and his sister would play a game in cars where they would add up all the numbers and letters to see who had the larger total. Sometimes, he won. But he never won by much.

Something about the driver was scaring Mr. BubbleHead. When he spoke, Mr. BubbleHead saw the eyes jump in the rearview. It was as if the eyes and the words were detached or not coming from the same source. The driver was saying something about what do you do for a living and do you always travel light. Mr. BubbleHead could not process this until he knew the driver better.

Then Mr. BubbleHead discovered a fact. The fact was that his suitcase, the one he brought from his aunt's house, was brown and light and the one next to him was black and square and for some reason felt heavy. This was tested by Mr. BubbleHead. It remained a fact.

Mr. BubbleHead discovered another fact. The driver was not taking him along the usual route home. Maybe the driver was new or he was confused. Maybe the driver was doing drugs that make you take a different way home.

"This is not the way," said Mr. BubbleHead.

The driver's eyes popped up in the rearview. The voice said to give him the suitcase.

Mr. BubbleHead wanted to say Fuck You. But his mother taught him that this is something he should never say, especially to strangers who try to press buttons. He turned his head around. Now a car was following them at a close distance. At times, the car would hit the cab’s bumper. Mr. BubbleHead couldn’t understand why he was having such a cruddy day. Finally, Mr. BubbleHead said Fuck You because his favorite rock singer, Chas Lenghy of The Hominoid Studs, said it in a song.

The driver produced a gun and held it up. Mr. BubbleHead froze, then tried to work the door handles. The driver pressed something on the dashboard. The locks clicked. Mr. BubbleHead felt helpless. He said Fuck You again. Deep down inside, he knew this was no way to make friends.

Suddenly the driver swerved the car to avoid another one. The cab crashed into a parked car in a downtown area. The horn kept blatting. The driver’s head sunk against the wheel. Mr. Bubblehead reached over and undid the lock control. Then he took a quick peak into the suitcase. Could it be that the driver wanted someone’s clothes? No. That was stupid. That could not be a fact.

Inside the suitcase was a bunch of wires, green, blue, yellow, black, and some kind of machine with a digital reading. Mr. BubbleHead recognized what this was. He watched many movies on DVD. He had watched CSI: Palookaville. This was a bomb. This was a terrorist’s bomb.

Mr. BubbleHead felt like he was in one of those movies starring Vin Diesel. He felt very excited at the prospect of being a hero. The girls in his class would worship him and bring him shiny apples. He made a mad dash out the door. He sensed the men from the other car were following him.

He ran through alleys and department stores. He ran across streets without looking. He ran up escalators and through tunnels connecting buildings. He wished his aunt had written more instructions.

He reached the other side of the city. There was a wharf and an ocean. Mr. BubbleHead threw the suitcase into the ocean. He threw it so hard he thought his arm was dislocated. That turned out not to be a fact.

The suitcase drifted out until it was devoured by a white whale. When the whale blew up, the sky turned white. When the sky turned white, it started to rain.

At home, the rain leaked through the ceiling. Mr. BubbleHead sat under it with an umbrella. His eyes were closed. He counted the number of drops. He would count until it was enough to fill an ocean, enough to replenish the sky.

Volume 1


The Seattle Garage Days










Mean Streets

In a Third Avenue turn of winter
I warm myself in a back booth
of a porn shop. The girl
with pop-up hands
black cat vibes
and sleek artificial eyes,
green and disposable
so many
technological improvements
in one-night contacts,
electrifies me.

ELECTROCUTION.
CAUTIONARY.
TELL ME
YOU’RE NOT A LUPUS JUNKIE.

She turns to leave
all skeleton and wind song,
echoes of cochlea,
snails funny on snooze-control
and my words are as useless
as pennies of a foreign currency.
Holding the third rib on her
mother’s side, I yell “What the hell
am I supposed to do with this?”
“It’s a hand-out,” the disembodied
voice cries from across the street,
and I know that I’m feeling lucky
these days the soup-lines are long
and in denial and the broth is really
the consistency of the best reduction:
your mother’s water and mucus
when she first pushed you out.



The Day Her Elephant Died

When Slo’ Alice called to tell us that her albino
elephant had died from an inverted hoof, I didn’t know what to say. All of us knew how much she pampered that elephant, although none of us could figure out how she got it into her house or what kind of clothes she bought for it. Stretch pants, said my sometimes friend, Spiff, who sold hallucinogenics to the old ladies on Elderberry Street, passing them off as herbal remedies for constipation. He also sold firecrackers to veterans who hung out in front of the Double Derby Barbershop. So Spiff is driving us to the funeral and I have no idea how they will fit an elephant into a casket. And I’m not too sure of the directions. I’m hungry, says Spiff, and we pull over to a McDonald’s and in the parking lot we witness some older kids picking on a twerp, they call Blondie. For once, I decide to be brave. After all, I was raised on Cheeseburgers and pop up waffles, a childhood of fast fried love. When it came to supper, I always gave it up. “Give him back that ball,” I yell to the leader, a scrawny kid with rakish eyes,“or I’ll make you eat it.” Spiff leans against the car, looking at his worn sneaks. You’re going to get your ass kicked for sure, I tell myself. Luckily, the kid obeys and we’re back in Spiff’s old Volvo, about to be repossessed, the way my ex-girlfriend was, and we’re taking all these detours and side streets that are not on any map of Grouseland Heights. Spiff decides to pull over and talk to a girl he says he knew from the old block, which is now a bloc of abandoned houses. Spiff, I say, why is it that every time I’m trying to get somewhere, you always frustrate me. Like you want me to be late. Spiff shrugs and adjusts his sunglasses. He parks and shuts off the motor. Spiff, I’m saying, we can’t be late to an elephant’s funeral. They say it’s bad luck. They say that in the next life you’ll come back as an insect and get stepped on without really dying. Do you want to go through your whole life getting stepped on? Then Spiff tells me how when he was a kid there was a friendly skunk that would sneak in his backyard, waddling through his mother’s garden plants. He says that he killed that skunk with a slingshot and it’s stayed with him ever since. I’m trying to tell Spiff that this is different. Slo’ Alice’s elephant died of natural causes. But Spiff isn’t listening. I’d be better off getting out, carrying the goddamn car on my shoulders.



GARY COLEMAN DOESN'T WEAR CHEAP SUNGLASSES

i dropped a tea cup and it made a hole
in the center of the universe
i didn't call it a black hole
i called it boredom

people fear boredom more than death
which is why mary olsen constantly denies
the presence of her twin
or gary coleman pays taxi drivers
to drive up on sidewalks
gary coleman denies his height
and in conversations with cab drivers
he calls himself gary cooper

in strange places gary coleman
carries a book, Anger Management for Dummies
to remind himself that he is not taller
than mary olsen and he must deal with this
or that the universe is not shrinking
and mary olsen might call the shots
gary coleman would like to fuck
every cab driver in the city with a dildo
in the shape of his father
who couldn't stand mustard on sundays

gary coleman is very angry these days
and the cab drivers keep driving him in circles
mary olsen and I stand at the edge of a moon-crater
she's sad because she lost her twin to an overdose
of boredom and gary coleman is never around
not even einstein can put us back together
and copernicus let entropy in through the back door
the comet above our heads is really a tear
shed from copernicus traveling through space
when it hits earth someone will call it
an ocean of true love


---------------------------
Be[tween a Railroad and a Hard Place]




In the knothole of a bed, Izanami and I rock our bodies, approaching the speed of flutter, as if we can take flight, become wings of the same bird. Izanami once said to me: I wish I were a tiny bird so I could fly into your eye and nest inside your brain.

I’ve been dreaming of albatross and clairvoyant winos ever since, of the secret turf of larks, red-browed pardolates, robins, spiraling, hungry, almost suicidal in their mirth.

Izanami always makes love with her glasses on so she can fly through the clouds forming on her lenses. The floor shakes, threatens to form cracks we can fall through while, outside, the new aero-train thunders past my apartment. 120 m.p.h. is the speed of someone’s future, stillness an obsolete afterthought.

*

After we gather our bones and feathers from the sheets, Izanami will return to her husband, a man who loves his oblong reflections in train stations, a man who doesn’t believe in the second coming of Beat poets or the suicide of post-modernists on red and yellow magic pills. His legs are toothpicks, says Izanami, who buys his underwear on sale, but the stretch is always too loose.

*

Old man Taichi’s feet trudge harder up the stairs, coming to collect the rent. “Three weeks late,” I tell Izanami. Taichi pounds on the door. Izanami cups my mouth, shakes her head to mean no. Her voice is a trill. Her eyes behind the glasses—dying sparks.

*

I imagine his breathing, reinvent its roll and pull, as if he is standing in the room, waiting to pick up our bodies, our stiff legs and broken wings, and toss them to garbage collectors who stifle city terrors under industrial face masks.

*

Izanami’s mouth is open and lopsided. She jumps from the bed and squirms into her ripped jeans, escapes through the window and down the fire escape. She melts into the cytoplasm of the street life below, the three-syllable mantras of the chestnut venders and the moon-eyed homeless. A horse goes clomp clomp.

I rush to the desk, stuff bills into an envelope and shove it under the door. Taichi climbs down the steps, the rhythm of a tired streetwalker. At night, he dresses in drag and feathers.

I sit down at the table and compose a song of words that endlessly break and rearrange themselves. The song will float out the window and Izanami will hear it as if by some fine-tuned radar and it will stay with her while she lies coiled in the trap of her husband’s embrace. Maybe we are cave swiftlets. Maybe we are each other’s nest, our words turning to eggs that will never hatch.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------


from Amazing Animal Facts #4

SHE LEFT HIM WITH THE TALLOW OF THEIR LOVE GONE FLABBY. It was the first line from her mystery novel-in-progress--Augurs Under My Bed. It concerned a forensics expert's suspicions of infidelity, his eventual murder of his jet setter wife by anoxia, the box-tight alibis, the ruse to counter ultra violet light. Feeling dirty, she, the author, (pen name: Garuda Talbek) rose from her desk, left the page at a tab ten spaces from the left margin, and threw on the shower. Closing her eyes, she felt inside her, approximately five spaces from one ovary, larva skipping stages, caterpillars turning to worms, worms turning to class-conscious snakes, snakes turning to jaded warblers. Irretrievable. Her body, as if an inverse Jati Smara, recalling previous inhabitants, her washcloth, evidence of feathers and avarian DNA, her voice, a new monarchy of scales.


from Amazing Animal Facts #2

She woke up with lily pods in her eyes.

He rolled over with a strange hum, thick and low, a sound at the bottom of a river, the kind she imagined him making at boring conferences.

She never expected to fuck her zoology professor, married with 17 snakes, 2 species of wild cat, three cross-bred hamsters, a blue snapping turtle, exotic fish that could live 100 years. So he claimed. He kept them in his basement. His wife lived near a black and white TV set on the unfinished second floor.

When he lectured, she thought he looked directly at her, even when his head was turned. His floating eyes bisected her, such an edible specimen.

Now light on her feet, wrapping her bra around her small breasts, she remembered the timbre of his voice, trailing off. In class, he said that a female cod can lay up to 9 million eggs. To this, she wished to reply, I only get laid by vegetarian boys, stony-eyed, with sickle secrets.

In his private office, he said, I always see you with my eyes closed. She wanted to pee.

In lab, cutting up dead frogs, she thought: How does sex feel if you're wingless? The girl next to her was fat with hairy arms and wore thick glasses. Was her fate sealed in formaldehyde? She dropped a jar containing the egg of a frog's memory.

He coached girls' softball. He researched local batting averages. She struck out. By the fence, he came up behind her. He was saying, when you're in love, you lose some body parts, and re-grow others. But it might take a long time. Or no time at all. She wished to eat him with her vagina or turn him into a mouthful of seafood.

She realized it was just a night, an instinct, something the animals might do better. The hippocampus was not as highly developed. Not completely true. She imagined spotting his wife, a distant face in a crowd, and what stories they might conceal, how they would greet each other's disguised scrutiny. Tiptoeing slowly, she reached for the door. He woke up. Where are you going? he said. He flicked on a light and studied his watch. Turning around, she caught a glimpse of his face, broken in shadow, projections in frontal plane, a flash of zebra in the night.

She remembered how he taught in class that snakes can see from behind their eyelids. And a Jesus Christ Lizard can run across water. She invented her comical version of ontology.

She ran and morphed into something small and breathless, something she once grew out from.













Frank Zane

As a kid neatly wrapped in his father’s aphorisms or bruised by his mother’s stump of glucose intolerant love, I never believed in much except that chestnuts fell from trees and that people rode subways because they were too scared to walk in the dark. On the way back from exploring the lifelines of downtown, or the rooms of hookers who offered specials for malingerers and their brothers on the fringe, I saw him – Frank Zane of The Rugby Rats – the notoriously underrated axman, once trailing the British Invasion, but now reduced to small gigs, balding head, and a new coat of thick skin. His records only sold to the cult of the haunted and the few.

I sat behind him on the B Train, hummed the words to all his big hits. What else did a kid living his life groove for groove, spinning towards the center then back out, have to do? He turned and smiled, asked if I played an instrument, and I said I practiced on an old Fender and was damn reckless with the whammy. From then on, we become God and Lilliputian admiring soul. He invited me into the studio, offered me a stage, a chance to play rhythm when his guitarists were too strung out on women with stony eyes and bad teeth. During rehearsals, I watched as Frank closed his eyes and strummed a tune that couldn’t carry anyone but him. Within that studio space, he became my burnt-out father with that obsolete bent for the mystic truth of a lyric. I watched him spit up blood as if it were just yesterday’s gob of precious nothings. Whenever I asked if he was alright, he put on a wicked smile and say Well, I’m still standing, right?

Then the phone calls stopped. Frank died of too much of everything.

I did acid and paid off the needle collectors. I slept on the streets. I wound up in an institution and made love to a patient with deadened eyes and a quivering string of a tongue. She died every time they passed out the meds.

Years passed like so many faces on the streets. I still play my Frank Zane and The Rugby Rats Best Of. My wife doesn’t know who he was or who I once wanted to be. Whenever I spin the old LPs, I close the door, and make the old journey back to the center of me. I never quite get there and I never tell her about the acid flashbacks or the subways or how in this fucked up world not worth a torch song, it once felt good to believe in someone, structuring your life chord against a wall of noise, refusing the safety of one more overdub.


Charlie Manson

I once dated a girl named Charlie Manson. In the early days, we walked along glistening beaches, holding hands, or me, holding my tongue, too afraid to speak, to ruin what hadn't yet begun. Her eyes were all about swept away, swept away, that sideways longing. Overhead, a seagull's wings melted into the sun. We listened to the splash. It was the way my mother died. Charlie told me that birds such as the one that chose drop instead of flight are more common than we think.

Squinting at the sun, she said that when someone can't forgive you, then you become that person. It was the sun that couldn't forgive that seagull.

We spent weeks wasted on bubblegum or leaving footprints in the park after ten. We necked and felt each other's broken teeth. We listened to Black Flag and bought Raymond Pettibon’s ink drawings of victims. Then she admitted it. She had a collection of glass bottles in which she kept the voice of every lover who ever rejected her. She flung the bottles from rooftops or into the sea. It helped to clear her head, she said, to stay clean.

Come clean with me, she said, making her eyes small and dirty peep-hole glass.

Then it was my turn. I left and didn't return her voice messages. Alone, I awoke to the new morning, the sun in stitches. In the mirror, I was glass-eyed and cracked. I wouldn't speak for years.




Helen Mirren

Shortly after his wife’s funeral, James dreamt of being underwater, or of being behind a glass partition in an aquarium. On the other side were fish pushing their lips against the semi-transparent wall– some greenish-brown carp, or a variety of goldfish with bizarre traits: a three-lobed flowing tail, a triple fin, bulging telescope eyes. Some were scale-less or had calico patterns. Their sleek bodies lured him.

These images spilled over into James’ waking life, only the features more human-like, parts of a whole. Sometimes when walking down the street, he saw a spread of lips in the window, red and glossy. Or he caught an eye winking back at him in the side mirror of a parked car. It could have been his own. At his job as a mortgage broker at First Fidelity, he often observed, in a moment’s flash, a floating woman’s image superimposed on a client’s face.

He missed the sense of order she imparted to his waking life. His shirts, which she often chose for work, had always been ironed and spotless. If his car broke down, she came to pick him up. At night in dreams, he swam towards her with the knowledge that sooner or later, one of them would attempt to breathe air.

Although he never cheated on his wife, he had a thing for the shapely woman who processed the bank loans at work —Helen Mirren. She was constantly teased about her name and she always responded to inquires with a “No, I’m not related to the British actress. If I had her talent, I wouldn’t be working at a bank.”

When Helen learned of James’ wife passing away, she held his hand and looked soulfully in his eyes. “I’m very sorry,” she said.

His hand in hers began to quiver.

Over time, James grew more attracted to Helen Mirren, often seeing her face, or parts of what he assumed to be her, in his bathroom mirror, in the car’s rearview. At times, he imagined his wife next to her. He kept a calculated distance for fear of crushing something.

At home alone, James feared the reality of his house sinking into disarray. Wrinkled shirts and kitchen appliances he couldn’t replace without a second opinion. Most of all, he noticed the scent of his wife disappearing. In the evolving chaos of his home he pictured Helen’s small nose that hardly breathed, her perfect blue fish-egg eyes.

James now embarked on a ritual that became more frequent. During the late evening, he drove and parked near Helen’s apartment and waited outside the complex. He suspected her of having an affair with Chas Dietrich, a man who wore matching stitched suits and trousers that were made in Lombardy, a district manager who was married. Late at night, he climbed jutting bricks to peep inside her third-story window. Through closed blinds, he could make out a medley of shadows trapped inside the other’s darkness.

His doctor increased his medication and added a sedative. James suspected Helen in some reflection of the house, waiting for him to visit. At times, he sensed her anger.

One night, James climbed to Helen’s window. He was having a hard time keeping his footing. Suddenly, the voices behind the window died. He tried to hold on but the bricks’ sharp edges hurt the soft fleshy part of his fingers. He began to lose his footing. As James slowly slipped away, Helen opened the blinds. Her nightgown boasted ample cleavage, her hair in disarray. In those fuzzy few seconds, James tried to smile.

And he fell for what seemed forever. He wondered if he could swim in the air like a movie stuntman. A hedge broke James’ fall. Prickly twigs pierced his face. He couldn’t feel his own blood.

At home, he studied himself in the bathroom mirror. With his face full of cuts and bruises, he couldn’t go to work the next day. Behind his red and swollen eyes, he formed her image in the mirror. It was Helen Mirren, the real one, who could play so many women with deep underwater eyes.

~~




Tuesday's Child



is not my idea of clouds
or three-leaf clovers,
you love me you love me not
do you know what love is? she says
this schizophrenic girl
who by Thursday calls me Charley-Spare-Some-Change,
with Lapis Lazuli eyes and orange-glazed cakes
from the bakery on Sixth Ave.
who lives above my studio
now sitting cross-legged
in three cloud-scudded dimensions,
speaking in peacock colors
Breaking the back of a mule, she says.
Love is.

The neighbors warned me
not to talk to her on Sundays
Sundays are for perculated boasts
and she’s a purplepiedpreacher, they say
as if it were a schizoid’s neologism.
Add up your thoughts and do they turn into
loose change?
My roommate is a dog walker she says
with a ripple of a smile a flick of the strawberry-haired head
she walks out my door as if in a Svengalli trance
the flash of her saber-smooth calves
my thoughts drift into the air:
we’ll fuck with our Ray-Bans on.

Three weeks later,
no sign of heror the dog walker
I stare out my window at 10:p.m.
only tethered dogsand logical women in the back of white Jaguars
I wanted to tell herabout this dream
of us walking backward on a tightrope,
Fellini-styled

and falling

falling

not even a crash helmet of daisies.

--------------------

Uncle Flak

My uncle, the one who’s had three strokes, is taking me for a ride. The strap of the seatbelt is snug against my right breast, the way I imagine the arm of a protective lover, giving me just enough slack. At home, I re-invent him, trace the outline of his arms against transparent paper. From the waist down, I'm paralyzed, a hit and run, years ago. Uncle promised to take me to a girl’s softball game, but we’re headed nowhere near the park. We’re driving past a block of Colonials, pink, green, apricot, the white-washed fences. Today, shaggy dogs are not barking. On porches, boys slouch in pairs. Yesterday, he said that life never gives you anything in total. The best you could do is snatch a moment, sail a memory, drown in a sensation of ochre sunshine on your flesh. In his conversations, there are no stories, just fragments that never quite add up. Ciphers, maybe peep-holes into a shadow universe. He says he lives for this, a world of incomprehensible stars, the slough and dust from meteorites. Sometimes he tells of how he flew a Corsair over North Korea, shot down by flak, and he spent weeks lost behind the 38th Parallel. He describes the dead bodies in mud as decapitated clay men. We’re approaching a stop sign too fast. I’m telling him to slow down--it’s a bad intersection for accidents. He guns the accelerator. For some reason, I can’t scream in this 35 m.p.h. no-man's zone. Then, I recall how he once said that I was his favorite niece, how he adored my blonde dread-locks after a rain, the contour of my fine hands, small and delicate as the ones that once belonged to his wife, Min-jung. Booboo, he likes to call me. Booboo, he coos, now reaching over, squeezing my hand so hard that it hurts.


Don’t Forget Your Manners

A renegade from double indemnity
& crisp infidelities,
she told him she was still a virgin at bliss.
Sitting next to her on the bed,
he played with the gun,
the same .38 from so many stick ups.
With poker face put-on, he said
You're a stuck up girl.
It was his best De Niro snicker.
He pointed the piece at her.
What do you want me to do? she asked
in her best girly voice.

: Mean Streets Revisited
If the earth stopped spinning around the sun
and people fell off the world
or under the manholes of East End Flats
where the broken glass-eyed boys
bleed like pigs through the cracks,
the see-through girls without true orbitals
will still rip you off of red and
yellow sunrise pills and all those
little balloons with happy faces.
It's funny how everything floats in remission
just before it all turns to black solstice
cast shadows of scorpions on the moon.


Malcolm Returns Home from the War
It's a struggle to sit Malcolm upright at the table, especially with the dusty army fatigues that make me sneeze. And it's not even allergy season. He's stiff as a goat's carcass in formaldehyde. But I don't much believe in goats or wooly things that hem and haw in the night. Occasionally, a bombshell whirs, screeches over our house, and when it explodes, Uncle Bob comments how the neighborhood has been going downhill since the introduction of Sarin gas to power ovens, and for that reason, he always feels claustrophobic in subways.

Aunt Marcy sets an orange-glazed duck upon the table, the eyes intact, and they speak to me like fish underwater. A direct attribution. The most magnanimous thing you can say about a duck, says Father, is that it has legs. What's that old saying? A bird by the leg is worth two in the bush? Or is it a bird in the hand? Does anyone know who said this? Probably someone anonymous and hard as a terrorist. Not anyone slobbering soft as those hideous spongecake droolers.

Oh, no, corrects Aunt Marcy, adjusting her doughboy helmet, a gift from The General Formerly Known as Grandpa, they store precious amounts of food in their engorged livers. They make excellent bombing targets.

No, the legs, says The General F.K.A.G, that's the important thing. I'd trade my cataracts for legs, he says with a laugh that's a dark rich vacuum of sinusoidal frequencies.

Mother now claims that the quintessential problem is how to feed Malcolm when he doesn't instruct us on how he likes to be fed.

For Chrissakes, he can't talk, Gertrude, cries Uncle Bob, with a mouth of mashed potatoes that annihilates my crosshair view of his bridge of curvilinear teeth.

Another bombshell whizzes overhead. It explodes and the duck almost jumps in its aluminum-wrapped pan.

Mother yanks Malcolm's head, trying to force-feed him a handful of Birdseye sweet peas. Malcolm's sand-caked mouth remains a fortress and the peas fall one by one, little green causalities in a land of giants.

Uncle Bob wipes his mouth of orange crust and says, If you use a fork, you must employ a frontal attack. Whereas, if you choose the spoon strategy, which is what Hannibal once did with Rome, you can ambush the folds of his mouth. Think Clausewitz. Think Anzio. Think of my Angiotensin II inhibitors you threw out. No wonder my blood pressure soars like a Stealth.

An excellent strategy, declares Father, I always use the spoon analogy to explain things in the office. It results in slower turnaround time, but in the end, you get your duck, or how shall I say? Your foi grie.

Did you say Folgers? asks Grandma, who uses a microphone to amplify her slurred speech since the stroke. This is no time for coffee when a boy can't chew his food. And none of us are certified to insert an I.V. Perhaps we can use a snake to open up the alimentary canal. I've seen it done on Youtube with non-actors.

Are marigolds green? says Miriam Magpie, Malcolm's nymphomaniac lover before his being shipped out. In his absence, Miriam has declared herself Queen of the Dead Scots and can balance kitchen knives on her tongue.

Marigolds! answers The General F.K.A.G., who's talking about marigolds? Do you see me going out and picking marigolds? Hell no. You see me slithering in the backyard searching for landmines. A legless man has got to be practical and cautious.

We all rise, hover over Malcolm, trying to get this feeding conundrum done with.

He can't talk, says Aunt Marcy, because he's trying to chew.

But he isn't chewing, cries Mother, her voice shrill as a hostage's.

Well, that's why, says Aunt Marcy, he can't talk because he's too hungry. Feed them first, then they'll talk. I always teach my first graders this. One of the most valuable lessons to learn in life besides phonics.

A bombshell explodes nearby. The lights go out. A pair of iridescent eyes glow in the dark. It might be Malcolm's. But it could be the duck's.

None of you really understand, says Mother, sighing. It's just that he was always such a quiet boy and he never liked green vegetables.


























Let Me Be Your Twin I

So we can go scuba diving at night, looking for the bodies we once swam with in the backseat of cars. Our oxygen tanks are half full with promise. The cars below are sunken treasures, an oil spill of what was once ours. At such a depth, we are giddy pirates. We live for the bubbles. See how everything tends to Up? Or we can attend parties together, twins of glittering destinies, our haploid mirth, our discrete hand signals across the room. We’ll steal the paparazzi from the real stars and I’ll bring home the left over caviar. You’ll complain that your feet hurt. At weddings, we’ll dance with octopus arms. The brides will secretly fall in love with us and from their first class suites will call out to us in muted longing, tongues in cheeks, cheeks under water.








The Mayor of Burbank & the Problem with Mexico

The Mayor of Burbank is the last man fighting at The Alamo. With a good supply of digitally controlled rocket launchers & some sticky grenade catapults, he figures he might hold off the members of Mexico's newest drug cartel, El Pudin de Rojo, at least a few more hours. In true Davey Crockett fashion, he fires off another round from a musket. In the distance, the Mexicans jeer at him, call him stupid, & yell out that he's surrounded. To his right, about half a mile from the old Mission, a Chinook burns to the ground. At home, the mayor's wife turns away from the reality channel that is capturing the scene from satellite. She calls her former-enemy-turned-friendly-fire-friend, Sally Struthers, and tells her to start lighting 63 candles, her husband's age in real time. On TV, the scene in 3D shifts to a ground floor bunker where John Wayne lies bleeding out the low cal loyalty of unsalted patriotism. The Mayor's dog, Everett Horton, licks John's face and John says something in typical stoic form, like It's alright, Everett, things from here on out can only look up. He dies with a smile, remembering that last scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where both Butch and The Kid free-fire their trapped lives in a blaze of glory. Everett Horton runs from the room & up to where the Mayor of Burbank has switched to an AK-47. Everett pulls at his master's trousers with his teeth. The mayor peers down & says Not now, Boy. I'm doing something important. I'm reliving history to prove that it keeps repeating on me.





Let Me Be Your Twin II

We can invent memories or eat hot dogs like true Yankee fans, mustard the color of our new dirty angel tee shirts. Set up a lemonade stand on Central Park West. We’ll donate all proceeds to us. Your father will be my father and the three of us will wash out all the dirty stains of my father’s past. Let’s trade closets. Let’s play rabbit and hunter. I’ll have you squirming in my palm. Or I might let you go. You’re such a silly rabbit and my gun is only a toy one. Grow up. I’m already older than you.





The Brando Method Thing: When Theresa Wright First Laid Eyes on Him on the Set of The Men

He was a Greek god swallowing words.
Later, he convinced me that he couldn't walk.
The moon was a speechless hero.
In his dressing room,
scattered with artificial limbs,
he held me tight, but I told him I was a good girl
from the side of the tracks where most girls
got tied down. I told him of the strange critters
that I kept as pets in my single room childhood.
I whispered that I understood The Method.
His body reminded me of a truck forever
stalled on hot dusty roads.
Back where I come from, he said,
with that bitch-boy look in his eye,
there ain't no windshield wipers
just predictable girls on soda pop
cars with worn fan belts
busted radiators
Texas gave me such a headache.
He grabbed my sparrow-bone brittle wrist
as if to prove no good girl could fly South.
Then he asked me to leave.
Go, I said
as if I could be somebody else.


The Brando Method Thing #2: Sal Mineo On Watching Brando at the Actor's Studio

I had a month of shiny subway tokens
my good-boy gabardines were wearing thin
at the crotch. Buddy was tight chinos
and the anger of a boy with too many
pins holding his flesh. The girls in class loved
the way his muscles twitched and stretched
like homeless snakes. They must've felt
delightfully cornered. There was sadness
too in the way he moved and mumbled
the names of Caesar’s assassins-
it felt like the overdose of a favorite uncle.
Teach me to feel, I said to my acting coach,
Stella Adler. That year Brooklyn was losing
its elm trees and suicides were kept out
of the papers. I was in love with an opera
singer named George. We were both poor,
down on the shoeshine, but in love.
I thought of us as two kites, slowly drifting
apart, an artificially made cloud between us.
You're all in the anal stage,
announced Stella to the class. Learn to
let go. So I closed my eyes and became Brooklyn,
felt its fierce strength though my veins,
but inwardly I bled. I had lost all my old
heroes. And Buddy raised the knife over his head.
He was not Caesar but tragedy itself.
Rocking his head back, he too closed his eyes
and said Death is everywhere. I can feel it.
I will not run from it. He said When
Brutus knocks at your door, let him in.
He will stab you three times. But it's not
the fact of your death or that you could have
prevented him from entering your house.
It's the way you die that's the thing,
groping for life, finally becoming the person
you always pretended to be.
The class became silent,
and Stella threw an enormous white sheet
over us. And we reached and grappled
and frolicked through the sheet,
all our faces were now the same
and Stella's lesson became clear:
We were that sheet---No—
We were the whiteness of it.

----------------------------------


Spring Cleaning

(18/01/2010 in Ophelia Street)


Cleaning up my father’s attic
I air my thoughts to the sky
the dust causing my chest to squeeze.

Side by side, on the windowsill
I place a ten penny nail,
double-headed with corroded shank
next to a painted replica of a bird,
a Eurasian Bee Eater or Whitethroat
with soft eyes worth a thousand worms
under the tongue.

My father was a meticulous woodworker,
an amateur ornithologist.
he spent hours in this attic,
carving and painting
what could not take flight.

And the nails.
I don’t remember where he got them from.

But over time, things have a way of speaking.
He left you, says the Whitethroat.
You are sad and so am I.
Who else would feed me breadcrumbs,
crusts of homebaked rye?
Now my hunger has solidified
and no one but you can hear me.

I will take my father’s bearclaw hammer
one that constructed my mother’s dreams
and walk to the cemetary.
There I will pull every nail from his
coffin, the very one he made.
I imagine his body decomposed
will be a hole in the sky.
And the birds that will fly out
my hands that no longer bleed
neither he nor I
ever drove a nail
into the hands
of any starving stranger
claiming to have wings.
--------------------------------

Chinese Takeout (Published in The Smoking Poet, 2009)

Nursing our Crantinis with lemon twist, she says
she's really not in the mood for Chinese. It always leaves her hungry afterwards. Another drink, I ask, hoping she'll say yes, grow moon-lit and pliable. No, she says, her smile changing sweet to sour.


Now she tells me that she's in love with Garson, a
one-leg veteran from the Gulf War. Garson, I say, the words jumping from my mouth like undigested
cherry pits.

That night in my room I conjure her and Garson, what
movie lines he whispers in her ear, how or what he does so she won't feel wanting for someone else. I can hear their silence crystallize, this fine China so
perfect, so easily breakable, one I am too envious of.

I envision their imperfect union at the seedy hotel, his heroic attempts at super sex, her stroking of his hobbled ego, disheveled bedsheets like crumpled flags.

I peruse an old Chinese take-out menu on my desk.
Some people say that Chinese food leaves you hungry afterward, all that water-content. But I
never thought of it that way. Rather, it imparts a sense of what is truly palatial, the belly, host of a
many-splendor house. One could add another guest room
for a Dragon Phoenix, a chamber for the castrated King of Lobster Lo Mein, a private bedroom for
the wispy Princess of Szechuan.

Later, I'll dream of water-cress lips, wounds
tough as horseflesh, or whatever lies sunset at the bottom of egg drop rivers.

--------------------------------

Everybody Hides a Shaved Head (following two poems pubbed in Dead Mule School of Southern Literature April, 2011)

My mother was an alien
among other women
who felt alienated.
Before I really understood
how time is an extension
of space and secrets
locked inside hard boiled eggs,
bubble heads in an expanding universe,
she would taking me shopping
down organized aisles
of outdated soup cans,
where underpaid stock boys
muttered how they were being
raped in the freezer rooms.
Without saying a word,
she and I,
both indigenous
to the nebulas of fast-burn logic,
knew where each other stood.
Over time, we clung to each other
powerless as two clay figures in the rain
until we slipped away
horizontally.

**

The Maximum Darkness of Childhood

Sinking in 10,000 closets
blindfolded against the
sudden eclipse of stalker against moon,
the scrim of dead birds
after a bad mating season,
I grew up in between the fingers
of my mother who worked double shifts
her hands testing vacuum tubes
and the burns that never left her palms,
or me stung and stretched
in my growing pains.
My future going on 17 doused matchsticks
amidst slow-burn wicker lives.

It was then when her hand entered
the crevice of rust and nail dawn,
a girl with spider veins
and high on Zydeco.
On hot dusty roads,
she floored her father’s Impala,
already recalled for faulty brakes.
She said she was ditched by
one too many swines and drugged by their
words of travel and pearl. But I never said much.
She instructed me to not hold my breath
while we were doing it, breathe in and out,
like the misfit seasons. She loved that feeling
of sinking through mud, belly up,
to be allowed into the layers,
soft, soft, hard,
the stratified entrails of the earth
silent in their sodomy of fossil life.
We parked near furrowed fields of corn
past the distant cries of women migrants,
how we’ll burn in a scarecrow’s heaven
and the dirt tasted rich.

---------------------------------------



































Primary Colors

This is what I don’t remember: bluebonnet Sundays under Southern elm, girls whistling through tall grass, a frog, a simple cobbler, a street the width of a song. My mother in a sundress, her skin smooth as a shaved peach, a kid’s vague theory about the alignment of stars. Then the nights grew cold and other moon-ly. The door opened a creak. A man as big as a space ship. The tall shadows interrogated my father and took him to a world without cables. By morning, they returned for me and my mother. They were Green men or men with Green ideas. Green being the color of what wasn’t the temper of my blood. Then weeks stuck in the waiting rooms of the Green People. Is this how they play games? I thought. Mine were simpler and more fun. And at least you could win something. What I don’t remember: My mother filling out forms, scratching out answers, asking questions, a Green Man telling her in Broken Blue what to write. In our language, my mother whispered into my good ear, “Why don’t you try to sleep. Just close your eyes and pretend you’re home.” But I never saw home again. I cursed that Green Planet of Tall Shadows. My father calling to me from some crater, from some cell at the bottom of it. Growing up, I cheated the Green Men of lifelines, I taxed whatever could be declared as Green, I rolled from one Green Woman’s bed to another until I couldn’t recognize my true color anymore in their mirrors. This is what I don’t remember: Why some colors fade to grey.













In This, Our Life

Her captors allowed her the use of the toes of one foot. It was hard to pretend she was numb--as if playing an arctic game indoors. With the ball of her foot, she primed the canvas. Her big toe acted as a fan brush, the rest were sable, flat, or pointy. She told herself: flesh = camelhair fiber. She strained and stretched her body as if she were a canvas herself. Exhausted, she could no longer move her toes. Her captors entered the room, examined the picture. One was male; the other female. Tell us what this means, said the male. In a weak voice, the girl said it was a portrait of her hanging upside down from her favorite fig tree as a child. In the background, she added with a dry tone, there was a small lake and a playground with swings, how she loved to arc. The captors noted that it was full of bright running colors. We will be back with a decision, said the woman, clicking her heels. The girl closed her eyes, thought death would be better than any of this, but then again, in this frame was her only life. The captors re-entered the room, released the girl into the desert surrounding the building. Looking up, blinded by the sky, she thought she heard helicopters, then a great wind swept through her, lifted her up. Back in the room, the captors cut out the background from the picture, placed a blindfold around the child, and showed her face, right side up on TV. They announced that either a ransom was to be paid or the girl would be de-pixilated across every computer screen. In their homes, thousands who looked identical to the male and female captors, watched in desaturated hues of horror. They knew that no matter how much they gave, it would never save her, not the girl swinging absent-mindedly from a tree, or the one falling endlessly from the sky.












True Confessions, Episode 6: A Dogwalker Gets Dogged

TODAY, I actually believed in myself
for ten minutes. Told the bitch off,
her, standing like Trump ready to fire me
when I already fired myself. Shit. You think
she grew talons for sport or maybe
stocked up on mace for the Second Coming.
But I told her that from now on, she
can walk her own dogs and while she's
at it, take some laxative to keep her
occupied. Then I walked away. Didn't
take a cab. I took the wrong side streets
and it was alright. In my apartment off Tenth
Ave. I adjusted the thermostat, did about 33
jumping jacks to warm up, turned on some
black metal, but I wasn't feeling a righteous
shade of self-murderous. Then I snuggled into my
bed with the sinking frame. With eyes closed,
I was turned again to still life without
dreams, just the core of an apple the world
had already chewed and swallowed. But for
a whole ten minutes, I felt really good
about myself. Tired as hell, splayed against
the bed, I leashed myself to the mistress
of night. I knew the rules about no barking
after 12, in this dark open mouth
of a studio, the place where I always
begin and end without a job.
















Van Gogh's Peach Tree

There is a boy. The boy is standing in front of a munificent peach tree in all the splendor and atrophy of his afternoon existing. Shadows? Yes. There are midday shadows, hiding and seeking, long and greyish to offset the bright reds and violets and oranges which reflect the sun's mercurial dispositions, its flare of temper when one gets too close. The boy collects the peaches and sucks their sweet juice until the tree becomes very angry and says I am nothing more than a jealous pit, hollow. The boy is sinking into the ground, into the shade and soft dirt. The tree is pulling the boy into the ground with its long and winding roots. This tree, this trollop of a tree in its jejune existing. The girl. The girl enters the picture. About his age, nineteen years and summers under. She has a big heart and knows the boy from old schoolyards built over grass and stubborn weeds. She saves the boy from the sinking, and at her house, far from Arles, she sits him on a bidet, cossets and undresses him, savors the taste of his sticky skin and washes him off. Your tongue is warm, says the boy, like the sun. The sun has two faces, she says, and I am the one that shines at night. They grow and become branches off each other. Years later, they move into a house and produce a garden of Eurasian roses, schizocarpic fruit, pear trees that keep a gentle sway in the wind. The picture of the roses in a glass jar is kept on the wall of an old woman's home in Arles. She loves to tell visitors that there's a story behind that painting, how she saved it from the Germans during the occupation. She tells them how a girl once saved a boy from the gravity of his own shadow, the cruelty of a hypnotic sun. But as years passed, he did not survive the holocaust of roses under a barbed sky. As she tells them the story, she offers them a bowl of fruit grown in her own garden. She complains how her limbs are stiff, refers to herself as an old tree that can no longer sway. But I saved that boy, she tells her guests. In some way. Then she apologizes, perhaps denying that she was once someone reckless and very young, the taste of sweet jism on a hot afternoon, the torpor of heavy summers, the sun, like a schizophrenic parent, both kind and unforgiving.






THE NEW AND DISTURBING TREND OF LEMMING MIGRATION AWAY FROM THE CITIES

I once had a melancholic wife who kept dreaming of fur. With the nest egg of our combined pensions, we retired to a cozy house by the sea. At first, it was only a few lemmings which appeared on our back porch,
always squirming away from our flash lights. Then that number multiplied exponentially and our house,
our neighborhood, was completely surrounded by them.
They camped at our doorstep and demanded to be paid taxes in the form of sedges and grinded parts of our bones. They took over the police department and took joy rides in fire trucks. They issued new ordinances that we were allowed to walk on only one side of the street. Whenever I left the house, a few would cling to my ankles. They would mock me, repeating the words I said to my wife during lovemaking.

They chewed telephone wires and hacked our computers.
They shut off our water supply and caused gas leaks.
Some citizens took to setting their houses on fire;
others tried to drown themselves.

Eventually my wife ran off with a Troubadour lemming,
the kind with a Flemish snout, who could win hearts and shoots by playing some mean riffs on a lute. In a long good-bye letter, she explained to me that she had fallen in love and felt young again. It seemed the little bastard could imitate my best singing voice. Her body, chewed-up, was found at the edge of what used to be a forest. At least there was smile on her face. But I haven’t given up hope. I won’t resort to shooting them or myself. I still have a good view of the sea.




Can I Borrow Your Laconic Giraffe Because My Laughing Hyena Keeps Stealing My Fruit of the Loom

I would never compare
you to a cookie
falling from the sky
a pure Oreo
or a virgin Lorna Doone,
unbitten, only flaky at the edges,
me, running to catch you
before you crumble.

But that’s exactly
what happened last night
at the Venus Without Furs.
You downed five Pied Pipers
& three Lip-Splints
extra stiff.
You performed some
highly personal interpretations
of the Amnesiac's Lumbago
& The Stalking Cat.
Then you went dancing
barefoot on the tables
singing two minute
memoirs of your torrid
life under Capricorn.
You kept falling.
I kept raising my arms.
We both kept missing
the chorus.


Pringles (Published in Cecilia's Round Trip, Winter, 2008)

After the funeral, I sat in his mother's kitchen, watching her sprinkle cardamom and curry flakes into a large pot of soup. She turned, picked up a saltine, and munched. The crunching filled the room, the house, the way hard crackers can break or snap like old deposed kings. I could see in her eyes what she really wanted to ask: Was I gay and did anything ever happen between me and Malloy? She probably thought now was not the time to ask. Or. Never.

In the corner sat a small black-and-white TV, the one that Malloy had always lied to me about--boasting that it was really color and much wider. It was really just a matter of adjusting one’s memory of grayscale, he always said. His mind, I imagined, full of complex calculations and fragile wave patterns, full of perfect saddle-shaped objects echoing across space.

On the TV screen, some soap opera tycoon, who cheated on his last three wives because they always gave him inconsistent answers, was lying on a gurney. I asked Malloy's mother what do they call those rubber wheels. What, she said. I repeated the question, pointing to the screen.

Malloy always asked me questions about things that were seemingly insignificant. Like those rubber wheels. "Caster wheels," she said, and why do I ask. I shrugged and said I always wondered. Actually, Malloy, who was in a wheelchair since the car accident five years ago, said the wheels were rubber to absorb static cling. You know what static cling can do to you? he once asked me. It can paralyze you. It's the worse fear not being able to move when something unnamable and strange is making you inert. Stuck. Mobility, he pointed out, was embedded onto his genetic blueprint. He was always up on all kinds of science and math trivia. Like the uses of castor oil, not to be confused with caster wheels. Or the smallest distance between two cars before they collide.

In the last months, his face was pale and drawn, and I remember this uncanny look in his eyes, like he was carrying some nightmare with him for days. I think he knew he was going to die. I think he knew it and wouldn't tell anyone.

It’s like spotting some lethal comet that Nostradamus predicted but everyone else believes is harmless. Malloy knew all the lies about harmless comets. He said it made him yearn for some distraction, something light and salty. Something that could make you thirsty and giddy.

Across the kitchen table, I reached for a can of Pringles. I listened to my teeth chomping, the crunching and the futile attempt to chew softer. Those were Malloy's favorite potato chips and sometimes we would sit across the table and chew Pringles to see who could chew the loudest and who would crack up laughing first.

"Malloy," I said. "Not now. Don't chew like that now. It's not the time. It's not funny anymore."

Malloy's mother turned and said what? Who are you talking to, she said.

Him, I was going to say. But I caught myself.

The old Malloy was not here. Who or whatever was sitting across from me now was invisible and real and wasn't who Malloy once was. The new Malloy was formless, colorless, could now move in silence and infiltrate the sulci and gyri of soft grey matter. He would cling to more than just my clothes.

Malloy's mother kept staring at me and asking if I was okay. She really wanted to know if I was cracking up. That's what she wanted to say. She was just too polite to ask. But cracking up is something I don't do anymore since Malloy's death. Cracking up and pushing wheelchairs over hard one-dimensional floors. Malloy was a paraplegic with a knack for infinite factorials, for amazing facts, such as the paradox of a ghost’s fingerprints on a potato chip. He always told me that he loved me right down to the last bite.

------------------------------------------------

One Good Day (Pubbed in the Stray Branch,Spring, 2010)

The girl with Ipanema Eyes
and Japanese heart
dances before me,
her swan-like movements
are a nice counterpoint
to my clumsy lion’s paw
my materialist tendencies
my mercurial disposition.
Then, she disappears
like the woman on TV.
Today, everything I touch is magic.
The newspaper boys are really
messengers from Zeus.
The skinny old crone
who tends bar on Wednesdays
has a Herculean grip of a handshake.
In another life,
he killed a bull
that devoured a blue-eyed boy.
Apollo is telling dirty jokes
in the men’s room.
When Aphrodite descends
we’ll greet her
with ribbons of toilet paper.
Kyle Hemmings lives and works in New Jersey, where he sometimes skateboards near Branch Brook Park.
He also listens to the Beach Boys. Sometimes.
And the unmade bed that you left
this morning,
Your Peach of Paris scent still
fresh on my skin,
is really a sign
that in another part of town
you’re still thinking about me.

-------------------------------------

God Must Be a Beautiful and Lonely Outcast


For a moment,
she forgets that her body
is the bark of a decaying yew
or the egrets that once rested

on her branches
bring only tiny jolts of pain
snatching a bite of her flesh.
Their nest is somewhere else.
They leave her with
a jagged line of imprints.
She won’t send me away.

This afternoon’s love
will be like morphine
and only a dose.
I think of the drip rate
of rain over crowded cities,
their underbellies.
This scorned harlot of a body
was once conjured
from the River Pishon
and I was the first and last man
in Eden. If I ask her to undress,
will she? Will it be too painful?
And this forbidden apple we eat
never tasted as sweet as today,
our slow dying, unfolding.
I can hear that river breathe.










Volume 2: Texas Psychedelia



































The Traveling Woman

I would never unlock the door for a traveling
saleswoman selling mason jars of dead flies.
Over the years, I've kept files on such women,
how they return from the dead, walk only in
straight lines, stuff a child's reflection
in a tinderbox. A theory: Such women, before
graveyard-shift marriages, were not considered
dangerous. I was the child of one such woman.
Our eyes never met and she often spoke of me
to me. She packed me in a suitcase and we traveled
blind. I never got to see the passing scenery.
We never carried maps or nursery rhymes. I grew
numb with darkness until she sold me to a woman
with three blind pigs.
--------------------------------

Spring Cleaning (following two poems pubbed in Quicksilver, March 2010)



Cleaning up my father's attic
I air my thoughts to the sky
the dust causing my chest to squeeze.

Side by side, on the windowsill
I place a ten penny nail,
double-headed with corroded shank
next to a painted replica of a bird,
a Eurasian Bee Eater or Whitethroat
with soft eyes worth a thousand worms
under the tongue.

My father was a meticulous woodworker,
an amateur ornithologist.
he spent hours in this attic,
carving and painting
what could not take flight.

And the nails.
I don't remember where he got them from
or when.

But over time, things have a way of speaking.
He left you, says the Whitethroat.
You are sad and so am I.
Who else would feed me breadcrumbs,
crusts of homebaked rye?
Now my hunger has solidified
and no one but you can hear me.

I will take my father's bearclaw hammer
one that constructed my mother's dreams
and walk to the cemetery.
There I will pull every nail from his
coffin, the very one he made.
I imagine his body decomposed
will be a hole in the sky.
And the birds that will fly out
my hands that no longer bleed
neither he nor I
ever drove a nail
into the hands
of a starving stranger
brown-eyed and bone-weary
claiming to have wings.


Henry X

In his planned obsolescence,
he skirted impossible ponds,
studying his longest reflections,
his moon shape, under the sun.
There was once a woman,
Italian and high strung,
who came and went,
was keen with bitter forecasts,
tempted him into misjudging distances
and that was another story.

Later in life,
he was struck down by a flash of life
and died on the spot.
His biography, however,
written by a recluse named Holmes,
published with intended typos,
retains a loyal cult following
for reasons not clear
to lovers of hard cover books.































A Train in Vain Is Like a Rock that Falls Upwards

So you’ve tossed out your best designer shirts and quit everything, given away all of your mother’s empty vases. You have an undiagnosed disease or one that has too many names. You keep imagining birds covered in cement. Day by day, the sun drops a few degrees lower. The door-to-door salesmen have sold their shares to the Chinese and that was back when your heart was a glass table for everyone’s rotting fruit. You’ve decided you have a few months to live. Anything beyond that is a train in vain. It’s your decision. 
The train station is mostly empty except for a woman sitting on a bench. You don’t want to impose, but something tells you that next to her is the only place to sit. Like you, she doesn’t have much luggage. She stares out to the opposite wall, oblivious to the hungry pigeons at her feet. She looks somewhat older than you but by how much, you can’t say. For some reason, you imagine her as a brisker, a beggar in a morning mist, singing gypsy songs with words that never stay between the ears but rather slip through everything. Like her, the songs are itinerants. From station to station, you imagine the dropping, the endless twirling of coins. When you sit, her eyes lower and scour the ground, a jagged history of crumbs and candy wrappers. You try making small talk, something you were always good at. She nods and smiles. It’s funny, you think, how your life up to this point could be wrapped and carried in small containers. That’s why it’s so easy for you to run out of words. You’re becoming short winded. In the distance, you hear a whistle. It’s your train and hers too. There are few passengers on this train, only a scattering of heads that never turn. You sit next to her, and in the window, she is studying your reflection. You have a vague sense that you know this woman from other train stations, from other platforms. She may be a conglomerate of all the women who once gave you up. 

She turns and starts to speak, a mix of broken English and mostly Spanish. You can make out some words, like pérdida, cansado, hambriento, el niño, una muerte. The loss, tired, hunger, the child, a death. As she speaks, her voice takes on a growing excitement, even a desperation. In her eyes, you see yourself as someone very small, a child for whom the world made promises that it later defaulted on. She reaches over and grasps your hand. You now notice the white wristband. When she sees you studying it, she says something in Spanish you can’t understand. She struggles to take it off. She grows frustrated. You reach over, hold her wrist, and tell her It’s alright. With lips halfway between a smile and a grimace, she embraces you. She reminds you of a woman from long ago. You were young and full of poisons. You walked through a dangerous section of town on the way to work. Each morning you saw her playing guitar in the streets. You stopped and propositioned her, perhaps projecting you own anger onto her. After all, she was poor. You imagined her body as a treasure, a beautiful sponge found at the bottom of the ocean. In an upstairs room, her body was defiant in its stillness. Breathless, you didn’t say good-bye. You can now make out what she is saying. She is telling you that you are her son who has finally come home from the war. You keep looking into her eyes that reveal yourself at different stages of growing up or of being stymied in oval claustrophobic rooms. She now unbuttons her shirt, removes her bra, and pulls your head to her breast. And as if to take back from the world what it once took from you, you begin to suck. She has no real milk to give, but since when was there ever enough milk for post war babies. The train stops. There are no new passengers. Slowly, you push yourself away. She is leaning back into the seat with eyes closed. She is smiling. She is saying in Spanish a small prayer. You recognize the words for Mary and Jesus. You wonder at which stop she will get off. But this much you know: her destination will be yours and this train ride, the last of its kind — a reunión.







He's Always Tall in Your Eyes

You quit school to take over your father's shoe shop around the corner in the center of an inert town. Services include all kinds of leather repairs. Your father died of a malignant space found in most shoes hidden under the bed because the owner either outgrew that particular style or wanted to join a trashy jet set. While viewing the casket, you blush, want to scream tirades at your mother--the father, face up, barefooted. What shop of sky would allow him to enter and tread? There's a proper dress code for everything.

But your mother confides that maybe some thief stole both shoes and socks, perhaps his bitchy mistress, Emma Kale, who felt left-footed upon learning that Papa was married. Anyway, the mother says while adjusting her half-veil, it's only in this life that you need shoes. Smirking, you wonder if Emma Kale will stuff his socks in her one-size-to-fit-all vagina.

And you have a thing for tall, gawky boys like Emma Kale’s only son, the kid who sat shit-faced in the back of the class, couldn't tell a Reeboks from a Keds. One day, he enters your shop, surprised to see you but doesn't ask questions like how come you're never in school? He hands you a pair of black Oxfords in a bag, says his date ruined them. He scrunches his face and mutters the name, Hannah. You remember her. The girl was a bloated tragedy on diet pills. He says she cried all over his shoes.

You look down, trying to imagine his feet in sneakers--big, flat, squished. You think of children growing up in a prison of some kind, in time, becoming autistic, phobic to sunlight.

Waving your hand, you tell him you can save him money. Here are the instructions: Mix one tablespoon of white vinegar in a cup of water. Dip rag and wipe the salt stains. Let dry. He smiles that trademark grin of a geek who'll someday reign in a town of ruined leather.

When he parks his shoes under your bed, your tongue becomes a moist spot, words unravel in nonsense syllables, shoe laces untying themselves, then crossing into complex loops. And if you could become shoe polish, you would coat him forever, or maybe becoming that space underneath his soles, watching him grow so tall in the shoes you repaired. Never telling him where you've hidden his socks.








The Mayor of Burbank & the Real Mayor

In his article, "The Phenomenology of a Mimetic Mayor," Debra Lydia Bensonni points out that there is a Mayor of Burbank, that is, a false representation of this mayor propagated by the media, and a real Mayor of Burbank, who left his legacy around 1944. With the use of backward-compatible phenomenological imaging, Bensonni paints for us a picture:
Along with allied troops on that horrorendous day, after the first wave of soldiers were decimated, the future Mayor of Burbank and his buddies took Omaha with the help of non-amphibious tanks. After a standoff in Douglas county, the future mayor was shot by a Nazi officer who yelled, "We will take Washington!" The man who would someday be mayor blew him away with a faulty carbine and then inspected his own wound about the size of a half-dollar. The amazing thing was he wasn't bleeding! After the Allies made headway into Pottawattamie County in Iowa, the future mayor shacked up with a woman of French and Indian descent. Her name was Lola and she had lost just about everything. When the man who would be mayor inspected his wound in one of Lola's mirrors, he found he could see himself in the future enlisting support for a new war rather than being the victim of an old one.

At first, the man who would be mayor was afraid to show Lola his war wound for fear of rejection in bed. But Lola, fascinated by this post-coital hobby, liked poking her finger through it, then later, shoved her whole hand inside. "Does that hurt?" she asked looking curiously up into his face. "No," he said blandly.

Lola began to pull from the insides of the not-yet-mayor an assortment of useful items: o-rings, washers, photos of her dead husband & son, flower vases, signet rings, a stuffed dog...the list could go on. Lola felt that with the man who would be mayor beside her in bed & with his opening to a lost world, she would become rich. But then the future mayor's platoon began to pull out & he said good-bye in the same affectless tone he'd use later to veto a bill. "Just like the rest of them," said Lola. "But you are not leaving." She placed a straw inside his opening & sucked in hard. The man who would be mayor disappeared and would not reappear until some years later as a helpless dwarf in the form of an infant.
From the above details, Bensonni makes several tentative inferences:

1. The Mayor of Burbank is a pure spirit with only a dalliance for the material world.

2. The Mayor of Burbank had passed through many reincarnations in the unremitting cycles of love and war.

3. It's the world that is unreal.

4. The idea of a Mayor of Burbank says much more about us as dreamers of our own manifest destinies & less about the supposedly hard objective facts of terrorists under our beds sheets, the very ones we married.

Cat People #9: Tales of Manhattan


She'd make a great catch in the rain. Because in the rain nothing moves. No cat girl of deep shade eyeliner. No saint of dark corners. Trouble was whenever it rained we couldn't find ourselves. We became parodies of the Keystone Cops. She must have laughed with the flashing black eyes of a Daruma doll.

Since she was a part of me, mine, mu, that assumption of sticky fingers, I had to bring her in. We had gone to school together, PS 12 on 63rd across from Central Park. As kids, we flew paper planes there during recess. Our teacher was too busy collecting varieties of leaf and butterfly. In the shade of elm, she moved like a cat, had that sad glint in her eyes of a girl not afraid to be anything. "You're going to be a bird someday," I said, watching the paper plane float above us. "But with no wings," she added, dancing in circles like some mad Nijinsky. She stole my virginity without ever touching me. By the time I graduated the Police Academy, no victim could move me.

Years later she became the infamous Cat Girl, connoisseur of what diamond-shaped love belonged to others: Marquise, Emerald, Radiant, Pear, Asscher, 24 Carat and beyond. She ripped off the Tiffany Porcelain ladies who resembled their manicured poodles. In her apartment paid for by another ill-fated lover, I imagined her dancing to Stravinsky's Capriccio for piano, or collapsing to the floor practicing her graceful cat death. Across town, in a precinct of weak walls, I was promoted to junior detective.

I chased her through open windows, across floors with glass walls, up and down Soho's side streets, a no go in Noho. In Chinatown, she vanished through crowds of serious-looking women, shoulder to shoulder. In skyscrapers, she disappeared through elevator cars perfectly timed and my timing was always too hard-boiled egg logical. At night, I fingered my torn pillow and imagined holding the fur of some jaguarondi jumping building to smoking building, and in my dreams a witch changed me into a white cat. In others, I drank Cat Girl's blood, the only thing that could cure my St. Anthony's fire.

She had become the rage of fashion society, of young girls tired of A.M. radio's divas. It became chic to dress in black leather, gold hoop earrings, a vampish hand of black eyeliner, to pose with one hand on hip, the other against a graffiti-raped wall, that incredibly over-dramatic smirk that said Am I fuckable or what?

On TV, in the courtrooms, her close-ups mocked me. There was never enough to put her away. At trials, she would turn around and wink at me, as if to say Fuck you, I'm a cat. One case was dismissed on the grounds of race alone. A DNA sample proved that she was part Russian Blue. We suspected she had seduced the judge with the sweep of her eyes, the keenness of her answers.

As I drove in patrol cars, everywhere written in bold reds and oranges of spray paint, from Spanish Harlem to Delancy Street: You'll never catch me. In her palm, she had oil sheiks badly in need of new tricks in bed, and Wall Street brokers badly in need of blue sky. She always had me.

We met at a diner. She sat alone, dressed like a punk rocker in some Indie band that grooves in its own distortion, the short skirt, the green leg warmers, the tattoo on her shoulder of a raging cat, paws outstretched. I approached her table, smiled and sat down. I said that sooner or later everyone's luck runs out.

She buttered her English muffin and said without looking up, "Do you find me fuckable?"

In my place back on Bleecker, we fucked like R.E.M. zombies in a rage of awakening, of having been dead for so long. We smeared ourselves with new voodoo and obscene ritual. We must have made a thousand babies with perfect blues eyes. After she left, I noticed my one hand was handcuffed to the bedrail. With the other, I found a two dollar bill under my pillow. I knew I'd never catch her.

A rainy night. We received a call about a robbery in progress on the upper East side. We fired the siren and drove through red lights.

The woman was in tears. Her best jewelry gone. It belonged to her grandmother from the old country, who in her youth kept a collection of jewel damselflies.

I caught a flash of her through the window. Like a fool, I chased her across rooftops, telling myself not to look below. We were light years up. The streets were lizards. The streets were snakes. She performed a magnificent jump, ledge to ledge. In the rain, through the mist, the hunched shadow yelled out, "Am I still fuckable?"

I squatted, tensed, and flew like a lousy invention. I realized that I was her paper plane from childhood that had turned into flesh and bone. My hands caught on the opposite ledge. My body grew heavy. I fell. I fell forever.

I woke up to a nurse taking my temperature. How bad, I asked. She said in a sweet melodic voice, that besides the concussion, I had some bad cuts, that one of them became infected, a gram negative.

I studied her. She had a tattoo of a cat on her forearm. There was a trace of eyeliner and that smirk.

"Is it contagious?" I yelled out.

She already left the room.

Yucatan


It's going be a another dry spell, I just know it, and I wish my brain were a sponge to cool-soak my thoughts. The Texas sun glitters over the rusted fenders, old cowl hoods, grill inserts, aluminum front and rear skid plates, you name it. All these things left to waste in a land of milk and honey. It's the fifth junkyard we've visited in a week. I watch my twin brother, Jocko, hold up a pair of shock absorbers. Jocko, with his tightly knotted arms and head of stringy, thinning hair, yelling out to the Kid, This’ll finish off the front suspension, don't you think?

The Kid, all of eighteen and Jocko's boy, cruises around piles of iron and stainless scrap in his electric wheelchair, pushing the black-cherry colored throttle sideways to swing some sharp turns. His mouth opens in some kind of hay market delight. Maybe like a lottery winner on a shopping spree in a supermarket. The wheelchair never tips over, even when he performs wheelies to buck Jocko and to impress me. And I wonder how he does this, as he leans to one side, his blonde ponytail flying in the stream of wind he creates with the sudden turns. But for me, with my history of bruised shins, I've never appreciated the fact that the throttle—a man-made device—is quicker than the leg.

"Yeah, it'll do," says the Kid, squinting his eyes in the blistery sun, the one hand gloved, fingers poking through. The kind you see hard-rockers wear, posing on the cover of Spin, their smirks intimidating like weapons.

Jocko and I load the scraps of car parts into the pickup while the Kid watches us with this serene smile, as if his thirst isn't rabid like ours. I mean, sometimes I have to help the Kid steady the clear bottle to his lips, using a strip of long tubing as a makeshift straw. Not that he doesn't have good motion with his hands, the right better than the left; the right's got the glove. And the legs are coming along, he told me. By the time we reach Mexico, he might even be able to stand up.

So Jocko trudges up to the yard's owner, a skinny Vietnamese dude with Ray-Ban shades and a wicked Stetson, cream-colored, too large for his head. Jocko pays him and we drive back to the shop outside Corpus Christi, our rumps baking against the hot seat of the cab, the sound of the loaded parts jumping and jiggling in the truck's bed.
*

I'm helping Jocko insert an upper radiator hose and some other parts for the heater. We're rebuilding a truck for the Kid, the kind he wants, with a rumbling exhaust and a full force suspension. The Kid says he wants to drive to Mexico in something that is uniquely his, something with four-wheel drive and Grade 8 hardware, something that can earn him a write-up in the Dallas Record. He says he'll spray paint along the driver's door the words, Who's your daddy?
*

For months, the Kid was telling me that he read about this island off Mexico—off Yucatan, actually—where people live without addresses, roam the beaches as they please. He said there are exotic birds of bright white and red feathers, birds which hoot and coo the strangest sounds, birds they don't even have names for. And the air is so clean, cleaner than the white crystal sand that is free of litter and probably pampers the body better than a goose feather mattress.

And maybe, the Kid pointed out, this is the kind of place that the Aztecs practiced rites of sacrifice, so remote yet not, separated by some flimsy channel of water, where retired movie stars come to jumpstart their dreams of leading private lives, without the paparazzi and hidden cameras. People don't die there, the Kid was telling me, angling his cornflower blue eyes toward my forearm tattoo: the word Mimi, a former live-in. They just kind of take on new identities and get reborn.

Well, I always had some idea of Yucatan, maybe an afterthought to California, some gray straggly tail on a map. But the three of us to live on some island off it? The Kid said he read about it from a travel newsletter he had a special subscription for. And how he convinced Jocko to go along with this was beyond me.

I sat next to a mission-styled night stand as the Kid stared at a wrinkled map spread across his low bed. Man, oh, man, did his room reek of soiled sheets. With a shaky finger, he pointed to a speck on the map he had torn from the newsletter with his teeth, and said that was it, the island. I squeezed my eyes and thought that might be it, or maybe just a mark, a thumbnail scratch that meant nothing. But the Kid said there were pictures. The Kid was starin' at me, goggle-eyed and droop-faced, dumbfounded as a pup, as if there was something wrong with my vision and not his.
*

I'm lying back on a bed at the Red Bull Lodge, a hole-in-the-wall stop close to the Mexican border, thinking about how, after it happened, there were days of thunder, a welcome rain, the kind you hardly see in this part of Texas. And the old windmills that reminded me of tiny pinwheels at a distance. It was weeks after Jocko overdosed himself on potassium pills, at least I thought so, but an old Daily Gazette reported otherwise. But who am I to say. Maybe nothing you could prove or disprove. I had dug myself from the dregs of a past life, trying to get reborn into another.

A 40-ish hooker from the Miss Lonely Girl agency struts in front of me, skin chalky with a permanent blush across the cheeks; the hair, sand-colored and puffy, like some dirty angel on loan. There's a butterfly tattoo above the base of her spine, and the loose wrinkles of fat at the back of her thighs remind me of streaks of gray clouds. She asks me as I'm flipping pages of an old Reader's Digest if I'd like her to dance and grind in her red underwear. Before she starts, she says, it always works 'em up. I tell her I just want a massage and a hand job, and then, I say, no, just the massage, a really good rub, that's all.

On the TV, reruns of All in the Family, Archie Bunker yelling at Meathead to get a job and forget his unpatriotic protests against the Vietnam war. Miss Lonely Girl pours some burning oil across my back, the scent of cedar wood and something smoky, maybe angels' wings on fire. She's doin' me justice, workin' the shit deep into crevices and areas I never thought much about, and I wonder if that oil is some kind of Spanish Fly, because, well, hell, I've never used or even seen the stuff.

Honey, I say, one side of my face nestled in a pillow, could you rub a little lighter, and lower. My spine is kind of stiff. Travelin' in that wheel chair for days. I'm so stiff, I tell her, they could stuff me on a wall.

Archie, you don't know a damn thing what you're talking about.

Her hair brushes against my nape, and she giggles in my ear, a playful whiff of air, her breath, warm, yet on loan, but I won't disown it.

Darlin', I say, my chin resting on my fists, answer me this one stupid riddle: Why does it hardly rain in Texas?

Aw, geez, Edith, get me another beer from the fridge, would ya?

She says, Oh, it does, but so infrequently, but when it does, like a storm, and her little house near the water, she worries it might be someday blow away, maybe as far as the Louisiana Gulf, maybe father inland, where they speak Cajun and Yat.
*

At Jocko's shop, the one he's selling, we're finishing the suspension, plumb wiring valves and tucking a set of 22-inch wheels with extended frame rails. Later, the Kid hums some cherry-happy tune, sandpapers and buffs the body, then wheeling around the truck, remarks it will drive faster than a Hemi A-Bomb.

Jocko, with his bad heart, wheezes and coughs. He inspects for one more time the 5.6 liter engine and the new air filter he used to replace an older air box. He shuts the hood and we break for a late lunch.

In the heat, Jocko and I dig our teeth into barbecued hot dogs, mine chili, his plain, and I help the Kid with some micro waved mush. His meals are mostly bland, today's less so, ginger ale, some minced meat, and sweet potatoes, mashed and creamy, so hot he complains it burns his tongue. The Kid usually barks at me not to help feed him; he can handle it. And after the fork tumbles over for the third or fourth time, he does manage to handle it because I tell him I'm not picking it up again.

Whenever he chews, it is with great concentration or maybe he is thinking about that island or the possibility of women from the mainland, flowers in their hair, the reflection of thick-billed parrots in their eyes, glimmering like shiny pesos. I imagine a hypnotic sea courted by blue heron and gull. I imagine the blue secrets of sea-turtles.

Digging into a sectioned Styrofoam plate, I tell Jocko I'm still considerin' whether to join them, and I repeat this, even though the Kid has already decided I will go, that it will be fun, the three of us. I have nowhere to go since Jocko is selling the shop and taking whatever money he has saved. And what if there's a dysreflexic crisis with the Kid, the shit building up inside him like a time bomb, or Jocko has a heart attack? Who's goin' to transport them on a ferry to the mainland, to some hospital? They must have hospitals in Mexico. Which is exactly what I bring up.

“Suppose one of us gets sick or the money runs out?"

Jocko and the Kid throw me some queer look, as if I hadn't understood the point of going to Mexico at all. That the point of going to a place like Mexico, the Kid is telling me, is to forget and live with your feet planted firmly several feet above the ground. "You could plan till your brain is knotted," he says while masticating with a stiff face, "but the hammer always falls when you're lookin' the other way."

Jocko pitches the end of a hot dog roll across the back lot, near some thread worn tires. The ants will have a field day.

"Ain't it the truth? Count up the number of days in your life you plan for something. Count the number of days you worry about something. Then count the number of days you actually do something you enjoy. If you're lucky, you wind up with a hatful of days you have actually lived, and most of it when you were still smart enough to be a kid."

I grab a napkin, wet it with my spittle, and wipe the Kid's lips. Probably the sweet potatoes that give his mouth an orange crust. You're crazier than he is, I say to Jocko. Across from me, he leans forward in a white cedar folding chair and stares out at the truck, its bare wheels and the new cotter pins he's bolted on. Like they are speaking some secret language to him. Sure ain't Creole or Spanish.

I notice how Jocko hardly smiles anymore. Maybe he hates to part with the shop. Maybe he still blames himself for the Kid's accident. And the Kid. His arms are wasting and his belly grows flabbier. Even with all the vitamin milkshakes and exercises. Even with the home health nurse who comes to visit three times a week with a mouthful of do's, don'ts, and why-didn't-you's.

The Kid's lusterless eyes suddenly jump and bulge.
"You'll see, Kip," he says. "We'll be partying with them Mexican girls every night. Watch 'em dance barefoot in the sand. You know that, don't you? Falling asleep every night drunk on mescal or tequila or some shit like it. Mescal. Is it mescal, Kip?

"I guess."

"Yeah. Whatever. Las chicas córneas."

"If you say so."

"Been practicing my Spanish. Horny sons of bitches. Giggling like their lungs are helium-filled."

"Better curb those hallucinations."

They'll be back for more, says the Kid. Count on it.

The Kid then wheels over to the side of the truck, ogling it. Almost there, he says, right, Jocko? He doesn't wait for a reply and zings around the lot doing figure eights, or tilting the chair back on its rear wheels, maybe imagining it as some chariot.

Jocko swallows two pills and washes them down with a swig of soda. He stands and his gait is somewhat cockeyed, the voice raspy.

Remember when I rebuilt him that wheelchair? he says, throwing a thumb over his shoulder. He spits and screws up his face, remarking that the pills taste nasty, how the regurgitated acid erodes his teeth. Put in a motor so he could go faster than the piece of shit from the medical supply company. Aw, the shit is nasty. And you said I couldn't do that. The bio-med guys visit every six months. It goes pretty good now, doesn't it? The guys from the supply company couldn't give a shit what I put in.
*

It took me about ten years to arrive in Corpus Christi and declare it my city of gold, since Jocko and the Kid were the only family I had left. It really pissed me off when Jocko said he was selling the shop, but I didn't protest. I didn't need some magical island with its azure-rumpled or great-crested birds of paradise.

Before joining Jocko, I worked for a Dodge dealer in New York City, dreaming about the fresh air of Sacramento. In Sacramento, I missed New York and its hustling movement, its women from every part of the globe and how they carried their ten thousand different definitions of beauty.

Then one day, as if crossing some invisible border, this time in Chicago, I gave up working on cars. The routine, the long hours, the customers' bitching, downshifted my enthusiasm. If I worked on cars any longer, I'd choke a tune-up, might even sabotage a front axle. I then took odd jobs: cashier, electrician's helper, mail clerk, even a bowling alley attendant. I got fired from the last one. Actually proud of gettin' booted out of that one.

I lived with a woman. I wasn't averse to the idea of it. But my idea of a woman was not the same as living with one. My idea of a woman was always some other woman and not the one I was living with. The woman I lived with accused me of finding fault. I accused her of cheating. She said how could I expect our life to be as beautiful as this one ceramic ashtray she always kept on our dresser, its concentric tiles of myriad colors, when I don't even listen.

With a ball-peen hammer, I smashed the ceramic ashtray in front of her, and watched it shatter into a thousand odd pieces. I knew I could never put it together the way, perhaps, some struggling mujer handcrafted it. A mujer, paid by piece work, dreaming of the kind of birds that fly north of the border.

So I left, knowing that I might never find the perfect woman. After I moved on, I missed the woman I was living with. I really meant to make her cry, so she'd remember our life, in some way.

Months later, tired of living in cheap motel rooms, of being hustled by dead-eyed hookers in trailer parks, I called Jocko, whom I hadn't spoken to in months. I told him things weren't working out, that I was low on cash. Join me in Texas, he said, could use some help. I thought it was just the shop he was talking about.

There was a silence and later, his voice grew distant, words moving like sludge. He told me he had been in an accident, a bad one. He was driving his ex-wife, Meg, and the Kid, seventeen at the time, to a rodeo near Laredo, off Highway 35. His truck overturned, killing Meg, leaving their son crippled with a spinal injury. Jocko was rushed to the emergency room, a bad perforation to his chest wall.

I could surmise what he was really asking. He wanted me to pitch in and help with the Kid. I moved back to Texas and lived over his garage, in some rooms he built, and all three of us, separated by thin plywood walls, were never a horse whisper from each other.

We learned to nurse each other's wounds, physical or not, and to tolerate the pain that was our private backwater. It was the Kid's, especially.

At first, I resented the routine of helping to change and wash the Kid, or being awakened by his groans in the night. Sometimes, I got to wonder if he'd be better off left in the hands of angels and not half-assed amateurs like us. But this time, I couldn't just walk out, say, the way I did at the auto shop in Chicago. Felt this obligation to see the Kid through. He became my link to a definite space outside Corpus Christi, an anchor to a levitating body. I worried it might all dissolve with the move to Mexico.

Maybe it was a tin can dream. I promised the Kid that someday I'd see him walk, if only for a few steps. So, everyday I had him practice his exercises, stretchin' and what not, from his bed, just like in the manual the nurse left us. It had pictures of stick figures and clear instructions at the bottom of each exercise, so there could be no question of misinterpretation. And I said to the Kid, when you do walk, Jocko will take a picture of us smiling, brighter than a pair of homecoming queens in a rose parade, and you would like that, wouldn't you?

Kip, he said, opening his mouth of gluey teeth, do you think much about dyin'? Can it be as slow as livin'? Like two trains running side by side.

No, I said, that's crazy talk. Even though I knew it wasn't. And when the Kid got lazy, I'd yell at him, perhaps too harsh, just enough to make him cry and give up. He'd try pressing all kinds of buttons, calling me a worthless drifter who never kept in touch. I let the insults fly till he was tired out. He got tired.

Then I promised him a ride in the pick up, and we sat on Cuervo Hill, watchin' the sunset, and he said, OK, that I was forgiven. But from the outside in, said the Kid, you have no idea, the pain, day in and day out, the spasms, the body like an accordion. And I really should be inside out before I yell at anyone. I really should. And days later, I said, OK, been thinkin'. Yucatan. Or China. Wherever you want to go. But no promises. Just considerin'.

The Kid smiled, a kind of fake smile, as if appeasing that home health nurse, always pretending to be deaf, always checking the supplies of Xanax and Oxycontin, and said he had planned the shortest route to Yucatan, the island off it, so quick, the distance to it—the speed of a thought. (The Kid was always good with numbers and physics.) And when I asked him what route was this, he was already napping, one half of his face bathing in the sun's red-orange glow.
*

She says her name is Conchetta, but everybody says their name is Conchetta. The woman I once lived with said her name was Mimi, and I believed her, but there must be so many more woman named Conchetta than women named Mimi.

Whenever I mention Mexico, Conchetta goes on about how back in Miami she was once voted Miss Latina. And, honey, she says, with a low, breathy cackle, I had legs that could make a gator drool. So help me, God, I don't think she speaks a word of Spanish.

In the mousetrap of a room at the Red Bull Lodge, Conchetta claims she's got some fine hands, and that when her son grows up, she'll go back to night school. She's gonna start her own massage school someday. Don't exactly know if I believe her, just like with the name. But chop, chop, chop, say her hands, dicing up and down my back. And I almost believe her.

"Can I ask you a personal question?"

"Shoot."

"Does that thing still work good? I mean, you know what I mean."

"It does. A little slow since the accident. But it does. Sort of a delayed fuse."

"Then, you sure you don't want the egg cream climax, stud? I use gloves."

"The name's Skip."

"Skip. Yeah. Like in Skipper. Sorry. Forgot to ask, lover."

Then, kneading her tapered fingers into my shoulders, pinching a tent of flesh here and there, she whispers in my ear whether I would like to do something kinky. You know, she says, freaky. Because, well, you know, she's known men with different tastes, and she's not saying I'm one of those guys, but since I don't want the hand job, maybe I should try somethin' different, might like it, why you could learn to like anything . . . Of course, it costs a little more.

Some guys, she says, laughing in a kind of forced, subdued way, request the girls to ride them bareback. Like taming broncos. Some are too shy to ask for it, but you can tell by their eyes. The way they talk about their wives like far away moons.

"You got that far away look too," she says, "and I ain't makin' nothin' of it."

No, I say, turning, reaching for a drink of straight rum on the nightstand. The massage was fine, and I gotta go. Headed to Mexico by wheelchair. Yucatan, actually.

"You're travelin' to Mexico in that wheelchair?"

"Yeah. You can't go much further. Try wheelin' past Yucatan, and you fall off the edge of the world."

"First time for everything, I guess."

"Gonna make a world's record. First man to reach Yucatan by wheelchair."

I swing my head around and up at her. I wink. She tilts her scrunched up face at me, her lips, a thin gap between, spreading.

I turn over and she kneels, straddling my legs, gripping my ankles. I know, she says in a weeping-willow whisper, as she leans forward, scanning my face, in this intense, swivel-eyed way, like she's imagining her eyes as tiny periscopes. It was somebody in your past, wasn't it? Everybody always got somebody in their past. Did you in real good, huh?

By the way, she says, fluffing her hair, like the way you would a jumbo taco salad, what's in Yucatan? Is the cactus there any different from the ones up here?

Ain't no cactus at all down there, I say. There's a place where you, everybody, gets a second chance. You meet up with folks you once knew up north. But not the same. Everyone walkin' like they got their feet on clouds and blue sky for a memory. Kinda like heaven.

Across from me, on the bed, her lips squeeze together, like she's munching on some words that she rather not spit out. She nods her head to mean no.

No.

There ain't no heaven, mister. If there is, it's in your mind. But if you like, I can be a fantasy girl for another hour. Just tell me what she does. Had a trucker last week who wanted me to dig my high heels into his hands, cuss' him out and call him Jesus, 'cause that's what his crazy aunt once done. I wasn't ashamed. Give you one bad-ass discount.

I lunge forward, grabbing her wrists, mashing them really; they are like twigs in my huge fists. I could break them so easy. Her face, shaking, turns mottled, the colors of some melted candy cane.

It's not a riddle, I say, it isn't a joke. Do you know what pain is? Do you know what's it like to live with pain day in and day out? Do you?

I release my grip and pace around the room to cool off, stopping in front of her. Her eyes are wet, distant moons, not far away.

"So you can walk, you lyin' son of a bull-tease! And you'd had me feelin' sorry for you."

"Honey, not only can I walk, I can dance."

I flip several bills on the tousled bed, offer her my brightest, most heartwarmin' Sam Houston of a grin, plop into the Kid's wheelchair and push the black cherry throttle forward. The concave screen door slaps against the balsawood frame in a breeze, and I don't look back at the flies stuck to the mesh. They are waylaid travelers in a dry spell.

Outside. The silence of the desert. The silence of the air. The silence of oil pooled in deep underground channels.
*

I can tell the Kid is really excited, and if he could bounce up and down in his seat, he would. We've already packed, setting to leave this morning. Squatting next to the Kid's wheelchair, I watch Jocko make some last minute adjustments, lying under the engine, his back against a rolling slider, the front of the truck on lift blocks.

He writhes and squeezes his body so he can get at obscenely difficult spaces, commenting that something needs a lube here and there, and he's not exactly happy with the bolt joints and the spindles. But it'll do. I'm worried that the truck might roll off the lifts and crush Jocko's chest. Lord knows. I always think the worst.

He then opens the driver's door, checking the steering accessory for the Kid, a cork-shaped device he inserted called a "spinner" and the hand controls for the accelerator and brake. The kind of things you'd install for disabled drivers.

The door slams, Jocko turns and bows, sweeping the ground with his hat, like he's Gene Autry having just finished a ballad and expectin' to win a woman's heart and says he thinks it's ready. Nods and repeats this. The voice fainter. He brushes off caked dust, grime from his jeans.

Wait, says the Kid. Somebody has to test drive it. You don't take nuthin' out on the road unless you test drive it.

"My exact thoughts," says Jocko.

"Then you're a genius," says the Kid with devil eye and smirk.

Jocko digs into the pocket of his smeared jeans and whips out a set of keys. He dangles them high over his head. So who's gonna test drive it? he asks in a flippant voice.

Me! says the Kid, attempting to move his crooked elbow from the wheelchair's leather armrest. It's my truck and I'm driving it to Mexico. Hell, I'm eighteen and got a license. Right, Kip?

Who's your daddy? I say.

You taught me to drive, he says.

Jocko throws the set of keys up into the air. The kids pushes the throttle and tries to reach up with his better arm, but I snatch them first.

If you want the keys so bad, I say, you work for them, boy. So the Kid drives towards me with this big goose of a grin, and just as he's a foot or so from me, I throw the keys to Jocko. And this goes on, this back and forth game of throwing the keys. So, finally, the Kid, pale and huffing, screams out to give him the goddamn keys. And I do. I drop the keys in the Kid's lap, tickled at the sight of his groping for them, the jerky movements of the left hand, and the color eventually returns to his face. He holds the keys, jiggling them, taunting me. Somehow, the shoe always winds up on the other foot.

“Okay,” says Jocko, “you test drive, but with me.”

I scrape my boot heel in the dirt, making some kind of lame skid mark.

“No,” says the Kid, “I can test drive myself. Right, Kip?”

His lips coil into a tiny smile. I shrug at Jocko.

Jocko eyeballs us, first me, then the Kid. His gaze is glowering, stern. His lips mesh and punctuate a comma at one end.

"You never drove alone. It's different when you drive alone."

"It's not my call," I say, "but it should be OK. He done good with me in the pickup. And there wasn't no spinner."

"But you took the wheel good part of the time, huh? Suppose he spasms out? Or maybe somethin' loose?"

I turn my palms up to the sky. "Jocko, what can I say? You wanna break his heart? Go ahead. He's your kid. Me? I don't think he needs a chaperone."

Jocko shakes his head, aiming his forehead towards the ground. He paces back and forth, the steps, gadding and annoying. He stops. The stern gaze is replaced by a fragile one.

"I don't know," he says. "I don't like it."

"Remember when you were a kid? You never took a risk? You can't live like that. You said so yourself. Only a hatful of good days. The rest is bullshit. Your words, hombre."

Jocko slides a hand around his neck and rubs it. He sticks a straight finger towards the Kid. "Just a short distance. From here to where the road bends. You hear me?"

"Deal," says the Kid.

"And you come right back."

So the Kid, smiling like some cocky game show contestant, wheels over to the truck. I lift and carry him into the cab, his lifeless legs dangling, and adjust the front seat back. The Kid is tall and lanky, although from a sitting position, you might not guess his correct height. I buckle him in.

He starts the engine, brimming under that slender nose, a nose that God knows he didn't inherit from us. Jocko's is bulbous and mine too, but creased.

“No speeding,” yells Jocko. “Keep it 35 and under.”

"35? A squirrel's ass."

"I mean it. Hey! You listening?"

Jocko turns to me, raises his shoulders, spreads his hands.

"See what I mean?"

"Don't worry. He's cool. Won't speed."

"He's just like his mama. Give her a five, and she wants a twenty to blow on lottery tickets. She never won a nickel from lottery tickets."

Jocko's cheeks puff and collapse. He throws a mean stare into the Kid.

We watch the truck take off, down the long dirt road that stretches past a growing haze over the distant hills. My thoughts drift towards the shop, how I will miss it, how nothing good ever lasts.

The engine grumbles, then roars, the truck picking up speed too soon, weaving on the road, and Jocko shouts out, "Slow down! Slow down, you son of a bitch."

But the Kid continues to race and swerve. I want to look away, maybe to someplace over the hills, to the source of the haze, the looming sunrise, its tangerine glow.

"He's gonna lose it," says Jocko.

"He'll do alright," I say.

C'mon, boy, whispers Jocko, let up the speed and straighten her out.

My thoughts rattle. Jocko's neck veins popping, blue and snake-like under a thin gauze of skin.

The truck grows distant and smaller, but the engine continues to whine and whir, the shrill sound of it swelling in our ears, hurting mine, until it winds down. Then the whirring again, the clanking of the truck's body bouncing over dirt and stones, the sound of the automatic transmission revving, a whine soaring into space. Jocko yelling out to turn back, the drop coming up. You crazy kid.

The Kid's doin' OK for awhile, straight and all, then the truck veers off the side of the road, and Jocko's screeching voice to brake, to brake, for chrissake. The truck smashing up against a boulder, Jocko leaning forward, squinting his eyes, their tight azure prisms intense and ravaged, the front end up in the air and starting to roll, Jocko's arms, bent at the elbow, raising like two levers, fingers beginning to clench, the truck nose-diving into a gully, spinning over.

The explosion—a bright orange flame.

It's like the kind you see on CNN, of humvees and buildings exploding in Iraq. But the sound of the truck bursting, distant, yet too close. The kind of thing you'd deny, like the image of your face in a bending mirror.

Jocko and I stand in some primordial sense of dumbness. We are cavemen uncomprehending a distant fire. That fire. Our fire.

I rush into the garage, grabbing two fire extinguishers, and Jocko shuffling behind, the sound of the door opening to the pick up.

We drive closer to the orange flame that burns wild, that mocks us. A second explosion. This one less violent. Clouds of black smoke billowing. Behind the steering wheel, Jocko's face is frozen, as he stares out at the stretch of winding road.

"No, Scott, you ain't dead," he says. "You ain't out of time. You were gettin' strong. Hell, you weren't gonna walk. You were gonna dance." He accelerates and I think it won't matter. The speed. Not a bit. His marble-like gaze, the slack-jaw, remind me of lifeless horses on carousels. The clutch grinds out a low metallic rattle and the pick up stutters and stalls, vibrations humming inside my body.

Lord, grant this stir-crazy fool one more miracle, he says, lowering his head.

We jump out and spray the Kid's truck with a white mist, me taking one side, him the other. The heat from the flame scorches our faces, pulverizes my thoughts.

I'm looking for any sign that the Kid might still be alive. Ducking under the overturned truck, I spray towards the bottom. The hiss of white mist. Red-yellow sparks flaring. I inspect the cab through the flames. Gasping. In a broken side mirror, my face is reflected in bits and pieces, crack lines and jagged angles.

I spot the hand and part of the arm, the flesh black and copper. The sound of Jocko crying like a little boy echoes in my brain's endless prairies. My brain growing numb to all cactus prickly pain and coyote-like hunger. A third degree numbing. I wish.

For weeks, Jocko blames himself for not doing a thorough check, that the truck wobbled a good bit, that he had spotted it too late. I often imagine the truck, its burned frame and springs, its corroded tie rods and rocker arms, the ruined axle, lying as refuse in another junkyard, the sacrifice of whatever exchangeable parts.

In a small trailer we've rented, the shop already sold, Jocko stands sipping a morning cup of instant coffee, the color of a lizard's eye, his back towards me. He says he's headed west, maybe New Mexico, maybe Albuquerque, start a new shop. I tell him I'll be gone in a couple of weeks too, where, I'm not sure, but that he should hold on to whatever memories, the three of us, we managed the best we could, didn't we?

I tell Jocko that at first I had nightmares about the Kid, the way he would stare, saying something about the speed of a thought. But lately, I've been dreaming about that place, that island, all crazy kinds of thoughts.

He turns to me, like someone unfamiliar, a man impersonating Jocko, and not Jocko, and there is an unfocused cast to his eyes.

"Wouldn't it be somethin' if the Kid made it to Mexico? I mean, even though we saw the arm and all . . ."

"Sure. It would be."

" . . . and things like that happen all the time. I mean, people claiming they see old relatives given up for dead, or even, it's crazy shit, aliens land in the desert. You know, stuff like that."

"Sure," I say, "I know."

"And he'd be having a ball."

"Girls offering him their titties."

"Sure. The Kid was still cute."

"The Kid was."

"This world cannot hold his ashes."

"No, it can't."

"Maybe . . . maybe at a taco bar on the moon."

"The moon. Sure. Taco bars are everywhere."

With deep hammocks stretching under his eyes, Jocko offers me a slow, lingering smile that could be mine. After all, we're twins. It's a smile that could sail for days.
*

Before we packed and separated, we whittled away the days, pretending to be busy, but we weren't, hardly talking to each other, maybe lost in our own thoughts of carefully guarded worlds. I started to dig up the Kid's old stacks of newsletters, perusing them, searching for that article he showed me.

Pictures of desert basins and burros, orange and red limestone mountains puncturing through the top of one photo, an old train station, maybe a tourist attraction now, a straggle of travelers with their cameras, sun glasses, women with large, floppy hats. A grove of Joshua trees. I shuffled and reshuffled through every stack. No, I thought. It wasn't in any of them. That blue sea-turtle, its shell of a portable home, the endless stretch of a white-washed shore.

I thought about telling Jocko, but maybe, for all I knew, he could have taken the newsletter himself, kept it or tore it up. Who knows. I didn't ask.

Then, outside the camper, I'd sit in the Kid's wheelchair, maybe for hours at a stretch, just staring out, surveying the vast expanse of plain and desert.

When Jocko wasn't watching, I'd try to imitate the Kid's deft way of performing sharp turns, sudden spins, the wheels churning out a chalky dust. Couldn't quite get the hang of it. I began to tinker with the wheelchair, entertained the notion of inserting a double-motor, a new controller, some grade-A Honda parts, just to see how fast it could go. Just to see how far it could travel.


Earth and Mars

She’s a big bouncy breeze of a girl with hair the color of summer marigolds, winter-bare roots denouncing the legitimacy of Clairol bleached blondes, a spackle of freckles around the copper-cold nose. Over that Cupid’s bow of a lip. Love is not for Big girls with bikini-slim aspirations. Mindy traipses into our living room, uninvited, full of herself and false smiles. This snowy evening of a crescent-shaped moon. I wonder. Is there starry-eyed love for sale on the moon?

She hurls a beige tweed coat on the couch. Leaves the rabbit-fur vest intact. Plops on the carpet, sandwiching herself like some uncut tomato between thin layers of bread -- me and my little brother nicknamed “Jazzy.” His lips smack when he chews too hard on Bazooka Joe.

We’re watching some 50’s sci-fi flick on the color TV that sometimes flickers. Images of astronauts trudging in box-like outfits, perhaps made from tin foil, red aliens who speak like sports announcers with scratchy throats, and everything on that planet, so cold, cold, cold. Pervasive as the threat of Commies hiding under Castro convertible sofas.

It’s 1962 and I haven’t made third base with a girl since Suzy Walkman, drunk on warm beer in my father‘s grumbling Impala, parked in neutral, mistook me for Michael Landon in I Was a Teenage Werewolf.

“Guess what,” says Mindy.

Who is your leader? says Astronaut Blakely.

“I’m joining the Maryknolls. Save the world.”

Gallius is the supreme omni-morph, says Angry Alien no.1.

“Mindy,” I say, “you’re Jewish. Your parents would never let . . .”

“Could convert. Dare me.”

“Yeah, right,” says Jazzy, lying prone, hands clasped under chin, face smug, gooseberry eyes focused on red aliens.

“Who asked you, Beaver?” says Mindy, “go play with a driedel.”

“With a what?”

“Need a ride to the university tomorrow?” asks Mindy

“No,” I say, “ my VW is fixed.”

“Yeah right. Fixed! Hardy Har Har,” blurts Jazzy, mimicking the boisterous Ralph Cramden.

Mindy’s face turns a shade of purple.

“Getting a ride with Lisa the Tease?”

Mindy stares at me drop-jaw anticipation.

“Oh, my Gawd.”

“Mindy, she’s not giving me a lift.”

“He wishes,” says Jazzy.

“Oh, my Gawd,” says Mindy.

“Mindy . . .What did I just say.”

I don’t trust this planet, says Astronaut Caulder. I smell a set-up

Mindy could never handle rejection of any kind. I’ve rejected women only twice in my cocoon lifespan of 21 years. Mindy and Mindy. I rejected her twice.

I love Lisa Lansky. Little Miss Sunshine herself, grown up, buxom-perfect, peach-colored hair, delish as a Sundae in summer heat. Lisa Lansky is my ideal of the ideal imprisoned princess in a burning tower of sighs from which I will resuce. Lisa Lansky, who appraises me the way she would an ant found under her school cafeteria lunch tray, never returns my phone calls.

You’ll never get what you want on this planet, says the three-eyed Gallius.

I’m shut in for the winter. Feed myself on essays and chemical formulas for school. Winter passes. Leaves change colors and flowers bloom in a photosynthetic groping for light and water. I wish nature could cure my solitude, weed out my subterranean dreams about Lisa, by photosynthesis.
Sticky summer weighs heavy outside my window. Could float a body. Haven’t seen Mindy in months. I answer the door.

Mindy stands before me, slim as a Prada model, in blue tent dress, hair, darkened, sports a Jackie Kennedy French curl. Sapphire eyes flash Jane Mansfield sex and Shirley Temple innocence. “Mindy, is that really you?”

“Who were you expecting? Lisa Lamebrain?”

My bedroom. We slow dance to a Sam Cooke LP. “Lisa’s engaged,” I whisper. “Told you so,” her voice the lazy seduction of a hushed waterfall. “Told you she would only bring you down.”

Darling, you send me.

We dance in slow circles. My lips rub and tease her ear. The waft of Channel perfume No. 5 drifts up my nose. I think of a bonnet of dizzy butterflies. Her heart is a door to summer and ecstatic revelations. She leans her head on my shoulder. Goose bumps tingle along the slope my neck, my back. Maybe they will turn to fever sores. I think Mars is descending to earth, warming in the process. Heating up, actually.

Are earth and Mars meant for each other?

And it’s all I can to keep my hands from sliding over the marshmallow-soft breasts, groping to undo tiny crazy buttons, and she whispers no, no, no, not this time, not ready, sweaty sex will give her pimples, and outside I imagine trimmed front lawns, languid as little girls stretched on deck chairs, the sigh of muggy afternoons, the growl of my uncontained red hunger, men sweating in stalled cars, the poise of grass-housed katydids seeing everything multiply in green, green, green.


Is There Life on Mars?




She sat on his log-hard shoulders as he took giant steps, surveyed the prairie that was hers too. The ice crystals hung from trees like pointed little fingers. From her mitten, Freddy the Tiger dangled by his tail. Marjorie felt she was somebody else or a girl richer than a man sitting on the top of the world.

It's getting cold, her father said.

She was wrapped tight in her coat and scarf like the package delivered last week. A book for her mother that had strange lights on the cover. There were words she could not understand: UFOs, crop circles, black holes.

She remembered her mother saying that in Texas several people reported strange sightings, like the lights on the book cover.

"Are we Martians?" Marjorie asked. She imagined Freddy the Tiger winking at her.

"Just in winter," her father said. "Only Mars is someplace colder. A place where you'd float forever, forget your name."

And Texas, she said. Where's Texas?

Someplace far and deep, he told her. Someplace where you could get lost and they'd never find you.
He carried her back towards the house.

Inside, she stood next to her mother who was cutting long sticks of rhubarb to make a preserve. On the counter, Freddy the Tiger sat quietly, watching everything with a wide careless grin. Squeezing her hands, she imagined her love for her father like the pecans now in her palm, the ones she could never crush.

In a deep crisp voice, her father asked her mother, what had she been telling Marjorie about Martians.

* * *

The night he asked her to lie still, she said to keep the engine running, the heater moaning. In the backseat, they were naked as tiger moths. Under her bare flesh that was thinner than a memory, she felt the cold made her too visible. Like an actress forgetting her lines. Marjorie opened the door and adjusted her long skirt, her sheep-skin boots. He lit a cigarette.

She folded her arms. Staring down at the hard ground that was harder than her thoughts, she admitted he was the first boy she let enter her without a promise.
He chortled. How did it feel, he asked.

Like riding a comet. Like giving birth to a tiny star.
Are they just words, he said. "Stupid words? Or you mean that?"

They were words, she knew, from a poem a girl had read in class. But Marjorie wrote the poem for her because the classmate hated to do anything that made her gawk over her own words, expose her braces. Marjorie knew they were really her words.

Something distracted her. That light, she said, pointing. A space ship.

Sundog, he said.

No, not a mock sun, she said. She wanted to believe it was a space ship. She wanted to believe in something amazing. It loomed closer over the horizon, to the right of its twin sun, her parents' house, about a mile past a twirling road of dirt that exhaled dust in summer.

They lost track of the time. She wanted to hear him make promises that could sweep her like a dust devil. They circled around each other. He said it was getting late, dark. The sundog and its twin disappeared.

I want to get married someplace warm, she said, running one hand across her breasts.

I can't afford Cancun. He dug his boot into another cigarette butt.

You can't afford to stay cold all your life, she said, and walked into the night.

* * *

Years passed like tiny feet in the night. They settled in a ranch-styled house outside of Dallas. It shielded her from the scorching heat in that part of the country. It chased away her memories of cold nights back in Wyoming.

In that house, she watched her son grow tall and forgetful. Away at college, he had wired her for money. For books, rising tuition, the increase in room and board. She thought it was really for something else. When he arrived home during college breaks, his manner turned taciturn, distant. He scratched the side of his face, mumbled one or two word answers she could barely make out. She wished she could be a fly lodged on the rim of his ear, his shoulder. That way, she could watch his every move, how he was spending her money, cutting her leash of maternal love.

Her husband sported a handlebar mustache, thick, graying. It reminded her of something soft and deceptive. Perhaps a raccoon. Raccoons, she knew, could be dangerous. They could bite, infect you with a constant hunger, delusions of nightly thirst. She accused him of having affairs. She imagined the voices of his women, wisps in the night, their bodies, elusive, pieces of evidence turning to phantoms. At night, legs splayed against the floor, they played Scrabble. She combined letters that could never form words. He always got up in the middle of a game for a beer.

The sheriff arrived at her house one day. He sat at the edge of the sofa and mentioned something about the heat. She didn't know why he was there, dismissed the thought that her husband or son committed a crime. Hunched forward, he said he had some bad news. Her son was killed in an accident on an overpass above Route 61. She remembered when that overpass was first built. It reminded her of something swerving with crazy arms. She wondered how something with crazy arms could get you anywhere faster.

"It's a bad site for accidents," the sheriff said, rubbing his forehead. "I can't tell you how many. This road rage thing. The heat makes people crazy."
It can't be my son, she told him. Her son was alive that morning. And after all, she thought, it takes years to die. Her train of thought broke into tiny incomprehensible cars.

He described his features from the license, the photo ID, the actual face at the scene that she now feared was disfigured: the crown of chestnut hair, the hazel eyes (gimlet, as she always thought of them), the smear of upturned nose, the slack mouth he inherited from his father. In deadpan voice, he repeated the full name like reciting a license plate.

She insisted it couldn't be him, maybe someone who looked like him.

But the driver's license, he said, the face and matching photo, wasn't it more than just a coincidence?

She stood in the middle of the living room, felt her feet, her eyes grow hard; she wished for blindness, for deafness. Imagine being Freddy the Tiger again. She felt too deadened to cry. Later, she knew she would come alive, in the bedroom, at the hairdresser's, maybe in the kitchen, washing dishes. It would hit her. She would cry for years and never shed a tear. A feat of strength. A minor undocumented miracle.

The sheriff rose, and mentioned something about signing some papers. She shivered at the thought. Her son was no longer someone she wanted to identify. A motionless mass of bone and flesh that was also hers. The sheriff left.

That night, she smelled a woman's perfume on her husband's skin. It was a different scent than the previous ones. This one was Ocean Dream, not the wild orchard of some topless dancer he had met in a Dallas club, a month before. She told him their son was dead. She told him she had to identify him earlier that afternoon.

In the bedroom, peeling off his boots, he said, "What?" and said it again. Why didn't you call me? he asked, a fury rising in his voice.
You . . . You might have been busy.

He turned abruptly to face her, to see her in her thin white skin that didn't smell of rose or orchid, or even of Chinese oranges, her favorite scent. He made a move as if to lunge at something, an object he could grasp, throw against the wall. Instead, his knees buckled, and his lips trembled. She imagined him growing smaller, down to a child's level. She wanted to hold him, if only for a brief moment, to keep him from shrinking, but she couldn't stand the scent of someone else's orchard in her bedroom.
It really wasn't an accident, she told him. She didn't believe in them. It was something else. Some god, some power she couldn't understand, took him away. What was the word she was looking for? Absconded. Yes. That was the correct word. Some higher power absconded with their son. If there was a god, she said, he lived in a cold climate and very far away. He was a lonely god, an alien, and he needed humans for warmth. But absconded, she repeated, was the correct word.

After that night, they never played another game of Scrabble.

* * *

In the room that was not hers, there were objects, photos, hairbrushes, faded watercolor paintings, stuffed animals, that could be hers, when she was younger, when she was somebody else.

The woman, dressed like a ghost, pressed her fingers into Marjorie's wrist.

"Eighty-two," she said, "almost her exact age." She said this turning to the man Marjorie called Dr. Freeze. He was bald with smooth skin and Marjorie wondered if he ever had hair. Maybe, he was a baby who shot up too fast. Like her own son.

"Mrs. Barnes," said Dr. Freeze, "do you know where you are?"

"Yes," she said, "somewhere on Mars."

"No. You're in Saint Anthony's nursing home in Dallas."

"How did I get here? By space ship? I don't remember coming here."

Dr. Freeze twisted his lips into a wry smile. He scrawled something in a chart.

She wondered if he would melt in warm climates.
And this, Marjorie said, writhing to free herself of a vest restraint that reminded her of an apron tethered too high—what is this?

It's for your safety, said the ghost who at times seemed to blend into the walls. You've had too many falls. Marjorie didn't like the sound of her voice. She wondered if the ghost had a shady past.

I'm changing her medications, announced Dr. Freeze.
"Hey," Marjorie yelled, "I've heard that line before. What does that mean around here?" Even prisoners of black holes, she knew, had rights.

It was the ghost's turn.

"Honey, do you know who that man is?" She pointed to the bed next to Marjorie’s.

Propping herself on her elbows, she struggled to turn.

"Yes, it's my son."

"No, darlin'. It's your husband. We put the two of you in the same room."

"Oh, how nice. It should be that way, shouldn't it?"

The ghost then held up a photo of a young man posing in tight denims and cowboy hat to Marjorie's face. He was leaning against a pick-up and his face was scruffy. He flaunted a proud smile. Next to him was a girl with a belly bulging like a watermelon. She wore a mischievous smile.

"Honey, you remember that handsome devil?"

"I remember a dust devil."

"And the one next to him? Who's that girl?"

Marjorie squeezed her eyes, craned her neck. Her eyes danced a zigzag pattern over the photo. The girl in the picture seemed to be staring out at her, smiling, as if to say, "Why don't you step in?"

"It was me in somebody else's shoes," she said to the woman who could shift shapes, blend into the walls.
Dr. Freeze shone a light in both of Marjorie's eyes. The sundog light grew large, eclipsed everything. Something clicked and he put the strange pen-like instrument in his shirt pocket.

"Mrs. Barnes, who is the president of our country?"

Marjorie laughed.

Now how would she know that, she said. She wasn't from his country. And Mars was a place colder than his eyes. Mountains and craters where you could drift over forever.

Her captors whisked past the door. The ghost lady turned and winked at her.

Placing both hands over the bed sheets, Marjorie sunk her head, listened closely. The world, the one she was on, was growing still. She could have cried.


Blue Lagoon Eyes


His eyes looked crazier as the warm days grew longer. Throughout the semester, his ramblings had grown more erratic and zigzag. He started to smash chalk against the board. He kept emphasizing the correct proportion of orange and blue in a lit Bunsen burner and said blue was the most sacred of all colors. Then, scanning our faces, he announced that most of the students at St. Ignatius were composed of spiritually dispossessed adolescents who would drift far beyond their graduation date. Some of us rolled our eyes. Only Peter stared straight ahead, never flinching, that complex look of hurt in his otherworldly blue eyes.

Looking back, I like to think of him as Peter of Lost Souls.

At the sound of the bell, we scattered into the hallway and forgot ourselves.

Summer. The bubble gum smell of the streets enticed us. On our transistor radios, The Rolling Stones were again no. 1. Brother Mac’s eyes now resembled tiny dark fish, twitching and snapping, perhaps looking for some clear sea. I kept imagining this hunger, monstrous, inarticulate.

Looking back, I would pronounce that hunger as a blue lagoon. Well, kind of.

It was a Friday. The last one before finals. The air, hot, heavy. There was a slight mist coming in from the factories. You could see them from the windows. Brother Mac ordered us to close our books and he started asking questions. He told us to stand up and face the back wall. I heard him close the windows. His quick footsteps, back and forth, or the stillness. We stood in our suits and uniform trousers, pressed by our mothers, mocked by the public school kids in our neighborhood. My palms sweated. Brother Mac accused of us of not studying for the whole semester.

Do you think you can make it up now?

He started throwing chalk at us. Whoever got hit had to answer his insane questions. If a wrong answer, he gave you three days detention and an assignment. If you got it right, you just leave. It was already past three. The chalk whizzed past my head. It hit Dominic.

“What is the boiling point of phosphorous?”

“Phosphorous, Brother? Uhm…I think the same as phosphor.”

Somebody giggled.

“Three days detention, Mr. Corrillo. Good-bye.”

The chalk ricocheted across the room.

“Kids. I’m not in favor of concentration camps. But they do have their purpose.”

The heat was making me dizzy. I turned. Peter stood as rigid as the wall, same one I was looking at. I wanted to get inside his head. He had all the answers. I turned. The chalk pinged against Robert McGovern. One side of his face was red. I felt the drain.

“Mr. McGovern, why is there carbonic acid in this room?”

There was a strange hum coming off the street.

“Okay. Let’s make this easy. Easy enough for kids. Is there carbonic acid in this room?”

Girls laughing outside. Two car doors slammed.

“Yes, Brother.”

“Yes! Yes, there is. In some form, right? Now, Mr. McGovern, why is there carbonic acid in this room?”

The whole room seemed to swell. Swell out of time. And we could always look back on this moment-bubble.

“Three days detention, Mr. McGovern.”

An eraser slapped against someone’s back.

“Mr. Zeigler.”

“Yes, Brother?”

“Why?”

“Why what, Brother?”

“You weren’t listening, were you, Artie? Maybe you were thinking of girls. Blue-eyed girls in swimsuits. But you don’t want to stay ignorant of the laws of physical science all your life, do you?”

“No, Brother.”

“Good. Now why is there carbonic acid in this room?”
My starched collar was wet.

“Because we are breathing, Brother, because we are breathing out.”

“Very good, Mr. Zeigler! Very good job. You may leave. Good luck on your finals.”

The room became quiet again. I look across at Peter. Tried to look at his face. He must have felt hot, tired.

My mind drifted. I started thinking of all those late night prisoner of war movies. Only here, there was chalk.

The thump of a book cover. The boom of his voice.

“Now here’s a bonus question, kiddies. What color is the water in a blue lagoon? Think hard before you answer.”

“Mr. Allison?”

“In a what, Brother?”

“Three days detention for not listening.”

The chalk hit the back wall, flew back
.
“Mr. Clay?”

“It depends what time of day and what season, Brother.”

“Don’t get so technical on us, Mr. Clay. Three days detention.”

He now stood behind us. I felt his breathing. For some reason, I sensed he felt cool. My cheeks were burning. I wanted to run.

“Peter. Peter. Perhaps you can help us.”

“I’ll try, Brother.”

His voice sounded weak.

“Peter. What is the color of a blue lagoon?”

I looked over at Peter. His head took on a strange tilt. It was as if he was studying his shadow.

“The color is blue, Brother.”

Peter turned towards me. Brother Mac stood against the back wall facing Peter. A smile.
Cautious. Slight. His eyes were no longer fish. No longer looking for blue water. They found it.

Peter eyes were blue lagoon blue.

“Yes, that is correct. And sometimes the water appears green, doesn’t it?”

”Yes, Brother.”

He dismissed us.

Three years later, I graduated St. Ignatius. My number being too high, I wasn’t drafted. Over the years, the Vietnam War faded from our forebrains, but we wore its memory on our faces, in our ironic way of speaking. I dated a girl for two years before she dumped me for a veteran. The first car I drove was a ’68 Impala. I worked in the back kitchen of a restaurant, chopping cabbage for cole slaw, dicing carrots or setting a timer for perfect biscuits, before I went to college.

And it was the last I heard of Brother Mac or Peter of Lost Souls. Rumors had it that they crossed a certain border in a ’66 Chevy station wagon. What happened after that I do not know.

And I have lived long enough to survive my own drownings. My own kidnappers.

----------------------------------

The Scoring of Anonymous Lovers

It started when you were nineteen. Your friend, the same one who offered you pot outside the bar, drove you in a knocking Mustang to the city. The place was called The Peacock Room and they frisked you at the door. Inside a dank room, the women, mostly black or Hispanic, dressed in skimpy bathing suits, sat in rows before the men, who you thought were mostly drunks or losers verging on homeless. Some of the women, especially the black one who looked like she lifted weights, seemed bored or angry-- the pinched lips, a flick of the head, the quick roll of eyes, the uneasy shifting in the seat.

What pissed them off, you concluded, was the hot-bodied Jamaican. She was stealing all the clients. So you stood, handed her your ticket, and followed. She washed you down with warm water and soap, and in a kitchen-space of a room, you were nervous as all hell. She gave the best blow job of your life, but when she undressed, you closed your eyes and lost your erection to last night's dream of your father becoming short of breath. She kept sighing and in a soft accented voice, said, It’s not working. Looking back, you blamed it on the pot.

But you kept returning there, say for years, until it was shut down by the police. You must have walked for a good hour in the snow before you stopped denying that it was gone.

***

In college art class, you’re drawing a picture of a Manga girl who reminds you of the one at the massage parlor last night. Big eyes, a squiggle of a nose, a dash of lips. The girl next to you always compliments you about your sketches. One day she asks you if you would like to hang out. You shrink in your seat, turn your head, and pretend you’re starting a new sketch. How can you tell her that you can only connect in spurts? After that day, she never asks you again and she sits in a different seat, two rows over from you. You notice she always brings ham or cheese sandwiches to class, sometimes on pumpernickel, sometimes on rye, and you want to ask her if her mom still makes them. Or what kind of cheese. But that would be risking too much.

***
It's a rainy night and you're back on the streets of the city. A black girl is hustling you, calling you baby, says it's only thirty-five bucks for everything. You tell her you're broke, but she won't go away. Okay, you say, what does everything include? She says everything as she gropes at your crotch.

She leads you up two flights of stairs and into a room with a single flat bed and a TV that plays static. Perhaps because of the open window, the room smells of the street below, a rain mixed with sewer water. She tells you to go to the bathroom and piss, so you'll come better. But you notice there's no bathroom in the room. You hand her the money and she says she'll be right back, but she never returns.

***
Your perfect girl is pretty in a plain sort of way and makes you laugh and leaves you with more than what you had before she arrived. She would never hurt you on Sundays and you believe her when she tells you that she was a virgin before she met you. Your perfect girl can bake any kind of brownie and looks good in jeans and there's a certain bounce to her voice. If she's down, it won't take much to bring her back up. She attended the same grammar school you did and you felt at some point that marriage, no matter the consequence, was inevitable because, after all, she's perfect for you.

Your perfect girl is standing a few feet from you at the all-night hot dog and health drink stand, talking to a guy who is a good head taller than her and about an inch or so above you in most every department. He's making her laugh, and she doesn't notice you or if she does, she can't comprehend what you're doing standing on this street corner at this time of night, hanging out by yourself. She doesn't know where you've been.

You want to put your fist through the window of the hot dog place, the glass reflecting back your perfect girl, but that would only make you bleed in peacock colors.


***

Your new favorite is the one on 23rd. The girls are friendly and have ample breasts, maybe implants, but who gives a shit. Last week, a girl who had the body of a surfer babe, a kind of slick efficiency about her demeanor, rode you, and it was the first time you ever came with a stranger on top.

But the one you like best is the petite one with pockmarked skin. She looks cheap and funny with her oversized sandals and tight halter, but she says you have nice fingers. In fact, after you insert them inside her and perform a gentle swoosh, her eyes close and you attempt to kiss her. She Frenches just a little, but she’s the only one who doesn’t insist on using condoms. With her, you come with a strange quiver.

Every time you visit there, after the madam asks which one, the petite one rises and says me! me! You hear her whisper to another girl: He has nice fingers.

But fearing monotony, or maybe because you want to hurt her just a little, you’re picking a different girl.

***

You turned 32 last week. At your mother’s, you ask how is dad. She says if he agrees to a second bypass, things will look better. After a long silence, her cleaning the table that you know is already clean by a thousand lemon detergent liquids, she asks you if you have a steady girl yet. You say nothing because nothing is better than straining for words.

She says, You know you have to be aggressive about this. And you’re not getting any younger.

One of these days, you’ll tell her you do, just to shut her up.

***

It’s Saturday afternoon. May is green-gentle and sprouting white blossoms. The walls of the room are salmon pink. She has the perfect body, not too thin, supple breasts, milky skin, a fleshy cute face that might hide a bitter-sweet longing for Korea. She speaks poor English and she has to repeat several times if you want to try something different. She demonstrates for you to rub your cock between her breasts. You think this is a good way to get excited, but within minutes, you're ejaculating.

As she stands and wipes herself off with a paper towel, she says, Told you not to come on me. Told you.

You apologize and know you’ll never pick this one again.

***

One time, you planned to hang yourself in your parents' garage. It wasn't as easy as you first thought. Standing on an aluminum step ladder, you realized there are angles and exact measurements to consider, the stretch and thickness of rope, how long you'd remain conscious after your neck broke. It was really too overwhelming a chore, when all you wanted to do was to exhale life.

Just then, your father came in and asked what you were doing. You invented some lame excuse like you were planning to hang a rope to practice your climbs for gym class, increase your stamina.

Later that night, he sat down in your room and avoided direct eye contact. You shut off the stereo with new Boise speakers, and after making inept stabs at small talk, he asked you if you ever considered suicide because he said when he was your age, he thought about it often. You shook your head to mean no, then you realized that was a mistake because everyone has considered it at least a dozen times or probably more.

He said suicide is what cowards do. You're not a coward, are you?

You looked up, prepared to give him some three-word bullshit answer. But he already left the room.

***
At work, you distract yourself from some CAD drawings and doodle. You’re drawing a picture of a vagina from different angles. A hungry vagina. A vagina that can swallow you whole. The open mouth of a vagina. The vagina, you think, is where the world came from and it‘s always dark, a place you slid through before they gave you a name.

Your supervisor, the one with a pot belly and pink cheeks, the one always bringing fresh donuts in the morning, walks over and asks if you’ve completed the exploded views of some ball bearings and elbow joints. Oh, you say, they were done an hour ago. Aren’t we efficient, he says. He’s always inviting you over for family barbecues, and you're just so full of out-of-town excuses.

***

You're watching them lower the casket into the ground. The clouds are low, scuttling, and if they fell to earth, it would be hard to see anything, get anywhere except by touch. Behind a black veil, your mother mumbles something about how a heart attack can take anyone at any time, that he was still too young for this to happen. But how young is young, you think. Sixty years or six hundred years of a half-lived life?

A tall platinum blond ambles over and offers your mother her condolences. Your mother simply nods, says nothing. The woman reminds you of Victoria Ghotti, maybe a slightly younger version. Then she takes your hand, whispers in your ear that your father was a good man, and kisses you on the cheek.

You recall that your father brought this woman over the house a few times, said she was an associate from work who was helping him catch up on end-of-month reports. Your mother served coffee and thin slices of pineapple cheesecake, then sat in the dining room with pinched lips, folded arms. You sensed she was stewing.

Later, you suspected this woman was your father's mistress, that he fed her bits of himself that he could not share with any one. One day you asked him about this woman, and he was very abrupt, saying that she left the job for a better paying one. From that time on, you noticed a new bottle of pink pills in the medicine cabinet. You had to look up the name and what it was for.

Back at the house, your mother prepares a tuna casserole and a garlic soup that she's infamous for burning. Your one cousin with the lazy eye and bad case of talk-arrhea, is telling you that she is worried about the job market for mechanical engineers. The market changes, you tell her. She graduates in two months. Just then, your mother walks over and whispers in a firm tone to go to the bathroom and wash your face.

Standing at the mirror, you study the smudge of lipstick below your right cheek. How come your ditsy cousin didn't say anything? You're blushing, but then again, you always did.

***

Now, this is fucking strange. Last week one offered you coke and like an asshole you thought she was an undercover cop. Now you circled this block three times and you still can’t find this hole-in-the-wall joint. Eventually, you squint at the tiny brass numbers that match the ones on the scrap of paper in your back pocket.

You ring the buzzer, tell her that you phoned before, and give her the same name you used. She lets you in.

The elevator shakes and you get off at the third floor. The hallway is empty, the rooms behind walls, soundless, perhaps abandoned. It's the kind of feeling you get from watching all those police shows set in Baltimore and there's a homicide suspect hiding in a tenement house. You ring another buzzer. The door opens by an inch. She's eying you up and down over the chain. Inside, you notice there is no one else besides her. You detect that there might be a fear of an immigration raid.

She’s older than the ones you’re used to. But because she’s older, you feel an mounting excitement, the way you once wanted to fuck your English teachers in ninth and tenth grades.

You're lying on your belly. Her lips press and stroke along your spine, working towards your anus. She lightly caresses the underside of your balls. It almost feels like she's brushing you, taunting you with a feather. She asks you to turn over.

You fuck this one hard, as if releasing every single missile of anger, you fuck this one--or this one-- who never told you certain things, how you were too fragile for this life, how you must lie and make people like you, how your father committed suicide by an overdose of cardiac meds. And this woman, sitting next to you, smoking your cigarette, offering a discount for another sleigh ride of a fuck, her deadened eyes speaking that it's alright, no one gives a shit-- spreads your disease of anonymity.


------------------------------------
Volume III: The Proto-Punk 8-Tracks

Red Desert (Published in Under Highway 99, 2007)

Hugh Langtree sat on the edge of a messed bed as he struggled to fit one crinkled boot up over his ankle. For a moment, he drew in the musky scent of love at the Sunset Lodge, and the girl's brisk movements in the bathroom struck him as tumbleweed. He stood, dug into his tight denim pockets, counted out a stash of twenties, and placed it on a chipped night table. He had agreed to a discount if he would drive her as close to Santa Fe as possible, putting her up overnight at his place at Glenn Canyon. She would hitchhike, she said, the rest of the way.

***

She traipsed out of the bathroom, rubbing her dirty blonde hair with a towel. He imagined her freckles as tiny dim suns. She stuffed her waitress's checkered uniform into her knapsack, and he estimated her age as around late twenties. She told him her name was "Caddy" and he made no further inquiries. Caddy or Maddie or Hattie. Would it make a difference?

During the night, she had asked him, while she unclasped her bra, what he did for a living because she said, she asks everyone that.

He drives trucks, he told her, delivering compressors and parts for refrigerators, ice machines, across state lines. Right now, he was in a slump, he said. Rumors of layoffs floated in the air, and orders slowed to an almost complete halt.

"So, living reckless?" she said.

"Somethin' like it."

She would like a job like that she told him, while she stroked her thin legs with some peach-smelling cream. Then she sat on the bed next to him, rubbing her bare foot in gentle circular strokes.

The lady she works for, she explained, sucks. She'd like a job where nobody would breathe over her back like that blade-eyed bitch, who probably doesn't get laid even by her old man.

In orange blouse and tattered jeans, she scooped the bills into a small side pocket of her knapsack and thanked him. She said she never saw him before at the Red Eagle, but then again, it was only her second week. And she wasn't giving a notice.

"How old you said you were, Mister?" She whisked back to the bathroom with a slight bounce to her gait.

"I didn't. Fifty-somethin‘. Leave it at that."

She turned and lingered outside the bathroom, facing him. She pressed the side of a comb with missing teeth to her face. A strong shaft of morning light kissed one cheekbone.

"Well, that's pretty good. Most guys I dated that age got flab in more than one place."

Hugh straightened his back; it felt stiff, full of rusty springs. He hadn't had a woman, he recollected, well, God knows when.

They sauntered out, jumped in his truck, a blue Ford Ranger, then drove along the low waterbed of Lake Powell. Inside the cab, they shared a bottle of straight tequila. How tall are you, mister, she inquired. He shrugged, looking straight out at the red varnish of desert in front. About 6'3'', he said in a flat voice.

She took another swig from the bottle. Thought so, she said. He glanced at her. She blinked, and for some reason, she thought about toothpicks and their flimsy arrangements.

They parked and walked along a side canyon where occasionally he peered down at the vermilion and taupe clinging to the walls like incestuous lovers. Arms of cottonwoods sprouted from the walls also, and he heard her footsteps hurry to keep pace with his long-legged stride.
He jutted his chin forward and barked for her to throw her gear in the oncoming hut, an abandoned adobe flat that he had explained was his makeshift home for now.

"This where you live, huh." She dropped her knapsack and her eyes traced the outline of the hut. "Must get cold at night." She picked up her bag and walked in. “You get visitors?” she yelled from inside the adobe's hollow.

He followed her inside, watched her as she scouted the sagging shelves made from old bark, shelves of coffee cans, candles, Evian water, soup cans, dried fruits. A Bullpup gun case leaned against a stucco wall; a sleeping bag was rolled up in a corner.

"You're only getting one freebee, tonight, mister. Then, I need my beauty sleep." She undid the elastic band from her hair.

He said nothing and swept up another bottle of tequila from the shelf. The glaring shock of daylight greeted him outside the hut, and she ran in front of him, shaking her long hair that made her pudding-like face seem more child-like.

***

He passed her the bottle. She took another swig and said she was already feeling dizzy, but it was a good kind of dizzy. Under the azure sky and amid the red rocks and patina of windblown desert, she tossed her sneakers in the air. One almost fell directly upon her; she swerved and put an elbow to her face, then turned around to him and laughed in girlish form. Could have knocked me out, she said. Strands of her hair lifted in a slight breeze.

Holding the bottle, he watched her wander with arms folded along the edge of Fiftymile Creek. At times, she turned, shaded her eyes with a flat hand, and he handed her the bottle. Goes down like razorblades, she said, but she had worse. She stood at the edge of the canyon, outstretching her arms like some lost sparrow flown too far inland, wondering if it could glide in the parched air.

She threw back her head and yelled, "I ain't the one. I ain't the one. Ain’t worthy of your love." He listened to her voice echo in the canyon, reflected off sculptures of sandstone. He wondered if her voice could reach the craters of the moon. He wondered if there were dogs on the moon who could yelp at her echoes. That, he thought, would be something.

He crouched to the ground, shook pockets of red sand in his fist, watched it spill through the bottom slit of his fist.

“What are you talkin' about,” he asked.

Words to a song she made up, she said.

She turned her head, offering a bleached smile.

"Last night, you said you loved me. But men say all kinds of things to get a discount or in the heat of the moment."

He rose and approached her, imagining her body waver in the heat.

"I don't remember sayin' that." He wiped his jeans of sand.

"Yeah, you did. It's alright. It don't mean nothin'."

She swung her head around, stared down into the canyon, up and over at the double-hued cliffs, off-white and orange, their deposits of washed calcite. Her arms remained locked straight out. It's spooky out here, she said, but gorgeous. A girl could fall in love out here, and that she said could be dangerous. She spent a lifetime, she admitted, falling in love with strangers, but love dissolved as quickly as peyote.

"You could stay here for awhile," he said, "no rush to leave."

"Plannin' to kidnap me?" she asked in a musical voice. She laughed and her laugh echoed. She tilted her head from one side to the other. He felt his face twitch as she balanced herself at the canyon's jagged fall line.

"I meant if you had no place."

"Told you I did . . . Must get lonely out here. If this is what you call home."

They walked for another mile or so, passing a marooned runabout lying slanted in the moist sand from a shrunken lake. She stopped to inspect it, ran a hand over its rough bark at the port, she turned and beamed at him. Spooky, she said.

They trudged until they reached a waterfall, known as The Cathedral in the Desert. The canyon walls curved, shooting hundreds of feet into the air. He directed his gaze at the waterfall. It bounded a good 50 foot drop. and he heard the wind rustle over the slickrock.

As she strode further away, his mind drifted and he thought of tectonic shifts that once melded sand and rock beneath his feet. He thought of dinosaur tracks still imprinted between the dunes. He thought himself as ancient and as unyielding as this country.

She screamed. He froze. I’m stuck, she yelled. Or something like it. He tried to locate the shoot of her voice and ran along the side of the canyon, some miles from Coyote Gulch. Standing at the edge, he overshadowed her, felt this monstrous power. She was hanging off a salmon-colored wall with both hands, now almost the same color of those walls.

“My foot's stuck in this damn crevice.”

“Shimmy it out.”

“Can't, Already tried. I'm not shittin' you, mister. Jesus Christ. Help me.”

He got down on all fours, bracing himself against rocks and snags. He watched her face, now wrinkled as the bedrock around her, watched her eyes turn and peruse the tamarisk and cheatgrass below. Don't look down, he warned her.

Wafts of desert flower perfume, sage aroma, earthy cottonwood bark, pulled him into a dream. He leaned over and stretched to grip her wrists. Help me, she cried. Mary, Mother of God, do something!

***

Grabbing both her wrists crosswise, he ordered her to lean forward and shake the foot loose. She slipped, her body slapping hard against the cavern wall. He studied the hazel glint in her eyes as she looked up. It's alright, he said, I got you.

Slowly, he pulled her up. Help me, he said. She rolled next to him, one arm slack against her belly. She started to laugh. He rose and glared down at her.

"Well, that was mighty stupid," he said.

"Just explorin‘."

Hand her some of the tequila, she said, because her foot throbbed. She took two generous gulps and held the bottle in the air. He snatched it and waited until she gathered herself, hobbled in front of him. He noticed the instep bruise and swell, but it didn’t pulse blood.

They trudged towards his truck, passing prickly pear cactus and gardens of monkey flower and cave primrose, past alcoves allowed to breathe air, allowed to drink water from seeps.

Among a cluster of gambel oaks, they rested. She sat, crossed her legs Indian style, and squinted up at him. She asked him if he wanted his freebee then. No, he said, he was no longer in any kind of mood. Shame, she said, it would make her forget the pain of that foot.

He looked up at the blotch of sun, then pushed forward leaving her to nap under the tree. She fell asleep with a silly smile. He wandered over to inspect detritus from past boating expeditions--rusted anchors, a towrope, broken fishing rods enmeshed in driftwood. Wiped the back of his neck with his hand. He felt a poke in his back, and he turned to catch that ridiculous slop of a grin on her face.

" I feel like music," she said, "you got any?"

"No," he said, "wanna go back and rest." He removed his hat and scratched the splintered silvery hair.

She pressed her lips in a cork-like smirk, threw a sexy pose.

"Too bad our ages don't meet. I don't mind older men, though.” She grabbed the bottle from him and swung it to her lips.

She turned and plodded ahead. He followed, watched her approach the edge of another side canyon. Get back, he yelled. She waved her arms over her head as if to say don't worry. She withdrew about a foot from the edge.

"Russell. Russell. I ain't the one. I ain't the one." She stood frozen as if waiting for her words to rebound back to her.

"Who the hell is Russell?"

She turned and steadied a penetrating look with the other eye closed.

They continued to walk more or less side by side. She explained Russell was this guy she was living with back in Montana. But she messed up, cheated on him, got coked up, eventually he quit her, moving south to attend college. No matter, she stated, he was her boy, the only one who mattered even though nothing mattered back then. He was sweet, her morning glory. Considering what she met since. She sucked on the tequila bottle and handed it back to him almost empty.

"Anyway, I ain't gonna make a living forever selling twat in Vegas or wherever. Gotta have somethin' to live for. If he'll take me back."

Her smirk vanished.

"What if he don't."

"You know, I could fall in love out here."

"Live in a hut?"

"You look at me like you want something."

"Don't mean nothin'."

"Just kidding. Okay?"

She walked closer until about an inch from him. Her eyes zigzagged across his face.. He walked away leaving her standing in the same spot by the canyon's edge. From the back of his head he could hear her yell, Russell, Russell. The words ricocheted. He turned.

“Are you comin' or what?” he said.

***

By the time they reached the truck, the sun shone blood-orange and sank towards the perimeter of earth. He marched into the hut and carried out a six-pack of bottled beer in a ice cooler. He opened the cooler and pitched her a bottle. The beer foamed over her. Got a towel? she asked. Dry them in your hair, he said, beer's a great shampoo. Oh, you're a real charmer, she said.

She then demanded his keys to the truck. What for, he wanted to know, so she could take off? She screwed up her face at him. How could I drive outta here, she said, wouldn't know my way out. Just want some music. He dipped his hand into his pocket and threw her the keys. She bent to retrieve them, then slithered in, turned on the ignition and played a radio full of static. That's the closest you gonna get to music, he mumbled. She honked the horn at him and bared her tits.

"Too bad tequilla ain't Viagra."

He curled on the ground, closing his eyes, detecting the sound of her foot-hopping close to him. After sneaking a peek, sure enough, she was wasted, spilling beer on the ground. She snuggled up to his chin and ran a hand over his rough-hewn face.

He pushed her face into his chest and told her to stay quiet. What's wrong? she whispered. He said he heard a car approaching. Her head rose abruptly and shifted in the direction of the truck.

Hurry, he told her, go and shut off the ignition. She limped to the truck. The music stopped and the keys flew in a curved ball motion to him. Cursing, he rolled over to grab them in the sand. He crept up towards her, slunk behind the first sand mound, studying her signals.

She waved for him to stay back.

"You know 'em?" he asked.
"Too early to tell," she called back in a loud and strained whisper. Her head slowly trailed a line to her right.
. Her head slowly trailed a line to her right.

He heard two car doors slam.

"Well, what do you make of it?" he said.

"Two guys . . ."

"Yeah and?"

He watched her roll away and creep towards him. She was next to him, breathless and gasping. "I know 'em," she said. He pulled her arm to his shoulder and studied her face. Her eyes were wild.

She told him she once worked a joint outside of Vegas. Picked up two tricks in a bar. Young guys, Spanish or something. One said they just arrived to win some money in Vegas. She let one into a hotel room, but the other followed and forced himself in. They demanded two for the price of one. She argued but she saw tattoos on the guy's chest--two faces, one happy, one sad. Another of a devil.
"Mexican gang members from L. A. I ripped 'em off when they fell asleep. Took their credit cards. Probably hot anyway. Some of their coke too."

He clutched her arm tighter and pulled her closer.

"You what?"

Her face shook in his.

"Yeah. Comin' for me."

"This far?"

"They're gonna kill me, mister. End it out here in red desert."

He told her to stay down. Then, he dashed into the hut and threw off the case to a 12-gauge pump action shotgun, started loading it with 3 in. magnum shells. His hands shook. When he ran out the flat, the sun sat like some huge copper ball at the edge of desert which he considered his empty living room. It would be a cold night and he would dream of tropical climates.

He darted past her as she reached out with one arm. She started to cry, and he wondered if her tears would taste like the dregs of warm beer.

"What are you gonna do," she said.

"What does it look like?"

She roused herself from the ground, dragged her feet behind him. He turned and pushed her away, sent her tumbling across the red carpet of sand. Told her again to stay down.

She snuck up to his right side. He winced at the sight of her face, half-covered with sand, pleading.

"Let's take the truck," she said raising one hand. "They carry semi-automatics. We'd be no match."

"Stay down." He shoved her away again.

He squinted over the mound and over the red sea of sand ripples. If he was to do anything, he thought, he'd better do it now while there was still light. He made out two figures in the distance, walking side by side. His right cheek caressed the shotgun. He figured he'd blow out a tire first, startle them, then pick them off one by one. If it came to that.

From the corner of one eye, he spotted her rising, standing up, trudging up the mound. What are you doing, she said. It's me they want. Not you. No reason you should pay for my mistakes.

He rose and ran after her, pushing her down, following her as she rolled down the small hill like a kid at the beach. He crouched next to her and aimed. He had a better view now, but he was out in the open. No time to think. The tire first. Yeah. Then them. Pow Pow Pow.

Just like in Nam. In Nam, he was a sniper.

He threw the nozzle up. He lurched forward, squinting at the two figures. He bit his lip so hard, it could have bled.
She cried no and looked up at him, rose and started to charge him. He wrestled her to the ground and held her chin between his hands. She bit his finger, then, sobbed some more, kissed the same finger. Her face shook and she mumbled something.

"Listen," he said.

"Yeah. Yeah. Wanna go home but those flat-chested bitches . . ."

"It ain't them."

". . . got together and paid somebody to set my trailer on fire."

"You listenin'? It ain't them."

"What?" Her eyes stood frozen and glazed.

" It's a guy and girl. Maybe his wife. They're sightseers."
"Huh?"

"Tourists. That's all."

He released her and they both stood up. He watched as the couple headed in the opposite direction towards a side canyon. He pictured the canyons sprouting strange forms of life--maidenhair ferns and coyote willows, bulrushes and sedges. He picked up the rifle and walked stiffly back to the hut.

In the dark, he sat on the floor of the hut, his knees drawn to his chest. He clutched the rifle in his arms. Except for the occasional opening of a beer bottle, the desert was silent and could swallow his thoughts.

She appeared in the opening, a blanket draped around her shoulders. "You good?" she asked. She repeated the inquiry. He said nothing and stared past her. Her arms fell to her sides. She offered him a beer. He kept silent, thought of the faint lights in the sky.

"Sorry for all the trouble I caused you. In the morning, you'll be rid of me." She dipped her chin to her chest. Slowly, she raised her head, caught his gaze.

“If it don’t work out with Russell, I could look you up. Could play Miss Puss N’ Boots good as anybody. But I ain’t livin’ in no hut.”

She walked away.

He could hear a bottle clang and roll against the ground. Her footsteps grew distant. She sang about Russell and he listened to her words echo, until the sounds fell back to earth. For now, his mind was somewhere else. He imagined dogs barking on the moon and that only he could hear them.


The Camp



Baby, it’s cold. That’s all we can think about, the cold, how our words hang in the air, turn to wisps of white smoke, then, disappear. For this reason, men huddle in groups. To keep in the warmth, when really, there is none. It’s the cold that is our captor and not the Chinese. I keep thinking about the words to that song, Baby, It’s Cold Outside. My sister back home would know all the words.


And the sun. There’s a peculiar sun that rises, lingers over this camp, some eighty miles north of Samchok. It’s not a strong sun, the kind of sun that warmed me back in Indiana. It’s more like a distant blot, more like the thought of sun, its possibility, and not the thing itself. It just hangs there, a faraway sleepy eye, watching you.


It was that same sun which followed me the day my F-86 was shot down past the Han. Dazed, I walked for miles, past farmers and villagers who stared at me curiously. After my jet was shot down, I could no longer walk in straight lines.


Yesterday, the guards shot Castallano in front of all of us. Castallano was our squad leader and a stand-up kind of guy. He was decorated in WWII, flew a Corvair. After Castallano dropped to the ground, he kept staring at me, perhaps trying to tell me something, the way I believe that faint distant sun is always trying to tell me something. His eyes peered through me, as if to say, “Be careful. You might be next.”



Baby, it’s cold outside.


I toss and turn in my bunk. There’s a smell of old boots and dirty socks in the barracks that never goes away. No matter how many times the guards make us sweep and mop, it always smells like a hamper. Just when I’m falling asleep, a guard awakens me, shines a flashlight in my eyes. It’s a strong light that hurts. Closer than the distant sun.


They blindfold me and I’m led into a room that doesn’t smell of old socks. In fact, I can smell a woman’s perfume, the scent of roses and talc, and I detect the rustle of papers. Then, the commander, a man named Li, speaks, telling me how things will be so much easier if I cooperate, and the woman, who I imagine is some Chinese actress, takes my hand and runs it over her breast, delicate as the body of a small proud bird.


I am offered a cigarette. The woman keeps referring to Li as “our father.” We mustn’t disappoint our father, she says, after all, he is the one who feeds us.


Li starts asking questions, like what home was like, what my father did for a living, then, to how many more irrigation dams we will bomb, the location of X corps' ammo dumps. Behind the blindfold, there is only darkness. But I can still see that distant sun hanging mute in the sky. I only talk about my sister, how close we were, how we won dancing contests.


I am placed in solitary confinement. The blindfold is removed, and for meals, I’m served a tray of dead rats. I refuse to eat. The guards won't allow me to sleep. They bang tin cans against the bars of the cell, shine flashlights in my eyes. I’m led back to the interrogation room, again with blindfold. Behind it, I see a distant white sun. It never speaks.


“Our father is very upset,” says the woman, who now calls herself Madame Mother. I hear Li’s boots clank against the hard floor. I am dizzy and lightheaded. This time I am given no chair. I must answer questions standing up.


My knees buckle; I fall. The sun quivers.


A pair of hands clap next to my ear.


Wake up! shouts Li.


The guards pick me up.


Again, Li asks me about the location of X corps ammo dumps. I begin to laugh, then cry. Don't cry, says Madame Mother, soothing my forehead. There is a rainbow not far. Just for us.


Madame Mother nudges her face against mine. I can feel her own tears running down the side of my face.


“Think of a park,” she says. “There is a glistening pond with ducks. And you and I are sitting together watching the ducks. They are so happy. We are so happy. Please make father happy.”


Li’s voice booms. “Do you want to be a hero, Lt. Grayson? Do you want little children to sing your praises? ”


“Do you want to sleep with me?” says Madame Mother.


Again, I fall to the floor. The sun is so far.


I am stepping out of a car and into my house. My father, a grease monkey, is washing his hands in the kitchen. The gush of water never stops. In the living room, my sister sits still like a piece of exquisite porcelain. She wears something resembling a kimono. At times, she adjusts her netsuke. She is silent and distant. I begin to cry. With a stilted smile, my sister turns and asks why I am crying. Because you’re not my sister, I say.


Wake up! screams my father.


I'm led into a fenced-off compound, guarded by dogs, and I'm not allowed to talk to other prisoners. Overhead, I hear the rumble of an F-86. Days later, the camp is liberated by Eighth army in retreat.



At home, my sister and I attend parties, reunions. She loves doing the old dances: the jitterbug, the lindy hop, the big apple. Sometimes I tell her that the irrigation dams I have bombed will cause our house to flood. Whenever I say this, her eyes grow small and she stares at me the way one would a child who has misspelled a word.


But I never dance with her anymore. Instead, I watch the moon at night, maybe a sister of that distant sun, maybe the same one that has followed me here.

-----------------------------

John Lennon (Published in Northville Review, 2009)

On Dec. 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman fired five hollow-point bullets at John Lennon in the hallway entrance to the Dakota. The gun was a Charter Arms .38 special revolver. The bullets inflicted severe gunshot wounds, causing aortic dissection. The doorman, Miguel Gomez, reportedly wrestled the gun from Chapman's hands and kicked it across the sidewalk.

Gomez said to Chapman, ``Do you know who he is?''


After the incident, Gomez suffered recurrent nightmares about a man resembling Jesus.

The first police officers to arrive on the scene found Chapman sitting very quietly on the sidewalk and holding a copy of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. In later testimonies of character witnesses, Chapman was fond of frequenting certain uptown bars, preying on single women, claiming that he was ``the catcher in the rye.''

John Lennon was rushed to Roosevelt Hospital. In the back seat of a squad car, a police officer asked him if he knew who he was. According to one account, Lennon's last words were ``I'm John Lennon.'' Then, he slipped into a coma.

***
Interview with Stacey X, author of The Autobiography of a Bubble Girl.

``So how did it start?''

``Well, how does anything start?''

``I mean this particular thing.''

``Well, you could point to this and that and make a straight line, but it's. . . not straight.''

``You mean this just happened out of the blue?''

``No, I mean. . . it just doesn't happen the way you tell people.''

``You mean the book? They were lies?''

``No. Okay. Start at this point. Or pick something else. I slept with my teachers. Some. Some you couldn't approach. Then I got into dancing, and there wasn't a lot of money and I met this guy and we kinda traveled a lot.''

``And he did your booking.''

``Well. . . uh. . . yeah, but not just him.''

``Okay.''

``So I slept with lot of celebrities. A few I got to know a little, I mean, you never --''

``The section about Lennon. Not your best lover?''

``Well, he was kinda. . . average. Okay. I was young and it was like, oh, fuck, John Lennon. . . Berlin, I think. Me, doing some modeling on the side. I can't remember that much. He just didn't smile a lot.

``Who was your favorite in bed?''

``Well, Elvis was great. Sweet. Gentle. Elvis was someone even my mother loved.''

``Anyone else?''

``I want to say Tiny Tim.''

``Dare you to say it.''

``Yeah, I fucked Tiny Tim.''

***


John Lennon, during a split from Yoko, formed a liaison with the Japanese actress, Tay Yamamoto. By the time, their child was born, Lennon had already gone back with Yoko. Yamamoto's son later stated that he knew of his father, but did not know him. My father, he said, was a cloud.

***
In private conversation, Yoko confided to me about John. He had this habit of walking the streets in disguise. He told Yoko that one night he met a very strange man who followed him to Central Park. He described to Lennon how he was a fuck-up, talked about his drug use, the attempted suicides. The stranger explained how once he tried to kill himself by attaching a tube to the tailpipe of his father's car and inhaling carbon monoxide. The tube melted.

Lennon then recounted how the man got down on his knees and prayed for forgiveness. ``Look, mate, `` Lennon said, ``forgive yourself. It only comes from you.''

Lennon then retrieved a paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye from his back pocket, one of his favorite novels. He handed it to the man.

At this time, Yoko said that Lennon was working on that part of his autobiography detailing his use of LSD and Heroin.

He would get dizzy spells, said Yoko. Flashbacks. I had to hold his head in my lap. The way you do with a little kid.

***

From the above passage, you can conclude:

A) John was an avid reader of American fiction.

B) Yoko did not fit the Feminist conception of a liberated woman.

C) The stranger must have known that the disguised man was John Lennon.

***
I didn't know Mark that well. He was buried in himself. But he was nice to the patients. When I was down, he sang me the words to Dear Prudence. What a beautiful song.

***

Lennon on how he met Yoko: "She said not to touch one of her sculptures. So I pretended to. Then I pretended that she couldn't touch me."

***

D) None of the above.

***

In the movie, How I Won the War, John, shot, bleeding, faces the camera and says he knew this would happen.

***

They fired me for getting into a fight with a nurse. I told them she was the one who's always starting trouble. I knew she had it in for me. She said that I smelled. Actually, she smelled. Get a whiff of her and you'd know.

So, I decided I'll do this some other way. The world is full of shit jobs.

I hid the gun in my jacket. John and Yoko were signing some autographs by the limo. I walked up and asked John to sign my copy of Catcher.

He kinda flinched. Flinched or winced. Does it matter? He must have remembered me from the night he gave me that book. Yoko didn`t smile for the photographers.

I followed them to the hotel, whipped out the gun and assumed a combat stance. Yoko screamed. Some asshole started running at me. But I was ordained. Why didn`t he know? John Lennon caught my bullets.

On the sidewalk, I thought about the words to that song, Working Class Hero. Or how the blood, John's, was like anybody else's.



***
That night, Yoko Ono asked that the chanting crowd outside the Dakota to stop--it was keeping her awake. She asked that the crowd reconvene in Central Park the next day for ten minutes of silent prayer.

One participant at the park recalled, "It felt the world stopped. Heavy. Then light, like a balloon."

-------------------------------------------

My Wife’s Posse

Lately, my wife has been spending more time chatting on the phone. Each night, it's a different woman she's speaking to. Every couple of days, it goes back to the first woman who called at the beginning of the week. On some nights, she speaks in an excited tone to most members of the posse. I believe this posse is trying to poison her mind.

I catch fragments of conversation, unscramble the shapes of sounds. So far, this is what I got: His name is Bill or Phil or Gill. Outrageous. Hot. Is into herbs and free weights. He asked me. I think they drink pastis in France. Honey, take angelica to simulate the gallbladder. I said he asked me. Orgasms like a doughnut factory, that`s funny. His tongue. Something from outer space. Is that what you said? Oh geez, Hermaine, that's funny.

I haven't met the members of my wife's posse. I don't think I'd recognize them individually, in jeans or jogging pants, at the outdoor markets, the bistro, the tanning salon, the gym. But as a group, I could definitely say, this is my wife's posse. They'll wear dresses of Madras plaid or cotton twill. They'll cross their legs a certain way. If there are five of them, at least two will carry condoms in their purses.

At a café, they will all hold their wine glasses with an air of smugness and elitism, lick their lips while one of them speaks about the next election, or what men don't do enough of in bed, or what house chores they don`t do at all. One of them will ridicule the style of her husband's underwear. One of them will say, "They still make Fruit of the Loom?" Another will chip in. "He sounds like a fruit." At that, they will all laugh together.

One of them, perhaps the oldest, will bring up what Marlon Brando did in the famous sex scene in Last Tango in Paris. Another will make a joke about butt hole surfers. Another will announce that she prefers butter over margarine. Always did.



--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The word posse makes me think of old Westerns. When I was young, I saw movies, countless ones, all with a similar plot. A bad guy came into town. He was handsome and could shoot straight. Had no respect for tin stars or posted rewards. The sheriff's wife fell in love with him. And her sister. They fought. The bad guy shot the town's one arm bailor, robbed a bank, then, fled on a cinnamon colored horse named, Candy. In the climatic gunfight, the sheriff was killed as were three members of his posse. A young sloth-eyed deputy was the one who did the bad guy in. As a child, I couldn't make up my mind whether I wanted to be the deputy or the bad guy. As an adult, I am still that indecisive child.



--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I am not living in outer space. My paranoia is grounded, but I'm not sure just where home base is. There are danger signals. Fog warnings. My ship is stuck in mid-ocean. There's going to be a squall. In a squall, can you call Dr. Phil?

When my wife and I make love, she is no longer consumed by passion. She lies stiff, as if awaiting a flogging. I imagine she wishes she was blindfolded. I imagine she wishes I was a handsome pirate who has kidnapped her and stolen her father's dowry. After her death by sex, she apologizes, blaming her non-involvement on work-related stress. She turns over, and I dream of island girls with perfect legs and bikinis of clashing colors.

Sometimes, I will go to the window, brazenly naked without my Fruit of the Loom, and watch what seems to me the most distant star.

Something or someone on that star is calling me Bill.

At times, the phone rings. When I pick up, the caller waits, then hangs up. I can never hear him breathing. It could be a prank call by a fish.

Last week at the dinner table, while my wife passed me the asparagus, she accidentally called me Bill. Her face flushed. Mine froze. When I asked who was Bill, she said he was an old college fling she was thinking about. She said she had taken French classes with him at college long ago. I said I bet Bill knew how to French kiss like a Spanish prisoner. My wife dropped her fork and told me to chew my food slowly. I asked her if Bill was really a fish.



--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I'm going to meet Bill. I'll research him on the internet. I'll find out where he lives. Trailing him in my car, I'll get his routine down. Bill works at H. D. Haddock & Sons, the same office where my wife and her posse spend eight to ten hours a day.

I'll run into Bill on the street. I'll tell him I was his substitute teacher back in PS 24. I'll say, Bill, after all these years, you haven't changed that much. What? You don't remember me? Well, I remember you. You always sat in the back, quiet as a piece of chalk. A real wallflower.

I'll invite him for a drink and a dinner of clams Zuppa and shrimp Fra Diavolo at an outdoor restaurant. My treat. Bill will be dressed in double-pleated houndstooth trousers and a bengel striped shirt. The trousers have five pockets. Bill's hair is longish and his eyes can speak French sunsets. Bill's stare is distant and his face is fashionably half-shaven.

I'll pry into his social life, the women he's recently dated. When he mentions my wife's name, my ears will perk. I'll plow him with questions and listen patiently. He'll tell me that she feels her husband doesn't know her. He'll tell me that he is ambivalent towards her husband: he really deserves better; he really deserves less. Poor bastard. Lucky devil. He doesn't even help out with mopping the kitchen. The grease stains on the floor are usually his. There's so much her husband doesn't know, he'll say downing the clams with a glass of Cinzano. He'll tell me she prefers a Chateau D'Issau to a Cabernet Sauvignon. He'll tell me that my wife's favorite novel was not the one she told me, Vanity Fair, but rather, Tristam Shandy. He'll reveal that my wife has a secret fear, a morbid one, of public toilet seats. (I did notice once that she carried a thin roll of toilet paper in her pocketbook when we dined out.) He'll tell me that her favorite sex position is not missionary. He'll tell me how he enjoys fucking my wife in elevators, in stairwells near red emblazoned signs reading Fire Escape. He'll describe the exact pitch and timbre of her ecstatic cries in a hotel room. He'll make a joke or two about this. Her voice could break glass. She should try for a role in an opera. He'll tell me how they did it doggy style one or two times in a public bathroom, or in an empty movie theater. He'll tell me that she always pays for the hotel room. He'll describe her favorite childhood memories in a quiet reflective tone, as if he grew up with her. He'll tell me that she thinks her husband is a wimp and could vie for the title of The Most Boring Man on Earth. He will tell me that my wife ended her affair with him because she finally accepted the fact that Bill tired of her. He will tell me that on more than one occasion, my wife cried that she was no longer young. Bowing his head to the table, he'll claim that he turned my wife into an insatiable love addict, a dreamy-eyed child with a sweet tooth, and my wife for him was nothing more than free candy. Bill will claim that she gave really incredible blowjobs.

As Bill is telling me all of this, the posse will be sitting across from us, eyeing me with a deadened stare. Then, their eyes will swerve to Bill and I watch as their pupils turn to new and hopeful moons.

Bill's confessions will leave a taste of something bitter and slightly familiar sticking to my palette: artichoke leaves, crushed pieces of dandelion.

Despite the fact that Bill is younger than I and stronger, I will be tempted to turn the table over, splattering Bill with grease and rich tomato sauce. Bill's face will be smitten with clams and garlic oil. Taken by surprise, just like the bad guy in a Western, he will be speechless as a stuffed squid. I will laugh out loud. I will laugh with a child's vigor and sense of release. He will stand up, screwing up his face, perhaps, he will draw his hand back to form a fist. I will keep laughing at Bill, and call him a fish. Bill will attempt to knock me off my chair with an amazing roundhouse. After all, he works out at the gym. I will step back and deflect the blow. I will call the waiter and tell him that Bill tried to steal my wallet, that he refused to pay for his portion of the meal. I will threaten to press charges against Bill for assault. The overturned table, I will point out, was something that Bill did to get a replacement, a free dish of Fritto Misto. I will watch with glee as the managers escort Bill from the outdoor patio and into a police car.

The members of my wife's posse will look horrified, terribly decomposed, as they squirm like school children who have just wet their seats. A posse member will stand up to see Bill one more time, if only behind a car's glass window. Her desire for Bill will not attenuate, but rather, grow stronger. I have just turned Bill into a magnificent and irresistible outlaw.

Then, one by one, the members of the posse will eye me up and down. They will make faces at me. Their lips will scrunch up in the shape of wine corks. As a group, they will file out.



--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

My wife is sleeping at her mother`s. We had a fight and I accused her of cheating on me. She denied everything and broke down in tears, something she rarely does. I pointed out how the sex is never as good as it once was, and how we never become giddy over each other. But on the phone tonight, I apologized, and promised her we would take a cruise and work everything out. I'm hoping for at least a seventy per cent solution. It's better than a fifty per cent outcome.

She still can't understand my obsession with Bill.

I stand at the window and look up to the most distant star. The bedroom phone rings, jolts me back to planet earth. At this hour, who could be calling? I don't answer. Not because I think it's Bill, but because I don't think Bill exists for her anymore. Not in the sense that Bill still exists for me.

Bill, she kept saying, was a distant memory. Perhaps more distant than the star I am watching. Back in college, she told me, Bill only got to second base.

That tiny star flickers. Perhaps the caller is now standing somewhere on that star. I imagine answering the phone. The voice at the other end, faint, hardly disguised--sounds like my own. Traveling across light years of transmission, the caller tells me he has kidnapped my wife with the help of members of an intergalactic terrorist posse. I ask him if the group is all female. He hesitates and says yes, and how did I know. I tell him some things just come intuitively.

I'm trying to picture his face. He must resemble a Johnny Ringo or a Black Bart decked out in astro gear. It gives me a chuckle, then a chill. If I had a super sonar ray gun, I'd shoot him from this distance.

I ask this anonymous caller about the ransom. How much do I have to spend to get her back. There is a long silence. The silence is both his and mine. We both clear our throats at the same time. How much, he says in a fading voice, are you willing to spend? The caller hangs up.

But the phone keeps ringing. I pick up. Hello, I say. I repeat saying it. There's a long stretch of silence, the distance from here to some parallel universe and back again. This time I think it's the real Bill at the other end, the one she‘s been having an affair with in the present. And not the Bill she invented at the dinner table, an imaginary Bill of her past to throw me off. This time I can hear him breathing. The Real Bill. His breaths are slow, rhythmic and very very far away.

"Hello," she says. "Do you still love me?"

---------------------------------------------

Winter Kills


Cold wind bites past bone. I trudge down East Third, leaving a trail of footprints that the snow will soon cover. Underneath the sheath, I imagine a thousand or a million blank eyes. On the street, I pass school girls, drug dealers, in-between-gigs musicians who can't shake off the cold, trading equipment for dope. This winter's a bitch, so hard on black leather. And underneath that leather, I imagine tattoos, overlapping islands of them, under layers of knit, synthetic yarn. I turn, run up the steps to the tenement door that siphons out the very warmth it's supposed to keep in.

I throw off my pea coat, pull off the cheap cotton gloves. I rub my fingers against a horseshoe pullover that smells of sage, trying to stir some life back into them. Like my life, they are detachable phantoms. I head toward the chintzy living room that's really a crawl space, cheap balsa wood and floorboards that echo your curses to the tenants below. From the window's cracks, edges, a stench of burning engine smoke wafts in. The tires whir and whine endlessly. Then, everything stops.

I stand over Martha. My needy lover who has turned me into a junkie. I'm hooked on promises, but I never see a return. Don't ever invest in love. You'll go broke.

She's lying on the sofa, wrapped in her grandmother's shawl, a white cable knit. Her red spiked hair's a mess and she wears the same fishnet stockings she wore the night before. I think of how Martha could once sing.

I work as a part-time audio engineer in Chelsea, where she once recorded demos. That was before she decided to trash her career and her life. I fell hard in love with Martha and wanted to save both. Maybe she reminded me of myself before rehab. Now, I can't even save myself. Maybe it's what we both want. To be a player in each other's destruction. Maybe we'll burn in the same pyre and never return, like some crazy Phoenix ascending, yearning for another chance at life.

"Martha, " I say. "Wake up. You know what time it is?"

But she's so tired, she says, can barely lift her head.

I know the feeling. The feeling of days yawning forever, fishermen dying in a fog, thoughts turning still as oyster beds. If only we could grow so small, to disappear through the pores of others' skins.

Her clothes rustle and I think of maple leaves somewhere in a warmer season, and not the crinkle of cheap leather in cold-water flats.

"This body," she says with eyes closed, head rolling back, "it's like chain links. Rusted fucking chain links."

I edge closer to the sofa. My hands dangle at my side. They are useless puppets. I'm afraid to touch her. To hurt her.

"Honey," she says, "could you go out and score me some more pain pills? It's really bad."

And Martha, I want to tell her, don't you think you should see someone? Don't you think it's time? Time. I peep outside the window, people walking as if outside of themselves, as if their bodies are glass bubbles to look through. If only bodies could float up and not down. If only bodies could turn to ribbons decorating the flagpoles, the tips of skyscrapers, the hair of yellow goddesses. Hell, there ain't no goddesses in this life. There's only Martha and her seashell eyes.

"Martha," I say, "there's no mail today. The check didn't come in."

"It's a fucking joke, ain't it? Our luck."

I smile and nod my head. But Martha isn't watching. She plays with a loop of the white afghan. I wonder what season it was when her grandmother knitted it. I wonder how cold it gets in Russia.

Sometimes, after Martha and I make love, she curls up like a frightened child and stares at the far wall, at a photo of Russian soldiers left by a previous tenant. Maybe WWI. Some are smoking cigarettes. Some have no rifles. Maybe these same ones who got wiped out by the Kaiser's troops. "If only there was some way out of it," she says. "It's not just the pain. Not just that. I mean, you always return to where you are. And I don't want to be here. Tell me to shut up, baby. Tell me to shut the fuck up. Aww, if it weren't for you, sweetie, I'd be dead. I know it."

Then she squeezes my hand and falls asleep resting her cheek on my knuckles. But I'm not sure if she's really sleeping. Sometimes, I wonder what she thinks about after we fuck. Fisherman dying in fog? Maybe.

On nights like these, I conjure Martha's childhood, a little girl who could make the whole world fall in love with her, with those goddam big seashell eyes, enticing adults to drift into a blue-green sea that never ends, never promises survival. Then, she'd walk away like some cat bored of playing with a ball of twine. I imagine a girl easily distracted, pulled into the possibility of warmth that she would take for granted.

There were summers of rising balloons and wisps of low clouds. Little girls jumping or dodging the spray of hoses in the streets, lingering smiles in a dim hallway, a man with a gap-tooth smile selling chestnuts on East Tenth, and years later, a stranger's sausage-like fingers sliding up her Catholic girl skirts. This barter of sex for warmth, or something close to it.

She would remember his eyes large as wafers and his tainted lust lingering on a hot afternoon. She would recall her body as spongy dough under his kneading fingers, the scent of fresh shoe polish on his imported oxfords, a present from his wife in some other desert, and how his breath always smelled fruity. He always claimed he was on a fast of some kind. His name, he said, after devouring her, was Ari. And in time, he'd become a mirage of the dangling father, a demon inside her 6th Ave. pastry. There was the insidious cooling of late summer nights, the rocket-cries of boys at the far end of the block. By the age of fifteen, everything tasted like snow. She cried over the white-out of yearning. No one ever told her that winter kills.

I trudge past St. Mark's and onto Ave. B. I knock on the door of a Pakistani guy I know, a medical student, who occasionally fronts an Indy band at a corner club. I hit him up for some Vicodin and promise to get him some free time in the studio. I don't think he buys my bullshit, but fuck, he gives me the pills anyway and says, "last time, asshole."

"You want some free time or what?" I ask.

"Tell her to see a neurologist," he says. "All that nerve damage from the drugs."

"I can't even get her to see an acupuncturist," I say. "You know, the holistic shit. Man, she won't even pop a vitamin."

I fly down the sidewalks laced with snow and footprints. It's kinda poetic, the way Martha and I once were. The way I like to think we once were. But I knew she was screwing every Tom, Dick and Harry behind my back. I knew we were both desperate for something we never could find.

Maybe we really deserve this winter. Maybe you could learn to love the winter because there is nothing else. You get used to the feeling of cold palms and flesh stinging like pine needles. Your pores too big to keep out the chill. Hell, there ain't no antifreeze for this kind of winter.

Back at the apartment, I call out to Martha. "I got good news, baby." Like Merry fucking Christmas, Santa Claus is here, even though Christmas was last month. But Martha's quiet. Real quiet.

I kinda tiptoe inside and sit down in an old rocker across the sofa. Martha's face is ashen and twisted. Now, you don't get ashen from the winter. You get blue. You get stone-cold blue. I don't think she's breathing. I don't think she is. I'm tempted to leap up, dial my cell phone. Call 911 and say some shit like, "My girlfriend just swallowed some bleach." 'Cause that's what's lying on the floor. A bottle of Clorox. Color safe. Can you imagine that? Color safe?

But I'm not going to dial anyone, see? Because Martha doesn't want to come back here. She'd never return to this place. And because I love her, or because I'm as crazy as her, I'm gonna grant her that last wish. Here's what I'll do: I'm gonna do all her dirty laundry. The laundry she kept putting off for days. Bras, undies, dresses, skirts, spandex. The whole shabang. So, when they lay her out, she's gonna smell sweet. Real sweet, baby. Sweet like gardenias and not mothballs. Sweet like summer and not winter.



--------------------------------------------------

Dreaming With My Eyes Open

(published in Rose and Thorn, Spring 2006)



In the back of me. I think it is in the back of me. This thing. This thing that happened last summer. My mother still talks about it. “Why did she tackle such a giant wave? Why did she surf so close to that other surfer? Was she drunk? Was she dreaming with her eyes open?” I wondered too. Did she experience a sensation of twirling before she went under the wave? A kind of vertigo? Was she giddy in those moments before her boyfriend’s surfboard knocked her unconscious, the board landing only a few feet from her, floating like some primitive raft bereft of a sole survivor?

I remember seeing her face—a photo from a high school yearbook—on the local news channels, here in Santa Cruz. Sophomore in college . . . loved all kinds of water sports, a TV reporter commented through my miniature Zenith. I fumbled with the vertical sync, thinking about her parents who were friends of my folks, staying a couple of blocks from our bungalow at the shore. The reporter described how the paramedics worked frantically, worked against time, fitting a J-collar on the girl and hurrying the stretcher into the ambulance. A few onlookers, he added, dripping in wet towels and shivering, helplessly looked on.

For weeks, people did not come out of their houses at night. I remember how some placed lighted candles in darkened windows. A kind of deference to her. A kind of silence. There must have been this fear. The fear, I think, of an ogre emerging from the depths of the ocean, turning one of our most cherished devices, like a surfboard, against us. That ogre returning to its lair, escaping into the surf.

Back at the bungalow, my brother asks me to grab him another beer.

I’ve just turned twenty-three. Last month, I graduated college with a degree in Anthropology. My brother, Bobby, who is three years older, is in his second year of law school. He is four inches taller (I’m 5’7” and slightly overweight for my height) and his hair is a few shades lighter than mine (a medium brown, comb resistant). His gets blonder as the summer goes on, and it stays blonde in winter because he lightens it. He likes to sport that beach boy look all year long.

I had reluctantly agreed to spend this summer at our parents’ bungalow in Santa Cruz, not being particularly ambitious about gaining employment right away, having no immediate plans to expedite my future. I want to enjoy this first summer after college. I want to wake up late in the morning and lie in the sand all afternoon. I want to watch the surf until night. I know I am not a particularly strong surfer; however, I can tread water with a modicum of success.

And it would be nice, I think, to live temporarily without schedule, without answering to anyone. I want to acquire this ability to live carelessly, with plastic utensils and without shoelaces, to comb the beach for hours, picking up sand in my fist and throwing it for no other purpose than to see just how far I can. It is an absence of duty that has suited my
brother well, summer after summer. A hazy state of mind that leads you to follow a paper sun, to pretend you’re shipwrecked until rescued by a fishing crew once headed for the Artic but now sailing south of Puget Sound. A crew thrown far off course, whose supply of freshwater has been depleted, whose noses, once frozen and stung from salt, could only have led them here—to a warm, more promising sea.

For the short time I’ve been down here, I’ve noticed a peculiar clarity in the nighttime sky. Why this transparency, why this clarity only at night, I do not understand. I certainly never noticed it in the skies over Pasadena.

Our parents are presently vacationing upstate outside Napa Valley, visiting relatives and friends, and will be joining us in a few weeks. For now, our refrigerator is barren of all the healthy, leafy vegetables grown in my mother’s garden back home. It suits me just fine. It suits me fine to live on junk food, a daily regiment of it: French fries and left over chicken wings for breakfast, cheeseburgers and breaded onion rings for lunch, dinner consisting of Italian hot dogs and Slurpees which pool in my throat like stagnant streams. And don’t forget the pizza with extra cheese and pepperoni—maybe red pepper for an extra kick. No, it suits me just fine. This is how I want to spend my summer.


So for the time being, my brother and I have this house to ourselves—all to ourselves.

Bobby crumples the last can of beer and tosses it over the kitchen table into the garbage. He never misses. He does not seem to notice the cigarette ashes he is flickering on his striped baggy shorts, an expensive pair my mother bought him for his birthday (along with two new sets of water skis and a rugged Suzuki chopper with generous torque from my father).

Instead, his eyes follow another surfer sauntering past our window, this one with a particularly scant red bikini, revealing a perfect contour of breast and thigh. His eyes remain motionless long after she has left his line of vision.

By the way, bring up the subject of girls to Bobby. He’s got girls chasing him everywhere, coming out of the woodwork, calling him all hours of the night. Girls who are short, girls who are tall, girls with straight hair, frizzy hair, blond, brunette, auburn . . . Girls who have to be home by twelve—but mostly, girls who don't.

When he talks to them, I imagine him holding a cigarette in a pose of trendy disinterest, smiling or shrugging his shoulders. It is an effort on his part, I suppose, to feign that he may be inclined, but is not too, too interested. But I know he is always interested. Very interested.

I watch the girls become giddy next to him. They love him. And the ones who wish to know him will walk up to him, often with one arm wrapped around the elbow of another girl who has gotten to know him already. The experienced will whisper in the ear of the inexperienced. One will shake her head and the other will say, “I told you he was cute.” Then they pretend that they too can be distracted. As for me, I’m usually left sitting it out, expecting to catch errant beach balls or give directions to tourists.

Bobby’s chest is always held high in summer, lacquered with a bronze suntan that needs reapplication. And for the better part of the afternoon, until my eyes ache from squinting or burn from loose sand, I watch him tease girls by pulling their bra straps or challenging them to an undertow. When they arrive back on sand, they wipe their eyes and become giddy all over again.

Now I imagine these same girls will compare notes in the privacy of locker rooms or beach houses, will even draw straws to see who will later take him home. I know he will invite them over to our bungalow, which he claims he owns. Some will come alone; some will come with friends; but they all come to party. They will bring beer and laugh and dance all night in the small living room, which, to me, grows claustrophobic as a child’s sand tunnel. And if it gets too loud—too much of ruckus—I’ll sleep with my head under the pillow or will turn on the radio to drown out the noise.

Inevitably, he will invite one upstairs to his room. It’s too early to go home, he’ll say as I listen through the slit in my door. “Stay awhile, you don’t want to go home yet. We’ll watch the sun rise—or better yet, swim before it rises.” And at first hint of sunlight, as I turn in bed reaching for an alarm clock not there, I imagine that girl will turn also, turn next to Bobby, who’s hazy-eyed and hung over, only wanting to sleep late. Their heads must hum with the sound of air rushing through seashells. It’s really air rushing through tympanic labyrinths.

I can imagine a slight shuffling in the room but everything will remain nameless and essentially unchanged. Bobby, I believe, will remain asleep. Or will pretend. I don’t think she’ll wake him as she quietly gathers up her swimsuit off the floor and leaves quickly. Sitting at the edge of my bed, I’ll shake my head free of the boisterous voices that rang through the walls only hours ago. I know the trace of sand under her fingernails will be the last memory she has of Bobby.

I toss a sheet over my head. The door downstairs is pulled shut.

My brother once told me that he never dates a girl for more than two months. He dates so many girls that for him one face is interchangeable with another. Not me. I never forget a face.

Early afternoon. I disregard the earlier storm warnings. My wet suit is as snug as the skin of a baby seal. I am standing on a giant wave, perhaps 12 feet. The wave is carrying me in its blue and white-capped fury, the promise of an incredible thrill.

At this height, I feel powerful as I surge into the air. I am Neptune kissing the sky. I feel I am surfing in the waters of the Hawaiian god, Ka-ne. Hawaiian legends say that if one is dead and Ka-ne’s water is thrown upon that person, that someone becomes alive again. As the wave lifts me higher, I imagine I can see all twenty-nine miles of Santa Cruz’s beaches, perhaps over its rooftops. I coast downwards, making the mistake of looking into the water.

Now if I fall, I imagine this blue, almost transparent sea will open up and swallow me whole. I will become a tiny fish swept and chased in Neptune’s domain. Lamenting about my past life on land, I might remain undigested in a jellyfish or octopus. I would plead for mercy.

With sea and salt spraying my face, I begin to lose my balance. I feel lopsided. I should have waxed this board for better foot grip. No longer can I deny that water is a solid I can simply glide over. I should have taken a short board. It carves the waves with such ease.

I steady myself, squatting slightly. I ride the wave in. No wipeout. I am victorious.

Today, I want to visit that girl lying in a coma, and present her with this surfboard. I will boast how I, her substitute, beat Neptune at his own game. I will tell her that I too have a head full of sea stars and sea horses. I want to place this long board, similar to the one that knocked her unconscious—the one I took from my brother—under her poster of surfers and orange sunset. An endless summer.

And somewhere in one of her drawers I imagine a photo of my brother, a surfer she once dated for two months, a face that became as insignificant to her as perhaps outdated swimwear. Was it my brother’s surfboard that knocked her unconscious, made her as dreamy as I am? He would never admit to it. I’ll never know.

I see myself flicking beads of salt water onto her face—my hands are not yet dry from the surf. I can picture her, the deadened eyes transforming into starry ones, as she sits up and tells me about the biggest wave she wants to conquer. Starting where she left off.

------------------------------------

SUN (pubbed in Ten Thousand Monkeys, March, 2006, issue 83)


Janey stoops down over the dead wasp on her kitchen floor. She watches the slight movements of its spindly legs, legs so tiny you must stare at them for minutes. She rises and turns to her husband at the kitchen table, slapping and spreading a glob of jam over his toast. The sound of his teeth crunching into it, the rhythm of a steady march. Yesterday, he complained to her that the pancakes were too "doughy". So, today she makes him eggs over light, breaking the yolks. He told her he likes sunny side up and the yolks runny. She remembers. She’s pointing to the dead insect.

It’s not dead, she murmurs.

—What? What’s not dead?

She pivots and points to the floor.

—The insect. It’s not dead. It‘s moving.

Drew stands up, pressing his seersucker tie to his chest. He inspects the wasp, takes a paper towel, wets it. Sweeps up the wasp. Into the waste pail.

—It’s dead now, he says. He ambles back to the table.

She watches him chew toast, swallow the rest of the orange juice in one gulp. It wasn’t really dead, she tells him, that’s why she couldn’t discard the thing. He doesn’t respond, digs a fork into the eggs without looking, reading stock quotes and year-to-date yields.

—You have a heart of stone, she says.

—About an insect? You killed it.

—No. About Billy. He’s your flesh and blood too. You always make it sound like somebody else’s. He could be half dead like that insect. What do strangers do to little boys when they don’t ask for ransom? My little boy was tortured and is half dead.

She runs a troop of fingers through the fresh cut of blond hair. Pulls at the ends. She studies her fingers. Need a manicure, she thinks, those nails are overgrown. Who has time for manicures?

—For Christ sake, Janey, what more can we do? Posters galore. I called the police every other day for 2 months. I’ve put ads in the paper. I don’t have a heart of stone.

Janey leaves the kitchen in a huff, picks up her suitcase in the living room, returns to the kitchen. She is tempted not to say good bye to him, after all, the arrangement to stay at her sister-in-law near Burbank for a few days was his idea and not hers. She bends down and pecks him on the cheek, turns to walks out.

—The change of scenery will do you good, he says.

You’re just afraid I might do something to myself when I’m alone, she thinks. You would have to blame yourself. I’m sick of blaming myself.

***

She shifts the Toyota into low gear as she ascends a windy slope. She recalls a white ranch styled house, built from scratch, atop a peak of evergreens and pines. The hill is as dense as her thoughts this morning. They were spacious rooms, she thinks, equipped with solar energy and sliding glass doors, a huge patio, a built-in swimming pool in the shape of a fat comma. There was a large satellite dish and 150 cable channels. She and Drew could only get 37.

Her sister-in-law, Dee, greets her with a sugary smile as Janey steps out of the car. Dee makes an attempt to grab the suitcase, but Janey twists her head, shaking it, no, she says, she can manage. Up the stairs, and she is breathless, studies her face in the mirror of the guest room before she unpacks. The tiny wart under her ear seems to be growing larger.

She joins Dee in the kitchen, watching her mix some tropical concoction, a health drink Dee invented, once joked she could sell the recipe to television.

—It’s such a gorgeous day, isn’t it, Janey?

Dee asks her if she brought her swim suit, you can’t think of staying here without them, do you? Without taking a dip in the pool. Janey apologizes, how could she forget them, she tells her in such an exaggerated tone, as if this could mean something momentous. Dee turns on the mixer, her words almost drowned out by the whirring sound.

—It’s not a problem. I have an old pair that’s too large for me.

She smiles at Janey and pats her tummy. Janey feels her grin dissolve. Is she pregnant? she wonders. Dee shuts off the blender and dashes out of the kitchen. Yells from the living room to help herself to a drink. Janey feels silly with her sun dress and sandals, that floppy hat that shades her eyes, one that Drew picked out for her at a garage sale. She fills a glass to its rim. The foamy liquid tastes of oranges and peaches with a dash of nutmeg. Or is it cinnamon? Too sweet.

Dee returns, hands her the one piece suit. That should fit, says Dee. My God, she says, tilting her head, have you lost weight? A blush over her face, Janey winces, fumbles, as if she wants to erase that last statement with white liquid.

—I mean you look good. I can’t seem to stay on a diet.

Holding the swim suit like a library book she does not wish to read, Janey saunters through the living room. She is accosted by Dee’s little boy, Tommy. He runs up to her and throws two arms, scrawny, reminding Janey of straw, around her waist.

—Aunt Jenny! Aunt Jenny!

He always calls her Aunt Jenny.

Janey lifts him in the air, remarking oh how big you got. Tommy wipes her mouth with the palm of his hand. White stuff, he says. Mom’s secret power drink.

Dee appears in the room, holding a wide glass the color of khaki.

—Is that the same thing I drank, says Janey.

—No. This is scotch and soda.

On the back deck, Dee arranges several folding chairs together and sits next to Janey. The two watch the boy jump into the pool, holding his knees to his chest. Tommy emerges, splashing water, a horrific slapping, the spray reaching Janey’s feet.

—Stop that, says Dee behind her Armani sunglasses.

The boy is laughing. He turns on his back and floats, calls out to Janey that she should come in. In a while, she yells, In a while.

You really should go in, Dee tells her. She notices Janey’s glass almost empty, offers to refill it. Janey covers the mouth of the glass with her hand.

—I want what you’re drinking.

—Scotch? Since when do you drink liquor?

Oh, for a while. Just don’t drink it that often. Now and then, you know.

Dee takes off the sun glasses and looks at her puzzled. Her head slowly comes off the plastic recliner, uncrosses her legs. No, she doesn’t mind, she tells Janey, be right back.

Watch this, Aunt Jenny.

Tommy throws one arm up in the air and squeezes his nose with the other hand. He sinks below.

Thinks Janey: I always had it backwards. I used to think that in your normal waking life, you could see clearly, at least, clearer than those who fill their lives with substances, alcohol, drugs, whatever. But it’s really the other way around. In your normal state, you see through a mesh, a fine gauze wound around your head. Maybe if she was less sober, she would have picked her little boy up from school that day. How else could she explain it?

She is distracted by the calm of the water’s surface, refracting only sun. It’s been almost a minute, she thinks and he has not come up for air. She stands, runs to the edge. A whole minute? She sees the wavering image of him at the bottom of the pool. She hears the glass door slide open behind her. She turns. Dee is holding her drink. Janey swings around and dives into the pool.

***

Tommy’s head bobs up and down in the water.

—Ha Ha. I got you to come in the water, Aunt Jenny!

He slaps the water with both hands, throws his head back, gloating, continues to laugh. Janey stands in the water, level to her chest, wipes her eyes, pushes matted hair from them.

—You scared the shit out of me! She slams her hand against the water. She starts to splash him using both hands. She’s cupping water in her hands, throwing him waterfalls.

—You scared the shit of me!

He stumbles back in the water, looking shaken, his eyes bulging, looks as though he’s debating whether to laugh or cry. He stands still.

—I’m sorry, Aunt Jenny. It was only a joke. A joke.

—Well, it’s not funny. Do you hear me? It’s not funny.

He turns and dives underwater.

Janey walks back towards the patio, scooping the water, alternating hands. Dee places a hand under Janey’s arm, helps her to climb out. Offers her a mulberry colored towel. Janey dries her head, looking at Dee’s bare feet, red painted toes.

—I didn’t mean to yell at him.

—No. It’s okay. He deserved it. Your drink is on the table.

Janey sits down, takes a sip from the glass. Looks up at the sun. So amazing, she thinks, how it fools you. You think the sun is a solid but it’s really a ball of gases.

—He wasn’t coming up for air, Dee. I got scared.

—He needs a lesson.

—Dee, I know I was stupid. Drew always tells me I’m stupid.

—He used that exact word? Stupid?

No. Something like it. Means the same thing. Careless. He calls me careless.

—That’s not the same as stupid.

Janey takes another sip. She spots Tommy getting out of the pool, rubbing his body with the towel his mother hands him. From a corner of her eye, she feels his eyes on her, then, turns, he lowers his head to her feet, towards the water. He turns and walks away, scrubbing the back of his neck, brisk, hearty strokes. He is standing at far end of the pool.

—Dee, I know who kidnapped my boy. She swallows more scotch, tilts her head back into the chair.

—Really? Who?

—Drew. I think he snuck Billy over to his parents. He doesn’t trust me around him.

—That’s absurd.

—No. The bipolar thing. Maybe it got to him. So, sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m down. Lately, it’s been mostly down.

—I didn’t know. About the bipolar.

—Oh, it’s nothing so melodramatic. Comes and goes. Not a madwoman of Chaillot baring her teeth.

Dee peers at Janey over her glasses. Janey watches her uncross her feet, reach and rub her big toe.

—I don’t think he would do that, says Dee.

—He never forgave me for the affair. His way of getting back.

—It wasn’t much of an affair from what you said. The both of you were married, and the both of you called it off after what? A month?

Janey holds the cup in her hands, swishes the liquid with her finger. She licks the forefinger. Takes another gulp. She listens to the silence of the pool, the water, the trees, the sky. The sun.

—Dee. Do you ever look at the sun head on? I mean think about it.

Dee attempts to swat a fly on her thigh. She misses.

—Can’t say that I have, Janey.

—Well, I have. What is it, really? It’s just hot air. Think about that. This star that controls us is really nothing but hot air. Everything you work for, everything you value turns into hot air. A puff of smoke and it’s gone. Solid into gas. Not even a liquid stage.

—No. I don’t think of the sun like that. It warms me and helps me to see in the daytime. No. I don’t think of it like that. There must be more to it than just that. Without the sun, only night.

Janey watches the boy slowly encroach upon her, Keeping his head down, then raising it to inspect her face, whether, perhaps, she is still angry. He is sidling along the edge of the pool. Janey looks away. Up at the sky.

The boy is standing a foot or so from her. Are you dry, she asks him. He stands by his mother, says nothing. Puts his head down.

***

Janey rises from the chair, eyes her drink on the glass round-top next to it. She announces to Dee she wants to get changed and to take a walk to freshen her up. The day is still gorgeous enough to wander around.

She changes into a pair of dark baggy shorts and a white jersey. She steps back onto the patio, struggling to close the glass door. There, she says. It does stick sometimes, says Dee. Janey looks out over the patio. Dee tells her to come over and turn around, tucks a flap of the jersey into her pants by the rump. It was hanging out, she tells her.

—Where are you going? says Tommy, who is now wearing flip-flops and a white tee-shirt, a yellow picture of pac man.

—Just for a walk down and back up the hill. Not far.

—Can I go with you?

—No, says Dee.

—Why not?

No, she tells him again, a firm edge to her voice.

Why not? Janey says to her, why not let him come. Only a short way.

—Just down the hill?

—That’s all, says Janey.

Dee tells Billy to put on some pants. Right back, calls Billy, rushing into the house. Dee gets up, tells Janey she will start preparing dinner. The phone rings. Janey excuses herself. Tommy appears on the patio. Well, you sure change fast, Janey is telling him. She reaches for the drink.

Dee slides the glass door, tells Janey it was Drew. He wanted to know if she arrived safely. Janey asks if he wants to speak to her. No, she says, just wanted to know she was okay. She disappears behind the glass door.

Janey wriggles her fingers at Tommy, motioning him to follow, while holding the drink in her other hand. The two saunter down the hilly road, past tall trees. She pushes branches that brush into her face. A car passes them, going uphill. Three more. A fourth car rides dangerously close to the edge of the road. Janey turns, sweeps her arm around Tommy, scoops him in.

The breeze from the car whips her face, and she releases him. She sways, losing her balance; the glass drops from her hands, a puddle of liquor blending into the pavement. She falls into it. Hard.

She sits up, looking at her knee, the gash, the thin, wavering line between lips of flesh. The sight of this fascinates her. She is grabbing at a piece of broken glass, holding it so firm she can feel its edges cut into her hand. She gathers herself and attempts to stand up.

Tommy grabs one arm, brushing dirt from the front of her shorts. He helps her with a sandal that is lying a foot or so from the broken glass.

—You alright, Aunt Jenney?

Janey looks around and up, up into the blue sky, so calm, so clear, the sun too, sanguine, motionless, nothing talking. It never goes wrong up there, thinks Janey.

Looking down, she sees the blood, small streams of it down her leg, her hand, an abstract pattern of it. She reaches for the knee with the clean hand, covering it, smiles at Tommy. The boy freezes in front of her. It’s going to be okay, she tells him.

—No. No. You’re bleeding. Your knee. Your hand. We go back to my house.

She stoops to cover the leg, shaking her head.

—It’s nothing, Tommy. A little cut. You go back.

He jerks his body up and down, closes his hands into loose fists.

—No. I can’t stand the sight of blood! It scares me. It’s ugly. Ugly. Nobody’s blood.

—Tommy, go back home. I’m just going a little further, a little further.

—No. No. No.

—Just a little further. A little more. That’s all. You go back to mommy.

He grapples with her arms, trying to pull her towards him, she bucks and pushes him away. He falls to the ground. Sits up, steadying himself with the palms of the ground. He starts to cry, the sound of it, but she sees no tears yet.

She walks towards him, reaches for him, switches hands, the clean hand, not bleeding.

—I’m sorry, honey. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.

—Get away from me. Get away? He swipes at her arm.

—Are you okay?

He stands up and brushes himself off. Stomps his feet up the hill, towards the house. She’s watching him. He turns, walks back towards her. He’s still crying.

—You can’t walk like that! You’re bleeding.

He’s shouting. She grabs the back of his head. He tries to wrestle away from her. She squeezes him into her. He’s shaking his head pressed against the hem of her shorts.

—Okay. Okay. Calm down.

He pulls himself away from her and looks up into her face.

—You’re going back with me?

—Yes. Now wipe your face. You don’t want your mother to see you crying, do you?

He rubs his eyes with the back of his wrist. He’s sniffling.

—Really coming back?

—Yes.

—Okay, you follow me. I’ll lead you up the hill. Keep you knee covered. You can’t lose too much of that stuff.

She smiles at him, begins to trudge behind him.

The house comes into view. She can barely make out the wispy figure of Dee standing on the patio. She thinks it is Dee.

She hears a rumbling that is growing louder. Approaching. A hiss, she thinks, through the branches, nothing but the wind. The rumbling is right behind her. She yells for Tommy to stay close to the trees, off the road.

She swings her head to the side. A station wagon passes. She spots a little girl in the back seat, her nose pressed against the window, her fingers spread apart, making a series of V’s. The car passes. The girl continues to stare at Janey. She is curious about this girl. The girl is staring at her knee. The car turns at the top of the hill, vanishes.

—Nothing, she whispers.

—Nothing, she says out loud.

—What? Aunt Jenny, did you say something? He is speaking with his head still facing forward.

—No.

—What?

—Nothing. It was nothing.

She watches the boy march up the hill, keeping a strict tempo, swinging his arms in wild arcs—her little soldier boy.

-----------------------------------------------------

Raccoon People (published in Riverbabble, 2009)

Night is when they come out. They come out in droves or staggered lines, whispers or shouts, coupled or alone. They congregate at places like The Laughing Lobster, especially at Happy Hour, when people like me and Queenie sit at the bar, our heads and tongues, helium-light, and the liquor, a fog for the perpetually fogged. Queenie and I are part of this growing subterranean breed, the raccoon people, craving the muck, the dark alleys, the crevices and the spaces, the scraps we often mistake for food. We're too poor to afford daylight. We‘re too rich to squander the night. Some people just flat out deny that they're raccoons.

In fact, Queenie has a black eye that takes on a kind of bluish tint under the florescent light. She got mugged in daylight near Wal-mart‘s. I guess that black eye qualifies her for raccoon membership. And I rarely see Queenie in daylight. When I first heard that Queenie got mugged, I felt something round and bottomless open in my gut. Even though Queenie is not my mother, and I am too old to be a boy, there are times, when feeling lonely and insecure, as only a raccoon can know, that I crave the warm fur of her company.

Queenie and I trudge up and down the sloping sidewalks of Hazelnut Avenue. We just left The Laughing Lobster at Happy Hour and now we're on our way to Tingles. Up a winding incline, Queenie boasts how she is descended from a long line of Hapsburg kings and queens-- and in another life-- she entertained barons and nobles from Stuttguard, Saltzburg. It’s the same tall story she pitches every time. "Lieber Gott. Weren't we all once glitter and gold," she says in that shaky high-pitched voice, "and everything in between."

Sometimes, I ask Queenie if she remembers Vienna. The last time I asked her that, which was in the Laughing Lobster, about a week or a month ago, she took a swig from her high boy, licked her lips, and sat pensively for a moment, staring at her reflection in the bar’s mirror. “Is it raining in Vienna?“ she said. Then her eyes turned to two aquamarine stones, sitting in the cragged crown of her face, the stringy gray hair, unkempt.

She has a strange sense of time, often compressing vast spaces, splicing memories, talking about something that happened years ago, as if it occurred yesterday. Sometimes, Queenie will tilt her high boy and say, Chester, it was so hard getting you dressed for school the other day. Why do you hate school so much? Are you so frightened of the nuns?

Whenever she says things like this, I never correct her. I just let the silence between us linger, a shadow we both own and disown. Eventually, something evaporates.

All I ever do is walk, says Queenie, struggling behind me to catch her wind. I walk from the central wards to the center of town. Sometimes I walk in circles around the center of town. Do you know the price of bratwurst has gone up? Tell me, Chester. What do you do when you can no longer walk? When your legs stiffen and refuse your brain's commands. What do you do, Chester?

I shrug, distracted by the sudden flash, the twirling lights of police sirens, looming closer. Maybe a D. U. I. Maybe a heart attack at the wheel of the car.

I don't know, I say, what do you do?

You crawl on all fours until you can no longer crawl. Until you return to the sky, light as ein vogel, light as a puff of air. Pfft!

Sometimes, I could kick myself. We could have taken a cab to Tingles, but then we couldn’t afford a full Happy Hour. But one of the nice things about taxis is that they always pick up raccoons.

And although Queenie often acts like my mother, saying, Chester, do this or that, even though my name isn't Chester, right now, she labors behind me, her footsteps, heavy, clunking. I can hear the rasps of her breaths, the wheezing and the quickened tempo, the desperate plight of too little air. Recently, she has put on weight and I sometimes joke that she holds the whole world in her belly, and the world's oceans, its rivers and tributaries, in her reddened balloon-like legs. The doctors give me all these diuretics, she says, but they don't work, so I order another beer. She always thinks that is so funny. You can never truly appreciate a raccoon’s sense of humor unless you are one.

The night grows cold. A shiver works its way up my legs and back and I imagine it’s worse for Queenie, who wears her ex-husband's ratty old sweater. In the street, the Leather Kings cruise by in their new and shiny cars, showing off their indoor tans and their latest tattoos. Sometimes, the Leather Kings hunt and run over raccoons like me and Queenie.

A cat has nine lives, they say, but a raccoon only has two: the life it leads and the one behind closed eyes.

I point to a park bench and tell Queenie she can rest there. Tingles is a good twelve blocks, maybe more, and I don’t think Queenie will make it. If I were still working at the cab company, I could give her a ride to Tingles. Whenever I was on duty, I always gave Queenie a free ride and paid the charge. Then, I'd wink at her in the rearview, signaling that I knew her secret identity. There is strength in numbers, and someday, we will live openly in daylight.

On the park bench, I listen to Queenie gasp for air, wait for her to catch her breath. Under the street light, her cheeks puff out, her face turns to a deep shade of red. She squeezes her nose with thumb and forefinger, a makeshift clothespin. What are you doing? I ask.

She says she was going to sneeze and she couldn’t let that happen. She lets out a sigh.

I think this must be one of those old superstitions that are carried for generations. Queenie, I say, it‘s not healthy to fight a sneeze. It’s not healthy to keep something in that wants to come out.

Nein, nein, she says, sneezing always brings her bad luck. Like many years ago, right before her eight-year old son was hit and killed by a car while crossing the street-- she sneezed. Right before her husband left her for a woman whose soul was as dark as a raccoon‘s secrets--she sneezed. If she sneezes, she says, she’ll disappear.

She begins coughing, a stack of gurgling phlegm-filled coughs, then tells me a story her father, she claims, once told her.

It was a drizzly night, and the roads were muddy, grayish.

She coughs and clutches at words, coughs and starts over.

It was a drizzly night, and the roads were muddy, grayish.

Somewhere in the Black Forest, a stranger, wearing cape and mask, walked into an inn, demanding room and board. He claimed he was God. The innkeeper, thinking the stranger nothing but a drunkard, laughed at him. Disgruntled, the stranger drew in a deep breath and exhaled. Everything disappeared. That, her father said, was how the world began and that is how it will end.

I don’t know if there is a hidden meaning to that story. And I won’t ask Queenie.

Raccoons grow uncomfortable when you pry into something part of their family history. It’s like asking a Hapsburg princess, how she got her distinctive nose.

She starts coughing again, a whole spasm of it. Look, she says, digging into her pockets, go to the liquor store and get me a pint of brandy. Brandy is always good for what I got.

I tell her I’ll pay, although I won’t have the money to stay at Tingles, one happy raccoon, suffused with visions of daylight. Standing, I peer down at Queenie, shivering, leaning over. I once had a mother like her. And I was her rabbit, weakling son.

While I was growing up, my mother grew down. She always promised to take me places, to the botanical gardens in the park, the shopping malls, the rows of mansions that rich people owned, wide rectangular houses with at least three coats of paint. But whenever she said, let’s go somewhere, with that strange smile on her face, she always followed behind, her footsteps, lumbering, fading. After she died, I turned from a spoiled rabbit to a scavenger raccoon. I hoarded everything in the night.

I return from the liquor store, tucking the paper bag under my arm. The liquor store didn’t carry blackberry brandy, so, I bought a bottle of rum. I can hear Queenie now when she opens it. Lieber Gott! It’s just like you, Chester, she’ll say. I can’t trust you for one simple errand. I send you to get milk and you bring back a package of licorice.

Laboring up the sidewalk, I feel the wind pierce through me, an angry phantom. I look for the park bench where I left her. Queenie is gone.

I swivel and squint my eyes, scan the streets, the sidewalks. I imagine all the raccoons are safely cloistered in places like Tingles, or The Laughing Lobster, while the Leather Kings patrol streets, looking to cause another hit and run, another raccoon casualty.

Maybe I’ll chance the park. Maybe she’s sleeping there, under the gazebo. No, she would only do that in summer. I think even the muggers have deserted the park. It’s just that cold.

The wind slaps my face. I have to find Queenie. Because even though I’m no longer young, I was once some mother‘s son. And what’s a boy to do without his mother?

I search the broken sidewalks. The streets, cold and hard. Night is blacker than black. Silence. The amnesiac world is still. Maybe for now, the Leather Kings are hiding from the chill in parked cars, radios blaring. I turn and study the park bench, its chipped wooden boards--sagging, empty. There is nothing. No one.

Queenie must have sneezed.
----------------------------------------

If You See Nikki, Give Her My Best(published in Offline Literary Journal, 2007)



It's about 7:30 p.m. I'm still beat to shit from last night's run. Grab another swig from the bottle, Komet Kocktail, a concoction of herbs, vitamins, and caffeine that leaves your body wired and numb. Look out past the steering wheel. Manhattan. A jigsaw of bright and flashing lights, a mad dash of pedestrians with their smorgasbord of agendas. My shift started at 6 p.m. Light just turned green.

I'm driving a young couple headed to Staircase 2 Selina, a new hotspot in Chelsea. The girl, with fluffy honey-colored hair, and a bit too much eyeliner, or maybe the new vampire look at clubs, asks me if I'm the same guy on TV who turns around and says "How would you like to earn some money?" And then he would spring Jeopardy-like questions. No, I tell her, I'm not the guy.

"Wow," she says, in this slightly snooty, slightly muted, voice. "You look just like him. I mean the shaved head and all."

"Doesn't he?" says her partner. His voice is louder, somewhat effeminate.

In the rearview, I inspect my face. A fashionable three-day gristle. My head resembling a huge cue ball. I smile. No. I'm not him, and I drop them off in front of a warehouse-like building, a snake-like line of people twirling around a corner.

I get a call from the dispatcher to pick up a customer on 23rd and 6th. Destination: Port Authority. I pull up. The guy is middle-aged and somewhat disheveled. He scurries to the edge of the sidewalk, waving his forefinger like a shy student with an answer for the teacher. He hops in.

His face is round, his head almost bald too, but his lack of hair, a natural fallout. Not like mine. He's dressed in a baggy tan suit, tie loosened, and he seems somewhat short-winded. Perhaps he attempted to walk uptown and gave up—he's somewhat portly. I watch his face in the rearview. He squints his eyes behind a pair of oval, thin designer-frames, and pronounces the name on the square I. D. hanging off the dash. Milos, he mumbles. Hello, Milos. How's business? he asks.

I speed across 9th Avenue. My timing of lights is excellent. I've learned to cut through prison walls of stalled traffic, to withstand insults hurled from open windows. Sometimes, I yell through the closed window, something like "take mass transit, you asshole," or "this is not Jersey, peter-brain." Sometimes, I give them the finger. Mostly, though, I say nothing. Only received one ticket in the past six months. Jumping a light. But I looked. Really did.

I leave the passenger off, opposite the Port, and he tells me to wait. I say sure, but he'll have to pay for the ride to midtown. Nothing personal. But too many people try to stiff you. He fumbles through his wallet while he edges towards the door, hands me the fare, plus a generous tip.

"Milos," he says, "please. In case I don't see her."

I tap my fingers on the steering wheel, watch parades of people pass by, like skeins of birds flocking south or west or east, and I wonder about their destinations, their private lives. Sometimes, I envy them. I'm forty-two, live with my mother and people often ask me if I'm married. I always say yes to get them off my back. People ask too many questions and invent fables when you ask them.

Truth is I'm separated from my wife, Margot. I hate Margot for leaving me, for stealing Lena.

My driving a cab never impressed Margot—she took up with a Korean civil engineer, young, younger than her. Whenever I call, he tells me, she's not there, and I curse and pace for minutes in my closet of a East Village apartment. Wish I could squeeze this world in the palm of my hand. Upon releasing it, I'd make a wish for God to put my family back together. Promised myself I'd go back to law school. I will. Someday. A traffic jam of somedays.

I spot the same customer dodging traffic across 8th Avenue, headed back towards my window. He knocks, asks if I could drive him around the Port. She's not there, he tells me, whoever "she" is. There are tiny sweat beads forming around his flushed cheeks. He sighs and thanks me. He hops back in and tells me his name is Paul. I believe him and don't believe him. After all, does he wear an I. D.?

We drive in circles around Port Authority. Like buzzards. I watch in the rearview his face leaning against the window, his intense scrutiny at the jagged lines of people, waiting on corners, children licking the salt from pretzels, muscle-bound men in tight undershirts, others huddling in members-only groups, women strutting with their summer-slick bodies. Their curves, their walk both entice and anger me. In the rearview, I watch Paul's face crinkle. I can sense his eye strain. It is mine too.

He hands me several twenties and says drive around midtown; he wants to scout the streets looking for this woman named Nikki. A bubble of silence fills the cab. The air hangs thick and heavy. His words puncture that silence, and his voice grows rushed and raspy. He says he met her on an internet date site, one he designed. He says he works at home, does most of his work on the computer, makes good money from his website for singles.

At irregular intervals as we cruise, he admits he's sensitive about his looks, his weight, anxiety when people look at him, as if they're robbing him of some natural birth right. He says he develops ugly red blotches on the side of his face when he sweats. Apart from the flushed skin, I haven't noticed any blotches tonight. But then again, I haven't looked that hard.

I wonder too why is he telling me all this.

We scour the streets, the people traipsing, filing out of shops, restaurants, bars. Sometimes, he tells me to make a left here, or a right there, and I think it will all be futile, just like on the other streets. He hands me more money.

"Would you mind if I smoke?"I ask. No, he says. I light up and ask him what does Nikki look like. Maybe two pairs of eyes searching would be better than one. He clears his throat. He says she kind of looks like Janet Jackson, but maybe not that much. Maybe more like that Mexican pop star—Brettina Olivera.

I glance at him in the rearview. Never heard of that one, I say, but Janet, yeah. Oh, yeah. One hot mama, boy. She must be really special, I say. In the rearview, his lips form tight stretch marks, then angry small circles, as he stares out the window. I am reminded of cellophane pulled too tightly— crackling, tearing.

This was the first date, he says, and she told him to meet her at the front of Port Authority, 8 p.m. He had seen her photo, perhaps retouched, read her dossier of likes and dislikes. She desired an older man, reliable, and wasn't so much into looks as a relationship, hopefully, long term.

I nod and say, it always starts that way.

In the rearview, I watch him lean forward and fold his hands. It makes me edgy the way his glassy-eyed stare lingers, bores through me. Suddenly, they bulge.

"Milos, look out!"

I swerve the car as something shadow-like flashes past the hood. Jam on the brakes. It turns out to be a young woman in black top and skirt. She spreads her hands, grits her teeth as if she just swallowed bits of glass.

"Like it's a red light. You colorblind or something, jerk?"

I tap the steering wheel with my head. It was a close one. Mumble a feeble thank-you to Paul.

"Milos?"

I peer in the rearview.

"Yes?"I tilt my face in the rearview.

"You get much sleep? You look tired. I mean, your eyes, sagging, look at them."

No, my friend. Not much sleep. "It's been a long week. Driving a cab— long hours."

We drive. I'm beginning to feel guilty about taking his money, and this endless search, like using binoculars to pick out a star in a galaxy of so many. Do you have her cell phone number, I inquire.

"No. In the email, she said she wouldn't give it out . . ." The sound of his hands slapping against his legs.. . " until she knows the person."

I steal a look in the rearview. He adjusts his tie, makes this scrunched-up face, fumbles with the sleeves. His cheeks like embers.

Daddy? says Lena from the backseat.

It's 10: 30 p. m. and I peer at him through the rearview. He looks tired, dejected, his head slumped back, hands at his sides. He suggests trying the East Side, along 1st and 2nd Avenues, because she had mentioned a great salsa place along there in the email. I say no, that I won't waste any more of his money or time, that he should call it a night, perhaps, go out, get drunk, whatever. And after all, New York is a big city. She could be anywhere. Maybe go home, friend, I tell him, get some rest. Tomorrow, send her an email, send her a goddam email.

"It's over, Milos," says Margot, as she pounds her hand against the backseat.

The sound of Paul's hand rubbing along the seat's vinyl. He agrees and says to drop him off at his apartment on 21st and 6th. We arrive at the address. The back door slams, he walks around to my side, offers me more money. I decline, reiterating that he has already paid too much. We shake hands. Instead of walking into the apartment building, he walks past it. He turns, smiles, waves, then, disappears around a corner. I'm tempted to follow him. But I don't. I'm really tempted.

It proves to be a good night. Racking up tips from couples to and from clubs, restaurants, and a drive to Brooklyn that paid off nicely. For most of that ride, a woman with runs in her panty-hose planted her face square in a man's lap. He blushed when he paid the fare.

Several hours later, I'm rambling down 10th Avenue. A flurry of swirling lights greets me up ahead. EMTs carry a body in a stretcher. I slow up, try to get a glimpse, but I can't make out the face. Surely, the body must have one. All bodies do.

I look in the rearview.

Paul, are you okay?

He smiles at me. Let's keep driving, he says.

Towards morning, I pick up a young woman in front of a after-hours club. She wears pumps, a matching leather jacket and skirt, hair, mahogany brown, a slight facial resemblance to Jennifer Lopez. Her tone is dry and diffident and a slight sneer is etched on his face. She gives me an East Chelsea address.


We're stopped at a red light, my cell goes off. I pick up, answer.

"Milos?"

"Who's this? Margot? Margot, that you?"

"Milos, call me when you get home."

"What are you doing up? You're okay, no? Is Lena okay?"

"Call me when you get home. Okay?"

"Margot?"

She's not there.

With a loud and harsh grumbling, the passenger in back clears her throat. I peer up. The light has turned green. My palm pounds against the steering wheel. Sorry, I say. I am so sorry.

Passing an all-night diner, I peer in, inspect the stragglers sitting at the counter, one munching on a donut or bagel. Wonder if the one sipping coffee is Paul. I cannot secure a good look. My cab crawls past the shop.

He turns around and waves.

In the rearview, the woman is shooting me an odd stare.


The streets are quiet and barren, ghosts of a life that throbbed only hours before, and I feel the need for more caffeine. I stop the car in the middle of 5th Avenue. These 6-day shifts are killing me. I swing my head around and say, "Nikki?"

"Huh?"

"Nikki?"

"Excuse me?" she says, lifting her head in the rearview.

I didn't do anything wrong.

"You can't stop in the middle of the street," she says. "Is there something wrong?"

In the rearview, she shakes her head from side to side. Her eyebrows arch and her eyes squint.

I pull up in front of a five-story brick-and-mortar apartment building and roll down the window.

Above, the sky turns to a shade of light blue, the sun's eye peeking through orange and red frills at the horizon. A honk squeals from a passing van, a carload of young men and women cheer and clap. From somewhere, a distant police siren blares or is it my mother's tea kettle?

I shift the car in park and say "seven dollars."

Seven dollars, she says in a slow crescendo. For just a few blocks?

"It was more than a few, miss."

I hear the rustle of her hand fumbling through her handbag, her mumbling, her rushed breaths pocketed by a sigh. In the rearview, I watch her lift her head up, her lips sunken and the muscles streaking around her eyes. Our faces meet in the rearview.

"I'm sorry," she says, " I thought I had more. I only have five. Uhm wait." She continues to rummage through her white vinyl purse. "You guys don't take credit cards, do you?"

"No ma'am."

I study her as she fumbles through her purse, as she grows more frantic, as she wipes from time to time her eyes with the sleeve of the leather jacket. Her voice trembles, no longer the reedy self-assured tone I heard earlier. I imagine tiny streams of make-up mixed with sweat running down her cheeks.

"Wait," she says, "I have some change. Some quarters somewhere. For the tolls to Jersey. Okay. Here's some dimes. Thirty-five, forty. I need more light. Can you put on the inside light?"

"Ma'am . . ."

"Look, just be patient, okay. It's been a bad week. A bad month. Oh, fuck. I know I have it. Just wait, OK?"

I raise one hand in the air and wait for her to look up.

"Ma'am, it's okay. I'll tell you what. The fare's on me. On one condition. "

Her lips quiver and hang open as she watches me in the rearview.

"You have coffee with me sometime. Some small talk. You can tell me about your bad week. Casey's Diner around the corner. I pass it all the time."

"Is this a bribe for a date?"

"Am I that ugly?"

We stare at each other in silence in the rearview. She tilts her head down.

"I don't give out my number to strangers. And as for a date, I'm still getting over someone."

She opens the door, steps out, and sidles around to my window. She hands me a fistful of bills and loose change. I wave her away.

"You think about it. If you change your mind, you can reach me at the station. I'm off on Sundays."


She shakes her head in slight motions and manages to work up a faint smile.

"Thanks for the fare. Maybe. I'll think about it."

"My name is Milos." I stretch out my hand; we shake and smile into each other's face. She turns to walk away, then, flips her head back to steal a look at me. She saunters back to my window.

"My name isn't Nikki, by the way. It's Rosa."

I chew the inside of my lip and nod. Rosa, I repeat. A nice name. Her lips pull to their corners and she nods in return.

Nikki, you have my number.

I watch her as she vanishes into the apartment complex, then take off towards Midtown. Above me, pigeons coo and flap their wings over yawning streets. Street cleaners in orange uniforms disappear around corners. On the sidewalks, stragglers munch on donuts or bagels, or sip coffee from paper cups. A few joggers work their arms like pistons. My eyes grow heavy. I need to get some sleep. I have to call Margot. Worried about Lena.

At a red light, my cab nails the rear end of a blue Ford Galaxy. The light turns green. The driver, some scrawny punk rocker with long, braided hair, tattoos along the neck, steps out and spreads his hands, says, "What the fuck, man." I hope it is only a fender bender, but the noise did jar me.

He scuttles to the back of his car, inspects whatever damage. He runs a hand along the chrome fender, then, turns, and shrugs. He walks back to the driver's side and takes off with a screeching tire spin.

I peep in the rear view. I study my eyes that are drop-droopy and reddened, then, the eyes drift towards the back seat. There are no passengers. No faces or ghosts. The back seat is empty, the way it always is at the end of my shift.





------------------------------------------------------

Trudy Says

Trudy used to say that it’s never winter in Iceland if you’re leaving Springwater by foot. She’s lying on my front lawn again, face down, her arms and legs splayed like a star, her 14th suicide in a month. I know she’s not really dead, not even bleeding, but that could be my heart playing possum. If only she weren’t so reckless in her need for attention, so formulistic in her strategies to battle rejection of any kind. Whatever possessed me to get intimate with my haircutter?

It’s not so much Trudy’s doing this, the act, that bothers me. It’s more like what the neighbors will think when they look out the window and see Trudy week after week, a fixture becoming more threatening, a Dali painting more surreal, a gimmick more a nuisance. Is this the lady who fell to earth, vanishes, and returns? Is this some kind of sick Act 1 to a twisted relationship? And what kind of monster am I to put this poor girl through this? A Jason casting aside his Medea?

I can picture the couple over me, the Thompsons. Mr. Thompson boasting of the healthy heart of his marriage, in his red streaked undershirt, advocating how tomatoes, Big Boys or Black Krims, San Marzano or Roman VFs, the Tomato, the goddess of the Island of Lycopene and the armies of antioxidants, would prevent most every disease imaginable. And Mrs. Thompson, speaking with her back to her husband, speaking as if cemented by the window -- honey, I think I know that girl lying on the front lawn. It looks like my hairdresser at Divine Celine. She really does a nice job, but I wished they’d have more specials.

*
The first day, Trudy and I met, I stared speechless into the wall mirror, while she bobbed around, holding a pair of shears that imitated the sound of chattering wind-up teeth. I didn’t exactly want the Vin Diesel style, because it was winter in Pierre, and that’s exactly where I was headed. Too late, I thought, my hair, what was left of it, tiny nibs poking through my scalp and I thought she had crossed a line.

She was saying something I thought was scatterbrained, or maybe too torpedo-deep for me, that she had an internet friend in Reykjavik and that they chatted about something more than just the weather.

“And did you know,” Trudy said while snipping ringlets of my salt-and-pepper hair, “that there must at least 200 volcanoes in Iceland and this makes up about a third, a third mind you, of the earth’s total lava flow.”

That’s really amazing, I said. But you’re taking off too much hair. She swung me around in the chair, away from the mirror, and said, I’m so sorry, but you really look better with less hair and not more, like the model‘s picture on the wall. And she would even it out around the sides and back. And I said but who is paying for this? Isn’t the customer always right?

The currency of love, she was saying, cannot be measured in kronas.
Exactly five hours and forty five minutes later, I was saying to Trudy in my Springwater condo, elbows propped up on my bed, as we rubbed noses like experienced Eskimos who’ve sinned and managed the guilt trips, what was so wrong with just a wash and cut?

“You really look better with less hair and not more, “ she said, rolling her gooseberry eyes towards my forehead.

We stared into each other’s eyes for minutes, and hers was an odd intense kind of stare, as if she could morph into a high priestess of sacrificial love, or maybe she fantasized she was my eye doctor and could offer outrageous specials on contact lenses.

So, weeks later, there I was on the phone with Trudy saying that our relationship would go nowhere. And after I asked her to repeat what she was saying through a bad phone line she said something like “Isn’t life like the weeks of autumn?”

Come again, I said.


“Isn’t life like the weeks of autumn?


“OH! You mean isn’t life like the Rings of Saturn?” I wondered how many rings Saturn actually has. Is it seven or three? And which ring would define us?

*
I decide to take a new approach to this problem, like you would if frying an egg to please a difficult guest who only eats scrambled. Maybe invite her in for apricot brandy and try to reason with her in a gentle non- threatening way, which many would call THERAPEUTIC. And then, perhaps after the third glass, I would tell her my musings over getting a restraining order.

So, Trudy is standing in the middle of my love-barren but art-decorous apartment, brushing the snow off her boots, her ginger-colored skirt, her hibiscus-patterned blouse. Trudy, I say, setting her brandy snifter down by the black leather love seat, don’t you think this is getting to be a little repetitious? I mean, 14 suicides in one month?

She swings her head towards me, the hair, matted, auburn with streaks of marigold, but darker now, because of the snow. There is a look of boredom, that what I have just said is too trite, the orgasmic thrill of a tautology, the lips pushing inward, the upper lip puffing out.

“Repetition,” she says, “breeds victory.”

“On whose side,” I ask.

“Mine. Of course.”

Two hours and twenty minutes later, Trudy is passed out in my bed, eyes rolling up and over just at the moment when I was about to give in and ask for sex, one last time, of course.

So, now I’m force feeding Trudy one cup of black coffee after another, and this might be love of some kind, I wonder. It’s a thought that’s scaring me.

Trudy, I say. I’m expecting someone over in a hour. I have to clean up the apartment.
Are you throwing me out, she asks in her faux-astonished voice. And could this be a woman, she wants to know.

In a manner of speaking, I say, I am throwing you out. And the other part belongs to my personal space, which is not a manner of speaking.

Well, she says, throwing off the fire- engine red covers of my bed, and swinging her orange painted toenails over the floor, if you want me out, you’ll have to drive me home.

Well, how did you get here, I say. You just didn’t fly through the kitchen window.

No, she says, I threw myself plop down in the middle of Myrtle Ave. and an oncoming truck skidded, the driver jumped out, and felt hopelessly responsible for my safety.

I gave him this address, she says, buttoning her wool Balmacaan coat, wrapping a blue-red scarf around her chin. I told him you were my idiot savant brother who I’m looking after. The guy had a lot of heart. You could tell. He had Icelandic eyes.

*
If my luck is any indication of a karmic state, I must have done something horribly wrong in my past life. Like maybe assassinating the Mother Superior of a Carmelite nunnery, or infiltrating a Buddhist monastery and planting lascivious thoughts in the monks’ heads, or turning the whole place into a brothel. But my VW gets a flat tire a half mile or so from Pierre, which is where Trudy lives, and I’m some five miles and three light years from a hot date at my apartment with someone I met through my cousin Eunice, who suspects I‘m sexually frigid because I‘m not married yet.

It’s kind of poetic, isn’t it, says Trudy, lifting her eyes at the falling snowflakes, as I watch my VW hook up with a tow truck. For some reason, I can’t come up with any rhymed couplets. Maybe just a writer’s block.

So, we’re trudging in ankle deep snow, Trudy covering her nose with the scarf, and her words coming out muffled. Icelandic men, she says, as she shuffles behind me. would keep their partners warm. This isn’t Iceland, I say. I like to think of Pierre as more like Switzerland.

We drag our wind-bruised, cold-pierced selves into the city, and I spot a diner and point. I have to warm up, I say, and for once, Trudy and I agree on something.

We sit down at a back booth, rubbing our hands, which might be extensions of phantom limbs at this point. Trudy orders a hot roast beef with gravy on the mash, and me, a large bowl of French onion with hot chocolate.

Trudy looks up at the waitress with her reddened nose, looking swollen, one that reminds me of Mr. Thompson‘s ideal of the perfect tomato, and says she likes the mash, firm, able to hold the puddle of gravy, like the way craters hold lava. The waitress continues to scribble in her pad while she nods. Her eyebrows are like two open bridges.

“Not soggy,” Trudy says.

“Not soggy. Gotcha, “ says the waitress jotting with stenographer speed and walking away.

You know, says Trudy, placing the flat of her hands on the table, I’m really kind of glad this happened.

“That what happened, ”I say. “That we got stranded in the middle of nowhere and almost froze to death. Or that today marks the 14th anniversary of one of your many lives.”

“No,” she says, “Seriously, you really don’t appreciate Icelandic men. You could learn a thing or two from Icelandic lovers.”

My lips smack after a thick stream of hot chocolate infuses my numb body.

“Trudy, all I know is that we seem to be going in circles.”

“Like the Rings of Saturn.”

I begin to stare into her gazed gimlet eyes. It sounds funny to hear her say that without all the telephone static.

I swipe my hand across the varnished booth table to make a point.

“Relationships must go in straight lines, not circular, or semi-round, or oblong, or zigzag.”

“Hmm,” she says, studying me with her head perched in both hands. Hmm.

“ Do you know what I think your problem is,” she says.

“Enlighten me.”

She sits back, letting her hands fall into her lap, and with a straight, sphinx-like face, she claims I’m emotionally frigid.

“I mean, you go through the act and all just to impress your partner, but where’s the feeling? Now in Iceland, it’s much more romantic. Because it’s so cold, and people must travel long distances to see one another, and there’s always the danger of volcanoes destroying your house. So, when couples come together there, which is not here, they’re less likely to leave each other. That’s Icelandic love for you.”

Trudy, I say, trying to swallow a lumpy glob of mozzarella cheese stuck in my throat.

They’re in love. We’re . . . I’m not. Thumping my chest as I’m saying this.

Her eyes suddenly grow into scarred oval battlefields.

“Not even a pinch?” She presses her finger and thumb together.

“A pinch is not enough!” My voice fires into the air like a howitzer.

I turn around. My face feels like 120 degrees. A couple in a diagonal booth turn around.
Trudy wipes her lips and throws down her napkin.

“Excuse,” she says, “I feel a little sick.”

She stands, scowls at me, and rushes off to an area around the waiters, and then disappears from view.

Why do I allow her to make me feel so damn guilty, every time she pulls this crap. How many times have I told her that with her it’s not a question of want, or love, but of transient need. She’s really a constant pest.

Okay, I tell myself, she’ll be back, and it’ll be the last time you see her. But it’s been a whole fifteen minutes and she hasn’t returned. I thrum the tabletop with my fingers. Twenty five minutes. Was she abducted? Did she try to flush herself down the toilet bowl? Did she meet and fall in love with Mr. Clean?

I pay the check, and ask the man behind the cash register whether he has seen Trudy. He shrugs. I describe her. He says to fill out a police report because he is very busy, but I don’t see any customers at the register.

I scramble over to the front of the ladies’ room, knocking and yelling, “Trudy? Trudy, are you in there?”

A middle-aged woman in ski jacket opens the door, and says “Mister, I don’t think this person,Trudy, is in here. Now do you mind if I get back to finish what I was doing?”

The temperature outside must have dropped twenty degrees. It’s enough to make me dream of spending a vacation in Siberia.

I walk around the diner, up and down the snow-layered streets. Trudy, I call out, Trudy. My insides are beginning to numb, to feel like empty rooms, locked from access.

I’m walking down alleys and avenues, continuing to call her name. People shoot me incredulous stares. Outside on his front lawn and shoveling, an old man waves his hand and smiles. Truman died long, he says.

It’s really bugging me. Not so much the cold. But I’m starting to worry about her. ME worry about TRUDY? I need to speak to Eunice to put me in touch with a warm and patient psychotherapist who can deal with the neurotic need to be manipulated. To deal with this neurotic need to live a circular existence.

I whip out a cell phone and dial a cab. Tell the dispatcher I need a ride to Springwater.

Thoughts invade my private space, my mental sanctuary. Suppose Trudy did something to herself? I mean what if she did something, although she never did anything. Except the one time she used chocolate syrup to mimic blood. Would I be able to forgive myself? Would I be able to look into the eyes of my cousin, Eunice, and say, I caused a somewhat unbalanced woman to fall over the edge. Can I excuse everything by blaming it on my lack of maturity?

The cab driver honks his horn.

He lets me off, peering out the window at my front lawn. I pay him and climb out. Feeling really depressed. Feeling like a schmuck. Worse than a schmuck. A heartless schmuck more than Saddam Hussein on his worse day. Worse than Roy Rodgers accidentally shooting Trigger.

But the vision of her is real. There she is.

She’s lying on my front lawn. Face down in the snow. Arms and legs outstretched, like some stick-figure comic character. Slowly, the head begins to rise.

“I’m so fucking cold,” she says.

And in a strange but familiar sort of way, I’m beginning to fall in love.

--------------------------------------------------------


You Never Die in Wholes (published in LA Review, Issue 10, 2011)

My mother, oscillating in her last years between dementia and clarity, claimed that her sister was buried in our back yard. As much as I tried to reason with her, she insisted that her sister, Lea, who happened to be my favorite aunt, lay in the center spot between two peach trees. Sometimes at night, with the dementia at its severest, my mother might have confused herself with Lea, saying “to place me in that overlapping shade.”

As a boy, I remember Lea coming over unannounced, the visits spaced by irregular intervals. She gave me toys that she claimed were from all parts of the world. The toys were often plastic replicas of superheroes, like Superman or The Flash, or comic book heroes like G.I. Joe. She said they could walk but they never did. And although Lea pointed out that these toys were very expensive, I noticed a rip here and there in the fabric or part of an ear missing. Whenever I attempted to ask Lea why the toys were in bad condition, my mother pulled me behind her and put a straight finger to her lips.

Over the years, while my father was alive, I heard bits and pieces of conversations. The walls in our house were always thin and my parents assumed I was upstairs, sound asleep. From what I could put together, my mother didn’t approve of Lea giving me so many gifts. There was always this agitated tone in her voice.

And there was also this topic that came up very infrequently and like everything concerning Lea-- in fragments. From what I could piece of my mother’s conversations with dad over the years, she occasionally alluded to a man Lea had been seeing.. How long ago was never that clear. And from what I could make from my mother’s subdued voice, often in some absent-minded monotone, one day—he was gone. Like other things concerning Lea, it wasn’t clear why. And my mother kept saying how Lea should never have been left alone. Imagine, my mother said, living in an empty apartment, all that space, so much time on your hands, but you cling to the lies. What was never spelled out and what was very clear was that Lea was never right after it.


And like one of those questions that just linger around forever, like after the first time you hear about the birds and the bees, I always wanted to ask mom whether Lea was ever alright? I just couldn’t picture Lea the way I thought about my English teachers from PS 21, always in control.


The most impulsive I ever became was when I asked my father why Lea has lived alone for such a long time. I didn’t word it exactly as that, but close enough. He looked at me as if I were crazy, the way my mother would sometimes look at askance at Lea, and commenting later “She doesn’t know when to stop talking. She just goes on and on about nothing.” Then mom would stop abruptly, perhaps catching herself, and stare down at the bare living room floor, spotless, cherry wood, and full of tiny grooves. Mom must have known she had that same habit of just repeating herself, as if she wasn’t strong enough to come out with the right words. That might have caused serious injury. I understand that now.

There were other things about Lea that never added up. There was always that feeling that someone would come out short changed. Like the times Lea would take me for a drive in her ’64 Rambler and we'd go to the park or walk around the lake or just toss a soft ball. And Lea would never say very much and I had to remind her that mom wanted us back within the hour. There was the time, when I finally asked Lea why does she keep giving me broken toys. Behind her, there was the distant cries of kids flying kites or chasing their siblings. Lea stood before me and looked crushed. Her eyes must have spoken a hundred things that could have cancelled each other out.

Then, she slapped me.

She never apologized and I always understood that it was I who was rotten. When I told my mother, she said she would forbid Aunt Lea from taking me for these Sunday drives. But mom gave me one of her dirty looks that could freeze the most cruel-hearted of kids.

From that day on, Lea stopped coming around as often. When she did drop over, she was all forced smiles, the latest bargains at Macy's - and a quick turn of the head. The presents she did bring were new and untouched—-models not of people but of airplanes or warships. I didn’t have the heart to tell Lea that I wasn’t into them. I had outgrown many things.

And the years passed, and sometimes I wondered which way did I grow, or whether anyone could grow in straight unfaltering lines.


So here I am living alone in the same house I grew up in. It’s not a big house, a modest Colonial, lime-green, with peach trees that bloom every summer. As a traveling salesman of eco-friendly detergents and household cleaners, I’m used to making good impressions on managers and directors convincing them that what I sell is the best and the most cost efficient in the market. Most people just don’t understand how important it is to keep your floors clean, your plates sparkling. Everyone likes to make a good impression.

Oh, I’ve been tempted to move out, but I always return to this quaint green colonial. And even though it’s not a big house, it’s large for one person. Especially at night, when they all come back in fragments: my mother smiling absent-mindedly at Lea, or much later, holding my hand, telling me to wait outside. My mother assuming that I couldn’t stand the sight of Lea, bald and in pain. The chemotherapy would prove unsuccessful. When Lea died, I remember mom squeezing her eyes very tight and saying Lea, Why did you have to leave like that? Why couldn’t it have been so fast and painless? There was so much I wanted to give to you.

I never did get the chance to see Lea and tell her I loved her despite the broken toys. While saying this, I would have closed my eyes.

So sometimes at night, I find myself coming out here and digging up the lawn. It’s the exact spot mid-way between the peach trees. I’ve been digging for weeks. I’m finding all kinds of odds and ends, rocks and stones and things that might have been shiny once. I’m finding the body parts of the toy superheroes my mother buried long ago. But I still can’t find Lea.

I keep digging and digging. And even though I know that Lea is buried in Saint Agnes’ Cemetery, next to my mother and father, something tells me that the earth I’m digging is Lea, and in this hole—we have so much to talk about. I know I want to apologize for what I once said about those broken toys. I keep digging and the silence is Lea waiting for me to speak, Lea taking me by the hand and leading me by the lake.

I’m sitting in this hole I’ve made, my hands blistered and my clothes sweaty. Perhaps the hole dug itself.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------











Trudy Says

Trudy used to say that it’s never winter in Iceland if you’re leaving Springwater by foot. She’s lying on my front lawn again, face down, her arms and legs splayed like a star, her 14thsuicide in a month. I know she’s not really dead, not even bleeding, but that could be my heart playing possum. If only she weren’t so reckless in her need for attention, so formulistic in her strategies to battle rejection of any kind. Whatever possessed me to get intimate with my haircutter?

It’s not so much Trudy’s doing this, the act, that bothers me. It’s more like what the neighbors will think when they look out the window and see Trudy week after week, a fixture becoming more threatening, a Dali painting more surreal, a gimmick more a nuisance. Is this the lady who fell to earth, vanishes, and returns? Is this some kind of sick Act 1 to a twisted relationship? And what kind of monster am I to put this poor girl through this? A Jason casting aside his Medea?

I can picture the couple over me, the Thompsons. Mr. Thompson boasting of the healthy heart of his marriage, in his red streaked undershirt, advocating how tomatoes, Big Boys or Black Krims, San Marzano or Roman VFs, the Tomato, the goddess of the Island of Lycopene and the armies of antioxidants, would prevent most every disease imaginable. And Mrs. Thompson, speaking with her back to her husband, speaking as if cemented by the window -- honey, I think I know that girl lying on the front lawn. It looks like my hairdresser at Divine Celine. She really does a nice job, but I wished they’d have more specials.

*

The first day, Trudy and I met, I stared speechless into the wall mirror, while she bobbed around, holding a pair of shears that imitated the sound of chattering wind-up teeth. I didn’t exactly want the Vin Diesel style, because it was winter in Pierre, and that’s exactly where I was headed. Too late, I thought, my hair, what was left of it, tiny nibs poking through my scalp and I thought she had crossed a line.

She was saying something I thought was scatterbrained, or maybe too torpedo-deep for me, that she had an internet friend in Reykjavik and that they chatted about something more than just the weather.

“And did you know,” Trudy said while snipping ringlets of my salt-and-pepper hair, “that there must at least 200 volcanoes in Iceland and this makes up about a third, a third mind you, of the earth’s total lava flow.”

That’s really amazing, I said. But you’re taking off too much hair. She swung me around in the chair, away from the mirror, and said, I’m so sorry, but you really look better with less hair and not more, like the model‘s picture on the wall. And she would even it out around the sides and back. And I said but who is paying for this? Isn’t the customer always right?

The currency of love, she was saying, cannot be measured in kronas.

Exactly five hours and forty five minutes later, I was saying to Trudy in my Springwater condo, elbows propped up on my bed, as we rubbed noses like experienced Eskimos who’ve sinned and managed the guilt trips, what was so wrong with just a wash and cut?

“You really look better with less hair and not more, “ she said, rolling her gooseberry eyes towards my forehead.

We stared into each other’s eyes for minutes, and hers was an odd intense kind of stare, as if she could morph into a high priestess of sacrificial love, or maybe she fantasized she was my eye doctor and could offer outrageous specials on contact lenses.

So, weeks later, there I was on the phone with Trudy saying that our relationship would go nowhere. And after I asked her to repeat what she was saying through a bad phone line she said something like “Isn’t life like the weeks of autumn?”

Come again, I said.

“Isn’t life like the weeks of autumn?


“OH! You mean isn’t life like the Rings of Saturn?” I wondered how many rings Saturn actually has. Is it seven or three? And which ring would define us?

*

I decide to take a new approach to this problem, like you would if frying an egg to please a difficult guest who only eats scrambled. Maybe invite her in for apricot brandy and try to reason with her in a gentle non- threatening way, which many would call THERAPEUTIC. And then, perhaps after the third glass, I would tell her my musings over getting a restraining order.

So, Trudy is standing in the middle of my love-barren but art-decorous apartment, brushing the snow off her boots, her ginger-colored skirt, her hibiscus-patterned blouse. Trudy, I say, setting her brandy snifter down by the black leather love seat, don’t you think this is getting to be a little repetitious? I mean, 14 suicides in one month?

She swings her head towards me, the hair, matted, auburn with streaks of marigold, but darker now, because of the snow. There is a look of boredom, that what I have just said is too trite, the orgasmic thrill of a tautology, the lips pushing inward, the upper lip puffing out.

“Repetition,” she says, “breeds victory.”

“On whose side,” I ask.

“Mine. Of course.”

Two hours and twenty minutes later, Trudy is passed out in my bed, eyes rolling up and over just at the moment when I was about to give in and ask for sex, one last time, of course.

So, now I’m force feeding Trudy one cup of black coffee after another, and this might be love of some kind, I wonder. It’s a thought that’s scaring me.

Trudy, I say. I’m expecting someone over in a hour. I have to clean up the apartment.

Are you throwing me out, she asks in her faux-astonished voice. And could this be a woman, she wants to know.

In a manner of speaking, I say, I am throwing you out. And the other part belongs to my personal space, which is not a manner of speaking.

Well, she says, throwing off the fire- engine red covers of my bed, and swinging her orange painted toenails over the floor, if you want me out, you’ll have to drive me home.

Well, how did you get here, I say. You just didn’t fly through the kitchen window.

No, she says, I threw myself plop down in the middle of Myrtle Ave. and an oncoming truck skidded, the driver jumped out, and felt hopelessly responsible for my safety.

I gave him this address, she says, buttoning her wool Balmacaan coat, wrapping a blue-red scarf around her chin. I told him you were my idiot savant brother who I’m looking after. The guy had a lot of heart. You could tell. He had Icelandic eyes.

*

If my luck is any indication of a karmic state, I must have done something horribly wrong in my past life. Like maybe assassinating the Mother Superior of a Carmelite nunnery, or infiltrating a Buddhist monastery and planting lascivious thoughts in the monks’ heads, or turning the whole place into a brothel. But my VW gets a flat tire a half mile or so from Pierre, which is where Trudy lives, and I’m some five miles and three light years from a hot date at my apartment with someone I met through my cousin Eunice, who suspects I‘m sexually frigid because I‘m not married yet.

It’s kind of poetic, isn’t it, says Trudy, lifting her eyes at the falling snowflakes, as I watch my VW hook up with a tow truck. For some reason, I can’t come up with any rhymed couplets. Maybe just a writer’s block.

So, we’re trudging in ankle deep snow, Trudy covering her nose with the scarf, and her words coming out muffled. Icelandic men, she says, as she shuffles behind me. would keep their partners warm. This isn’t Iceland, I say. I like to think of Pierre as more like Switzerland.

We drag our wind-bruised, cold-pierced selves into the city, and I spot a diner and point. I have to warm up, I say, and for once, Trudy and I agree on something.

We sit down at a back booth, rubbing our hands, which might be extensions of phantom limbs at this point. Trudy orders a hot roast beef with gravy on the mash, and me, a large bowl of French onion with hot chocolate.

Trudy looks up at the waitress with her reddened nose, looking swollen, one that reminds me of Mr. Thompson‘s ideal of the perfect tomato, and says she likes the mash, firm, able to hold the puddle of gravy, like the way craters hold lava. The waitress continues to scribble in her pad while she nods. Her eyebrows are like two open bridges.

“Not soggy,” Trudy says.

“Not soggy. Gotcha, “ says the waitress jotting with stenographer speed and walking away.

You know, says Trudy, placing the flat of her hands on the table, I’m really kind of glad this happened

You know, says Trudy, placing the flat of her hands on the table, I’m really kind of glad this happened.

“That what happened, ”I say. “That we got stranded in the middle of nowhere and almost froze to death. Or that today marks the 14th anniversary of one of your many lives.”

“No,” she says, “Seriously, you really don’t appreciate Icelandic men. You could learn a thing or two from Icelandic lovers.”

My lips smack after a thick stream of hot chocolate infuses my numb body.

“Trudy, all I know is that we seem to be going in circles.”

“Like the Rings of Saturn.”

I begin to stare into her gazed gimlet eyes. It sounds funny to hear her say that without all the telephone static.

I swipe my hand across the varnished booth table to make a point.

“Relationships must go in straight lines, not circular, or semi-round, or oblong, or zigzag.”

“Hmm,” she says, studying me with her head perched in both hands. Hmm.

“ Do you know what I think your problem is,” she says.

“Enlighten me.”

She sits back, letting her hands fall into her lap, and with a straight, sphinx-like face, she claims I’m emotionally frigid.

“I mean, you go through the act and all just to impress your partner, but where’s the feeling? Now in Iceland, it’s much more romantic. Because it’s so cold, and people must travel long distances to see one another, and there’s always the danger of volcanoes destroying your house. So, when couples come together there, which is not here, they’re less likely to leave each other. That’s Icelandic love for you.”

Trudy, I say, trying to swallow a lumpy glob of mozzarella cheese stuck in my throat.

They’re in love. We’re . . . I’m not. Thumping my chest as I’m saying this.

Her eyes suddenly grow into scarred oval battlefields.

“Not even a pinch?” She presses her finger and thumb together.

“A pinch is not enough!” My voice fires into the air like a howitzer.

I turn around. My face feels like 120 degrees. A couple in a diagonal booth turn around.

Trudy wipes her lips and throws down her napkin.

“Excuse,” she says, “I feel a little sick.”

She stands, scowls at me, and rushes off to an area around the waiters, and then disappears from view.

Why do I allow her to make me feel so damn guilty, every time she pulls this crap. How many times have I told her that with her it’s not a question of want, or love, but of transient need. She’s really a constant pest.

Okay, I tell myself, she’ll be back, and it’ll be the last time you see her. But it’s been a whole fifteen minutes and she hasn’t returned. I thrum the tabletop with my fingers. Twenty five minutes. Was she abducted? Did she try to flush herself down the toilet bowl? Did she meet and fall in love with Mr. Clean?

I pay the check, and ask the man behind the cash register whether he has seen Trudy. He shrugs. I describe her. He says to fill out a police report because he is very busy, but I don’t see any customers at the register.

I scramble over to the front of the ladies’ room, knocking and yelling, “Trudy? Trudy, are you in there?”

A middle-aged woman in ski jacket opens the door, and says “Mister, I don’t think this person, Trudy, is in here. Now do you mind if I get back to finish what I was doing?”

The temperature outside must have dropped twenty degrees. It’s enough to make me dream of spending a vacation in Siberia.

I walk around the diner, up and down the snow-layered streets. Trudy, I call out, Trudy. My insides are beginning to numb, to feel like empty rooms, locked from access.

I’m walking down alleys and avenues, continuing to call her name. People shoot me incredulous stares. Outside on his front lawn and shoveling, an old man waves his hand and smiles. Truman died long, he says.

It’s really bugging me. Not so much the cold. But I’m starting to worry about her. ME worry about TRUDY? I need to speak to Eunice to put me in touch with a warm and patient psychotherapist who can deal with the neurotic need to be manipulated. To deal with this neurotic need to live a circular existence.

I whip out a cell phone and dial a cab. Tell the dispatcher I need a ride to Springwater.

Thoughts invade my private space, my mental sanctuary. Suppose Trudy did something to herself? I mean what if she did something, although she never did anything. Except the one time she used chocolate syrup to mimic blood. Would I be able to forgive myself? Would I be able to look into the eyes of my cousin, Eunice, and say, I caused a somewhat unbalanced woman to fall over the edge. Can I excuse everything by blaming it on my lack of maturity?

The cab driver honks his horn.

He lets me off, peering out the window at my front lawn. I pay him and climb out. Feeling really depressed. Feeling like a schmuck. Worse than a schmuck. A heartless schmuck more than Saddam Hussein on his worse day. Worse than Roy Rodgers accidentally shooting Trigger.

But the vision of her is real. There she is.

She’s lying on my front lawn. Face down in the snow. Arms and legs outstretched, like some stick-figure comic character. Slowly, the head begins to rise.

“I’m so fucking cold,” she says.

And in a strange but familiar sort of way, I’m beginning to fall in love.
--------------------------------------------


Aliens

 

He finds her lying on his land again. Some feet behind her is the wheelchair, and he imagines her fumbling attempts to stand, to walk, her collapse in the tawny, treeless field. The aliens have various names for her disability. They have names for everything.

 

She is still young, thin-framed and hollow-cheeked. She was once beautiful, a youthful Elizabeth Taylor with cropped hair and sparkling eyes.

 

"It was the aliens who brought me here. They always kidnap and abandon me." Her voice is flat. She purses her lips.  

 

"They always do, don’t they?" he says.

 

He slips his sinewy arms around and under her, then lifts. She tells him that he is still strong, that he could probably carry her all the way back home. The moist air frizzes her hair, makes her breathe harder. Hints of orange scent the air.

 

"No," he says, "these days, I run out of breath so easy."

 

He eases her down into the wheelchair, pushes her along a narrow dirt path.

 

She tells him to stop, that she will be fine--she will find her way home.

 

He stops, stares out at the open field, then stands before her.

 

She mumbles, as she sometimes does, about her life spent watching soap operas where the beautiful people never die inside glass bubbles. She talks about the little Work-From-Home jobs she has--stringing colored beads together, or breaking her fingernails or mailing envelopes to people she will never meet.

 

Still standing in front of her, the man looks up. Dark clouds roll across the sky.

 

"You better go," he says, "it’s going to rain."

 

She takes his hand, brings it to her cheek.

 

"I keep telling them," she says, "not to bring me back here. But they don’t want me. Even though I’m one of them. "

 

"You’re not," he says.

 

"Oh, I am," she says. "It’s a fact. I live my life according to facts. There is the fact that you were once my teacher. Your wife, you said, was no longer beautiful to you. There was the fact that I could once walk. But now I'm an alien. And they don't want me."

 

She smiles up at him.

 

"You once loved me," she whispers.

 

"I’m ugly," he says, "an ugly old man."

 

"No, she says, "it’s just that you can’t see me anymore. Not like you once did. I can no longer walk, and you can't see."

 

With lips soft, he kisses her forehead.

 

"Some people don’t believe in aliens," she says, "but how else do you explain being stranded on your own planet?"

 

He no longer has a car or a wife. The aliens took them away.

 

He watches, frowning, as if remembering her practice chord drills on the piano. The drills never amounted to anything.

 

After wheeling away from him and reaching a few yards in the distance, she turns and yells, I BELIEVE IN ALIENS!

 

Inside the kitchen, he listens to the deep thrusts of thunder.  He hopes she will make it home in time.

 

 



























1 comment:

  1. No matter how a situation seems around you, there's is still hope to be happy again if truly you believe. My husband broke up with me and left me for no reason i suffered from emotional stress and pains but all thanks to Doctor Osemu Okpamen for getting back the love of my life with his powerful spell that he prepared for me to get back my husband and now am very pleased and happy again and i made a promise to him that i will keep on sharing his good deeds till the last day of my breath. If you need any help whatsoever, don't hesitate to contact him for if i can be helped by him you also can be helped too. Tracie Aldana from Kentucky USA and here is my cell number +1270-946-9415. If you need any help like getting a spell to get pregnant, spell to stop divorce, spell to cure any kind of diseases, E.T.C. Email; Doctorokpamenspelltemple@hotmail.com, Website: http://doctorokpamenpowerfulspelltemple.webs.com OR what'sapp on +2348135254384 or call on +2349032265990

    ReplyDelete