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Family Pub

A lifetime of photographs
web themselves across
the scarred wood of the bartop
nicked with dark, moon-sliver stains.

“No room for coasters,” Twist says

The wait staff freeze at this,
exercise their namesake skill and
wait.

He sweeps his calloused paw
over the photographs, the black and white,
the faded in dated
colors,
70’s drapery in textured brown
mustard shag carpet
the bar bares itself slowly,
revealing dust, drunken ball-point graffiti, well worn disrepair.

at the other end, the cinched sleeve of a drunken arm
reveals a sudden, purrelent scar
a tangled vine of ferocious carmine

In a booth of well-fed mid westerners
a child picks at a floret of broccoli
onerously nibbling to appease the rules
and the people who make them.

one overhead thrift store shade gauzes the room with anemic light

The photos have left no room for coasters.

Twist dims the lights for ambience

The great patrons have entrusted us with these so don’t spill, tear, lose, take home, or do any other dumb shit which would piss them off. The goal, for those of you suffering from eary-onset Alzheimer’s, is to choose photographs that tell you a story about our bar or our town, copy them, then safely replace them in the manila envelope that Tina is holding at her desk.

Twist talks before silence takes its turn
…and becomes acquiescence.

Twist’s hands are first in, tense and even tremble while carefully flipping, lifting and sliding the thick, matte photographs,

others follow:
calloussed palms of servers
kitchen hands striped in boiled burns
managers with their soft knuckles

A large array of the pictures were from
Twist’s own mother’s collection.

Here a swingset half built in the yard that served
better as a storage unit three years ago
a dateless blue sky disabused of any notion of rain
clouds outside the frame if at all.

His then mid fifties father, hunched and alone
with his plate of steaming pasta
with his love of salt
with his hands gloved in angry sharp wrinkles
spread in a show of patience, an intentional effort that belies
that day’s crisis
and only his back
covered in broad blue and red plaid
and his belt cinching in this and so many other unsettled meals.

Another, this with a smile showing father’s teeth
remarkable as a true smile and not a sneer.
A balloon hovering in the corner of the shot
a tuft of black hair losing ground to tenacious grays.

The photos shuffle and Twist remains vigilant for
one photo, any, that might have captured the photographer herself.

Regulars with wet beards from the head of a darker beer,
sorority girls with mouths agape in line for a shot
or a keg
or a plastic cup of jungle juice
or a boy that will fill them for the night
and forever
for
sure.

Mother, long dead,
mom, without you we wonder some mornings to ourselves
why we continue
in your absence.

And now gone twice.

The mornings start with no one remembering the coffee machine
The day ends with the deadbolt overlooked.
Evening dad makes due in his economy flat,
but just saying it like that around him will leave him
silent.

She gave all of herself for father and me and this place
she permed her hair next door
but always came back
head cupped in an acrid shower cap
errant, oily strands worming out the edges,
she turned and filled the shells
and stretched the gnocci
and pressed the garlic while stirring it into the mashed potatoes.

And now,
the restaurant’s story in photos
without our mother, her thin, oil spillage spot skin, her carbuncle wrist, her eyelids slow to react, the eyes they hide gilded in blood and vessels.

Quietly she died
in bed,
relaxing in a task achieved,
not moving or disturbing the wake

Absent a photograph,
we each protect her thin visage
captured and replayed in memory.

Thank you for leaving behind
only us in the photos,
and giving us all of you
as each of us knew.

level

had you seen

the level on the sill
jellybean bubble of air in oil
you would have guessed
the work undone.

prickled pink
your cheeks rashed in ruddy bursts
day became
cloudless
enough to shine through to your shame.

our uneven house
perched cliffside
above an ocean of ink
a new geography traced
the moon limned
water’s mountain range
rising and sighing against
the courage of angled, indifferent stone

corners refuse to meet evenly
the brick chimney stack,
mortar slapped,
like a kid’s carnival spin art:
violent
without care.

fitting that the workmanship
gives to gravity so soon
even as our world sits patient
unfinished

the vinyl summer seat
of his baby, his Camaro,
kissed your thigh red
and left a lipstick bruise
for you to bring
to me
and
home.

the shell of what i’ve built
as tribute to you
and for you
and us
leans like a cripple waiting for a train.

mid level

snap a finger
crack the crisp winter with it
snap and purse your lips and attempt a whistle.
nothing comes.

no dog obeys
no bird alights from somewhere unseen
careening on silent wind
canted impossibly
so far below the heaviest cloud,
high above undulating and endless fields of chaff and wheat.

you said you never
understood what it meant
to hover,

yet you,
mid level
busy body
skirting the hem of unemployment
management type,

yet you
did it
so well.

over a shoulder,
riding a breeze unseen
crooked in a wind
that barely held you aloft,
less than necessary
to the rest
of us
tasked with
holding down the earth.

Eat This

Eat this, but please, eat this slowly.

Sarah thinks this, but doesn’t say this.

Eat this meal, this savory concoction, chew each piece and enjoy it.  The salmon simmered with coriander, the slow preheat of the oven, the hours spent coaxing each herb in the garden to a height, to a size, to a fullness fit for the minor harvest, all of these things, the money spent on each pan, pot, spatula, the mix of meager sauce over low heat, the pinch of mint, salt, freckles of pepper and paprika. 

At your age, Ginni, you wouldn’t believe the needs we have, and the confluence of events which bring them to our table.

Sarah blinks, she fingers a fork amidst the place setting, austere and deliberate on the distressed wood of the table.  It’s funny what we pay for something new and intentionally well-worn.

Sarah too tells herself to eat slowly.  To chew food, to pause, to taste and swill a wine glass filled with a leggy merlot. 

Milk for you, though, Ginny.  

Ginny sits in her height chair, a blond tuft of hair passes back and forth like a long, weak pendulum, an uncertain feather on a string.  Meanwhile, Sarah can see through the window, the way the day outside gives up, the bloom of colors sinking and ceding to black.

Last night brought the storm which kept them both from sleep, and morning brought the aftermath of limbs on the lawn from the ancient oak towering over the house, and day carried Ginny off to school, and all that time, with her first five years behind her already, it never seemed she’d reach these new days discovering kindergarten and classmates and so much time spent in the absence of her mother.

Sarah cooks through it. She bakes and strains and mixes, with flour dusted over countertops in strange shapes like blossoms of alien flowers.  While she cooks, she remembers the chalk mountains, even in this spate of Northeastern rain, she remembers the desiccated natural monuments bleached to the color of a femur. Plateaus and buttes made of stacks of minerals compressed and waiting out in sun for something else, waiting forever.  Blanched, worn down with wind, cut through many millennia ago with rushing rivers, until the sun had finally made a ghost of it all, a ghost of everything.

You were there once, Ginny.  As was your father, your brother and I.  But I’ll tell you that story when you’re older, when the truth of it has dimmed for me, and my belief in the pure facts of who we once were is escapable.  Your history will be so much better in my telling of it.  I’m tirelessly working and reworking it, so even the less honest ideas will feel real when I give them to you.

Sarah rotates Ginny’s plate placing the salmon closest to her so that it is made unavoidable and will be next in line for the fork, then the teeth, then the tongue.  Ginny moves faster than Sarah with her silverware clinking and drawing food into her mouth with a smaller spoon with minimal pause for a moment to breathe. 

This isn’t something Sarah mistakes for appetite, but rather a chore Ginni needs to complete before she can creak open her evening toy box and spread her toys like body-bagged casualties of a forgotten war in lines and columns as if to assess the wealth of her collection.  A trove of children’s games, stuffed animals, and Tonka trucks of made of plastics in bold colors, toys with trick buttons that trigger voices carrying sentiments as trite as “love”.  A plush frog, when squeezed, spits out a red rope tongue and tells Ginny it loves her.  And why wouldn’t it?

Sarah used the word “love” before, and she will again.

When Sarah’s husband left his family, he did so by staying behind.  Sarah took her 22 year-old son, Kris, and her newborn Ginni and moved east, and that’s how Sarah’s husband left her. 

With the U-Haul half-empty and blazing in the driveway under Albuquerque’s storied summer sun, Sarah’s husband spit words at her like “responsibility” and “incapable” and “unfit”, and over his shoulder Sarah watched as every scrub brush in New Mexico held completely still as if the desert itself was holding its breath.  Shadows that hung on at the base of the cacti and Joshua trees claimed their distorted shapes on the cracked earth and in the dust.  The land, radiant with heat, froze.

 “If you don’t finish your spinach, you can’t open your toy box tonight.”  Sarah says because she knows the power of the toy box, of its contents, the calming categorizing of each toy that Ginny methodically lifts out.

Ginny nods without looking, chews without tasting, swallows without chewing, eats without eating.  The spinach inevitably remains, a picked through pile of swamp green, boiled just shy of emitting a rotting vegetable smell.

Sarah watches Ginny survey the pile of spinach for the least offensive plan of consumption, poking slowly with a fork, trailing strings of it across her plate like wet tinsel. 

Sarah remembered the few times that Kris bothered to try eating between shooting up and sleeping.  He ate only apples on those days.  He crunched down on each one as if testing the will of his own teeth, the strength of his jaw. 

You won’t remember, Ginny, but one day when it matters, I’ll tell you about the sound his mouth made, the bulb of muscle flexing in his cheek, the sometimes spittle of sandy apple flesh we were easy to forgive if he was mid-story and collapsing into the embrace of the heroin in his blood.  But of course, in my recollection, the spittle would only come from an enthusiastic recounting of one of his latest adventures in business or overseas. 

When Sarah finally tells it, Kris will have lived a life that Ginni could learn to love, even emulate.

After turning 18 and finding the needle, Kris lived the rest of his life as a phantom, but that was no fault of Sarah’s.  Hell, it’s what the southwest did to all of them.  Dry heat, scarce rain, drifting sand from the drier wastelands, even now Sarah most readily remembers New Mexico as the places that movies seem so fond to capture when framing desolation and despair.

“You eat your fishy, Ginny.”  Sarah says in a tone, tired and flat from overuse.

“The storm knocked out our eccentricity last night” Ginny says.

Without correcting her or even smiling, Sarah reminds her daughter not to focus on the powered down television but rather the mushy, uneaten spinach. 

Eat this and you will eat the work that I invested in creating it, you will eat the time it took to prepare, you will eat the earth that grew these flavors. And in the act of the eating, there will be no room left for you to dwell on the family you’ll soon forget, and what’s become of those others. 

It’s only ever been us.  You won’t know now about the brother who slinked in and out of the house, lying often on the couch some mornings like a wastrel, who had nowhere else to shower but was still unwilling to do so even in our home.  I’d imagined for at least your first few years that he would protect you as older brothers must.  I’d imagined this of Kris who couldn’t complete the simplest of tasks like leaving a note or locking a door or properly hiding his needles and spoons and lighters and rubber tourniquets.

Ginni, you must get used to me saying that “you were too young to remember, but”, because the day will come when our every conversation, our every recollection will begin like this, and end in a fantasy so much healthier than our shared past. 

To share is a funny thing.  Ginny takes time to come around to sharing, as all kids do, so that makes her normal.  That makes her just another kid with a single mother and no others to call family. 

After her husband had left them (an act he excused with some obtuse accusation which held Sarah responsible for their son’s habit), and after the three that were left had made a home in Pennsylvania, Kris’ drug became indistinguishable from him.  During the months of Kris’ evaporation, Sarah unfolded a terse note tucked inside her lawncare bill: “If you can keep your dogs from digging up the yard, it will be easier to keep the grass growing.”

And they had no dogs. 

What little Sarah was able to abscond with from her marriage, aside, of course, from the junkie son and the newborn, included mismatched utensils, two suitcases with broken zippers, a box of men’s razors, Stetson cologne in a limited edition bottle, two cigarettes and no lighter.  Sarah left with their daughter, with the unfortunate name Gertrude which Sarah had shortened to Ginny as the lesser of two evils.  The name was a concession Sarah had made anticipating the many years of compromises laid out in front of them.  Those imagined years would have been laced with reminders of Sarah’s acquiescence to naming her daughter Gertrude at her husband’s insistence.  “Gertrude” was supposed to have been Sarah’s leverage in the greater disagreements the future years of their marriage would germinate, but with the move, those oncoming years simply dissolved like sugar in warm water.

It was a year into Ginni’s life when Kris first found what he’d lost.  Sarah was changing her daughter, who had been laid out on the table like a squirming project of wet spots, dry cloth, powder, and diapers, and Kris quietly slipped into the room and stepped up behind her, grabbing the back of her neck, rough, like you would a punished puppy, and demanded his “things”.  His fingers wrapped through her hair and pulled tight to her scalp, Sarah gave in to the sudden tug and backed away from the helpless, sprawled Ginny, who was still cooing and trying to find a thumb to suck. 

Kris’ needles, heroin, and spoon, were all wrapped in plastic, and had been buried in the back yard during Ginni’s nap.  Sarah knew what enabling was, and she knew that hiding his “kit” was the opposite of it.  She was saving her son from the drug.  She was a hero, she just knew it.

Upturned soil amidst the overgrown crab grass led Kris to his kit.  Sarah’s digging through errant backpacks left at the stairs and satchels tossed in closets, her digging through old gym shoes and extracting baggies of powders, quickly turned to months of earth turned over, lifted up, filled in.  Ziploc baggies, saran wrap sometimes, to protect what Kris would eventually dig back up and stick in his arm. He’d sink into a couch, leaning precariously over something built to spill like soup or a Coke, fighting gravity in slow motion, and Sarah could never quite get over how much what they called “the nod” looked like an awful lot of work from the outside.

Ginni, you will finish your applesauce, and then to your toys, to your favorite television show with those children overtaken with the glee of their first acting gigs.  Songs, cloying, worming their way into your ears then your dreams.  If this is the worst of it for you, and it will be, then you’ll have been lucky, you’ll have been spared.

Ginni would have no memory of Kris with dirt under his nails from digging up the freshly buried drugs , and since the rain was oblivious, it was sometimes mud on his knees and in his hands, and dried in a clump from a straggle of his hair.

Kris left then, after the hassle of digging had worn thin, and he embarked “business trip”, from which he’d never returned.

Sarah has stories for this.  She does.  In them, Kris’ business was an international printing company with minimal employees, exhorbitant expenses, and in this telling, Sarah and Ginni would soon fault his careless girlfriend for taking Kris away from them.  She lured him to California, all the way across the country, so that he could fatally succumb to the twisted metal of an anonymous accident on the California Freeway.  Oh, this was just one the multitude of histories Sarah was compiling for future use with Ginni.  She was creating a new life for them, one that Sarah hoped Ginni could one day take for granted.

Either that or she grow up broken.  Sarah imagined that her sacrifices were heroic.  She was a survivor and would teach Ginni to do the same.  But, of course, this would all have to come after Ginni had cleaned her plate.  It would all have to follow Ginni’s bath and story time and tucking in.  It would have to follow Sarah’s own tending to herself with the needle, tying her arm with the string from Ginni’s 3rd birthday balloon, taking her own heroin in a commendable and responsible way, only after Ginni had finished fussing and gave herself to sleep.

This gave her things to look forward to, like the next dose that Sarah could take to relax, after putting her daughter safely to rest, and only after dinner.

Sarah thought about Kris and his dirty habit, his indiscretion, how he battled his demons with such frivolity, and she watched Ginni whose head was down and frowning at the final bite of fish.

Eat this, and eat it slowly.  You will never know the amount of work that went into this.

You, Parenthetical

There’s the weight of this place,
the heat and how air can glue to you.

Leather furniture sticks to my skin
like the vinyl in a mustang
out of air conditioning.

The heat and me write to you now,
and only you.

Does that somehow make this special,
make us special?

Shuffling through an old teacher’s poetry
in a new book,
and wondering who we were then,
when the quad lost its leaves
and regrew them,
trees clogged with pollen
seeds dropped forgotten,
the dust of summer
and drifts of snow,
and all through this and back,
the must of winter-worn books.

Now,
for me,
today,
I’m trounced by the
indisposible nature of it all.

A neighbor’s marriage as an act of process,
something to be gotten through with:
a witness, the justice of the peace, and oh yes, not to forget
the husband.

What does it say that I can’t throw away
the simple thank-you note
scrawled for a bottle of
ten dollar wine?

You won’t say, but I know that you know
what it means of me
that I tell you all of this
instead of anyone else.

That you,
of everyone,
have to hear that I can’t put
some professor’s poetry down,

And I dip into email
awaiting word from her,
like that stupid
bobbing bird dips in water
with some dumb
unquenchable thirst.

We have become ineluctable.

I’ve so much to say,
that its dripping from me,
this sweat and grout and sand and unbearable
grit, and
only you know
(because I tell only you)
how the beach gets in everything
you wear and even
after a week back,
you’re still shaking the grains
from a pocket or sock.

So much
to say.

What does it matter,
that I can’t say it all
unless someone is listening?

And what does it say
that you’re what I’ve got?

Save

To hold it against my arm,
the cold stone of her hand,
is to weigh each individual digit,
to watch the palm waxen,
trace the blue freeze of veins.

To hold it in my hand
is to reduce a hand to its component parts.

Feet and people move and murmur,
a track in the ceiling hooks a thin sheet
offering at least the idea of a curtain.

Never easy with words when
I needed them most
“I won’t look while you change.”

Hear her voice, see her eyes
“Please, please don’t see me like this.”
She hadn’t said this, of course,
but it was left in her wake in a whisper.
What is the sound of smoke as it dissipates?

A dead-eye glint,
a half-closed lid,
the glaze of a cataract.
A breast sags from the gown,
its pale moon of flesh
fresh and clean, it seems, from the abbatoir.

In this disgrace of gravity,
not even shame will move her body to curl in on itself,
to tangle a nervous finger in her hair
she once wound then unwound
and then wound
and then not.

They call it “life support”,
as if the machines are a mild supplement
to what her body already wanted.
As if they
hadn’t pumped and sucked,
brutal and with duty.

Screens dilate with images and codes,
numbers fall, others rise,
readouts of red electric lines pulse and trend,
Now the exhale and hush
as small lights blink like eyes
from wide to wider,

How long can it all wait,
me in this space,
she and these machines,
until my new life without her surges forth?

Still,
so still.
I am thinner than this minute,
lessened by the lie of the hours
and days and weeks and years
we each were promised
would come next.

My mantra, my crutch:
still,
patient
and still.

Like dried earth
cracked and cut through
with the black bolt of a scar.
An ancient geometry of clay
turned up at its edges,
in remembrance of floods,
or in threat of the next.

I savor the slow pain in my chest,
time lumbers, tumbling over itself, inevitable.
And the breath I have held,
my last drawn from the world
with both of us in it,
must escape.

Evacuation

I am criss-crossing the summer lawns of some suburban neighborhood of my youth.  Not exactly though, but through the rush of movement I can make out the basketball net, the schwinn devoured in rust, the rotted 2 x 4s we dragged into the weeds for the treehouse we’d envisioned and, after dinner, abandoned. Stevie’s wandering calico, left behind while his family moved to Ohio, the collected residue of things that had happened which seem so uncertain now in his absence.  An empty reflection of light casts a tricky glow from the cat’s eyes, and that old shadow becomes something vital again.

I am not looking for stinkbugs to crush in my hand or for an ant to smolder and curl under the magnified sun.  Not chasing/racing/escaping anything.  My body moves me through the dream without purpose, the pivots, pistons, coiled springs that maneuver the apparatus of my legs can be traced to same wasteful impulse of a fidget: clicking a pen, smacking your lips, the lazy tapping of any blithe, shifting rhythm.  Most lawns are stiff and brittle without water and I imagine that my path across them is weaving a thread through the patchwork plots of land, brown earth and sun-scarred grass the color of hay, drawn tight like the pink pursed lips of a suture.

I may be an adult, or possibly not.  Passing by houses like refrigerator boxes, cardboard and vacant.  No hinges, circuits, ball-bearings, heating elements, water meters, and no cans of paint thickened with time and exposure.  Every house sits on its own little plot, carefully hollowed out with wells which would have dried to dust had the rains receded, had the water gone scarce, had the wells been dug at all.

The whirring current of electrical outlets, framed by plastic wall plates, and neutered by child-safe plugs have never been measured for usage, nor billed to an occupant.

I am weaving through fences, over sidewalks, between arborvides and kicking up blazing mounds of mulch, blurred and brown.

Without wind, the sky is only the idea of a sky.    Like the outer edge of a snowglobe, a plastic atmosphere hunched over a few crowded objects, all acting as patient standins for the real world. An entire universe the subdued color of an afterthought, any distinct contrast has been drained down to an uncertain grey.  The sky seeps into the earth which swallows the homes which sigh their stale air collapsing as wood creaks bending the nails which quit in relief that the rest would just blanch and dissolve.