WHY ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT DINGOES?

Sticky

Previously published by Literary Yard.

WHY ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT DINGOES?

Man, listen. You can petition the Lord with prayer, but that’s not going to change anything. And deep inside Joey knows that, even if she doesn’t admit it. She is well-aware her prayers, sparking votive candles, isn’t going to crack the sky open, recruit warrior angels for her plight. There are no angels, no damn hallowed horns. But Joey is a mother. And mothers will move mountains, reroute rivers, and slay three-headed dogs to help—to save—their children. Honor Roll students, brats, even the wild ones. Even the lost ones. Doesn’t matter. A mother’s love is as illogical as Joey dropping loose change into a metal box and playing with matches in a darkened building. All in hope, the Great Magician Jesus might volunteer his grace. Shit just doesn’t work that way.

The coins from Joey’s bingo purse echo loud when they clatter into the donation box. Makes her head go ding-dong. Makes her look around the cavernous room she has found herself in, to see if she is disturbing the peace. Or the priest. Nah, nothing and no one is there. Peace caught the last rail out of town. Father Whoever, who knows? Vacant. About as vacant as the Madonna face Joey looks up at.

The holy-paradoxical Virgin-Mother holds an offspring of her own. And, hell, we all know how that story ends. Maybe Mary should’ve been more careful about who she let Jesus hang around with. I mean that dude Judas was a bad egg from way back in the sandbox days. Joey could’ve learned from that fable. But she didn’t.

Before she departs the church, Joey half-kneels, half-sits her large ass in a wooden pew. Butchers some prayers she hasn’t recited since catechism days. All without shame. Not so sure about pride. She thinks about being home alone, late at night, with nothing to listen to but the yakety-yak-yak on talk radio. Insipid chatter she swears makes her mind melt and her ears bleed. But what else is there? The cadence of her life has become ragged. Ragged, indeed. Joey leaves the funhouse of worship and drives toward her desolate dwelling. Home, sweet, home.

Joey is clueless. Masquerades on, blind. Never learned doubt and faith cannot coexist. She possesses an intractable non-belief that bad occurrences happen to good people all the time. The self-help, self-parenting books, audio tapes, and reality-television-self-proclaimed gurus all prove to be the frauds they are. False prophets. Nothing more than that whole wolf in sheep’s clothing con. Bastard money changers who never return on her investment, return her daughter back to her.

Joey is controlled by ignorance. That’s how she lives. Exists. She has tried hypnotism, meditation, professional counseling, even advice from the blue-haired seers at the local beauty salon. One time, she burned sage throughout the house—at a televangelist’s urging—and nearly burned down her home. Has even read twice, the Amazon-gifted book received from her mother—Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. More like chicken shit salad for fools.   

To her great demise, Joey lacks any inkling of imagination. Self-introspection. Fails to understand the final product—the result—is never the tool. That people can’t be saved, only loved. Yet, she trudges onward through her morass of solutions for a problem she cannot even identify. Doesn’t want to identify. And just like the echo them nickels and dimes made back in the church; Joey creates her own. An echo of nothingness. An echo of her thoughts, going ding-dong once again in her head.

****

How can a seventeen-year-old girl straight-out of intramural-twirling end up hooking and shooting drugs? It’s your fault, blame yourself. No, that’s not really it. Can’t be it. Probably the school’s fault. Them liberal teachers. That weirdo guidance counselor, Mr. Babbitt, who always wears them flooders and I swear to Christ he ogles all the students, boys and girls alike. It’s society in general with them fucked up Netflix teen-dramas and dirty rap lyrics. The horoscope in Weight Watchers predicted this shit. Remember? Said a turn for the worse was coming for someone close to you. You’re crazy. That bullshit ain’t real. Fucking real enough now. Chicken soup for the soul, my ass. Did Uncle Philip molest her when she was young, and no one saw? Asked to see her privates, saying, you know honey, down there. Was that it? He ain’t right in the head either. Fucking sex-maniac. Going through women like nobody’s business. I’ll castrate that bastard. Let me find out.

****

This is when Joey should’ve understood life isn’t always fair. But she can’t grasp that second-grade level-logic. Not many do. Unless of course they’re forced to. Lose control of the wheel and recognize fast, Jesus ain’t grabbing shit. Better do something quick or the car’s going to crash. And the booze? Well, let’s just say that whole whiskey bottle, wing, and a prayer nonsense usually ends up not too good. Regardless of how cool it sounds. And Joey pouring vodka down her throat is like a windstorm for a prairie fire. Burn, baby, burn.

****

It’s not just fate, shit don’t just happen. The shoe doesn’t just drop. Fucking boots been stomping all over this damn house. What’s that supposed to mean?  It’s your fault. No, I love her. Always did. Don’t you dare start thinking about what was or what could’ve been, should have been, was supposed to be. Remember way back in the crib? Smiles for Grammy and coo-laughing like only a baby can. Fuck no, don’t do that. Don’t go there. That shit’s just going to send you deeper into the black. Damn, that Stoli-Dew cocktail taste like fire. Made it too strong. What I need is a cocktail, minus the tail. What’s wrong with you? How can you think like that at a time like this? Fucking Dingoes. Fucking Netflix. She was such a cute baby.

****

If anyone asked Cherry how the dope made her feel, she would’ve said, “Like melted sunshine.” That she could smell tranquility and hear beautiful Sirens from distant shorelines. Ain’t that shit cool? But the cold concrete and stench from the filth that surrounds her says, “We’ve determined that’s a lie! You are a junkie.” The sad truth being, though—the real truth—is the dope-lies are more honest than anything she has ever been taught or told. Wisdom is weird that way. It can be sought and found in the strangest of places, by unknown unorthodox means. Especially for those who live on radical rounded edges. More so for those whose edges were first sanded smooth, then chipped away over time. Like Cherry’s. Just like that. Just the way it is. The way it’s always been. See, early on, no one could have foretold, been made aware of, the emptiness that lurked below her surface, monsters who lived underneath her bed. Even an unrelenting scouting of all the corners, around all the blocks in town, would have failed to detect the danger dogs who patiently await.

Cherry’s childhood was a pastoral doctrine of suburban sterileness. Shared family dinners, school, and a warm and safe house. Play sports, stay out of courts. Do your homework, don’t take candy from strangers, never accept a ride from someone you don’t know. Yet, random chance, unscrupulous serendipity, infiltrated her Saturday Evening Post existence. Not the girl next door, not the boy up in his treehouse, but Cherry. Cherry, who lies prone and high and hopes she’s sober enough for her next shift at the Artful Dodger Strip Club.     

She’s so currently fucked-up, she isn’t aware someone is shaking her. Unaware of salt water injected into her veins. She only wants to know why she is being slapped, wants to stop the obtrusive hand upsetting her high. But Cherry doesn’t want to move. She floats on all-too-real fluffy white clouds. Paradise. Ecstasy. Golden slumbers. Everything everyone ever told her about the beauty of life, but she never saw. All that noise, manifested and embraced in an abandoned basement of an abandoned tractor factory on the bad side of town. Life is so simple. Life is wonderful.

****

At her childhood home, Cherry’s mom, Joey, tries hard to unscramble her three-minute egg mind. Stop them damn bells that ring in her brain. She needs to figure this shit out. And fast. Needs to save her daughter. Maybe just love her.

****

You should have recognized the signs the first time she got jammed up shoplifting the cherry flavored gloss—is that where she got that goddamn name from—who the hell calls themselves Cherry? Fucking tramp. Stop, that’s your daughter. When she stopped coming home for dinner, that was a warning. Was it when she called Mrs. Jones a cunt and screeched like an alley cat? Her scrunched-up mean face was so scary. Even scared you. Even you backed up after she hissed like some feral beast. And the look in her eyes. Such hate. Yeah, maybe that was the time. But at dinner that night she cried like the schoolgirl she is, sobbed she was sorry so much she choked on her own snot. I rubbed her back and helped her breathe. Remember? Maybe it was then. Maybe not. Fuck me, I don’t know. Don’t even matter, does it? Fucking Philip. Them teachers, that pedo-guidance creep. Nah, none of it don’t matter, ‘cause she’s still dancing and hooking over on Chestnut at that sleazy club. You should go over there and grab her straight off the stage. Call the cops. She’s underage. They’re going to blame me if I do. Say I knew all about it, way back when. Delinquency to a minor or some other shit crime on the books. Lock my ass up too. Fuck. You knew that boyfriend, Chester, was no good, but you didn’t say shit. Wanted to be the cool mom. Too old. Chester the molester. Ain’t that what you said? Yeah, you want a do-over on that one. Shut up. She’s probably shooting dope right now in that closed-down tractor factory. You should go over there. Right now! You did it before. It didn’t help. Call the cops. I can’t, that’s my daughter, jail is worse. Not worse than being dead. Maybe.

****

Cherry’s drug-induced bliss is off-kilter. Unbridled. Somewhere, somehow, in some deep recess of her being, she knows something is wrong this time. The nod heavier. The peaceful feeling of being underwater interrupted by a thickness like concrete poured over her. She believes she is still smiling, but that damn hand still slaps her. She’s twisted and turned. Sideways. Upside down. Angry shouts shatter her calm. She foggily tells herself she’ll be fine for her shift at the Dodger. But everything is so far away. Hang on to the high as long as you can, baby girl, hang on. Float on them fluffy clouds.

Cherry splashes in a kiddie pool. Water goes up her nose and her eyes tear-up. She spins on a round-about, see-saws high into the air. Other girls shout and scream as they run around and play kickball. Cherry is not sure if she wants to join in the game. Decides she should sit this raucous recess period out. Everything is so loud. No longer fun. She realizes—understands—she’s unable to move. Want doesn’t have shit to do with it. Everyone else runs. Their heavy thudding footsteps sound like a herd of horses. The white clouds turn black. A storm is coming. Cherry loses her smile.

****

On the other side of town, Joey thinks hard. At least hard for her. In life and in time everything is relative in the end. No one can fuck with physics or mathematics or the truth. No matter how they try. They are what they are. Everything is what it is. Even if we don’t want them to be. It’s all quite simple, the gods will destroy those they first make promising, even if only on a whim. Joey has no idea.

****

You’re all fucked up. Why are you thinking about dingoes? Stupid-ass Animal Planet at two am while I waited up for her to come home and she never did. That was the first time. Remember? And you bought that bullshit story that she fell asleep at Donna’s house. You know that didn’t pass the smell test. The way she looked. All raggedy and worn-out like she was drinking all night. You should’ve called Donna’s mother. Yeah, right. And what’s that say about me if she wasn’t there, or if she was? Says I don’t have no handle on my own daughter. What sixteen-year-old gets drunk? Not my baby girl. Yeah, right. Probably up all night sucking cock. What the fuck is wrong with you? You’re her mother. Them fucking dingoes are better mothers than you. At least they protect their babies. I’ve tried everything I can. Didn’t I even go to Assumption Church today? Doesn’t that help? Doesn’t that count for something? Would’ve been better off having some witchdoctors slit a chicken’s throat or do a dance. Throw them bones on the ground, or whatever the fuck they do. Saw that shit on the History channel. You need Jesus in your life. He’s real now, isn’t he? Lord knows when the cold wind blows it will turn your head around. James Taylor? Really? You’re fucked up. If anyone is to blame, it’s her no-good father. Fucker off somewhere halfway across the country. Don’t even know what’s going on. Playing house with that slut bitch he met. Thinks he’s so much better than everyone else. Momma’s boy. Always was, always will be. You need to tell him. Call him. Fuck no, I’m not giving that bastard the satisfaction of throwing shit in my face. Say I’m a bad mother. Maybe it will help. You know it’s better than all this. No, I’m not doing that. This isn’t about you, it’s about your daughter for Christ’s sake. Fuck him. Bastard. Get the keys. We’re going over to that factory.

****

Joey white-knuckles the steering wheel, shakes involuntarily. Red lights are reminders, stop signs, rumors. Manmade laws, universal decrees set in stone, nah, fuck that. All proverbial bets are off. Joey believes her mind is clearer than it has been in weeks. Focused on one task. Save her daughter. Save what’s left of her life. Save herself. OK, maybe three.

She turns her car left onto Maple Avenue, pumps the brakes, and narrowly misses an old man on a walk with his dog. She gasps, the dog barks, the old man gives her the finger and calls her a whore. He shrinks and disappears in the rearview mirror. Those images, though, are always closer than they appear. Joey doesn’t dig that, either. Her SUV roars to the intersection of Elm and Chestnut.

****

Christ, don’t kill somebody trying to save her. Slow down. It’s right here, right onto Chestnut. Why are all these streets named after trees? Who thought of that? Why are you thinking about that? Fuck. Just up ahead, see the factory stacks? What are we going to do? Just grab her ass by the arm and drag her out of there. I swear to God I’ll punch one of them junkie scumbags in the face if they try to stop me, say anything. No one said shit the other time, they were all doped up, too. You should’ve brought a gun. I don’t own a gun. A bat. Something. Fuck them, I’ll kill them with my bare hands. Take her home. Put her to bed. Maybe straight to the hospital. She just needs to be home. I’ll make a nice dinner. Breaded cutlets. Her favorite. Gotta go to the supermarket. Maybe just some pasta dish. Are those lights? What are all those flashing lights?

****

The SUV slides to a stop atop white gravel. A cloud of dust raises up. Just like in those cop dramas on TV. Joey runs from her vehicle, leaves the driver-side door wide open. Warning bells sound a steady cadence. Ding-dong. Beep-beep. An officer grabs Joey. Asks who she is. States they received an anonymous call about an accidental overdose. Leads her to an ambulance after Joey screams, “I’m here to save my daughter, motherfucker.”  

With no delicate pageantry, no preparedness or ritual, an EMT worker nonchalantly pulls back the top of a black tarp covering a prone body on a gurney. Reveals a deceased ghost-faced corpse. Joey struggles to breathe. Falls to her knees and releases a scream. A primordial scream that has resonated through ages. Just like in the movies. But this ain’t no movie. This shit is as real as it gets. The scream of a mother who has witnessed the death of a child before her own is a hideous pierce. The police officer is shaken. Almost embarrassed. He lifts Joey up, holds onto her tight. Out of the chalk-dust and strewn rubble. Away from the waste. Holds her so she won’t collapse again. Not now, not yet.

For the first time in a year, Joey’s mind is blank. Holds no thoughts. Nothing. Zero. Nada. Zilch. The EMT worker recovers the body in full and breaks-down the gurney into the ambulance. Makes a hell of a racket. When he drives away, all is quiet. No lights. No sirens.

Unanswerable questions will be asked not to Joey, but by people who walk on streets named after trees in their bucolic suburban neighborhood. They’ll pray to the God of their choice and give thanks it wasn’t them. This time. Tonight, at dinner, and every night after, Joey will set a place for only one at her dining room table. She will eat alone, left to her thoughts.

SETTING FREE THE BEARS

Standard

Accepted for publication in Drunk Monkeys.

SETTING FREE THE BEARS

Death births an offspring of silence. Not silence due to lack of noise, but a silence of finality. Like watching falling stars. We marvel at the glow, the brightness in the night sky, all the time knowing the star has long ago faded and burned out.

Death’s silence stands next to us at the ready, dares us to speak. Threatens to smack words out of our mouths and trounce them if we even contemplate uttering a phrase. And so I didn’t. At least I don’t think I did.

When told Sam had finally succumbed to her cancer, I ended the phone call the same as I hoped her life ended. Quiet. Answered. Unabashed. I thought of ogres, drunk with fury, gurgling beneath a bridge as they danced naked for the great god Pan. Saw a tribe of goats hidden behind clay masks mock each other as they hooved the ground and rutted. Murderous crows cawed and blackened the sky.   

****

Concrete paths were covered in autumn leaves and except for an occasional maintenance man riding by in a golf cart, Sam and I had Bear Mountain Park to ourselves. We walked through the zoo, but most of the animals were housed for the fast approaching winter. On a wooden bench reinforced with cold steel, beneath the great bronze Walt Whitman statue, the father of free verse eavesdropped on mine and Sam’s conversation.

“So what’s up? What’s the big talk we need?”

“That,” Sam said, as she pointed to a pint of Canadian Club I had just taken out of my jacket pocket.

“Un-huh.”

“That’s all you’ve been doing, lately. Drinking. You’re not you when you do. It’s too much. Too much, now.”

“Un-huh.”

“And you won’t even talk about it. That’s what I fucking hate. You won’t even talk.”

And to confirm her assessment, I said nothing. I returned the bottle to my pocket and we sat in silence. Silence loud, like being sucker punched in the back of the head. As I hoped for some magical words to fall from the sky to break the current stalemate Sam and I were embroiled in, I leaned my head backwards over the bench and saw nothing but Whitman’s behemoth nostrils. Finding no wisdoms there, I said, “C’mon, let’s go see if the bears are out.”

Sam smiled.

We walked to the bear enclave.

Three of the great bruins were outside, one nosing a giant ball around their concrete den. The other two lounged, but sniffed our scent in the air as we watched them from above. Sam loved the bears. She’d ask them silly questions and laugh aloud whenever they looked at her. I was sure the beasts were answering her in a language only she could understand. Only she could decipher. They bonded like kin, and Sam always said her only wish in life was to set free the bears. To devise a strategy—some super-awesome-crazy bear jailbreak—to aid them in their great escape, to see them run wild through the woods of their namesake mountain.  

“I wish we had food for them.”

“Sign says don’t feed the bears.”

“Yeah, but I bet everybody does.”

“Think they’d like my whiskey?”

Sam frowned.

****

Sam was right about my drinking, but as I sat alone in the minutes after I had heard of her death, none of that mattered. What really does? So many times in life we are harried, driven to near madness believing some obstacle, some crucible, is going to destroy our world and lay our lives to waste and ruin. Yet time passes, the proverbial dust settles, and we live on. Move on.

Convinced death is the only true constant, and after I further pondered Sam’s demise, I poured myself a long drink. The alcohol was good, but the alcohol also brought on a cavalcade of emotions and unwanted rebel memories.

I felt guilty about Sam’s death. Guilty that I was so angry and selfish she was no longer in my life. Not that she had suffered and died, but that she was taken from me. A great pang of regret and remorse for dismissing Sam’s concerns regarding my drinking palled over me. There were many nights of drunkenness and some cruelty, yet she always forgave. Always stood by my side.

Why hadn’t I stopped? Why did I dismiss her caring love so brazenly? I had failed to open my heart for her, correct my faults, and a roughshod band of demons and saints unleashed a bevy of condemnations on my being. Forced me to ask a torrent of questions I had always avoided, introspection I vehemently refused to acknowledge.

Do our hearts hold our fates, or do they become shattered by societal norms and preconceived expectations?

Do we fail due to the ineptitude of those who were responsible to raise and nurture us— valiant parents and extended family—or do the gods lay all to waste on a whim and destroy those they first made promising?  

Do we—some of us—harbor a defective gene, which craves self-destruction and make us act immorally, even as we recognize morality and long to embrace it lovingly?

Why, if we were created in God’s image, do we willingly strive to raze ourselves to a baseless existence of unworthiness?

I poured another drink.

It helped.

I cleared my mind and let it wander free.

As free as bears running through wild woods. 

****

On the banks of the Hudson, on the opposite shoreline of Bear Mountain, Sam told me she could hear the bears in their den. Could smell them. I told her she was crazy, but the look she gave me was so innocent, so sure, I reconsidered my doubt.

As we stood at the water’s edge, the borrowed sun climbed down behind Bear Mountain. We commanded time to be ours forever. Sheltered among the tree line shadows, Sam and I baptized ourselves Wild Wind and Fire Sky with holy-magic water from the river. Angry, powerful, ancient native names we believed to be so clever and brave.

“We need to find a cedar or birch tree and make a dugout.”

“Really,” I said in amusement and a tiny bit of awe.

“Just like the Mohegans.”

And Sam ran barefoot off into the forest. I stayed behind. She returned minutes later, like an embarrassed school girl caught kissing a boy beneath the monkey bars after recess. She said, “We don’t have an axe.”

And I howled.

Sam was implausibly disappointed and dejected, but I’ve never loved anyone as hard as I loved her at that moment. Her eyes melted into mine and her boundless spirit split me down the middle. I was left positively broken in such a glorious manner.

She wanted so much more than we could ever barter for. Ever buy. She believed our songs and laughter could never be scorned. But when feasted on by the darkness of night, she said she understood we were not worthy for offer, not worthy to share. As blackness engulfed the river and Sam’s haunts of ancient peace, she told me we had to beckon back Wild Wind and Fire Sky. Sam said I needed to prepare. For doing so, would leave our souls nameless and empty, naked and ashamed.

****

During Sam’s late stages of cancer, her boisterous voice, heralded laughter, and unbridled passion broke down daily. Pecked at, eaten away by her sickness. A sickness like buzzards tearing away carrion flesh. My selfishness loomed over the both of us. I began to stay away, visiting her less as she lay dying. I was not deserving of her magnanimous courage, her resplendent light.  The truth was I was not strong enough to witness the abominable waste. Could not grasp how the universe allowed this sinful aberration to foster.

I saw death everywhere. In the sunrise and sunset. In school children playing Hopscotch, the old man who walked his poodle. From any words I wrote or read. Darkened images and blackness penetrated my mind. I sought refuge in alcohol. Cursed God. I wept. Lied more to myself. Slowly died inside. 

****

We were side by side in the hospital’s chapel. Sam, on her knees, me standing above. She grasped my hand—strong—and tugged. Nodded her head to one side, and silent, asked me to stay with her.

I could not.

I could no longer wait—nor no longer go back—an unnamed trickster in me feigned false absolution. Prayer and hope and faith and the greatest—love—had left me. Laid to waste on a burnt brown battlefield of self-denial and self-imposed faults, I was defeated. 

Her eyes welled—she still silent—and I felt my soul splinter, my heart explode into infinity.

I broke from her grasp. I walked away. I know I heard a sound, her words, even though I can’t remember them now. A sob, a whimper, a resignation not lost on heaven or the universe, any pagan gods, possibly on me.

I wanted to turn around and offer an apology. I wanted her warm beautiful hand to embrace mine once again. To have her fingertips touch my face. To offer solace, even if the solace was hollow and corrupt.

I still knew I couldn’t.

If I turned around, the glassman I had become would shatter. Would burst into flames. Morph into a Biblical pillar of sinful salt, forced to stand accused. An eternal orphan left to wander the cosmos. 

And then later, I received the phone call.

****

I met my friend at the bar.

He asked, “What’s up with borrowing the truck and tools?”

“The front winch works, right?”

“Yeah, everything you asked for. Bolt cutters, Sawzall, the hooks, the whole kit and caboodle. You plan on robbing a bank?”

“Nah. Jailbreak.”

OH MY AMERICA

Standard

Previously published in Chronogram.

OH MY AMERICA

Mama Dukes . . . Mama Dukes . . . I’ve been shot through my heart.

Oh, my God . . . Oh, my baby . . . what’s happened to you?

I don’t know, Mama . . . I’ve been shot . . . is that my blood . . . am I bleeding?

Why, in God’s mercy . . . oh, my only son . . . why?

I don’t know mama . . . don’t be mad . . . I was just buying candy.

Oh, my baby . . .  what has happened . . . Yes, you are dying.

Mama . . . I bought candy . . . don’t be mad… I was only . . .

Oh, my baby . . . oh, my son . . . oh, my God . . . this can’t be true.

Oh, My America.

BANKS OF THE HUDSON

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Previously published in Art and Life.

BANKS OF THE HUDSON

We sat on the banks of the Hudson

Stoned and stone-like

Children eager to open their presents on

Christmas morning

I popped the plastic cork

And your champagne eyes smiled

We shall never grow so old again

We watched the end of another day

As the sun climbed down behind Bear Mountain

Forcing the sunny Hudson day

Into a haunted Hudson dusk

Piles of leaves like sleeping dogs

Growled and moaned and shook

Driftwood and branches glided silently across the water

Ancient Mohegans in dugouts lost to time

We hoped the river an ancient grandfather

Would tell us more secrets and stories

It spoke but we heard nothing

Legends grew older and older and older still

Boulders along the shoreline sentinels of the river

Promised to protect us 

Wind blew through the hair of the trees and

Awakened the sleeping dogs who

Ran to and fro in a frenzy along the shoreline  

DEACON BLUES

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Previously published in Chronogram.

DEACON BLUES

She owns an ancient turntable and vinyl and says, “This is my favorite song.”

Doesn’t everyone say that?

She shares a suede bag with buckskin fringe, “A special gift from momma, back in ‘83.”

Shows me pictures of her and, “Pop-Pop and baby brother, ridin’ a camel at the county fair.”

I don’t give a shit as she cocks her head sideways and wonders aloud about me.

*

Says for me to share what hurts or heals or haunts me.

Says she can never tell when I’m up or down.

Says she can’t live like this no more.

Says I never tell her what’s real inside of me.

*

So I do.

*

“My demons are real, my whiskey realer, my faith scarcely at all, and that kills me.”

She sobs and weeps and peeks between her fingers to see if I’m moved.

I am not.

*

For absolution, resurrection, and strictly selfish purposes I go to leave.

She grabs my arm and pleads for me to stay.

I bump the ancient turntable,  

the vinyl skips.

Call me Deacon Blues, Blues, Blues, Blues . . .

CRAZY JOHN

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Previously published in The Deadly Writers Patrol.

CRAZY JOHN

He had a ruddy nose and busted capillaries spread across his face like river deltas. Caused by years of alcohol abuse, his wounds will never heal. Watery eyes still witnessed unimaginable horrors inflicted on a nineteen year old, whose dreams were deferred by seen atrocities in a far off jungle, in a far off land. A fought war so unlike the John Wayne movies shown in some cinema on some dusty street in Red Cloud, Nebraska or at some drive-in theatre during the cool evening twilight in Dayton, Ohio.   

His Vietnam veteran cap covered white hair. He was older now, which meant I was older, too. Far from the eight-year-old boy who knew a war veteran of his own. A different, forgotten hero. A hero shunned by his community, ignored by his country. Given the moniker of a member of the Greatest Generation, he was left to wander through a different battlefield of land mines in his head. Left to deal with a different awfulness of a different kind inflicted upon him from another far off foreign land, for another said just cause. His name was Crazy John.

At least that is what my friends and I called him. Others would refer to him as a Vapper, a derogatory term given to any veteran who was a regular patient at the local VA hospital, who tried to recover from madness, tried to regain a semblance of normalcy. Normalcy as defined by a society who was more interested in lies than truth, convenient comforts than moral fortitude.   

As my friends and I played two-hand touch or run-buddy-run on our quiet suburban streets, we all knew when it was three o’clock in the afternoon. Better than any timepiece, Crazy John would slinky around the corner. He would walk to Kenny’s Corner Store for his two quarts of Schaffer beer and a pound of bologna, along with some other mix-matched groceries.

If he was already drunk, he would stop and speak unintelligible grunts and garbles at us followed by short snorted laughter. Crazy John would throw nickels and dimes onto the pavement and when he was at least a first down away we all scrambled to pick up the coins. We didn’t want him to grab us or kill us.

We’d hop on and race our bicycles to Kenny’s store ahead of Crazy John and buy lemon-lime sodas or Bazooka bubblegum or Topps baseball cards. We’d save any all-stars or Mets’ players, and put the rest of the cards in our spokes to pretend we were riding motorcycles. The flutter of the cards would make Crazy John stop in his tracks and do a weird two-step dance. We saw, but never understood the sudden fear on his face. Once we were past him, Crazy John would mutter and continue to walk to Kenny’s, conversing with people only he could see.

We’d all divide up our bounty and Eddie, famous for telling tales like how his older brother killed a shark bare-handed at the Jersey Shore, or that his local policeman father was good friends with Pete Malloy and Jim Reed from Adam-12, would regale us with stories about Crazy John.  

 “It was last night. Midnight. I saw Crazy John digging in his yard. He dug up a body and then howled at the moon. The full moon. He eats the bodies.”

“What were you doing in Crazy John’s yard at midnight?”

“No, you bozo, I saw him from my bedroom window.”

“He lives around the corner. You can’t see him from your house.”

“I can. I’ll show you sometime. I’m tellin’ ya, it was a body, a baby’s body.”

“You’re full of it.”

“Then how did I know?”

Stumped and unable to answer Eddie’s question, our unbridled childhood logic made his story true, and the legend of Crazy John flourished even more. I was convinced and shared Eddie’s story at dinner that night with my parents. Not being the first time I’d brought up Crazy John, my parents gave their patented answer that he was a war hero, but the war caused him to have a plate put in his head, which made him different from us. They told me never to bother him, reiterated he was a hero, and then sternly told me never to go near him. I would spend the rest of dinner pondering Crazy John walking around with a Corning Ware dinner plate inside his head, and after sharing this with my friends another myth was made into fact.  

Sometimes, Crazy John would walk with another man. Despite the summer heat, this man always wore a knee-length overcoat. I was drawn to his black shoes which were so noticeably, brightly polished, while the rest of his garb was shabby. We didn’t know his name, nor did we give him one. He was just another Vapper, another character who would soon become a ghost from our childhood world.

Once, he invited us to throw him a down and out pass. He ran a tight pattern and Eddie threw a tight spiral. Just before making the catch, his shiny shoes slid out from under him and he hit the road hard. We all were stunned into silence. He hopped back up a bit shocked, perhaps embarrassed, and blood blotched on his nose and chin. As Crazy John tended to his friend, we debated over what to do, if anything.

Chocksy ran into his house and returned with a handful of napkins. He gave the napkins to Eddie, who handed them to Bobby, who passed them to Wubby, who quickly forwarded them to me. Being “it”, I was not sure what to do, or why Chocksy even got the napkins in the first place. After I deduced the napkins were to be used for first aid, I ran over to where the two men stood and placed the napkins on the ground about ten feet from them. I hastily retreated. Crazy John picked up the napkins, grunted, and held them to the other man’s chin. Then he and his friend walked back around the corner.

Summer moved on.

Not much else did.

The daily summer ritual of leaving our houses after breakfast and not returning until dinner did not prevent the summer doldrums from appearing for me and my friends. One day in front of Mr. Blueit’s house we were trying to decide what would occupy our time. The daily choice of activities was discussed, football, baseball, stickball, kickball, anything with a ball, or maybe going to the Old Dam or swimming in the Clay Hole. Our usual default options. Nothing else was important. We did not think about Crazy John, events outside our neatly bordered neighborhood boundaries, or a war that raged half a world away.

Most of what my friends and I knew about war was garnered from Hogan’s Heroes, Gomer Pyle, and playing army. We knew there was a war going on somewhere far away, but we were sheltered from the heartache, political divisiveness, and distress being havocked on America. Not until a few years later would I understand the gravity of that conflict as families became divided, and sons of our neighbors never returned to our town. They, too, became forgotten ghosts, remembered only with a simple gold star placed in a plain house window.

Before my hair, much to father’s chagrin, touched my shoulders and Black Sabbath albums replaced Alvin and the Chipmunks 45’s on my record player, my friends and I planned an assault of our own.  A new adventure morphed from our bored, yet creative minds, which still haunts me years later.

“What if he kills us?”

“He won’t. He’ll be too shook.”

“Sounds crazy.”

“Sounds tuff.”

“What do we do?”

“Easy. We’ll get all our army stuff and storm his house from The Path.”

“Just like Rat Patrol.”

“Boss.”

I had no inkling at the time, only in reflection can I revisit the magnitude of hurt, the lack of empathy my friends and I planned to deploy. I’ve often wondered if there is some primal, tribal instinct instilled, which makes us accuse, prey-on, and banish any sick among us. To cast out and shun the weak for fear that we too may become damaged. Or was our architecture of destruction nothing more than the fact that children can be cruel. Cruelty derived from an undeveloped morality, an inability to control the id.

With dime store binoculars hung around our necks and aluminum canteens and plastic hand grenades fastened to our belts, my five friends and I walked with our Marshall Dillon cap guns, and Johnny Eagle Lieutenant rifles, down a path through woods that bordered the back of Crazy John’s house. Our goal was to storm through his backyard screaming like banshees as our cap guns and rifles made replicated war sounds from a battlefield. We were going to scare the bejesus out of Crazy John and make him howl to the heavens for real.

Laying on the ground against a small embankment none of us spoke. After several minutes passed, we all encouraged each other to lead the charge.

“You go.”

“No, you go.”

“I’m the leader. I give the orders.”

“Sez who?”

“Sez me.”

But this time childhood logic would not prevail. Being “it” and double dared and triple double dog dared did not convince any of us to move. As I look back now, perhaps the underdeveloped empathy of an eight year old was beginning to form. I felt bad in an unsure, confused way. Bad that we were going to hurt Crazy John, vaguely understanding we were going to hurt something in ourselves. He was a small part of us, a piece of our small world, and he never caused us harm. Why did we want to cause him harm? Or was the reason we didn’t move caused not by compassion, but nothing more than uncertainty and fear?

With our devilish bravado sapped we were about to abort our ill-advised mission when the sun became blocked and a shadow was cast upon us. I looked up to see Crazy John’s friend with the brightly polished shoes, and another younger, barefoot man with long scraggly hair. I was convinced we were doomed. Convinced we would be murdered and buried in shallow graves, dug up at night by Crazy John and eaten. Just like Eddie had said. With death impending, I tightly closed my eyes then heard a voice speak. “Hey, aren’t you the kids from around the block? My dad talks about you. Says he likes you guys, you don’t bother him like some others do. Says you guys are the best, says you’re friends.”

And one of my eyes opened as I felt an unrecognizable pang on my insides.

The younger man continued, “Anyway, kids, we heard you all out here and just wanted to ask you to play somewhere else. Noise upsets my old man. Makes him jumpy. Caused by the war he was in. Know you’re just playing, boy, you guys are decked out for battle, but could you all move away from the house and play somewhere else?”

And I felt more guilt and shame then, than I can ever remember. Guilt and shame about how I had planned to assault Crazy John’s senses for my own amusement, guilt and shame for wantonly devising a plan to invoke harm on an innocent war hero. At that moment, my moral compass became a bit truer.

My friends and I stood up and walked away. I heard the man with the shiny shoes say to the younger man, “Just kids playing war. Just foolish kids playing war.”

Our parents were all surprised that we were in the house early that day, home before dinnertime. My mother asked if anything was wrong, but I only mumbled and went to my bedroom. I threw my binoculars, grenades, canteen, and Johnny Eagle Lieutenant rifle into the back of my closet. I sat on my bed and thought some new thoughts.

My friends and I never mentioned the incident and went back to playing run, buddy, run and two-hand touch. Whenever Crazy John came around the corner we all said, “Hi, John,” and smiled. We coasted on our bikes when we passed him, never pedaled. The sound of the cards in the spokes was quelled. John liked that. John was one of us. John belonged.

 Whatever I learned on the day of our planned barrage upon him was a small piece of a puzzle that is forever being enhanced over time by other experiences and lessons taught by life. As I grew older and playing in the street was replaced with driving and venturing far beyond my former confined neighborhood boundaries, Crazy John became another faded childhood memory, another ghost from my past.  

Just shy of my seventeenth birthday, though, the memory of Crazy John was resurrected along with an old familiar pang inside my gut. As I watched television in the living room, I overheard my father say to my mother in the kitchen, “Did you hear John’s heart exploded last night and he died alone on his floor?”

“John? The war vet, John?”

“Yeah, John the war hero.”  

“That’s too bad. Do you want more coffee?”

“No, I’m going to Kenny’s for cigarettes.”

“Get some milk while you’re there. And bologna. Don’t forget the bologna.”

AIRPORT

Standard

Previously published in Cajun Mutt Press.

AIRPORT

She met me at JFK airport as promised.

Dirty rock-salt-snow clinged to her 70’s mountain boots.

I mean the real shit-brown, throwback, faux suede with green laces and aluminum eyelets, 70’s mountain boots.

Christ, does she still own a CPO jacket?

Or desert boots from Thom McAns?

I got rid of my Buster Browns and peacoat when I was eleven.

I’ve heard they’re back in style now.

Everything that goes around comes around.

I’ve heard that too.

*

“Let’s have a drink,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to drink in an airport bar, haven’t you?”

“I have, too many times.”

She doesn’t believe me.

I remind her I don’t drink anymore, because when I did I

ended up snorting the dirty rock-salt-snow that now clings to her boots.

“Oh, come on, one can’t hurt, I’ve always wanted to drink in an airport bar.”

So she did.

And I did.

I awoke in some hovel south of Brownsville, Texas and never saw her again.

ALL SAINTS DAY

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Previously published by Chronogram.

ALL SAINTS DAY

In the corner of my kitchen Gabriel and Judas play five card draw

*

The water faucet is broken, the wine barrel bare

Yesterday’s bread crust, stale on the counter

John decrees there will be no baptisms performed

Mary Magdalene arrives with sangria and saves the day

She sells tickets to the resurrection

three for the price of one

*

Gabriel blows his horn, Judas pulls an inside straight

I buy a raffle for salvation

Mary smiles

CARNIVAL

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Previously published by Cajun Mutt Press.

CARNIVAL

Riding the 3:16 I arrive before sunrise

Even in early morn animal air sticks to my skin

I violently push the door jamb and the soul shattering screech

awakens sleeping doves who flutter away before first light

*

A cracked Madonna painting hangs crooked behind the counter

A big Creole woman in a multi-colored dress

wears a feathered fedora, blows cigar smoke in my face

“Yes, Papa, you are home now, home, for the carnival.”

*

I mumble and take my room key like a fugitive on the run

there are hex sign protections graffitied on the walls

Goat horns and pentagrams and what I think is dried blood

“The carnival, Papa, it all begins with you.”

*

The Creole woman’s laughter chases me to my den

I unlock my door and again push too hard

This time the protest is silenced by new sound

distant drums, ancient song, the scattering of bones

*

I think of her as I walk onto the wrought iron deck

I peer through the dawn and see gator prints in the mud

I expect a scoundrel with a sack full of antebellum loot

to skip across the courtyard and gift me a wink

*

I think of her as I step from the balcony to my room

I know she would’ve saved me or I would’ve destroyed her

Neither option was viable

No potion can heal me now

*

Cathedral bells toll far away like hymns through a fog

I remember someone saying something somewhere sometime

about the ringing of the bells being the only clean thing left

I pour a double bourbon neat and hear my Creole cackle again

*

“The carnival, Papa, it all begins with you.”

A SUNDAY VISIT/ WINSLOW/ NO VALIDATION

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All previously published in the anthology Renderings.

A SUNDAY VISIT

On a windy wintry day after the fall

He was laid to rest

It was dry and cold and crows cawed

I visited my aunt on Sunday

*

How are you? Fine, I see. You look so well. You’re good, good. Don’t you think?

No, not really, I’m not good.

I suppose not. Would you like some wine?

Yes, please.

*

A woodsman wickedly sawed

Atop a broken barometer

A ceramic crucifix laid level in a pink yard

Weather-worn bird feeders offered no vacancy

*

He made those you know. He was good with his hands. Just like a carpenter. Don’t you think?

No, not really, he was no carpenter.

I suppose not. Would you like more wine?

Yes, please.

*

Jet’s kennel was overgrown and overstill

Concrete cracked

On a sand foundation of faith

Feral cats calling it home

*

He loved to fish with Jet. He was such a good  fisherman. Don’t you think? Don’t you believe?

No, not really, he was no fisherman.

I suppose not. Would you like more wine?

Yes, please.

*

My mind smelled spent sawdust and oily fish scales

A scent of death in the room

The tired hospital bed in the corner was covered

 With yesterday’s papers and unfolded laundry

*

I thought he would heal. He could’ve healed, you know. Don’t you think?

No, not really, he was no healer.

I suppose not. Would you like more wine?

No, it’s time to go.

WINSLOW

Pongs of smoke and sour wine were his signature breakfast smells.

Winslow would profess his wisdoms, borrowed from the Bible and the Bard

He corrupted scripture with curse words and snarky snorts, proclaiming

                                     To thine own self be true

He attended mass only on the

                                     Holy days that count

and in the muddle of a

                                    Too much whiskey afternoon

he would somberly share

                                    Never grow old

Forfeiting easy victories for hard fought defeats, Winslow’s teachings were not for the weak of heart

In a lost corner of his room, facing death alone, I heard him shout through the quiet walls

                                    A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse

Near the end of his regal reign he told me

                                    Even Pagans worship Gods.

Winslow died on Ash Wednesday eve, yet I heard him speak one last time

                                     I’m giving up my life for Lent

NO VALIDATION

As I lay awake, too warm to sleep,

my mother arrived in the darkness,

bright, but surprisingly shy, like a lost

angel or fidgeting infant.

She did not speak, she did not smile,

but stared into my eyes, as if waiting for me to hum a song.

I didn’t hum, only stared back into those almost anguished angel eyes.

I felt she wanted to hear me breathe,

each breath a confirmation, consecrated so long ago,

she wanted me to smile, further confirming,

a joyous life and a purpose born true.

I didn’t stop breathing, I couldn’t,

but I too didn’t conjure yesterday’s or yesteryear’s smile,

granting acknowledgement of cakes and toys and love and Carvel.

I only stared, silent with silent smile,

releasing rogue breath and thought why was she here?

To hear me breathe and see me smile and hear me hum,

letting her know,

everything is, as planned, carried out and completed,

the promise made in a bassinet,

fulfilled and not torn asunder.

 I couldn’t do that either.

A cool current on such a warm night,

finally allowed me to grasp

in an empty, kind of nonsensical clutch,

that my mother wanted nothing.

It was me yearning for a breath and smile and confirmation of joy,

along with a hummed song

from only my mother.  

EASTER RAIN/ ODE TO EDGAR ALLAN POE, T.S. ELIOT, AND KICKBALL/ SAVE ME SUSAN, SAVE ME BILLY (VIRGIN CLOWNS)

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All previously published in the anthology Currents.

EASTER RAIN

All spirits are enslaved that serve things evil.

Shelley–Prometheus Unbound 

I look up to you. Rain falls on my face. 

Leaned through your sash, street lamps halo your head.

Virgin Madonna, carnival-beaded whore,

flash and laugh and send lies on autumn winds.

Dogs howl sadly with fire-whistle sermons.

I hear church bells ring, so far away.

Cold rain mixes and confuses soft tears,

I step on hopscotch boards, shattered glass, broken stone.

Souls melt like chalk hearts on damp brick walls,

all sing of saints and demons and dreams.

Awake in dark. Taste salt on my tongue.

With bloody feet and hands I leave my bed.

*

I make sure to turn,

the night light back on.

ODE TO EDGAR ALLAN POE, T. S. ELIOT AND KICKBALL

Through density of unclear thought I howl against winter winds, only to be silenced by the promise of a rebirthed harvested spring.

April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land.

Do I dare, do I dare, do I dare?

I do not.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each, I do not think that they will sing to me.

False fortitudes offered only to those who are blind or to those who believe. Sheared sheep who baa-baa-baa in the acceptance of their lost wool. Cattle brazenly branded. Minions who pay unfair taxes to corrupt money changers. Doomed artists who fail to create. A cornucopia of wasted talent and creativity and love lay barren and useless; fodder for wasted fire. A sinister wasteland.

I cannot.

I will not.

I howl once more.

I denounce, again.

Without wind storms and rivers, fire and deep dark abysses to make me ask why, I am buried beneath the sheen of a full moon. A moon that tries to convince all the shine given—not the shame—is full of glorious light and wonder. Not waxed or half-crescent, but whole and alive and able to harbor tides of false resignation. Magnificent glow, which offers peace and solace and absolution to only sainted saints. The full moon is a charlatan that makes all believe in deceitful light of burned-out stars.

Stars so long ago extinguished.

Lost in relativity.

Lost in the minds of genius.

Prophecies shrouded in untruths. Ancient ideas which boggle the mind. Misleading philosophies and communal religions, which offer unseen and unjust rewards, scramble my faith and my brain and my hope in all that is.  

“No,” I cry, from depths of despair. “No,” I decree and challenge the high heavens to prove me more.  Yet why do I question if the sun will relieve the moon and stars? Why do I question all that is? A nothingness of impalpable reason envelops my voice and I am silenced.

Still shattered, still broken, still alone.

Like a patient etherized upon a table.

I think I hear rap, rap, rap, upon my chamber door. I listen intently. I hear, “One potato, two potato, three potato, four.” Local children have chosen sides for a kickball game.

A game so honest.

A game so true.

So simple.

So fair.

So absolutely righteous, I listen again.

“One potato, two potato, three potato, four.”

Are the words real?

I wish to play. I will join them. I place my carafe of wine on an end table. I extinguish not stars, but my fourth smoke of the early eve. I smile as I lace my Sunday shoes. I feel joy—true joy—an emotion lost and not found, for so wickedly long. I peer outside through filthy panes.

Beyond the construction company’s orange and yellow banners must be out-of-bounds. The lightpost to the left and the huge boulder in Mr. Stephens’ front yard to the right are obviously foul territory. Through my apartment dusk I cleverly deduce the fire hydrant is first base. An empty Paradise Pizza box serves as second. Mr. Shepherd’s raven black car is third.

Home is not marked.

I will catch the big red ball and bounce out any runner who tries to advance. I will surely kick a homerun way past Mr. Constantine’s house and win the game.

All will cheer for me!

The final score will be marked in dirt and I will ruin my Sunday clothes. Dust—everywhere and nowhere—will dull all shine on my church shiny shoes.

This is glory!

This is truth!

So much happiness will abound.

In the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo.

I hear again loudly, rap, rap, rap, upon my chamber door.

Impudent knocks—so unlike children’s—and I exhale heavily. The harsh knocks echo again, and even though I know Halloween has not yet arrived—that there will be no tricks or treats—I must answer the fiends who rap so brazenly. They are brethren of mine. They do not wish to play a game of kickball, this I know. These demons are unwelcomed guests who arrive unannounced any hour of day or night. I know I must wearily walk and answer their insidious rap, rap, rap upon my chamber door. 

I unlace my sudden-tired Sunday shoes.

All that we see or seen, is but a dream within a dream.

I wish these ghosts, who enter my home boldly and with no respect, would hold out closed fists and count one potato, two potato, three potato, four, but they do not. These terrors do not play silly games. They force me back to my wine, and I light another smoke. They clamor all at once and raise a cacophony of blasphemous devil-speak from the depths of true blackness unknown to most.

In my chamber—in the company of sin—I ponder.

Do our hearts hold our fates?                                                                                  

Do our souls even matter?

SAVE ME SUSAN, SAVE ME BILLY

(Virgin Clowns)

Crazy Susan hollered

God will save us all

or at least ride roughshod against the beast

AND

sinful souls will be saved

*

Save Me Susan

Save Me Billy

*

I shook my head

walked alone away

played an old transistor, His Band and the Street Choir

AND

was brought closer to God than ever before

*

Save Me Susan

Save Me Billy

*

We walked down the Ave

only my head bopped

forced to be together, forced to be alone

AND

I swear I saw angels light the night

Save Me Susan

Save Me Billy

*

With collars turned up

rain pelted our heads

rolled down our faces, baptized no one

AND

homeless man shouts, “Give me my damn dime.”

*

Save Me Susan

Save Me Billy

*

Crazy Susan cried

as I lefted in the bar

her spirit swirled above her head

AND

His Band and the Street Choir played, oh, so sweet

*

Save Me Susan

Save Me Billy