What took you so long?

Welcome. I've been waiting for you to show up.

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
of
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.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Do I Hear Ten Thousand?



"Don't throw your shitty first drafts on a bonfire, for chrissakes," my sister crackles into my ear via sat phone, ten states away. She lives at some godawful altitude where cell phones don't work. Suddenly, she has decided that my manuscripts might actually be worth something, someday, and she is calling me all in a lather.

This is the sister who last read a composition of mine when I was in fifth grade and nothing since, the sister who once told me that poetry and fiction were for people who couldn't cut it in the real world --  unh-hunh,  that sister -- and now she wants me to box up all the early drafts of my work for posterity.
"We could auction them off at Christie's for a good price, something to leave your family since" and here she can't resist getting in a dig "you never saw fit to grow up and buy any life insurance or investments." 
I cannot begin to list all the ways this conversation can go downhill from here, so I hang up the phone quietly and turn my eyes toward the yard where the fire pit is waiting. I'm old school when it comes to editing. I like to read a draft on paper and cover it in red marks, like stab wounds. These pages eventually end up in my Bonfire of Catharsis, (which is not to be confused with my Shrine of Self Pity.)
With my sister's words still buzzing around in my head like angry deer flies, I carefully build a teepee shape out of tinder.

"Do I hear a hundred, a hundred, a hundred?" my inner auctioneer starts chanting. I move on to stack dry wood the thickness of my wrist as I chant, "Do I hear two, two, two, do I hear three?" and erect a larger teepee of split logs above that, chanting, "a thousand, a thousand for this fine manuscript come a thousand. Two thousand thank you very much to the lady in the back with three thousand for a full short story, am I bid four-four-four.."

I set a match to the kindling and feed in balled up pages, hearing the crackle and pop. Bad first drafts vaporize and drift upward as steam or smoke. Words that were leaden on the page -- all my bad prose and dull plots -- go airborne. It is a kinder fate than the shredder and far less embarassing than having someone bid on them at some future date and read them aloud at a dinner party.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Good Wife

I just needed a little more time, a moment only, to answer Melek's question. I did not have to make up an answer -- I had that ready. I always had the answer ready because the question was always the same.
I needed the time to compose my face into a mask of perfect submission. He expected me to be submissive.
I turned away from the window and faced him, my eyes downcast and my posture stooped, and whispered, "No, my husband. I do not know the name of the man in the market who bumped into me and said 'Excuse me.' He was nothing. He was a nobody."
I knew what his next accusation would be; by then, I could have recited this tired, familiar script in three languages, in full costume, with an orchestra playing Mahler behind us.
"How did you know he was a nobody if you didn't look at him, eh? Did you raise your eyes and look him in the face? Are you my wife or a whore?"
Cue the kettledrums. Cue the dancing bears. This was where I lowered my head and wailed a protest of innocence to be followed by a walloping slap and a punch to my ribcage.
Soon after, he left to meet his cousins in a cafe. I  removed my head scarf, shawl, sweater, blouse and the precautionary extra padding I kept taped to my ribs, and I slipped into a warm bath. Leisurely, I washed my limbs, my hair, my face. Leisurely, I perfumed myself.
Leisurely, I re-read the note that had been slipped into my sweater pocket that morning: "I breathe and live another day in the hope of seeing you."

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Seventeen Men in Waiting

Shirl drove to town on Saturdays to buy supplies, her broken muffler announcing her arrival well ahead of her bent front fender. She clambered down from the old Chevy pickup, her hair pulled back in a loose, graying ponytail and the pocket of her worn, watch-plaid flannel shirt bulging with shopping lists.
None of the locals paid her much attention. She was, to them, a middle aged woman, probably living on a pension. And that was fine with her. She didn't want the men, especially, to get any ideas about visiting her drunk on Saturday nights.

Shirl had bought the Bar-J ranch a few years back, a small house on 90 gently rolling acres with a creek running through. She kept horses, evident by the tack and feed she bought at Jay's General, and pried colorful quartz from the hard pan under a few inches of topsoil.

“Wyoming, now that's where the ratio of men to women is 17 to one -- look it up if you like. I hear it's a good place to go if you're looking for a husband,” Shirl's sister Jeanie had told her.
Shirl wasn't the type to share hugs or confidences, so she kept her yap shut and quietly signed the deed a week before moving west. Jeanie mailed her the hometown paper and pound cakes made with Wisconsin butter, every so often. Shirl sent Jeanie rodeo programs and photos of her new foals.
She “let herself go,” as their mother would have called it, by not dyeing her hair or wearing skirts to town. The last lipstick she'd chunked into the trash had been three years old and dry. Living on her own terms made Shirl happier than she'd ever been, quite frankly, and her only lack — if you could call it that — was having no one to tell that fact to.
She loved waking up because she'd finished sleeping, eating only when she was hungry, going to bed only because she was tired, and buying what she wanted when she wanted. Money was never scarce -- not that it had ever been. Still, no need to flaunt it.
Now and then, she'd drive to Casper, board a plane for Reno, and meet up with an old lover. She related little of her life on the ranch, preferring to encapsulate their pleasure and time together as one might encapsulate time spent watching a particularly good film. The shifting images and sounds inside their hotel room were removed from the outside world.

Shirl wondered why no one had ever told her how delicious a solitary life could be. Her entire upbringing, all the advice she'd heard in college, had aimed her like a dart to the bull's-eye called marriage, as if pairing up was the only natural state there was.
"A shame, really" she mused. "All those 17 men out there, just waiting for me. Probably a few of them are lookers, too." She laughed, and for just an instant wished there was someone around she could tell that to.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Mobiles

Your stories are marvels of precision.
Like Calder’s mobiles, they move in perfect balance on the slightest updraft. 

How do you put it all together with beginning, middle, end, the rising action and firm-handed resolution (just like they taught in school)?

My stories are ramshackle; they lurch along in old sweaters with holes and missing buttons, drinking from mismatched cups and saucers.
They mutter; yours crow.

Mine hide behind dark glasses and long bangs while yours step out into the glare of flashbulbs, square their shoulders and accept the Big Prize with the Foreign-Sounding Name never before given to Anyone So Young.

 There is no use to rallying around me and saying things like, "the short story is much harder to pull off than the novel" or buying me rounds at the pub with shoulder pounding good cheer and "buck up old gal" bravado. The agent -- the one who emailed me from New York City with a query -- said he wants a novel.
"Short fiction is all I've got," I said.
"You have to write a novel," he said, as if I could just pull something from my ass, like some sous chef whipping up a Hollandaise on short notice.
I've been despondent ever since.
I'd like to tour the world of mobiles. I'd like to go from Gdansk to County Clair, Majorca to Mount Airy. Wherever there are mobiles in haylofts or museums, I will be there, studying their lazy drift.

Out of my travels a book will come. No one will be able to hold it for long. It will raise the reader's sight line, inflate his hollow spaces  and up he will drift to take his place beside the birds of Calder -- as light as balsa, as integral as the dna we share.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Better Boys, Early Girls

While I work in the garden, I think about Marlon Brando playing an elderly Vito Corleone lumbering through the tomato vines on a summer afternoon. He is playing a game with his grandson, and the simple staked tomatoes -- a holdover from his roots in Sicily -- come crashing down when the huge man falls to his death.
Nothing signifies summer as perfectly as home grown tomatoes swelling and turning pink from green and red from pink as June turns into July.
On a hot afternoon, your hands soak up the tomato attar when you touch the vines, when you move among the cages and stakes to find that one, perfect fruit for your supper sandwich. 
In the cool of the evening, you slice and salt it, then lay each slice just so on soft white bread slathered in cold mayonnaise.
Best of all is eating the sandwich outside, barefoot on the porch overlooking the garden, so that you can sing the praises of Better Boys and Early Girls -- and heirloom brandywines, don't forget -- between long, slow swallows.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Laces

Rosarious slouches into the lab, no book, laces perilously undone, earbuds blasting Dr. Dre. "ROSARIOUS," I signal, waving my hand to break through his wall of sound, "GADGETS OFF IN THE LAB!"

Inglorious student with glorious shoes, he is a prince among his peers.  I see those shoes and the status they confer, and I know what they cost.
They cost him his books for the semester, is what they cost.

"You paid twelve hundred dollars for a pair of shoes?" I gasped when he first told me. But when I bent closer to look, I saw art and architecture. The shoes were engineered. They were built with materials NASA  astronauts wore on Apollo missions.

Rosarious' face was a mixture of pride and shame because he had not yet reached a comfort point with money. He had not yet learned that, if you buy what you desire, then you have to harden yourself to the price tag.
You decide to be happy or guilty -- quick, what'll it be?
"Hey, hey, they's a lot worse 'n these," he protested. "Hey! Google it! They make summa them Jordans with diamonds sewn on 'em, cost fifty grand!"
                          
You know what? I do not judge him. Long ago I decided not to invest in opinions about the students, saving my energy, instead, for the work itself.
They are not used to such a minimalist approach. They are accustomed to the adults in their world martyring and sacrificing for them, scolding or shaming them, sometimes seducing them, sometimes breaking promises to them.
I offer them only the clear, cool water of grammar, the vigorous workout of my Great American Comma Clinic (a one-hour aerobic review of the comma and semicolon designed, my friends, to change your lives), and a dispassionate explanation of Chicago Manual of Style.
When Rosarious was offered his athletic scholarship, (which does not cover books) an uncle in Nigeria sent him a jacket made from antelope skins. The family has hoop dreams for him, but thousands of parents have the same dreams for their tall sons with elbows calloused by jabbing other boys in a lifelong quest for possession of the ball.
I walk along the line of computer stations, checking for facebookers and shoe shoppers whom I tap lightly on the shoulder as a reminder they are here to work.
I stop behind Rosarious and his sleek Kudu jacket, and he smiles at my reflection in the screen. His smile is sly and a little ugly. It asks, “How can I game you? What's the angle, here?”

“Tie your shoelaces,” I say. “If they are tied, your shoes cannot be stolen off your feet with one hard swipe. You must not be from the city or you would have known that.”

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Family Memory

When she was 9, my mother was put to work in a garment factory sorting buttons and sewing collars into blouses for 10 hours a day. Manitoba had no laws against the use of young girls in sweat shops as long as the mother worked there, too. It was assumed that a child was safe from 'unsavory' influences if her parent was nearby -- as if sexual misbehavior were the only hazard to a child.
My mother recollects the constant hum of sewing machines which, at the time, were operated by a foot pedal that the seamstress pressed. It had to be kept in constant motion for the needle and thread to travel in a smooth straight line. She recalls my grandmother limping home each night, her leg swollen and sore from the repeated motion. My mother’s hands were often bloody from needle pricks, and she kept a constant cough from the chill and damp inside the factory.
The floor boss walked up and down the rows shouting orders in English, German, Russian and Polish so that all the immigrant employees were sure to understand.
Work faster!  Arbeit schneller!  Rabota bystreye! Szybsza praca!”
One day, however, a health inspector came to the plant and lined everyone up to be checked for tuberculosis. Nurses listened to each woman breathe and cough, and those with suspicious-sounding chests were required to cough onto a slide which was then examined under a microscope.
Fully one third of the workers either had active TB or were suspected of being carriers. Immediately, fabrication ceased and the plant shut down.
Years later, when my mother reminisced about that time, she said that working among women in close quarters was pleasant.
“They smelled of spices or soap, scents brought from Europe to the new world," she said. "I was young and curious about everything, like body smells and shapes. I liked to look at all the different hair, some icy blond, some inky black. In summer, you could walk in the door and, even if the plant was empty, you would know by the smell that it had been full of women. I have never seen another place like it -- a place that could manage to be both industrious and sultry at the same time.”

Friday, May 10, 2013

One Poem, Eight Rejections

“Your use of metaphor jumps off the cliff of excess into the sea of confusion.” — Tamped Down: The Pipe Smoker's Poetry Quarterly.

“Too much rough stuff for us, although stanza five showed potential as a framework for a video game.”  -- Warm Porridge  Review

"Too tame for our readers."  -- Slap and Tickle

“Derivative.” — Jazz Is A Poem/ Poetry is Jazz


“Oops, bad timing I'm afraid as we've lost our grant money, and our poetry editor went back to school to retrain in digital media, but if it's any consolation, we would have published this.” — Wichita Community Center Newsletter.


"This has a certain energy that crossed the brain-blood barrier and continued on, into the unknown. Do you suppose you could make the female protagonist a salamander rather than a human?"  -- Amphibious World

“Not quite there. Do try again.”  ASKANCE!


“As if!” — The New Yorker

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Never Been Down to Lonely Street


“You've never had your heart broken? Come on, never? How can you not EVER have been jilted? You've been with like, what, 20 guys?”
I took my eyes off the road for a moment.
“The answer is never, 41, and now, shut up.”

I switched on WBHM, turned north on I-65, and lit a Pall Mall 100. Felice made fingertip circles on her Ipod screen. I knew she'd be back to drill for more. My niece wasn't the first to try to coax a sad love story from me. I've been worked over by some real pros. Those are the ones who tell you about all their sad break-up shit and then wait, like you're supposed to take your turn next.
Hey, what can I say? I don't have anything to tell. I go out with somebody, and, if it's nice I keep on going. If it's not, I walk.
I mean, am I missing something by not having been broken into smithereens? What's the percentage in that? I say, skim along on the top of troubled waters as long as you can.

Felice and I were halfway along our drive to Memphis on a pilgrimage of sorts. She had confessed she knew nothing about Elvis Presley, and I immediately decided to take the child in hand. She might be young, but that was no excuse for ignorance.
“As her godmother, it is my duty to see to Felice's spiritual upbringing, is it not?” I had asked my brother.
Further, I pressed, “Can you stand by and allow her knowledge of pop culture to begin with Britney Spears? I realize we can't fly her to Liverpool to see the home of the Beatles or Detroit to see Motown headquarters, but Christ on a crutch, Alan, Memphis is in shouting distance.”

I wore him down. Alan poneyed up half the gas and motel money, and thus we were cruising, as Paul Simon put it, with reason to believe that we both would be received at Graceland. Lonely Street. Heartbreak Hotel. Ground zero for the saddest life a pop star ever lived, at least up to the time that Michael Jackson built Neverland.
You talk about isolated from reality and being taken advantage of, those two must be sharing a double suite in the afterlife, swapping stories about the drugs their doctors gave them. Neither one ever knew what it meant to be loved -- really loved -- for himself. People fell in love, as true believers always do, with the icon they saw and the chance to be part of a legend. Now that's heartbreak, if you ask me.
Before we embarked on our hegira, I had given niece Felice the assignment of researching Elvis' life and extreme death. She watched old Ed Sullivan shows on YouTube and listened to greatest hits. To her credit, she got caught up in the weirdness of the trajectory Elvis' career took — complete with Roy Orbison shoe polish hair and unfathomable subjugation to Colonel Tom Parker, his minder-cum-impresario. Felice was fascinated by Priscilla's ingĂ©nue role in the household and Elvis' rumored fetish: white cotton panties.
“This is not turning out to be a wholesome project,” my brother hissed into the phone one night.
“Yo, Alan, it's ELVIS. It's American gothic, and the child needs to know the underbelly of the myth,” I hissed back.“Did you, or did you not, wear makeup to school for three days when Freddie Mercury died?”
He knew I had him, and he hung up.

Felice and I pulled into Graceland's parking lot at 2:50 p.m., just in time for the three o'clock tour. Felice readied her Nikon, and I took stock of the women in line around us.
Late middle aged: check. Caucasian: check.
Looking fantastically sentimental: check.

The tour itself was soulless and prepackaged. We walked through rooms containing nothing that Elvis ever cared about; the carpet, walls and furnishings postdated him. The tour guide, probably recruited from a fraternity at U of Tennessee, delivered his lines with faked expertise.
 I did not have the heart to ask him to depart from script and tell us the truth about the white panties.
For my sweet Felice, this was her first brush with a celebrity, and she buzzed around happily. Her favorite item, she told me later, was a white Vegas-style jumpsuit with a star-studded cape, the kitsch level of which was in the red zone.

Graceland is, I have to say, one of the saddest places on Earth. It was Elvis' sarcophagus, his prison, and no doubt originally his idea of marvelous. But nowadays, it is as devoid of Elvis molecules as a room at a Motel 6.

Whatever hopes or musical inspiration moved the kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, to first step into a studio, they are not revealed to us at Graceland. Maybe they never existed, or maybe they got swallowed up in the first crazy tsunami of fame that enveloped him.
I had to wonder: If Elvis had known what bread of loneliness he'd be eating for the rest of his life, would he have opened his mouth to sing, at all?

The Curve

Wade Harmon died Saturday, driving his John Deere eastward on the back forty. The tractor idled until it ran out of fuel, and when he didn't come in for lunch, Mavis walked outside and saw it, green and yellow standing out against the long, brown prairie furrows.
She ran to him, but there was no diesel left in the tank with which to carry him home.
My Betty went to their house the next morning with egg-and-bacon casserole and fresh biscuits.  They'd laid Wade out in the parlor on a cooling board, the old timey way, in a suit and white shirt, shined shoes and tie.
The next afternoon, people gathered at the graveside to speak of all the ways that Wade had touched their lives. Back in the '60s, Wade had rounded up all the family farmers and started  Kansas' first  co-op. In those days, we all believed that the communal way of sharing would keep us safe from the long reach of Con-Agra and Archer Daniels Midland, those agribusiness giants spreading across the heartland like a cancer, squeezing the little guy out.
Later, folks gathered back at Harmon's farm, some to eat, others to stand by the tractor shed with flasks and tell more stories.   Trevor, Wade's eldest, walked me down the rows of spring wheat -- freshly green and hopeful -- to the spot where Wade had died.
Grief has a steep curve, and each of us  -- sons, wives, best friends -- has to climb that curve somehow and make it down the other side. 
We talked until the light was gone, talked about who would harvest the crop, about Mavis' future, about tractors and ethanol and prices of corn, two men on a patch of ground, navigating the curve of grief the best we could while whipoorwills sang their dirge and the stars leaned down a little closer.

You Only Get One Question

I met her husband in a greasy coffee shop on the run-down side of town -- his choice.  I suppose he thought the locale fit my role. I had been sleeping with his wife, after all. That made me trash.
          He was a middle-aged tugboat carrying 400 pounds on swollen ankles. He'd come with a bad attitude. The husbands always do. They never consider why their wives go looking elsewhere for pleasure. Or maybe they do consider, but the only answer they can sit with is: Some bad influence (me) is to blame for their darling Dottie or sweet Sally-Jo going astray.
          “Jesus, how old are you anyway?” he asked.
          “That's a boring question,” I said. “Of all the things you could ask at a time like this, you want a number?”
          He dumped five sugar packets into some oily-looking coffee while I marvelled at his eyes: they were kidney beans wrapped in dough.
          “I mean, if you want to talk numbers, how much do you weigh?” I asked him back. “That could figure into this, you know.”
          “Listen, you,” he snarled. “Who the fuck do you think you are?
          “Sorry pal,” I said, “you only get one question here at the Exit Interview Corral. The answer is 22.  And now, if you'll excuse me, there's a circuit court clerk waiting for me at the Marriott Courtyard. She bought herself some sexy new underwear online, and it would be rude to keep her waiting. Rude is what cost her husband his bed privileges.”
          It was true, I thought, steering my Camaro onto the bypass. Marriage has a fatal flaw. I wouldn't go so far as to say familiarity breeds contempt. But that kind of rude indifference, of taking the wife for granted, can feel like contempt. After years go by with no touching, the little gal feels bad about herself. Then, I come along, tell her she's desirable, tell her things I'm going to do to her, feed her need until all she can think about is me. Before she knows it, she's renting motel rooms for us to sneak away. She feels so alive that she's practically vibrating, like a high-school girl right before a date with the town bad boy.         Her fat fuck of a husband who left her untouched for four years while he watched televised football with Sara Lee in his lap has no call blaming me. 
          I was playing World of Warcraft (Rise of the Zandalari) the first time my phone rang for an exit interview. Some shitbird of a lawyer found my number behind the visor of his old lady's Lexus and got curious. He demanded a meet-up: Saturday morning, Eastdale Country Club, he'd give up his second nine holes just to see me. Ooooo, lucky me!
          That's the thing, see. The husbands come to the meet all bowed up for a bush-pissing contest between two dogs.  But I show up in full androgyny theater:  black leather,  high-heeled boots, eyeliner, cubic Z earring. The guys get massively confused. Shitbird's eyes almost crossed when he saw me. I could see the word bubble over his head. Boy? Girl? He was trying to put his cookies-and-cream Mary-Lou together with me, but he couldn't figure me for the top or the bottom.
      I learned something that day: lawyers are no better than anyone else at asking the right first question. His was, “What the hell was your number doing in my wife's car?” 
          “She must have put it there.”
          And then I was gone. I look at it this way. If the guy wants information, if he wants to fix things between him and the wife, he should be asking her. Not me. And if he's asking his wife the questions, there's only one relevant question to ask. Not, “who's this guy?” Or “how long has this been going on?”
The only question that matters, the only one she wants to hear is, “How can I make you happy?”

The Late, Late Show

During the night, even your feet are hot to the touch.
You throw off the covers and turn on the ceiling fan,
which in turn flings your heat to the corners of the room.

This is my secret source of income, you see,
for while you sleep, I charge admission to strangers
who want to witness the miracle of you.


"Lay-deeez and gennel-mun," I call from our front lawn under a quarter moon, "step right up and see Inferno Man, the human electric blanket!"

They pay to file in quietly and stand around our bed,
holding their small children over you to warm their tiny feet.

After the show, I slip back under the covers, hide their dollars in my pillow and watch the gentle rise and fall of your bellows. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Rare Air on Planet Teeny

I was 14 when the phone call came with news of Teeny’s death.
Her Ma asked to talk to me, personally, but when she heard my voice she broke down in hard sobs, the kind that words can’t get through.
She said a drunk driver was the cause, but I could not listen to the details about Teeny on the pavement under her smashed-up bicycle.  I just handed the phone to my Ma and went looking for a suitcase because certain things would have to be rescued right away from Teeny’s room: A blood-oath pact required it.  


After retrieving Teeny’s treasures and personal letters, I turned my attention to her air collection, which had to be packed up carefully and taken away before anyone decided to throw it out.
Half-pint Ball canning jars, each labeled in earnest capital letters, took up a whole wall of Teeny’s bedroom.
Inside each jar was air she had collected from some place important to her life: Six Flags over Georgia at the top of the ferris wheel; the back seat of Delmar Robbins’ ’72 Barracuda;  a breath sample from inside Principal “Halitosis” DeLosis’ office (the label contained a warning skull and crossbones).

Teeny had collected air from the ICU when her brother overdosed; from the graveside when her granny died (she had tried to scoop a jar under the coffin lid and capture the essence of the old woman’s corpse, but the undertaker had body-blocked her at the last second),  and from the front of the stage while The Temptations sang “My Girl.”
One hundred and eight jars glinted down from their shelves, each with its own unique cocktail of oxygen, hydrogen, methane, cigarette smoke or aftershave molecules.

Ever since, when I think about Teeny, I pretend she’s visiting another world with a half-dozen mason jars clanking around in her bicycle basket. The air out there is fresh and sweet and filled with birdsong.
There’s no smell of  peeling tires on pavement, or gasoline or blood.
Teeny is revered there as a scientist, and people come from far and wide to watch her chew Bazooka gum, scoop air into containers and label every one of them “RARE.”

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Lipstick in the Kitchen

I knew that marrying Kenley would be a mistake the moment he brought me home to meet his mother who, it appeared, never left her kitchen. A passive-aggressive woman, her way of conveying anger was to bash pots and pans around like cymbals and gongs. Her means of showing disapproval was to slam cupboard doors. Her kitchen was a symphony of rage.
Kenley made the introductions, and she was pleasant enough at the start. She offered us both sweet tea, but the glass she handed to me had a definite lipstick print on the rim, a thin lower lip and a smudge of an upper. Moreover, she pronounced my name "Jita," although I had been introduced as "Gita." We sat at the breakfast table and they made family small talk while I took in the surroundings.
The stove was obviously the centerpiece of this domain. It was a gleaming stainless steel behemoth with two ovens, a plate warmer and six gas burners. In the middle of the floor squatted a sway-backed butcher block that appeared to have been chopped upon with such force as to make it cower.
"Lita? You're not drinking your tea. Does it need more sugar?"
"I'm sure it's fine, Mrs. Carmoody," I said. "I'm not thirsty right now."
And there it was. The first lie. It sat in the air between us like a cough, and she chalked up round one. She knew I wouldn't criticize the cleanliness of her glass, and she knew there would be a million more lies to come. I could see the years rolling out ahead of me: a marriage to Kenley would make a complicit, chronic liar of me. No one in Kenley's family ever expressed anger or dissatisfaction openly. I and my children would tiptoe around the knife-wielding Matriarch. She’d rope us like meek heifers into the Carmoody Corral.
"Actually," I said, looking up into her eyes, "the glass is dirty."
I held it up, like Exhibit A, and heard Kenley's quick intake of breath.
" And I'd appreciate it if you would call me Gita with a hard G. Most people over the age of five get it right on the second try."
Kenley drifted away from me after that – not abruptly, but you could tell. (It was not the Carmoody way to confront, after all.)
“That was a speeding bullet that missed you, my girl,” a friend told me later. “You would have become a headline eventually. ‘Daughter-in-law found buried in his Mum’s lettuce patch.’”
Eventually I forgot Kenley, but apparently his family never forgot me. I was “the girl with the tea glass.” This I discovered five years after the fact when I went to apply for a new job at the power company and was made to fill out a dozen forms in their personnel office. Kenley’s younger sister Marjory was sitting behind a long counter, handing out applications to a line of hopefuls. When I reached her and held out my hand she squinted hard and cocked her head.
“Why, you’re the tea glass girl, aren’t you? You’re the one who stood up to Mum! We were talking about you just the other night, wondering what became of you!”
I calculated how this development might improve or dash my chances of getting hired. I decided that silence was my friend.
“We all admired you, you know,” Marjory went on. “You have spine.” Then, leaning in close so that I could feel her breath tickling my cheek, she whispered, “Put on your application that you go to church regular and serve the poor, and I’ll be sure it gets to the Personnel Manager right away. He doesn’t care whether you can type: he only hires Christians.”
“Isn’t that illegal?” I asked.
Marjory Carmoody cocked her head again, sparrow-like, as if that thought had never occurred to her.
“But, hey, thanks for the tip,” I said, “That’s really decent of you to help me.”
She smiled then, a bright front-desk-receptionist smile and I left, arms full of paperwork.
I went home, trying to imagine myself a power company employee with a 45-minute lunch hour, paid holidays and dental insurance. I tried to imagine Mrs. Carmoody’s face when she learned that I had been sighted.
I wondered what clashing of pots and pounding of meat on the swaybacked butcher block would follow that revelation.
“Poor kitchen,” I thought. “You’re in for a loud time tonight.”