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.

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!”

In memory of my aunt (daily practice)

for KD

Three hundred and fifty years out of a millennium the polluted haze obscured all view of the palace across the river bank: smog or the smoky remnants of incendiary celebrations. Some families expired through two generations without a sight. The orchard survived through two hundred years of industrial progress in a nurturing glow of diffuse orange and brown light, filled with dancing shadows from the apple trees and passing motorbikes on the highway.

Birds sing through the ambient buzz of traffic, but they’re not seen.

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Face to face with splendor but lost in its anonymous fog, the orchard gave a blind horse’s odds to catch a clear day’s reflection off the embedded gems. He and his Aunt took those odds everyday. She, blinded, led by her nephew’s hands on their daily afternoon break through the apple littered paths. For decades now, from the beginning of his memory and the end of her sight: neither had yet to see the palace. And neither had missed a day. So did the palace really exist beyond the banks? A distant relative from a nearby village claims to have seen it one morning returning from the fields. Scarcely anyone remembers him visiting the fields, least of all sober. More credible artistic villagers passed along rough sketches of the vision, always the same, always inspired: a marble platform, two mosques, four stilted minarets and a dome resting weightlessly below an expanse of rare blue.

One morning this generational fog broke just before daybreak. The air was cool and quiet. He would have slept through it, so newly pleasant, had the orchard keeper not rung a bell he had never heard before. But he knew immediately what it meant. Darting from his bed, he ran shoeless to his Aunt’s house and knocked on the door. Once, twice and again, no answer.

He yelled,

Auntie Auntie, the palace. It’s here. The sun is rising above it! Come now!

Still no answer. But the strange bell rang and the villagers walked in mass disbelief through the orchard, those perpetual oranges and browns, dancing shadows, industrial hums disappearing for now, just for a moment, like forgetting the name of a familiar thing.

Auntie, he called. Wake up! Come see – the palace is here at last.  

Urgency turned to desperation and he found her there in her bed, a final resting place. Peaceful in the crisp air. He pushed the blinds away to welcome the rising sun, and there he saw it at last, as she always imagined it: true majesty.

frosties in a hot war (daily practice)

after Hemingway

Shaved, clean-cut, and dressed like a mallrat escaped from Zumiez, he was to keep a low profile on the train. If any civilian asked, he was a student at a small school outside Chicago on his way home for winter break to visit his high school sweetheart. For supporting evidence – but only for the really nosy and bored ones – he was given pictures of a random pretty girl taken from a series of advertisements, like those in an old JC Penny tome, the sort of thick things suburban Moms had lying around for their pubescent sons to explore lingerie section fantasies. (If you squinted or stared peripherally, he remembered, you could maybe see nipples through the bras, eyes watering, burning, until the dark circular mystery revealed itself.) He could even toss in a few country colloquialisms, “Yeah, isn’t she somethin’?,” playmaking at cross-country friendship. “Yessir, prom queen of Long Beach Island right there.”

Though about 30 and weathered by over a decade of leadership, he looked young and innocent enough to play the part of country bumpkin. To the engineers and service staff, though, he was a known and protected quantity, unknown to everyone else, mostly thick-boned midwestern types too fat to fit into airplane seats, as a potentially dangerous fugitive in an unsealed train.

I went down to 30th Street Station to retrieve him, managing to avoid any suspicious glances from the militarized police presence. There was something terribly incongruous about their steroidal armored appearance under the old-school clickclacker departure boards and tourists ambling sluggishly between Auntie Anne’s or Au Bon Pain. I didn’t see any issue with his stopping for a Frosty (who looks suspicious holding a milkshake?), except I dreaded the pressure of meaningful, or at least not completely inane, conversation waiting for it. The accused mass murderer and me, just a couple guys waiting for a frosted treat. We waited through pleasantries.

“This country can be beautiful,” he told me, finally dropping the feigned American populist accent.

“I spent evenings in Oakland staring across the Bay for hours. The perpetual autumn is conducive to thought.”

He was half-Neapolitan, reassigned to California after getting too roughed up for comfort by the Lega’s people during the Welcome Refugees! port strikes. Fascists met his publicly leaked arrival in America, his mother’s country, with counter-protests and in short order he found himself falsely fingered as the mastermind behind the 7 November Movement. It culminated in two blocks of fascists squats burning to the ground outside of San Jose. Our internal communications called the cookout “much needed social sanitation,” which didn’t go great with the Feds’ case against him. We suspected rats in the party.

On the long car ride to the Poconos, we spoke some about the future of the party, his safety and Philip Roth, who he didn’t care for; didn’t “get”: Too petty-bourgeois. “It’s Hemingway that I like.” I walked him up to the cabin where a member of the Exec would take him, my mission complete. He bid me farewell and expressed hope that we’d meet again. “Try to see Niagra on your way up,” I told him. “And maybe give I Married a Communist a chance.” He nodded skeptically and walked inside. I couldn’t have known then that I sent him straight into the rat trap, his last breaths taken shortly after my lift. The San Jose goons had links throughout Pennsylvania and they caught up with him. He was summarily handled execution style by a couple of their party imbeds.

The front page of The NY Post (“How Do You Like Me Mao!”) showed him prostrate on his back, puffy tongued skate shoes stained with blood.

Ponte nothing (daily practice)

I shirked my duties at the neighborhood banquet preparations and stood shirtless on the bridge in the cold rain. Preparations of my own making were in effect. A stress test ahead of the annual bridge melee. The Nicoletti and Castellani would face off here once again tomorrow at Ponte Nothing, the victors laying claim to another year of collectively hallucinated social superiority, evening privileges, dibs at first fucks behind the church grilles. At the midnight bell’s toll to close New Year’s mass, once again donning masks, selfless, our social worth would be reassumed not by family visage but raw strength and virility.

I am a Nicoletti and this, my first bridge fight, would be ours to conquer, even if it meant death. The likelihood of which appeared stronger this season as reflected back to me in the slick mud of the canal, the usual fart smell of the city’s sewer highways having receded deep into the lagoon. If it came to throwing the last Castellano headfirst to his grave, I wished for anything but a quick snapping of the spine. I prayed for pain. Redemption through suffering. Victory through sacrifice. Torn flesh, gouged eyes, cracked limbs, bruised bones. La pena senza fine. This doomed reckoning of violence spiraled faster and faster in the pouring rain, but I let myself fall ever towards it, darker, colder.

Through the din of glass and silver clinking through the banquet halls, I could hear the sweet voices of the Mendicanti flowing like sweet incense into the streets:

Miser
MISER

                        Miserere Mei. 

[after “Carnival, quintessence of the Venetian spirit” in Vivaldi’s Venice by Patrick Barbier]

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pulverize (daily practice)

apocalyptic daydream 

There is no situation that cannot be made worse with the introduction of a policeman and the world’s Top Cop intervened with flames. In the end they tore themselves to bits. Like rabid dogs in a cage. Buildings pulverized down to dust. Holes burned through the safety nets of nations. Tribes disappeared, decayed. Books burned. Not a single datum survived to replay, recount, recall what happened. Every bit of plastic and paper history melted down into a uniform nothing as it had always been. A return to primeval origins, though some memory persisted in isolated cells of survival. Volts left in the tubes, switched on in the dust, sparking their scarcest neon in the dark, blinking

Open Open

Sapporo.