26 October, 2010

And It Stops My Mind From Wandering

The house is old and sometimes the roof leaks when it rains. I woke up this morning after the rain stopped and the kitchen floor was covered in water from the place in the pantry where the leak is the worst. The pantry is really nothing more than a moderately-sized closet that's big enough for the garbage can. There's a shelf above that where we keep the cat food and garbage bags. Above that shelf is where the leak is the worst; the water stains in the ceiling tile tell the whole story. That particular wall is where the original farmhouse meets the newer (though still old) kitchen. Whenever I have to clean up rain water, I look up at the leak and try to channel the spirit of my dead grandfather, the one who was a carpenter; I imagine that he would know how to fix it. I imagine that if anyone's voice told me what it would take to fix the leak, it would be his gravelly, two pack a day smoker's voice. He smoked Kools. Once at a family reunion I heard one of his brother-in-laws make fun of him for the cigarettes he smoked; he called them nigger smokes and he laughed doubly hard because he thought the joke was doubly funny.

I don't remember the relative's name. I tell myself it's because of jokes like that one, but the truth is I've never liked most of my extended relatives. They never seemed to know the difference between me and my brother... even though he was tall, skinny like a flagpole, with straw blonde hair and I was short, tubby, and had hair the color of a raven's wing. Like my dad's. The only time we ever saw them was once during the summer when we drove to the big reunion in Shelbyville, Kentucky and again at Thanksgiving. Then we stopped getting together for Thanksgiving and we stopped going to the reunion. After that I saw them at the funeral when my grandfather the carpenter died from smoking too many Kools. Then I saw them again 12 years later when my grandmother died after 3 years of bad health and dementia. I would visit her at the assisted living facility she lived in for the last years of her life and sometimes she thought I was my other grandfather, my dad's dad. Sometimes she thought I was my dad, even though he had been dead for almost 5 years. When I tell people I'd rather take my chances with cancer than with getting old and losing my mind, they think I'm being an asshole. But they never had to watch their grandmother cry because she pissed her pants in front of her grandson.

My grandfather's voice never comes, and this time is no exception. So all I can do is wipe up the water, put on a pot of coffee, and try to remember what day it is. That's the hardest part. It wouldn't be so bad, but I hate to have to look at the calender or the clock on my cell phone. I count forward from Sunday. I knew it was Sunday because I watched the football game. The day after Sunday is my deadline for the paper. 10 am. That was yesterday, I tell myself. That makes today Tuesday.

By the time I figure out what day it is, there's enough coffee in the pot that I can pour myself a cup. The coffee maker has a stop-pour spring in the basket. It's a cheap coffee machine, though, and sometimes the spring doesn't work and the coffee will keep dripping onto the burner after I've picked up the pot to pour my cup. I remember when it cost more to by a machine with a stop-pour spring. Now it costs more to buy one of those machines you can set to start brewing before you wake up. I don't want one of those, though. I don't like important appliances that don't need me to start. Appliances that run on their own remind me of George Jetson cartoons, and I never liked George Jetson. It never made sense to me that flying cars had to be so ugly. I think they drew them ugly so that no one would be disappointed when they never got a flying car.

I pour coffee into my red coffee cup. I always use the same coffee mug. The stop-pour worked. I drink my coffee black and most mornings I make it too strong. Or so I'm told. I went into the living room, sat down in my chair, and listened to the wind. It was shaking the entire house. All the storm windows were rattling and sometimes I felt the walls move. I think about what it would feel like if the storm picked up the entire house and carried it away. Like in Wizard of Oz. I always hated that movie. When I was very little, I was scared of the witch. But I liked the flying monkeys. After all, who wouldn't like to have a flying monkey?

Then I heard it begin to rain again. The large drops were flying full speed at the large window behind the television.  

25 October, 2010

Vox Humana

When's the last time you left the house, she asked.

What day is it?

She shook her head and didn't answer me. Sometimes I think she gets more aggravated at me when I validate that she's right than when I prove her wrong. There's no point in reminding her that there's nothing to do, nowhere to go, and that even if there was, we didn't have the money for me to do anything, anyway.

You need to get out of the house.

Has the outside world changed dramatically?

She shook her head again. That's not the point, she said. It's not healthy for you to stay in all day every day. People need sunlight.

It's been raining for three days.

You KNOW what I mean, she said.

I did. Not that I intended to let on. She only got onto me about getting out of the house when she had to work a lot; it was her way of telling me she felt bad about leaving me alone all the time without having to actually tell me. I don't mind walking around, actually. I just like to have an eventual destination in mind. Or some purpose other than to walk around. People in small towns like this one don't simply walk around. This isn't like out west, where people exercise for the sake of exercise. This is the heart of the Midwest, where the food is fried … even the vegetables … and the logic isn't really all that logical. There are nice people, and I do, on occasion, try and wander out among them. Among but not one of. I usually give myself away within a minute or so of striking up a conversation. Most of the conversations I have with people around town are less than a minute. Strangers usually take the first 5 to 30 seconds sizing up people they don't know. They compare the appearance of the newly met person to mental images of everyone they know. Then they spend another couple seconds – never more than 5 or 7 – listening to the person to see if they have anything in common with this newly met person. We learn to do this almost instantly. The human brain is capable of such amazing things. Like deciding in less than a minute whether the new person is a friend, a foe, a fuck buddy, or just another douche who ought to be ignored. This is part of what psychologists and other skull crushers call socialization. And I knew that she wanted me to socialize. Spreading the joy. Or whatever.

You should give people a chance, she said.

What fun would that be?

There are good people out there.

Then they should come in here.

She shook her head and sighed. You don't even go to the bar anymore.

It's always the same conversation.

She sighed again. She knew I had a point.

So start a new one.

It's not that easy. The last time I went to the bar I sat in on the same conversation. The old men at the bar talk about corn, cancer, and who recently died. Everyday is a maudlin wake, sad broken old men drinking to the memories of people they probably hadn't talked to that much in life. Once I tried to start a conversation about politics. I was roundly ignored.

You should still try, she said. You used to try.

I know.

She paused. Are you? She asked. Going to try?

I took a drink of my beer and lit a smoke. I loved her, among many reasons, for her eternal optimism. We'd probably have the same conversation again in a few days. But I really hated disappointing her. I was really  tired of disappointing her. She was working a lot and having to be my only point of human contact was one more stresser she didn't need.

Sure, I said. I'll try.

21 October, 2010

Ghost Towns Are Made, Not Born

The cornfields look the way they do
in my dreams, but they are not mine.
Those fields are gone, as are the days
of getting myself lost and then finding
myself five miles down the road,
along with the mud stuck in the crevices
of the soles of my sneakers
that inevitably left marks
on my mother's freshly mopped
linoleum. That creature I could have
been, the one I maybe should have
been, he is gone too. I barely know
his face anymore when I see him
in syncopated dreams.

                                         The bathtub is clogged
with 50 years of hair and spit and grime
and the dishes rot in the sink
because I can't convince myself
to lift my arms to wash them.
The windows are all open
to let in the autumn air
along with fugue of other people's children
playing in piles of leaves at the behest
of nostalgic grandparents who, but for
the aching in their bones, would run
and jump in the pile and laugh
the way they used to laugh
before the old ochre filled their throats
and coated their lungs
and clouded their eyes.

at this very moment,
local politicians are huddling
in some unobtrusive backroom
with day old donuts and the dug up corpses
of dead ideas, gnashing their teeth
and playing pinocle for the souls of their children
while their wives tend bonfires at home
with the kindling left behind
when their neighbors up and
disappeared one day. Rumor has it
the rapture has come, and some
of those who remain
wander the crumbling back streets
in search of some more reasonable explanation:

there is nothing in any of the papers
on the television news
that offers a more soothing answer
than crop circles and disease ridden spinach
and tainted eggs. The old farmers are mystified
because their roosters crow at sunset
and the children, instead of playing
in piles of leaves, would rather set them on fire
and cry when someone has the sense
to dowse the flames with water
we dare not drink.

                                   The only solution I have
is to close the windows and hope
for an early winter.

19 October, 2010

Mood Killer: A Love Story

She had four cats and a string of boyfriends that often spent the night. Her name was Ester. Gordon slept on the couch and paid the rent. The couch always stank of cat piss and spray. Ester wouldn't get the cats fixed; she said it wasn't fair. Gordon even offered to pay for it, since he figured (correctly) that she didn't have the cash. Ester still said no. But whenever she brought some boyfriend or another over and he spent the night, she always made it seem like the place stank because of Gordon. Poor, pathetic Gordon. Gordon who usually drank himself into a stupor so he wouldn't have to listen to Ester fucking another guy all night. Ester was a loud fuck; she wanted everyone to know she had somebody's dick in her. She wanted Gordon to know that it was somebody's dick besides his.

He would wake up early in the morning and leave for work while the apartment was quiet. He worked first shift in a printer factory. He hated his job; but it was the only job to be had. On the way home, he would stop by a bar and have a few drinks. Gordon typically drank alone. He knew it was because of the smell; he always smelled like cat spray. On the way home, he would stop by the liquor store on 9th Street and buy his nightly bottle. By the time he came home, Ester was gone and so was the boyfriend. Sometimes she left him a note. They were out of coffee. They were out of bread. The cats were out of cat chow. Some collector or another had called one of her credit card bills. The cats despised him, but they wouldn't leave him alone until he fed them; so when they were out of food, he'd have to drive to the store and buy them some. Gordon told himself it was the price of peace and quiet.

Things had been going on this way for seven months. Seven months ago, Ester had broken up with Gordon because he was too boring. That was what she said. “I just thought there was MORE,” she said. “I thought you were hiding all this STUFF, you know, UNDERNEATH.”

“I never said I was.”

“But that doesn't mean,” she went on like he hadn't said anything, “that you need to move out right away. You can sleep on the couch until you find a new place.”

He didn't thank her. But he did move his shit – what little of it there was – out of her bedroom. He had moved in with her three months before when he had been out of work. She said she wanted to take care of him. She still had a job then, working in a tuxedo shop. A week after he moved in, she quit her job because she said the owner had been sexually harassing her. It hadn't yet occurred to him that he was the world's biggest sucker. That thought didn't creep in until she brought home the first of her many boyfriends the night after she had broken up with him.

When he got back to the apartment after work, it was quiet. He poured himself a scotch and water and sat on the couch, thinking. One of the cats – a malcontented hermaphrodite – was sharpening it's claws on Gordon's copy of Butler's Lives of the Saints. He'd been reading it the night before, when she had come in with one of her boyfriends. They were both laughing, and the boyfriend – whose name was Morgan – looked at Gordon and shook his head in disgust. Then they tumbled into the bedroom, slammed the door behind them, and got to it. Ester was nothing if not an aerobic fuck. Gordon still remembered the way her tits bounced up and down when she rode him. Her tits bounced and she laughed and shrieked like a little girl on a amusement park ride. She was making those same sounds again, with Morgan. Morgan was a regular. She had known him for years. Been fucking him for years. The problem had been that Morgan had been married. But he wasn't with his wife anymore.

The hermaphrodite cat sat on the edge of the couch and hissed at him. Then, looking straight at him, the cat sprayed his pillow. Gordon thought of himself as an animal lover. When animals were bad, it was usually because they had bad owners. Animals were honest. When they didn't like you, they hissed at you. Or sprayed your pillow.

There was something to be learned from animals.

Gordon drained his glass, stood up, and grabbed the cat by the scruff. The car started yowling and snarling and digging it's claws into his arm; but Gordon didn't care. He let the blood drip onto the carpet, walked over to the bedroom door, and kicked it open. Ester was on top of Morgan and he was reaching up and squeezing her tits. Gordon threw the cat on top at them. Ester screamed and Morgan yelled and Gordon shut the door behind him before he walked over to the kitchen sink to rinse off his bloody arm and wrapped it in a dish towel.

Ester stormed out of the bedroom, still naked. Her stomach had claw marks on it. Gordon poured himself another scotch. “Wow,” he said, pointing to the scratches. “You kids are playing it a little rough, aren't you?”

“YOU BASTARD!” she screeched. “What the fuck did you do to my cat!?”

“Nothing it hasn't done to me already.”

The Morgan came out. He had stopped to put his jeans back on. “Dude,” he said, trying to look all menacing. “What the FUCK is your deal?”

“Let me handle this!” She turned and snapped at him. “So does hurting a poor defenseless creature make you feel like a man? Does it?”

“Defenseless hell,” Gordon answered. He took a drink.

“I LET you stay here,” she went on. “I LET you stay here until you find a place, and this is how you thank me?”

“I CAN'T find a place,” Gordon said. “I'm too busy paying your rent and feeding your fucking cats.”

“Well maybe if you didn't DRINK so much,” she countered, “you'd be able to save up enough to move. You knew how it was going to be.”

“Oh?” Gordon smiled. He was amazed by his level of calm. “I knew that your cats would destroy my shit while you ride every cock in a fifty mile radius?”

“Now you wait just a goddamn second....” Morgan said.

Ester turned and shushed him. “I'M ALLOWED TO HAVE MY OWN LIFE!” She was screeching at the top of her lungs. “YOU CAN'T TELL ME WHAT TO DO ANYMORE!”

“Where do you get that shit?” Gordon answered. “I never told you not to do anything. I had sort of hoped that maybe you wouldn't fuck other people. That's all.”

“IT'S MY BODY,” she was still screeching. “IT'S MY LIFE.”

“Yep,” he said. “And you can have it.” Gordon drained the glass and tossed it in the sink, causing it to shatter. Ester screamed bloody murder. Morgan looked like he was about to punch Gordon. Gordon walked by them both, grabbed his stuff – a suitcase of clothes and a few books that the cats hadn't yet destroyed – and walked back by them, towards the door.

“Where are YOU going?” Ester sneered. “You afraid that a REAL man will kick you ass?”

“Nope.” Gordon looked at Morgan. Morgan tried to look intimidating. Gordon shook his head and focused his attention back on Ester. “I'm leaving.”

“You can't just go without giving me notice!”


“The rent's due in two days!”

Gordon nodded at Morgan. “Ask him. Or earn it. I'm sure some of the guys you have in and out of here can throw some cash your way.”

“You're a bastard!” She was crying now. Big sloppy tears.

Gordon tossed the apartment key on the floor and grabbed his half empty bottle of scotch off the counter. “Besides,” he said. “I quit my job today.”

“WHAT?” The tears shut off almost instantly.

“I said,” he turned and smiled. “I quit my job.”

“You're nothing but a goddamn bum!”


Gordon turned and walked out of the apartment. When he got out to the parking lot, he looked back up at the apartment. All the lights were on. He smiled. He got in his car. As he was pulling out onto the street, a police cruiser pulled into the parking lot. He wondered if it was the same cop she had gone down on, she claimed, to get out of a speeding ticket; he remembered when she had come home to him, crying about it. Big sloppy tears. Driving into the darkness, Gordon felt better than he had in years.

14 October, 2010

Any ay You Curb The Homicidal Impulse is A Good Day For Other People

He came home from work and immediately poured a drink. Zorby thought of his old sponsor, William and his sage voice that often comes with the recognition – real or not – of hitting bottom. William's poison had been vodka sevens; Zorby preferred his liquor dark. He drained the first scotch he had poured himself in more than three years without even bothering with the ice. The minute it hit his throat, Zorby's body absorbed it almost instantly. He took more time with the second, putting ice in the glass and then topping it off. Then he drained the second and poured another on top of the melting ice. This one he sipped, as he turned and walked from the kitchen into the living room. He took the bottle with him.

“What a shitter of a day,” he said to the empty room. He sat down in his worn out orange rocker, took in the silence of his surroundings. He would be alone in the house for several more hours. Trina wouldn't be happy that he was drinking again. Depending on the kind of day she'd had, she may or may not say anything right away. But he supposed he have a few and put the bottle back under the kitchen sink before she came home. That was the original thought, anyway. That would require impulse control. And Zorby was pretty sure he'd used up what little impulse control he had.

The idea of moving to a small town had been that the quiet would be good for them. Well, mostly good for him. Quiet. Quietude. Peace and Quietude. It had seemed like a good idea. Phoenix had rubbed him the wrong way. Trina was tired of him being so angry all the time. But that wasn't all of it. She had pretty much hated Phoenix ever since they moved there. She didn't like the weather, especially the oven like quality of the summers. She didn't like the west coast lite cultural miasma. She didn't like shallow people. Zorby didn't like people anywhere, so Phoenix for him was no different than any other place in that respect.

As he drank and stared into the blankness of the television that he didn't want to turn on, he thought of the them. The people he'd seen that day. The ones he fantasized about doing horrible things to. Their gaping, yapping, toothless maws. Their limited vocabularies. Their weak chins and clearly inbred faces. The sounds of their voices set his teeth on edge, made his backbone tighten. Made his head begin to hurt. He had almost gotten to the point to where he could stand the sight of them; but then they had to talk.

He drained his drink and poured another. “They don't know,” he said. “They don't know how easy it would be.” One of the games he played to keep himself entertained was to imagine how he might kill them all. No one would die in quite the same way. That was one of the things he hated about how serial killers were depicted on television and in movies. Always doing the same thing over and over again. Recreating some moment in time. Zorby had no such moment. He liked the idea that each one of them – from the spiteful bitch at the drug store that eyed him like a thief to the Methodist minister who always tried to talk to him and convince him to attend church – would die in some unique way. It would be doing them a favor, actually. They could then achieve in dying what they had never achieved in life.

Not that he was a serial killer; not really. Zorby understood how people could BE like that. But there was something in him that prevented him. Not fear, necessarily. Not some high moral regard for human life. Something else. Something that held him back.

He drank this last drink slowly and checked the clock. Trina would come home and know he'd been drinking. She would say something. Why is there even a bottle in the house? she would ask. It had been a present from his brother. His brother still drank because he hadn't hit bottom. Zorby never felt like he hit bottom. But everyone else seemed to think he did.

The faces of his fantasy kills flashed through his mind. He saw each of them die. But it didn't make him feel any better. He turned on the television, hoping to drown them out.

10 October, 2010

Corn Belt Americana Haiku: 1

The streets are crumbling
from neglect and all the corn
is nearly harvested.
Mornings are cool and
the trees are losing their leaves.
All manner of insects
are worming their way indoors.
But the grass is still
growing in spite of all
my attempts to ignore it
out of existence.

08 October, 2010

Dubuque in the Fog

Boone remembered the first time he'd ever seen the Mississippi River; he was riding a Greyhound bus from Lexington to Phoenix, on his way to a new job and a new life – foraging ahead to prepare a place in the way he imagined the early western settlers did. He went first and would send for Maude when it was time. The bus crossed the river into Dubuque Iowa; it had been early morning, and the fog was rising up off the water and engulfing everything the way the fog engulfs everything in stylized Gothic movies. The hangover was more or less gone, but his head hurt from sleeping on the bus and from not having any aspirin and from not sleeping very well at all. He had opened his eyes long enough to see the river around the middle of the suspension bridge. He'd always wanted to see the river – ever since he read Huck Finn when he was a kid; he didn't quite know what to expect, but for some reason, seeing it from a suspension bridge crossing from Illinois into Iowa was not what his imagination had planned for him. And it didn't look like he expected it too, either.

He had made reference to his two days before when he and Maude crossed over on their way to visit friends of hers in Waterloo. I've been here before, he had said. Maude was driving and looked over at him with her nose all wrinkled and her eyes saying she didn't believe him. He'd come to realize she didn't believe half the stories he told and a fair amount of what he said; but that was what she asked for, marrying a writer. That was the way he figured it, anyway. Boone had given up trying to convince her that he couldn't make up the silly shit he said, that it wasn't how things worked. How is that possible, she had asked. I was, he had answered. On the bus to Phoenix. It was even this time of day. Early morning. The fog's the same. She shook her head. That's strange, was all she said.

But now it was the return trip and he was driving. Boone didn't mind driving; but he missed the freedom he used to feel when he first learned to drive. He was sure he had lost the urge to drive around the time when he spent so much time in a car. It was right after he divorced his Rhea's mother, and the only place he had to live back with his mother. She hadn't cared, but something about the arrangement bruised his already battered (from the divorce) ego. So he started living in his car. Visiting friends, sleeping on their couches. Sometimes he slept in the car when he was parked somewhere safe. If he was out of money and out of friends, he sometimes stayed in libraries. On weekend he saw Rhea, he stayed with his mother, and during holidays. But that was about the time when a car changed from an implement of freedom to one more weight around his neck. Just one more thing to have to think about when he was tired of thinking at all. That was what he had decided, anyway. He didn't mind driving the return trip to Mt. Arliss, though. It was only a three hour trip, and he knew if traffic worked in their favor and there weren't any cops out, he could make it in around two or two and half hours.

Even two hours was seeming like forever, though, because Maude wasn't speaking to him. She was staring out at the road and chain smoking.

Both of them were exhausted because they had been up late, arguing. Boone was still unclear as to what the argument was actually about. Whenever Maude dug into him – which was admittedly not very often in spite what he probably deserved – it was with a laundry list of offenses that he had committed. His most recent offense was always the first one – the one that had started the deluge anger, anxiety, fear, and frustration. But she never stuck with that one. Rather than talk about one thing at a time, Maude's approach was to bombard him with his sins until he was incapable of responding. Then she would stop talking and go to sleep – which was the final insult, since nothing was ever resolved. And with nothing resolved, Boone was in for a long night of not sleeping and going back in his memory trying to find the thing that tied all the seemingly random events together.
The sin that had unleashed the torrent this time wasn't even a new one. It started after he woke up hungover.

“You know that you lie when you drink, right?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Last night,” Maude explained. “When we were over at Andy and Audrey’s. You... well, it wasn't lying, exactly. Exaggerating.”

“I exaggerate? About what?”

“Oh,” she sighed, sitting on the bed. “It's not even anything worth remembering. But be aware.”

Boone didn't answer. He wasn't sure what it was he had been so disingenuous about. The four of them were sitting around the kitchen table. He and Andy were drinking beer and shots of Jameson. The three of them talked a lot about theater – which always left Boone out, since he only really cared about theater when it was something Maude was doing. He had just been trying to get into the conversation. Later Boone found out that not only was he liar, but a belittling, interrupting asshole... so much of an asshole that Audrey had inquired, when Boone didn't accompany them on a shopping trip but stayed in the motel room to nurse his hangover, whether he was still “grumpy.”

The coup de grace came that night, though, when they were hanging out and Boone said hardly anything at all. He hadn't felt right all day, and while he would have preferred to have a few drinks to delay the hangover, Maude didn't want him to drink. She was on another one of her mini-quests to save him from himself – or to save herself from what she saw as a repetitive pattern of unhealthy behavior. Or something like that. Boone suspected that she felt bad because she hadn't noticed his booze intake all summer when she was working 12 hours a day at the theater. Boone had thought he was doing pretty well; he was maintaining, getting things done – most of the time – and he was always there to focus on her when she was home, to make the time matter. But now that her schedule was more or less normal, she was noticing all of his little faults and petty sins and, in the way she tended to, inflate them to mammoth proportion.

But she didn't stop there. “And what are you going to DO?”


“About you! What are you going to do for work?”

“I have a job.”

“You hate it!”

“It frustrates me.”

“You want to quit.”

“I didn't. I haven't. I probably won't.”

“I'm TIRED of being poor,” she said, crying. “I'm tired of worrying about whether you're going to tell another boss to go to hell.”

“I haven't. And he's not my boss, really. I'm freelance.”

“You're acting like the world's out to get you! You always think the world is out to get you!”

“It is.”

The argument went on like that for a few more hours before she fell into silence, got into bed, and turned the television onto some unbearable reality show or another. Then after about a half hour she turned out the light and turned off the show and went to sleep without saying another word to him. He laid awake in bed for another couple of hours, trying to figure out how find the balance between what she expected and what he knew he was capable of.

They were cordial in the morning. She woke up and took a shower. Boone went to the lobby and got them both a cup of coffee and a few donuts. Then he took a shower, they packed, checked out, and started the trip home.
By the time they reached Dubuque, it was nearly ll. Boone much preferred the city covered in fog. Maude looked over at the clock. “We're making pretty good time.”


She put her hand on the back of his neck and started playing with his hair. “You feeling okay?” she asked. “Are you still able to drive?”

“Yeah. I'm fine.”

“You look tired.”

“I am.”

She sighed. “I love you, you know.”

“I love you, too.”

She looked at the clock again. “We should be home in another hour or so.”

“Yeah. A little more than an hour, I think.”

She removed her hand from his neck, rubbed his right leg, and leaned over on his shoulder. He liked having her there.

05 October, 2010

It was supposed to be a good idea. Dog-Eared Books had an open mic on the first Friday of each month, and Maude told me it would be good for me to go. “You need to get out,” she said. “You used to read in front of people all the time,” she said. “Once you're up there, you'll feel fine.”

I wasn't convinced. The truth was, even when I got up in front of people at open mics in college, it was hardly ever to read. Mostly I emceed; it's a lot easier to introduce other people than it is to stand in front of a lingering crowd of the collegiate and the confused and read some fresh lines. I knew people who didn't read fresh work; some of them had been doing it so long, they simply recycled stuff when they thought no one was paying attention. They read because they liked the sounds of their voices and the temporary notoriety. A few read because it got them laid. I was much more comfortable hamming it up when I was under no pressure to read my own work. It also helped that I never got up in front of people unless I drank at least four beers. When I knew I was going to read and there was no getting out of it, my routine was three beers and two shots of bourbon... a way to relax and muster courage at the same time. I hated the sound of my voice, and my writing was never the kind that spread the legs of young impressionable college girls. I wasn't one of those guys. Even when I tried to pretend I was one of those guys, I was never one of those guys. I used to watch those guys – the ones who used poetry to get laid – and wonder how they could take themselves seriously as artists. Eventually, I figured out that they never took themselves seriously. Two years out of college and away from the sticky microphone and bad coffee, they didn't write anymore. They became accountants, clerical secretaries, and store managers on the executive fast track.

“I don't know if this is a good idea,” I told Maude the evening of the book store reading. “I don't know this crowd. I don't know what they're like.”

“You need to get out,” she said.

“I wish you'd come with me.”

“I have to work...”

“I know, I know.”

“Besides, you never know. You might meet some interesting people.”

Yeah, I thought. And I might end up meeting another group of pretentious assholes,too. Guess which one I thought was more likely? “I know, I know.”

She dropped me off in front of the bookstore on her way to work. It was in a strip mall, like everything else in Phoenix. Next to the book store there was a bar called Bobby's Tap & Grill. I'd been in there before. They ran a burger and beer special – $8. In a city where the prices are generally as inflated as its sense of self, that was considered a bargain. And the place did serve a pretty decent burger.

I wasn't sure what I was going to read; I grabbed a stack of new drafts, planning to sift through them until the last minute. That was part of my routine, too. I tried to avoid reading anything that was too much like what was being read. If there was a run on anti/political poems, I'd read something funny or crass. If there was an unusually large number of bad love poems, I'd read something dry and acerbic. Not that I was ever too worried about anybody having stuff that sounded like mine. There's a lot of overlap when it comes to poetry; not because there isn't a lot of options and forms, but because no one really reads poetry anymore except for poets. And poets hardly ever go to open mics anymore because the musicians and performance artists have taken the over the venue. Not that there's anything wrong with music or performance art; but the simple art of poetry – simple in it's delivery, complex in it's meaning – has been lost to everyone except the cadre of academic poets in their cloisters of higher learning. Real poetry, like real art, is rare. And while this may make it more valuable, having to sift through everything else is exhausting. And while it's true that I learned a lot about poetry in college, I learned more about poetry when I actually had to figure out how to live in the world. That's where poetry finds meaning.

Maude knew how I felt about readings, and she knew why I stopped reading in public. But I think she was tired of me hiding out in the apartment and sick of being the only person I talked to on a regular basis. I didn't blame her; I can wear people out. Eventually. That was why I didn't argue... to much, anyway.

I went into Bobby's and found an empty stool at the bar. Bobby's was one of those places worked toward classy kitsch – the walls were covered with album covers from the 60's, 70's, and 80's. The Doors. Zeppelin. T-Rex. Janis Joplin. Aretha Franklin. Blondie. Lita Ford. Joan Jett. I was looking for The Runaways and The Dead Kennedys when the girl behind the bar asked me what I wanted. I asked her what was on tap.

“We don't serve draft beer.” She answered like she'd said it a million times.

“You don't?”

“No, sir.”

“Didn't you used to?”

“Not that I'm aware of, sir.”

“The name of the place is Bobby's TAP and Grill, right?”

She sighed, rolled her eyes, and smiled. The things people will endure for a tip. “YES, sir.”

I shook my head and ordered a bass. When she brought it back, I asked if they had Maker's Mark behind the bar.

She sighed again. “Sorry, sir.”

“What do you have?”

“Knob Creek, Jim Beam, and Jack Daniels.”

“Those don't belong in the same sentence.”

She stood there and waited for me to order a shot. I obliged her and ordered a Knob Creek. She poured it and walked back into the kitchen... probably to smoke and bitch about the asshole at the bar.

“They did used to have beer on tap,” a woman's voice said. I looked up and there was woman, maybe a few years older than me by the crow's feet around her eyes and the deep smile lines in her face that she was trying, unsuccessfully, to hide with make-up.

“I thought so,” I said.

“The new owner kept the name and took out the taps. It's cheaper that way.”

“You mean the owner isn't some guy named Bobby?”

The woman laughed and shook her head. “Nope.”

“Too bad.”

“Did you know him?”

“No. But I used to have a friend named Bobby. I like the name.”

She laughed. “Are you going to the reading next door?” She nodded at the pile of papers I wasn't looking through.

“That's the plan.”

“Have you been before?”

“To this one? No.”

“It's a nice crowd,” she said. “A good mix. Sometimes we get some people from the university. But it's a friendly crowd.”

I emptied my shot and took a sip of beer. “That's good.”

“Is that part of a manuscript?”

Fuck. “I don't know yet.”

“I'm working on a collection of poems.”

“Good for you.”

“I like to read them out loud. It gives me a sense of them.”

Uh-huh. You could read them to yourself at home for that. “Cool.”

“Don't you find that reading them out loud helps?”

As a rule I don't talk about writing. Especially with other writers. I looked up at the television in the corner. 
“Looks like the Suns are going to actually win,” I said.

“Oh,” she sniffed and looked let down. “I don't really follow... sports.”

“I follow the teams I like,” I said.

“That's nice,” she said, standing up. “I'll see you over there, I guess.” She walked away before I could answer.

If the beer hadn't been $5 a bottle, I would've probably skipped the reading and stayed to watch the game. Basketball wasn't a sport I followed a lot – but it wasn't bad to watch. The best part of the game is always the last few seconds. Both teams trying like hell to finish on top. And when a game's really contested, somebody tries for that impossible half court shot right as the buzzer rings and time is temporarily suspended until the ball either hits the net or bounces off the backboard. Plus, the Suns were having another lousy year, and I always like underdogs.

Against my better judgment, I finished my beer and walked over to the book store. There were some chairs –maybe a baker's dozen – set up in the back corner near the travel and self help sections. In front of the chairs, there was a rickety wooden podium standing on top of a makeshift dais. The woman from the bar was sitting in front, along with three other women who looked like they shopped in the same overpriced shabby sheik store in Scottsdale. I took an empty seat in the back and looked through the disorganized pile of drafts in my lap. I didn't know which one I was going to read, or if I would have time to read more than one. I didn't know if there was a sign up sheet anywhere. No one appeared to be in charge. This wasn't a bad thing. But it wasn't necessarily a good thing, either. If the people there were regulars, they had a routine. That meant they may not put up with some newcomer with his non-manuscript intended lines and his interest in sports.

A few more people showed up. All of the chairs were filled, and other people were filtering around the shelves. I looked around for someone who might be worth talking to. I couldn't see anyone that might be able to hold down a conversation about anything more interesting than comparing brands of tofu.

The reading began when a high school girl got up and rushed through a poem about getting her driver's license and losing her virginity to her driving instructor. Then a bald guy stood up and read a poem about his father's fishing rod. Everyone clapped and was very polite.

Then the woman who talked to me at the bar stood up and walked grandly up the three small steps to the dais and took her place behind the podium. Her comrades in the audience sat in a state of rapture, waiting with so much anticipation that they were sitting on the edges of their folding chairs.

“THIS piece,” she declared, “is dedicated to the whole of my sisterkind.”

The women in the front sighed audibly.

“It's called Things A Man Can Never Do.”

The poem began as a laundry list of things in a rough iambic pentameter. Child Bearing. Love and Nurturing. Menstruation. I checked out mentally after that one. Biology wasn't one of those things that made me squeamish – though I, like every man who still had his balls intact, tried desperately to avoid the tampon /maxi-pad isle in the grocery store and I never engaged in the usual tactics of the gender political. I opened the door for Maude, but I was perfectly fine with her paying the bill. I neither looked down on women for not having penises nor did I think better of myself because I have one. Life seemed too short for all that bullshit.
I knew she was finished when the small crowd erupted into louder than appropriate applause. The woman from the bar smiled gracefully, bowed her head, and clasped her hands together like she was blessing them for clapping for her. The poet's version of the plenary indulgence, I guess. Then she flowed back down the steps and back into her seat to the welcoming pats and hugs of her friends.

After no one else went up to the podium after a few seconds, I stood up and approached. I still didn't know which poem to read. I set them down on the podium and tried to lean on it; but it nearly tipped forward and I had to catch it from falling into the lap of the woman from the bar and her entourage. I looked at her and she smiled – a pontifical kind of smile.

Bitch. I straightened up and introduced myself. Then I took one last look through my drafts. I read a poem about taking my daughter to the park when she was 7 years old. It was an angry poem, meant to be read angry. So I started reading it, clenching the podium and rocking back and forth. I still hated the sound of my voice; but I hated the presumption of the woman at the bar, too. I'm not some woman-hating asshole. I know damn well that there are good women in the world, and that there are probably more good women than there are good men. But there are bitches in the world, too. And all of them are some dumb bastard's ex-wife for a reason... half of which was probably hers.

When I finished the poem, the small crowd of listeners sat stunned. A stunned silence can be every bit as edifying as a thunderous applause. More even. The woman from the bar was glaring at me, and so was her entourage of sisterkind. I took my seat and sat through three or four more readers. Then the reading was over, and I caught the bus home.

Later that night, Maude asked me how the reading went. “Fine.”

“Did you read?”


“Did you meet anybody.”

“Nobody as sweet as you.”

She sighed, shook her head, and went into the bedroom to change into her night clothes.

02 October, 2010

The Game We Play

You look at me and smile
that glorious, mischievous smile
and say “We could just
run away.” It's Friday night, nearly
midnight. 3 days before rent is due.
You just got paid. The cars' in decent
shape. We could get three states away
before anybody would think to miss us.
We could load up the car: pack up
the cats, some clothes, a few important things
and leave the rest behind. It may be
a week before anybody thinks
to look for us, and by then
we would be somewhere else.

I say “We'd have to change our names,”
and the thought of it makes me smile. You
could dye your hair and I
could shave my head
and no one would recognize us. “We could
fake our own deaths,” I add, “and then we'd be free.”
We'd only tell the ones who matter most,
the ones who can keep a secret, of course
and we'd start over
with new lives
somewhere else
without the burden of having to remind ourselves
of who we are and what all the things are
that we're running from.

You shake your head, still smiling
because you think I carry the dream
a little too far. Then we conspire
on where to go and decide
it's time we went to bed.