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.

In His Bible

Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus

-Victor Hugo

Dear,

When I wake, two lost souls will take me from my cold bunk. I have resisted enough now, but I will not go willingly. I will be dragged before their hateful kind, borne witness to the final defeat of evil in this land. But tonight I saw the Meteor return, love, and I will mount that scaffold with unhealed but untrembling feet, knowing now that you are by my side. They have sent their priests here, my final resting place, and I spat at their unholy ministrations. I prayed for their destruction. They will leave the noose around my dead, unblessed neck. They will write lying testaments to my savagery. But know that of this — their — disease, this whole world will be purged in blood. I promise it by deed and design.

Yours,

Kingston to Queens

He cooed on the beach towel. V laughed and set the baby down gently, square on the giant graphic of a Hummingbird’s nest. He lifted him in the water, smiling wide like a proud father. “See saw, knock on the door,” he sang, “Who’s there? Grandpa.” The Mother, apparently, continued shouting from the sand in a thick German accent, not ein foot further, danke. Too deep! V bounced the tiny beautiful stranger in the shallows, as X glided nearer on a small wave. He tucked his head, streamlining his body athletically into a swell. The water hurt like a slap and then he sank, deep into the Caribbean warmth.

The red rocked cliffs jutted out like a lion’s head (Lion Head Point, in fact) across a delicious expanse of calm turquoise. Beckoning. As he climbed the last step, he could make out something like panic assuming form in the distance: a round figure flapping wildly from the shore. He lost sight of his compatriot from out there. V wanted to hang back and socialize with the young couple under their palm shade. The young man sold them a fistful of mild weed wrapped in a single gigantic Zig Zag paper. He had a recent date tattooed on one arm and held a baby against his bare chest in the other. X and V approached him like old friends after Montague whistled for his attention from the car. Montague knew everyone on the island, at least every person they had seen in the last 10 hours, and pointed at “that one, Prince, with the likkle one under the palms.”

They flew back in a few hours, so with what was left of their adventure, they wanted to swim. Their day began or continued in the hot afternoon sun, both basking in the funk of empty beer bottles, day-old clothes marinating in stale sweat and a rank potpourri of strange women’s perfume mixed with local smoke. Montague’s cousin ran the place. It was called Lady’s and it was cheap. They paid in cash.

Windies skipper was saying
It wasn’t quite the result
they were looking for —
poor shots

New Kingston: three businessmen in identical suits occupied their tables for one, already taking their breakfasts while a staticky radio announced Cricket scores in a flat, monotone voice. They peeked up from their plates with six judging eyes: Go home, vultures. V gagged on the strong smell of eggs as soon as he stumbled through the door. X laughed when he tripped up the first step – wind up ya body, he sang. Wind up for me. V was in bad shape, something like loathing had set in. He spent the ride half out the window for fresh air to keep the barf down (or at least out). Montague, their audience of one, laughed variously at X’s poor execution of the local patois or V’s ghastly retching that syncopated the music’s rhythms. X sang the entirety of Exodus on the way home through the hills across shantytown and glassy hotel high-rises, past Tuff Gong and Citibanks, Ital shacks and Jerk grills. A faint blue light appeared on the edge of the world.

there’s a natural mystic
blowing through the air

Montague yawned again and removed the faux dreads from his bald head. He wasn’t smiling anymore. X and V stood there with him wasted on uncertain ground, their legs buckling under drink and hours of line dancing. They followed the lead – barely – of four orange-beanied youths, making fools of themselves to the delight of Japanese tourists and the night’s hosting DJs. Sound Love spun it back each time V fell, but after three rounds of failure, they bowed out, shamed and delighted by raucous pity applause. They were champions and heroes tonight with a cash wad large enough to keep the crowd lubricated and firmly on their side. Another round at the bar, and then another. They found a second wind after the four hour flight and directed the driver, Montague, straight to Wedi Wedi Wednesday. 

They doubled over laughing at the absurdity of the price, but it was still only a fraction of their winnings. “The next flight to Kingston,” he said, “roundtrip for two!” They jetted over straight from the cashier, down the escalators, past security and into a car to JFK. He didn’t call to say he’d be late. A promise is a promise. He looked at V, his face a dark shade of madness and reckless abandon: “Should we?” The numbers came up just right, roll after roll, to make good on a decade’s long guarantee. X didn’t expect it to come at that point in his life – did he ever believe – and what was he doing here anyway, still hooked after all of these years? Mornings of shame, regret, long fights and half-assed explanations. Loss after loss. A child, a wife. The car pulled up and the driver, another among dozens but never the same, wished him good luck in a familiar, sorry tone.

X said it every time as part of his ritual blessing of the place. “If the wheel goes right tonight, we fly.”

Measure twice cut once

I fell asleep on the couch with my shoes on. It was late. When I woke, the room flashed in a shifting blue light. I heard George Bush’s voice, suddenly interrupted by a jingle for the Pennsylvania Lottery. The light flashed again. Steven Seagal was breaking arms with one swift hiyaaa! I sat up and saw my Dad with a screwdriver in one hand, the remote in the other, his face turned up into the focused seriousness he reserved for bad action films. He looked at me, took a sip of something I could smell from across the room and told me to go to bed. He said I’d learn to swing a hammer tomorrow.

*

The first house I worked on was gutted down to a bare skeleton of wooden supports. I imagined falling the 20 feet from the floor joists to the cold foundation. Would my knees smack my chin and explode my teeth all across the concrete? Would I live? Dad yelled after me to hurry back with the blue dustpan and brush. It was pink, but I worked out early on a codex to translate his color blindness into everyone else’s spectrum. I came balancing back across the beams and stood behind him, admiring the ease with which he tied the repaired joists to their wall supports. I leaned in for a closer look. The hammer’s claw side clipped my mouth and sent a shard of chiclets flying down to the basement below. They weren’t baby teeth.

*

On the way back from Philly one year, we stopped at a gas station so Mom could empty what she called her outside stomach. Dad thought it would be funny if we drove the car around back and secretly watched her puzzle over our disappearance. He nudged me as she came back out, barely containing his laughter. She took but two looks – left, right – and in that moment I knew all of her loneliness and pain. She didn’t seem annoyed, just abandoned, and immediately burst into tears. She dropped her tired body and bag of iced teas down to the parking blocks. Nobody spoke much on the long ride home, except Dad and his piss poor attempts to cover shame with jokes.

*

My Dad’s parents still lived in Philadelphia. Their place on Marple Street was a brick row-home with a stoop. I remember the inside: mirrored walls, a dining room table stacked with biscotti tins (fatto a casa) and a large picture book that documented honeymoons, baptisms and graduations. I asked Nonna to tell me the story about Tommy, her sick boy that died before adulthood. They didn’t keep pictures of him. I was too little then to understand why.

*

My fifty-six sutures came out the first week of college. Dad had needed a last-minute extra hand on a roofing job in Cape May, which I reluctantly agreed to for 50 bucks and a box of Dominos. Bad move. Timmy showed up drunk, red in the face, smelling like a bottle of cheap. It was a hot day on the roof. As we worked our way backward from the ridge, I shoveled the shingles off the right side of the roof. Timmy was supposed to shovel left, but again: hot day, strong drink and his shingles piled up on a skylight in my trail. I stepped into an accidental booby trap, falling downwards 15 feet onto a glass patio table. I brushed it off and took a walk. It wasn’t until lunch, as I finished my last slice of pizza, that Dad sent me home. He said my back winked at him when the sun twinkled off a square inch of glass. Mom and I picked freshman electives in the emergency waiting room.

*

Camden, nine years old. I didn’t know what hospice meant except that it’s where Grandpa took strong pain pills and became extra funny. He impersonated Nonna’s thick Italian accent, pointing at the wall and yelling, “looka da ducks! Looka dem! Sta ta zit’ e mangia!” Later that day, Uncle John told me they met and fell in love in a cardboard manufacture called Newman & Company. She nursed him to health once after an unbalanced ream of flutes toppled and concussed him on the factory floor. Then on, he never let the other Irish guys say a bad word about her dark skin.

*

On the first year back from Chicago on Winter Break, I smoked out of a gravity bong, had a massive panic attack and told a high school crush I loved her. I practiced my new black & white fundamentals on Nonna and Grandpa’s headstones in snowy Germantown. Dad made me resume old chores: chopping wood for the fireplace and taking the dogs for walks on the bay. Then the family took its usual trip to Cherry Hill for last minute shopping on Christmas Eve and returned to our house ablaze in a five alarm fire. 2 floors, 5 dogs, 25 years. All gone, but we got to watch it go with the neighbors like a festive bonfire. We rebuilt a year later. The walls still smell of smoke.

*

Summertime in South Jersey, I was eight. My Dad dug out an old tool belt for me from a pile of empty Odoul’s in the Ford’s cab seating, while Ed Larkin sat up front drinking his coffee, not much for words. He asked if we could make a stop on the way and if we had any rope.

“Rope?” my dad asked.

“Yeah, for the pig.”

“Pig?”

“Right, I gotta pick up a pig on Tabernacle. Put ‘im in the back.”

“Alright. I got some extension cords, will that work?”

“We’ll see,” said Ed.

Ed and Dad fought that nasty fat pig for close to two hours while Ed’s cousin Chucky entertained me with Swans Strawberry Pops. Almost by the time the box was emptied, Ed and Dad were hoisting the pig into the Ford’s bed. But the extension cord snapped under its weight and the pig went running off wild up West Cape May bridge. It squealed and squealed as a 16 wheeler peaked over the crest from the other direction. But the pig kept running, and it squealed until Dad yelled, “look away, son!”

Potholes

Three cars sat in the driveway, cultivating a world in rot. Their flattened tires spilled down across the concrete, baked to a cragged barren surface. This black desert landscape was full of life — invasive Jersey Fresh tomato vines crawling up the rubber walls, bay sand embedded in the threads, glass twinkling in the sun. Survivor of Many Offensives, Builder, Black Sheep, First (and Only) of His Name, Father to Three, Husband, Brother, Grandfather (to be) and survived by all, including these, his armada of rust (but they didn’t put that in the obituary).

Mom wanted to clear the driveway and revive the garden since church hadn’t exactly inspired the spirit-haunted distraction the old chaplain promised. And anyhow she didn’t want the neighbors thinking her a poor old widow that kept a shrine room to her dead husband, like leaving the slippers just so beside the bed as he left them the morning of the attack. So she divided the spoils among us three: I, the oldest, naturally took the heaviest of those burdens, three unflipped economy vehicles, do whatever the hell you want with ’em, the Toyota actually runs. 

Nick and I drove that once blue ’92 Camry back to New York and he congratulated me on the new whip. “You might have inherited the Ding Dong Dealership, but you know I got all the cool shit,” including Dad’s crucifix-made-weed-stash and a stack of Playboys that Mom pretended to ignore through its 30-year black-plastic-wrapped subscription. (I laughed a little thinking how she might receive the renewal notice in a few weeks and call him a dead prick or something.) We hit a Garden State deficit-sized pothole on the Parkway that sent his Skittles and Wawa iced tea flying all over the car and he cursed the Governor, the goddamned purpose of tolls, public infrastructure, something about a rat’s ass and all things holy including Jesus himself just like Dad. I felt a little moved by it actually and submitted a weepy, shaky voice fuckin’ A, man for good measure. “The Sultan of Swing” was on the radio and I cranked it up through the two speakers that worked. We drove on to New York, bumping along on that shockless frame.

     Goodnight, now it’s time to go home
     And he makes it fast with one more thing

Now fall’s here, only two vehicles remain with their tomato vines rotting wide open for the fruit flies and a skinnier Rudy the Dog. Mom’s driveway is clear and she doesn’t bother with church anymore. Meanwhile, the Camry sits in a downtown Brooklyn garage, across the river from our apartment, awkwardly alongside luxury vehicles and vanity plates for three months like a public school kid who snuck into the Preppies’ homecoming – three months we hoped to fill with family visits to nature, Storm King, emergency diaper runs at the new Target, weekend getaways to Cape May to visit nonna... But after a billing blow-up in which I was called a badman thief in thick patois (seeing right through my “forgetting” the car rent), we drove it one more time to Chinatown. For a week I battled my neighborhood’s parking bullies, experts in the waiting game of opposite-side street sweeper rules. (I was called other names.)

I received a call in response to an inquiry for donating used cars to veterans in need. “Yes, yes,” I said, “the vehicle is still available. It’s so cool you called me back. You know my Dad was a survivor of the Tet Offensive!” A long silence. The caller said she’d send a representative from the VVA in Philadelphia that afternoon to pick up the Camry and leave a tax form for that sweet, sweet deduction. If I timed it right, the tow truck would arrive just before the street sweeper stormed down the block, kicking up dust and a mad rush of angry Cantonese retirees in minivans. And, sure, I’d feel good about it too, my “commitment to those who served” and all.

Waiting for the pickup, I turned on the radio and caught the tail-end of an interview in which a woman was saying,

…and we do it this way because we can’t in real life. Here, we’re all going to the same place, and it’s not a good one

Odd, I thought. An ex-Catholic, I assumed the “same place” people took a more agnostic view of the afterlife, neither good nor bad given its no-thing-at-all state of, well, literal nothingness. In that moment, I surfed a bigwave of guilt and regret for donating the car and wished I could call Tracy from Philly’s VVA back to tell her, “Hi, me again – the son of the Tet Offensive survivor. Remember me? Yeah, about the car…” But it was too late. Time to make some veteran’s day with a beautiful once blue ’92 Toyota Camry, no shocks, two speakers and a Hoffa-sized trunk.

Jimmy, the VVA’s driver, spoke in a thick northeast Philly accent like my Mom. I could hear his Eagles Super Bowl Champions LII tattoo under his cliche striped mechanic’s long-sleeve with the little name-patch on its breast: Jimmy. “You might wanna check the car again for any personal effects.” In the glove compartment, I flipped up the manual to find an old a cassette of Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill. The album opens with a song called “Do It Again” that my Dad used to play at full blast through long rides at night, my child-mind remembering only the scary thunderstorm drives, his joyous singing at odds with the chaos around us. I could hear him through that cassette:

You go back, Jack, do it again, wheels turning ’round n ’round

But I left it, closed the compartment and handed the keys over to Jimmy. “All yours, buddy.”

I hoped the next guy had a falsetto.