Saturday, April 30, 2011

Telescope Arcade

i dreamed i went to a telescope arcade on a big green hill. The building was open on all sides and there were gaps in the roof to look through. There were children, mostly boys, peering into the telescopes of every type and size, pointed in every direction -- up at the sky, across the vast fields that surrounded us, toward distant buildings and barns. The sun had set, but there was light, lovely blue and green light making the landscape glow.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Reddi Wip

two canada geese nervously navigate a crooked tannin stretch of water
they want nothing to do with us
or the kingfisher
we meet a man doing old man wheelies on his mountain bike
and his dog, Milkshake
vanilla and foxy
and big of heart
they live in the big old green mobile home
with the gourds in the trees
and the random wind chimes
he tells me about the coyotes
“there’s a pack in the Big Woods
they holler all night, weird damn animals”

the bulldozer
that sits under the collapsed tin roof
of the tobacco barn
is now FOR SALE
It’s the color of an unripe banana
and i wonder if it starts
i’d rather have the baler
that sits under the pin oak
frankly

and the big lady,
i mean, the really big black lady
that lives across from the pond
with the caramel chihuahua
she’s got a new barrel
for burning garbage
it’s fantastically painted
red and white
it’s a promotional barrel
of Reddi Wip
I can’t take my eyes off it
like my dog can’t resist the pond
i pull him back to me with the leash
“Can’t you see the NO FISHING sign?
There’s probably alligators in that pond
you can’t swim with alligators.”
He looks at me with that Why?
Why not?
Why?

And I wonder if that barrel once held Reddi Wip
how many strawberry shortcakes did it take
to empty that barrel?
What a party that must have been
An endless sea of slightly sweet cream
and all those beautiful fat ladies
apologizing for their below par shortcake
and all those men asking for more
more strawberries
more shortcake
more Reddi Wip outta that barrel
. . . what sweet fires it will burn now
wip cream smoke
wip cream refuse
burn
burn
burn

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Two Crows and a Bojangles' Bag

The sun came up blazing on Easter morning and since it had been raining for two days straight, the crows decided to fly up Highway 57 and see what they could see. All the cars went in the same direction toward the Big  Church, but there was a truck, a big red truck that came north from town and it looked promising. The crows banked and followed the truck past the plumbing company, past the vacant lot for Lease to Own, and past the soybean field where they had a Rock For Jesus concert last summer and 10,000 motorcycles had come to town for that, well, talk about plenty of half eaten corn dogs and caramel popcorn, and little gummie candies shaped like the Lord strewn all over that field after the people and the stage that held the enlightened but not very talented musicians were gone. The crows didn't know that Rock For Jesus would never come back to town because there had been a 10 mile traffic jam and a knife fight in the pool hall at the back of town where a black man was murdered because he said Jesus didn't do much for him and he didn't see the sense in riding motorcycles all over God's green earth to prove that one's love of Jesus was true. All the crows knew was that they ate real well for a few days, and for the first time ever maybe, nobody cared if Coyote showed up and helped himself.
So just when the truck was getting close to the Indian crossroads, just when the crows were about to give up on it, the passenger window rolled down and a big hairy arm flung a Bojangles bag out where it tore open in the wind and all it's papery and flaky biscuit remainders jettisoned like rocket fuel over a foreign ocean just before the jet makes an emergency landing. The truck lurched away from it's dumped payload and the crows were ecstatic.

Big Crow: Paydirt!
Crooked Crow: What I tell you man? It's always the red Chevys, always.
Big Crow: No time to lose Brother, no time to lose.

The crows swooped down, lowered their landing gear and took immediate inventory.

Crooked Crow: Well lookie here, I got myself a half eaten sausage biscuit with cheese.
Big Crow: Virginia Ham here boy, and for some reason, they only ate the bottom half of the biscuit, didn't touch the ham!
Crooked Crow: Virginia Ham tends to be tough, some people don't realize salt cured ham can be hard on the teeth, so they toss it. I've found plenty of Virginia Ham on the side of the road, but to find pork sausage of such quality with American cheese? This is truly some sort of manna from God.
Big Crow: Got me some coffee with cream here too, and I'm guessing. . . yop, that's two sugars and that's real cream, not the non-dairy stuff. Bring that sausage over here Brother.
Crooked Crow picks up the sausage with the cheese clinging mightily to it and hops toward Big Crow. He drops it at the mouth of the coffee cup and goes back to collect the half of biscuit that was so heartlessly tossed out with the sausage.
Crooked Crow: Brother, do you see what else we've been blessed with this morning?
Big Crow: That's not what I think it is, is it?
Crooked Crow: It is, it is . . . it's two unopened containers of grape jelly. And a sweet tea that managed to land upright, spared of lemon. Brother, we are kings this morning -- kings!
Big Crow and Crooked Crow delve into the task eating without another word; they know that a find like this is rare, and risky. The vultures were already riding the warm air currents and soon they would pick up the delicious scent of the crow's fortunate find. Ground Hog was never averse to inviting himself to dine roadside, and being a loud mouth by nature, could easily bring Raccoon out for a mid-morning snack. Dogs were a constant bother, especially a white shepherd owned by the farmer who saw himself as nothing but completely superior to those who slept outside, as though having a Man's roof over his head made him superior to all other four-leggeds.  But worst of all, haste had to be made of this gastronomical gold because of Coyote. Once Coyote got wind of the Virginia Ham, he'd be in his Eldorado so fast that the doors of the Big Church would blow open with his furious disturbances of time and space.
Big Crow pecked and pecked at the Virginia Ham and seized upon his coffee with cream and two sugars, and just when the caffeine began to make him high, he heard the roar of an engine.
Big Crow: You hear that?
Crooked Crow: Hear what?
Big Crow: That . . .
Crooked Crow: I don't hear anything except this here American Cheese, do you know what it's saying?
Big Crow: What's it saying brother?
Crooked Crow: It's saying, "To think I was driving up the highway in the hands of some hairy man, and instead, here I am, take me!"
Big Crow: Yer crazy. Cheese don't talk like that . . . wait, there it is again! Do you hear that?
Crooked Crow: Yer crazy, I don't hear anything.
Big Crow: Aw shit, here he comes.
Crooked Crow: Oh man!
Big Crow: I told you I heard something.
Crooked Crow: Coyote, damn Coyote.
Big Crow: Listen, get that piece a sausage and I'll take this half a biscuit and we'll run for it.
Crooked Crow: Okay, but every time we fly with something You-Know-Who always shows up.
Big Crow: Hawk?
Crooked Crow: Yeah.
Big Crow: Don't worry about him today, I heard he's got bigger fish to fry . . .
The two crows grab what they can and take flight, they make one large circle over the highway as Coyote pulls over and steps out of the Eldorado. He looks up at them and down at what's left, a piece of Virginia Ham and a teaspoon of Sweet Tea. He shakes his head and then his fist at the two crows as they fly away.
Big Crow: Not a bad morning brother, not bad at all
Crooked Crow: yeah, but I still wanna know where he got that car.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The War of the Fireworks and My First Dead Body

Having left Silver Avenue because of the Crack House, the Mexicans, the Lumbees, and that suspicious hole in my bathroom ceiling, I moved into a house on College Hill that had been cleverly divided into three apartments. It was a circa 1930’s bungalow with high ceilings, big windows, and an enormous bathroom. While my gas range was tiny, made for traveling around in a camper really, my bathtub was more than six feet long and came with clawed feet. Pyro lived two blocks away and he was happy to help me paint the apartment when I moved in. The front sitting room with wide windows that looked out to the street was given a nice coat of eggshell white, but since the kitchen was the largest room and central to the apartment we went kind of wild and painted it salmon pink, the bathroom was painted cornflower blue which made the glass shelves we put in the windows sparkle and I loaded them up with piles of plants and this made for a steamy greenhouse . . . baths have never been the same since I moved from that place. And finally my bedroom was painted an antique white to compliment an iron bedstead I had found at a thrift shop on Elm Street. This was a real step up from my crumbling digs back on Silver Avenue.

My landlord Jeff was a different sort from good old boy real estate  mob boss Eddie of Silver Avenue. Jeff owned many houses in College Hill, including the old Victorian across the street which had a gingerbread front porch and was inhabited upstairs by a good hippie friend Todd and downstairs by The Fattest Woman in the World named Jane. Jeff was known to many as a first class slum lord with a heart of gold. He ran around town in a banged up van filled with paints and tools and his sidekick was a middle aged beagle named Snoopy. Pyro had known Jeff for years because he’d done some painting for him before he went to college and Jeff had been his landlord at one point, during the weird years. So we were all one big happy family. I settled into the apartment very happily with my two cats, my books, and my record collection. My walking commute to the library was cut in half and I didn’t have to walk up dark Silver Avenue anymore. I felt practically yuppified.

Py and I befriended the older gentleman bachelor who lived upstairs, a man named Dave, who had grown up in the College Hill neighborhood and who had a fairly amazing collection of original art by local artists. He held lovely dinner parties where we ate black eyed peas and country ham and drank beer into the wee hours.

And then, the war of the fireworks began.

Todd, the Dead Head following, glass-blowing, stained-glass box maker, sometime roofer, part-time engineering major who lived across the street came over one night and said he had some fireworks he just bought on a road trip and wouldn’t we like to set them alight with him. Well, next thing you know, Pyro says he’s got some fireworks back at his place and he rides his bike up the street and returns with a backpack full of ammunition. By the time we got started it was almost midnight and so the street was mostly asleep and we’re out there in the middle of the road lighting this roman candle and that chinese star rocket  and next thing you know, we’ve got a full blown light show happening, and the neighbors come out, including my old English professor Jim and his wife who Dannie and their two little kids who are wearing nothing but their skivvies and Dave from upstairs comes down and tells us that the woman in the third apartment has a dog named Bandit that’s afraid of thunder and if we don’t stop, well, he’s liable to jump out the second story window, so we stop. And the street smells like gun powder and Todd says that he thinks his fireworks were higher quality than Pyro’s  and even though their hippies,  you can tell that this means War.

So a few weeks later, I have to drive to South Carolina to visit family and Pyro tells me to stop at South of the Border and pick up the biggest, loudest, craziest fireworks I can find and I say okay. When I return, I find out that while Pyro was feeding my cats and hanging out at my apartment while I was away, Todd had been coming over in the middle of the night, banging on the door and saying, “Hey man, come out here and see THIS!” And Todd would light something and it would explode in the middle of the street and wake up the neighbors and poor Bandit would bounce off the walls upstairs. So when I get back with this trunk full of stuff, we launch an attack one night on unsuspecting Todd who’s sitting on his front porch with his new girlfriend . . . the moon is shining, and we’re full of wine and we hide in the holly bushes and start shooting rockets across the street at them and next thing, Todd’s running up to his apartment and a full on rocket attack ensues. We’re shooting bottle rockets the size of bayonets across the street at each other and never mind that it’s midnight on a weeknight, and that someone could lose an eye, the point is that we need to prove that one neighbor has a greater arsenal of fireworks than the other neighbor. Well, Todd runs out of rockets and so do we. And we go back in the house and Pyro says, “Well, I guess that’s it for the night.” But I have something in my trunk that I hadn’t told him about. The Secret Weapon!  Todd’s windows had gone dark, it was probably 1 am now and I go out to the car and haul the A-Bomb into the house. I put it on the kitchen table, “This will show ‘em” and Py grinned from ear to ear like no other Pyromaniac could and I handed him a book of matches. The A-Bomb was specially constructed to go off in several stages, but the label was not very specific as to how it might behave. It was the biggest single firework you could buy at South of the Border without some sort of permit from the military. Not only was it bigger than a bread box, it was heavier than a cannonball. It delighted us with it red and yellow paper wrapping -- it was delicately decorated and it promised us Might with it’s depiction of cascading stars and exclamations in Chinese. We turned off the apartment lights and went out into the street, planted the A-Bomb on the yellow line, looked one way, and then the other, straightened the fuse, struck the match and called up to Todd’s bedroom window, “Hey Man, Watch This!”

Pyro touched the lit match to the fuse and before the flame reached the canister we knew we were in trouble, because the canister seemed to split open, and a scream emanated from it’s belly that seemed to come from hell. We ran back to the steps of the house as the first stage began; huge molotov cocktails were shooting straight into the sky and then coming back down at us from every possible direction and sirens were going off . . . we realized the sirens were coming from the A-Bomb. The street seemed to be opening up, it was as though we had released banshees and goblins and demons and poltergeists by setting this thing alight. We crouched and the blinding blue light of the second stage illuminated the entire neighborhood and we saw Todd and his girl come out on their porch and they yelled something, but we couldn’t hear them over the A-Bomb. I held Pyro and he held me, “What have we done?!” and the lights began to ring on up and down the street, phone calls were being made, children were being tucked into root cellars, because certainly the End of the World had come to Carr Street on this Tuesday night in June. Stage three came more horrible than stage two, with the smell of mustard gas and sulphur flames rising from the chasm that was once our street reaching up toward the power lines, and perhaps higher, so that passing airplanes might be engulfed. We had opened Pandora’s box all for the glory of winning the fireworks war. And what of Bandit? The kind old dog with the phobia of storms? His owner was holding him in the bathtub and praying that our D-Day would soon be over. But it went on, for what seemed like an eternity, each stage more terrifying than the next, with it ending with a hale of fireballs that shot sideways into our holly bushes and underneath Todd’s front porch. Why our houses didn’t go up in flames I don’t know. When the A-Bomb finally succumbed, we stood open mouthed on the sidewalks with our neighbors and listened to the pile of black ash hiss like a great monster that we had slayed.

No one said a thing, except for Jane, the fattest woman in the world, too fat to come out on the porch, she opened her window and yowled, “I hope that’s the end of that!”

and it was . . .

Jane used to sit on an old sofa on the front porch and talk to everyone who walked by. She asked everyone to buy her cigarettes and beer down on Tate Street, “Honey, here’s some change, will you bring me a pack of Marlboros and some Pabst Blue Ribbon?” and she never gave you enough money, but you got her what she wanted anyway. One time she gave me a small list of groceries to get her from the Safeway; brownie mix, milk, half dozen eggs, butter, Wonder Bread, deviled ham, and Duke’s Mayonnaise . . . it had to be Duke’s. And I obliged even though she only gave me three dollars to pay for it all. She said that Jeff the landlord was coming by soon to drop off Snoopy for a few days, she was very happy that she was going to be baby sitting the beagle. Jane only had one lung, the other had been taken out cause of cancer, and she breathed so loud that you could hear her gasping from the street. Of course smoking and drinking beer and eating mayonnaise sandwiches was going to kill her, but it wasn’t our business. All we could do is be neighborly and pick things up from Tate Street that she had no way of doing herself. Every once in a while a taxi would come and Jane would miraculously descend the front steps of the big house and heave herself into the taxi and you’d see the rear end of the taxi sink so that the bumper dragged on the pavement and left sparks as they drove away. Sometimes she was going to the doctor, and sometimes, we heard, she was going to visit family somewhere out in Summerfield.

Three days after I picked up the groceries from the Safeway, Dave came down and knocked on the door, “Did you hear what Jane did?”

“No . . . ”

“She made a pan of brownies and shared them with Snoopy. She killed him.”

“Oh no!”

“Oh yes. Jeff is so mad he could kill Jane.”

A sort of blue fog came over the street for the next few days. Everyone was mad at Jane for killing Snoopy. She didn’t mean to kill Snoopy, but we were all mad at her just the same. She stayed inside. You could see her at her kitchen window. A car came one day and a man we had never seen took a bag of groceries into the house. He quickly left and we figured he was Jane’s family, she was so ashamed she had called family to get her supplies.

The weekend came and Pyro and I packed up our car to go camping -- it was the Fourth of July and we headed for the Black Mountains for a few days of hiking and tent living. We came back on a Monday afternoon and there were thunderstorms blowing through Greensboro. It was late afternoon when we parked the car and started hauling our gear into my apartment, light rain was falling and the skies occasionally let loose with the clap of thunder or the flash of lightning. Pyro hurried to get the last of our stuff into the house -- he didn’t like being outside during lightning storms cause he’d been hit by lightning a few years before while hiking at Grayson Highlands. Just when we sat down at the kitchen table to a cold beer and thoughts of a long hot bath to wash off the woods, a horrendous flash of lightning and explosion of thunder seemed to bring the roof down. The lights went out and the air zinged with electricity. I could feel my hair stand up on the back of my neck. I looked at Pyro and he gripped the table with both hands, he was spooked. Marley the cat shot down the hall and stopped suddenly in front of us, he hissed at us as though we were strangers. And then I heard by screen door swing open and slam and heavy footsteps came running from my front study into the kitchen, it was Dave from upstairs, “Call the police, I think Jane is dead!”

“What?!”

“Go look for yourself”

We ran out the front door and there across the street, laying in the yard, at the base of the white porch, was Jane, face down, her flowered nightgown billowing in the breeze, all that was left of the storm that had just passed. She was motionless and she seemed to be part of the earth already.

“Is she dead David?”

“Well, I haven’t gone over there yet, but she was on the porch when I got home and that was just few minutes before that hellish lightning hit and it knocked her clear out of her sofa and into the yard. So, she’s gotta be dead. Call the police, okay?” I ran inside and made the call, but they told me they had already sent an ambulance and when I got back outside, Pyro was standing in the street with Dannie, the professor’s wife, who did nothing but watch The Weather Channel all day, and she was hysterical, “Where are my kids? Has anyone seen Stephan and Josie?”

“No Dannie, we haven’t seen them”

“Well, we have to find them, cause I don’t want them to see Jane.”

Dave was across the street with another neighbor, this big guy who we never knew very well, but he had flipped Jane over somehow and he was doing CPR on her and she was blue. I had never seen a blue person and I couldn’t believe how brave this guy was pounding on Jane’s chest, the chest that contained only one lung and suddenly Dave wretched and then Pyro looked at me, “Man, she is so dead, they need to just leave her alone.” And the ambulance arrived and they went to work on her with the defibrillator and they give her several jolts and the huge continent that used to be Jane’s body lurches up and down and she’s bluer than the evening sky that was hanging over us all now and we wanted them to stop. And finally, they did. They gave up on Jane and it took nine people to put her on the gurney and lift her into ambulance, which sank with her weight and our horror as the doors closed. The sun set by the time they drove off with dead Jane and by then Dannie had found her kids and she was rushing them into the house for their dinner and a night of watching the Weather Channel and Pyro and I curled up in bed together and wondered what Snoopy would do when Jane showed up in Heaven only a week after she put him there.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I Found San Jose . . .


. . .  in Columbia, SC

South Carolina List

the back story of blooming dogwoods under the celebrity long leaf pines

dizzie's bronze in cheraw near the ATM

grapes and a beer at the gates of the scottish cemetary

somewhere north of McBee, a four wheeler tore up the ditch side of the road, as it got closer, i saw it was a dark haired shirtless boy driving and crouched, his white chest in the gray sun, i saw his nipples flash, and his brown-eyed girl wrapped around him exhuberent in her striped t-shirt, her hair flying, whipping with the terrible speed and the terrain taking liberties with their gravity and they had no cares, no care at all, except that particular unbelievable fast moment of their day, yes, their Day, and somewhere i thought her mother is wondering about her whereabouts, or maybe her mother doesn't care, or maybe her mother loves this boy who likes to drive his four-wheeler like the devil, and he's got a good job at the scissor factory, the second shift, and so there ain't nothin' wrong with what her daughter does with this skinny ass boy on the side of Route 1. So they hung in time and air as they passed me and their joy, their fast dust overtook my heart and while i imagined them coming to some violent end, i also imagined them old, real old, remembering this terribly dangerous thing they used to do, before the responsibilties of life put walls around them and a roof over them, a made the babies cry for attention. They were such a beautiful terrifying sight of youth, i cannot tell you the laughter they brought out of me, the joy they put in my chest, as they bounced and tore back in the direction i was leaving, and i thanked the clock for timing it so that i was there to see them.

The sun came out somewhere south of McBee . . . just so i could see the peach orchards black and bare in the sandy ground . . .

a sign that said "Bearly Used"

the eight thousand dollar VW bus called to me

my stepfather has gone deaf and this makes him angry and well, damn right confused . . .

there are so many rabbits here, they cross the road from my mother's house to the barn and sometimes they are so crazed with spring they run straight for you, then they stop, quiver, and dash into the briars that contain the old railroad . . .

night falls and the egrets pass over, to roost in the rice swamp after rooting around on the river banks all day

Cormorants, snake birds, commute back to the swamp too

fire ants bite me in the field

bats, little bats, swoop at dusk . . .

there's a half moon on Sunday night with four contrails intersecting and one of the planes is in plain site, and it glows orange in the setting sun and it draws it's white line over the sky's graph . . .

a peregrine sits on a wire

a red mare tries to bite my forearm

red wing black birds sit on the gigantic soybean field sprinklers and trill

an old gray gelding stands with black eyes in the morning . . .

hale attacked us at midnight, i thought the house was falling apart

i don't like hitting black butterflies with my truck

the neighbors' house has so many azaleas that i stand in the road and stare

dragon flies avoid shrikes . . . it's kind of like war

my mother's one eyed cat sits on the back porch and measures grackles

the alligators are swimming in Alice's swamp across the road, they writhe as i drink my last glass of wine . . .

Friday, April 8, 2011

Falling Man

i met a falling man
i passed him on the street
or i should say he passed me
he was on his way up
tumbling
righting himself
looking in windows
as he ascended
he shouted something
about red . . .
bones fell from the sky
a boy pointed
and a man in striped pajamas
reached from a window
to grab the falling man
but no one could bring him
back to the ground
i thought he might stop
at the 19th floor
but he didn’t
he righted himself again
i could see the bottoms
of his shoes
the sky took him
the stars made him lunch
by the time i reached the corner
he was having tea on the moon

Dream #945

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Poetry Is Not Political

A few years ago, just before the war began, just before Colin Powell went to the the U.N. to make his case for going into Iraq, Mrs. Bush canceled a day of poetry at the White House. Several noted American poets had been invited to come for lunch with the First Lady and read for her and illustrious guests, but word got around that the poets were planning to read Protest Poems . . . they were going to make a statement against going to war with their art, and so, the luncheon got the kibosh. The First Lady's spokeswoman came on the radio and said "The First Lady believes that poetry is not political, and she regrets that certain people planned to use a day intended to honor literary art to polarize public opinion." I turned off the radio and repeated the words in my head, Poetry is not Political, Poetry is not Political and then I grumbled to myself, "Poetry is not Political my ass. Who does she think she's kidding?" This was early on in that administration, and it wouldn't be long before I knew better than to expect their statements to make sense. The more I thought about it, the more it ate me up. And so, I came up with a plan. If the First Lady wouldn't let poets read war protest poems in the White House, I would send one war protest poem, the most poignant one I knew of, to every Senator in Washington, and to all members of the President's cabinet, and to the First Lady herself, along with a hand written note expressing my humble opposition to military action in Iraq. Colin Powell was scheduled to speak on the floor of the U.N. on Valentine's Day, so I made my statement on Crane's fine pink stationery. I burned the midnight oil for ten nights hand writing each one of my respectful protest notes -- Dear Senator So & So . . .
My days working with fundraisers taught me that personalization was the most effective way to catch someone's eye, to reach their heart strings, and nothing was more personal than a hand-written note on good paper stock. Into each small petal pink note card, I tucked a five-line poem typed on a piece of pink paper and slightly larger than what these politicians might pull from a fortune cookie at their favorite Chinese restaurant. I asked that they carry the poem with them, perhaps in their wallet or in a vest pocket so they might be inclined to read it occasionally and remind themselves of the consequences of going to battle. My hope was that if just one or two of them carried out my wish, something might change. Of course this was idealistic, but behind every protest is a pipe dream, no? I knew the dye had already been cast with the vote of congress to support the President's desire to go to war the previous fall, but I had to raise my voice just in the slight chance that it would combine with other voices to reverse the inevitable. And, besides, my real beef was with the First Lady's assertion that Poetry Is Not Political -- I wanted to drive it home that Poetry had every right to be political.
A few days prior to Powell's appearance at the U.N., my satchel of pink was posted -- over 120 letters carrying the poem danced into Washington and I would receive only one response letter in return. It came from my N.C. Senator several months after operations in Iraq had commenced; she thanked me for my letter of support for the troops and asked me to pray for the United States. I wasn't surprised by her slightly incoherent dismissal.
So what was the poem you ask? It was the poem of a poet who had taught in the English department of my alma mater UNC-Greensboro. I never had the pleasure of taking one of his classes, as he was long since dead by the time I went to school there, but he haunted those halls, and we were ever conscious of his powerful literary presence. 

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters,
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Randall Jarrell (1914 - 1965)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Skin Illustrations

Have you seen The Illustrated Man with Rod Steiger? Maybe you’ve only read the Bradbury story? I did, a long, long time ago, but I sat in the dark and watched the movie last night, and smiled at the movie’s timing. So, my people of San Jose, here’s some irony for you -- though I’ve never been to San Jose, I find myself closer and closer to it all the time. I never asked the way, but the way found me, in a roundabout sorta way, by way of losing my way -- if that’s way too wayward for you, don’t worry, it’ll all come together, eventually, for you, like it did me . . .

So I was hitchhiking not long ago and a nice couple picked me up on the side of the road somewhere north of Los Angeles and somewhere south of Portland and they asked me where I wanted to go and I said I wasn’t sure, but if they were going anywhere near San Jose, they might drop me off there. Now this couple was no ordinary couple, they were driving in an electric blue 1964 Pontiac, a Catalina, I think, and I got the funny feeling that they were time travelers, not just some nice grandparents going to Berkeley to see their new grandson, although that’s what they told me as I settled in for the long drive. The husband, Frank, he was driving and wearing a brown suit that fit somewhat like he’d lost a lotta weight and the wife, Leana, yes, her name was Leana, was generously shaped and packed into Chanel Knockoff, an iridescent peacock suit of silk moire, so when the light changed along the highway, so did her suit -- she was like a the light of TV coming through a window at night. She offered me a sandwich as Frank drove, “It’s deviled ham and cucumber with lots of pepper and mayonaise, just like you like it.” She said.

“Why how did you know?” I replied as she handed me the dainty little sandwich with the crust cut off the soft white bread.

“I just know these things dear.” And that’s when I knew that she was a time traveler and not somebody’s grandmother, at least not any more.

As we rocketed north on Route 1, I kept my eyes to the Pacific and my ears open to Leana’s stories. Frank just drove, he wasn’t a talker. But occasionally he would hold out his hand and Leana would put a handful of peanuts in his palm, or she would light a cigar for him and he would smoke it happily and I marveled at how she read his mind -- they had been traveling time bands for centuries it seemed.

At one point I fell asleep and night fell while I was dreaming about what I might find in San Jose, but I woke up and Leana was still rambling on about when Frank was a piano player in Hamburg during the war and she was a singer and then she stopped in mid story and asked me if I wanted a Coca-Cola?

“Yes, that would be a nice pick-me-up.” And so Leana produced an ice cold green glass bottle of Coca-Cola from somewhere out of nowhere and she popped the top with a church key that seemed to be encrusted with rhinestones, but I wasn’t sure.

“Here you go dear . . . now tell me something.” I took the bottle from her and cocked my head questioningly at her, “I’ve been doing all the talking, about Frank and me, why don’t you tell me something about you? You got any family? A girl like you traveling all alone on the highway, with no direction. Seems like your folks would be worried about you.”

“Ain’t got no folks Leana.” I took a long swig of the Coca-Cola and it was just fizzy enough to scratch my dry throat as it went down and just sweet enough to make me smile.

“You gotta have folks dear, everybody got folks.”

“Not me Leana. Not me.”

And see that’s where things took an odd turn, cause Frank stopped the car, and the moon was rising in the east and casting this spotlight down on the ocean and I don’t know if it was the Coca-Cola or a spell, but I could see the fishes swimming in the swells just like you might see stars in the sky. And Frank spit the stub of his cigar out the window and turned in his seat so he could say something to me. He removed his hat, smoothed his black hair, and just before he put his hat back on, I noticed one long shock of gray mixed in with that black, and he cleared his throat and Leana, touched his arm, and she looked like she wanted to stop him from saying what he was going to say, but, she didn’t and out he came with this, “Don’t matter if you don’t have folks, what matters is if you got spirits.” And then he pointed out the window to a road sign that glowed in our headlights: San Jose 5 Miles.

I got my knapsack and opened the door. They drove off, Frank and Leana, leaving nothing but red tail lights and a bit of dust in their trail.

Me and my spirits started walking . . .

****

So, have you seen that house with the sign out front? The one that says Skin Illustrations? Did you go in? Did she give you lemonade and leave you standing naked in the road covered with stories? She might have, but you don’t have to be so damn angry about it Steiger. A muse turns another into a muse who then gets lost and is caught on the way by yet another muse -- see? That’s the way . . . turns out there are muses everywhere, yup yup, everywhere.