I dub thee unforgiven

I used to drink at the strange bar on Ridge Street. It was down some steps, a dark little place near my office and the air felt like sulfuric fog. The sign said “The Golden Egg” but I called it Fart Bar. It had a certain ambiance, which one might call a micro micro-climate. It was loud, lonely and laden with a stinking humidity of unknown origin. Now it’s closed and all the people that run it are gone. By gone I mean dead mostly.

Nothing good could happen there, but I liked it. I really did.

The bartender’s name was Dante, who wore a suit of leather and always had a cold. We didn’t speak much, but I liked watching movies with him from the dusty TV on the liquor shelf. For years, I was Dante’s only customer. People would peek in from time to time, but only long enough to take a whiff and shuffle out backwards, the way you might when a public toilet’s overflowed.

The knob held those clusters of golden dented bells you see on small town five-and-dime doors. They announced my entrance to that always-empty room, which I liked best in the Fall, when my shadow cut through the magic hour light, marking a path straight for the jukebox.

Dante would give a welcoming grunt and flick a token to me from behind the bar. It was a green plastic disk with a fading silver print: “The Golden Egg: Good for a Dozen.” Dante poured heavier when I played Metallica, so we often watched the VHS version of First Blood on mute with Ride the Lightning blaring from the speakers.

Fart Bar offered just one happy hour special every day from dusk to dawn: an all-you-can drink order of a disgusting whiskey called “Acheron Shores”, which Dante let me drink on a running tab. I never heard of a booze buffet, but he said the owner had a special arrangement with the distributor. One day I wondered aloud what an arrangement with a cheap whiskey brand might look like. Dante said, “I’ll show you.” But he didn’t take the usual steps of tightening his velcro-strap leather gloves and pouring another into my slowly poisoned body. Rather, he came around the bar, pulling me up from the stool.

“There! To the back. I said I’ll show you.”

Dante led me to long set of stairs to the sub-basement and then down a musty hall, much farther than I imagined the building went. I could hear music thumping from behind a door, which was outlined by a bright red light, the edges softening with movement of shadows behind. I held up slightly. My nerves were beginning to stir from under the warm blanket of booze I had drank upstairs. The familiar stink was slowly losing its power to a feint but metallic sharpness. The smell of something terribly wrong.

“It’s nothing,” he said. “There’s nothing they want with you. And you wanted to see the whiskey, right? Here, come” – and pulling my body forward, Dante pushed open the door, covering our bodies with a wash of red light.

My eyes adjusted and I watched in horror as a giant mass of maggots crawled over every inch of the ceilings and walls, over each other, over us: writhing piles of glistening annuli, pulsating to the beat like a disembodied muscle spasm.

My body was shaking and going limp, but Dante pulled me forward. I slipped and lost his hand, falling into what I could now tell was a layer of warm, sticky liquid. My hands were wet and smelled undeniably like iron. The maggots’ ravenous feeding hummed horribly like a buzzsaw over a steady rhythm. Dante screamed in laughter, “This is it! This is what a deal looks like. Hell, isn’t it? But goddam it’s delicious – look, look, a party! ”

Dante cleared a patch of the wall with a sweep of his leather gloves, revealing a human arm draining out to the maggots below. He scooped up a pool in his cupped hands and told me to drink. I obeyed. He cupped more. I drank. I started to scoop more from the floor myself, over and over, pushing my nerves, my entire moral fiber back down below the rush of intoxication. I batted the maggots away and saw entire bodies reveal themselves to me, dead but not dead, draining, feeding, intoxicating. Dante screamed and screamed and I took up the call like a brother hyena, completely overtaken with a wild self-interest. I was nothing other than this insatiable need.

I was crouching before the head of one of these poor souls, about to take a bite like father Ugolino when suddenly an official looking man called out to Dante, “Take ‘im back upstairs, you fucking idiot! Members only, ya know the rules.” Dante cursed under his breath and pulled me up with a strength hidden under his skinny leather mold. Blood like drool rolled down my chin, bouncing back up the stairs as my eyes rolled back back back….

***

On New Year’s Day some time later, I read the health department closure notice, not surprised but forlorn. I remembered every one of those eternal night rituals, ruing the drudgery that each tomorrow would bring. I remembered every time Rambo cried over “The Call of Ktulu.” I raised my glass once more, knowing that there’d never be a better bar in this town.

This story.

apocalyptic daydream

This story doesn’t want characters. It has a place and the names of people — — all important, but as backdrop; the what is of this brief marker in time, passing. One man, murdered over a disagreement pricing horses. Two people, seeking shelter from a hail storm, fallen in love. A beggar, earning the price of chai, recites heartbreaking poetry to camel breakers. This story wants from the reader: just one image, a crossing, from two sides of a world and the color of its shared sky. Town and country, animal and man, divided neatly across an endless track, all under an anxious low ceiling of purple, dust and rage. This story wants to go home.

Begonia maculata

He was a middle age man that lived in an old apartment on the edge of a park. The morning the begonias bloomed from his throat was the morning of the farmers market. He did the only thing he knew with panic and ran down to the crowd of composters and pumpernickel seekers, the spotted leaves swaying across his chest like a beautiful gown. Butterflies flitted about his face, drawing a delighted crowd of children to his side, all innocent to his muffled screaming. They circled and sang as he picked and pulled and gagged with wild intensity, his insides soaked leaves spinning to the ground in a dull splat of red, green and wet.

Amidst the joy, sunlight and fresh fired porcelains, no one took his torment as more than a quirk of vendor theatricality. As if suffering were impossible to conceive on too beautiful a day as this. The basket weaver approached cautiously, slipped a fiver into his back pocket and smiled. With a slow tug, he extracted a root anchored deep down in the man’s belly. Momentary relief turned to horror as another root, stronger and endowed with larger, more beautiful leaves, sprouted forth into the market.

He was a farmers market miracle.

Applause drew larger crowds eager to see the incredible begonia maculata man. Artisan jam mongers and hemp braiders, bread bakers and basement distillers, bartering wares for a bouquet of their own. The more they picked, the greater the begonias grew, until the man could no longer bear their weight. His moaning and cries died down into a faint hum beneath the leaves. A courteous someone left a clear jar by his pile: “Pay just what you can. Take only what you need.”

The night before he dreamt the new owners had hired landscapers to shear the thick ivy from his apartment’s facade. The rumblings of contractor cement trucks lined up on the street awoke him. He slipped out from bed, looked down pensively and picked a little leaf from his teeth.

desert recollection

stuck sank down thorns singing in their barrels
ocotillo always ocotillo dodging beer shards down through the distance

ten miles here looking like a footstep
killing fields on our easels
we imagined graced by our disgraced theater of anti-masculinity
first among generations

we ate poison
saw sounds
built castles in the sands
a world in boot treads
slept like dead

pink glow still shadow cast across a pugilist cactus patch
walking rotted wood on rusted horseshoes
peering down a tunnel of nothing
poison killed laughter but made new the sight

seeing through an approaching night toward sick dreams
split mind
internal voice damning
like an awful judge

on their way nowhere passed through camp eight glowing eyes and storming bellies
“narcos” someone joked the poison setting in again
we saw the lie of the city on the edge of the horizon
low city of the same same same same
lost forever disoriented back home in the maze of never there


Waiting Room Poem

The assistant tells me
stand on the scale
let me weigh your body

He proffers a foggy cup
inching closer and says
now move your bowels.

Clerical hens
Tapping away at the keys
Sidelong glances past the lychee.

I trapped a pellet like feed
and offer my shit to someone
anyone who wants a piece of me

(not a place for jokes
apparently)

–my self
In four cornered plastic sheets.

Don’t call
We’ll call you.
Doctor if anything’s wrong–

just wait. Wait
and place that worry on ice.

Francis: Not This Time or This Time but Maybe Next

after Bolaño

The old man sat as he always does outside my bookstore, early in the morning with the rising dawn, the air crisp and promising under a pink sky. Hawthorns chirped with staccato sparrow song and twitched with their movement like electric wires. I never saw the old man arrive, and though his appearance was not poor, I imagined that he lived, perhaps for the rest of his days, on this green bench in the square. That life a mythic sort of routine, and mine too for all he saw, our fates forever crossed in some unknown punishment by an arbitrary god. Or he lived nearby. I nodded hello and he answered by checking his silver calculator wristwatch, smiling with a certain satisfaction as if complimenting my punctuality. I wondered if he had been expecting me.

After switching on the lights and getting my morning tasks in order, I returned to the door and waved him in, but he never came. Only a friendly tip of his frayed scally cap. I had no way of judging the old man’s tastes, but somedays after closing I left him something to read. He offered a faint thank you in return and then placed the book or magazine just beside his right leg on the flaking green paint of his bench. The old man stared ahead peacefully in the soft glow of the square’s sole lamppost outside my bookstore. 

Another quiet summer passed and on Halloween, the square came alive again. Kids bumped around in the leaves with their masks and bags, scattering nervous squirrels up and down the trees in retreat, pillaging the willing retailers of their sweet wares. The bookstore was especially popular, and they came in droves to collect my comic treats, two Peanut Chews taped on their covers. I sat with the old man after closing and offered him a copy of Black Panther. “I saved one for you.” I said. “It’s what all the kids are reading now – I even saw a few T’Challas tonight.” He placed the magazine on the bench, smiled and thanked me in the same small voice as usual, only this time he followed by asking if I’d walk him home. I noticed that he looked weaker than usual, somehow older and perhaps unwell. I helped him up and noticed a pronounced limp, his left leg dragging stiffly behind the other. 

He didn’t live far off from the square, but he needed help with the five flights of stairs to his apartment. As we ascended slowly, I  imagined his bones hollow like a bird, his body weight hanging almost entirely, however lightly, on my left arm. He breathed heavy, with something that impressed me in its strength, like his lungs were still a perfect engine driving his otherwise exhausted frame, and looked down limply at the stairs, his head seemingly oppressed by the weight of the cap. He dug around for the key to the front door, which opened to a lofted apartment filled with desert cactus and exotic plants. The various bookstore gifts stood tall in one stack behind two potted buckhorn chollas, as if in a cage, guarded by the weaponry of their clustering spines. I only noticed then, seeing the books collected in one place, that I had unintentionally gifted books with animal names in the title.

Tiger Man
In the Skin of a Lion
To Kill a Mockingbird
Eight Little Piggies
Under the Jaguar Sun

A Wild Sheep Chase
Dreamtigers

I made a pot of coffee and we spoke for over an hour. Francis had emigrated a long time ago from Northern Ireland. My grandfather came from Belfast, a Catholic fireman, so it wasn’t for nothing that I asked for details of his town, down to the street. Grandpa wasn’t alive anymore, but Mom might remember, and I felt a strange urgency to commune like old countrymen with this man who had been so long a silent part of my daily life. Francis never wed, a father and sibling to none, friend to very few, but never unfriendly or lonely. He worked as a bomb defuser in Belfast throughout The Troubles, the only man in the department not to have taken an early retirement or worse, despite a near fatal blast that split his femur like rotted wood. That’s when the long walks became longer, he said, but he continued out of an enviable sense of duty. He assured me that he found goodness and satisfaction in this quiet life alone, and even felt fated to solitude — or perhaps happily resigned — by the curse of a profession that could in a blink steal him away and hurt those closest to him.

I left the apartment feeling something bigger and more specific than happiness, like I had read a book that I knew I would re-read again and again. I couldn’t wait to ask my Mom about Grandpa’s Belfast neighborhood and if he may have by wonderful chance known this Francis. But it wouldn’t matter now the way I wanted. The old man was gone the next day when I opened the bookstore, and it took several days and a call to police to find his little body among his flowers and cacti. Francis died alone as he knew he would. I installed a plaque on the green bench in his memory.

The Animal Channel

Three of us sat there on a broken old couch. A “love seat” side by side. On it we sank, bleary eyed and silent, staring into the television. It glowed almost thick around me and I felt like an insect. The three of us, buglike then, sat captivated by an eel, a pink eel struggling at the edge of a murky lake. A lake of briny water rippling strangely, almost digitally, at the bottom of the sea. Heavier than the sea. This eel twisted, jerked and seized almost too fast to capture on film. It seemed to travel through an extra dimension. One form, eel-like now, then instantly something else like a glistening pink pretzel. On and on like this until a British voice interrupted: …too much enjoyment…. toxic shock… Things weren’t looking so good for this junky eel or any of its friends. I could be sure now given the finality of the music, a timpani and drone, all kicking in as the eel sank deeper into the lake, a pale paralyzed pink dot. Then a crash – hope! – and in a sudden last flash of form, a pink streak darted out of the lake, becoming normally eel-like again. This one is lucky, the British voice announced. And the eel turned back toward the brine for a moment, as if to say Once more, old friend? But no. It swam away.