28 November, 2011

From: Three Crow Suite


Three fat crows were sitting in my neighbor's driveway
when I walked out the door this morning to go
to the coffee shop. “Christ,” I thought
“not three. Not again.” Then they hopped,
syncopated, up on a low lying branch,
paying no attention to me
and (just my luck!)
didn't even turn my direction.

It's cold this morning – feels like winter
one week before Thanksgiving.
Even the stalwart gray haired men
who huddle under stoops outside of the coffee shop
to smoke cigarettes and curse the young
rush back inside,
rather than settle in to solve
the problems of the world
between cups of coffee,
and stories of girls they may have known
once, years ago,
before they achieved the wisdom require
to come in from the cold
and seek good company.

Three crows perched
on an dead November tree branch
have as much a chance
as old men sipping coffee
and telling tales, dreaming
of a summer
when the skirts will be shorter
and the lies will be more interesting.

The only difference between their stories
is the point of view.

21 November, 2011

A Salvation Cool as Morning Porcelain [from The Muckraker's Chronicle]

Lord, help me make it through the morning.

Maybe it was the wine. Whenever I drink white wine, I end up with a Class A mind fuck hangover. And that's if I can manage to keep it down. White wine – even the more expensive ones – turn my stomach like sour milk. The only thing I can do to keep from puking up whine wine and stomach acid is to throw some beer on top of it.

I could tell by the way she was talking to me that she knew I felt like shit. There was a time, not so long ago, when she probably would have given me a hard time about it; she would've made some comment about the mandatory Alka Seltzer cocktail , or the fact that even my sweat smells like booze. Or, she would've just given me that look she used to give me – the expression of her deep disappointment in my lack of impulse control. And there was a time, even before that, when she would've tried to exploit my frail condition by trying to say things that would make me throw up. She never did understand why I considered losing my lunch to be a mark against my manhood; and for that matter, I never understood it either, other than the fact that every man's man I ever knew thought of it the same way.

Some might consider her relative acceptance of my condition as something resembling progress, and I know more than a few old drunks who might say I have it good and that I shouldn't bitch about it too much. And if I didn't know better, I'd think that maybe she had achieved some level of enlightenment about the general condition I would prefer to be in.

But then I'd have to forget what she told me. Maude told me last week that she had come to terms with the fact that I was going to end up killing myself.

And the part of it that really fucked with me – as if such a statement in and of itself wasn't enough – was that there was no hint of attempting to guilt me into changing. No manipulative tone. No sidelong glance. No heavy sigh. Not even a qualifying remark about how, if I cared about her at all, I'd try and go more than a day without a drink. There was none of that then. And none of it this morning, when I was clearly hung over and trying to put myself together so I could go cover the monthly county board meeting. I desperately wanted to avoid the meeting – being locked up in a small, inadequately ventilated back room of a dilapidated county courthouse that's built like a goblin's labyrinth with 15 county board members, two other reporters, the County Clerk, and whoever else decided to sit in the peanut gallery. Didn't want to go and listen to the posturing and the pandering. Arliss County is a decidedly conservative county; but like most staunchly conservative corners of the country, there's always that freak underbelly. It's the physics of political karma. For each ass tight narrow-minded stooge there is a direct and opposite version within a three mile radius. Maybe that's how the world keeps from imploding on itself, collapsing like a burned out star. And as it happens, I'm always more comfortable with the freak contingent. I don't know why; I think maybe it just helps me maintain some sense of balance.

There's also always that sense that the uptight crowd is just as fucked in the head as the freaks and lunatics are, except that freaks and lunatics are a bit more at home with themselves and with the world. Total apathy come with a certain freedom; I think of it as something similar to the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. Attachment causes suffering. Complete detachment causes Enlightenment. Beautiful. Simple. Next to impossible.

“Where are you going today?” She was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, checking her hair. She must have to be somewhere, or have to talk to somebody. Did she mention it to me? Was it something I needed to remember?

“County board.”

My stomach turned just a little. Maybe from the wine. Maybe from talking out loud. Maybe from the thought of having to deal with the county board meeting. Sometimes I missed having a bullshit 8-5 straight job... some anonymous cubicle to hide in and nurse my hangover until lunch. It had been so easy. But I had long ago proven to myself that I had neither the prerequisite personality of a domestic abuse victim nor the overwhelming fear drive that kept most people in jobs they hated.

At that moment, I chose to blame the wine.

“What about after that?”

“I don't know. The usual. Probably come back here and work on the story.”


No indication that I was supposed to remember anything. Anniversary? Nope. Still had a few months. Birthday? Nope. That'll come in the summer. I tried to think of all the dates on the calendar that I was supposed to remember. Nothing stuck out as likely. It was Thursday. Was this Thursday any special day in particular?

Thinking was making my head swim and my stomach swim. “Fucking wine,” I muttered. “That's the last time.”

“What'd you say, Jay?”

“Huh? Nothing.”

“Do you want me to drop you off by the courthouse?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

“I'm going to be ready to go in a second.”

“'Kay.” I looked down to make sure I had all the usual requirements. Shoes, check. Socks, check. Pants, check. T-shirt, button down, sweater, check. All I needed to do was grab my coat. I'd have to walk back, though, so grabbed an extra layer. Old habits die hard. You'd think for as much walking as I do, I'd be a skinny little son of a bitch. Maude says I would be if I drank less. Ah, sweet irony. That karmic balance that keeps all fools in line. My sluggish Germanic blood fighting my Irish liver. Every single time.

I sat down and waited for Maude to finish. She wasn't much of primper, not like other women I'd known. But she did have her morning ritual. I wondered sometimes if she was even aware of how consistent she was. I suppose I'm the same, and I suppose that most people are. My grandfather on my mother's side always took a cup of coffee and the newspaper to the bathroom and didn't leave for a half hour. He drank, he read, he shat, he smoked. And that was the start of his day. He was a carpenter and could work 12 or 15 hours straight with barely a break for lunch as long as he had that uninterrupted half hour in the john.

Nothing happens for me until I have the first sip of coffee. And that, was another part of the problem. My stomach was so turned around that I didn't think I could keep coffee down. And without coffee I'd melt into a puddle of a remanded bridge troll within a 10 minutes of getting to my meeting.

The solution was an easy one. All I had to do was puke. But I didn't dare do it in front of Maude.

For some reason even the shortest ride seems longer when you're trying desperately to hold your stomach in. You start to notice every pothole, crack or uneven space in the street. You begin to notice which side of the street slopes more than the other. You begin to take notice of the excessive number of stop signs and the unreasonable amount of traffic. Everything conspires against you. It's almost like having to take a shit in the worst way but you're nowhere near a bathroom. Pressure builds up in your body; muscles tighten; heart starts pounding; if it's warm enough, or you're in bad enough shape, you begin to sweat profusely. There's a point – right before your guts tell you you're going to be losing what ever passes for the contents of your stomach – that you consider stepping in front of an oncoming car. Avoidance through pain has a long and heralded history. Not familiar? It's the idea that if your head really hurts the solution is to smash your thumb. Then you're not thinking about your head anymore.

Hangovers are your body's way of telling you that sobriety is overrated. It's a built in caution sign of what the world will feel like if you never take another drink. This, in those abominable 12 step programs, is often referred to as a moment of clarity: that moment when you realize that the Buddhists and the Baptists had it right. That life really is about suffering.

Maude stopped at the corner. The jolt made me nearly lose it on the passenger side dash.

“Thanks,” I said, trying to sound genuine. “Have a good day.”

“You, too.”

“I'll try.”

I opened the door and got one foot out the door when she said “I have a board meeting tonight.”



“Do you remember me telling you about it?”

Fuuuck me. “Sure. Of course.”

“So you remember that there's a dinner thing before and that you promised you'd come with me, right?”

No. “Sure, baby sure. No problem.”

“You need to wear something nice.”

“Ok,” I said. “I will.”
I almost made it out of the car. I was reaching a crisis point and wasn't even sure that I'd make it much farther than the sidewalk.

“What are you going to wear?”

Christ!Why did she have to pick that exact moment to micro-manage my wardrobe. “I don't know. Something nice. I promise. I'll try and match and everything.”

“Ok...” She didn't sound convinced. “I'll have to change at the office and then come pick you up.”

Great.“Okay, babe. Gotta go.”

“6 o'clock,” she said.

“Ok. 6 o'clock.”

Both of my feet made it to the side walk. Surprisingly enough, something about being outside settled my stomach. I made it up the steps fine and walked carefully towards the County Court House. I'd be a little early... plenty of time to splash some cold water on my face, settle down. It would give me time to hurl in the downstairs bathroom just inside the door if I needed to. I was starting to feel a little better about my prospects and my day.

That was when I ran into Johnny Franz, the County Board Chairman. We had sized one another up several months before. He thought I was a liberal stooge and I knew he was a Class A Prick. He was one of the richest farmers in the county and he stayed on the county board to make sure it stayed that way. I'd been trying, bit by bit, to eat away at his Napoleonic control. It was probably all but pointless. But it was something to do. And he made it easy. Whenever he opened his mouth and said something stupid – which he did often – I put it in the paper. Last month during the Zoning Appeals Committee report he made a comment about how he dealt with undesirable neighbors. “If I don't like somebody who's living around me,” he said, “I just buy them out and knock down the house.”

We arrived at the door at the same time, briefly made eye contact. Could he tell I was hungover? He always looked slightly stoned anyway, so it was difficult to tell whether he was paying attention or not. He was dressed the way he always dressed – jeans, a button down work shirt, and dirty cowboy boots. I tried to imagine how those worked in a corn field; but then I reminded myself that men like Johnny Franz didn't work in the field; men like Franz underpaid hundreds of other people to do that for him while he fucked the secretary and played the commodities exchange in an attempt to manipulate the price of corn.

“Rafferty,” he said as cordially as I'd ever heard him speak to me.

He reached for the door, maybe to let me walk through first. And I was about to say something... didn't know exactly what... but instead of words, I puked all over his cowboy boots.

And you know, there's never quite an appropriate apology when you need one.

12 November, 2011

Essay on Religion and Profanity (A Poem)

The room was crowded and most of the chairs
in front of the make shift stage were full.
You'd think after spending so much time
in front of people that I'd be more comfortable;
but I still need my two shots and two beers
(minimum) just to think about reading
in front of any crowd. The musicians, at least
have a guitar to hide behind. I get up there
                                                               I'm naked
and all my inadequacies are hanging out
for the old women and their knitting
to take note of, measure, and judge me on

The old men are worse. Propriety
seems to mean more to them... they'll have
no dangerous dangling in front of their women folk –
though I haven't met a an old farmer's wife yet
who would blush. (Animal husbandry
and male inadequacy have taken
more of their years than they want
to worry about.)

Try to put it all in context, mention
the French root of the word “essay”
hoping they will then forgive
the profanity that is sure to come.
I can't help but cuss in prose;
it's as natural as breathing
and comes twice as fast.
My only hope lies
in tone; will they pick up
the humor, the dry sarcasm
the self-deprecating way
I am always apologizing
for myself?

I stand and read. It's worse
than that naked dream. Remember
not to read too fast but try
not to read too slow. Sometimes I hear
what sounds like light laughter
which makes me feel better
and I push forward
building steam –
until the last three sentences
in which I unveil “... where
there is nothing to do
but drink, get fucked up, and fuck.”

The post coital silence is staggering.

Two old men in the third row glare
shake their heads. Later, they get up
sing five gospel tunes, hoping to erase
the poor sinner
for whom their christ
was supposed to have died
in the first place.

09 November, 2011

Revisions of a Not Very Fairy Tale


The story might go a little something like this:

Once there was man who lived in a little town.
As a young man, he had left that very town,
the town of his birth, because there were
no stories to tell, no songs to sing, and
everyone had fallen into a kind of
forgetful fog. This bothered him –
he saw the lives they weren't living
and the only thing that bothered him more
was the the thought that if he stayed,
the forgetful fog would overtake him, too.

But that had been many, many years ago,
and eventually he felt like he had done
what he had set out to do, traveled and seen
all he wanted to see, learned stories and songs
that he had wanted to learn from places
no one had ever heard of, and he decided
to go home.

                     But by the time he returned,
the stories he had gone off to collect
were no longer needed and he had no one
who would sit and listen.

No one except for one small childe,
a little girl named Matilde
who was very precocious
and who could be seen
talking and laughing to herself
in her mother's flower garden. She
was seven years old. Her favorite color
was purple.

02 November, 2011

Truck Day Blues

Yesterday morning, I was waiting for my wife to get ready so she could drop me off at the newspaper office, one town over. Tuesday is Truck Day. That means I drive the company panel truck to Sterling, where they're printed, load most of the bundles in the box and deliver them to the post offices and news stands. It's not a bad gig 80% of the time. One day a week, I get $10 an hour to drive around and haul newspapers. And for some reason, as annoying as being up early is, one of the moments I enjoy in the day is walking into the warehouse and getting that first whiff of newsprint.

I have no idea why.

But while I was waiting, I decided to turn on the TV. Most of the time, I watch ESPN. Just because. A lot of times I regret having cable... mostly when the bill comes due … but I do like ESPN. There's something about it that just makes me feel … I don't know... connected to the universe in some ball scratching, Al Bundy sort of way. This particular morning, though, they were talking about the World Series, and I could seriously give a shit less since I wasn't invested in either team. I'm against Texas on principle, but I have no geographic love or hate for St. Louis, though I do vaguely remember their bus station. (Please see The Greyhound Quarto for further explanation.) Flipping around trying to find something else, I ran across MSNBC and Morning Joe with Joe Scarborough.

Keep in mind that not only do I not watch Morning Joe, I tend not to watch or listen to news first thing in the morning. And no, it's not because I don't care about what goes on in the world – I do. I find my news from a variety of sources and a variety of perspectives. But I have learned – maybe because I'm in the news business – that watching, listening, or reading news first thing in the morning does nothing but sour my day and my mood. Early morning news is a combination of current event memes for the memory impaired that is often mistaken for hard news (Kim Kardashian's divorce, for example... not only is it fluff, but it shouldn't count as news. After all, does Good Morning America report every time the sun rises?) When I tuned in, though, I found former NBC Nightly News Anchor Tom Brokaw on talking about his new book, and spouting, as Brokaw often does, his thoughts on how things are going in America.

One of the things I like about Brokaw is that he's one of the few left from his business who understands the importance of context. For some reason, the American people have gotten in their heads that the news ought to be objective, without context. And naturally, which ever news outlet most reflects their views (this is true all philosophical and ideological bents) is the one given the prestigious label of “objective.” One of the things about Brokaw is that he spent so much time in the corporate media machine that the context for all of his criticism is a Post World War II 20th Century America. Rather than looking at the whole, trying to wrap his brain around history as more than Manifest Destiny, he ignores the fact that most of what we're dealing with in the Post American Century is the bullshit byproduct that's been left behind to fester since the original 13 signed off on the U.S. Constitution.

The gist of the conversation as I tuned in – as described by the caption at the bottom of the screen – was that Americans need to “re-enlist as citizens.” He went on to explain that real leaders – the people he writes about in his new tome, I guess – are people who led through action, who came up from among the people. He bemoaned the absence of “larger than life” leaders who could capture the minds and imaginations of his fellow Americans.

And I had a few thoughts, which I'll list here:

  1. “Re-enlist”... a militaristic term. Maybe we ought to consider the possibility that being in some army or another is the problem.
  2. People DO need to be directly engaged in and with their community and their country... as individuals coming together for the common good. (This, kids, is the root of all civilization.)
  3. Brokaw's critique regarding the absence or need of “larger than life” leaders is incorrect. The issue is that corporate media empires like NBC and MSNBC (wholly owned subsidiaries of General Electric) ignore them in favor of spouting non-controversial public relations reports they claim are true news reports.
  4. Underlying every argument Brokaw has made since he wrote about World War II is “These kids today... what pussies!” Maybe if he were talking to them instead of a table of talking bobble heads, he might get more of the reaction he's looking for. Or if he was paying any attention at all to current events.

That was before the coffee kicked in... which it did somewhere on Benson Road between Lanark and IL-40 headed towards Milledgeville.

Sketch of The 21st Century Underground Man

Chuck woke up in the morning resolved to do something entirely different and new from the entirely new and previous he had attempted to do on the previous day. It was, perhaps, a miscalculated attempt; not to mention a bit rash. The new thing – which consisted of Chuck trying to push his pinky fingers into electric pencil sharpeners – proved disastrous... though not for any of the reasons that he had anticipated.

The possibility that his pinky fingers would not fit proved to be a useless concern; as he was naturally slim and boney, and his fingers were feminine to the point of looking almost skeletal, his pinky fingers fit snugly, but easily. He had mentally prepared himself (as best he could) for the pain and the loss of blood, which the shock of both would most likely push him into unconsciousness – an unconsciousness that would leave him unable to explain himself. He had even prepared himself for the messy splatter by wearing his least favorite work attire – a baby blue button down with pleated khakis and the ugly tie he'd gotten from his the office Secret Santa two years ago. The shirt was baggy and uncomfortable and the pants made him feel like he was walking inside a mostly deflated balloon. The tie was particularly distasteful and nothing like he would buy himself. It was brash, with race car red and brash yellow stripes. In the middle of the tie there was a smiley face with a bullet hole in its forehead and a small caption underneath that read “Have A Splendid Day!”

He hated the tie, but kept it because it HAD been a present and he might be called upon to prove he still had it. His Secret Santa that year had been Chuck Wassermann. He hated that he had a name in common with someone who's sense of humor could be summed up by such an ugly tie. He'd even tried to get people to call him Charles – but that did absolutely no good. He had been a Chuck his entire life and he would remain a Chuck forever.

Having considered all reasonable possibilities, it was the one problem he hadn't counted on – the one that, in retrospect, seemed the most obvious – that led to his failure.

None of the pencil sharpeners worked. Not a single one.

He checked the plugs; some of them were unplugged, but most were. They just didn't work. No one used pencils anymore, but no one thought to get rid of the pencil sharpeners. It was as if they were there, but they didn't exist.

At the end of the day, still wearing the powder blue shirt, khaki pants and Wassermann's ugly tie, Chuck left at his usual time, making sure to take one of the pencil sharpeners with him. He was not usually a thief; but he also knew that the only thing worse than being useless was to be ignored.

He made sure to hide just how disappointed he was that his plan didn't work out and that his pinky fingers were both intact. In the absence of a grand and ironic (as he saw it) act, Chuck saw no alternative but to walk in front of the 43 bus – a bus, which, if he hurried, he would be able to catch one block south from the office building, right in front of that after work bar where Wassermann drank martinis and flirted with women.

He caught the elevator down, sharing with a woman in Wassermann's department. She was new. Her name was Delores. Chuck had only marginally noticed her since she was too attractive to pay him any attention, and women never liked him anyway. He stood next to her in the elevator, breathing in the scent of her perfume – which was an unusually pleasant experience, since he was allergic to most perfumes. He took notice of her without trying to be obvious. Well kept, conservative looking. Light make-up. Shoulder length red hair. But he didn't speak to her. As the elevator hit the Lobby Floor and the doors wooshed open in mechanical silence, she turned, smiled, and spoke.

“That's a funny tie,” she said. Then she walked out of the elevator and into the Lobby and away.

Chuck was shocked out his plan to step in front of the 43 bus by his interaction. He spent the rest of the evening thinking about her and tinkering with the pencil sharpener.

By morning he knew what he was going to do.