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Sunday, March 2, 2014



I am still upright. Bone is connected to tendon,

Ligament to filament. I’m breathing,
and breath leads to song.

My brain, while I'm alive, is not just flesh; it is a canvas.
As long as I’m still here, any poem is possible.
On Saturday morning, I sit with coffee
and the best writing I can find.
Better to sit outdoors, let the dog take her
desultory walks around the property,
show the squirrels what’s what.
They take advantage of the feeders,
using brute force, if necessary,
to grapple the last seeds from their cages.
Dog gives them the stink-eye and they shrink
back into the branches of a water oak.
Meanwhile, I wrangle meaning and juice
from the Oxford American, sighing at
photographs of old blues musicians 
solemn lakes for eyes,
reading a poem about birds aloud
to the audience in the trees.

Our next-door neighbor, a vigorous man
who builds his own room additions and
composts everything, tells me he had leukemia, 
had a marrow transplant.
“I’m a survivor,” he says.
Yes, I think. I can see that.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Two Cocktails On An Empty Stomach

Betty Melvin would not have been sitting in the Holiday Inn Lounge (the one by the Civic Center, not the one on the bypass) if her husband, TJ, had not been playing hockey with his  Civitan buddies and due home after 10 p.m.
Betty liked the mood of the lounge in every way possible: warm yet dim lighting, the smell of stale tobacco smoke, the Sinatra and Ray Charles soundtrack playing softly, the tang of aftershave on the traveling salesmen who chatted her up at the bar. It was a silly game, of course. She would never have gone back to a man's room, especially not with Narvel Simms tending bar. He knew TJ from high school and had bought his homeowner's policy from TJ.

No, Betty was just exercising her prerogative on that cool October evening. "There's flirting for keeps and there's flirting to keep in practice," she always said. Still, as the dinner hour came and went and she finished her second gin and tonic, she felt a little freer, a little braver than usual. At times like this, Betty knew, she became "outspoken."

At 9:45, Betty had Narvel call her a cab. She arrived home to see the living room lights on and TJ's black Impala in the driveway. On entering the house, Betty mis-stepped slightly and went down on her knees, letting her purse contents spill and roll onto the foyer floor. TJ came at the sound of her impact, but instead of helping her up, he kicked her legs a few times. Granted, he did not kick hard and granted he was wearing house slippers at the time. 

"You're drunk!" he shouted. "How do you think it looks to the business community that my wife is drinking with strange men? How do you expect me to get ahead, hmm? How do you expect me to make Civitan president with YOU for a WIFE?"

TJ was flinging-spittle-mad, but Betty, filled with Dutch courage, was about to start her first (and possibly last) rampage. Hurt knees and all, she leapt up, grabbed TJ's Maple Leafs hockey stick and began beating him about the head and shoulders.
TJ managed to grapple the stick from Betty and turned to whack her, but at that moment, Betty got hold of TJ's left skate and, with all her might, drove the blade into his chest.  TJ went down in a fountain of red, bubbly lung blood, eyes bulging at the sight of his own body impaled by a brown hockey skate. His last words were, "Betty, is that you?"

She called 911, of course, and waited on the sofa while Charm, her Pekingese, licked at TJ's blood.

Later, when the detectives asked her why she had killed her husband with hockey gear, she said, "We don't keep guns in the house."

Saturday, November 2, 2013

What the Dog Thinks When We Leave the House

From the moment we leave home
Until the time that we return
The dog is worried.

She jumps onto the sofa or our scented bed,
keeping her vigil.

She knows nothing of our air-conditioned offices
or malls or restaurants. She must assume, then,that we leave and walk for hours along the route she knows:
Past the yellow, hissing cat.
Past the yard with frantic beagles.
Has the black-mawed Chow four houses down made mincemeat
our calves?
Did the postman in the light blue pants accost us?
Dear God, has the UPS man in his snarling brown cube of a
truck run over us?

The dog calls up a hundred dangerous scenes.
She has acquired her knowledge empirically
(by run-ins with these
evil-doers) or by
watching through the window.

When at last we come home safely, her joy is total.
She wags herself into a circle; her face floods with relief
as if to say, “You are unharmed. You’re whole. I can relax.”
I wait until she’s finished sniffing me – especially my shoes – for
signs of damage. On the couch she crawls up next to me.
I stroke her face and haunches and croon her name
in gratitude for her concern.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Portable Skills

I wanted to start a business, something simple with a generous profit margin, and I decided to offer personal services to men with certain tastes. I named my business, "A Firm Hand."  Its first location was a small but pleasant two-bedroom apartment on Tammany Street, an easy walk from City Hall and the courthouse. By the end of our one-year lease, it had become evident that we would need more rooms. (When I say "we" I mean my sister Belle and I and, later, Francesco.) A very kind judge and his friend, an alderman, offered to fund a larger space for our enterprise, as long as we remained close to city hall.
It has long been my experience that men in positions of prominence and responsibility like to give over their power completely to obtain full relaxation and release. We did not go in for the ludicrous red-ball-in-the-mouth and stifling latex body suits you see in movies about discipline. Disciplined submission is entirely a state of mind, you see.  It's what they call 'operant conditioning.' Belle can walk into a room where her regular customer is lying on a bed and within a minute he will be fully erect and eager for her commands. She rarely uses the whip. Whispered insults of the most demeaning kind are her weapons.

One evening, I happened to meet the exquisite Francesco at a party and observed how longingly some men looked at him. I made him a business proposal before the party was over.
"You have a gift, the ability to torment with your beauty," I said. "Some people are wired to long for what they cannot have, and it is that longing which binds them to you. You will make a lot of money, and you will exert great power."

Francesco the narcissist, Belle the subtle dominatrix and I (my specialty must remain a secret, as it breaches some taboos that many would not forgive) agreed after the fourth year to dissolve the business. We were financially set for life; Francesco wanted to live on Majorca and Belle was restless. We planned our disappearance.
We booked no appointments over the Christmas-to-New Year week, as we had always done. During that time, I hired a cleaning crew to come in and remove all the evidence of our activities, especially scouring away traces of blood, bodily fluids, hair and handprints.
We three met for a delightful dinner at La Brasserie where we exchanged Christmas gifts and drank bottles of 1998 Petrus Pomerol. Then we went our separate ways. The last I saw of Belle, she was walking away with snowflakes on her hair and  collar, the snowy sidewalk glistening under streetlights.

A business is such a personal thing, really: It is like an affair. Most people talk happily about the beginning, but few have a happy ending to tell. It is best always to be the one who walks away. The clientele we left behind, who knows how long they grieved for us. In particular, the men who had fallen in love with Francesco -- obsessively so -- may have suffered broken hearts for a while.

It is good to know that these politicians, these men of power who sit in judgment of others, may have felt some pangs of loss when we disbanded. I would like to think that we moved them emotionally, the ones who had come to depend on us for pleasure and something more.
It is not often that such men reveal their most naked selves. They did, to us, as much as any man can who looks over his shoulder at all times for the hidden camera. Oh yes. The cameras. We took those with us, also.

I suppose s
ome day, if the money runs out, we three might get in touch with the good mayor of Tammany Street and a judge or two.
But probably not.
Certain skills are portable and always in demand. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Roadside Attraction

Breau came rolling in after midnight, stinking under the arms and covered in red clay. He'd rolled the four-wheeler in a ditch -- to avoid hitting a deer, he said. More likely he'd fallen asleep drunk and woken up when the quad landed in six inches of filthy water. I told him to whoa right there in the laundry room and strip before tracking up my kitchen. He showered with his ball cap still on, gripping the shower nozzle with one hand for balance and trying to distribute soap on his body with the other.
Breau liked the red wine, creature comforts, boiled shrimp and moonlight on the bayou, in that order. He loved his babies and me, and he always came home, no matter how late or how flavored his blood was with alcohol. When the circuit judge of Feliciana Parish took away his driver's license for the final time, Breau just bought a Yamaha 4-wheeler and drove off-road between home and Ti-Louis' roadhouse or home and the lumber yard left to him by his drunk of a Daddy. When he flipped the Yamaha the first time, I took the key away until he had roll bars installed. The second time, I rounded up the children and had them beg Breau to wear a helmet whenever he drove. He started to cry midway through the intervention. But he never did trade his ball cap for protection.
The women in my family have a talent for marrying mannish boys. We like them tall and strong, but we never check under the hood to see if they're fully grown up. I will teach my daughters not to mistake height for maturity.
You can love a man till death do you part, but never marry a shrimper, a drunk or a preacher.  You don't want to be the wife of anyone who wears white boots or kills himself young or tells other people they're going to hell. No good can come of it.

So Breau had flipped the quad for the third time. The next morning while he was sleeping it off, I drove toward Ti-Louis' in a borrowed truck with a winch, to find the crash site. I took our eldest, Jorge, along in case there was a chance we could right the vehicle and ride it home. What we found was a flattened mass of metal and ABS plastic, its roll bar reduced to tinsel by the force of the collision when the quad landed, top down. The fact that Breau was alive -- and not just alive but unharmed -- is theological proof of guardian angels. Me, I'm no believer. But this, this was as close to a miracle as I could conceive of. Jorge stared at the tangled mess in the ditch for several long minutes, his hands thrust into his jeans back pockets, his thin young face a question mark.
"We gonna leave this here?" he asked.

"I think so. We gonna let your Daddy come look at it."
"What if someone takes it away? For scrap?" Jorge asked.
"Let's put a note on it, “I said. “Get a pen and paper from my purse. Write, 'EVIDENCE. DO NOT TOUCH.’"

That evening, just at the start of sunset, I drove Breau down to see the 4-wheeler. He was feeling clear-headed after a long sleep and a meal. There is a certain stage of sobriety among men who drink every night. In that stage, they are their best selves -- reasonable and generous with affection. The need for alcohol has not kicked in, and during these few hours they can accomplish great things. They write chapters of their novels, fix cars, tutor their young ones. They also make promises. Oh, how they make promises.

It was in such a state of mind that Breau approached the remains of his off-road sport utility vehicle. He stood some distance away, at first, edgy as if it was a sow who might charge him for coming too close to her shoats. Then he took slow, careful steps toward the rim of the ditch, stopping again within 10 feet of the bank.
"It ain't a snake, Breau," I said. "It won't rear up and bite you."

Again he slowly stepped closer, but this time I saw his legs were shaking. He brought his hands up to his face and sank down on his knees in the damp red clay.

"Oh God oh Lord oh God oh shit!" he wailed. "Oh God how did this happen? Why don't I remember this happenin?"
"You were drunk, plain and simple," I said. 
There's no point in beating a man when he's down, and even if he's not, there's no point in acting the wine sheriff. All those women in my family who married callow men, they sure did try, though. But none of their nagging made a whit of difference. You can't save someone from himself.
But a man who sees the Miraculous in his own life and who feels what I like to call "mortality hits" at the side of a two-lane blacktop road -- that's a man who just might stand a chance. Not of being saved, but saving himself.  It could happen.



Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Parlor Games

Gallantry was his forte. That and a charming total recall of faces and small details that women confided while slow dancing at parties.
The second time he met a woman, he’d lean in and whisper, “You are wearing Obsession tonight. I thought White Diamonds was your scent,” or some version thereof.

The woman would be utterly captivated — and utterly sure he was smitten with her. Who else but a suitor would have memorized her perfume?
It was his favorite parlor trick.
One spring evening, at a party for the Italian ambassador, he was standing by a stunning Eurasian woman in teal blue taffeta. They had met once before (La Scalla-November- intermission-Puccini, his mental Rolodex informed him), and he opened with, “Have you been to the opera since we last spoke?”
She registered no surprise, saying, “I see you have given up horn-rimmed glasses.”
He bent to her beautiful shoulder and murmured, “And you are still wearing Fleurs-du-Rocaille.”
Brushing her lips over his ear she countered, “And you still drown your neck in Polo by Ralph Lauren.”

“Have you missed me?” he asked, feeling strangely heady. No woman had ever parried his thrusts so nimbly.

“Not at all,” she answered. “I keep quite busy.”
“So do I,” he said, “and quite enjoyably.”
“Do your lady friends take you to Monte Carlo for the season?”
“Well, no, that’s not how women relate to me.”
“Then,” she whispered deliciously again, “I get the better bargain. Now, as you have no fortune to spend on me,  do excuse me while I refresh my perfume. I have a wealthy Belgian banker to confuse.”

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Gunpowder and fuses

The first two words of each line were provided by Dorothy Pendleton as a writing exercise. I recommend it!

I am a cannon at Antietam.
I hear the jagged breaths of soldiers.
I see a lake of blood.
I wish that guns could refuse to fire.
I act as if I'm not to blame for the carnage, but
I feel the cannonballs when they exit me.
I touch everything in front of me with death.
I worry about so many souls leaving this place all at once.
I like to imagine that there is a hereafter.
I am a cannon at Antietam. 

I understand gunpowder and fuses.
I say "Here is your death" with every exhalation.
I dream of this battlefield before the war, all green and hopeful.
I try to believe the ground will absorb all this blood.
I hope the souls of soldiers will forgive me.
I am a cannon at Antietam.