29 January, 2010

(One Of) The Biggest Lie(s) Of All [for my brother on his birthday]

There’s no way around – one day
you wake up and the
hangover is heavier than it used to be
and the hills you walk up
are steeper than yesterday
and the music is louder
and the news is a repeat
from last season
and all those little things
that never bothered you
make you want to scream. Your hair
is thinner and your gut
is thicker and your patience
is nothing but a memory. Even
the people you love frustrate you;
you can’t understand them and you suspect
they can’t understand you either;
but you embrace that guilty feeling
and go on loving them
because you know
when the morning comes
while your eyes are changing
and the sun through the window
is too bright,
the way those eyes see you
does not.

And that’s the only thing
that’ll get you through the day.

25 January, 2010

Late Night Early Morning

This is one of those houses where
You hear ghosts whispering
In the water pipes. Late at night
An old woman speaks through
The drops and the drips
Echoing under the kitchen sink
And old men moan in the wind
Clattering against the porch storm windows.
These nights on the tundra
Are long and still and silent;
Semi-melted snow glazed over with
A fresh layer of frozen rain
Is all that remains
Of the storms that blew through today.
The cats uncoil in their warm corners,
Stretch, and fall back asleep.
Sitting in my chair, hoping for dreams
I can hear you in bed, moaning
The way you do when you are dreaming
And speaking to the ghosts
Who whisper quaint secrets
In your left ear at 2 in the morning; and
Though you will not remember them they will
Leave you dimes to find in odd places
As proof of their presence. As I
Nod off, I think I hear another salt truck;
But it is only
The old man on the porch stomping his boots
To remind me he is there and that
Snow will need shoveling
In the morning. Tomorrow,
The mail carrier will run late and the letters
In the local papers will outline opinions
Memorized from pews on the previous
Sunday morning. All the talk
In the restaurant on Main Street
Will center around fresh gossip,
The government, and the odd apathy
Of visiting grandchildren. Later in the day,
Down the street in the local bar, drunken farmers
Will talk of planting and shrinking subsidies
And make fun of their wives –each dreaming of when
Her breasts were firm
And the ground not so unyielding.
Then they will go home to fall asleep
In worn out recliners, lulled to black and white dreams
By the same whispers
That are keeping me awake tonight.

19 January, 2010

Pendleton Underground: Part 7 of 7

Linda came home and found me muttering in the dark. When she switched on the lamp, the illumination was blinding.

“I’m glad you were able to have a good time tonight,” she said. She wanted to sound cross, but was too tired to really pull it off. I tried to apologize, but she went into the bedroom before I could muster the words into a cohesive sentence. Oh well. There was always tomorrow. There’s more than one way to say you’re sorry and I’ve discovered most of them. When you spend most of your life (it seems) apologizing, you find ways to get creative.

She walked back out of the bedroom wearing her favorite pajama pants – the pink ones (she insisted they were peach) with the Rosie the Riveter print, and one of the t-shirts she got when she joined a Smoking Cessation Program. The t-shirt was white with NO SMOKING ZONE printed on the chest in black capital letters. The t-shirt – along with the same exact t-shirt except the message was in Spanish instead of English – and a truck load of free Nicotine gum she couldn’t use because it raised her blood pressure went a long with membership. I never said anything, but I always wondered if the meetings went the way AA meetings went in the movies and on television. Did she have to stand up and proclaim “Hi, my name is Linda and I’m a smoker.”? Did they hold hands and chant the Serenity Prayer? I had often thought of asking her, but I didn’t want to sound unsupportive. I started smoking outside instead.

Linda sat down and lit a cigarette; the t-shirts lasted longer than the group, which had lost funding and had to disband two months before.

“Kind of defeats the purpose doesn’t it?” I asked, nodding to her t-shirt.

“You should appreciate the irony,” she said.

I didn’t answer.

“How much have you had to drink?”

I shrugged.

“What’s wrong?”

“What makes you think something’s wrong?”

“I can tell,” she blew out a trail of smoke and rolled her eyes. “I can always tell. Don’t you have to teach tomorrow?”

Ugh. “Yeah.”

“You’re gonna hate yourself in the morning.”

I already hated myself, but there was no point in saying so. She knew that already.

“What’s wrong?”

So I told her about my evening; about Red calling and informing me of Pendleton’s death; about how he’d been dead a month and nobody saw fit to tell me; how the sound of Red’s obligatory tone pissed me off down to my bones; how I wanted to yell and scream and punch something really really hard. I hadn’t thrown a punch in more than a decade; but I knew that if Red or Brenda were standing in front of me, I could’ve beaten either of them into a bloody fucking pulp. I told her how I could close my eyes and imagine their faces mashed and smashed and pouring with blood, and how thinking about it made me laugh.

But Linda knew it didn’t mean anything. She knew it because I knew it. “I can’t believe Brenda would keep something like that from us,” Linda said. Though by her tone, she was clearly not too surprised.

“I should call the bitch,” I growled. “I should call that fat inbred cunt and tell her what I really think about her.”

“She probably already knows what you think about her,” Linda said. “Besides, that wouldn’t help anything.”

She was right. As usual. The last time we’d seen Brenda was right before we left the hospital after Pendleton’s surgery. He’d come out of it okay, and there was no reason for us to stay. Brenda had been polite; conciliatory even. She asked if I liked teaching. She asked if I was still writing. She gave Linda a disingenuous hug and said, “Don’t be strangers.”

“I should call Red back,” I said. “Tell HIM what I think.”

Linda stood up and moved next to me on the love seat where I was slouched. “Don’t,” she said. “You’ll regret it tomorrow.”

“Doubt it.”

“He didn’t give you a reason?”


“For not telling you sooner?”

“Not one that matters. Not one that explained anything. The lack of clarity would’ve pleased Pendleton.”

“Don’t do that,” she said. “Don’t take it out on him, either. Then you’ll REALLY feel bad tomorrow.”

“Well, he’s not here for me to take it out on,” I said. “What the fuck ELSE am I supposed to do?”

“Did Red say where they buried him?”

I knew the place; Pendleton took me there once on one of his junk jaunts. It was a small cemetery in a small town along the river in Kentucky, where he was born. Both his parents were going to be buried there, and so was he. It was the town he’d lived the first nine years of his life in before his old man sold the farm and moved to Cincinnati. In the narrative of his life, he’d been a happy, normal kid until he turned nine. And he liked the symmetry of knowing he’d end up there in the family plot.

“Do you want to cry?” Linda asked.

I wanted to cry, but we both knew I wasn’t going to. “It won’t do any good.”

“It might.”

“Fuck that.”

She sighed and put her arm around me. She let me lay on her. She was warm and safe and loving. She ran her fingers through my hair.

“You shouldn’t drink when you’re upset. It doesn’t help.”

“Nothing helps. Nothing matters.”

“Some things matter.”

I knew she was right; but I wasn’t about to say anything. She let me lay on her until I started to pass out. I didn’t remember going to bed; but the next morning when the alarm went off, that was where I woke up, with Linda laying next to me, holding my hand.

13 January, 2010

Pendleton Underground: Part 6 of 7

I’ve always hated the smell of hospitals. The particular odor of death, urine, and bleach that’s unique to all hospitals and nursing homes fills me with what I can only describe as preternatural dread.

“We have to go,” Linda told me. “We really SHOULD go.”

“Is it a ‘have to’ or is it a ‘should do’ kind of thing?”

“Don’t be that way.” She rubbed my shoulder and kissed my cheek. “If you don’t go and something happens you’ll regret it.”

I couldn’t argue with her; but part of me still wanted to. It’s hell sometimes when a woman knows you well enough to make you do what you really need to do but don’t want to do.

We’d gotten a call from Red. At least half the time I just didn’t pick up the phone when the caller ID flashed his number; mostly he called when he wanted to complain. Sometimes he called to brag – but that was rare. Our conversations never lasted more than a few minutes because I always ran out of things to say. This time I answered because I was in a particularly good mood. I’d picked up a couple of classes at a community college and was bringing in a little money for a change; Linda was still working too much overtime, though, and I was looking around for other opportunities. I’d also had some luck publishing – a poem and short story were going to be published in two different small journals with an even smaller distribution. There was no money involved, of course; but it was nice to be noticed and appreciated, even if it was only by a few people.

Red’s call sucked all the air out of my lungs and all the good energy out of the room. He called to tell me Pendleton was in the hospital, that the doctors weren’t optimistic. Surgery would definitely be involved and because of all his health problems – high blood pressure, bad heart, kidney and liver problems (a side effect of the blood thinner) – one tiny problem and Pendleton wouldn’t wake up.

“You should be here,” Red told me. He was barely holding himself together. “In case… something… happens.”

It took us two hours to get there, driving at night in late October rain. Linda drove because I don’t like driving at night. When we got to the hospital, Red met us in the lobby and took us up to the ICU waiting room. It was full of exhausted, worried people living on vending machine coffee and bad cafeteria food. I didn’t see Brenda, but Red told us she’d gone home for a change of clothes and would be back.

“We should wait,” he said, “until she gets back before we try and see him.”

“Have you seen him?”

Red nodded.

“How’d he look?”

Red shrugged, trying to be unemotional and manly. He was trying not to cry.

“Can’t we just see him now?” Linda asked. “There’s no harm in seeing him now.”

Red sighed and nodded. He was being very solemn. “You need to prepare yourself,” he intoned. Like a fucking undertaker, I thought. “He looks… ah... different… from the… last… time… you… saw him.”

I wanted to tell Red to shut the fuck up and cut out the dramatics. I wanted to tell him I wasn’t some dumb ass kid who’d never seen an ICU or visited someone on the edge of death. I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t the pussy standing in the middle of the waiting room crying. Mostly, though, I think he was talking to himself; so I didn’t say either of those things. His calling me was simply a courtesy – one that Brenda probably hadn’t agreed to, but Red had convinced her that Pendleton would want to see me. Linda took my hand and gave it a squeeze; she knew exactly what I was thinking and was telling me it would be okay.

I found out later that he’d been in the hospital for three weeks. That was when I figured out that calling me wasn’t a reaction; it was an afterthought. I was an afterthought. I’d been out of the loop for so long that it was only Red’s sense of propriety and obligation that prompted his call. For some reason, that hurt more than the possibility that Pendleton might die and leave his bitch of a wife in charge of his memory.

Truth is I knew my exclusion was my fault. When Linda and I moved out of the cabin, I cut off all contact with Pendleton and Brenda. If there’s one thing I can do well, its hold a grudge. And hold one I did. I still did. This has been called different things over the years; my parents, friends, ex-girlfriends, my ex-wife and my ex-mother-in-law all called it stubbornness. I was too bullheaded. I was too drunk. I was too deluded. I was too proud to admit when I was wrong. I was too arrogant to consider the possibility that I might be wrong. About something. About anything. About everything.

What the hell do they want from me? I thought. I’m here. Linda and I came here and now I have to stand here and listen to Red tell me to ‘Prepare myself.’ What did he think I was doing all the way there in the car? Singing show tunes? Linda must’ve felt my muscles tighten, because she latched onto my arm and wouldn’t let go. If ever there was a woman whose love I didn’t deserve, it was hers. Maybe I wasn’t a nice guy; maybe I drank a little too much and maybe I was a stubborn son of a bitch. But Linda loved me. She understood me. Even if Red, Brenda, and Pendleton had their little goddamn sewing circle, I had Linda. The only bad part of that deal was that Linda had me.

Red was still dragging his feet when Linda asked him again if we could go back and see Pendleton. He kept talking about stupid shit. Cars and his job and his soon-to-be ex-wife and how she was using the kids against him. He made a joke about the cafeteria food and bitched about having to go outside to smoke. He told off-color jokes about some of the nurses. Red was always good at small talk; he could talk for hours and not say anything worth remembering. I was never good at small talk. Attempting it was torture. In most social situations I came off awkward or weird. First impressions have never been my forte. It wasn’t unusual for me to enter a light conversation and end up taking it somewhere serious. For years people told me I needed to relax and develop a sense of humor.
Pendleton always understood that about me. He didn’t mind when I didn’t talk, or when I inevitably led the conversation into some serious or odd direction. “If you’re going to talk,” he told me, “it ought to be something important, anyway. There’s too much static that passes for conversation.”

When I asked to marry his daughter, he eyed me carefully. It was an uncomfortably long silence. I’d expected him to smile and be happy about it. My family was in a state of shock, which wasn’t surprising; but her mother had been thrilled. Looking back, I realize she was hastening the union, almost from the beginning. She needled and prattled on about us, talked about us like we were already married. She used to let me spend the night when she knew there was more than sleeping going on in her daughter’s tiny back bedroom. I had more or less extricated myself from one family and inserted myself into another. They attended my high school graduation. They took me to college. I used to sneak back and visit without telling my family. I skipped out on holidays to be with them as much as I could. When Pendleton’s daughter graduated from high school, I transferred to her university to stay with her. We’d been attending the same university for a semester when her mother bought up (in the guise of a joke) the idea that we could get more financial aid if we got married. My ex kept saying, “We’re getting married ANYWAY, right? What’s the difference if we get married now or four years from now?”

Finally, after staring at me for what seemed like forever, Pendleton asked, “Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

“I think I do.”

He shook his head. “Is this what YOU want? Are you sure?”

I told him it was and he nodded his consent. Six months later I was his son-in-law. A year and half later, she moved out. A month after that, he moved in.
Red was stalling, trying to keep us waiting until Brenda got there. But when Linda mentioned it for a third time, Red looked at his watch and nodded. I noticed the hint of resignation, but didn’t say anything. Brenda would not be pleased. He led us through the doors that led to where the patient rooms were. It wasn’t a private room. I guess it was the poor man’s ICU; but the other beds were empty. Pendleton was hooked up to monitors in both arms and an oxygen machine. I noticed the piss and shit bags on the side of the bed with tubes disappearing under the sheet. His breathing was labored. His skin was so gray that it seemed almost translucent under the dim light above his bed. His hair and beard were long, mostly gray, with twisted strands of white. His eyes were puffy and his lids were closed, like he was thinking.

“Look,” Red said to him. He talked to Pendleton in that loud voice people use with the very sick, the very old, and with retarded kids. “Look who’s here.”

Pendleton opened his eyes; it took him a couple of seconds to focus. Was that surprise I saw spread across his face? Or was it pain? Maybe he farted.

“Hey,” he huffed.

“Hey,” I answered.

Linda smiled and touched his hand. “How are you feeling?” She spoke to him like we were sitting around the kitchen table playing cards. Such a sweet woman; she was always good at knowing how to talk to people. I was trying not to look at all the tube and block out the monitor sounds and keep myself from puking because that smell – that fucking hospital smell – had permeated the inside of my mouth, nose, and throat. Linda made more small talk and flirted with him in the innocent and adorable way she used to – which wasn’t all that different from the way she talked to little old men. Red stood there, arms folded, feigning machismo and still trying not to cry. I stood there, waiting.

I didn’t have to wait long. We weren’t there five minutes when Brenda’s heaved her way in. I didn’t think it was possible for someone that big to get even bigger. When she entered the room, it was clear from her body language who was in charge. She squinted at Red, who moved out of her way. She approached the bed, put her bible down on the tray next to the water he couldn’t drink and the food he didn’t want, and then she leaned over Pendleton and kissed him on the forehead like she was marking her territory. This is mine. She was wearing a small silver cross pendant around her neck; I’d seen it advertised in late night commercials; it had a gem in the center that, if you looked through it, you could see the Lord’s Prayer. That was when I noticed the framed picture of Jesus on the bedside table; it was one of those paintings where he looks like he was born to an upper class family in Connecticut.

“You can pray if you want,” Brenda said. “Everything helps.”

I didn’t answer. I hadn’t prayed in years and I wasn’t about to start at the behest of a church channel watching cunt. I wasn’t about to appeal to her god or her Anglo-Saxon savior.

“How you doing?” I finally asked him. “The nurses treating you nice? I guess with all these tubes, that limits your ability to harass them.”

Brenda shot me a hateful glance, Red held his breath, and Linda shook her head. Pendleton chuckled and coughed.

“I’m … ok…” Pendleton breathed. “I’m…”

“Of course he’s ok,” Brenda finished. “We’re just waiting for them to come and take him for surgery.” She looked over at Red. “I kind of thought you’d get here after it was over.” She went over everything the doctors had told her with the accuracy of a tape recorder. His kidneys were on the verge of failure. His heart lining was thin. His intestines were in knots. They were going to change his meds. “Gawd willin’,” she said, “he’ll be around for another 50 years.”

The sickness and Brenda’s voice were getting to me. I needed to smoke a cigarette. My stomach was turning and I was sure my complexion was going green.

“Do you want to pray?” Brenda asked again. This time she was clearly talking to Linda more than me. Linda wasn’t anymore of a believer than I was. She was about to answer, and I was curious about what she’d say, when the nurse came and told us we all needed to leave so they could prepare him for surgery. Brenda kissed Pendleton on the forehead again. Red wiped his eyes. Linda took my hand and led me out of the room. When Red and Brenda walked out, Linda and I followed him through the labyrinth of pastel walls and ugly floor tile to the outside lobby, where we could smoke and not talk about the dying man upstairs. I smoked slowly, trying to prepare for the long night ahead.

11 January, 2010

Value-Added Tax

“How much you lookin’ for?”

Not even a Hello, or a Hi how you doing. The fat man behind the counter of the Maxed Out Pawn and Retail shop wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at the guitar I’d come to pawn. It was a left-handed folk-style acoustic, and I’d been lugging it around from place to place for 15 years. The last time I actually played the thing had been maybe 10 years before and even then it was simply because I was bored and just picking around. No particular tune; I had hadn’t even looked at music in so long I wasn’t sure I remembered how to read it.

I knew the fat man was the manager because the other two lackeys deferred to him when I offered them my guitar, along with some other things I didn’t need anymore: some DVDs; a few video games; a PS2 with two memory cards; a coffee grinder; a portable radio. It was time to move and I needed some more cash to make that happen; the job I’d gone to Arizona for had run out and it was time to get before things got worse. The business cards next to the register were engraved with the fat man’s name: Abe Azumouthe, Manager. He was bald with a comfortable man’s paunch and a neatly trimmed salt and pepper Fuck You goatee that barely disguised his lack of a chin. His eyes were heavy lidded and dark and his name made me think of an open air market in Tangiers, though I had never been there in my life.

“70 bucks,” I answered, trying to sound confident. After all, it WAS a left-handed guitar; 20 years ago it had cost me almost twice as much as the right-handed version of the same guitar. I knew it wasn’t a Name Brand and that I wouldn’t get what I knew it was worth; so I lowered my expectations to what I thought was a reasonable price. I tried to meet his gaze and show him I was somebody worth taking seriously, but he never once looked me in the eye. He wasn’t avoiding me so much as refusing to acknowledge my physical presence.

He arched his left eye-brow a little, but he didn’t let go of the guitar. “70?” He shook his head. “For a used Korean-made acoustic?”

Fuck. What did he know about value? So what if it was a Korean-made guitar? Brand new that guitar was 200 bucks; and yes, it had some wear and tear, but looking at some of the other instruments he had for sale, my guitar was in as good a shape as any of those. The problem was I looked desperate; there I was, lugging a bunch of shit into his store and it was crystal fucking clear that I needed the money. It was close to Christmas, and I thought maybe that might inspire a little empathy on his part; but it was nothing doing. Good ol’ Abe Azumouthe didn’t give a shit about Christmas, me, or the fact that he could charge three times what he paid me just because it was (after all) a left-handed acoustic. Maybe if he’d been a lefty, he would have understood how rare it is to find anything made for us; scissors don’t work. School desks are always backwards. Doors always open the wrong direction. Erasable ink always smudges. Even spiral back notebooks are made wrong when you’re a lefty. And some desperate left-handed bastard would walk into his store, see my guitar, and pay whatever he had to pay. Just because. Just like I had.

His two lackeys – who looked like they worked there to get good deals on pawned instruments and studio equipment – didn’t look at me either. They were pawing through the rest of the things I brought. I looked at them. Come on, I thought. You guys know how difficult this is; you know it’s worth more than what I’m asking.

“60.” I thought if I came down, I’d look reasonable. Ok, so I wouldn’t get what I wanted; but I figured I could get something – enough to get me where I needed to go. I still tried to look him in the eye, and he still denied my existence while he ran his sausage fingers up and down the fret board and along the body. Him doing that gave me the willies; it made the hairs stand up on my neck and made me a little stick to my stomach.

It hadn’t been an easy decision to sell the guitar. I deliberated for a week, but I had been thinking about it for more than a year. I mean, it wasn’t like I still PLAYED the thing. I hadn’t played the guitar seriously since I discovered I lacked not only the talent, but the long fingers that make for a kick-ass guitarist. I could pick around on it okay; I had a bit of an ear for music, but was by no means a prodigy. And since I’d been (un)fortunate enough to actually be around people who not only had the raw talent, but they had the KNACK for it – I understood all too well what my father had tried to tell me when I first told him of my intention to be a musician. A rock star, I told him. I actually told the old man I want to be a rock star. He didn’t laugh; that wasn’t his way. But he did tell me he didn’t think I could do it. That was the first time he’d ever told me there was something I wasn’t good enough to do; and I never really forgave him for it, even after I stopped playing and carried it around – some memento mori of a dead dream.

The fat man came back with his offer. “20.” His fat lips wrapped around the number like one of the expensive fat-cat cigars he probably smoked when he wasn’t ripping people off. The bastard was waiting for me to answer the insult; his lackeys were busy playing one of the video games I’d brought – one with an orange bandicoot trying to collect magic icons to save the world. That had been one of the few games my daughter liked playing when she used to visit; now she was too busy on the other side of the country with high school and a predatory looking boyfriend who tried to talk to me on the phone once. He asked me my name, like we were going to be friends. “My name is Rhea’s Dad.” For some reason, both he and my daughter found my answer hilariously funny.

I wanted to rip the plump  lips off ol' Abe's face and ask him how much he’d give for them. I tried another tactic instead. “It’s a LEFT-HANDED guitar. They’re pretty rare. Most people just re-string a right-handed guitar and end up destroying the bridge. 50 bucks.” After all, I told myself, money is money. All I needed was enough cash to get my ass out of the desert outpost that was Phoenix, Arizona. The land of strip malls and strangled palm trees had lured me with the promise of a job – a job dependent on the ballooning real estate economy. Phoenix was the fasted growing city in the country, and people were talking about it growing beyond Maricopa County and stretching as far north as Flagstaff and as far south as Tucson. People were moving in; houses were being built. People moved their families and those families had kids who needed teachers at state schools with an almost affordable in-state tuition.

When the balloon burst, the fall out wasn’t immediate. It started with small budget cuts: limiting printer paper and freezing pay rates. Then came furloughs. Then pink slips. The university let the part-timers go first, and then increased our class sizes. There was talk about increasing course loads, cutting back the pay. There was talk of limiting our contracts to a semester by semester basis. Then the talk stopped and these things happened – all while the department chair went on sabbatical and the university President received $10,000 bonuses for saving the university money. I decided to get out before the balloon burst in my face.

The fact fucker shook his roly-poly head, all while still not looking directly at me. Now he was looking THROUGH me like I wasn’t even there, while his sausage fucking fingers fondled my guitar like a child molester on holiday in an elementary school playground. Watching him touch the fret board gave me the willies; the hairs on my neck stood on end and I was getting sick to my stomach. I imagined popping his pudge encased head like an engorged zit. It was less than he deserved.

The lackeys had moved on to trying out a different video game – this one was a game where you car-jacked people and got points for killing cops and committing various crimes. That, beer, and pizza had pretty much gotten me through graduate school. The lackeys were laughing at how hokey the graphics were. I wondered what kind of car ol’ Abe Azumouthe drove. There was a brand new Land Rover parked out front; maybe that was his. After I popped his head like a zit, I could steal his Land Rover and drive my ass back east instead of taking the bus. All I’d have to do is change license plates every so often, and then I could ditch it somewhere in Oklahoma.

“45.” I was getting desperate.

“25.” He was losing patience with me; I could tell. He wasn’t fondling the guitar anymore and his tone, instead of sounding apathetic and heartless, was starting to sound insulted. Like he was saying You wanna come into MY store and get me to over pay for your junk? You’re the loser here; you’re the one who has to sell your shit ‘cause you need the money. You’re a bum and you want me to PAY you for being a bum?

“Come on,” I resigned. “How about 35? You know you’re going to sell it for five times that anyway.” As I looked at him, I imagined him turning into a giant cockroach. I hated cockroaches, ever since I saw those fat water roaches down in New Orleans, a strolling the sidewalks like they owned the place. As far as I could tell, they served no purpose at all. I tolerated most bugs. Flies. Spiders. Even Mud daubers, bees, and those annoying cicadas that come out every 17 years in Cincinnati. But a roach was a useless, filthy bug. And, as far as I could tell, so was Abe Azumouthe.

I took a breath and waited, preparing my next attack. I knew I wasn’t going to be walking out with anywhere near the amount of money I needed; but I wanted him to understand. I wasn’t even sure why I thought it was important he understand. But I thought maybe, just maybe, if I explained that the guitar – my guitar – was the first thing I’d ever bought with my own money. That I spent a summer working a shit job for a grocery store manager who was an even bigger fascist fuck than he was, and that I made weekly payments for 3 months until I was able to get the thing in my hands. That everytime I went to make a payment, the music store owner let me see and touch the guitar – though never for more than five minutes and never if there was another customer in the store. That the guitar – my guitar – had come to symbolize the silence that fell between me and my dad. That the silence that never lifted, even when he was in the hospital ICU dying (because I had forgotten how to talk to him), with my mother spending nights in chair next to his bed, trying desperately to talk him into being healthy again. That I was never able to apologize or tell him he was right. That even if he was still alive, I probably wouldn’t have apologized anyway, regardless of how much I wanted to.

“30 bucks,” Abe Azumouthe proclaimed. “The most I’ll go is 30. Take it or leave it.”

Sigh. “I’ll take it.”

The lackeys gave me another 30 for the other stuff I’d brought. I wasn’t in any mood to argue. I just wanted to get the hell out of there. The manager had moved on. He was talking to a customer, trying to sell him a pink bicycle for his daughter – a Christmas present. His tone was jovial, and he looked the man straight in the eye.

I signed the receipt and another form acknowledging that none of the stuff I’d brought in was stolen. Then I had to stamp it with my forefinger using one of those inkless stamp pads like they use in banks sometimes for people trying to cash an outside check. It wasn’t as humiliating as being fingerprinted – I knew the difference from a run-in with the police in Lexington, Kentucky – but it was just as dehumanizing. It’s so easy to boil people down to their finger print, their social security number, how much money they make. Or how much money they don’t make. I walked out of the store with my 60 bucks and walked back to the apartment so I could finish packing.

05 January, 2010

The Old Desk

I keep beer out on the covered front porch.
It’s winter in Northwest Illinois
and the relentless cold makes for great
refrigeration. My wife hides my beer
behind an old school desk she bought
at an auction; she says
she doesn’t want it to be
the first thing people see
when they visit. I laugh and tell her
her worries are cute and that somebody,
(not me) ought to be concerned. It’s possible
to derive some comfort from knowing
all your paranoia is justified. Our neighbor
notices when I take walks, asks me
when I see him at the post office
if I’m looking for work, and he pays attention
to whether we use our car, or when we leave
the garage door open. I can tell in people’s faces
when I see them on the street, or at the (only) bar
they’re trying to decide if I’m “ok” enough;
I want to tell them
the beer on my porch is probably
their best indicator, though most of them
will never come close enough to notice.

When she brought the desk home,
she (proudly) informed me
she only paid 50 cents. (She said)
It was too good a deal to pass on
and besides (she insisted) she was thinking
of me. It would be cute upstairs, where I write;
It could sit in the corner and I could use it
to put books on. But the desk
has done its duty; the seat
is smooth and splinter free –
worn by countless student asses,
made sore by the wood
and by the hours spent
learning cursive and reading
from old primers and struggling
with long division. The wrought iron legs
are rusted from years of exposure
through creaky floor boards and clapboard windows,
wet boots, and the dry heat
of a coal or wood burning stove. The desk top is
splinter and graffiti free, and has a hole
in the right hand corner for a bottle
of fountain pen ink. When I carried the desk in
from the car, I left it on the porch
where the orange rocking chair was
that she left to sit in when she goes
out on the porch to smoke. The desk will hide
a couple of cases of beer and some liquor,
too. Every night when I lock the front door
I think about locking the screen door too; but then
(I remind myself) this is not a town
where people steal your beer;
it’s much more intoxicating
to take note of visitors and
driving habits and the frequency
with which I (do or don’t) leave the house