What took you so long?

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

Friday, May 31, 2013


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


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.”