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I. MILLION DOLLAR WALLPAPER

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					I. MILLION DOLLAR WALLPAPER




 1
WHEN I AM OLD


and my hair is the color of the ultra light tobacco ash
that lined my desktop and occasionally tattooed my jeans,
         I’ll laugh at the bottles of blonde that soaked into my scalp
from high school well into middle age. I’ll blame those fumes
                   and toxins for my senior citizen style choices: track pants, Pumas,
and bedazzled T-shirts bearing the names of turn of the century pop acts.
         I’ll sit on my porch and draw portraits from memory: the mailman,
the neighbor boy that peddled tee-ball candy bars before mowing my lawn,
                   the president I voted for, all in a 4B pencil. I’ll stymie stereotype
and refuse to comment on how much he has grown (the neighbor boy,
not the president), though I’ll think it silently to myself. I’ll wish
that I’d had children of my own: to receive my birthday checks,
to remember to call once a month, to sharpen my pencils.
         I won’t pay old age rates at the movie theatre; I’ll use my sweet old lady
demeanor to smuggle in whiskey like you and I did in college,
                   refilling plastic Gatorade bottles with Early Times,
the smooth amber liquid provoking nicotine cravings so strong
we lit one up once when we were the only two in the dark theatre,
only to chicken out, stamp out the smoke, and chuckle over
what the usher would think after John Shaft saved the day.
         I’ll cook elaborate dinners every Sunday for one—
stuff mushrooms and fold gargantuan calzones—
                   refrigerating the massive leftovers, knowing soon enough
I’ll throw them away, Tupperware and all, uneaten.
         I’ll spend my evenings in front of the television or,
when guilty enough, wrapped up with a book, sometimes
                   play videogames and take secret pride in my hands never gnarled by age.
         I’ll check the caller ID on the telephone before I ever hit “TALK,”
squelching solicitors requesting that I sponsor the state troopers
                   or encouraging me to adopt a Chilean child for pennies a day,
still secretly hoping that—after so many decades of killing time—
your name will finally light the blue-green display, though I won’t recognize the number.




                                            2
THE OLDE PINK HOUSE
Abercorn Street, Savannah, GA



The she-crab soup is to die for, or so you were told,
        and having sampled it, napkin in lap,
you can understand why General Habersham’s ghost haunts the joint.
        There’s a price to be paid in consuming the reconstructed past:
on your carefully placed plate, in the pine floors that creak beneath
        your waiter’s steel-toed boots,
dreadlocks, and perfected Windsor knot, or the starving spirits
        that play with the vanilla candle wicks and unsteady water glasses.
Both the wealth and the missteps of Savannah’s past
        linger in the dining room, from the crackling cliché of the fireplace
to the owner’s footprint in a puddle of Vidalia onion sauce
        you ignore for decorum’s sake.
                                Edible historiography
gulps you up and invites you to sign the guestbook with a flourish—
        to make a mark that shows you deserve your seat at the table;
that the tales you trade over buttered bread are somehow more raucous
        than the affluent General’s echoing war wounds and battle stories;
that you’re not just playing dress-up in your black heels, and would be
        equally charming in a petticoat or pair of creeping lace gloves;
that you plan to contribute to the sweet-scented atmosphere—
                                musty yet fresh, leather and floral--
        that wafts around linen table cloths and out the restored window frames
into the square, plunging the present into the past, as tourists
        are tossed with artists, visitors with locals that seem to say through a wink:
Drink it down, be it deep South lore or something from the wine list,
        for there will undoubtedly be a test later—
learn to distinguish your soup spoon from the rest, tip like a general, and
        know that loads have come before, with so many more manners than you.




                                              3
ON OLDER MEN AND RECREATION


Their embraces fit
like a pair of bowling shoes,
a sweaty and incommodious squeeze,
costly, slippery,
affection savored most when stolen—
social swag
to slink away with
for devouring in the privacy of home,
free
from any boozed and befuddled,
critical gaze
other than my own
with its slipshod sense of style
and loving repulsion,
its guttural lust for games and devotion,
indoors, in my living room,
secure in worn forearms,
avoiding society’s strike.




                                            4
PABLO ESCOBAR’S TOILET


Running for months through Medellín,
    Escobar eludes the Colombian officers,
The Search Bloc, Los Pepes-- squatting at
    pastel brick safehouses, each with brand
new facilities. Gold-peppered porcelain
    and funhouse chrome handling reflects
a portlier Pablo: an additional chin the
   effect of a catered hill top cell, complete
with prison-issue finger bowls and a
   sommelier bearing a flowery Merlot and
sawed-off shotgun. Escobar brushes
    tobacco and dust from his teeth into the
corpse-white bowl, flecks of both become
  stranded in his sprawling beard.

He laments the sport sandal lost in the
   hillside, his attention to pedicured detail
having been obscured as he crafted
   for Juan Pablo, his eldest, a game plan for
juggling press interviews. They talked X's
   and O's, pesos and plea bargains, via heavily
monitored walkie talkies. A hand-woven
   bathmat, overly ornate by even cartel
lavatory standards, depicts sunset over
   Bogotá as it licks his bare foot. Lush coral
threads nip at his heel, minimally exposed,
   beneath a pair of cuffed denim trousers six
inches too long and oversized to accommodate
   the waist of a congressman, a drug lord, a
fugitive, a messy big man in his Sunday best.




                                                 5
THE HARVEST MOON


is so-named for the spare hour of radiance
        that bobs and weaves across the farmer’s field,
        the gardener’s rows; certainly not
for the way it spotlights the wounded window frame,
        an invitation for you to loot my apartment
        as I lie dormant, dreaming, one leg under the covers,
one foot on the floor. You plow through my home
        as if pulled by a thoroughbred, no—as if the swift horse
        yourself: heart like a piston, racy, nervous,

reaping my domestic rewards. You leave flatware daggers
       in the muddy carpet; extension cords, coax cables
       climbing the baseboards like thirsty black vines; an overturned
bud vase rolled beneath the kitchen table, pink petals on tile.
       You toil, tilling hard maple shelves, and
       I’m unable to hear you; I’m unaware of your bent frame’s silhouette
twitching in twilight on the wall, weighed down by a nappy canvas bag
       of odds and ends: remote controls, blown glass,
       an Ulu knife, picture frames. I wonder what you’ll do

with my red-eyed loved ones as you unpack when daylight comes.
        Will you grimace in the sunlight, unethical creases
        deepening around tired eyes with tiny pupils,
the seasoned squint of a lifelong pillager, or
        will guilt pepper your young mind with anxious constellations?
        Young or old, you’ll be safely shrouded in the secrecy
of a dim 4 a.m., offenses known only to the North star,
        for the magnolias and I have gone to sleep,
        Do Not Disturb signs swaying from all of our limbs.




                                            6
PRINCE CHARMING’S FREQUENT FLIER MILES


         Hopes are meant to be elevated by an airport terminal.
To begin with, they peddle coffee—ground-up magical beans
           of self-confidence to propel your pulsating heart
    and fragile little rose-colored mind into thinking
that a fairy tale is about to be reenacted at gate C-14.
           Not some twisted Hansel and Gretel, but a Cinderella romance,
         where your prince is going to dismount his Boeing chariot
with an air sickness bag to fit your—and only your—lips perfectly,
           signifying that you and he were meant to spend an eternity together
    in the W.H. Smith stand reading magazine headlines to one another
with breathy passion until the end of time.

        That spark that shivers from your rain-drenched head
straight down to your perfectly painted toenails
          as you poise yourself in the international terminal
    and try to look natural, or at least not lonely, after time abroad
is unparalleled. Your collected fears of being forgotten
          by all those at home who are held near, dear, or somewhere in between
        will be quelled in the eyes of your visitor—eyes that seem to say,
“I bring with me the love and well wishes of a nation, my dear.
          You and your venturing spirit have made us all proud.”
    These are eyes that in reality—so glossy—convey fears of luggage last seen
on another continent, and that contains their razor and underpants.

        Inevitably, as night begins to fall, you will be awakened
by someone’s spilled latte or a security door left open, alarms blaring.
          There will be no chain mail, no swords, no movie star kiss,
   no John Williams score. You will understand that familiar faces’ flights
are destined to be delayed; the in-flight feast was destined to be made of plastic
          and Astroturf; and your airborne suitor is destined to be dreading
        the return flight: not because it means taking leave of you once more,
Highness, but because it means another cramped eight hours
          spent trying to pass out by plastic goblets of whiskey and Coke
        in order to get home, to reconcile with the 9 to 5 quest he deserted
to come see you. You’ll know that fairy tales are faulty,
          much like your reasoning; to think twice before lowering your hair
   out the tower window, before begging to be rescued;
that the cost of waving one off into the sunset after an idyllic respite
          is completely non-refundable; that there’s no such thing
        as a free Happily Ever After.




                                             7
FIREWORKS MOMENT (f r works m m nt) n.
for Brian

  1. the act of being compelled to weep at Fairview Park as fireworks bloom overhead
     while kindergarteners wave state-approved Sparklers like pompoms in a dance
     choreographed to Neil Diamond’s “America”
  2. an aching fear of the future, commonly centered in the aorta
  3. the feeling of inexplicable emptiness experienced upon celebrating the birth of the
     United States through an elaborate native ritual involving coolers, lawn chairs,
     and half-eaten bags of “tiny twist” pretzels
  4. something, such as a lancework reading “God Bless the USA,” that, on closer
     inspection, actually reads “Once Daily Wellbutrin XL: Low Risk of Sexual Side
     Effects”
  5. an American practice celebrating loneliness through the arrangement of cars,
     mini-vans, and SUV’s in a large field; much like how one might have arranged
     their Hot Wheels on a drugstore poster board with hand-drawn roads and parking
     lots on an exceptionally boring childhood afternoon
  6. the belief that Roman candles not only light up the sky, but reveal to surrounding
     strangers your skeletal structure and empty heart like a festive x-ray
  7. the realization that everyone is red and white, and you, sucker, are blue




                                          8
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN


It’s true: I was sick
when I spun, take after take,
down that MGM backlot cityscape,
umbrella in hand.
My bicep groaned off-key
as I hung from the streetlamp,
thousands of drops
of manufactured rain
sizzling on my fevered skin.
After duck-stomping
in a third take puddle—
my smile so wide
the corners of my mouth
nudged my earlobes
and forced my fedora askew—
Donen asked for take four,
and I wiped my soles
on my slacks
just above the ankles.
My mother would’ve hated that,
but winked at the demonstration
of my Pittsburgh,
lunch bucket kind of town
masculinity:
the same sinewy grace
that made the half-moon scar on my cheek
charming.
To insure the Klieg lights
picked up those raindrops,
they mixed in milk with the water.
And though it slowly soured,
bouncing off the shoulders
and knees
of my shrinking gray-blue wool suit,
it was still a better fit
than had I tried to squeeze
into a set of Fred’s top hat and tails.




                                           9
HOW TO BAT LIKE A GIRL


choose a weapon
preferably wooden
barrel autographed by the pro with the finest penmanship

post-game plans include a soiree
refuse to wear a helmet
preserve your meticulously coiffed mane

grasp bat like it’s an electrified stick of rhino feces
the smaller end
not too tight
(nails are acrylic)
hold as close to chest as possible without touching your pearls

stand directly on home plate
the smallest strike zone
increased odds of Base on Balls
(do not giggle at “Base on Balls”)
decreased need to actually swing

make inoffensive polite contact
squeal like you found 40 karats in your Cracker Jack box
kiss the catcher
clap your hands
blot your brow
run towards third




                                            10
OUT OF FASHION


In the month before you die
you're out of fashion. Pants
no longer fit, new holes
are punched through belts;
tags should be left on shirts
for easy store credit
when it no longer matters
if your body is cold.

Crash a department store;
defy the six garment ceiling
and camp in a shadowy dressing room.
Twirl before the three-way mirror
and flout fluorescent lighting,
before sacrificing those brand names
to the terminal ranks
of thrift store eternity.

Jewelry can be pawned as necessary,
for it is impossible to accessorize
with the fleshy
gray matte finish of your skin,
a dermal sweater from last season
draping two sizes too large
over withered bones banging
like hollow tin wind chimes.

Allocate your underwear; box up
your socks and ravage your shoe racks
for donation-ready soles:
good treads are unwarranted
for where you are traveling.




                                        11
     II. SIX GUN’S LEGACY




12
THE COAST GUARD CRUSHER


The hull of the ship was an unassembled cardboard box,
       crease held forward, below the mast that was Gompie’s bald head.
That indoor cruising vessel was perpetually barnacle-free,

     adorned only with a homemade black plastic label reading
THE COAST GUARD CRUSHER in raised white lettering.
     He chased us around the suburban, ranch-style sea,

avoiding ottomans and napping Malamutes—boxy and bulky,
        but we never heard him coming, our bodies clad in late night wetsuits that,
to the average landlubber, suspiciously resembled flannel pajamas.

      Submerged beneath a tattered plaid couch, our pink grade school hearts
pounded as we gasped for air, wondering aloud how long
      we’d been down there. The Coast Guard being commandeered in this manner

was a regular occurrence; why was there never a search party?
       Where were the divers, the helicopters fluttering overhead, floodlights,
chiseled government agents inquiring from above if we were okay,

        if there were any injuries? My sister and I had devoted many an hour
to practicing our dramatic, cinematic deaths in the family room
        and longed to perform a selection from our repertoire of stumbling and gagging:

      collectively we’d been stabbed, electrocuted, victims of a drive-by shooting,
and—just once—attacked by South American poison arrow frogs.
      None of our juvenile demises compared to the terror of the carpeted deep,

however: relief came only when we were discovered,
        our stocking feet scurrying again across the orange rug as we giddily succumbed
to the rescue of our mother’s lap and bedtime in the maritime calm of the living room.




                                            13
IT’S ALL TOO BRIGHT, IT’S ALL TOO SWEET


Saturday mornings were the site of an elaborate ritual
       in our grandparents’ south suburban Chicago front room:
folding TV trays, cinnamon rolls, and sausages twice as large as my finger,
       all that ran interference between my sister,
myself, and a parade of cartoons and chirping cereal ads.
       Had a Boeing lost a wing en route to O’Hare
or Midway and deposited it in the front yard, just missing
       our Gompie’s black AMC Concord in the driveway,
I would’ve leaned my blonde braid to one side
       and asked my sister to turn up the volume on the TV.

There’s a 3 X 5 that documents the innocence
        and marvelous ignorance of this native custom
hidden in a navy blue photo album marked 1985-1987—
        my sister and I both with mouths gaping,
our glossy eyeballs fixed on something just out of frame
        with enough concentration to suggest not that we were watching
Alvin & the Chipmunks but that Jesus & Santa had dropped in
        for some cornflakes and perhaps a bran muffin.
If the powers of attentiveness I once possessed
        could be harnessed, I promise a bill would never go unpaid
and I’d never wear to work a shirt smelled for freshness
        before being dropped over my ashy under-eye circles and tousled head.

All was bright and shiny then: the brilliance of
         animated cels reflected off my lingering baby teeth,
waited to be carried into Monday morning’s
         lacquered grammar school desktops. It’s remarkable
that none of us went blind—dropping suddenly to the blacktop
         mid four square or double Dutch, stricken and screaming,
It’s all too much! It’s all too bright!
         It’s all too sweet! I’m ready to pay taxes!
Still, we marched on: bathed in fluorescent lights,
         dazzling First Communion dresses—a battalion
of pasty little troopers knowing deep inside life
         is on a dimmer switch, spinning slowly into the relief of syrupy darkness.




                                            14
VENTS


It was just our navy Cutlass Sierra and the snow plows,
         slipping and sliding our way up 294 to O’Hare;
gaping at motorists equally daring, yet without our holiday luck,
         stranded left and right, cursing overeager snowflakes
and adding anti-lock brakes to their mental Christmas lists.
         This was an annual event in the late ‘80s:
risking yuletide death to meet my aunt’s arriving flight from California, which
at the time, seemed slightly farther away than Mercury,
         more exotic than an Ecuadorian rose.

Wedged in the front seat between my dad and my Gompie,
         it was my duty to fire the missiles—an occupation
whose title gave it undeserved weight,
as my eager mittens were poised over nothing more
         than malfunctioning radio buttons while the two men talked Bears football.
In the backseat, the petite hum of my younger sister’s snoring
filled most gaps in the front seat’s sporting conversation.
         The rest was quickly recycled by my mother, my Nonnie,
in their play-by-play of the dozing four year-old’s every snort
or sleep-talking mention of the menagerie she desired from Santa.
         Between warm bodies, parkas, and a sprawling pre-schooler—

perhaps the bonus weight provided that extra ounce of highway grip—
        it would’ve been impossible to bop along with Nat King Cole if we’d wanted to.
My cold cheeks—those that my mother made a ceremony of kissing
        whenever I returned from another afternoon building snowmen
or writing my name in the yard with a “Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific” bottle
        full of tap water and leftover Easter egg food coloring—
were so compressed that they glanced off one another
with every highway pothole. And though my heart boiled with anticipation, oblivious
        to the Oldsmobile’s broken heater, I silently pined for a twelve-car pile-up.




                                            15
I DREAMT OF AXL


It’s Spring, 1989, and the four of us are seated around the kitchen table
                when Dad informs Kait and me that Mom, age 35, is pregnant.
He tells us not to tell our friends yet, and Kait and I practically explode
        right there on the placemats. Seven year-olds are not meant for confiding in,
so Kait’s ready to burst: visions of tea parties and Broadway-caliber performances
                of “Alice the Camel” flash in her gray eyes; her demands for a sister
cause the ceiling fan to wobble, until my parents laughingly ask her to behave.
        (Her reply, “I am being have!”) I sigh at the prospect
of having the weight of influential, sisterly responsibility being lifted off of my shoulders.

I want a brother and I want to name him Axl. My mother confiscated
        my copy of Guns ‘N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction from me not long ago
and, given that my parents saddled me with the humiliating
                yet ancestral middle name Rose, I look forward to welcoming
little Axl Rose Wylder into the world, sharing the burden
        of a horrendous middle name with him, and—above all—
teasing his hair (as soon as he has some). Axl and I
                will get along splendidly, playing He-Man in the backyard,
discussing heavy metal music, and burning Kait’s poorly-coiffed Barbies.

This kid will be a boy and I won’t have to be a role model.
       We won’t be expected to know each other and have sniffling, soul-bearing,
Lifetime network chats because he will be a boy. It’s that simple.
               He’ll be my dad’s responsibility or maybe the understudy
of Jason and Terry, the kids next door. I look forward to this idea—Axl bonding with
       the Bowman brothers— though I’ll never let them give him a bowl haircut
to match theirs. There’s guidance, and then there’s humiliation.

He’ll be a headbanger, naturally, yet we’ll never butt heads. He’ll care more
               about the fact that I know how to break in a baseball glove properly
than he will about my distaste for ruffled underwear, jelly shoes, or pastels—
       here in this neighborhood our family descended upon
almost exactly a year ago, here where the houses are bigger, where my new bedroom
               is like something out of a sitcom, where girls by no means skateboard
so mine collects dust, where my mother might just eventually win her battle
       to get my blonde hair out of an efficient ponytail for the first time in years.

If asked about anarchy, I’ll most likely tell you that she was a part of MGM’s
                  cavalcade of stars in the ‘50s—somebody from one of my grandparents’
videos. On the Town—Starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Ann Archy!
        Still, I feel a revolution is in order. Chaos of the most juvenile kind.
The kind where little girls won’t be so afraid to wear sweatpants, school a somebody
                  on the playground, join a touch football game,



                                             16
or charm little boys with their ability to recite the White Sox’s starting line-up;
       the sweeping kind of change that I am certain can only be brought to town
by baby boy Axl and his stubborn big sister with grass-stained knees.




                                            17
PALM READING OUTSIDE OF CONGERVILLE, ILLINOIS


Ripping and shucking,
I spent those August days catapulting from cool cotton sheets before dawn
        to filch tassels from corn. Pulling each green offender from the stalk
with so much cowboy gusto—like removing an arrow from a leg
in the shadow of a trestle bearing an enemy-laden train—
        I prevented cross-pollination and hybridity for five-bucks-an-hour
and palms with linear, sweeping bruises that traced my Life Line, my Saturn Line,
in lucid Prussian blue.

Every afternoon that summer,
I closed my eyes and saw those hands,
         foretelling the future. My subconscious only spoke “farm”:
be it at bedtime or even in the shower, eyelids fastened tight and
         guarding against wayward shampoo in the daily purge of teenage enterprise,
as the grainy remnants of a very first job cascaded unto the drain
in a prophetic swirl of dirt.

On my left hand, the deeply etched,
continuous Life Line assured me a robust and fruitful life
        and that my hands would never model Palmolive. My enthusiasm for capitalism
sounded in every black plastic ruffling of the garbage bag worn from shoulder
to thigh in the field. In far away lands, one can hold a variety of occupations
        in their pre-teen years: soldier, wife, short order cook, nobility.
In the American Midwest—too young and unqualified
to collect lipstick smudged glasses and usher unwanted French fries
        into a plastic bin—I doubled back and forth across a daybreak field
disguised as last week’s leftover casseroles and sports pages
in an attempt to fend off morning’s dew.

On my right hand, the Saturn line,
a minor line, was beleaguered and broken, revealing that I worked best
        in partnerships—both romantic and business. And as I clenched my fists,
focused on another tomorrow spent roaming in those trashy robes, the romance
        of growth, twinge, and smarting in the name of the dollar smacked me in the jaw
with all the strength of three-hundred scraggly cornstalks predicting my path
with a passionate thwump-crack-thwump.




                                           18
HER TINY ROOM BELOW THE STAIRS


My littlest sister routinely disappeared
into her tiny room below the basement stairs,
ringing up plastic groceries for imaginary customers,
teaching the alphabet, and leading equally non-existent schoolchildren
in choruses of “Five Little Monkeys Jumping On the Bed” and “Miss Mary Mack.”

Dolls leaned on the walls
in an unblinking police line-up—Stacey,
Becky, Beatrice—most likely arrested for crimes of fashion,
my sister having dressed them in an uncoordinated style to match
her own. Her attention to complimentary colors was understandably overlooked,

she being not only a teacher
and a check-out girl, but also a waitress
in her busy downstairs dive where the specials were known
solely to her, the checks scribbled in the pre-school hand of one who has yet
to read, let alone write anything more than what looks like a string of W’s and N’s.

My littlest sister routinely disappeared
into her tiny room below the basement stairs,
beneath the tired crack of dress shoes on stone kitchen tile,
pots boiling over in neglect, sisters spent from after-school arguments—and—
it’s a wonder she ever willed herself to climb the steps and join the routine of the dead.




                                             19
WHEN I SHOOK PAUL SIMON’S HAND


not the “Graceland” Paul Simon that strummed in the shadow
        of Garfunkel’s smokestack afro, but the Illinois senator,
author of books, owner of forty-six honorary degrees, I longed to plead guilty.

In the presence of the personified power to amend missteps—
        all ears and trademark bowtie—I labored to forget Caldarelli, my fellow young
and promising, 17-years wise Illinois child, and gritted my anxious teeth.

Brought to D.C. like me, to learn about the muscle of parliamentary procedure,
        he had minutes before warmed Simon’s microphone
with a rousing refrain of “Testes, Testes… One… two… three?” and I wanted to confess

that we shared a slanting sense of enterprise and aspiration: he and I battling Swedes,
        Northern Californians, and Puerto Ricans in table tennis by day, capitalizing
on the small-scale opportunity to construct a dormitory-wide sense of community—

friendly fire by little white ball. The best and most brilliant public schooling had to offer,
        he was all hair gel and skewed neckties; I was all pantyhose borrowed
from Mom. We rolled up our sleeves and abandoned our heels, needing to come clean

accordingly—ignoring the advice of daily speakers borrowed from the Senate
       and commands to draft mock bills in favor of making friends: learning what room
would be passing legitimate grain alcohol after hours instead of pseudo-legislation.

And in the glow of a flashbulb, gripping the hand of the diminutive Senator,
        the pusher of education reforms, the catalyst for the Congressional drive
to curb television violence, I wanted to amend miscalculation and bellow—

Mr. Senator, run. Run into reelection, settle in again, resist retirement
        and gardening gloves adorned with little blue tulips, for tomorrow’s
leaders are fast approaching with picture tube eyes and sweaty, red twisted palms.

Even the best of us are ill-prepared and quick on the trigger, unable to identify
       Afghanistan on a map. Our foreign policy was born on a computer screen,
or maybe a Risk board; our knowledge of the “domestic” pertains only to beer.




                                             20
MARK YOUR CALENDAR


After the Hoover-meets-gravel growl
of my youngest sister’s eight years’ chubby
stomach subsided
and Nonnie’s labored breaths
lowered themselves to library decibels,
an awkward hush swelled
within the maroon mini-van’s kid-sticky interior—
only to be punctured once again by Gompie,
this time his behind-the-wheel sigh:
I can’t wait for tomorrow.

How come? the eleven year-old inquired
naively, brushing her block of deep brown bangs
away from her wrinkled brow
as her grandfather maneuvered the van
hand-over-hand into the familiar Sicilian scent
of Papa Joe’s parking lot. From the driver’s seat,
his perpetually perfect straight-face replied,
with nonchalant precision:
It’s “Slap Your Granddaughter Day.”




                                            21
BREAK BOTH


To be half of an “us,”
rounded out by a “you,”
was tantamount to loping
down Green Street’s gutter
and catching my eyelid
on the antenna of a passing Buick.

I met your mother
and it explained everything
every time her French-tipped tentacles
swirled about my head,
tugging at tangles and wayward strands,
her gauzy compliments reeking
of designs to redecorate my exterior
with matching sweater sets
and white tights.

Once I wrote you an ode
and you branded it with your verbal red pen
because it lacked Seuss-style end rhyme
and car chases. That same spiteful penmanship
inked me top-to-bottom
in verdicts and slurs,
the scars from which are nearly healed,
though I persist in hiding
behind long pants and turtlenecks.

Then at a ramshackle house party,
over a poorly-tapped cut-rate keg,
you pierced me with your pen once more
and it didn’t hurt. My skin had become that thick,
and I rose from the futon we baptized
with beer and indiscretions,
walked out the screen door
we scarred with misguided cigarette butts
and words best retracted,
onto the white-washed front porch
with eyes wide open,
stepping on every crack.




                                           22
DISNEY COLLEGE


Readjusting each night
        to furniture built for adults
was merely a side effect;
speaking Kindergartenese
        was the real challenge,
        spending a spring semester
teaching five year-olds
        from Jefferson City to Djibouti
to draw Mickey Mouse,
and occasionally sketching them tattoos
        or painting their faces
        to look like Dalmatians
Dwarfs, or Princess Jasmine
        by giddy request.
Comedy came naturally,
seated on a candy red stool
        with my long legs bent
        so I could scratch my ears
with my kneecaps.
        Clutching character crayons
in stubby fingers,
pink tongues patting upper lips
        in concentration,
        they laughed off each of my inquiries:
You don’t have a job?
        You’re not married??
How do you pay your rent???
The children’s sole focus
        was the immediate task:
        a twinkling pupil or an eyebrow;
their biggest worry
        whether they could go swimming
when they got back to the hotel.
Parent after parent and I smirked
        through our own enchantments:
        the triumph of capturing on video
a pint-sized animator at work,
        too short to ride Space Mountain;
a week without faxes;
the wide-eyed wonderment
        of a mother realizing her son
        happily gave me permission
to paint his entire head Genie blue.



                                            23
IN PURSUIT OF SKY BLUE


April 1985:

The countries of allegiance
        at the 1985 Oak Lawn Invitational Track Meet
(overlooked by Sports Illustrated) were largely fictional—
        clumsy combinations of consonants and vowels
assembled from D’Nealian writing primers.
        We ran races around bird baths and oak trees—
me, my sister, my Nonnie—measured long jumps
        in terms of cherry tomato stalks surpassed.
The Alaskan judge’s overly hairy appearance
        and odd behavior—
lapping lukewarm water from a bucket,
        drooling, barking—
raised suspicions about her scoring technique.


May 1985:

Between meets, we shirked jump ropes and medicine balls,
        training through hopscotch—our browned legs flexing
inward and outward in pursuit of “Sky Blue.”
        Disputes arose frequently over chalky lines stepped on or around—
the victor left to cast cement-skipping stones alone,
        the loser scuttling tear-streaked
to appeal to her sun-bathing father,
        who wanted only to complete his paperback mystery
and smoke Salem Light 100’s in peace.

June 1985:

The first and only “Wedding-thon” charity event
        was recorded live from the driveway, raising funds
for relatives freshly betrothed.
        My telegenic mother hosted under an assumed name,
while her cousin promised baskets of whirligigs
        and plastic bags full of other plastic bags
to those making the largest contributions.
        My sister and I took pledges from overseas phones—
their cords connected to buckets of stagnant water,
        kept just in frame for effect. The newlyweds’ ultimate profit
was slim, the majority used to buy Chinese take-out
        for the hardworking telethon staffers.



                                            24
December 1985:

Windy City cold fronts carried Lakeshore hiccups
       into the southern suburbs
as snowfalls rivaling the ’67 blizzard
       graced alleys and flowerbeds.
Snow forts swelled from drifts,
       and we pounced upon them between cartoons
to wage snowball catapult wars
       and construct frozen castles.
Inevitably, these quasi-arctic quarters
       were trampled by a practical malamute—
her puppy cunning outweighing my desire
       to see my younger sister dissolve
beneath a face full of snow and frozen mitten.


March 2000:

Just beyond the back door, where my youngest sister
        spent the ‘90s growing dusky-skinned
and receiving her recommended daily allowance of protein
        by slurping dirty water from the plastic kiddie pool,
a patio stands: carefully constructed
        to accommodate Nonnie’s almost-all-terrain wheelchair
issued by Christ Hospital. We track stars’ legs are tired now
        and the youngest has considered becoming a vegetarian.
The newlyweds have divorced, remarried, and the chalk drawer is empty.
        Yet as another night falls on southwestern Chicago,
past victories, skirmishes, funds raised, and snowflakes
        float up through the deck’s cracks
like so many brilliant, boasting lightning bugs—
        the wooden boards parted slightly as if just about to speak.




                                         25
ON PALM SUNDAY


you gave not flowers,
but a punch to my eye,
frustrated because I wasn’t good at loving;
I was better at white-lying,
and best at simply lying, paralyzed,
each time that same hand—then uncurled—
traced as much of my anxious body
as my Catholic inhibitions and insecurities
would allow at that given pause in time.
I thought that I knew God,

and he hung out between us—
filling each gap in our conversation, our fling,
with a joke about ethics or morals.
So a guy and a girl are in a phone booth, right,
and one of them’s not wearing any pants…
Our Lord and Savior must have impeccable comedic timing—
surely he made Saints Peter and Paul
perform many a spit take
around the holy water cooler,
gazing at our affair below—and you,
you hated me and faith and yourself
in an impressive display
of hand-heart coordination and insults:
mainly I was cold, the “most self-destructive person
you’d ever met.”

With that blow to my face, the 9 p.m. fireworks
blooming overhead as scheduled,
surrounded by glittering tourists,
I glimpsed heaven through an eye clouded with blood,
free of tears. I regretted not giving your
bronzed and growing forehead, your easy smile,
up for Lent in that instant as you stormed away,
head down, like the walk of a child
who’s wisely self-administered a “time out”
after telling Mom they won’t eat
their “goddamn green beans.”
I regretted being the grown up once again.
I regretted the fact that I don’t carry a firearm
and that when I bite people I don’t
conveniently inject them with venom.




                                          26
And now, now I regret shoving you in the chest
so hard I left momentary handprints on your teal windbreaker
when you pleaded for forgiveness
and reached out to kiss me—
not because the thought of you in limbo,
all red and itchy, is troublesome,
but because I prefer to destroy myself
one criminal kiss at a time.




                                          27
BESIDE YOUR BED FRAME


Late in May, we gathered to celebrate your birthday,
        filling the small house with an ever-growing familial crowd
ready to burst unto the outlying acre—
        into the tomato stalks and blackberry bushes,
down to trees I scaled and nested in years before,
        suppressing sisterly ascension to read bad young adult fiction
and pick nearly red apples in peace.

        As the evening news wrapped around the corner from the front room,
I stood in the doorway to bid you another farewell—
        forty miles home taunting me; the awkwardness of the moment
glancing off knick-knacks and dusty hardcover books.
        A pastel pink flat sheet draped loosely
over the formerly imposing frame
        that often commanded me to remove my knee from my sister’s head,
or to go back to sleep—as you laid in a bed unfurled early
        because celebration had left you tired.

My hesitation was not uncharacteristic,
       nor was your line of inquiry—a laundry list of trepidation
I’d spent twenty-three years shelving with the cynical roll of an eye:
       Do you have enough gas to get home? Do we have your address in Florida?
Are they treating you right down there? Is your sister riding with you?
       It was once again too easy to pass off such concerns
as grandfatherly overbearing: uneasiness I proudly avowed I would never harbor.
       And so I bid you an uncomfortable farewell,
assured you that I knew I had “a grandpa in Illinois that loved me.”

        Had I understood that this was it: the last time
your familiar apprehensions would be laid before me,
        I would’ve left my coat in the spare room for a few minutes longer—
lingering amidst the echoes of story hours touched with that Midwestern twang
        and desperate pleas for pre-bed Popsicles—
and fought the fear of letting our reservations bridge the gap:
        revealing we had more in common
than small mouths, relatives, or distaste for Grandma’s rhubarb pie.
        I would have knelt before your bed frame, ears at attention,
scribbling your how-to for the overprotective heart on the back of my hand.




                                            28
CORK JAZZ FESTIVAL


I.
Scores of musicians flood the terminal,
rubber lips chapped
from canned Transatlantic air
and ass-kicking embouchure.
Baggage carousels, graced by trombones,
garment bags bursting with shades of black,
and the occasional stand-up bass, twirl
in a whirring side-by-side harmony of mechanics;
as freckled youngsters whisper, wonder
where these smooth, chatting foreigners bought their shoes.
Every October finds rhythm and blues
beating on Cork City.


II.
Thirty million raindrops
from St. Peter’s Cathedral
and the Mainly Murder Booksellers,
I find myself forced to choose sides
in a war for my attention:
tenor sax or thunder claps. Chords
and crashes quiver down the alley, from the stage
to the crumbling yellow wall scratching my back,
my soaked frame shivering with the bass line.
I nudge a wet strand of hair from my cheek,
take another gloved sip to block out the cold,
another woolen swig to overlook solitude.
Were I to vanish between sets, it would be weeks
before anyone discerned where or in what I’d drowned.


III.
My favorite Irish vagabond is almost whisked away
by an ambulance in front of festival headquarters:
The Metropole Hotel.
Missing teeth barely visible through a fog
of heat and whiskey-sweet spittle, he croons
in a half moan, half laugh,
It’s a mean old world, tryin’ to get along all by yourself;
When you have a lotta bad luck, don't think you have it all by yourself.
Red and blue lights dancing on his hollowed face,
he bows solely through his eyebrows,



                                            29
a damp cigarette waving graciously from his uncoordinated smile,
lips twisted like a cockeyed G clef.


IV.
A duet between sirens and a faceless jazz quartet
drifts through the window I forgot I opened,
clashes with Cork 96 FM creaking from my kitchen,
masks the crash of the lo-ball I dropped on the foyer floor
by mistake. Slouched by the front door, I laugh until it becomes painful,
say a prayer for the handsome hardwood scratched by sterile glass,
clumsily grasp the most offensive shard in my hand,
and consider slicing my way into the flat below.
On this last festival night, I know I can’t dig a hole to China,
though precise geography eludes me and I can’t explain why;
but I can, if nothing else, greet my neighbor
with a frightened, sloshy smile
and sing the score of lonely abandon, hoping
he’ll pick up the harmony. Suddenly in tandem,
I’ll be obliged to finally play my part,
to make my presence known in this city
and follow all the cues,
to answer not to the bottle,
but to the stunningly expectant improvisation
of the others in this struggling band,
their hellcat snarls and steel reserve so much more impressive
than my unintentionally bloody fingertips.




                                           30
AMERICAN MENTHOL


The pub floors in Ireland are beer-baptized and wooden,
                cigarette butts skittering along the cracks
        like cancerous white ants named Consulate, Fusion—
and here I am longing for twenty Salem Lights,
                a new pack as green and as smooth as a U.S. dollar
        with its “menthol from nature,” glossy as their own print ads,
a cool inhalation you affectionately promised
                would murder me more quickly, no matter how fresh the smoke rings.

         The tobacco is coarser here in Cork City,
even thicker than the draughts and the accents,
                 and I fail to appreciate all three points of this nightlife trinity
         with equal consideration: just as long as it takes to inhale,
rattle, exhale, ash, and feign assimilation from my isolated barstool,
                 caught between foreign smiles, fiddles and harps,
         the Shamrock Rovers on TV. More than once, several pints in,
I’ve started to pivot— to ask you a question, point out a debatable haircut,
                 or share in a laugh from the gut—only to make a quick recovery,
         ground out a filter, throw a smirk to the top shelf, button up and skid home.

Still the smoking is the smallest part, and the burning green prairie grass
                 of my once-fresh lungs is nothing new. It’s the pass that’s lost, from you
         to me, the filter warm and moist from your lips
as we huddled in stocky maroon scarves under the streetlight,
                 cheeks flushed, boozy breaths clouding the frozen panorama,
         steel toes tapping to insure they were still there, quietly planning our escape.




                                             31
III. THE RETURN OF THE CONVICT




  32
THE LONE RANGER DINES AGAIN


At age four,
I refused to eat dinner without my mask—
         a standard issue Lone Ranger affair,
slick, black plastic with eyeholes and elastic twine,
                 a tiny molded bridge that nestled my as-yet inoffensive nose,
leaving the vacancy left by my two front teeth
         accessible for slurping kidney beans and oyster crackers.
The Lone Ranger only appeared
                 for my mother’s chili, a fiery stew saved for winter,
when the white shroud covered the far reaches of the backyard,
         the reservoir, and—once—my father’s decades old baseball glove,
treasured leather that would never recover
                 from three icy, wet months in the not-so wild,
a tattered eternal relic of my carelessness.
         Dining incognito, I cared not about appearance,
little for a milk moustache, less for a stowaway fleck of tomato in my hair.

Twenty winters later,
I sit in a restaurant with a napkin on my lap,
          uncomfortably shifting by candlelight,
playing leap frog with the silver. Slippery black high heels,
                  that even after years of use I still fear make me a giantess,
shred my Achilles as I flex my calf
          and stretch my toe to insure that my handbag
is still nuzzling a table leg and protecting
                  my compact, my lipstick labeled mauve amor.
I only order food that is easily dissected;
          small bits are best for bypassing lips and avoiding a smudge
or—worse—erasure, any chip in my facial façade.
                  The waiter reclaims our plates, and before our hollowed-out entrees
make it to the kitchen, I’m already in the ladies’ room,
          reapplying this, checking that, cursing it all,
searching the mirror for snowflakes and Tonto’s colorful pinto.




                                            33
THE TAVERN CLUB


My prize for enduring the sloppy flirtations of the bar back,
         into the Tavern on his night off, was that I was granted entrance
into the secret society of after hours regulars on only my third trip.
                 Full of hope, he strode across the scuffed, empty floor
and locked the five of us in. His tawny hair tucked
         beneath a navy blue Devil Rays cap, he was tanned and lean,
friendly if not inarticulate, with complete access
                 to the bevy of brown bottles beneath the bar.
That first kiss from the bottle of Lite
         so cold it bit my fingers, so free that all four dollars in my checking account
did a little dance at my branch across town,
                 quickly ended my disappointment over the fact
that my new club membership came without newsletter,
         photo ID, or double-secret handshake.

I arrived twenty minutes from last call,
                 having wandered there from another morose round of post-class cocktails
at a swankier bar near the phallic capitol building.
         Amidst my fellow writing students, my seemingly normal reactions
to things such as pennant races or last night’s American Idol results
                 were as easy to work into the conversation as
“Anybody wanna kill a hitchhiker?” or
         “Does this look infected to you?”
Those who persisted in constantly referring to themselves
                 as “members of the academy” instead of “broke-ass grad students”
caused me to chew my swizzle stick into a dagger,
         drink more than I should’ve, and pine for my friends 1400 miles away
that all got real jobs with cubicles and animated water cooler discussions
                 about Clay Aiken’s eyebrows. When a dark haired Ph.D.,
perhaps the proudest “member of the academy,”
         mispronounced “inhospitable” for the third consecutive time
during her monologue on the disadvantages of shopping at Governor’s Square,
                 the “black people’s mall,” it was all I could do
to not demonstrate the meaning of the word by ashing in her Merlot.

       An hour after the Tavern’s last call, the man I called Statler,
the same wisp of an old man that the bartender called Davy,
               challenged her to a wrestling match on the beer-stained dance floor.
He and his drinking buddy (Waldorf, by default)
       strongly resembled Jim Henson’s finest plush curmudgeons.
Bar Back put a dollar on Statler; I put one on the bartender.
               She had forty pounds on him, easy, at least eight of which
were her wild, auburn hair, two were her fuchsia lip liner.



                                              34
        Her pleasant manner, overly curvy body, and faded black T-shirt
failed to completely cloak her hardness.
                Three weekends earlier, as I met with an ex-boyfriend
turned uneasy friend for cheap whiskey after he got off work,
        I watched her bounce a pair of belligerent Clemson football fans,
each no less than six foot four, both fed by gridiron heartbreak and beer.
                Three weekends after my late night initiation,
the Tavern would be shut down for good,
        after the rumors that she and her boyfriend ran coke through the joint—
fortified by Bar Back’s 4 a.m. inquiry as to whether I liked to “party”—rang true.

                 While Statler and the bartender grappled and Bar Back officiated,
slapping the hardwood floor and goading the slight old man,
         I sipped domestic and bummed Winstons from Waldorf.
His silver pompadour glistening in the glow of the jukebox,
                 we spoke of the Midwest: my admission
that I was born and raised in Illinois immediately and inaccurately meant
         that I came from Chicago for the rest of our smoky conversation.
For when it comes to the Land of Lincoln,
                 there’s Chicago and there’s Downstate: a vast, uncharted terrain
supposedly dotted with cornstalks and Amoco stations
         that might as well be Indiana. As he waxed fondly and straightforwardly
over his upbringing in East St. Louis—Statler’s groans mixing
                 with Stevie Nicks’ goat-like rasp in the boozy sphere of rowdiness—
I felt at ease, with no anxious obligation to quote Annie Dillard.
         There was no quiz to come later; no gossip to be fueled
by the plebeian statements I may have made
                 about Lindsey Buckingham’s underrated, finger-picking guitar work.
Admitting that I ran with the academy, albeit a lap behind in the outside lane,
         would’ve burned my non-existent membership card in the Tavern Club,
leaving me again alone, attempting to fulfill coded expectations,
                 struggling to match signifiers with the signified,
praying I’d ordered the right drink, exercising restraint.
         While the members of the academy dreamt of quills, I won a dollar.




                                            35
SWEETHEART, YOU WON’T STAY FOR COFFEE


Imagine our traditional Christmas Eve lasagna slid from me to you,
as sparks from the table’s high-reaching red candles glance off ornaments

placed in the opposing china cabinet and blind my young cousin:
he having resurfaced, briefly, from a scavenging, shin-biting episode

below the dining room table. Beneath unruly eyebrows your eyes lock on his
and, squeezing my hand firm with a smile, you fear you’ve lost an aglet.

You’d never survive in this family where wits outweigh affections
and a carefully thrown verbal barb bleeds a hug to death. Obligatory compliments

to my mother, the disgruntled yuletide chef, are rendered helpless
as she deflects them into a basket of burnt-bottom rolls, focusing instead

on the twenty years that separate you from me. This actually being December,
me being the “May” in our romance can only poise you on the cliff—

readying you for a fall into the unrelenting pit of judgment that awaits
in a jagged landscape of almond crescent cookies, while Aaron Neville

croons the “Star Carol” from the kitchen counter and my Nonnie raves
about the pickled herring that, for the past twenty-four years, only she has eaten.

I’d cringe between courses, from croutons to coffee—-refrain from poking you
in your khaki thigh with my fork as you tug your chin and muse about collegiate

Christmases passed in Pensacola when I was still writing Santa in request of pogo balls,
popguns, and He-man figures with “judo chop action.” Napkin and hands

both folded in my lap, I’d plot a game plan for the subsequent midnight mass:
where I’d bruise my black cottoned knees cajoling clemency from our crowded pew—

seeking redemption for subjecting you to the inquisition of egg-nogged family members
and begging for forgiveness as I wrap our break-up in a bow and beat my mother,

my father, my sisters to the dish-drying punch—preventing the new year’s torn ego,
a face full of mashed potatoes, and a lap doused with scalding resolution.




                                             36
APARTMENT 90


I wondered if my bedroom window was open;
  it wasn’t, but the force of their quarrel caused
  my olive and khaki color-block drapes
to tremble like angry nerves of fabric.
         For the first time, the dialogue was audible:
a Fuck this and a Stupid that—a debate so eloquent
  that I assumed it was over a life-or-death issue
  like a scratched Duran Duran CD
or dry cleaning that was never picked up.
         Fuck you! “Rio” skips now, Stupid!

A humid Tallahassee curse has descended upon Apartment 90:
   all fat thunderclouds and barbed wire tongues.
   Tenants One and Two skipped town quick
after a three-day marathon of shouting that culminated
          in the sound of a mighty oak bureau crashing on the carpet.
It put me on alert for a futon to burst through my office ceiling
   and render my plastic plant shiny compost.
   The smell of tobacco suddenly drifting down from the deck above
at regular, frustrated intervals, Mr. and Mrs. moved out in separate cars:
          a matching His and Hers set of mobile belongings—paperback books
and boxed winter clothes—whisked away in the early evening quiet.

  Tenant Three lived alone and stomped boisterously.
  He was either Dutch or uncoordinated.
His anger can’t be proved by scientific means,
       but his bristled crew cut stood at perpetual attention,
seemingly full of secrets and repression.

  And now, Fuck this and Stupid that:
  the latest two actors in my sonic, warped production of Rear Window.
Who was he with last night? Why is she getting fat? Why can’t he put
        the toilet seat down?
Where are the oven mitts with the chickens on them
  that her mother sent? Though I slam my door and turn up my bass
  to issue passive aggressive warnings that I’m on the case, the answers will never come,
and Simon LeBon seems destined to spin in the parking lot,
scratched in a cryptic cloud of pissed-off exhaust.




                                              37
THE EARTH IS ON TIME


For close to thirty years
the world silently reaped the rewards
of a leap second,
a “One Mississippi” added each New Year’s Eve
to make official world time concur with
the Earth’s actual place in space,
as the planet slowed gradually
beneath its swelling population,
skyscrapers, and sport utility vehicles.

       In a phenomenon that has scientists puzzled,
       the Associated Press divulges,
       the Earth is right on schedule
       for a fifth straight year.

Some say it’s the tides
that stole from us extra opportunity
to phone our loved ones
or polish our silverware. Others
blame the Earth’s moody core
for this leisurely mounting time
that went over most of our heads—
even literally—
and affected things like
global communication
and air traffic control. Had I known
about such planetary pauses,
I would have planned accordingly:

       a second to rest,
       a second to appreciate someone’s thick skin,
       a second to retract malignant remarks,
       a second to rearrange my sock drawer.

While our orbit is now straight, I still wobble—
my mistakes too small
to influence climates and make snow in the tropics,
too tiny to start a vineyard in Greenland,
but enough to prove
how late I often am to get the joke,
especially now that the Earth is on time.




                                           38
BOMBS OF SENTIMENTALITY


Forgive me if a blunt “what?” is the best I can manage
                when you peer through to the backs of my eyes,
        your Southern sincerity bubbling up like magma.
Your Hallmark sentiments, though heartfelt, nauseate me:
                not due to drippy end rhyme or hand-painted sparrows,
        but because I am unarmed for any romantic combat
that doesn’t include arrows dipped in sarcasm;
                backhanded compliments; or a nervous, combustible laugh.

       Truth be told, our candlelit dinners have been too much
for me. When you muse about how my hair glows in waxed lighting
               and frames my face, it’s all I can do to refrain from
       setting my napkin on fire, just to create a diversion—
not because I don’t love you, but because this battle is all too real, and
               I’m not quite fond of me. Still, you’ve made it clear you’ll wait it out:
       you’ve brought a book to read, quarters for the pinball machine,
packed enough lunches to wait until I’m ready for monogrammed towels
               and a three-bedroom house in the Northeast with a Golden Retriever.

         And though I dodge your family planning with a smirk,
still, you persist: offering up names for our non-existent pooch,
                 while I stand firm that I’ll name our first child Truckstop.
         Asked if I want another cocktail, I say I do, I do, I do;
you tell me to save one of those for the altar. Your attack
                 is relentless and, because it is genuine, that much more severe.
         I’ve dug my trenches deep with doubt and sarcastic defenses,
and it’s only a moment before the bombs of sentimentality
                 blow me sky high, to overwhelmed bits—pieces of me scattered
         from the kitchen to the couch, and you there still smiling, dustpan in hand.




                                             39
THE (124 MILES WEST OF) INDIANAPOLIS 500


I was once legitimate and had a “real” job. I woke each day at 5 a.m.
        and wore a skirt. Only once did I make it all the way to the car
before realizing I had it on inside out,
        its side seam tag so close to being slammed in the car door
in a massive crunch of washing instructions, blue flowers on black,
        and humility, that I had to run the flight of stairs home and reverse it.

I commuted 100 miles round-trip, just shy of the Indiana border,
       five days a week for $12.50 an hour: sufficient cash for funding digital cable,
broadband internet, and enough cheap Early Times whiskey
       for my still blissfully undergrad best friend and I to wash away my memories
of a white-walled, shared storage room of an “office.”

        Early Times abandoned the glass handle of booze
in favor of a plastic flask with a hormone problem,
        and their breakable old format became a precious commodity
that even my boss recognized. He brought me a glass handle of the brown savior
        one Wednesday afternoon,
and it was all I could do to not open it up and play drinking games:
        Drink 1 for every buzz on the intercom,
        Drink 2 for every 100 pages copied and collated,
        Chug if an asteroid strikes the building and you get to go home early,
        pantyhose singed.

I aided the justice system, read the trial testimony
        of grizzled factory workers unknowingly infused with buckets of asbestos
by corporate America’s finest moneymongers.
        My eyes became trained to find product names, insulation and gaskets;
my already oversized pupils dilated into increasingly unaffected black saucers
        that were saved only by these wronged men’s off the cuff remarks:

        The various asbestos-related diseases
        all have latency periods.
        It doesn’t happen right away.
        You don’t open the box, get a whiff,
        and fall down.

        You have all the pictures up here of these people.
        Are these your grandchildren and your children?
                                              Yeah, except that deer.

        Gee, if I known you was going to be asking
        all these detailed questions



                                              40
        I would of paid more attention
       to life as I went through.

        Everyday the dead and dying complied graciously on the page
and I marked noteworthy passages between surfing the web for sports scores
        and reality TV’s latest oustings. Their honesty wasn’t remarkable,
just comic relief circulated around the office after another long day
        citing manufacturer references
and counting the crawling minutes in intricate tabletop displays of paper clips
         and homemade skeet shooting: Post-It clay pigeons and staple ammunition.
I stuffed all of the initialed boxes in the small firm’s mailroom
        with the best of these observations, those things the men paid attention to
as they went through. I ignored my own mailbox labeled “ER,” a brand
        that prompted “BJ” to ask if I chose that because it was my favorite TV show.
Shortly thereafter, I gave my notice.

         If the heroic path is marked by painful, rare lung diseases, squishy,
overfilled handkerchiefs, three-hole punches, hospital dramas on-screen and off,
         stealing pens, and money for the survivors, what’s 500 miles a week
in a V6 graduation gift or the unfortunate, early morning speeding ticket
         for almost-reckless driving in the greater, human race? If the spoils go
to the victor so briefly before their estate, I needed the time to build my empire,
         the time to pay more attention as I went through, time to stock my walk-in closet
full of tag-less formalwear, time to take more pictures, before I chugged the milk.




                                            41
TYRANNOSAURUS REX


I leap low and untrained—forehead first
into moderate like or lust,
occasionally into work that requires mocha pantsuits

I don’t own, or intricate knowledge of spreadsheets
I can navigate as well as a Jehovah’s witness does a strip club.
My prowl began with a pair of Conasaurs:

white canvas Chuck Taylor high top shoes
decked out with dinosaurs in colors appropriately primary.
Though undocumented, I ran faster and jumped higher

in those cretaceous kicks than I could in any others;
felt special after school, soaring over the uncoordinated neighbor boy,
two-toned basketball in hand, a hazel eye focused like a sniper

on his seven-foot rim. My rubber soles
were the last things onlookers reported seeing
before I left the atmosphere with a wave to my teammates

and a guarantee to Mom that I’d reenter
sometime before the streetlights came on,
in those now prehistoric afternoons of ambition.

My altitude declined steadily with each passing period:
Carboniferous, Triassic, menstrual, Permian,
8th period English next to Brad Weller, Jurassic,

until my laces finally tangled and I tripped into adulthood—
this terrain best suited for lumbering with all the finesse of a T. Rex,
arms too short for the body and all hope of balance extinct.




                                              42
MINTS ON PILLOWS


Creeping down Central Avenue
        in your black Camaro that always, inexplicably,
makes me yawn, it was that mural that put me off the jerky
        we picked up heading south from Lake City:
a goat, a rabbit, a chicken, a cow captured on the side of a brick building.
        They were lined up on the beach, happy in the face of slaughter,
sinewy, edible muscles shining beneath an equally matte finish sun
        on the Meat House of St. Pete. These poor painted creatures
bordered on overwhelming; so much barnyard fare about to be killed and eaten,
        their frozen acrylic smiles as genuine as your parents’
when you tell them you’re dropping out of college to become a juggler.

When it comes to you,
        it seems it's not so simple—no broad strokes
to answer why I want to bolt from the car at a stop sign,
        thumb my way home up I-75—though it appears the rearview mirror
is onto our game, warning me that your framed face
        may be closer than it appears. I, too, am reflected back:
        optimistically awaiting the butcher and a bigger thrill
than the workdays and nights in Tallahassee
        romanced via buttery, nuked popcorn and stale primetime television
that drain me to a simple epiphany: I want more.

Still, we excel at being weekenders:
        there's something about on-demand movies
and turn down service that reinvigorates
        our faltering, monotonous romance. Our actions,
our words, are far more perfect
        when they’re earning Hilton Honors points.
Mints on pillows are a prerequisite
        for mutual appreciation,
or love for a bumbling partner-in-crime,
        and so it seems our bags are perpetually packed:
Orlando, Jacksonville, Savannah, or now St. Petersburg.

Each time the engine starts our odometer kindly resets,
        so while paused at a red light in St. Pete,
fingering the power locks and clutching my purse,
        I can return your smile and relax,
advance the CD to Cousteau’s “Last Good Day of the Year,”
        and know that when Sunday comes and we’re again northbound,
both that grim mural and my disbelief in all things routine and ordinary
        will be again postponed, languishing on the other side of the road.



                                            43
IN SHORT ORDER


Four faces—illuminated solely by citronella candles,
        plastic fruit fairy lights and fireflies;
each is pleated but bright, all with the same
        slim upper lip and broad Cork County brow;
surrounded by a familiar captive audience.

Under the charm of an Oak Lawn sky, their stories,
        soaked in humidity, yet unburdened, fly—an arm
caught in the wringer, oranges catapulted
        through windows unopened after all,
and a birthday cake gone purple-frosted
        that led one great uncle to “quit the family”
for a disgruntled hour some fifty years ago.

Sinatra billows from garage-mounted speakers,
        crackling fresh from the Capitol years, and hides
beneath my lawn chair, an unobtrusive soundtrack;
        undeterred by the coarse teal crosshatch
christening the back of my thighs just below the khaki hem.

Tripping down the graveled alley, a pummeled Caddy
        transforms my great uncle’s autobiographical tale
of a clumsy boy making his bandaged First Communion
        into a biblical epic, as his voice must soar on whiskey wings
to overshadow the sound of a car seemingly old enough
        to have ferried Moses to his tablets.

Fetching another beer, I catch my sister’s eye
       and sink, sipping, to my haunches below the oak tree
she and I routinely stripped bare—using bark for “bacon”
       in our backyard Dirty Spoon, where the “eggs”
were never over that easy, burning on a rusty Radio Flyer.
       Her eyes break from our gaze and return to her watch.

In forty years time, where will we be
        without anecdotes or patience? Our pleats
will be shallow, our storytelling thin,
        if the compulsion to enchant wayward patrons
with half-cooked nostalgia and easily-digested discourse
        remains perpetually in short order.




                                            44
ON BEING A LADY


To find pre-cancerous cells there,
at my age—barely 25—
was something uncommon,
worthy of alarm.
My doctor believed that a mass that large
and of that severity
guaranteed that those cells’
badass older brothers
(those cells that have stolen my liver’s lunch money,
picked my heart last for dodgeball,
and wear letterman’s jackets)
were hanging out, as well,
just waiting to be sampled—
my doctor, who was also my mother’s doctor,
who, when I was too young to know
what cancer was,
I thought bore a striking,
square-jawed resemblance to Superman,
and who—in spite of my reservations
and overriding desire
for a Golden Retriever instead—
brought my sister Kait into the world.

I could forgive him for the lack of dog dishes
and games of fetch growing up,
but still I felt that cervical cancer
was to only follow statistics
and invade the wildly promiscuous,
and if not them,
those that steal dimes from the homeless
or kick three-legged puppies
while wearing impossibly pointed shoes
bought with money
that went to fund terrorist operations
targeting grammar schools and community theatres
in America’s heartland.
I thought the masked and easy
were to go under the knife, not me.

My greatest pre-surgical fear was not
death, damage, or a future full of miscarriages,
but rather that I could not wear make-up, jewelry,
or nail polish into the operating room.



                                            45
An pepperoni and onion pizza and general anesthesia
are an ill-advised cocktail:
that prohibition I understood completely.
I fear vomiting or its pal the flu
the way you fear robbery at gunpoint
or perhaps carbohydrates. But still…
if my Nonnie has taught me anything—
and my sister will back this up
(admittedly in a way that no Retriever ever could)—
it’s that a lady’s toenails,
under no circumstance,
should be viewed by others
without at least two coats of polish.




                                         46
THE BEAR


It’s been two years, and I’ve yet to meet your friends:
        two years of dating measured in movie ticket stubs,
the $2 top shelf special at Poor Paul’s, Mancala stones,
        lovemaking, and ten gallons of tropical fish in the corner
you refer to as our kids. The fish—Thunderbob and Spit,
        the three surviving orange guppies of the five you all named Jethro,
and the rest—consider us with equal regard, though I joke
        that they’re only mine when they’re swimming sideways or dead.
We’re a semi-aquatic, imaginary family: tight-knit,
        but existing only within the confines of my apartment.
Beyond the front door’s chipping eggshell paint, someone is hid from another:
        those friends or me. The fish are indifferent either way,
as long as the blood worms keep coming and the water remains clear.

I grew up without an imaginary friend. The closest I’ve come
       to such a feat of social creativity is Teddy (né Edward X. Bear),
a mass of ursine cotton against whom I won many a grade school game
       of Monopoly, and who was once reupholstered by my grandma.
He took the needle like a soldier and came out of surgery
       so fresh, so new, with a youthful body that would impress
even the most talented of Southern California’s plastic surgeons.
       Though I no longer insist that when I’m gone he and the stuffed owl
hanging out in my office spring to life and talk politics,
       he is very much real—forever the agreeable man in my life.
He’s practically a mainstay in my bed, cast aside only
       when I anticipate that you and I will rumple red plaid sheets.

Still, you’ve met him—you know with a laugh that he’ll always be
         the man on my mattress as long as you continue to sleep on the couch,
snoring at decibels that shake the paintings and framed photos
         on the wall. You know he’s real and that I’m unashamed
to be twentysomething with a teddy bear, that I want you to meet
         all of my friends, stuffed or otherwise, that I won’t ignore you.
And so you jokingly call him just “The Bear,” refusing to acknowledge
         his place either, and feign jealousy at our twenty-five year relationship.
He was bought just before my birth and shares my secrets fittingly,
         knowing that for all the times you regard the both of us as just pretend,
one of us has acted out accordingly, and the other was tossed
         into the butterfly chair again, plush hands over his black button eyes.




                                              47
SWF SEEKS CHRIST, DRINKING BUDDIES


Sitting in the cheap seats, two pews from the stained glass exits,
        I detect the pastor’s Irish accent,
wait to hear it leap in its natural, shamrocked loveliness—
free from the monotonous thunder and booming theatricality
        that come with leading a parish in an offertory,
consonants bouncing off the cathedral rafters
like errant communion wafers.

I am a counterfeit disciple; no one suspects
        that my rekindled reasons for worship are motivated by loneliness;
that part of me wishes I’d been raised a Baptist,
        solely because their church down the road hosts a “Singles Service;”
that when we shake sweaty hands and bid each other a Peace be with you,
        I’m probably locking eyes too long, choking down all of this barren space.

New in town, my faith in the munificence of the unknown
        is renewed, for everyone in Tallahassee is alien—
the furrowed brows of those in prayer are tanner here,
they’re wearing shorts (a faux pas of worship in my Midwestern family’s eyes),
probably praying for benevolent weather for tomorrow’s trip to the beach.
        No matter what our kneeling intent, the silence is overwhelming; I pray
for my Nonnie’s health, and that one of the altar boys will turn on a television,
my preferred home remedy for drowning out an empty apartment’s surly echoes.

I seek soothing, continuity from the Monsignor,
        but know by the Eucharist that reasons for uprooting,
for starting over, will never arrive.
He’s preached to us the benefits of hospitality like Captain Kirk
        (had he been from Kilkenny in the southeast of Ireland)
explaining the virtue of lager-addled community
to a severely hearing-impaired Uhura.

Speech scattered, much like my faith,
       he starts and stops at points most convenient.
And in every overplayed breath that he takes—
pounding home          points         from the    gospel with        pregnant        pauses
and wrinkled hands clasped to his robes,
       I feel new to the world again and perhaps overdressed,
in somber, immaculately pressed black slacks and a sky blue button down shirt:
an ensemble I’m positive no one has noticed.




                                             48
BOXES


We all live in boxes—
some substantial and sturdy,
surrounded by lush lawns
or landscaped yards
sprinkled with technicolor bicycles:
cast aside by children
still young enough to believe
that the ball-hoarding witch on the corner’s
hideous lawn gnomes
spring to life after nightfall.

Others wilt under escalating rent,
dirty dishes and take-out,
ceilings vibrating beneath feuding spouses,
as the interior cries for repairs
and the neighbors’ cat scratches itself
on the doormat, provoking sneezes
and dreams of razor wire.

Next door buckles beneath felt rollers
bearing a matte finish paint,
a muted tone the first of many
mutual agreements made by newlyweds
whose forceful lovemaking echoes
through the air ducts
and sounds painful.

Mine is slight and whitewashed,
walls creeping inward in your wake,
despite my attempts to expand—
to blast out my shower tiles,
crack the spout,
tear up my carpet tack by tack,
and rid this small space of your footprint.




                                               49
SUZANNE PLESHETTE


Each night before I go to bed,
        I pray that I will wake up tomorrow
next to Suzanne Pleshette. Not out of any
                unexplored homoerotic obsession,
but because it will mean my time in the South
        has been nothing but a bad dream.
She’ll turn to me in her periwinkle blue pajamas
                and I’ll explain to her this nightmare I’ve had:
this credit debt, those cancer scares;
        maybe I’ll even throw in Peter Scolari for good measure.
Back in our Chicago apartment, safe beneath our white duvet
                with criss-crossing black stripes,
I’ll blame my quarter-life crisis
        on the Floridian humidity and palm fronds. I’ll divulge
how each morning on the way to campus
                I longed to rear-end the erratic driver in front of me—
traveling ten miles below the posted speed limit
        in his black Maxima with the “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter” sticker—
to punctuate my anxiety over the future,

                or the fact that my parents paid my rent:
too much dough for a slowly dilapidating apartment
        that I could never have afforded on my teacher’s salary,
in a complex where the amenities included
                a hot tub sputtering with tropical bacteria
and a dispirited laundry room that forced me to dry my panties on the porch.
        I’ll confess that I chose my men poorly,
dating for two years a mendacious man nearly twice my age
                with half my common sense,
who regularly abandoned me on the weekend
        to wrestle in amateur competitions in Georgia
in a mask and unflattering black tights.
                She’ll understand my shame
when I divulge that my greatest pleasure in life
        came from lip-synching Robbie Williams’ “Me and My Monkey”
to imaginary ovation in my living room, drunk again at 4:00 a.m.
                while my underwear dried outside in the dark.
She’ll tell me that I need to watch what I eat before bed,
        and that my twentysomething fears are nothing new. Her gruff,
midnight voice will mumble something appropriately sit-com about failing
                in order to grow, and I’ll tell her she should wear more sweaters.




                                             50
                             BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH



Elizabeth Wylder was born in Bloomington, Illinois, on February 6, 1979. She received a
B.A. in Rhetoric from the University of Illinois in 2001, and also studied at University
College Cork, Ireland. Her humor essays have appeared in The Daily Illini, and her
poems have appeared in journals such as Colere, Spire, Poetry Motel, and The Great
American Poetry Show. She is currently completing her M.A. in English at Florida State
University.




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