Saturday, October 13, 2012

Fenwick’s In the Manger

(part 6, born on a train)

            You’re the rattletrap scream slapped on the smudge-slick walls, like murals murked with a copper glaze, as the horizon’s brushed with a mirage of distant painted mountains, some flat-topped and rubbed raw, the clay and creosote terrain like a valley on mars, bent crosses of ancient telephone-pole shadows on it and the scrub bush patchy in places on the streaks of flatland punctuated by these tiny hillocks of grassy yellows and burnt red, faces in the rubble of a thousand jagged rocks jutting out like rusty scars, and above giant stationary swaths of cloud hanging like discarded moth-eaten sheets, lonely semis plugging along on invisible roads in the midst of nothing, and the telephone wires racing along, and the sudden blur of a passing train in the shadow of yours, and then that slight slam and whisk and swoosh of it as you charge through the desert on a track in the middle of nothing.
            Through the dry-raindrop stained glass the squatting mounds of tree-laden hills roll, and the low-lying wiry stems of future tumbleweeds flail in the hunch of a light breeze. Mustard blurs and blowsy greens scuffle for breath in an instant’s spotty sea of blue-green. The Colorado river, lazy and sparkling, meanders away through the ghosts of boxcars and rocky debris. Windswept gullies striped from blood-red to roseate. The hitched pull of a turn. The gentle rocking gone to a thrust and yawing rumble of a switchback, and the tracks screech and whine as the whistle howls all’s well through a rain-splashed night.       
             A thrashing well past midnight as the bunk slips and lunges, as you’re bumped and shook out of dreams to a coffin-low ceiling and gurney-like straps hemming you in. Spun and dazedly muddied into fits of half-turns and pillow-squashed horror, you balance your sanity on a burnt-out match tip. A constant turn that beckons your body close to the plastic cabin partition, and then a sweeping roar buried deep within the confines of night’s massive black curls. A crunched tilt, weary and dolorous, squints on borrowed sightlines, and you are sweaty and lost in a whirl’s list and bob. Staring tiredly into a blankness that borrows stars from your eyes and makes everything spin, you wind and unwind at once that spool of your life’s thread, and somewhere behind the thick pulled curtains the moon’s out there harvesting the sky’s leftovers, and you wish for rest and roll over, head still hung with bluebells and cedars and the golden sparkles of aspen leaves on the river.    
            Rushing through forests on a dining car. Coffee cups jackhammering their saucers, silverware jostled from napkin to tablecloth, the puttering whine of it all: that high-pitched howling train whistle, the tracks’ metallic silver screech and bumpy plaints, and the discordant smattering of about two dozen getting-to-know-you conversations. A tacky glint of a seriousness that welds smiles into place, and you’re off and on to a lush sprint through treetops and gaping boulders in the hillside: a verdurous landscape littered with crackled red-yellow-orange leaves and the thick webs of a thousand cypress and cedar branches huddled and spread in massive bunches all the way up and down impossible-to-believe valleys and river-cut gorges. Moods waning gibbous in a felled tree's former shade, and you’re chalking it all up to misery’s biding time in the duality of perspective’s constant flash and flurry, passing, always passing, always just ahead and a tad behind. Wider strains of being wise smile backwards while a protective coat of idiocy covers what’s left of the surface. The snack bar’s open late. Somewhere kindly beyond any cocktail you’ve ever known lies the path of most likely resistance. You are under a table. Hot dogs are served with mayonnaise and avocado. A few passengers have been thrown out an emergency exit marked For Conductor’s Use Only. There are kites tangled in the ceiling lights. You have become rather obsolete.                        
            Vast farmland stretches skimming by, tracts of light trapped and warped in sloped distance pull me into some very serious contemplation over my life, where it’s going, and to whom I am going to attach it. My jokes on loan for the night to an upstart ribbon salesman, reappearing loyal and jumpy to the rest of the at-hand mourners. To just say things to fall out of love over and over, to just hold rust-steady for making a jerky start at wildness. Hankering on to other Wyomings, I’m sold long, insufficiently interested in what others have got to say. Appended and lunky, very lorded over and sometimes serious. A honked horn of guilt stabbed blind in a rather ornery hurry that, let’s say, is making do. Let’s just say.    
            Last time around everything was sloped. Vanishing acted its part. The men were less wise than they should’ve been. The yard sales lost their feathers. If the thread of steamed passiveness let on anything but the parts it never played, if the yearn of doubt overstayed its wellness, then a shallower cup might follow what’s left of now’s substance. Around this time or next I’ll be shoveling loose gravel from my smile onto somebody else’s road.
            Cramped quarters, narrow halls, stooped shoulders and a sailor’s mouth, fingerprint smudges on the window. Stirred and settled. The lights flicker. Nobody’s comfortable. A staticky voice crackles over the ceiling speakers: “Is it afar? Bought slowly. In chance per the leaving rate. You had us. It was wrapped in clover and bacon. There’s a cuss word I can’t guess. It’s putting up with. It’s jotting up too. We don’t dump coffee all over anything, except ourselves. Stronger still. Oil slicks what remains. Try to pass the rolls. We’ve got all the jelly in the world at our disposal. Bumped and brambled to stink alone. It is not beautiful.”
(part 9, clarinets & rings)

            It’s hot. The whole damn town’s got their windows open all night. It’s undershirts and pants cut off at the knees. And the buses are overheating, and the things you pick off the street are shriveled and dried out. It’s hot. The moon’s cutting close to full in the rhubarb of a huddled porkpie-black sky. Bath water boils, and tacks pop from walls. A night of humid longing, starved for some girl’s smile. And the girls around here are barely wearing any clothes at all, dancing up hills in high heels, champagne drunk and singing all the way to the top. All the former good guys finished at last, sweating and defeated. Some ladies want to play Kissy Face with me in the street, and I tell them, “Look. I already got me a girl.” But they tell me, “What she don’t know…right?” It’s an uppercut to my usually drunk sensibilities, and I have to reel myself in to walk faster than needed away from them. It’s hot. It’s way too damn hot. I’m on vodka tonics; the ice cubes my best friends for the moment. Somehow I feel it’s absolutely better to not kneel to Old Buk’s female flowers, but to let on that I am. I’m hired help to a dream that died long ago. You get to racking your brains over what you don’t know about somebody you thought you knew, and you realize you never know, never, about any damn anybody-- not even yourself. And it doesn’t matter. The yes you make believe you're saying for your own good, it gets you less than nowhere. At some point the river rises higher than you can handle, and you’ve got to swim or drown in your own misery. It’s hot. Too hot for TV. Too hot for a little rumba. Too hot for suspicion. It’s riled derailed ambition. I’m all out of last times. Some guy’s trying to fight me on Polk Street at seven in the morning. The sweaty cockeyed bastard kicks at me screaming, “The next time I’m gunna punch you in the face! You think it’s funny? Huh?” I blink twice and walk away. Nobody’s got the weather. It’s hot. It’s unbearable, a frying pan along with the fire beneath. People should stay inside when times like this come around. But they don’t. Hitched to a try at being somebody, they walk with fire instead of letting the fire walk with them. I could’ve been somebody. Any old somebody, or a piano player. On a night like this, dark and moonbeamed to death, I walk like death into a closed window with only a bottle to my name. I play alive. I concur with streetlights. I un-tuck my personality from the pants of my spirits, and I sidle up to lampposts who can’t quite corroborate my story.    
            The next girl I fall in love with will know who Norma Shearer is. She’ll like old books and the smell of spit, and when the trash gets too full she’ll squash it back down with a fist. The next girl I fall in love with will have dreams of pirate-shaped tattoos and Mercy-Springs ghosts. She will be kind of blue. Sometimes we might talk on payphones way into the wee hours, and we might just ride the subway all through the night too. She’ll snap when she makes decisions. We’ll have martini olives for dinner while the crickets sing God Save The Queen. Her favorite color will be black-and-white. Together we’ll be lofted rumpled way past the hounds of it’s-nobody’s-business-but-me-and-my-baby’s. And a candy-proof smile just might mess around with what we don’t got. But what we do will be enough. There will be places to be. There will be places to be from. And we won’t hock our story for the sake of a lousy buck. And the accordion in my heart will always be playing our favorite song. And we’ll sleep whenever we want to. And, also, the next girl I fall in love with will love me back.
            It’s hot. There’s no use in trying to be someone. The lawns are all on fire. The wind’s a blow dryer. The butter’s melted all over the counter. I really dropped a tomato in today’s ketchup.                       
            Wasting away in a little Spanish town. The flattery of belly-smooth leaves. Cauliflower light in the bower of cloud streaks. Jailed hurt cracked apart, spilled to a splattered stain. I am open to suggestions as the muted late-night TV glows in a corner. All the umps are blind, and the bridegrooms are defunct. Talking to copper walls and harboring the misgivings of sleeveless cheats. I’m all out of leaving. Socks pulled up. Hat on the bed. And there’s not a fan around for miles.
            You don’t dress for weather like this; you undress for it. Open all the windows and shoot the crooks with slingshot gumballs. I’m past all tenses. I’m crushing so-be-its with bare feet, abetting folded-up umbrellas boxed away for a season, clearing tables with a sneeze. I fold, asking the tablecloth, “Are there airplanes in your pea soup?”        
            Some real toilets, these places I’ve been shouting around in. Sharing terrain with a headless statue of Walter Matthau and a box of expired cereal. The TV’s chewing the cud of empty hours with infomercial charm. I’m buying a knife that’ll slice a cement slab like a loaf of bread.

(part 7, of the certain unalienable rights of drunks)

            Leroy was monkey-dancing his was through Thrift Town, throwing ties at people, taking clothes off their hangers and tossing them over the racks and onto the floor, and somewhere in the Ohio of his mind a dancing misery ensued, and his whole demeanor sagged beneath the weight of either a-few-too-many or a-few-too-few whiskies, his eyebrows even seeming to wilt, and I had to grab him before he did a face plant on the carpet.
            “That girl. When we came in. Leroy! Are you listening? That girl says she used to live with you. She knows your name.”
            He shook his head, rather disgruntled, but understanding. “Girl? I never did live with no girl! What the fuck! Who? Where the fuck is she?”
            I pointed rather sheepishly in the general direction of where I remembered having heard this voice, this girl’s voice speaking, in a group of people huddled by the board games, when we’d, rather obstreperously and with much bravado and boisterous ado I might add, made our way into the store. Then again, I’d hade a good fill of whisky also, and wasn’t completely sure of this girl’s whereabouts, or if she even existed, though I was pretty sure of it.
            “She’s over there man. Keep your voice down. Jesus. Just forget about it. Here. Help me find a tie. That’s all we came here for. Come on.”
            There were roughly two thousand and eleven ties on the silver tie racks. They were smashed together on there, hanging there, kind of lonely looking if you ask me, like never-to-be-adopted orphans, and I was having a hard time wading through them. Most were about a dollar or so.
            Leroy fished through them, snaring giant fistfuls, and grunting and laughing and shouting the whole while. “All these fucking ties suck shit! Not one goddamn decent tie in the brunch!”
            “In the brunch?”
            I also began rummaging through this bevy of silk and cotton neckwear, and Leroy had a good point. Most of them were stinkers.
            “In the breakfast!”
            “In the supper!”
            “In the soup! Soup! Soup for all the sumbitches!”
            We both kept screaming things like that as we searched through the ties. Many people in the store had started to stare. It didn’t affect us at all.
            “Look at this motherfucker! It’s gorgeous!” Leroy was holding a red and white striped tie with little green bells on it. “And look. It’s fucking polyester! You can’t beat that shit. A polyester tie. Look at that. It’s unbelievable.”
            I had to agree. It was really something. Unfortunately the security guard patrolling the thrift store didn’t see things our way.
            “Okay boys. Time to move it on out.”
            He was a real stickler for the rules, that guy. A faux-gold badge glimmered from his chest, and I spotted a Taser gun in his second-hand gun belt. Not a man who took himself lightly.
            Leroy was having none of it. “We’re shopping. Leave us alone. Is it illegal for us to shop? This is a store. People shop here. That’s what people do in a store. We’re shoppers. Leave us be.”
            “You guys need to keep your voices down. You’re scaring the customers.”
            It was true. I saw an old lady in the next aisle pulling her shawl a little farther over her head; and a little kid in the Kitchen & Dining section seemed about ready to burst into tears.
            I tried to reassure the poor man. “We’re just going to grab this here tie here and be on our way. Don’t worry about us. We’re cool as cacti.”
            Leroy gave me that look that meant, “I’m about ready to beat the living shit out of you so you better take your damn glasses off.” It was a look I knew well. He gave it to me a lot when we we’re hanging out.
            The security guard wasn’t quite convinced that we were going to behave ourselves, but decided to give us the benefit of the doubt, and, while still keeping an eye peeled for us, went on his merry way stalking up and down the aisles again.
            I took the polyester tie and joined the line to pay for it. A bald man wearing only the vest of a three-piece suit over his hairy torso, who smelled like Old Spice and bacon, stood smiling in front of me, slightly rocking back and forth, and humming the theme song from The Love Boat. He was wearing loafers and didn’t have socks on. I hated him. I held my tie in my fist and waited.
            Leroy was prancing all over the place, writhing and bellowing and doing a lot of frown-smiling. He somehow became engaged in a heated debate with the person in charge of holding people’s personal belongings while they shopped. This person gave shoppers little laminated tags with numbers on them in exchange for their bags and purses. It seems Leroy had managed to grab one of these numbers, but had no stuff to get back, as he’d brought no stuff in with him, well, aside from all the cashews he’d shoved in his pockets at the bar we’d been doing our afternoon drinking at before going on this tie-finding rampage. There, of course, was a lot of confusion, and a lot to be confused about.
            “But I’ve got a number! I give you my number, you give me my stuff. That’s how it works, right? Am I wrong?” Leroy looked around for some corroboration. I looked away. Getting involved in this pointless, and possibly dangerous charade was not in my best interest. Then I saw that girl we’d seen on the way in. She was whispering to her friends, who were all huddled around her by the women’s clothing section, and she was pointing at Leroy and laughing. Her friends looked a bit scared. I didn’t blame them. It wasn’t a pretty sight, Leroy going bonkers like that. He probably smelled strongly of whisky and B.O. as well.
            I ignored everything going on.
            “Next.” A cashier called me over. I proceeded to purchase my tie for $1.19. I gave the small Filipino woman at the counter exact change. She was extremely pleased by this.
            Leroy came up behind me. “I don’t like the cut of that guy’s jib,” referring, I surmised, to the guy who wouldn’t take his number in return for Leroy’s nonexistent stuff. “Fucking daisy plucker.”
            I shook my head, took my new tie, and walked outside. Leroy bounded his way out behind me. It was bright and windy.
            Now, why was I out looking for a tie at a thrift store, half-drunk, with a soused Leroy tagging along? Well, it seems we’d started off the afternoon at The Uptown, one of our favorite spots to have a few daylight libations, and while there had fallen into a conversation with the bartender. I’d expressed remorse over my tie-less suit. The bartender was sympathetic. She told me I looked a bit too casual for dancing. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded about right. And I love to dance. So I decided to down what was left of my beer, grab Leroy-- who was hunched over a stool working on his beer-lifting technique next to me --and head down to Thrift Town, which was only a block away. There was something scrambled about our walking, and I was limping a lot, as my bum knee was acting up. It often does so when the weather gets mean.             
            Mission was all jammed up with midday bargain hunters and bacon-wrapped hotdog venders. Leroy’s deliriousness took a breather as we trotted along, and I decided to stop and put my new tie on in the reflection of a taqueria’s window.
            “I know that girl!”
            I continued with my tie tying. “Who? What? Where? Why?”
            “That chick in the thrift store. You know.”
            “I do?”
            “Yeah. She’s the clown!”
            I shook my head in a very serious manner, continuing the dexterous motions of tying a four-in-hand around my neck.
            “She’s the one who moved in with me when I needed some extra rent money. The fucking clown!”
            Leroy was staring at me grimly in the window’s reflection. His mustache was a limp, dead tarantula. “Do you have any fucking idea at all of what the fuck you’re doing?”
            For some reason I was struggling with the tie situation. “No. None.”
             I finished the job, rather obscenely, and strode off down Mission, heading south. Leroy pranced along behind me, throwing cashews at pigeons and stop signs, and darting in and out of the oncoming foot traffic like a downhill skier on acid.
            I wanted strong drink. I had no time for anything else. Soon I came to The Bar on Mission, and I went inside. Leroy came flopping and floundering his way in a few minutes later. I sat at the bar and ordered two whiskies, neat, and the tallest glass they had of ice-cold beer. The bartender was a bald burly guy who hated my guts immediately, and told me, “I only got one size glass, buddy, and I ain’t got no ice, so nothing’s going to be ice-cold.”
            It was okay. I didn’t care. I just sat there and stared into the bar mirror, enjoying this nice dark place to be inside of, to be away in, to be far from the horrors of the outside world. Then The Weight came on the jukebox. Nobody sang along. And it made me inconsolably sad. I just sat there and tried not to care. Eventually I was able to convince myself not to. And I didn’t. And I didn’t. I sat there like that for hours, and I didn’t care at all.

 (part 3, epistle to a sunflower)

            They kicked the brittle, cracked, fall-colored leaves around on the sidewalk; shoes scuffing; heads down; hands straightjacketed around their middles. A squirrel sprinted up a palm tree and squatted at the base of a large, drooping frond.
            “I’m thinking of asking your sister to marry me.”
            She didn’t say anything at first. They both kept scattering the leaves around with their feet. A slight smile played around on her face, but slipped away before it did anything telling. The air was crisp with stillness. He put both hands on his lower back and arched.
            Nobody said anything.
            He balanced himself with his toes on the curb’s edge, holding his arms out perpendicularly, as if he were preparing for a back dive, lifting his body up and down, slowly, with a somehow unnatural rhythm. She scrunched her face, then stopped, allowing her small features to spread out and conform to a mold that seemed forced and calm at the same time.
             He remembered being young, just a kid. Maybe ten or eleven. Fainting. The quick rush of blood. A sudden tremble, your head tingling like a limb fallen asleep beneath you. And then that pinhole of light guiding you away into darkness. Being nowhere, suddenly. There was a certain safety there, and he wanted that comfort back, now.
            Above, a poplar dangled its maroon and blood-orange leaves from gnarled branches that were like long, scrawny fingers poking around for lazy eyes. The sky was bustling with scattered clouds and speckled bands of dying sunlight. A small sedan crept by slightly below the 25-mph speed limit, almost breezy and complacent, not in a hurry, just moseying along without purpose. They both gazed at it for a bit longer than seemed appropriate.  
             “There’s probably something she’s not telling you about. And it’s because she doesn’t even know it herself, what it is.” She didn’t rush her words; they flowed as if of their own volition from her small, soft mouth. “Oh. She’d blush about it, sure. But, well, I’m on to you two, you know that?” Somebody opened a window in the house across the street with a swish and clack that seemed obscenely loud.
            “Nothing’s happening…” He halted, almost stuttering, “with, that.”
            Her face cherried. She brushed her bangs away from her forehead with a forced swiping motion. She looked everywhere except at where his face happened to be on this blustery late-afternoon fall day. Her hands went hunkering to her sweater’s pockets, trying to seem as if she were ignoring the chill peppering her skin with goose bumps.
            “I know.” She spit it out like a mouthful of overripe pomegranate seeds as her head swiftly no’d back and forth.
            “Nobody’s telling.”
            “I know. I know.” Everything about her body felt as if it were shifting, expanding and shrinking, losing its shape and then darting back to form, over and over. Nothing felt like it was hers.
            The house on the corner where they were standing was surrounded by hydrangeas. Pink and white swirls puffed all around the well-groomed yard, spotting the foliage like dumped confetti with their soft petals. He thought of grade school, of waking up after the unconscious nowhere of a faint, of all the faces hovering in a blurry oval of sight, the laughing shock of it, and that feeling that something was missing, like a piece of his life had been sliced away never to return, and in its place was just an empty triangle of loss. Woozy regret shifted and stole through him, and he coughed into his hand to mark this place in the pages of his thoughts. None of this mattered. People did things and moved on with living.
             They’d been walking around the neighborhood where the two sisters had grown up. It was quiet, tree-lined, with narrow streets; each house distinct; unlike the suburban realms he’d known as a kid, where every other house was exactly the same, as if they’d been cut out of a mold and placed there like dominoes, every driveway, façade, and lawn the same. Paint color and shrubbery almost the only things separating your home from somebody else’s. It was different here. Each home had its own unique architectural flourishes, shape, and character-- though most were similarly bungalow-styled. He wondered about the lives of people who lived in such homes, if they were more rich and meaningful than the lives of those who were raised in the drab cookie-cutter shapes of endless conformity. Maybe even the cockroaches were different, more elegant and refined in their taste.
            Down the street, a dog being walked barked at another dog being walked towards it. The owners reigned in their leashes to separate the beasts. A certain longing washed through the air, wringing away a bitter stab of forgiveness. 
            They looked everywhere except at each other.
            They kept walking. A breezy fluke slipped through them, and there wasn’t anything to say, so they just walked, gazing at the leaf-littered sidewalk, the high curbs above the mildewed gutters, and the flaring green of lawns. Everything was happening as it should. There was no to-morrow, and today was a Scantron test that’d never be filled in. A moth gulped. The streetlights flickered to sodium-yellow life. He made believe that he was a mosquito, that he could buzz girl’s ears while they slept, land on their skin without waking them, and…
            …that’s as far as he got. He’d been crossing the street. He hadn’t heard anybody screaming at him. The car, it was going too fast. There wasn’t any time. The sound of skidding tires and a dull thud, and a small mewl escaping from his lips that, if anybody’d heard it, might just have sounded like the word, “love.” The moon was the color of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. Life went on its way without him.

 (part 1, curbside melody)

because you don’t love me, because, love being one thing, and two another, love, that is, as love’s tug is heavier when light, brushed to burst, love is, because you, love, don’t love, feel love, really, love not lost or found, merely a sometimes guess, a rendered yes, to love, out of or in, where the when’s just a who, because, love, i do not understand, love, what it is, this chance, if it were love, or if, it might, by chance, love, be mine, or yours, or a stranger’s, or even ours, through dooms of haunted afternoons, or, love, tonight, we’d take it, yes, love, to say things like you don’t say, or let me get that for you, or you shouldn’t have, love, or catch the next bus, love, kind of let loose to be caged, or no, because you don’t know yet, without a phone call or a postcard or even the flying trapeze, and we go with love, styled to love, and without it too, for a change, worth being constantly partly at risk, at least, swaying if near to a dance, love opts for more, and nobody ever had a damn fool’s chance, love, in the first, or last place, with all this cockamamie talk that we talk about love, not cigarets or barbwire, love, so please, love, pick me, over here, please, love, over this-a-way, love, look, it’s me, call me back, love, and you, you’re not love, too smart for love, to be in, lost, never more lonely or afraid, love, tossed towards the gutter, squinting in the moonlight, love, chased and left, maybe over, mostly eking out a sorry, hand-holding slumped past trying, knotted and borrowed, love, we look to an us to save love, just a trailer without a movie, meatloaf sans ketchup, love, slaked beyond knowing love, it is an estimation worth not making, wet coffee grounds filled with dead cigars, a break between commercials, more than a like but less than toast or handwritten notes in the mail, and it swings, cruelly nice, yes, not even the baboons or dreaming periwinkles notice, faking a cry for love, a no doesn’t stand a chance, because, love, free to be trapped, you don’t, by love, have what makes love, this, already kind of a dying shark, before what gave love’s loss a tie and not a win, love, tripped to fall all apart for, without a windy night or a stick of gum between us, love, it is hard to spell backwards, almost a sometimes, love, that gets heartstrings tangled and roseate elephants trampled, because commandeered love, like this, doesn’t stick, so it’s crazier to be left, love, if staying’s gone kaput, then by love, or without it, as it’s an only that’s lost an if, if anything, we get drunk to love, by or with it too, if, love, we get to play for keeps, love, or have something left of love to do, wed to sky blue trades of love, simple, love, a missed call but no message, love makes grief out of promise and katzenjammer from great depths, kindly yielding, love, in the end, what love will not do for love, soaked in mandrake, choking a scream, plastered and hopelessly outraged, love, sewn farther than stars between love, for everyone else but oneself, love, it will not have an end, love, because we are not good enough, in the end, paddling on borrowed smiles, love, not alive enough, like this even, hatless, for the likes of what it means, love, growing old with love, whatever love might mean to ever one day be, love, for the birds, love, with or without the likes of me