American Food #1 Texas
One can’t paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt.
It was all slow, then very fast.
“Sidi!” my sister called from the steps of our hotel in Noukachott. She pointed to a dark man sucking on a tube that ran from the bed of a rusted Toyota. He wore a sky-blue tunic and head wrap and his skin was the color of coconuts. Just beyond the truck, hundreds of rusted cars—rebuilt Mercedes—and vans crammed with Mauritanians drove slowly around a wide traffic circle. The vehicles honked in bursts and bounced up and down slowly on old shocks and spun fine dirt into the air. Men hung off of the back of vans and waved and got off and got back on.
“Sidi,” Katherine called again.
Sidi spun around, spitting out a mouthful of liquid. He grinned widely and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Sidi’s the best driver in Noukachott,” Katherine said smiling. “He’ll take us to my host village.”
“Welcome!” Sidi boomed. He stuck the free end of the tube in the truck’s gas tank. I leaned against the truck’s bed. The tube ran from a rusted gas can. Sidi spit out more gas and turned to me. “Hu-Yah!” he said, holding out his rough, dark hand.
“Sorry?” I said. I was imagining a mouthful of gasoline. He pumped my hand.
“Brother,” Katherine said, translating. “Hu-Yah,” she said looking from Sidi to me.
“Hu-Yah!” he said again. He did an impromptu jig in the gas-specked dirt. As he twisted and slapped his sandaled feet on the ground, his tunic rose and fell delicately.
“Hu-Yah?” I said, probably like a child would.
“Hu. Yah,” Sidi said, elongating the word. He dropped his arm over my shoulder. “Huuu-Yaaah.” He turned to my sister and said something in Hassaniyan.
Katherine laughed loudly and shook her head. I looked at my parents who I imagined were contemplating heading right back into the hotel. They stood close together like shaky animals.
“Let’s go,” Katherine said. She gave Sidi a thumbs up. Sidi grinned and patted the Toyota like one would a horse’s flank. My parents looked at each other, shook their heads, and folded themselves into the truck’s tiny back seat.
“Case, you’re up front,” Katherine said, holding the door open. She then squeezed over my mother’s lap and settled in between our parents. “Ready for a little ride?” she said laughing.
“What are the options?” my father grumbled, trying to adjust his legs.
The scene rushed through me, whipped by. It was in my head and in front of me. From the busy circle, Sidi exited to a road out of the desert city—the rows of huts and crumbling buildings the color of sand and clay, a cart with “American Food #1 Texas” painted in big letters, herds of skinny goats crossing the road, stopping, continuing—and then suddenly a sharp turn and we were fast on a wide road, wait no, an airport runway, slick racers, not as fast as a plane would have been, bumping along, but in a truck, this red Toyota, its edges crumbling.
No one said a word. Runways do not continue forever, usually ending abruptly at intersecting highways or power lines. This runway’s end dissolved at the Sahara, fast approaching. Sidi accelerated the truck, grinned and yelled “Hu-Yah!” again—one of the cluster of words he would teach me along the way: “goat,” “shoe,” “pretty woman.” He opened his mouth wide as if to swallow the words in the dry, rushing air, beaming and yelling, whooping. He slapped the dashboard to the sounds of an African man wailing high-pitched over a faint beat scratching from the truck’s tape deck, and then pointed a finger that looked like an old cigar at my cheek. “Hu-Ya!”
So this is Mauritania. Visit me for Christmas, my sister had implored, and yes, my parents agreed: we’ll then understand your sandy letters kissed with candle wax, colors of the country, to know your school teaching, the markets, cuscus, your host family, to know your world! My parents were stark white, gripping the Oh Shit! handles above the window, jostling about as if on the American Disney World roller coaster.
From the backseat, at first indistinguishable, then, “I never said it wouldn’t be off-road!” Katherine wailed, bouncing and smiling at this word twist, twisting my head around, parents ashen, trying to laugh. Scenery flashed by: two or twelve metal huts, a cluster of goats, white and sand-colored, all ribs, chewing at skinny trees. We were brief in their picture, and then flash, we were through their picture.
Ten hours, my sister had told me, to get to Kankossa, her remote village, the drive mostly off-road, mostly through desert. But Sidi’s the best driver in Mauritania, maybe even West Africa! There’d be no running water in the village, no electricity. The children would follow us in droves. We would poop in holes. Every rush and acceleration of the truck seemed to bring us back in time.
“hu-ya?” I squeaked, arms straight out, hands planted against the sticky-warm dashboard. I had already forgotten.
This is the land closer to the frankincense and myrrh land—yes! It must have looked like this. It must have felt like this! Sand packed into dry clothing, hair askew, wiped down with a wet-nap this morning, ohmygod, what will the photos look like? So this is the guidebook, glossy, but the picture comes fast, like a missile or a thousand of them.
We gained speed on the runway. The desert loomed. Sidi howled.
“Best driver?” my father yelled.
All of us, in and out of organized and individual religions, I think, prayed. Jostled words: “my Hu-Yah, the saints, lead us now, Hu-Yah, parting of the water, part this sand, Hu-Yah, what happens when nothing more happens, Hu-Yah above? Unblinking. Do-goats-remember-even-me, Hu-Yah?”
Slide. Slide. Skid, teenage burnouts. “When was the last time this had working shocks?” I screamed at the windshield. Then, vhoom. Sidi’s mouth stretched wide, teeth exposed as if awaiting a wine-shower, dry-yelling phrases at the roof, the sky, his words mixing with the churning air from his open window. He held the wheel firmly with his left hand and punched his gnarled dark fist forward like a boxer, repeatedly punching an opponent to the beat of the music crick-crackling on the tape deck. He’s cliff-jumping or rock-skiing, and I thought: rush. How is that translated? But. Tense limbs, clamped teeth, who’s pulling on my face, hard, hard, stop it! And then, the desert.
The wind, I was told, whistled.
Elation, when there is no phase for it
or when something else is there. The things that mark out for other places
are assuredly here. On the cushions of a lamb’s hands, hallways are shelter.
Sanctify and sanction your fervor. The only reason for withering.
There’s too much there and too much sugar to shovel and too much gravy
and too much land. And what wasn’t ours weren’t yours. Thirsty horses.
If wirey hair is a fledgling shoot then nothing fast is something
political and everything is something essential.
When pasta with salmon is a park with a swing.
Sprinkle seeds on a lawn to grow over the moles’ holes, like hair loss
in reverse. Because it isn’t tedious or— when god has eyes.
And it isn’t such trouble to trip or such farce to philander.
And the seaweeds of your omissions are forgotten machines.
Lead the sleigh and don’t take directions or lunch
on maps that don’t want to be read.
Haiku from Awestricken Sluts
Very blonde hair’s dark
When it gets wet from a bath.
My child was Aryan.
David W. Pritchard
“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” – John Berryman
And if we do say so, though it would disappoint
Henry, we must speak it softly, intimate
as landfills. The closeness
of the fog to the clock makes the air taste
dangerous, fruitful, almost
sweet. The ripples of waves that may exist
–I don’t know!
–are enough for a smug affair between
two trees who, having rooted through the clouds,
consort without regard for the parallel lines
that murmur blushingly their discontent and
prayers for dead friends.
All their friends died, so they talk to me
between bars, when I am
radioactive and open to suggestions,
we share wine. I find I’m further
from the door than a man in love might like
but the windows shower us with compliments.
Overcoming great shyness kills
but the lavender mist of imprecision
winks from across the street
where a candelabra promises to write
before shipping out and failing to return
in time to christen the leaves. The twilight
surge breaks the blankets of
clarity and whispers in the fields
“don’t tell anybody anything”
but it’s too late for that, and now
death brings with it a sense of
entitlement caught in the teeth of evening.
The pen designs marble eyes that
break when you spit on them or
cough too loud. Trees melt in the
background. Children are scrambling
eggs, or playing with coloring books. They
do not know where the word dinosaur
even comes from (Texas). Three blondes
write letters. The snails are coming in droves.
The Terror of Modernity
Numinous women and start at the end, or
we are all of us left handed.
Carousing leads to
a premise that sounds like a collage: Kafka Tolstoy Crane.
Orphans dance under the stars like a
librettist mopping the hospital floor.
Transformation should be in there somewhere
at the level of a Pulitzer or a loaf of bread
all in a tone poem! For Arshile Gorky is
going for a jog at the top of his kidney.
I can’t figure out how to not get hit by a bus
that’s a soliloquy, we don’t want those and
we never hear the other patient
relationship or friendship is very like sacrifice,
secondary to the piano in the corner.
That’s a good place to work from. It can be proven to be true
under the auspices of an elevator:
People don’t cause enough love.
When It’s ARS GRATIA ARTIS, a Paw Means Nothing
A week before I turned twenty-two, I lost my left arm in a mountaineering accident, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I wouldn’t have said so at the time. A falling rock had crushed my elbow and everything on out. Of course I didn’t lose Janet, too much in love to desert me. I didn’t lose my promised accounting job, because it takes only one hand to ply a decimal keyboard. I lost the dream that possessed me all through college, of acting in the movies. I was the only member of my class with a double major in accounting and drama, and it appeared that the dull, safe half of that major would see me through life.
Fresh from the hospital, I kept an appointment for a casting call; I wanted to say I’d set foot on a studio lot at least once. The director was a young fire-eater named Stanley Kubrick, filling in for someone who had dropped dead on the job. Kubrick was determined to make the movie his own way, and when he saw me, his eyes lit up. Alright, you’ve guessed—-the movie was Spartacus and I was the fellow whose arm got chopped off with a gladius.
It was my big break, though it took time to pay off. They dressed me in Roman Republican period, with a convincing fake arm, and I put in my one day’s work. Then I took up my other life as Tom Kettle, junior associate in a megalithic LA accounting firm. Studios were skittish about graphic violence in those days, and audiences didn’t see my footage until Spartacus was finally restored. But the word still got out, from Kubrick or the people who worked for him: I had something unique to offer Hollywood. I started getting job offers a couple of years later, slowly at first, then in bunches after the Hays Code was lifted.
If you were making a horror movie or a war movie or a disaster movie or an action movie with lots of bystanders hurt, I was your man. I never got a credit, any more than the cartoon voice actors who came before Mel Blanc, but I was in demand. I even picked up a nickname sometime during the seventies: Pawless Kettle.
Here’s a breakdown of the fates suffered by the various fake arms I donned over the years.
Burned off 34
Blown off 29
Cut off 27
Torn off 41
Crushed by falling/flying objects 18 (a statistic I’ll never forget)
Dissolved in acid 6
Pinched off 2 by giant crayfish
1 by giant crab, organic
2 by giant crab, robotic
I made surprisingly good money for these brief, gory performances. A union with eighty-five percent unemployment imposes a high daily wage. I earned as much acting in one day as I did balancing books in a whole week, more if I had a speaking part—-and screams counted as speech, by SAG rules. The seasonal lull in acting work happily coincided with the tax rush, and preparing 1040s busied me until good shooting weather returned. More than once, directors paid me the compliment of jiggering their shooting schedules to extend past April 15th; the film simply wasn’t in the can unless Pawless Kettle did his bit. Believe me, there’s no flattery like knowing an industry revolves around your availability.
Even in a town where everyone knows people in the movies, it’s considered a privilege to hear insider talk. My neighbors and coworkers knew about my acting, and sharp-eyed clients recognized me from this or that movie; I was happy to share the latest with all of them. Son Broderick asked me to Show and Tell, so I brought along a few fake arms left over from previous films (our storage shed is full of souvenir arms, hanging from ceiling hooks like so many Smithfield hams). I gave a little talk on stunt pyrotechnics, holding up a realistically blackened arm for illustration, and one kid asked:
“Mr. Kettle, what if the fire got out of control?”
“I’d be grateful they weren’t burning up a prosthetic leg.”
The boys in the class were old enough to get the joke and everyone laughed, but that was a foreshadowing of my professional end.
My career has had the usual ups and downs. I was heartbroken when Dustin Hoffman got picked for the live-action remake of Peter Pan; I thought that might be the role to lift me out of the ranks of the bit players. The very next day, my agent signed me for a TV commercial and the client was Prudential. You know which commercial I’m talking about. They did a series of personal injury commercials in a deadpan-slapstick mode, and I was the man on the bus whose arm was ripped off by a sudden stop. The hand kept holding the strap, the elbow stayed crooked, I fell back with no change of expression on my face. The whole series increased Prudential policy sales by a third, but that particular commercial was the standout. It won the Clio—-I thought I looked very dapper at the ceremony, in my specially tailored tuxedo jacket—-and by now it’s had half a million hits on You Tube. I may be prouder of it than of anything else I ever did; every tragedian really wants to do comedy, whether or not he’ll admit it.
That was then. I turned in my SAG card last year, and the jobs stopped coming three years before that. It’s more than a matter of audiences getting more pathos than they asked for when an old man loses his arm. Computer generated effects can do the same thing now for less money, much less when you figure the cost of insurance. I was heavily insured at every shoot, and for good reason. Once an actor repeated the Spartacus stunt and his sword went on through the fake arm to inflict sixty sutures worth of hurt. Another time an explosive in the fake arm drove an unexpectedly jagged plastic shard into my left thigh. The wound felt more serious than it actually was, and for a few seconds I thought I might become the only bit player with one arm and one leg.
Janet and I happened to be on the Walk of Fame last night while going to a new restaurant that offered a seniors’ discount. I got to thinking when I saw the star for John Gilbert, matinee idol with a choirboy’s voice, who was doomed by the coming of the talkies. How many of us are there, John, the ones who know that technology progresses but art never does?
For All The Points
I sat on the couch
listening to you growl
thunder while appreciating
my perfectly buttered toast.
I am half crazy and untie
my shoes, open them up
so I can settle the indictment.
I can’t talk with swords.
For all the points on the compass
the essential thing resists us,
with time the only direction.
I’m still trying to be the cowboy
in those seven-day-a-week fights.
I promise you this:
quite an interesting and heartless
life at one and the same time,
for I can’t give you love
and rhetorical questions
without the blood.
We’re both blood, you see, oozing
and compulsory. It’s got to be
a matter-of-fact life we live
and talk here for the first time,
so no one has the jitters.
After the violent relaxation,
with a sun now louder than the sun,
I notice how nice the weather is,
all the ice dismantled with my pick axe.
A Sluggish Bird (a cento, from Ozick’s “The Shawl”)
What a curiosity it was to hold a pen – oozing its hieroglyphic puddles… A lock removed from the tongue… all at once this cleanliness, this capacity, this power to make a history, to tell, to explain. – Cynthia Ozick
A sluggish bird on ragged toes
teeters on meager bags of garbage,
laced with other people’s history.
She’s making holes in them with kisses,
whispering in short lines like heated
telegrams, a voice strummed so convincingly,
it’s impossible to suspect
it of being a phantom’s.
The streets were a furnace,
the sun an executioner,
and the other birds stood
like scarecrows, blown about
with empty rib cages.
But she contained not a grain of rot,
stood with immortal pillar legs
like the white marble of strong goddesses.
She’s not a survivor,
she has the legacy of choice.
This little grimy silent goddess,
not forgetting about impermanence,
chose to retrieve while the other
birds laughed and wept in their reprieve.
More and more they were growing
significant to themselves, thinking
they were the ones strong and marble white.
To those who don’t deserve the truth,
don’t give it.
The sun fell beneath neon-radiant
low horizons. Narrow wires suspended
as shadows on the wall stirred
as the other birds,
ventured into the
night city. They, glutted with
fake fire, swooped upon her meager bags,
making in them a hundred burrowings,
Whatever was dangerous or repugnant
they made prevalent, frivolous.
Theirs was an empty search.
“How simple the night sea,
only the sand is unpredictable.
Here is lost. Lost.
Nowhere… empty,” she thought
in the inferno of burning false feathers.
She flew off to the night sea
like an unlit shard of star.
All Hallowed Out
A carbonation gnawed through my calvary last night
for I had been an inadequate mummer.
Whoever questioned my costume
got a different answer. I was Susan Sontag, Amadou Diallo
and finally Tom Waits,
who sang me squirm
on a downtown train.
Home was plundered of company. So I bought a gas station
beer and read scripture with x-ray vision,
peering through words and deeds
until I saw the bones of God and touched
myself to sleep. The ravers came crashing
under sunrise; their revelry
tasted bitterly of hops. I returned to the Hess station,
recalling trucks for Christmas.
They couldn’t sell me another.
Meanwhile my palaverous ex-partner
boasted to her cabal
of pickpocketing a helpless hip-boy.
I saw my own mind starving
and lay naked on the vine-eaten hammock
to weep and shiver for God:
be my tour guide into wilderness?
He dispatched me to a tongue-tied church
after refusing me sleep like a cocktease.
It wasn’t the first time He made me
cry for strangers.
R. Matthew Burke
Metropolitan Transit of the Psyche
Suppose I am selfish. Suppose that
my self-conception is as a grayscale photograph
of that girl in a maple stand, where
the contrast between shadows and
breaks in foliage – full of sun – makes her
glow. Recall that my remark dismissed
another subject as sub-sapiens, sub-hominoid.
About these things: Remorse.
As seen by an aperture behind a convex lens:
A 13-year-old post suicidal
girl, who wore a white robe just for the occasion,
is washed, and the washing televised. Dirt
under my nails is dirt under my nails,
near where I cannot reach. Reach out, touch
a shoulder in secret. If detected, divert your eyes,
feign accidence … feign ignorance.
The Toaster Complex
A man had a face and opposable thumbs and ears and everything you could ever want and cigarettes and sunglasses and thrice distilled whiskey. He had a gag reflex and a bus pass and a garbage disposal and he could play the guitar, but he couldn’t play it well. And he had a windbreaker and a cell phone and a chin. He met a woman, she had a toaster and breasts and teeth, but she didn’t get them in that order. And she had feet and a laptop and a wristwatch and a good idea of where magnetic north was most of the time and green eyes. She had a beaded necklace and ovaries and a jean jacket and a parking ticket on her record.
He said I do and she said I do and they did. And the priest thought it was dandy and told them to kiss. They didn’t use tongue because their god was a vengeful god. A limousine took them away and they got a clock-radio and a candle and a few crushed leaves in a jar.
The man with the face and the woman with the feet had a baby with a pink blanket. She had his chin and her green eyes and a gag reflex and a beaded necklace. And she had tear ducts like the man with the opposable thumbs who smoked the cigarettes and who couldn’t play the guitar well and neither of them knew who to call when the woman dropped the toaster in the tub and she didn’t pay her parking ticket. And the man had thrice distilled whiskey and a bus pass and everything you could ever want, but he didn’t get them in that order.
The situation was complicated. That was the first problem, because the situation would have been simpler had it been less complicated. The man with the garbage disposal decided on a name, so everyone called the baby Gen and if everyone calls you Gen, then you’re destined to be a Gen. And the man with the sunglasses always said things about destiny, funny things like ‘it exists’ and he wouldn’t eat toast.
The baby grew and the man shrunk because that’s what babies do and that’s what men do and it was simple, which was fine because most things aren’t as complicated as toasters. The baby got shoes and dresses and an education and began to look like the woman with the breasts and the teeth. And she got laid on a mountaintop, which wasn’t fate and it wasn’t complicated because the boy had a ceiling fan and a bathrobe and everything you could ever want and he had his own apartment complete with unopened boxes and mounds of dirty clothes. And the man thought it was wrong because he believed in fate and his god was a vengeful god, but Gen said that it was alright and that complicated things. And she had green eyes and a beaded necklace and it was a simple procedure and the man had thrice distilled whiskey.
Musicology: Collages & Found Texts
—A bird contents itself
with a certain series of notes
& such is called
a song brought out on parade.
It is found as an acoustic fact
that the whole of notes is divided
into a number of short flights
& these become
the definite order
in which ideas are presented
poetic, & this variety of light and shade
is most germane
to that later school of music, which
through the medium of voices & instruments,
gives a clear & useful idea of .
singing, its innermost framework &
—Think of the piano
& then he may
come into the world in this way,
Inspiration there must be, but design also.
Here we learn something from the methods of
that one must have the habit of reflection,
& a readiness to—
I was six drinks into a very good night, and the next morning would wake up pretty sure and mortally afraid that in the cab with Michael I’d suggested going to a motel—he was married, I was married—and I’d sit on the floor of my kitchen, between the cupboards and the table legs and weigh my suicide options. But none of this mattered yet. I said yes to a seventh Hammerhead (I’d given up hard liquor) and gave the waitress my credit card with strict instructions not to open a tab because that one was almost maxed. We had a moment, the waitress and I. She looked like an artist too and like she understood about unruly finances. She brought the little yellow-and-white receipt for $4.95 and I added a five dollar tip. We had another moment after I signed, she winked at me, but then on my way to the bathroom I wished I hadn’t tipped with such an eager face. What kind of a supercilious asshole was I to think my five dollars was making or breaking anyone, and I had already knocked the ashtray not just off the table but clear across the room.
She probably wasn’t an artist, I thought as I peed. She was just a cool person, someone who didn’t need an excuse to take herself out of the mainstream. Probably—I traced my fingers along a graffito carved in the stall wall, spiky letters of the name “Curt”—probably the waitress didn’t have to think about some paper tiger of a mainstream, have to set herself in opposition to some dreamed up caste system Gestapo or the evility of the banal. Those letters said “cunt,” not “Curt,” I realized as I traced the t, and laughed and thought that might be the symbol around which the night, the year, my life up to now, clumped like iron shavings to a magnet pen, or better, fanned when you used the south end of the magnet, or wait, were they magnet shavings and an iron pen? Did magnets work on iron? I was grinning at “cunt” and then thought I better get off this toilet before syphilis started crawling up mine.
I made a deal with myself that I would not look in the mirror when I washed my hands, but if I caught a faint glimpse in the natural course of washing—looking for the soap dispenser, the towel dispenser, moving in a way the mirror would have to catch and my peripheral vision would have to register—that didn’t count. For Pieta’s sake you needed sharp senses, no need to Catholic guilt yourself out of the faculties God bestowed to help you not get eaten by lions and shit. Lions’n’shit. But no staring at my own face. Not even to think of its strangeness, or the mirror’s strangeness, the way the mouth in the mirror could open and close just like the mouth on the head and the eyes in the mirror pop and the forehead corrugate at my command. I had an unhealthy relationship with mirrors. Vanity was inherited, on top of being learned. When it oozed from both primary caregivers, the mother and the television, when twenty-eight years were spent with external reality predicated on one’s pretty face being one’s pretty fortune, in the cookie sense and the pirate-treasure sense, when more than one childhood memory was of wishing to become a department-store mannequin, then: one resorted to Stalinist reprogramming tactics. Black out the mirrors, obliterate the body. But one can’t fault oneself for knowing what exists beyond the borders of the form one imposes for the sake of—ha! For the sake of! The best of all incomplete sentences! One will always catch glimpses. Meta, meta, meta.
“You know Magnadoodle?” I said when I got back to the table.
“No,” Michael said. “We are not talking about childhood toys tonight. I refuse.”
“Whoa,” I said. “Pricktastic.”
Nora and Damien looked up from their conversation.
“What’d you do to Angela, Pricktastic?” Damien asked. “It looks like someone unplugged her face.”
“Please, Angela, I’m begging you,” Michael said. He pushed back his chair and got on his knees on the floor. The din of the bar didn’t change but the people at the next table quit talking and looked, except the guy with his back to us whom I heard say, “immunizations in Africa.” Michael clasped his hands like a charismatic Christian and pressed them to his forehead. He didn’t wear a wedding ring anymore but had a white line where it used to be. “Please can we not talk about childhood toys?”
The waitress was back with beers for Nora and Damien. She made a face at Michael.
“If you buy me a beer,” I said.
“Done!” Michael pounded the seat of his chair with his clasped hands. Then he followed my eyes up to the waitress’s face and for a frightened moment I thought he was going to embrace her legs. He ogled her knees but then scrambled back into his seat. We’d been kicked out of this bar before. Not by her, but still. “Two more Hammerheads,” he said, “on my tab please.”
She winked at me again. I loved her more than I had loved my second-grade teacher, Miss McGinn, with the big brown eyes and big boobs. If I went back to the waitress’s apartment tonight, all my favorite things would be there, stained glass and a stereo receiver from the seventies, wheat bread, butter, and honey, ingredients for toddies, white flannel pajamas I could borrow, Madeleine L’Engle books I could borrow. We could braid each other’s hair. I gulped my beer so it wouldn’t still be full when she came back with the new one.
“You know Magnadoodle?” I asked.
Michael’s mouth fell open. He looked at me like he wanted to fuck me.
“Just kidding,” I said.
Michael did want to fuck me. He had an unstable ego and it came with urges, same as the ones that were now causing him to melt the cellophane off his cigarette pack with the flame from his lighter, over the ashtray. Damien grabbed the lighter, using some jujitsu move that left Michael blinking at his hands.
“What are you, twelve?” Damien asked.
“Nora, do you like me?” Michael asked. “Somebody at this table has to like me.”
“I love you, baby,” Nora said. She had this Southern thing she did. This year she’d gotten a really good residency and it had rounded off some of the strung-out skinniness in her face and neck and even her chest looked fuller, her shoulders soft and freckled, like somebody who could nurse a baby if it really came down to it. She had a dimple, mother of heaven. Nora was so talented nobody cared what she looked like.
“Where are you going now?” Michael grabbed my hand when I stood up and my nerves went—zing!—up my arm to my brain and—zong!—down my spine to my crotch. I giggled and Michael hammed and crunched my fingers in his fist and whined, “No, no, no, you just left. Stay here.”
“I have to call my husband, ” I said, but lingered there with Michael holding my hand. A little sex fix was the cherry on top of everything. “Je suis . . .” I said. “Hey, Dame, is it je suis artiste, or je suis une artiste?
“Either,” Damien said. “Except one makes you sound like an idiot.”
“Maybe both,” I said. “I have to call my husband.”
I got in the phone booth. Rickety vintage thing and a hassle to fold the doors closed behind me. Through the greasy glass I could see into the bar, Nora’s white face glowing under the hanging lamp, back of Michael’s head. There was a condom stretched over the phone’s mouthpiece. “That’s good,” I said. “At least you’re safe.” I held it away from my face and put my quarters in and dialed Paul at home.
“Hey,” I said, and smiled to get my voice sexy-smiley like a good wife.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Babe, I can hardly hear you.”
“Oh. There’s a condom on the phone.”
“Wait.” And I laughed so Paul could hear me and picked the condom off the phone. It turned from tight white drum to sad dead yellow bag. I held it above the box part of the phone and lowered it slowly. Neat little pile. My fingers were oily now and the phone smelled.
“There was condom on the phone,” I said. “Like literally on the phone.”
“You’re at the Six Arms?”
“How’d you guess?”
“Oh, the payphone’s connected to the bar? It says Six Arms when I call?”
“Did you eat dinner?”
I thought about it. How there was this Edward Hopper thing happening with the shimmering metal on the front of the phone. Colors and melted pictures and light reflecting brighter than you’d think in real life. If you unscrewed that plate, that little piece of armor, you’d have a twelve-grid of square holes and could press it on something soft and firm that would give but not ooze like a balloon or thigh and instead of phone buttons you’d have rubber bubble buttons or flesh buttons and that could be your title. Flesh buttons. By Angela. Except that would suck.
“I do not think I ate dinner,” I said.
“It’s only nine,” Paul said. “Why don’t you come home and I’ll heat up some pasta?”
“That sounds good,” I said. All of a sudden I was almost crying.
“Jump in a cab,” he said. “Just tell them our address. I have cash.”
“You are so nice to me.”
“I love you, Ange. You’re beautiful.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“I’m not. It’s true.”
“You just know that’s my big gaping hole problem so you say things like that.”
I straightened my back and stood perfectly straight in the phone booth like there were rusty nails poking through the walls. Under me my feet were fine. My knees were fine. All of me could stand up just fine.
“I need to eat something.”
“Jump in a cab. I’ll pay for it when you get here.”
“OK,” I said. “See you soon.”
Nora came and got me out of the phone booth.
“Pumpkin,” she said. “It is nasty down there.”
I was sitting on the floor of the booth, on some damp scattered pages of the Stranger. I held out my hands to Nora and she grabbed them and pulled.
“No, you come down,” I said. “It’s nice down here.”
“I ordered you a Reuben sandwich,” she said. “It’s waiting for you on the table.”
“Which card did you use?” I asked.
“My card. My treat.”
Nora was still holding my hands loosely, and I was still down, and I put my forehead on my knees for a second, and thought of making a joke about just going to sleep right there, but Nora didn’t get jokes always. I lifted my head and smiled at her. She got this terrible worried look.
“I’m just faking,” I said. I gripped her hands and pulled myself up.
The Reuben sandwich was on the table like she said. It glowed under the hanging lamp, little shimmers of oil in the fibers of the rye bread, black swirls in the white like a birthday cake, and the pile of fries all woven like a stick heap for starting a fire. Even the little metal cup of Thousand Island looked food-styled, peaked and plumped like an icing rose.
“This is the best day of my life,” I said.
“Happy birthday,” Michael said.
“Nora said I was going to,” I said. I ate a fry.
“Going to what?” Damien said after a second.
“Hold on,” I said. “I want to eat my fries.”
Then the rule was I had to shut up and eat every single fry before I said anything else. Nora wanted me to eat and so did Damien and so did Paul, and Michael didn’t care if I ate or died because he was basically a lion as far as evolution was concerned. You don’t listen to the lions, they shut up. You might be an abused child but isn’t everyone when you get down to it an abused child, in terms of the structure of the psyche? The superego locks the child-self in the bathroom till the tub overflows and soaks the floorboards and rots them and the child has to wait to grow up to have a credit card with which to pay for new boards. Nora, Damien, and Michael were talking again and having a good time and me being quiet eating the fries seemed to be doing the trick. I interrupted Nora at an appropriate moment and very quietly asked if she would get me some water, and she hopped right up and got it from the bar.
“Thank you, mon amie,” I said. “Without you, I would be dead in a dumpster.”
“Don’t say that, Ange,” Michael said. “It makes you less attractive.”
I dipped a fry in Thousand Island and threw it at him.
“No, no, no,” Damien said. “Food fight is not an option.”
“You’re an asshole, Michael,” Nora said.
“What?” Michael said. “She said ‘dead in a dumpster.’ That’s fucked up. Am I the only one who thinks so? Then I apologize.” He picked the fry off his shirt and put it on the table. The smear of Thousand Island started to slide into his breast pocket. “Angela, please continue saying horrible things about yourself.”
“Folks, we’ve officially crossed over,” Damien said. “I’m going to head out.”
“Can I go with you?” I asked.
Damien looked at me. For a second his face was a shook-up magic eight ball and then out of the silt came, faintly but legibly, the word no.
“Of course you can,” he said. “We’ll get a cab.”
“Never mind,” I said.
“Go with Damien,” Nora said.
“Why? So you can be alone with Michael?” I peeled the top bread off my sandwich, plucked out a thick piece of corned beef, and lowered it into my mouth.
“No, baby,” she said. “I like girls.”
“Okay, kids,” Damien said. He was standing and he had his hat on. “Anyone coming?”
“What time is it?” Michael asked.
Then they were gone. I was alone at the table watching lamplight play on the scales of the corned beef. The waitress squatted down to my level and asked if I was okay, and I said yes, this was the best day of my life. She said let her know if I needed anything, a taxi or anything, and I said I would kiss her but my face was all greasy. She laughed. I said my husband would be here soon, and he didn’t like me kissing other people. Then I was alone again.
Then Michael was standing over me.
“Come on,” he said.
I held out my arms. He grabbed me under the armpits and lifted me. For a second, he had me, one hand under my butt. My legs were clasped around his hips but I was too tall and right away I started to slip and we were laughing and still holding on, sort of slow dancing and staggering away from the table. Tears were pouring out of my eyes and the buttons of his coat were hard on my face. He smelled like a terrible smoker. He put his hands on my waist and moved me back a foot so he could look at me.
“Can you walk?” he asked.
His hands on my waist felt like everything. I couldn’t remember if I was naked or not. Then he let me go and I stood there, balanced on my feet, while he dug under the table for my coat and purse.
Then I was alone on the low concrete stoop of my home, trying to figure out which key.
“Je suis,” I sang softly, “Je suis, je suis, je suis.”
Michael G. Donkin
For Kenneth Koch
I will put fire
On your eyes.
Looking for You
Not sleeping at 5 a.m.
Is a pleasure.
At 6 a.m. is no
I rode into town
Wearing a golden fleece
And could not find you there
You were not in the ocean
Not in the garden
Not in an echo
Not in the Chadwicks’
Not in a fable
Not at the bar
So where were you then! You of all people!
Why was I looking for you
And so expressly you!
Not in the arcade
Not on the veranda
Not in Zen Buddhism
And I was not on my horse
You were on the bus
I felt as though
I was your
Did you know
That Cervantes had coursing hounds?
He had a whole stable
And one of them was called
A terrific name!
You Stupid Florida
A city slicker walked
Into a bar looking
For an accordion.
Is that a marathon?
You know it is, you kindred lug.
But come on in for a drink, then
The drill’s about railing.
So along came a spider
For whatever it’s worth.
Thinking of New York
You are a blushing beauty
How fair, and Honey
O I love dazzling poodles
One Act Play
I kind of like devouring
Children. Do you find
That earthworms are viable?
Some found it in earnest,
Others, beyond reproach.
The Exciting Host
I ate from an invisible bowl
Of cereal and worked at Taco Bell
At the same time.
Those were the days, when our chests caved in
And we sang together like Spanish Stars.
How to Live Properly
Read wantonly of O’Hara
Dilute your priceless ruby
Engage in subtle discourse
Expound upon a marble
Violate the nature of pride
And find yourself with me
In a maze of newfangled Wind
Engage in endless singing
The poison was wrong
The dallies were wrong
The gimlet was taciturn
The perfect specimen was an ant
A gopher fanged its whelp
The charge card got rampaged
A nun expired; the meal was manageable
“The Mystery of Consciousness”
Seeing your own eye
Without the use of Mirrors.
Bisected Poem (Right Half)
And if I did not speak as I do now
in my next work
will I cease to exist?
asked Othello. As for the snows of the moon
in the backyard
“Just, if you will, imagine,” you
suggested “if this were all powdered sugar…
Wait, that was stupid,”
you smirked, and I,
no response. “And what if there
had been voyeurs about, and your silence?”
I’m not jumping high
As I can. I feel stuck
In the loam. When I get
Drunk but too tired
I might say Hey! here
I am, a strange man
Look! an unfamiliar dance.
My Name is Tchaikovsky
I ripped apart those two
O beetles, you crossed lovers
My name is Tchaikovsky!