Desire is the bull. He is heavy with muscle and blind with instinct. He wants to eat, mate, slobber and, should the opportunity arise, run us through with his dirty horns. He can not be blamed for any of it. We admire his simplicity, fertility, and power. He scares the living daylights out of us. The following text is about desire. I write to feel the power of creation, destruction, control. Writing gives me what I can not have in life and delivers me from the agony of domesticity.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Facts of Life

I want a cowboy. I want someone who’s “fixin’ to go somewheres.” I want someone who walks slow, glides really, and wears a ten-gallon hat. I want someone who doesn’t think twice about wearing Wranglers and a big buckle. I want someone who fills out his clothes, hides his eyes under the rim of that ten-gallon hat, and calls any and every woman “ma’am.”

Oh pretty, pretty please, may I have a cowboy.

This is a prayer from a puddle in an alley, where I’m barely treading water. I am spiraling down the circuit of self destruction, relying upon the charity of people I barely know for a place to crash, a spare cigarette, pennies in the cracks of stained couches. When the charity runs thin, I hunker down with my come-and-go friends in whatever abandoned building we find in our solitary wanderings. My come-and-go friends let me stay, for comic relief or maybe my uncanny skill at scoring weed. Does it really matter which?

So, about that cowboy…


Lexia says that I have great hair for the times, really straight and not too thin or thick. She said I would have been worse off in the eighties when she was in school and all the girls were wearing their hair really high and large. Big hair days, she says.

Why’d you drop out of school, she says.

I’m hoping to bum some cigarettes off of her so I try to be really honest, you know, opening my soul to her about all the unwieldy shit I’ve seen. She seems disappointed, though, like she’s just waiting for that one kid whose story is gonna be worse than hers.

You would think somebody calls her “Sexy Lexy” or “Lexus” or something because her name is so pretty, but she’s one of those mis-named people who relishes her name but does not, exactly, wear it well. She’s fat, for one, and she’s missing her front teeth for another. She’s in her early thirties and she’s already had her teeth knocked out by some Romeo whose name she claims to have forgotten.

We all know she gets checks from welfare or something, but she tells people it’s her royalties for playing Blair on “Facts of Life.” Tony says she’s full of shit but we quiz her about the show and she seems to know all the answers. She says Tootie and Joe were cool but Natalie was a real bitch. She says she “did” George Clooney when he was on the show. Now, I know she is most definitely full of shit. Lexia has too many moles on her face to have slept with George Clooney. Not that he is a cowboy or anything.

So anyway, I have great hair. Lexia combs it out with her fingers and smoothes it down around my face, not motherly like (as if I would know what that was all about), but hairdresser like, and it turns out looking pretty good. I figure a cowboy might not pass me by. I’m only eighteen, after all, and with all my teeth still.

Lex, how did you say you lost your teeth again, I say.

She gives me that look like she’s not buying that I’ve forgotten and she’s certainly not going to be made a fool of again, but then she opens her mouth and she tells it all as though we’d never heard it before, which we haven’t because she’s improvising again. That’s her theory of life, by the way. I’m improvising as I go, she says.

This time she lost her teeth on the set of “Magnum P.I.” Lexia says there was a runaway stunt truck (it’s always a runaway something that causes it: runaway truck, runaway shopping cart, runaway boyfriend) that slammed into her, sent her flying into a light pole where her teeth were smashed out and her jaw was broken. Magnum P.I. himself carried her to the ambulance.

There’s a lot of “bullshiiiit” and “give it up” and Lexia looks really resolved like that’s really how it happened and it’s the story she’s gonna stick with from now on. It’s a pretty good story. I’d like for it to be true. But nobody wants anybody to be happy so Tony and Wallace are really giving her crap for it. Lexia gets up with a little sway and hop for balance and swaggers off with her middle fingers pointed behind her.

Lexia’s gone and I have no cigarettes. I should go down to Chinatown, where all the tourists go to shop for back scratchers and paper fans that smell like dreams. There’s a big hill there so tourists toss their butts before they’re done with them, unable to smoke and walk uphill at the same time.

His name was Bryant, by the way. The one who socked Lexia’s teeth out. She said his name by accident one time then changed her story like she was trying to take it back. So I remember it for her: Bryant. Just like the morning news man.


The first time I got high was better than all the times I went to church combined. Things get so much simpler, yet much more meaningful. I don’t think God would mind. It certainly isn’t much worse than fooling yourself that you’ll get into heaven if you never say the Lord’s name in vain while you’re still a child molesting asshole. I never saw any commandment like “Thou shalt not molest children,” did you?

So of course that’s what happened to me. Back in the 70’s some career-minded, bead-wearing hippie would have grabbed hold of me in a bear hug and used words like “breakthrough” and “inner discovery” and “life changing.” It would have been courageous of me to admit it and someone would have held me and told me so.

It’s not like that now. They just look at you and say mm hmm. Same hippie, but she’s heard it somewhere over a zillion times by now. To her, it’s like someone saying, “I went to the store today.” And, no matter what she says, her tone always sounds like, “Oh, really. And what did you get.” I never had a real therapist, just a school counselor, but they’re all from the same batter.

It’s not like I can remember it all that well, anyway. A lot of time has gone by and sometimes, if you think about something too much, it’s like you wear the memory thin and suddenly all sorts of fiction starts coloring the picture wrong. I know who did it and I know who didn’t stop it, but the rest has been filtered and altered. Like I can’t remember how old I was or what exactly happened, what things looked like or what was said. It keeps shifting in my memory, in and out of focus like one of those awful drug movies from the ‘60’s when they’d warp everything to make you think you’re tripping.

You could almost say I made it all up, you know, something from nothing. But there’s one thing about it I’ve never been able to shake and, if I let myself sink down, way down into the memory, the shadows shift and the events click back and forth like a video with a hiccup, but the feeling returns. That sick terror, shot through with deep pain like ink that stains your soul forever.

I never thought much about cowboys until I saw one on the news. You’ve seen him, I know. The one that brought that Mexican serial killer in to the authorities? I think he was something called a Texas Ranger. It sounds so Old West, like the snap of a padlock or like listening to thunder and rain from a warm dry place, well lit and shut tight. He is exactly what I need.


All the girls I ran with in high school are dead. Sounds like bullshit, smells like bullshit, looks like bullshit, but it’s true. They all died together on the way back from a Metallica concert, smacked into a guardrail and flew into oblivion. Just like a rock and roll anthem.

Therese, Jamie, and Becky. We took a lot of pictures together, playing dress up and dresses off, walking around the Winterscape Mall, snapping gum and verbally trashing the popular girls at school. Becky’s brothers, pot heads all, used to sell us a bag every once in awhile. We’d smoke it together, share and share alike, and then we’d get serious, telling secrets and crying over whatever, whenever, whomever. We smoked and drank and toked up and it was all really good. At that age no one quite expects anything from you yet so we ran wild, bummed cigarettes, and stole whatever we thought we could get away with.

Therese was a bitch, but her mom was a drunk so you could kind of forgive her. Jamie and Becky were sweet, just like their names. Jamie was from a totally normal family except for the whole Nazi Dad thing. He’d answer the phone the same way every time, not “Hello?” but, “This is Robert Kriss, to whom am I speaking?” And you couldn’t say, “This is so-and-so, is Jamie there?” You had to say your name, where you knew Jamie from and, polite as peaches, ask if you could please speak with Jamie if it wouldn’t be too much trouble please. We all only went over there a couple of times, with him constantly appearing in the doorway (no closed doors in that house) and listening in. I remember the house was very plain and neat. Jesus stared blankly at me from the wall.

They were a good bunch to run with and, of all the people I knew from before, I missed them and only them. Right before I took off Jamie found out she was pregnant again and she was a wreck. She didn’t want to go through another abortion, but her dad would most certainly drag her down to the clinic like a scared puppy dragged back to the scene of the crime, knowing he’s going to get the shit up his nose and a boot up his ass. Sometimes you have to wonder about how bad you think you have it.

Yesterday I found out they died. Mom came looking for me, brought a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as if for good luck or something, and bad news. She likes to be three-dimensional. She’s kind but tough, she’s naughty but repentant, bold but really just a scared little girl on the inside. She’s a fucking Billy Joel song.

When she held her arms open as an invitation for a hug I could only stare at her, wonder at her smell, like milk and fabric softener. She smelled just like a mother.


There’s an abandoned building on the corner of Docker and 6th that almost never gets raided by the cops. It is blissfully dark and pretty well insulated, just like a five star hotel if you close your eyes and take very shallow breaths. So when someone lets the light in, the unmistakable light of morning shot through with pink and gold, everyone writhes and moans. Snakes cuddled together.

We peer at the figure and I realize that it is Lexia all clean and dressed up. She’s got a bag of tacos and what looks like a gallon sized soda. She’s smiling and I think it can’t be her ‘cause she’s got a whole row of pearly, pretty teeth. Somebody says, What the fuck, Lexia. There are many mumbles of agreement. I ask her where she got those teeth.

A present from the Lord, she says and we all sit up. Lexia is a Godless woman and we all know from experience that religion is the first symptom of insanity. She knows we’re not happy to hear she’s found God and she cackles like some wretched, drunk witch and we realize she’s full of shit, thank God. Or whomever.

You assholes, she says and the tacos are passed around.

For now it’s not important why she looks so nice, where she found those clothes or even the teeth. I have not eaten in two days and the tacos smell of hot meat and waxy cheese. The first bite is somewhere between orgasm and waking up from a good nap. Briefly, I love Lexia. I don’t know why she does this kind of shit.

She starts prattling about the Blair thing as we smack and munch with greasy lips and bad manners. They’re shooting a pilot (what’d he do, somebody asks) and they want her to star as the rich mother figure who gives bad advice and saucy punchlines. They knew her from her days on “Facts” and specifically sought her out. We all say uh-huh and cool.

She’s quiet for awhile and I size her up. She really does look nice. She’s got some kind of suit on; it’s beige with a white blouse underneath. As I’m looking her over I can see other’s doing the same, their faces changing like clouds are passing overhead. I see that she is wearing new shoes and, finally, hose, actual hose. She fetches a pack of Benson and Hedges and lights one up, tossing one my way along with a pack of matches from Ribaldi’s. She is smoking a brand and all at once it hits me.

Are you serious, I ask. She just smiles a little and Tony says no fucking way but we’re all thinking alike, one organism approaching something akin to a thought. She’s getting up and I feel panicked, who will feed me, who will bullshit me all night long, but she is halfway through the door and I can only look after her. Lexia turns to us, morning light illuminating her from behind and she could be Blair, she really could be. I just wanted to say goodbye, she says.

Two days later I’m sucking on one of the packages of taco sauce she left behind. I’m thinking how I knew a movie star, one who maybe did George Clooney but probably not, I’m thinking about cowboys and how easy it would be to find my way home. Or, rather, to the place I grew up.


My mother took me out to Maggie’s Mexican Cantina and we tried to talk like I’d just been away to college but it didn’t go that way. Instead we ate as though dining alone until the end when she told me I’d have to get a job if I wanted to stay with her. I said fine a lot and we drove straight home and went to bed.

She’s a recovering heroin addict and she never lets you forget it. As for me, she is full of advice, even now after everything she put me through. I am not allowed to criticize her for her past, I am only to learn from it. I know that I will never touch heroin, that much she has taught me.

She’s taught me a lot, actually. Never give a man the chance to let you down. Always squeeze the toothpaste to the front of the tube. Never wear shorts with dressy shoes. Always wear foundation. Never leave hair in the sink. Always lock the bathroom door.

Actually, that’s one I leaned from one of her boyfriends. The lesson she says could never have happened.

The bathroom is tiny in this new place of hers. I keep the toothpaste rolled and the hair out of the sink. My towel, brown with pink flowers, is folded neatly beside hers and never on the floor. I put my pillow and blanket in the closet every morning and I am grateful for the couch with all its stains and cigarette burns. I eat as little as possible and think even less. Better to just coast, a wraith.

On Thursday I went to Kelly Kones to see about getting my old job back. I’d worked there just before I took off and I’d gotten along pretty well with the owners, though they didn’t like my group of friends hanging around all the time without buying anything. Once in awhile Becky would get a lime sherbet, but that was about it.

Kelly and I talk through customers and I ask about the job but she keeps changing the subject. She wants to know if I’ve heard about the Catholic church on Columbus, how they determined it had been arson and the whole community was in an uproar. Or did I hear about the stabbing at Bellingham Park right next to where she’d grown up, could you believe it?

“Gosh, I don’t know what to tell you, kid. We just don’t need another person right now. Have you tried the Burger King yet?”

“No, I thought I’d try here first.”

“Oh shucks. I’m really sorry, hon.’ But I hear the manager over there is a real peach.” She looks so hopeful and I know that she just doesn’t want me to hate her. I almost don’t.


They are all in the same cemetery, a detail we would have all delighted in at sixteen, fully alive and not the least bit afraid of death. I’m just wandering around, looking for them as I might have once, alone and not on my turf, needing to have a partner, if not three.

I can’t stop thinking about Jamie’s Nazi dad, with his set jaw and big, square glasses. There was this movie from a long time ago called “The Stepfather,” I think, and in it there’s this guy who seems all normal when he’s actually some kind of serial killer who, inevitably, will try to kill his newest wife and stepson. Whenever I saw that movie I thought of Mr. Kriss and his absolute need to control his family and environment. That dustless life where they are always on time and there are no secrets.

Eventually she lost it, defied him completely and ended up pregnant. There were plenty of angry calls to each of our houses as he searched for her, as well as unannounced visits as he tried to hunt her down. I can still see my mother half tanked with a Camel between her fingers screaming at him out on the sidewalk after he’d come barging into our house looking for his daughter. Good old mom, hustling him out the door and shrieking “What are you, a fucking psycho?” while the neighbors watched from their balconies with little kitten smiles on their faces.

I look over all the little gravestones pressed into the ground, but here is one standing upright and larger than the rest. It is pink and gray marble, highly reflective, and morbidly gorgeous. Something a community might have sprung for, in the midst of televised tragedy, provoked by the vision of twisted metal still steaming in the dead of night that has been played over and over on every local station. So in reverie I have stumbled upon the place where Therese is buried and I must sit down. As an idea, I can accept that they are all dead, but Therese as an individual is another matter. Therese, even though she was a bitch, still put herself between Mr. Kriss and his daughter on more than one occasion. On her stone I see her name, her dates of life, “My Baby” it says, and in the top left corner is a symbol, what I know to be one-third of a heart. Below it an inscription reads, “Friends forever.”

Mom had told me about it, how Mr. Kriss had paid for each stone to bear one-third of a broken heart with “Friends forever” written below. She said it had been in the paper, the headline saying something like, “Bittersweet End to Tragic Tale” or something equally revolting. She said the wreck was the talk of the town for weeks, that people held candlelight vigils at the crash site, and politicians made grand speeches about “protecting our youth from drugs and alcohol.”

And strange, now, as I stand before her, that bitch that ruled my life, that made me weak with self-doubt, yet would have defended me to the death, I feel her absence, but wonder if she ever felt mine. Three pieces of a broken heart, so ridiculous and vapid, yet I am jealous beyond breathing almost. I feel as though I have always been this wraith, nearly invisible and certainly without consequence. I cannot believe they went off and died without me.


Wallace says he saw Lexia on t.v. and I might have believed it a month ago but today I am wrapped in a trash bag and nursing a swollen lip. Sometimes at night I stare at the sky, hold my wrist, and listen to the pulse of me. It is slow, like something amphibious slithering under my skin.

I’ve finally lost a tooth, but I’m proud to say it wasn’t a man that knocked it loose. I believe, though, that my marketability has now bottomed out. A missing tooth marks a person, slaps a tag on your ass that reads REJECT so they send you off to some charitable organization for donation to be worn by some anemic, crusty-nosed kid with a choppy crew cut and a permanent Kool Aid stain around his mouth.

My mother let me have it when she caught me stealing money out of her purse. There was no discussion about whether that money was owed to me or not, a form of reparations maybe, just a shove, a punch, and a get out. I guess I never really believed that she owed me anything, it was just that the Burger King thing really hadn’t worked out and I needed the money for cigarettes.

I’ve lost weight and I really don’t have much else to lose but there is no food and I’m missing that one essential tooth, anyway. I could still score a job as a cook in some restaurant but the men paw constantly and they’re all ex-cons anyway. Besides, it makes me sick to cook in restaurants where boys take their first dates thinking they’re dining in a first-rate place when some of us in the back are finishing their meals. There are other ways to earn a living, but I am not there yet. I am not sure why, but there must be something in me still. A glimmer of something maybe.

Therese used to say that the belief God was the only way humans could ever feel clean. She said we were the filthiest animals on the planet because we spent our whole lives putting the most disgusting, unnatural elements in our bodies, like cocaine and Cheetos. So I asked her why she still ate stuff like Twinkies and cheeseburgers if she really felt that way. “Because God forgives me, asshole,” she said, lighting a butt out of the ashtray in Jamie’s rumpus room/pothead den.

So of course I obsessed about it, thought about my stinking insides, hot and working overtime to process the hundred alien chemicals I assaulted it with every day. I had a new respect for doctors, whose job it was to open these foul human bodies and fix the damage while smelling us, our horrible reek. On the streets you learn the depths of human odor and know that no animal on this earth has or could ever smell so wretched as the human animal. Again and again a line from some movie loops, “I want him to love me for what’s inside.” It’s all rotten, you see. Even healthy, we all smell like a tumor.

There are cowboys on the streets of this city. I smell their Stetson cologne. I hear the hollow clock of their boots receding. Once there was a slow, lazy draw of laughter from the well of my dreams and I awoke to the sight of a little boy in bright green pants and a clean white shirt peering down at me. My eyes opened to the sunlight and I heard his little yip of a scream as he realized that I was not dead or, worse, might be the undead awake to take him into the dark of the alley.

And once I saw a cowboy walking there, just there at the corner where the newspaper kiosk and the drugstore meet. My heart, securely held down with my thumb, undulated in that same, amphibian way. With my face pressed firmly into the cement I was sure I heard the heavy boom of his tread, watched as he stepped inside the Chinese buffet and, in the shadows, took off his hat.

A Word About Desire

Imagine the bull.
I have.
His breathing beats deep
rhythms that
thunder through you.
Feel the quake of
his heavy stride, see
his sleek, writhing muscles bunched
tight under the glistening coat,
his dark eyes centered
on you.

All that you are,
strange midnight mutterings
as you sleep dreams abroad,
above the stars, in the dark,
or below in ocean beds
waving dusk-colored fronds
across your bare back;
the way certain shades of blue
make your eyes water,
or the first rind of sun spreads
a smile across your face…

All that is you
is compressed
in a bright dart of fear,
all instinct and sweat,
as that hot-smelling animal
locks your gaze,
weakened predator,
then passes you by.

Adrenaline shocked and shaken,
ask me again about desire.

Dubuque Plant: Memorial

There, still, is the bent tricycle,
wheel’s hard-pocked rubber worn rough and gray
so dull hurt can rub into thin skin,
raw, tense, transparent.

Gummy kernels of Dog Chow
litter the yard alongside Tonka trucks
scattered in fluorescent yellow shards,
the quiet afterburn of childish arguments.

But this is all.
The voices are gone
like the leering tricks dispensed upon
the small, sallow boy who wore
thick glasses, bucked teeth, stuttering tongue.

Things are not the same now:
A rusted-out refinery where crows
announce the shape of the day is spiraled,
twisting slowly down, eyes closed.


I could not hold her,
my niece,
for she was so small,
impossibly small.
Born early.

She was still a little yellow
from the jaundice,
her delicate fist curled
against her plush cheek.

When I first came into the room
I did not realize
she was a part of the rumpled baby blanket
on the King-sized bed.

I crept across the bed,
steady so as not to wake her,
this delicate creature,
looked into her soft-featured face.

The rounded nose, puckered lips,
puffy eyes and thin skin,
poreless and new,
a gold swatch of hair.

As I wondered at the smell of her,
so fresh from the womb and clean,
she made a tiny squeak of waking,
my heart skipped a long,
breathless beat.

A Thursday Afternoon

White wrapped world,
whirling snow sifts
off ice-clung roofs,
pale gray sky shorn,
piercing crystals sweep
sideways, all ways.

A figure wrestles wind
that chisels sweat-wet skin,
slips under her hood, through her hat.
It coils swift
frigid hands of metal cold
around her neck
where once lay weeping kisses
washed away in long, steaming showers,
sprays of perfume,
his restless hand rubbing a kink
that had settled there.

Winter shrieks through cracks,
a frosted window clatters,
the sound of large-grain sand flung
at a steel rocket slide in anytown park
when summer’s heavy, wet weight
strains the thin tissue of good humor,
sometimes splitting the translucent membrane
so the mean can boil out.

Snow drifts,
smoke under a pane of glass.
Day drifts,
frozen knocks of time
in the rhythm of the wind.

Crystal Lake

Sister girl,
remember how good it was
to feel the sun slide,
hot and rippling,
down your back arched long?

Cool walk of wet beads
glistened slow trails
down your legs curved,
muscular and brown.

Remember the crinkled sound of water,
restless at the tips of your toes,
the darting fish
that kissed the cups of your feet?

Heavy oil silky down your arms,
thick with pina colada moisture
to drink the sun inside
where it stayed well past midnight
in blue textured dreams.

Sister girl,
remember how good it was
to float through summer
on a soft-splintered, wooden raft
water swollen and smelling
of charged skin,
a grown man’s sweat?


Twelve minutes click by between long miles of seconds if the situation is right. Alan Goodman lost the first five minutes to leisure. He sat at the kitchen table sipping weak white tea and inspected the new paint-job. It wasn’t bad for amateurs, though they’d speckled the ceiling a little around the edges in their haste. The expertise with which they’d painted was not at issue. Color was the issue. It was yellow; not the raucous “yaller” his grandmother had despised, pointing at street signs with an accusatory finger whenever she saw it. It was canary yellow or, as Quinn had insisted, “sunshine” yellow. “I want my mornings bright and airy,” she’d said.

“Off-white does that,” he’d protested, though it had been decided before he’d ever known they were to paint the kitchen. Quinn’s eyelids lowered; he felt her condemnation writhing into his skin.

“It does not. It washes me out and makes me more tired. It’s too cold and impersonal, like we could be anywhere; a penitentiary, a hospital, a hotel for God’s sake. You can live with ‘sunshine,’ alright?”

“Okay,” Alan said, knowing the end of almost every argument with Quinn could be predicted the same way. He figured he put up a fight so as to never stop testing her boundaries. She could be made to bend on occasion, but the matter of the yellow paint was not such an occasion.

Alan set his cup on the table and listened to the muffled patter of the shower. He thought briefly of Quinn naked in there, squeaky and warm. The image wouldn’t hold; it shifted and warped as if viewed from outside the billowy glass door as steam gradually thickened on the panes.

He had not touched her intimately in months, their contact limited to an occasional brush-by in the kitchen. Alan tried to kiss her the night before but she refused. He’d reached out to touch her face in the dark and felt a cool coat of sweat at her temple. She did not say anything as he stroked her lips with his thumb, leaning closer, the shift of blankets sounding like ocean waves from a distance. His lips had only just touched hers when Quinn turned over. “No,” she said.

Alan traced the lip of the cup with his forefinger, staring at an Escher print Quinn loved and he despised. Quinn had miscarried six short weeks ago, and they had bumped up against the “fear of intimacy” subject since, but only in fits and mumbles, embarrassed to speak in pop-psychology terms. They shared a mutual distaste for psychoanalysis and the charlatans who sold it to the weak-minded, needy public desperate for answers that did little good once the problem was acknowledged. They did not speak of the baby; the strange amphibious creature Alan had held briefly, after they’d taken Quinn away and sedated her. She’d never looked.

Alan understood Quinn’s distance, the miscarriage was particularly bad. She had nearly reached the third trimester when the baby came, stillborn. Alan mentioned giving the baby a proper funeral and Quinn had become hysterical. “No. No, I will not, goddamn you. Have them take it wherever they take them.”

He finished off his tea and glanced at the clock, surprised that it had only been five minutes since he’d checked last. It seemed as though she’d been in there forever. Alan knew he would have to make an effort to please her this morning; she had taken the unusual night shift to cover for another waitress and would probably be in a humorless mood. Quinn’s clothes hung from the back of the chair nearest him; he could smell old bacon grease and hash-brown oil emanating from them. She washed them every three days, but he wished she’d do so more often, though he would not volunteer laundry duty himself.

Three brisk knocks at the door snapped Alan out of his reverie. Who would be calling at eight in the morning? He shoved his cup away and went to the door, ruffling his hair as he walked. Alan squinted through the peek-hole and saw a brown-clad man standing on the front step. Alan opened the door and the UPS man smiled. “Delivery for Quinn Goodman?” the man said, presenting a large cardboard box to Alan like a prize. Alan did not return the smile.


Quinn spent fifteen slow minutes in the shower, taking the longest time stroking thick suds through her long hair, heavy with water. Quinn is short for “Quinella,” her father’s whimsy born from one lucky day at the track that spent itself in a matter of days.

A lot can happen in the space of minutes: a shower can rinse a spider from a slick, wet thigh; a woman can grab her smokes and purse on the way to another life; a father can say “Quinella” to a stunned nurse’s face, the hollow breath of his drugged wife accentuating his decisive tone and unflickering eyes.

Quinn shampooed her hair, soaped her arms and legs, lingering at the spaces between her toes. She cupped lather under her breasts, passing a cursory twirl through her belly-button. Quinn scrubbed between her legs and ran her sudsy fingers across her buttocks. Her mind wandered. The steam made her head swim a little, her thoughts circled the insignificant annoyances of the day. She saw how things should’ve gone, might’ve gone had she been a swift thinker under pressure. She was not; the punchline often evaded her.

She stooped down to see that the faucet was securely off, knowing Alan would ride her about it should it drip. Fortunately, Alan reserved most of his severity for environmental arguing, rather than things like, say, her refusal to be impregnated again. They had not discussed children lately, but Quinn knew Alan’s mind and, more importantly, knew he understood her mind. Some things were “off limits.” She didn’t know if he could comprehend her feelings about impregnation anyway. She hardly understood them herself. The very word “pregnant” sickened her. She would remember that horrible movie “Aliens,” imagine the gooey egg slowly opening, some slithering horror suctioning onto her, injecting some bitter liquid deep into her throat. Quinn could not get past it, the image would not fade -- it would only take on brighter hues, crisper sounds. Kodak moments in Hell.

Quinn toweled obsessively. She enjoyed being dry, the velvety feeling of newly washed skin, as yet unflawed by body oils and various dirt and dust. Quinn tucked her hair into the towel and admired the way it pulled her skin back. Alan said she looked exotic, like a pale Sophia Loren. Her mind flickered back to the night before, when Alan tried to kiss her. Did he see Sophia in her bone structure, her thick, almost awkward lips? Quinn’s eyes narrowed as she remembered his face pressing nearer, how she had sensed some odor, metallic and shrill, something like desperation or fear or anger. The kiss was averted; Quinn had turned on her side and listened to the fan stir papers on the night stand. She did not know if the smell came from Alan or herself.

Quinn swept the bathroom door open to let out the steam. She could feel her pores tightening in the cool air conditioning as she emerged into the dim hall and entered the kitchen. The smell of paint still lingered, though they’d nearly finished moving all the furniture back to their original settings.

A sudden crash from the garage jarred Quinn from her inspection. Her head snapped in the direction of the entryway and pain flared in her neck muscles. What the hell was he doing out there at 8 a.m. anyway? She sweated day-in and day-out at the restaurant while he meandered about at school in the supposed pursuit of an MBA. It wasn’t enough she worked forty hours plus a week to support them both without his careless disregard of her nerves which his very existence, at times, had already stretched thin.

Quinn glared at the dull glow of the door knob, waiting for it to turn. She heard his pounding steps and crossed her arms tightly around her ribcage. Alan slammed through the door and froze at the sight of her. Quinn noticed an oily sheen of sweat coated his face. She snapped, “Well? What the hell do you have to say for yourself?”

Alan clutched the door knob and did not move. Quinn could hear his throat click.

“What’s the matter with you?”

“I just…I was just in the garage. I was, uh, looking for that drill Steve loaned me.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Then why do you look so guilty?”

“I…I made so much noise. I didn’t, uh, didn’t want to upset you.”

“That’s very kind of you.”“Quinn, please. I don’t want to fight.”




“Okay, good.”

Quinn turned away and swept the towel from her head. Her dark hair hung in wet slivers, glowing in the morning light. Alan’s mid-section quivered at the sight of her, so unaware of her own raw beauty. She turned to him and raised her brows. “Everything will be just fine once you tell me why you’re lying. And I want you to tell me now.”

Alan’s mouth closed. He swallowed. A squadron of lies circled and dipped around his head, but he could not grasp one. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he looked her in the eye and tried to say the words.


Alan tore through the garage, heading for the dusty boxes they kept in one corner. The boxes were filled with the things they couldn’t quite part with, but were too much of a nuisance to unpack. His college history books shared unlikely space with her old jewelry box that still contained the baubles of her teen years: battle ax earrings, a dragon’s head pendant, a ring with a skull staring with one cubic zirconia eye.

Alan yanked boxes to the side, vaguely aware of a twinge in his back. He shoved the new box against the wall and it jingled merrily, a sound so alien and new that he stopped and stared.

They had told everyone, of course, knowing that the baby shower was only weeks away and there were gifts to return. Quinn was very efficient with her planner opened to the list of people they’d invited and her personal phone book in her lap. Alan remembered the muffled sound of Quinn’s mother over the phone, how he’d curiously thought of whale song but knew she was just crying, a grandmother denied.

Quinn called them all, very diligently, very calmly. She accepted their stammering sympathy with practiced, articulate evenness that had scared Alan badly. He was unable to do anything productive that day; wandering from place to place, hand washing a dish at one moment, then shifting a pile of magazines from one end of the coffee table to the other at the next. At one point, Quinn clicked off the phone in mid-dial and glared at him. All the calmness left her voice, “Stop puttering. You’re getting on my nerves.” He went out on the back porch and stared at a book for an hour. He could not remember what book.

They were so careful to cover those bases, so needful of wrapping things up neat and tidy so that the baby would not surprise them again, as she had done so dramatically during her brief stay in their lives. But Alan forgot one person. He forgot to remind himself.

Alan stared at the box, its happy tinkling weight now resting silently among the dead memories neither of them could release. It was a “Fun Station,” a plastic monstrosity adorned with twenty different bright, sparkling diversions for ages zero and up.

As Alan stared at the box, squatting in his dirty garage, beginning to sweat, he saw clearly how the toy had looked in the store. There were reds, blues, and yellows, as well as swiveling mirrors and dangling clown faces, goofy smiles spread across their soft heads. The shrugging clerk had explained that it was for display only, but they could backorder it, no problem.

Alan winced as he saw himself, a big, dumb papa-to-be, smiling sheepishly and saying that, yes, he would very much like it, here’s the address. He’d been thinking of how her face would look, like the time when they’d only just begun to date and he’d brought her tiger lilies. She had been sick and he watched her sleep, placing the flowers on her night stand. When she had awoken, they were the first things she saw. God, how her face had looked! She grinned like a child at the fair. Quinn’s face surrounded by tiger-lilies violent orange and reaching outward. He could still see it quite clearly.

Alan stared at the box and cried. He did not let it slam out of him as he had when he held his child; the sobs came in strained chuffs, as though he was moving heavy equipment. He leaned against the box, its rainbow-colored joy sealed safely inside, secure in its cardboard brown shell.


“What were you doing out there?” Quinn said, approaching him.


“What’s out there? Are you hiding something?” Alan jumped and Quinn’s lips pursed. She shoved him aside and was through the door before he could begin to grab her. Alan followed, kneading his hands together then willing himself to stop. She was standing with her fists to her hips, scanning the garage.

“Quinn, your feet are getting dirty.”

“Tell me where it is.”


“Stop that shit and tell me!” Her teeth were bared. Alan wondered if she would hit him.

“It was a package from UPS.”

“What package?”

Alan looked at her, tried to draw her close with his eyes. He could not shake the sorrow from his expression, it hung there, a dead weight. The anger drained from her face. “Something I ordered awhile ago. I forgot about it. It was for—“

“Never mind,” Quinn said, turning toward the stairs. He caught her hand as she reached for the banister.

“Quinn, it hurts me.”

She shook his hand away. She would not look at him. “Never mind,” she said, and ascended the stairs. Quinn shut the door behind her and Alan stood in the dark.

This Girl I Knew

She is a virgin in a whorehouse
living clean, rosary wrapped
around her fist clenched
in the agony of goodness, repentance
for saying “shit” during mass,
wishing her mother dead.
The sight of her own blood
twirls her stomach into a tight rope,
knotted and stretched.
She giggles shrill at whispered
stories lobbed back and forth,
a paper trail of insinuations, accusations,
ejaculations. She barely
understands, but her friends smile
at one another in slinking knowledge.

She is a virgin on a wedding cake
her sugar sweet dress spread white
and buoyant, proper folds pressed
just so, little lace, a satin bow.
Her eyes brush the floor, back
and forth, her cheeks rosy red
the only acknowledgment of this
faceless groom in shiny black shoes.
She smiles for her future
as she walks the halls of public education,
arms wrapped around
the history of the world,
her mind lilting through some summer
dream: a woman, a man,
a baby dressed in lemon-yellow overalls.
She sinks into her desk,
ignores the latest gossip about
Courtney’s new disease;
the virgin hears someone singing
“Buffalo Gals won’t you come out tonight and…
dance by the light of the moon.”

She is a virgin in this working world --
Payless pumps, press-on nails, outlet fashion.
Around the water cooler, the ladies
do their tangled dance, the do-si-do
of who did what with whom and when
and where no cares for why.
She glances at them sidelong, listens
carefully to this chatter, this
realm of sweat, booze,
husky whispers in alleyways,
bars, under the stars.
She wonders at the why,
worries at the how,
whittles at the why not.
The faceless groom has not appeared,
but for one boy, pimple-faced
and panting with terror
who lured her under the bleachers
years ago to kiss her full on the lips,
his oily face pressing hers, his new
smell, savage and rich, pressing
closer still and she ran into
the fluorescent light, the drumming
of basketballs, squeaks of sneakers,
ran until she could feel winter
on her face, the comforting metal and rot
smell of dumpsters in her nose.

She is a virgin still as she speaks
in flat tones of this pregnancy by someone
else’s husband, her second love affair
after the first ended with her stalking
the man, also married.
She is saying how much she loves him,
she is saying how she forgives him,
she is saying she will keep trying
to convince him.
I see her in the night,
hugely pregnant, crouched
outside this groom’s window watching
his family eat Hamburger Helper, watching
with her virgin eye as he helps his youngest
down from the table. I see her walking
to the door, tapping politely, offering
her swollen proof of purchase
for his bewildered wife
to somehow comprehend.

I see her there
in the snow, on her knees,
all in white, rosary wound
tight around her neck,
a smile curling her
pretty mouth, pure lips.

Kiss Me

In text, the texture, so like nothing other,
simply cannot be explained, pinned to paper,
rolled out of the ball point, thick and smudgy.
But it is wrong not to try, dry the lines and let it
make its stand, off the mark or not.

So the textual texture, set to print for me or you
or none at all, is like that black latex cut and sewn,
wrapped around pouty rock stars, black latex
but wet, oiled down, rolled in mud.

That is the texture, textually speaking.

Or simply satin, that’s it, slipping and sliding
deep inside somewhere, and who cares where,
just so long as it always feels this good, like being cleaned
like a kitten, or the shift and lilt of currents in warm
water, deep blue, alive, quiet and endless.

Or maybe it is water, alone. Swirling, the thrush and shove
that nudges and pulls, and you are anxious and sweating
in the sun, in the moonlight, in the company of others floating,
fighting the currents and waves, pockets of cold, valleys
of warm and wading pools full of babies sobbing in their waterwings.
But I digress…

At least until this kiss ends, and the thought is broken off,
set off to drift like it was never a part of anything at all,
least of all, me.

Bitter Little Ditty

Something old, something new,
Something borrowed, something blue,
Something wet, something thick,
I think you might do the trick.

Something sweet, something pure,
Something built strong to endure,
Something moist, something steamy,
Something succulent and dreamy.

Something cold, something bland,
Something hard to understand,
Something warm, something hard,
Something big, for I am starved.

You like me hot, you like me cold,
You want me free, you find me sold,
I am nothing, I am sex,
I am simple, too complex.

I am woman, hear me squeal,
I’ll make it soft, smooth, unreal,
Taste my mouth, warm and wet
I’m the one you won’t forget.

Love is clear, love is blind,
Love’s a stupid waste of time,
Sex is clear, bittersweet,
Little affection, lots of meat.

Something borrowed, something blue,
Something everyone must do,
Something old, something new,
Something altogether shrewd.


I imagine
this crisp sting, cold
and tingling like
tiny bells bobbing
merrily at a horse’s
throat, his steaming
nostrils flared
wide and stiff
as he plunges
through thick snow
bunched in gutters,
slithering Sahara smooth
across the flat expanse
of streets.

It should go icy
all the way down,
hit my stomach
with an atomic
the slow unfolding
of warmed clouds,
vast and silent
as seen in Technicolor.

I suppose the olive
will tie the bow,
make it pretty and sweet.
It’ll be bitter, a twinge
of salt, a pulp-burst
of oil, gritty, aggressive.
The pimiento, slimy on my
tongue, will dissolve
on the roof of my mouth,
gin-soaked and sour.
The olive will go down well
with the last swish of liquor,
like sun shafts shoot
through rainstorms, uninvited,
so welcome.

I believe it will
lull me drunk
softer than any other:
Amaretto Sour, Boone’s Farm,
Beam ‘n’ Coke, Bud Lite.
A drink with its very own glass,
class, a cock of the brow,
pinkies skyward in salute
to a Gentleman’s Drink,
not the cloudy whiskey
acrid and stinking
like some sweating animal
chased deep into the woods,
breath quick and screamy, its vision
blurred like a dream almost
forgotten as it runs,
muscles tight, lined with acid.
It hears the brutal crash
of dogs and men,
blind with thirst,
blundering, mad, helpless
against nature.

It will not be like that.
It will taste like daisies
and bee wings,
not the dark smoke
of a rifle discharged
again and


I don’t want a team of hyper-emotional
family members lined up like third-rate,
clean-showered basketball players
benched on the sidelines sitting
there watching with avid intensity
as I pass a slithering
infant into the bright, cold world.

Does not appeal to me.

I would prefer a warm, dim
place, perhaps in a large cardboard
box with a clean towel and maybe
a bowl of water with only one
vaguely active participant
that just sort of checks in once
in awhile, but never actually
looks at anything.

My sister apparently likes people
to see her in such a condition, she
sent out invitations, served tea and
cookies between contractions, and when
she clamped down the baby came
gushing out with various ooze and
the audience cried and gave them both
a standing ovation.

My best friend lobbed throwing stars
at our heads whenever we peeked
in because the nurse kept telling us
the bellowing pregnant woman
in Room 8 wanted us to come in
so finally we figured it out and waited
for them to muzzle and strap her down
and take the baby out like the new mommy
was a box and I kept thinking if I were
there to see it would there be pink tissue
paper poking out and a little card attached
to her toe that read, “It’s a girl”?

Dobermans do it best.
They lie down, grunt some, and out
squirt little sausages across the cement
floor and you go get them, bring them
to mother-dog and she tears the sack
and there’s a squirming puppy with tiny
soft nails and wet fur and the mother
eats the sack, cleans the puppy and almost
never gets the two mixed up.

I wouldn’t mind the hospital so much:
monitors, needles, the undeniable reek of
death even on the pastel painted nursery ward.
I’d only ask for ice chips, an epidural,
and a gun for any wet-nosed family member
that dares break the one mile radius rule.

After all, this is business.


“Okay. There’s this town, right?”


“Now, this town is full of liars and truth-tellers. The only thing is -- liars only lie and truth-tellers only tell the truth.”


“So, you go up to this guy and you ask him, ‘What are you? A liar or a truth-teller?’ And he says, ‘I’m a liar.’ So which is he? A liar or a truth-teller?”

“He’s a liar.”

“Yeah, but liars only lie.”

“Then he’s a truth-teller.”

“Yeah, but if he’s a truth-teller then he’s lyin’ when he says he’s a liar.”

“Man, what’s your point?”

“It’s a riddle.”

“It’s a stupid-ass riddle. There’s no right answer.”

“There’s always a right answer.”


“It’s not bullshit.”

“Then what’s the answer.”“He’s from out of town.”


Blake Taylor Rockland was born on April 1st, 1978. Her mother spent seventy-two long hours clamped under the cruel agony of labor before Blake slithered out screaming like a long nail being wrenched from a piece of wood. Blake’s mother was tough, though. It was just another learning exercise, she told her daughter once, like wrestling down a drug dealer or braving a high-rise fire to save an important informant. Blake’s mother was an FBI agent. She’d been decorated by the President.

Blake grew up in her grandfather’s multi-million dollar mansion nestled away in an unknown corner of Maize, Kansas. Her grandfather got rich off of gumball machines and roller rinks. Blake had a roller rink in the mansion basement, but her grandfather wouldn’t allow her to invite any of her schoolmates over so she was the sole user of it, spinning lonely circles under the disco ball to Olivia Newton John’s Greatest Hits and the like.

When she was a child she had a maid named Lupe who laid out her clothes every day and drew up bubble baths for her at night. The maid would sometimes sneak Neapolitan ice cream and grasshoppers without the alcohol up to her third floor room. Lupe was an illegal Mexican that lived over the garage and saved the money she made to one day bring her three children to the United States. When Blake was nine, her grandfather left the car on in the garage to warm up and went to get his briefcase from the kitchen. He got into a fight with Blake’s mom over her dangerous work and forgot about the car until he went back and found the garage full with carbon monoxide. Blake’s maid died and they couldn’t call the morgue because she was an illegal, so Blake and the cook, another illegal, buried her in the back yard next to Blake’s Shetland pony, Max. Blake held a service for her but her mom was called to D.C. and her grandfather had a meeting in Boston so only she and the cook attended. When she placed a carnation atop the churned soil, a breeze lifted her hair from her eyes and she looked up to see the maid’s soul swirl outward, into the sunlight, and disappear. It was then that she finally believed in God.

Blake’s dad was an MIA in Nam. Her mom believed that he was still alive and hoped to someday lead a top-secret mission to find him. Her mom had all kinds of maps and plans to get him out. Blake had a picture of her dad from the late sixties. He had dark, shiny hair and looked a lot like Marlon Brando when Brando was young.

When Blake was fourteen, her mother died in a shoot-out. It was very sad. The next year, Blake told her grandfather that she, too, wanted to be an F.B.I. agent. Her grandfather told her that he would never give her the twenty-seven million dollar trust fund he had set up for her if she dared to pursue the same career that killed her mother.

Now that Blake is in college, her grandfather pays for her tuition, but he will not give her the trust fund money that was supposed to have been hers at age eighteen. A lawyer flies out to Maize from New York City every weekend to discuss Blake’s case with her. She hates her grandfather but she stays with him every weekend. Obligations, something.

Blake has to work at Rico’s Burger Hut to pay for rent since her grandfather won’t let her have the trust fund money. It is very demeaning. She dates around and is still a virgin. She went to see one of her professors about a paper and he had asked her out. She told him ‘no’ but she’s pretty sure she will look him up next semester when they can’t get in trouble.


“Alright. I gotta riddle for you.”


“Why did the baby cross the road?”

“C’mon, why did the baby cross the road?”

“I think you missed the point.”

“It’s a riddle.”

“It’s not a riddle.”

“It is so a riddle.”

“It’s an infantile joke.”

“It’s a good infantile joke. Now, tell me the answer.”

“Something to do with a chicken, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, ‘cause the baby’s stapled to the chicken. Pretty good, huh?”

“Oh yes.”

“And you thought I wasn’t funny.”

“Hmm. You are funny, in your way. But there’s a better version. Not so much funny, though.”

“What’s the point, then?”

“It’s smart. It’s painfully clear.”


“So…so you’d never get it.”

“Nice. Very nice. Your mother teach you to talk that way?”


“Cut that fuckin’ hollerin’ before I backhand the both of you!” their father screamed. Josie and Bobby froze, both looking toward the living room entryway to see if their father was angry enough to escalate from screaming to what he termed “stomping their guts out.” After a brief eternity they picked up their spoons and continued to eat soggy cereal. Josie’s eyes were still red as she shot Bobby what she hoped was a look of pure hate. He stuck his tongue out at her and pretended to flick a booger from his nose into her cereal bowl. She began to sniffle, tears soaking her cheeks.

Their father appeared in the doorway and both children tensed, staring up at him with spoons clutched in their hands. His gut hung out of his t-shirt and he held the remote in his fist. His face was red-blotched and his breathing was short and loud. There was a tiny scar next to his belly-button where the Cong had shot his guts out. That’s what he had told them once: “The bullet hit and my intestines squirted out. Had to carry ‘em all the way back to the army triage after my buddy Trig drug me to the chopper.”

“Stop that snot-nosed crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Josie bit her lip and held her breath.

“What the fuck’s the matter with you?”

“Bobby t-took my…my Blake doll and—“

“Take it back,” her father growled.

“He ripped her head off, Daddy! He flushed it down the toilet!” Fresh tears streamed down her face. Her father chuckled.

“You did, huh?” he asked his son. Bobby sat up straight and nodded. “Well, don’t do that no more,” their father said. He looked at his daughter. “Josie.”


“Go take Bobby’s Darth Vader and flush it down the toilet.”

“Dad!” Bobby screamed.

“You yell like that again and I’ll flush the whole goddamn lot of them. Go on, girl.”

Josie gave her brother a slow, sly look and slid off the chair. She took her time walking to his room and, upon finding Vader, took even longer to deliver the evil leader of the dark side into the stinking blackness of the septic tank. After flushing the action figure she looked at her brother, still clutching his spoon over a completely liquefied bowl of cereal.

“Happy now?” her father asked.


“If I hear one more peep out of you I’ll stomp both of your guts out.”

“Okay, Daddy,” Josie answered for both of them. Bobby stared at her, his darkening eyes gleaming wet and black. She tipped her gaze coyly to her father, sure that Bobby could do her no harm, at least until they got to the bus stop and out of their father’s hearing range. Her father pursed his lips at the look and backhanded her.

“I didn’t go to Nam to come back to no snivelin’ brown-nosers,” he said, blushing. He wouldn’t look at them. “Go put your bowls in the sink and get ready for school.”

“I need a can of food,” Bobby whispered.


“I need a can of food.”

“What the hell for?”

“Food drive. At school. For charity.”

“What are you, a fuckin’ idiot?”


“We are charity, stupid.”


“Got that?”


“Now go get ready for school.”



“Why did the chicken cross the road?”

“Don’t start.”

“It’s a philosophical question.”

“It’s shit.”

“Just play along for once, will you?”

“’Cause the Colonel was chasing it.”

“No, it was to get to the other side.”

“I was being innovative.”

“It’s really one of the more intelligent riddles--”

“That is not a riddle.”

“Oh but it is.”

“It is not.”

“It’s really startling in its implications.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“A thing of beauty--”


“Like white chickens.”


“By a wheelbarrow. You know the one.”

“White chickens.”


“By a wheelbarrow.”


“Okay. I’m outta here.”

“It’s a poem.”

“Oh, that explains it. It’s poetry.”

“Very deep. Like the riddle.”

“The joke.”

“Whatever. The point is that there is more than meets the eye. Cause and effect, you know?”

“I don’t get it.”

“It’s in the poem. ‘So much depends upon…’ something. Something to do with white chickens and a wheelbarrow. It means that even insignificant things have depth and meaning.”

“Like the chicken crossing the road.”


“It’s a joke.”

“Yes. But its simplicity is startlingly complex.”

“Oh man. I’ve gotta headache now. Can’t we just go back to the liars and truth-tellers?”

“No. It’s been done.”

Once, in Winter

Just this once
I will unsheathe this
fine, sharp weapon,
show you its shimmering
surface, reflections.

Look deep inside,
past the shine, the smoothwater
texture, the thin edge a tight,
hungry mouth moaning
for you to touch it, take
the blade into your skin.

Do you see him?
Far into the reflection –
he stands there, flexes
his muscular anger, snaps
his fingers into fists, exhales
hot steam and waits
under stars, brittle flecks of ice.

He seethes, you see,
he simmers in the cold.
He wants inside,
wants to snap our delicate
fingers like chicken bones.

Do you hear him?
I still hear his final
declaration, said again
and again, lunatic reason:
“I’m a man.”
We kicked his ass out,
threw his TV in the snow,
little women beating him
with big words, a bitch-in-heels
glance down a pert, pink nose.

Notice his physique, cut and
charmed from hours to kill in
prison, before he returned
to us, before he discovered
cocaine again.

Can you see that muscle clench
behind his eyes?
It sweats like dynamite.
He stands in the snow, cuts
the phone lines, imagines
his pretty girls are crawling
through the blackened house,
sweating like animals, smelling
like salt and urine.

That is enough.
The weapon is secured, locked down.
You won’t know the rest
but for these hands,
carved with scars, white and thick
from when I used to grab
this blade from the blind end,
never feeling how deep it cut,
how much of me it drained.


He is a rain soaked alleyway,
Gutters choked with carnival cone wrappers,
Brown bottles smashed in doorways,
Bitter, fermented grapes
Left long on the vine for flies
To perch and rub their hairy legs.

He is an old tomato can
Growing out of the gravel alley,
Blooming rust spots in April;
Or sundown in winter
When the weathervane squeals southward
And the trees click their spider-bones.

He is dirt caked jeans
Worn long and thin,
Torn at the knees and the seams;
Warm, sizzling Coors down your throat,
A ripe green pepper, no salt,
A Carlton dragged deep into the soul.

He is a slurred word,
A pouting lip dripping blood,
A zoo lion,
The smoke curling
Past the red candles
In a dark bar.

He is an artist
With arthritic hands
Sleeping through cataract dreams;
A birthday present never bought,
A silent telephone where no one waits,
A check in the mail.

He is white fury burning holes
In dirt-gray bed sheets,
Fear wrapped in a brown paper bag,
A cold rain burst
Beating metal thunder
On the roof of a dead car.


Sonic boom.
The gunpowder lifts
its angel’s head,
blurts smoky incantations,
reeks of lizard
caught in a close tank.

What sweet dreams
it gleans off a shimmering rock
twinkling in orange morning light.
Vaporized with a distant,
echoing crack,
the hard burning exclamation
that follows,
its point shearing
a small nick
down the rock’s curved back.

A finch shrieks,
rude, breathes hard,
ruffles dew off its feathers
and flies.


We denied each other, I think.
You clipped my wings and I
became afraid of heights, would not
rise above myself to some elsewhere,
someplace hidden in the clouds
left to my imagination and thrashing
dreams, as I twisted in the sheets with
night sweats.

I plucked your feathers, one
by one, eyed the brilliant color
before tossing each into the gutter
where you slept your life away
among the paper cups, gum, ice-
cream wrappers and beer bottles.
You kept those lovely eyes shut tight
against that place in the clouds,
decided it never existed for anyone
real, no one you would ever know
or be.

I want to tell you this, Mother,
I want to tell you this one thing:
I know why you clipped my wings,
singed my feathers with all your
internal burnings you should not
have unleashed on anyone but yourself.
It was wrong,
but I see you clearly, see
this woman, white hot and disintegrating
with every year that slipped on by,
leaving you just the same as before
but older.

I understand that hollowness,
the hunger stitching
its strength through everything
you think
you feel
you know
how it makes this tight, snaking
scarf that coils around you,
suffocates all thought,
makes you try even harder
to break out, break up,
destroy everything in your way.

I am glad you clipped me,
glad you tried to mold me dull
and formless, like some dormant
star, glowing purple and cold.
You wanted me to be a goody girl
with strawberry scented hair
singing someday my prince will come.
Perhaps it is best you do not see
the darkness folded in the sleeves
of this soul, smoke and mirrors,
murmuring incantations
of devilwomen too free to live, too
loud to hear anything but their own
roaring hearts.

I am just as hungry
as you ever were,
old woman.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Good Enough

Saturday, even in rain, the races are the only place to go where everyone more or less looks just like me. Earl picks me up around noon and we do the drive thru at Arby’s for curly fries, cheddar melts, and large Cokes. Earl is my bestest friend. We still call each other that, even though I can feel how stupid it sounds to everyone except us. Earl’s real name is Pretty but God save you if you ever call her that for she is a hornet at heart and will sting just as easy as kiss you, believe me. She’s like an alligator: no soft parts, only hard, resistant flesh that will not stand any form of tenderness.

We are both 20, born one month apart in the very same hospital. Earl theorizes we slept in the same little bed at the hospital and that’s how we became friends later in life.

Earl and I went stag to our junior-year prom, both of us decked out in matching dresses her sister sewed for us from fake satin we bought at Clothworld. Purple, with some black lace fringing the hem. We wore our old black lace Madonna gloves from junior high and did each other’s hair. I managed a haphazard french twist in her dark hair and she made my dishwater blond shag into little coils. My mom took pictures with my old LeClic and Earl and I both felt really good, like how you feel when you’re on the cusp of understanding everything and you’re pretty sure it’s all going to be a nice surprise.

So we went and no one we hung out with was there, even though the locker talk had been all bravado the week before; heavy metal dudes making declarations of rebellion, how they were going to show up in jean cut-offs and tuxedo t-shirts, their middle fingers held high in salute to the principal. We only encountered the people we had in classes all our lives but never knew past the grades where clothes and cliques became the dividing line between us and them. They stared at us and finally we left after half an hour. I felt numb and half insane and Earl said nothing. She drove an El Camino back then and it rumbled so loud and deep that, unless there was something important to say, it was better just to wait. I felt as though one of us should say something, but she revved the engine and took all the corners harder than usual. Her face was blank, but I remember how I could see the muscles in her jaw working, tried to imagine the pressure between her teeth as she rhythmically clenched them. She dropped me off and I went inside and I remember how the house smelled of burnt vegetable oil. I went into the kitchen and ate a stray curl of bacon abandoned on the table and the next Monday the rumor was that Earl and I were S&M dykes that went shamelessly to prom together holding hands. One girl stated that she saw us tongue kissing in the bathroom.

Earl drives south, past pet shops, small-time hardware stores, a number of fast food chains beckoning with $1.99 specials and plastic toys with moving parts. Curly fries are best eaten right away, so we are quiet as she maneuvers the Montego through the cityscape.

The racing strip is right outside of town. It’s just a big ring of dirt with flimsy, aluminum stands that few people actually use since everyone prefers to socialize around the track. All the fights are there, too. Once, I saw Earl fight a girl twice her size and win by the simple yank of a ridiculously long earring. It’s amazing what will make people crumple.

Earl pulls into the lot and we get out. I shake a few curly fries off me and bend to the rearview mirror for a once over inspection. Not too bad today. I’ve got on my best Levi’s and my old Dokken concert-T that everyone always “ooos” over. It’s a classic. Mint condition.

There are lots of mangled rock concert t-shirts here, most with the arms cut off, some with holes punched through, all of them faded from black to gray-brown. Ozzie, Metallica, Iron Maiden. It’s so post-nuclear war, but I guess that is the idea. Men wear them to pieces and somehow it always looks good, even when a guy hasn’t got much going for him to begin with, like say his teeth are snaggled and his eyes are too close together. There’s something tough in the torn; something animal yet admirable. So they dress like it’s a code. Some girls do it, but only the fit ones can pull it off; the rest look like street walkers. I have never tried it.

Earl sees Steve and John and waves them down. I am already flushed before they are near us because John reminds me of Tommy Lee Jones a little. His gaze is very still, constant. He has that same smile, the one that creeps like a jungle cat slow up the side of his face. I adjust my posture, one leg slightly in front of the other.

I see that Steve and John are towing John’s younger brother around, a despicable drowned-rat looking thing that insists on being called “Tucson.” “Jeffy,” Earl said once, “you don’t even know how to spell Tucson.” But Jeffy won’t let it die, it’s his sole cause and primary campaign. It’s starting to catch on, more by his robotic repetition than any true respect for his feelings.

Steve and John don’t even get a “hi” out before Tucson starts. “Hey you fuckin’ scags, how they fuckin’ hangin?” We say “shut up” in unison and slap at him. It’s a kind of greeting the two sexes worked out some time around junior high, at least in our crowd. An insult, a “shut up,” the obligatory slap and tickle. One of us is getting the short end of the stick.

John has no problem with eye contact. “How’ve you been?” he asks me, and I understand how a wave might feel thrashing suddenly against my body, though I’ve never been to the ocean.

“Okay. How’ve you been?”

“Good. Pretty good.” Then the smile, Tommy Lee Jones, jungle cat. It all starts this notion inside me that maybe he could go for me, maybe.

We migrate around the social scene, everyone around us carrying plastic cups of beer and paper plates of hot dogs or those nachos with the jalepeneos scattered liberally across the top. I’m already hungry again. I can taste the tang of jalepeneo, smell the fizz of Pepsi under my nose. Earl isn’t as ravenous as I am, generally. She eats when the thought occurs to her, but it isn’t the kind of love affair like I have.

The races have begun. All the racers have sweaty heads and dirty palms. There are no spiffy racing gloves or jumpsuits here; only jeans and t-shirts and the occasional helmet. The cars gleam prettily in the sunlight. They’re bright orange, blue, red. You’d have to press your nose against each pristine paint job to see the fine abrasions of day-to-day use. Few fingerprints, no deep scratches or nicks. The drivers wear the dirt, bear cuts across their knuckles and forearms.

The track owner isn’t a consistent enforcer of the rules, but posts them dutifully in full view of everyone should anyone decide to sue. No deliberate tapping, rear-ending, wrecking, No spitting, No fighting: you get the picture.

The lights go green and the volume rockets past any pansy-ass roar, straight to an earth-cracking sound that makes the ground shudder and the babies look up in terrified surprise. There is a great deal of hooting and hollering but it sounds canned, like it’s coming from a radio hidden under a blanket and turned low. Earl howls with the rest of them, grabs her ring and middle fingers with her thumb and shoots the sign of the devil to the sky. I clutch my elbows and stand with my legs apart. According to my shadow, I almost look thin standing this way; my legs stretch high to my hips, ankles delicate in this dark reflection.

If you’re not standing too close to the track you can see a race pretty well, unless the wind is up. The dust flies, chokes the air with a dry, brown fog that sticks to sweaty skin and collects in the corners of your eyes. The drivers tear around the track, kicking up dirt the whole way, competing for small cash prizes from the day’s admission sales. They don’t do it for the money, they do it for the freedom to make their souped-up cars growl and shriek and shake at the limits of endurance. They do it for those pretty, blond girls who hang around the track and smile shyly until one gets a driver cornered behind the gray-painted, shanty bathrooms and turns into lion-eyed Lita Ford with leather whips and sweaty language.

I’m low on cash but Earl doesn’t mind spotting me for nachos. She makes sure to eat a couple even though she is not hungry. Earl understands this will make me feel better about mooching. She’s not a hugger, she never signed her notes LYLAS (Love Ya Like A Sis), and she certainly never called anyone “honey” or “sweetie,” but she has a side of her that is something like the warm spot a ray of sunshine will leave on the floor after it has moved on.

I hide out by the rickety emcee booth to eat and watch out for any sign of John. I spot him close to the track, watching the 6th race with his hands jammed deep in his pockets. He’s wearing old Levi’s and to me he is standing tall and sleek like Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. Remember him in blue jeans, a black jacket and all wet from running through the tunnels? How he stood with his legs apart and his face very, very still? John has that “way” about him sometimes. Not a lot, but enough to make me look away, catch my breath a little.

I rejoin Earl to watch the races and do the social scene until her hairspray has given out and my nose is pink with sunburn. I can see John over by the snack stand surrounded by a web of women. One won’t stop stroking her hair, another is standing directly in front of him with her hands on her hips, one is taking a ridiculously long time to smear lip gloss over her shiny-wet lips. I can see John shifting from one leg to the other, he’s obviously nervous and I suddenly understand that the women are loving it, as I would if I had that kind of courage. Even with all the cool, calm and collected he has stored up within him, John is shy with these women.

I keep hoping to catch his eye, thinking maybe I’ll wave to him, but he is completely distracted. The hip-girl has moved closer. I decide to forget about it. It’s like watching a Lexus cruise down the street, gleaming and dreamy looking with all that glass and chrome and curves. Even the word is too slick for rough girls like me: Lexus. It’s luxurious, succulent, sexual without the seediness like the cars I’ve known: El Camino, Datsun, Matador. You can look at the Lexus. You can certainly look at it.

We are ready to go, Earl only needs to say good-byes and talk to someone about doing some work on the Montego. I spot a man moving towards me from the corner of my eye. I turn to see him only as he sidles up and places his wiry arm around me. I can smell him; the strange, spicy odor of exertion, dirt, and tight spaces. He smells like my soul. Of course he is here. I should have known it. He volunteers for the pit crew some weekends. I knew that. I knew that.

There is dirt between the cracks in his face. His shirt is an old, blue button up turned sleeveless workshirt with a couple of judicious rips and grease smears. His jeans are almost white with age, paint stained and torn at the knees. His sneakers are Salvation Army surplus. I am in his clutch and people are starting to look. “Hey there,” he says mildly, “hey there.” I can smell beer on his breath and I can feel the little corrections his body makes as he tries to keep his balance. I pull away, looking furtively for John. He can’t see this. Please don’t let him see this.

“You ashamed to be seen with me?” The man’s voice cracks a little and he holds me tighter.

“No. No, I just meant for it to be only that one time, though. Okay?” I am nearly whispering and I can feel hot tears filling my eyes. “Okay?”

He is looking at me closely. The last time I saw him was in moonlight. His heavily tanned skin did not reflect the shine as mine did, pale and blue in the night. I remember how close he seemed to some other reality, almost believable, or believable enough. Good enough. I remember the goose flesh that rose like a wave washing all over my body when he reached towards me, brushed my neck. Now, I cannot even remember his name.


The thing is, I never intended to be this person. I really did mean to graduate and find some other reality; something with an ocean view and no grease monkey loving under the ghost moon light. Instead I fill the hours of my days in a dead end DQ job, chocolate stained and sweating amidst the pristine whiteness of ice cream.

I will never make love to Tommy Lee Jones. I am almost okay with that.

In my dream I see him strutting his hotsex self and wonder if he’s mean, does he hit, is he warm and smooth in bed or more like a devil full of cruel pinches and sugar shifting surprises. I figure him half angel, half devil; a hurricane all around me as I sit sunning myself in the Eye, watching all that darkness and power whirl and shriek above. Of course in this dream, I am someone not-quite-myself. Nastasia Kinski, perhaps; the forbidden fruit all wrapped up in a thick snake, the sheen of its skin tight against me. You remember the poster.

So I dip the waxed cups under the shake maker, watch the chocolate swirl into the vanilla ice cream and trap myself in this honey love fantasy where Tommy Lee Jones loves me exclusive-like and all the paparazzi can’t get over how fucking beautiful I am. This is after my TOTAL MAKOVER, like on Sally Jesse Raphael when everyone is so supportive and the Best of the Best come to save you from yourself and your twenty-ounce can of Aquanet. They’d snip, cut, swath me in designer labels and suddenly I’d appear (a bright light and sexy music to announce this arrival) thirty pounds lighter and glowing like suddenly this inner light that had been hidden for so long was revealed to the world. They would say, “My God…” They would say, “My God” and nothing else.

Instead the chocolate keeps churning and the customers keep bugging me for the fucking “crunchy cone” and I swear I’ve never heard of it. I just deliver the chocolate dip, caramel, butterscotch, pineapple, strawberry. Our bananas are never very fresh, but the customers keep clamoring for Banana Splits so I give it to them and try to ignore the sour looks that pass over their faces. They hate what I have given them, but they never send it back.

Some days I think maybe he’ll just stroll up and order a Peanut Buster Parfait. Maybe he’ll say, “Peanut Buster Parfait, Buster” and we’ll all laugh like hyenas, except he’d see that light, that inner light that no one has ever seen in me before. He would see it because we’re destined for one another. He’d be wearing a baseball cap, a blue one probably, and he’d carry me back to his rented Lexus, place that cap on my head, and tell me he was somehow drawn here, he did not know why. I can almost smell the tears in his eyes as he tells me this. I would press my nose against his weathered cheek, smell his skin and the wetsalt essence of him. I can smell him now.

I have never told anyone about these thoughts, not even Earl. Earl would never understand about Tommy Lee Jones. Hell, I know even Tommy Lee Jones wouldn’t understand. Deep inside, I know the man lives his own life in a place far removed from my reality. I know this. But I burn, I burn throughout the night. I sweat through dreams of this devilangel with dark eyes that nearly touches me and vanishes, along with the rest of it. The cars, the lights, the money, the redemption. Don’t tell me about redemption.


The long, hot drawl of the day
dusts the dirt road,
sweeps great, wide arcs around
ranch-hand shacks, tin tool sheds,
tall, deep barns,
the grand ranch house.

Harry keeps it locked
so the mildew seeps into the carpet:
mint green, short shag,
matches lighter curtains, darker walls
where horses gallop in hard oil ridges
filmed with age and forgetfulness.
Light filters through in dreamy, pale shades,
the aquatic mansion sits empty,
clapped shut against intrusion.

Ol’ Harry
has barnacle toes and Spam breath.
He locks most everything away
so his ungrateful, drunken daughters
will never take what’s his.
His wife sits wrapped in an electric blanket
in the corner of the Wichita Falls mansion.
A cool, musty house,
oily, darkened rolls of money.

At the ranch
the finest shack faces the road,
its picture window is found in back.
Better than paintings-never-changing,
first yellow-white wheat,
then green field, churned soil, good soil.
The weather decides the view.

In this house,
Grandma walks around sunbeams
that warm the flat, green carpet,
moves in shadows, through doorways,
a noiseless figure in a white housecoat
trimmed with purple flowers.
Her green eyes set just aside
from where you’re standing,
her voice shakes in stuttered whispers
around the corners of your ears.
It will be four more years
of anxious waiting
before the doctors prescribe lithium.

Some shacks down
a crusted, reddish cinderblock house
sits nearly hidden behind wild flowers
and tall grass.
Mother slops Chef Boyardee into a bowl,
sighs for a telephone.
She sulks, sultry
in her warm brown leather boots,
high cut jeans-skirt, gold bangle earrings
already chipping.
She’s waiting for Joe
to cross the cattle-guard
and whisk her into town
for knee-slappin’ music and alcoholic revelry.
The wind cuts through the open windows,
smoothes back her long, dark hair,
dries the salty sweat high on her forehead.

move silken lines
through the dirt road
that winds around
the mansion, Grandpa’s house,
Mother’s breeze-softened shanty
older than Ol’ Harry.
They slink quiet trails
close to warm-blooded,
American souls,
their frigid venom dripping
as they slide, coil, twist;
they’ve only bitten mice.
They are waiting.

Grandpa keeps their tails,
rattles them for his grandchildren’s delight,
leaves the shovel-beheaded, twisting whips
to turn to dust in the blunt
Texas sun.


you floated through the echoing halls,
antiseptic glare of needles;
moaning passengers walked or crawled
beside you as you lurched,
burning smear of gel at your temples.
Men shook their heads,
women brought glass after glass
of metal water.
You curled tight into a corner
and waited to die.

You stayed ten years.
Through a caged-window
shredded light
forked hard down your back.

A different shadow:
the leaping spirit,
Butterfly Dance.
You were six.
You chased the waves
of cornstalks bending wide,
wind-swept tides through the corn,
your auburn hair.

You danced, fell
as children often do.
But it is the way that you fall,
the way in which it is broken,
direction, wind, corn.
It is better not to wonder
or dream about two eyes,
better not to linger
on what could have been
were it not for the stalk,
the wind, the fall, the doctor
distracted by a dinner missed.

You understood “shouldn’t,”
understood the fragment unnoticed,
the eye lost.
Jesus loved you, this you knew.
You grew smiling crooked,
head bowed.

when we shrieked, slammed doors,
stalemates abandoned, dry and brittle,
fall leaves crackling under our feet
as we walked echoing halls,
tongues swelled with bitter aftertaste,
we stalked wide circles around each other,
hackles bristling, growling, eyes unmet.

Once, you tried to explain.
Through tears, you handed me a letter
yellowed and creased,
the answer to who you were
and what you went through.
I would not read it
and, choking back tears, you told me
you had wanted to kill them all.
If not for the baby, you would have.
You were explaining what I meant to you
under all the vicious exchanges,
shotgun words, thunderclap crack
of slamming doors.
But I was twelve and rolled my eyes,
did not listen.
I was twelve.

you will find love
in the crevices of all
the glaring reproaches
I flung at your feet.
All the years I would not be held by you,
would not listen to you,
all the years I smirked in your God’s face,
brought me here,
when I cannot tell you
that you meant enough
to break my heart by your leaving.

The Kids Are Coming

The kids are coming down
bringing brown paper bags:
onions, peppers, celery sticks,
whiskey, Camels, lots of tricks,
the kids are coming down.

The kids are coming today, hooray,
bringing records to play, like
My Name is Barbara, Moody Blues,
Peter, Paul, and Mary, too.
The kids are coming, I say.

The kids are here
weighed down with beer and
diapers, bottles, handi-wipes galore.
You make one and they make more.
The kids are here.

Oh dear.

The kids stay on,
the days grow long,
the babies clean the floor.
The kids watch golf
on channel four,
stereo at low roar.

The kids have gone
and on and on the sweeping
must be done.
They’ve left no beer, not one souvenir,
the kids have gone

Donna Summer

There is something about the way
she rolls that voice across thin glass notes
that step back, way back,
to let her slip on through.
A spinning, slow throb,
the distant drum
of a freight train moving through town,
sound broken by blocks
of buildings, cars,
the wailing call of sirens and mothers,
but moving on through,
It finds you curled on your bed
thinking about Donna, girl,
long-backed Diva with soft, black curls,
good lipstick and pink, sharp-heeled stilettos.

See how that voice rolls you over
to face the window,
rain-spotted day
smelling metal green through the rust-flaked screen;
how it rolls your eyes
to the brown and yellow curtains,
water stained, with the reek of an anguished electric charge
from spent thunderstorms that swept through
too sudden to close up the house.

Donna has all kinds
of currents going on,
working the tones into
bones bent, working sweat-hard
all July day long.
She sings “Last Dance,”
you remember all that
disco inferno,
how it would be
with a sequined tube top
and black satin pants.

The ball will fall, they say,
Times Square choked with
waves of wet-palmed screamers
clutching each other
as the new year turns
in a bulb-lit globe.
Dick Clark makes it official,
Barry Manilow makes us cry.

Bet you never thought
Donna would fade away
with the cool glow,
black vinyl disks
spinning scratchy,
Solid Gold.

Other People's Children

Sam Blue spends a couple of hours a week sitting in the outskirts of his old home-town, watching it twinkle in the distance; a far, blurred image that seems the same as it was when he was young, though he knows it is not. Sam sits in his van on the edge of a farm, beer at his crotch and elbow propped solidly in the window frame. He prefers to go just after work at sundown, likes to see the shape of the town, how it shadow-points like a finger toward the purpling darkness, reaching. It makes him cold, still he goes.

He lives in Wichita now. It is too big for him, though he knows it is nothing compared to places like New York or Chicago. Sam has never been outside the Midwest. He does not consider Chicago the Midwest.

Sam lives with his wife Barb on Peachtree Street. Every house on Peachtree is a one-story bungalow. Barb is from Wichita. She has not quite recovered from high school. She does not wear make-up much anymore, nor does she style her hair. When Barb goes out, she feathers her hair like she did when she was seventeen. She wears blue eye shadow and bubble gum lip gloss. She discourages Sam from joining her and the girls. Her friends are all at least five years her junior. They call her “Mom” and tell her about their gynecological problems over cocktails. Sam is not disappointed when Barb leaves him at home.

Sam has friends but, like himself, they are all married now. He tries not to reminisce too much about “the old days,” before love came stumbling in, blew out the T.V. with a shotgun and stole all the good albums. He tries to remember that it wasn’t always a big party, that sometimes it was a major drag. Instead, he sees them all in Greg’s smoky basement, stoned mindless and deeply listening to Styx on the record player. One of the guys starts to snicker at nothing in particular and it sets off a regular group-giggle that sustains itself until they all gasp and are lightheaded and need to light up the bong again.

When Sam spends those few hours a week up on the hill, he does sometimes think of those days. He knows they were fruitless, meandering, pointless times but understands how the memories gain measureless relevance when he stops thinking about Barb and starts thinking about before-Barb.

Sam sips his beer slowly, lets it tingle down his throat in foamy streams, likes the acrid smell of hops and yeast weaving tendrils up his nose. He waits until the sun has set to get moving, knowing he will find Barb curled on the couch watching the Dukes of Hazzard with a bowl of half-dried remnants of ice cream smearing the sides. He will kiss her cheek and ask her how her day went and she will say “fine.” He will make Hamburger Helper and she will salt her plate until his eyes water and they will watch the fat fish swim languid strokes through the tank while they sip Country Time and smoke. They usually only fight in the morning.

Sam sighs and crumples the can under his seat. He pulls out onto the dirt road and heads toward highway 51, feeling as though something warm is drawing away from him, sending him tumbling into an unnamable darkness he feels should be familiar by now but is not.


Lincoln Elementary School is situated directly across from Sam’s house. Barb earns supplementary income by baby-sitting five or six kids from Lincoln before and after school. Barb dreams of having her own day care center some day and Sam would like to give her at least that much, but they are only making ends meet with his handy-man company. Sam’s company is not thriving, but it gives him a sort of satisfaction that nothing else in his life does.

Sam can do everything. He installs linoleum, repairs minor plumbing problems, cleans gutters, paints interiors and exteriors, erects bird houses, lays concrete for patios, and so on. He learned everything from his Uncle Dan, who let him follow along all throughout Sam’s childhood and adolescence. Uncle Dan had a knack for the miscellaneous; he understood how the little things worked when no one else would bother to care until that small convenience broke. Uncle Dan was Sam’s mother’s brother, the oldest of the five siblings. He disliked most children except for Sam, whom he tolerated because the boy was mercifully quiet and infinitely awed by everything his uncle did and knew. Uncle Dan hated Sam’s father, who had slinked out of town soon after Sam was born.

“Stinking son of a bitch,” he’d say as he laid new tile or installed shelving in some old lady’s kitchen. “I told your mother, I told her. But she says, ‘No, no Danny. He’s not like that,’ she says. Fit to drive me sick, sometimes, watching her curl her pinkie finger through his hair, looking at him like he’s some kinda John Travolta or what-have you. I’ll tell ya, Sammy: the greatest day of your life was the day that stinking son of a bitch walked out on your Mama. God knows it near destroyed her and that ain’t nothing to celebrate, but you were both better off. His leaving was proof enough of that. A real man stands his ground, that’s what I say. A real man doesn’t go leavin’ his family to sink or swim on their own.”

If Sam closes his eyes he can see the butt in his Uncle’s teeth, and the smoke snaking up the side of his salt and pepper stubbled cheek, twisting around his ear and threading through his Brylcreemed hair. He can hear him as well as the wind against the side of the house. “I couldn’t hardly stand watchin’ her sugaring him up with that sweetie talk and what-not, you know, huggin’ on him and gazing into his eyes like he’s Elvis come home again or some shit. We all knew he’d blow it. Everyone but her. Ah, well. Hand me that hammer, kid.”


This morning is like many others: the fighting starts around eight, when Sam’s head is still muddled from sleep and Barb is naturally angriest. When he rises at seven, he does not try to kiss her awake or bring her coffee in bed; he knows only that he must tread lightly and breathe shallowly. Usually, they fight because he breathes too loudly, or he dirties too many clothes and the stains won’t come out, or there is never enough money for nice things, like Barb’s mother owns, shining in the window and gleaming in the china cabinet. They fight because he does not smile when their glances meet, or he does smile and she sees a guilty, cheating glint in his eyes. They fight because he spends too much time at work while she is locked away in the dim rooms of their rented bungalow, sorting laundry, following the soaps and the Hundred Thousand Dollar Pyramid. They fight because he is under her feet, taking up space, looking at her wrong, not noticing her gentle beauty, not making her heart beat fast enough, and making it beat too fast when he is not home before seven. She worries and frets, pulls out her hair and lets the tears well in her eyes. When he arrives, breathless and dirt-tired, she calls him an ugly name and tells him to never, ever do that again.

Sam cannot recollect the number of times he has lunged out of the bedroom, a nail-inflicted nick on his forehead drizzling blood or a red, sore blotch forming into a bruise on his cheek because Barb is nothing if not a Damned Good Shot. She has broken many trinkets against his wearied flesh, shrieking at an inarticulate pitch until a deep, smelling animal twists within him, a bull gleaming with sweat and streaming blood down its back, and he charges her. He sees that flash, a carnal, welcoming glow that settles in her eyes and twists her mouth into a tiny, insectile smile. In the mists of darkness, where deep inside he is still himself, a calm, thoughtful human with much capacity for warmth and careful love, he looks at her, both of them panting and silent, before leaving the room and closing the door quietly behind him. Later, Sam thinks about it as she sleeps defenseless next to him. He sweats and tries to strangle the image, the implications.

Of all the subjects to fight about, having children is the worst. “I’ve said ‘no,’ okay? I’ve said it again and again. Why isn’t that good enough?” Barb had said last night, rolling her eyes and running her fingers through her hair much like her cocktail friends did whenever some hot shot with four hundred dollar cowboy boots strutted by their table at a club. “Jesus Christ, will you please stop looking at me like that? You look like some lost fucking puppy.”

“I’m not a lost fucking puppy.”

“Well then what.”

“I want more than ‘no.’ I still want to know why.”

“Why do you have to keep pushing me? I do your laundry, I cook your meals, I clean your house. I give you sex whenever you want it, for God’s sake!”

“Why won’t you?”

“Stop pushing me!”

“Why won’t you?”

“Fine! Fine! Fuck you, then! You want to know why? Fine. I don’t want to have your kids, okay? Satisfied? Are we done now?”

Sam remembered darkness and a jungle smell that he was sure came from him. He felt a sharp pain in his hand, the world grew bright, and he saw his wife fastened to the flesh of his hand, biting hard as tears ran down her face. His hands were around her neck. He shoved her away, his eyes wide as she began to cough, leaning against the wall, hands to her knees.

Sam left, shivering in the winter frost, and revving his van’s engine until the defroster kicked in. He drove up and down the canal route, squinting at the white streetlights and the overlapping graffiti on the canal walls. “Led Zep,” “Alicia and Tony 4-ever,” “Loverboy,” “’78 Rulzz,” “God is dead.”


Now, as he butters his toast, he watches Barb sweep on a housecoat to answer a knock at the door, kicking old, unwrapped newspapers and coasters out of the way. Her wrinkled, sour face loosens as she opens the door to the brisk winter light, and she brightens in a miraculous smile of greeting. She speaks in cheerful, “good morning glory!” tones that draw smiles from the tired parents’ faces, despite their hurry and exhaustion. The children do not smile. He watches them carefully.

When the door closes, the children sit on the couch and watch T.V. until it is time to leave for school. They do not squirm around, and stay painfully silent. Barb sometimes gives them Twinkies, but today she retreats to the bedroom to stare at the wall as she holds the pink teddy bear her daddy gave her for Easter when she was six.

Barb’s favorite is Leslie, a sallow, skinny fourth-grader with knowing eyes. Leslie does not stare and makes very little noise, often losing herself in inexplicable games that Sam does not understand. Her favorite is peeling the foil from old gum wrappers, rolling the pieces into balls and flattening each ball with the width of her little nails. She gathers them into piles, whispering unintelligible words as she transfers each collection from one side of the coffee table to the other.

Of all the children in Barb’s care, Leslie is the only one that makes Sam uncomfortable. Although Leslie does not stare, she seems to have no trouble looking directly into Sam’s eyes. Sam has the irrational notion that she understands more than she ought to, and he is shy of her.

Barb buys Leslie gifts, telling the little girl to keep these things secret from the other children. Sam is annoyed at the sight of “Hello Kitty” paraphernalia; little plastic coin holders, tiny pencils, and other pink trash that Barb delights in buying, as if these trinkets were for her, instead of the little girl she baby-sits. They can afford the occasional treat for Barb’s favorite “client” (an expression that forces Sam’s jaw to clench savagely, no matter how many million times he has heard it), and Sam is not too irritated that Barb dotes on the girl. Sam wants children. Barb is content with other people’s children.

His mistake before leaving is trying to apologize. He finds her curled tight on the bed, arm locked around her bear, eyes wide open. He bends to meet her and her eyes target him, following his movement like an angry dog will watch its owner after being beaten past despair and into the realm of survival. Face to face, Sam frowns at her expression, bewildered by her ability to make him feel guilty and insulted at the same time. She glares at him. Sam decides to touch her, say something soft and good, perhaps make an effort for the smile he knows she keeps only for special occasions or times when he surprises it out of her. His hand reaches to stroke her hair, but before he can begin, she recoils, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Sam is too astonished to answer. His face closes down; his mouth straightens, his eyes flatten, the pupils contract as though he is lost in thought. Sam stands and turns to leave. Barb sits up, her orange-socked feet stomp to the floor. “What? You’re playing mind games now? You’re fucking with me?” Sam is leaving, he is leaving this room. Barb lunges off the bed and grabs his arm. If he does not look at her, this will stop. He looks at the door. “Answer me, goddamn it! Say something! Why are you doing this to me?” Sam shoves her hard. He means for her to land on the bed but she falls short of it, scraping her back against the bed frame before she hits the floor.

When Sam emerges from the room, he makes sure the children are all right, knowing they are not, but needing to see that they are not crying. He finds them dry-eyed, offering him flinching glances and silence. The new ones almost always cry the first time. Sam learned not to be the one to comfort the crying child; it only creates an escalated hysteria and invites a second round with Barb. As far as he knows, none of the children in Barb’s care has ever enlightened a parent to the goings-on at the baby-sitter’s house. Sam feels he should be astounded by this, but is too tired to try.


Sam is convincing himself that he does not know why he brought her up here. He knows if she is not back by seven when her mother comes for her, someone will scream kidnapping and it isn’t what he wants. He knows that.

Leslie sits placidly next to Sam as he drives down the dirt road outside of Forest Hill toward the farm. In the distance, he sees the tree he always parks under and a shiver snakes up his back. He looks nervously at the little girl but she is distracted by the neon green, lime ice-cream star he bought for her at Dairy Queen on the way out of Wichita. It is nearly gone now and she is licking stray juice on the inside of her arm.

Sam knows Barb will be furious, whether he brings the kid home now or ten days from now. This thought splits him; a mean-spirited joy intermingles with a strong shot of guilt that makes him angry and sorry at the same time. Before Barb left for the store, she made it clear that she was trusting him to look after the little girl. He knows this should mean something. He distractedly glances at Leslie and sees that she is looking at him, her knowing eyes revealing not what she seems to understand, but only that she senses something about him. A hot flash of sweat breaks out under his arms and he tells himself to stop being so paranoid.

Sam pulls his van under the tree and turns off the ignition. They sit quietly and watch the horizon. He knows he should say something. She might start to freak out; kids did not usually seem to like him. “I used to live there,” he says, gesturing to the pointed finger of Forest Hill.


They sit for a few moments in silence. Sam is sweating freely now, a growing sense of panic rising in his stomach. He reaches under his seat. “I’m going to have a beer.”

“Okay.” She seems nonchalant, as if this sort of thing happened all the time. Sam has never been alone with Leslie and he wonders where her cool comes from, what sort of life she’s seen.

“You want a beer?” he asks, raising his eyebrows.

She stirs in her seat and flashes him a nervous look. “No thanks.”

“Don’t like beer?”

“It tastes like pee smells.”

Sam laughs, a strong gut-laughter that rocks the van. Leslie smiles, too. “Now how would you know what beer tastes like?”

“Well,” she says, turning her face toward him more directly, her skinny frame seeming to relax somewhat, “My Uncle Beau makes us drink it when he doesn’t wanna fix us a drink from the kitchen. He drinks Coors. It’s gross.”

Sam laughs again. He feels more relaxed.



“Why are we up here?” Her voice is light, but thin, a thread of panic lacing her level facade. “When are we going home?”

Sam pauses for a very long time. He thinks about holding Barb, drawing her close to him they way he had when they were nineteen and drunk off tequila shots in the back of his grandmother’s LTD; how she had looked at him with moonlit eyes and he had seen their future together: a home, a tiny creature with her pale brows and his wavy hair. Sam wants children very badly. The pain is a sharp blade behind his eyes. “I don’t know.”

Sam thinks about it. He thinks about his uncle, the way his father skipped town and how he’d learned years later of his incarceration for petty theft, a reduced charge. Sam thinks about those burning nights after, lying awake and wondering about legacies, genetics, nature, control. He thinks about his father and his own little girl waiting at home, angrily clutching the pink, worn-out teddy bear, a memory of her own father, as she stares at the wall and plans the next battle.

Sam starts the engine and pulls away from the tree, winding their passage through the pale remnants of his childhood, toward home.