The Bright River We Keep
Outside Homer, Louisiana (1927)
For Hattie Mae
The broken rhythm of potholes and worn paint points us south
along the long road
we wanted and traced but feared to
speed down; sun-beamed and heavy as
an old growth tree trunk uprooted floats
in loose parallels down
the bright river we keep
glimpsing behind aisles
of slender forest and ever-hills. Nowhere’s our everywhere. Juniper
wood slices past us as we go. Shrewd and unabashed angles
take turns working the mud grass shore. I remind me to breathe. I don’t
know when to touch you or myself
so I keep my hand
against my face—What does carefulness do to love?
Where are courage and loss taking
us, and do I have a choice? What’s chasing
us—I know, I’ve known. A chance of sirens ambles over
the slow blue bend of this time, touches
horizon haze in front of us. Heat gambles
sweat down my spine as we cross
brittle railroad tracks. Getting farther, so getting closer.
Up ahead: the sign I didn’t know
we needed clinks and hums. I hear and I believe
an old engine turning and rolling
its metal realm closer
and closer to us. Red dirt tests my lungs. I trust
the sunset light on the far side of my closed eyes. Let me
go now, pull over. You can go.
The idea of water
waves filled her first thought
the wildness of falling
down and through
on her way as she felled
his every burning tree
until his very stillness
stopped into bloom
after bloom of rain
on skin on night
on wind poured quick
into smoke and nearby light
until the looking
that was the working
each phrase and fragment
a fragrance escaping, no—
a human scent, its
laws of sweat and love
and fear whispering the air
a cavern kindness
suddenly our own
grown crimson with
oceanic after blue
Note: The phrase “cavern kindness” is borrowed from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “A Lovely Love.”
25% of people with cerebral palsy who are able to walk as children
will lose the ability as they get older.
The steakhouse waiter sharpens his knives in light:
times like these, there’s no such thing as a whetstone, only
this knowledge: one’s required. Blades catch
on the refracted traffic signal, this roundtable flurry:
the place is full of men again, exhibit in the window
like I remember: wrinkled shirt and a too-big face
on the watch still running on a battery—you could tell,
too, if you look at the way the secondhand jolts: 1, 1, 1, 1.
My father taught me
that a watch is only as good as its movement—automatic glide
promising there are objects that will outlast you,
but not this. Not his cheap timepiece. Not this threat of boys
from the Capitol building across the street.
I walk by most days as if on a wire: down Johnson, up Hamilton,
twice around the square.
Technically, my time has been paid for
by four countries, three members of the EU, two municipalities, and men in suits
like those: which is to say, I, too, went to grad school
with lips like mine. And I count my steps
because I am walking the length of the Appalachian Trail
before I can’t. I have not bought a watch that will calculate distance—
the reasons are obvious to you by now. And, once, I tried to fall
for the VP of a Virginia bank because he wore a Hamilton to our first date
and ordered zero drinks and I watched, dutifully, the slur
of his secondhand, the kind of slip that is so quiet, it must be time passing
and nothing more. When we were trapped in his house in a snowstorm
he told me he hired sex workers and left room for my confession, too:
my brain cannot control my muscles and my body will ripen to arthritis
by the time I’m thirty. Across town, a doctor
knows I may be losing my ability to walk. One in four: 1. 1. 1. 1. Every body
has an economy. The VP sits up and says You mean the girl I’m trying to fuck
is disabled? And the table of men in the window, years later, cock
their heads and laugh. My reflection lingers
as I pass, the stutter of my gait a pause just long enough to notice
a sheetpan of Anjou pears in the window, waiting faithfully
for Sunday brunch: they are fresh-picked and perfect, they are sugaring
By the end of the party everyone was drunk and telling toilet stories. A woman in a shawl who looked too young for shawls said: “There was a black widow making a web right inside the toilet bowl. I drowned it in a mason jar filled with water. It was so pretty, floating in there.”
A goateed man and his wife had been to Nepal when they were in grad school. They met because of toilet spiders! The spiders in Nepal were as big as your hand. They came out in the dark and when you turned on the light they’d go scurrying. She screamed, and he helped her shoo the spiders away, and that was thirty years ago, can you believe it?
We said we couldn’t believe it, but we could.
A young man in a gray suit said he’d lived in a frat house for a few months but the things that went on in the bathrooms made him drop out of the frat. We didn’t ask what went on in the frat house bathrooms, but there was a moment of silence as we let our imaginations run wild.
It was past midnight. We had spent five hours with these people, more hours than we had spent with any people in over a year. The party was at a big house, thrown by a couple we didn’t know. Most of us were invited by someone who had been invited and encouraged to invite others. My husband and I had been invited by one of his old bandmates, who we’d greeted with awkward hugs (Can we hug now? What the hell!), who had drifted off and not returned.
What we knew about the couple was that they had more money than we did. There was a sitting room filled with leather-bound books. I poked through them and discovered they were all published in 1921 and their theme seemed to be: The World War was terrible. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen again.
I had gone past confident-drunk and was now nervous-drunk. My husband was bleary-eyed, but I knew I’d still let him drive us home. Neither of us had any toilet stories that could compete with the Nepal spiders, so we didn’t say anything.
The guests began leaving, people we’d smiled at or waved at or been introduced to. I can’t remember names, so I gave myself permission not to even try. I would probably never see these people again. We’d all lived in the same town for years or decades and rarely crossed paths.
But it was good to break the ice, people kept saying. Time to get back in the swing of things. I nodded, but I was thinking that I’d never really been in the swing of things. Before I got too drunk, I was talking loudly about something I couldn’t remember. I was hoping it wasn’t something dumb.
My husband raised an eyebrow at me like: Can we please get the fuck out of here now?
A tall, smiling woman moved toward us like she owned the place, which she did. Trailing behind her was her husband. “Thank you for coming to our party!” she said, and we all murmured thanks for having us.
“We were just seeing who had the most terrible toilet story,” said the young woman in the shawl. She was one of the many people at the party I hadn’t talked to at all.
“We had a house in Boston when we were first married,” said the woman whose party it was—I can’t remember her name, but I’ll call her Dorothy. She spoke like she had her shit together. “It was old, from the eighteen-eighties. There were five fireplaces. It was kind of a fixer-upper, but we loved it.” Her husband nodded; his face went all thoughtful. “One morning I went into the bathroom and there was a rat in the toilet trying to swim.”
We all said ooh.
“He was at work,” Dorothy said, of her husband. “So I walked to a hardware store a few blocks away. I just felt this huge sense of purpose. I was going to solve this problem! You know me, I’m a problem solver.”
I didn’t know her at all, but I nodded along with everyone else.
“So I say to the guy at the hardware store: There’s a rat in the toilet, what do I do? And he says, Why don’t you just flush it? And I say, What about the old pipes? And he keeps saying, Flush it, lady, just flush the damn rat. Anyway,” she said. “I finally called Mark.” (I don’t remember if her husband’s name was actually Mark, but probably not.) “And he came home, reached in the toilet with his bare hands, and strangled it to death.”
He shrugged, looking pleased with himself. I realized they were one of those couples where the wife does all the talking. She does the talking, she throws the parties, he strangles the toilet rats, and everybody’s happy. I wondered what people would realize about my husband and me if we ever threw a party.
Soon we were out the door, into the air that had gone colder since we’d arrived. Dorothy and Mark lived near a lake and it was glinting in the moonlight.
“I guess this is what it’s like now,” my husband said miserably as he started the car. Even though I wasn’t sure what he meant, I felt the urge to disagree, so I said, “This is what it was always like.” That seemed to cheer him. He squeezed my knee so hard all I could say was, “Ooh,” like I’d seen something to talk about at parties.
Even as he heard himself say the words “act of domestic terrorism,” Tom knew he’d made a mistake. They’d never believe anything he said on the subject—or possibly any subject—from then on. The phrase was self-tarnishing, forever marking him an exaggerator, a fabulist unveiling a mountain where once stood a molehill. The expressions on his guests’ faces were already transitioning from good humor into various gradations of distaste or outright hostility, and though he hadn’t yet turned to gauge his wife’s response, Tom could imagine how deep Margaret had gone into that dark—but by now familiar—territory of disappointment.
And yet, he thought, it was really the only accurate way to describe the situation. Although a small transgression by geopolitical standards, the aforementioned act had upended the delicate balance of domestic life, had exploded the tranquility of his home—a man’s sanctum. And in the bathroom, no less. How else to categorize the sleepless nights, the bleary-eyed vigilance, the unceasing search for answers to this calamity than as byproducts of terrorism? If the people collected in Tom’s living room could have only stepped outside themselves for a moment, dropped their semantic prejudices, and viewed the whole thing logically, he knew they would come around to his way of thinking.
Paul, his oldest friend, costumed that night in distressed black hipster clothes as if directing a middle finger at the exurban hinterlands in which he found himself, put his glass down on the table. Ignoring the coaster, Tom noted. These habits were unchanged since college, when they shared a tiny freshman dorm always on the verge of being overrun with Paul’s discarded takeout containers and Marxist pamphlets and poorly spelled protest signs while the man himself was out demonstrating against the country’s two disastrous Middle Eastern wars. Tom, of course, stayed in to clean, waging his own losing battle against the tide of entropy.
“Hey man,” Paul said slowly, “it’s just a smell. Nothing to get worked up about.”
“No,” Tom said. “It’s an intrusion. A deliberate intrusion. You think it’s something that merely exists, that floats in the air, but it’s not. You have to understand: this was done to me.”
“Us,” Margaret’s weary voice corrected him from the corner.
“This was done to us.”
Paul shook his head. “Honestly, I’m not even sure it’s real. I didn’t smell anything. Did you?” He turned to his fiancée next to him on the sofa.
“No,” June replied. “I used the bathroom and didn’t catch a whiff of anything.”
“There you have it.”
Tom felt a redness rising into his face, which hadn’t happened since his schoolyard days, back when he’d combust at any challenge to his claims, any hint of doubt that his uncle was friends with the founder of Nintendo or that he’d known the cousin of the kid who perished from a Pop Rocks accident.
Paul stood up, smoothing the crease in his raw denim, and with the tiny smile he’d deployed through twenty years of humoring his friend, looked first at June, who smirked back, and then at the door. Tom didn’t want him to leave now any more than he’d wanted him to move out in junior year.
“Now hold on, just hear me out. You’re not acclimatized to the house. You have to spend a sufficient amount of time here, in every room, to set a baseline odor level. Once you’ve got that, you can tell just how different the bathroom smells from the rest of the place.”
Paul began counting on his fingers. “One: leave the city. Two: move into a big house with a front yard, back yard, left yard, and right yard. Three: develop strong feelings for Cocoa Puffs.”
“Cuckoo, man. You’ve gone fucking nuts. This place has you chasing after phantom odors, complaining about terrorism this and intrusion that. Maybe the problem is that you and Margaret don’t belong here.
“Or maybe the problem is that you’re being an asshole.”
Thus began the evacuation. Margaret, ever the referee, stepped in to soothe frayed nerves and apologize for her husband’s behavior as she ushered Paul and June out the door. Margie, clad in the armor of the long-suffering wife, was the very embodiment of patience and conciliation, until finally they were alone in the house together and the real fight began.
It had been his idea in the first place. The move, the house, the start of something bigger than himself. Standing beneath twining tree branches under a purple fall dusk in Central Park, the meadow improbably denuded of people but brushed heavy with autumn color, with his hands wrapped around Margie’s waist and hers over his shoulders, he understood that they were nourished by each other’s love, and that he would spend the rest of his life with this woman. In that same moment, too, he vowed that the children they made together wouldn’t be raised in the city as he had been. Those countless hours crammed inside a gray metal subway car rattling up the city’s veins like a shot of heroin, the heaped trash boiling under the summer sun, the black sludge of winter snow clotting the sidewalks, and above all, the crush and sweat and stink of humanity pressing in from every angle—there’d be none of that for his kids. They’d inherit the space and freedom of a proper home.
And so, after four years of marriage and three years of saving as much as they could from Margaret’s bimonthly paychecks from the museum and the sporadic earnings from his odd jobs, they had enough for a down payment on a powder-blue two-story colonial surrounded by a quarter acre of patchy green-and-yellow grass.
It had taken some convincing on his part. Margie always said she’d be happy with something small since it’d be easy to keep an eye on each other, but in the end, he prevailed. She had so little for herself, and he was determined to rescue her from the small horizons of her life.
“I pictured something more like the Addams’ Family house,” she admitted a month into escrow.
“With the cobwebs and roiling fog?”
“Exactly. But this is where the Cleavers would live.”
“Good schools. Quiet neighborhood. Enough square footage to host a military parade—”
“Or a book club.”
“—or a book burning. What more could you ask for? Besides, Cleaver is a much scarier name than Addams.”
They kissed then over the promise of their future, and he wished that moment could live in a Polaroid that aged while they stayed the same.
The movers were a trio of Slavic men who ferried furniture and boxes with a vigor bred by countries where procrastination had been solved by firing squad. The leader was tall and sandy-haired and muscled like an action movie hero, while his two assistants were stout and bald and probably related. The head mover glanced at half a decade’s worth of cohabitation and immediately set to work, hoisting the heaviest objects with no hint of strain. Tom, thin and lanky as a wire hanger, tried to help, but he struggled to orient a single box down the narrow hallway outside their apartment and soon gave up to watch on the sidelines with Margaret. He saw how her gaze followed the foreign hunk, and remembered that on their wedding night she mentioned that the first thing she’d ever noticed about Tom was his elbows. Though he’d laughed at the remark, it had stayed with him all these years because she’d stayed with him too.
Like most people, Tom believed that the transference of goods was the transference of lives, and once their books and bedspring and sofa and chairs and the million other accumulations of adulthood had been shifted inside the colonial, he felt they were ready to become their new selves. The only thing left was tipping.
In a pique, Tom decided to shortchange the crew. He handed the head mover a hundred dollars to split between the three of them. The man looked down at the money and then back up at Tom. He arched an eyebrow, clearly insulted at this paltry sum for a day’s hard labor, and stared into Tom’s face for a few uncomfortable seconds. Tom was prepared for haggling, or even wrestling, but to his surprise the mover simply issued a grunt and stuffed the wad of money into the front pocket of his jeans.
“I can use lavatory?” the mover asked. “Is very hot today.” He tugged at the hem of his sticky T-shirt. Tom, feeling fresh and eager at the doorstep of his new and improved existence, decided to be charitable.
“Yes, of course. You’ve earned it,” he said, and directed the mover inside. The man concluded his business quickly and a few minutes later the truck was rumbling back to the city.
It was perhaps the second or third hour of unpacking when Tom had to use the facilities himself.
“Did you know there’s a species of termite that can bring an entire wooden house down to its foundations in the span of two weeks?” Margie said, up to her elbows in a box of dinner plates. She was preparing to take over curation of the entomology exhibit at the museum next month, and presented insect facts like an offering to the science gods. “This place wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“Fascinating. I’ll be right back.”
Just off the kitchen, the first-floor bathroom was a polished white-tile affair with an antique claw-foot tub bulked against a wall. It was a vast space, and Tom had been amazed during the tour when he stretched out his arms from the center of the bathroom without touching any walls. It was pristine and pastoral, the kind of washroom he imagined a gentleman farmer from centuries past would have used during breaks from writing the Constitution.
But now, when he closed the door behind him and took a breath, he started to gag. It smelled like a living thing had been eviscerated and baked in the noonday sun, then smeared across the room at the end of a pitchfork. The stench was death and decay, bones melted and organs crushed, the mortal end itself. He tried to isolate it, but the stink seemed to emanate from all around him. He checked the toilet, but the bowl was empty. He looked inside the medicine cabinet, then got on his hands and knees to scan the floor, even sweeping his arm beneath the raised tub, yet there was nothing, no visible source to the odor.
“And the giant mounds these termites build, it turns out they don’t live inside them. They use them to regulate the flow of oxygen, like an external lung. Incredible, right?”
“I’ll show you incredible. Come over here.”
Margie stepped cautiously, understanding that when a husband offers to surprise his wife with something in the bathroom it’s unlikely to be the height of romance. She looked around, conspicuously avoiding the toilet for fear of crossing the final line of marital familiarity. At last, she met her husband’s wild, expectant gaze and shrugged at him.
“Well?” Tom demanded. “Don’t you smell that? It’s unbearable. It’s like a coffin filled with diapers.”
“Huh,” she said, and took a deep performative breath. “Yeah… now that you mention it, I think it does smell kind of funny in here. Maybe try opening a window.”
“Opening a window?!” he said, as he crossed the room and opened the window. “I hardly think that’ll do it. Babe, we’re at DEFCON 1 here.”
So began Tom’s olfactory war. He drove to the local drug store, a quaint clapboard shop several miles distant, and returned with an armful of disinfectant sprays, steel-wool sponges, air fresheners (both plug-in and aerosol), a special mop that ran on batteries and squirted liquid from a removable cartridge, and a small statuette of Saint Jude whose perseverance Tom recalled from his distant Catholic past. Thus armed, he set about cleansing the tainted space with a fury and meticulousness that had eluded him in most other categories of life. While Tom sprayed and scoured every crack along the bathroom floor, Margaret unpacked and arranged the books onto the floor-length shelves in the dining room. While he picked at the grout between thousands of tiny tiles, she installed the lamps and hung the curtains and pushed the headboard against the east-facing bedroom wall and angled their mattress over the slats before it slipped from her sweating hands. For each of these tasks, she called to her husband for help, but he was forever “just one more minute” away.
It was only at midnight, when Margie was already under the covers, that Tom finally stumbled his way up to the bedroom. His hair was matted with sweat, revealing the asymmetry of his skull, and his prominent elbows and knuckles were reddened and raw.
“I think I finally did it,” he croaked.
Without saying a word, Margaret flipped over and turned off the light on her nightstand.
Margaret wanted to believe it was some form of depression that took her husband, because the alternative would have been madness. Each day, he insisted the smell was still there, though all she could detect was the overpowering scent of ammonia and panic. As she worked to transform this too-large and frankly ridiculous space that she’d never even wanted into an actual home, all Tom did was sniff and clean and complain. He reserved his energy solely for the bathroom, ignoring every other inch of the house he’d so cherished in his imagination.
Tom returned to the pharmacy dozens of times, sometimes arriving long past closing just to bang on the door and yell about how pathetic of a backwater town this was to not even have an all-night supermarket or hardware store. Next, he graduated to a professional cleaning service, cycling through a countless number of maids who each proved inadequate to his needs until eventually the company stopped answering his calls.
At last, he resorted to the internet. With a credit card nestled in his lap, he scoured websites for the most potent odor-obliterating substances known to consumerist man. Soon enough, boxes began appearing at the front door and from them Tom lifted ominous looking white jugs and triple-sealed plastic pouches. These were industrial-grade cleaning supplies, the types of chemicals used to sterilize emergency rooms after a local disaster or to convert a homeless shelter into condominiums after funding gets cut. He strapped on thick rubber gloves, a smock, and protective goggles before deploying these compounds against the bathroom. As she thumbed through her planner, adding and eventually cancelling dates to meet their neighbors for a meal, Margie wondered aloud why he didn’t opt for a full-blown hazmat suit. While Tom toiled day in and day out, she charted her own jogging route, hoping to befriend other runners or, hell, even a stray dog in need of rescue. But the solitude remained impenetrable. She started taking the long train back into the city to have dinner with colleagues once a week, and Tom never asked about or noticed these absences.
Extreme measures still didn’t work. Tom claimed that although he’d succeeded in concealing the odor, the smell was still there, lingering under the chemical-blasted coating of the bathroom tiles. He made one final attempt to find a solution, staggering recklessly into the deep web, where people at last surrendered their consciences. In this debased landscape, he found two options that sounded promising. One was an exotic purple plant extracted from the unlit Amazon jungle, which could be crushed into a powder and set ablaze to produce the sweetest of all perfumes or snorted up the nose to induce a euphoric high that left users permanently blind. Unfortunately, a single ounce of the stuff cost as much as the house itself, so that was out of the question. The second option was a secretive crew of cleaners who could be called in to eliminate any trace of foul behavior. Their methods were such that even the most determined police dog or forensics team would never find even a molecule of prosecutable matter. Yet they only operated in Australia and worked exclusively for whatever that country called its mafia. Another dead end. Exhausted, he logged off.
That night, he sat on the opposite end of the couch from his wife and asked, “Is it possible for a smell to give you brain cancer?”
“I’ve never heard of that happening,” Margaret said. “Maybe inhalation of toxins could do it, something like asbestos. But we’ve had the place appraised from top-to-bottom and it’s got a clean bill of health.”
“Appraisers can be bribed, you know.”
“Realtors looking for a fatter commission, neighbors hoping to keep their property values up, former owners trying to chisel you on the price—take your pick.”
She rested her elbow on the sofa arm and silently turned over this latest bundle of nonsense in her head. Which of them was he trying so hard to convince, she wondered?
Of course, Tom knew that it had been the movers—the head mover specifically—who had done this to him, and he suspected Margaret knew it too. The trouble was proving it. During his many hours of hands-and-knees scrubbing, he devoted a great deal of time to figuring out how that prick had pulled it off. He’d only been in the bathroom for about two, maybe three minutes max. Could the mover have found a loose tile or fixture and planted something easy to conceal, like an egg or a frog carcass, behind it? But no, Tom had scrutinized every millimeter and discovered not a single tile amiss. The man had to have used subtler means, a magician’s trick or a poisoner’s cunning, to deceive him. He leaned back into the sofa cushion and rubbed his eyes, trying to will himself to see what must be right in front of him.
For her part, Margaret was having trouble recognizing the man with whom she now shared her home. At the start, she’d loved him for the grandeur of his thinking. Tom had never been handsome—was even a shade of ugly in certain lighting—but he had a gentle smile that he was eager to show and carried outsized dreams of a better life that he wove into a kind of poetry for her. She didn’t care that he couldn’t hold down a job, had never emailed him about an open position or slid the classifieds under his elbow. What mattered was that when he looked at her, he only saw them. Now, though, as she watched him grind his palms into his eye sockets, she worried that what she’d once thought of as ambition was really a breed of stubbornness that swallowed everything around it.
Even under the worst circumstances—when a tour group of over-medicated schoolchildren desecrated a priceless sarcophagus on loan from an otherwise hostile totalitarian government or a museum trustee died and willed that his eight-figure legacy be spent on a new baseball stadium instead of, say, the cultural institution where he’d held his galas—Margaret always strived for a return to normalcy. The exhibit could be repaired, the funds replenished, and the man with the cleaning supplies turned back into her husband.
To that end, Margaret organized a dinner party. She made sure to invite only Tom’s best friend and his fiancée to avoid overwhelming her husband. Socializing, she’d heard from the head of the anthropology wing at the museum, could have a palliative effect on the emotionally disturbed, and in his present state Tom needed all the palliation available.
The night of, she made him shower in the upstairs bathroom (the sleek, modern one that he didn’t seem to have a problem with) and laid out a pressed collared shirt, slacks, and a light jacket on the bed. Mantled in wings of steam behind the frosted shower door, Tom looked down at the bar of soap in his hand and laughed. A paltry thing compared to the decontaminants he’d befriended. How could this harmless little rectangle hope to clean anything in such a filthy world?
By the time he stepped out into the bedroom he’d decided that he wouldn’t participate in the dinner party. There was no reason to celebrate their new home because it wasn’t in any proper sense a home yet. The very idea of shaking hands with people, of exchanging pleasantries and asking about their lives, seemed impossible given the disease in this house’s heart, which he could feel even now pulsing below his feet.
But when he saw Margaret seated at her vanity table, facing the window with her back to him, his resolve faded. He looked at the long waterfall of dark hair that she stroked evenly with her brush, at how the last sliver of sunset impregnated her complexion with pale light. She was beauty wedded to calm and, miraculously, wedded to him, and this knowledge made the fist inside him unclench. He vowed to try, come what may.
Margaret greeted each guest with a cocktail she’d invented herself—a molecular mixed drink of Pisco brandy and dry ice that steamed up from the glass like a thermal bath—along with instructions to relax and drink and be merry. June, Paul’s fiancée, was immediately admiring, cooing over the real-life functional fireplace and the original molding ringing the floors and doorways. “You can’t get a place like this in the city, no sir, and wow is this a powerful reminder that we’re living like rabbits back there,” June said, or something to that effect. Paul, unimpressed as always, whistled sarcastically at the size of the place.
“The reason you can’t find a place like this in the city,” Paul explained, “is because urban life doesn’t permit such gaudy forms of expression. It forces you to accommodate other people’s desires, not impose your own onto them.”
Tom bit his tongue and steered them to the next stop on their tour even as the gears of his obsession slowly clicked into place. The pillared kitchen, with its apothecary counters and stained hardwood floor, was met with further praise. June, a chef of some renown who had professional expertise in dealing with difficult patrons, ladled out more compliments about their kitchen and its artisanal whatevers in an effort to elicit some goodwill from Tom.
Once again, Paul was the sole objector.
“Yet another example of man’s futile attempts at reaching consumerist nirvana,” he said.
“Throwing up grand structures, filling them with details done just right—and for what?”
“Sure, just dump your shit on the floor, board up your windows, and move out when the garbage is piled up to your chin because it doesn’t matter where you live,” Tom said. “What matters is fighting for the ‘big cause,’ ending imperialism and rectifying the world’s wrongs.”
“Now that you mention it, yes. Tidiness is a sucker’s game, a way to distract ourselves from the blood and misery abroad that paid for this Norman Rockwell nonsense.”
“I’m so glad you’ve never had to be an adult for even a second.”
Paul threw his head back and laughed like a man come in from the wilderness. “Keep all the adulting for yourself. Make a perfect home in an imperfect world—you’re entitled to it.”
At last, the machinery inside him roared back to life, and Tom declared, “This place is far from perfect. There’s this…this stench in the bathroom.” Margaret, carrying a tray of snacks, stiffened her shoulders as if she’d been whipped across the spine.
“Oh?” Paul said.
“It’s more than that, actually. It’s the kind of thing that destroys your other senses. Think mass graves. Think septic tanks bursting in a cow barn.”
A smile spread over Paul’s face. “Well, this we have to experience for ourselves.” He took June’s wrist and led her to the bathroom. Tom felt a nascent hope spread its limbs inside him. Paul would recognize this stench as a carryover from his own chaotic world. He’d known Tom longer than anyone, would immediately understand how a creature of order could be brought to madness by decay.
By the time Paul and June came back from fooling around in the bathroom , Tom was at full intensity, belting out an aria of grievance and rage to his wife at the injustice of it all, at the way his dream had been poisoned by silage. He cut his tirade short and looked expectantly at Paul, waiting for him to acknowledge the truth lurking beneath his suspicions.
But his friend only shrugged. “Seemed fine to me,” Paul said.
It was at that moment that Tom began yelling about terrorism and turned an evening with friends into its opposite.
Alone again, surrounded by discarded glasses and half-eaten crudités, Tom and Margaret each waited for the other to break the silence. Realizing that her husband’s mind was probably perched between apology and arson, Margaret made the first move.
“What exactly do you think is going on here?” she asked. “You stole a cursed amulet? We ran over a Gypsy on the ride up? That there’s an ancient burial ground beneath the floorboards?”
“The preferred term is Romani, not Gypsy.”
“Let me try this: What the hell is wrong with your brain?”
Tom leaned in close and spoke slowly, his voice low and sinister. “It was that goddamn mover who did it. He sabotaged my home.”
“Why would he possibly do that?”
Tom waved his hand as if she were missing the point. “I may have stiffed him on the tip.”
“A guy we hired, and paid, and who behaved professionally, suddenly took it upon himself to turn you into a madman?”
“Margie,” he said. “I saw you eyeballing him the entire day.”
“You think I wanted to fuck him? That I’d trade in my marriage for someone I exchanged maybe three words with over the course of a few hours?”
Now Tom was standing, his face flushed again. “I’m the one who’s been betrayed. By that piece of shit mover, by our so-called friends, and by the goddamn odor that’s impervious to anything I throw at it.” His finger jabbed the air in front of her. “And the worst thing, the absolute most pathetic part of it, is that I did it all for you. This town, this house, this marriage, everything I’ve done is so we could have a better life.”
She saw then what the house really was. Not a shelter for their shared hopes nor an embarkation point for their future, but a bauble, a shiny prize for Tom, the lonely and mean little boy, the ugly and unloved teenager, the listless, unemployable man. It was a gold medal he could hold up to the rest of the world as proof that they were wrong about him after all. And the knowledge burned deeper, until Margaret saw what she was too.
“You’re a liar,” she said quietly. “I never wanted any of it, not a single inch. And you made up that smell in the bathroom. It’s not real. It never was.”
A strange look came over him, one she’d never seen before. It was a flatness, a hollowing out, as if all his features had suddenly resigned. With careful, measured motions he opened the door leading down to the basement and descended the wooden steps. She heard him groping through the toolbox. When he came back upstairs, she saw he had a steel hammer gripped in his hand. He paced toward her down the hallway and for the first time she was scared about what he might do. But before Tom could reach her, he veered into the bathroom, and she heard a tremendous bang. When she peered through the doorway, she saw him standing upright, swinging the hammer against the wall again and again, the same dumb expression draped over his face as chips of tile exploded outward like shrapnel. She expected him to tire out once the anger had left him, but Tom kept going, punching more holes and spreading the destruction to the sink, the medicine cabinet, the claw-foot tub that gonged like a bell when he struck it. Margaret went back into the living room, took a seat, and listened.
The next morning, they woke up in the living room, she on the sofa and he on the floor in a halo of drywall powder and shattered ceramic. They didn’t exchange any words, knowing that giving voice to what had happened would render the embarrassment complete.
Margaret put on a pot of coffee and, in a gesture that surprised Tom, patted the dust from his soiled jacket. She handed him a mug and watched him try to drink, every gulp slow and painful from the particulate in his throat. She left him in the kitchen and went to examine his handiwork. The bathroom was demolished, as if an earthquake had isolated a single room and expended upon it the force reserved for an entire town.
While she surveyed the wreckage, Margaret considered the many useful things she’d learned about insects. As an individual, a termite is mindless and chaotic, incapable of the simplest task. Yet he can be organized into productive activity, not through communication with fellow insects, but by altering specific stimuli in his environment. This was known as stigmergy: change surroundings to change behavior.
“Let’s go for a drive,” she said to Tom, and he agreed, pliant as a frightened child.
She took the highway north, heading in the opposite direction of her commute into the city each morning. There was a place she’d heard about but never been, a wooded ridge lipping the sea where, legend had it, widows once came to mourn the men they’d lost to the water. She spent the two-hour drive staring ahead at the road, determined not to look at her husband until the stimuli were right.
She parked the car at the top of a narrow trail and they marched together into the line of maples standing sentinel along a slope. After a few minutes, the trees opened into a clearing at the peak of the ridge, and below them they saw the spray of waves stretching into unknown distance. They sat down side-by-side at the crest. The sky was clear and warm with light, the air as clean on their skin as the day he’d proposed to her in the park.
It was Margaret’s final plan, the last possibility for a cure. Away from the house, away from the nightmare of its imperfection, she waited and waited for the new environment to do its work, to enter her husband and change him. At last, he took a deep breath and in a raw, scraped voice said, “I’m sorry.” For the barest instant she thought maybe there was something left to salvage. And then Tom began to cry. He didn’t weep and gnash his teeth in remorse, but sniffled in a small, self-pitying way, with his eyes fixed outward at the rest of the world, away from the woman beside him.
For a long time, she listened to him shed his soft tears. But eventually the light in the sky began to dim and her back began to stiffen. She looked over her shoulder at the car parked up the trail, and knew there was no place they’d return to together.
Calvin drives down to Boston to receive an experimental treatment for his bipolar disorder. He brings a weekend bag holding not nearly enough clothes and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. This edition is over 700 pages long, not counting endnotes and several linked indices. Calvin (our protagonist, not the theologian) sits by the ersatz fireplace in his surprisingly posh short-term rental, finds his favorite Bach cantata on his phone, and makes it half a chapter before he turns off the Bach and logs onto Twitter, where a famous journalist says she wants to kill the verb to be.
He screenshots the tweet and sends it to Kevin, his husband, back in Vermont. Accidental existentialism, he writes.
Weren’t you going to read the Institutes?
What would it even mean to kill the verb to be?
Should I be reading into this?
Calvin knows they couldn’t afford to have both taken off work—the seminary couldn’t lose them both—and he said he was fine with it, but he’s annoyed anyway, alone by a fake fireplace in a too-big city. He tries again to read the Institutes and falls asleep with it resting on his chest.
The next day, the day of his intake, Calvin busies himself in the trim galley kitchen, making eggs, using the cast iron pan Kevin let him steal away with. He pours olive oil, cracks three eggs from the dozen bought at the absurd, chichi grocery store down the street. He uses nothing but salt to flavor them. The Gospel of Matthew: You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its flavor, what can you salt it with? It’s good for nothing. Throw it out. Stomp on it.
When Calvin and Kevin were a few years younger, just after they were married, they drove north, to the tip of Maine, where the ocean salt covered everything—the rocks, Calvin’s pant legs, his lips, his throat, like a pair of reaching fingers. He loved the insistence of it. Calvin turns the page of the Institutes: We cannot ardently desire God before we have begun to be completely dissatisfied with ourselves. He’s not completely dissatisfied, though he is mostly dissatisfied. Does that mean he’s begun to be completely dissatisfied? He’s not sure, but there in Calvin’s words, he sees what he’s missing. Ardor. Ardor, and the insistence of salt.
It’s okay to be scared, Kevin texts.
The eggs just taste like eggs. He doesn’t taste the salt. He wipes the yolk from his beard and responds: Can salt actually lose its flavor?
The waiting room’s coffee table has a battered copy of the I Ching next to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and some book with the command “Don’t Panic” on its cover. Calvin takes a picture of the selection and texts it to Kevin.
You’re still sure I should do this?
In the doctor’s office, Calvin wants to take the leather armchair home with him. Feeling comfortable, he tells her about Calvin.
“Everyone says he’s such a bummer,” Calvin says, “but they forget that his philosophy pairs humankind’s total depravity with God’s infinite grace. Less of a downer than you’d think.” She smiles. He’ll get his first infusion of ketamine the next day. He’s not sure he wants it.
Back in the rental, Calvin tidies up.
“It was your idea, and you’ve got to do something.” A wire of exasperation runs though Kevin’s tone—a new sound, sparking coppery.
Calvin looks up from the pan he’s cleaning out, a crick developing in his neck as he raises his shoulder to his ear, holding the phone steady. “I am doing something.” He hates the whine in his voice. “I’m living it, for Christ’s sake.”
“And it hasn’t gotten any better.”
“Have a little faith.”
“Faith without works dies of loneliness,” Kevin says, paraphrasing an Epistle of James.
“Don’t quote James to me.” Calvin scrubs the cast iron the way you’re not supposed to.
“What are you afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid,” Calvin nearly shouts. “It just ought to be enough.”
“What ought to be enough?”
“Faith. Hope. Love. I don’t know. Something bigger.”
“Demons also have faith—and they tremble because of it.” More James.
“I have to go.” Calvin pincers the phone face down onto the counter. He doesn’t hang up, his hands somehow both greasy and soapy. Kevin says something that Calvin can’t hear.
Later, in bed, Calvin texts. That book is pseudepigrapha. James didn’t even write it.
Kevin writes back a moment later. I know you have faith. I know you have hope. I know you love me. But, no, it’s not enough.
Calvin gets out of bed and wanders the apartment, his unfamiliarity with it making his nakedness feel like a transgression. He wants to tell Kevin that he’s not scared of the treatment itself, but rather what it would mean if it succeeds. He’s underlined that part in Calvin: As our abasement is His exaltation, so also the confession of our lowliness always has His mercy near as a remedy. Who would he be without his need to be someone different?
Kevin again: I’ll come if you want.
I don’t know what I want.
I love you.
In the morning, Calvin wakes to a text from Kevin: “Can faith without works save a man? Can he attain salvation by a frigid and bare knowledge of God? No, salvation comes to us by faith because it joins us to God, joins us to the body of Christ, so that we live through his spirit. There is no such thing as this dead image of faith—one without works.” That’s Calvin on James. I paraphrased a bit, but the translation’s probably garbage anyway.
Calvin feels something shift behind his sternum. He closes his eyes and remembers to breathe. I’m glad I’m not the only Calvin who thinks James is full of shit, he writes back.
Very funny. I’m outside.
Calvin rushes to the door, fumbles with the lock. Kevin holds flowers, and Calvin feels a sob rise up in his chest as he pulls him into a hug.
Kevin’s in the waiting room, the alcohol wipe is cold on Calvin’s arm, and then he can’t look at the needle. The doctor said to listen to some music, something without words, while it happens. Calvin picked his Bach cantata, with words—though he doesn’t speak German—his own private rebellion.
The nurse hands Calvin noise-cancelling headphones. Nothing happens till the middle of Actus Tragicus, maybe ten minutes in, but he can’t be sure because time doesn’t seem to be passing properly anymore. The viola de gamba prowls while the tenor declares his theme in minor, an ungainly bundle of notes, almost random. The countertenor follows, the same notes shifted up. The bass, transposed down. Each individual note, plucked from the throat of its singer, is dropped into Calvin’s ear, where some mystery reconstitutes them into meaning, into terror and grace, the very face of Calvin’s God.
Then, the soprano silences the fugue: Ja, komm, Herr Jesu! She’s alone, begging before the sublime. Calvin wants to wipe his tears away, but the ketamine has made his arms colossal, someone else’s arms. A single tear, salty, winds its way into his mouth, and a merciful desire wells up for something different, something bigger, ardent. The song ends: yes, come.
- My mother bought slushies the night after the fire. There were no flames, no burnt tinder or ash. There was no fire, really. Just the glitter of broken mirrors, our faces split into tenths, my mouth smeared with red lipstick and hers stained with wine. My father was dead and the boy I’d been dating was too old for me. She called me a fuckup, I told her she’d never loved anyone but herself, never loved my father either. The mirrors slipped from the walls like silk dresses and my voice was toothpaste, sticky in my mouth and grainy against my teeth.
My mother was a dancer once. Or was she an actress? I can’t remember. She did both of these things around me. I learned everything from her too, from the way she danced around the house, her body twirling from mine as if she’d smell something on me that she’d passed down. She performed the best when other people were around—Barbie smile, that’s what my father said. Watch how easy it can tug the hearts of a small town. Anyway, my mother never loved me, and I never really loved her, not in the way I was supposed to. I slammed my head against glass. She called the cops.
- My mother was a self-proclaimed narcissist, and she always had her dark hair cut in a crooked bob. She didn’t believe in hair salons, so she did it herself with scissors from an at-home manicure kit. No one else could know what looked best on her. Mirrors were all over our house to show her what she looked like doing everything— above the stove, on the wall across the toilet, above the sinks, in the closets, above the washing machine, beside the television. Her favorite was the one in the entryway, heart shaped and bordered with gold, the one that told her, yes, she still looked good when she came home.
- My mother and father got married out of high school when their faces were still ruddy and the world was semi-promising. She was a vegan with a superiority complex, and he was a dud with a cigarette addiction and greasy hair. They married because it was easy, because my mother enjoyed the aesthetic of fixing someone she deemed unfixable, because my father just needed someone to love him. They had me after three months. They named me after her, gave me a middle name that I went by instead, to drive home that I would never be my mother.
My mother pushed the convenience store door open with her hip, her bangles clanging with her movements. In her hands were two slushies, neon blue like a motel sign—though she didn’t eat sugar. My head was damp with blood, but she unwrapped the straws like we had the time and took a sip before handing me one.
- I broke all my mother’s mirrors. I punched them until they were shards, then slammed my head into her favorite one. I drank the slushie like this was something traumatic, like I’d burned down the house. I wondered what it would’ve been like to do that, watch the house and all of its ghosts turn to soot. My mother slurped beside me. Her lips were tinged blue, her hair ballooning with fly-aways. When the sheriff’s sirens broke through the air, under the wash of blue and red, I saw her makeup smudged to her chin. She’d never looked so unkempt.
My mother sipped her slushie like it was hot coffee, both hands around the paper cup. Moths fluttered by the store light. My vision swayed. The slushie tasted like sour electricity and coated the flesh of my tongue with a grainy film. I remembered that I used to cry a lot. My mother would press rabbit foot gloss applicators to my lips before I went to school, and I would argue because it was the only times she was close to me, and I wanted her to stay there. Make me proud, she’d say with urgency, like she knew I wouldn’t.
He remembers the faded purple shade of a grape
the color of dusk or bruise, the gentle explosion of juice
if eaten correctly, all at once, hunger a chrysalis for lust.
He tries to recreate the taste of an orange, the imagined
acid triggers a visceral response, he licks his lips.
Easier to recall the fruit than the hand, the dizzy shifting shape
of his father’s fingers dismantle the rind like a crab grips
the doors of the mollusk’s shell and pulls. He learns to ration
his memories which diminish with each recollection. Dust
settles on everything as it must. The sun and moon call a truce.
Before he leaves he kneads his father into the landscape.
Before I’m born, I’m in no hurry to be born. So I arrive
unhurried. A shape in the trees. Weighted, a fishing-line pinching
the water’s surface. A voice like the moon, wordless
but listening. I grow gold, then, slick as a raindrop, red
as a hen in a doorway rent by daylight. I arrive early. I arrive
laughing—an inside joke—a belly-laugh
inside my mother’s belly, laughing
A dog disappearing into a snow-pile, an elephant
discovering the ocean. I come to full-grown
with a child’s body, asking: who are you to tell me I’m not a bird?
I look (so they say) the way any baby looks.
The way my grandfather, quiet as a lamppost, looks
five floors down from the hospital window
moments before I’m born and just in time to witness
his blue Toyota stolen and slipping up 7th street.
Like a train to its uncoupled caboose, I’m born
no good at math but here’s Buster Keaton’s sad eyes
as his hat drifts down the Seine. I’m the hat
the train the caboose.
The coal going in the smoke coming out.
I’m lifting the ties behind me, running ahead and laying them down
different. A mill raising the river up in pieces until the same old
same old, electrifies the village. I lean
-in, hunch-over, a jockey at the start-gate.
Horse-tremble. Ear-strain. Like a hammer
coming down on a nail—Bang! I’m out
and into the hands of strangers, gamblers, horse-thieves. (You know,
“family.”) They lift and look me over. I look
at them, they look at me (it seems
like the thing to do). When they untie me
from the mother I was, I arrive asymmetrical and out
of sync. Odd as an em-dash
in the river of things. Like rain. A sudden breeze. Like blood
dappling the clear-veined light of an IV. When I wake
I wake as a building wakes, one
window at a time into the unfinished evening. I wake
as my grandfather does, partway
through the night, newly widowed, reciting
to no one but the ceiling: ‘I went to school,
I got a job, I met my wife…
‘I went … I got … I met …’
I come to in the middle of a shift and thinking
only of sleep, work the whole way through.
A horse is a muscular hyphen—
connecting humans to nighttides of the open
animal world beyond us. Last night I dreamt
that you married someone who wasn’t me.
A winged horse is a regatta of stars—
human’s first spacecraft, the moon, too,
is a changing hoof. How far upwards
each verve of the earth, a lunarship searching
for unknown fruit. The tail, a brush of a comet’s
glitterfreeze. I’ve sailed on these half-wings.
The dream rivets to silent, deep space.
The event horizon: an open gate.
The cold ocean is not a horse —
Mare and mer: false cognates.
Lunar mare: dark waves
of basalt, ancient stargazers misunderstood
to be water, maria. Pronounce this Medusa.
Sidus signs of your tongue on the lateral
of my dark thighs. An odious oasis calls, a desert
mer. Snakeskin glints in impastos of sage:
layers of landscape. I’ll take handfuls
home with your old jackknife. I’ll siren into
chalk-smoke motes, shadowed patterns
on celestial bodies. So, what else do I remember
of this dream? The mane falls wild on my black coat.
White heat from the planets, cantered light
from behind the plateau. How far of a dive
into la mer until each creature
becomes eyeless? Saturn’s witness has shores.
La Mer. I am the mare with a seven-pound heart.
I know I was meant to lose you.
Come, now out of the sing of river —
drink a godsong, like horses out of green
buds about to speak into spring.
“Sliding down the banks of the River Lethe as I am presently,”
my friend begins his paper letter: senior citizen’s gallows humor.
I smile but wonder: is it a steep drop into that mythical water,
past rocks and roots and holes where slick Hades critters dwell,
or a gradual slippery slope across flood-combed weeds and clay
where you could grab something and dig in your heels and stop?
Is that underworld river cold or mild, its current slow or swift?
If you fall in, can your feet gain purchase and clamber out?
Even if your mouth stays shut and you manage not to swallow,
does forgetfulness nevertheless soak bare skin and wash away
the memory of everything you said and did and were on earth
before emerging downstream in your next life, a tabula rasa?
Maybe he was saying I feel lethargic these days, not I’m dying.
Or maybe he was sending a signal that he already finds himself
in oblivion’s headwaters, dog-paddling, struggling to remember
how to keep his brain above the flow as he’s being swept away,
no ferryboat emerging from darkness and fog to rescue him.
A little grunt escapes the old man’s mouth
every time he stands up, or sits, or has to shift,
a strained audible exhale signaling effort,
ghost of a come-groan, a going-away syllable,
an involuntary exasperating geezer noise
saying I’m weary and I hurt without saying it,
as if the air’s being squeezed out of his body
bit by bit until the day he can’t move at all—
wait: that’s my grunting now. My low hnnnh.
The Asian man on the subway punches back at the assailant, his punches pound in a flurry like wingbeats of saw-wings
or swallows the softness of his swings like clarinet concertos, more mood than thrust, hinting at romance two lovebirds
chattering under the same lavender umbrella on an afternoon of summer rain, the fast and slow pace of such talk
then unexpectedly going into the depths of hope, hands fluttering like wings to gesture this, that, fear, longing before
swooping up again into the lighter register of shared remembrances no threat and the punches don’t land, he’s
not a fighter, just a commuter on the subway with a backpack packed with pencils and paper, a novice in the city,
the country, the subway with crisscrossing lines across five boroughs, thrust into a new role suddenly a man-
at-arms with short arms wailing and bewailing, who can say what the intended target was his thrust-forward
hand missing the assailant’s head by a mile, his narrow wrist resting on the attacker’s shoulder as if pausing and
loafing there as the assailant backs away from the punch so the punch pierces only air deflated the moment the
assailant takes advantage of, thrusting the long arm of his rage into the foreign-looking man’s face, into the face of a virus raging across the planet beyond the city the country limits into the far-flung immeasurable unknown loathing
the untold and undisclosed, contours erased by shadow, a stargazer loathing the unrevealed stars his eyes seething
with no trace of Iago’s malicious irony, his eyes boiling incensed even after the Asian man predictably passes out, but
there is courage in going against the fury, in emerging from the untold and telling the clear chronicle of himself.
He kicks the Asian woman in the middle of her body, a body he maybe suspects transports a virus conceived overseas,
suspects she’s spreading it all over the place like bats, like she ran the marketplace selling live animals, he
kicks, and she folds in half, a jackknife, if it wasn’t an attack, I’d have thought of Greg Louganis from an era before such
blows were crimes folding and unfolding before slicing into the water, a razor striking into the cool blue pool, but the
Asian woman doesn’t unfold crumples to the ground, her dyed black hair off the ground in grainy footage a sign she’s still
aware maybe can gather herself, but doesn’t before a kick with the left foot into her temple sends her not to the
ground but to the moment of gathering before she gathers herself, to the moment when she is kicked again now,
not going down but raising herself on hands and knees, the man done for now, making his escape and when he’s clear of
view the other men, who watched from behind windows wheel the revolving door all their machismo cultivated for
nothing for posturing but not protecting, for taking offense but not stopping the offenders, and they check to see how
much blood, bruises how and how, the cowardice of men who fear, work, know guilt, repent for looking the other way, is
all we know to judge; we know them they are us on days when the ridges and peaks in the sky seal us off from others
until we’re so far apart they seem to live in a different sphere with more electrons and ionized atoms and molecules while
the man on lifelong parole thinks the rules don’t apply to him, and they don’t, we don’t know what to do with those
dead eyes, those lifeless eyes in the sockets of the man who kicks and kicks against the living as if anger was a
shallow emotion and fear lay way down in the depths where only the most human of us wait.
The Asian woman past middle-aged is slow and why not, strolling uphill in sunglasses, walking her dog on a
Saturday morning, a little exercise to keep the blood pressure from rising in mutiny against the citadel of good health,
to keep the cholesterol low as it was in her youth, the street all houses and trees de-populated of people or pedestrians
like forests deforested for mines and malls, and with all the logic of the deranged the attacker gets a full head of
steam, springs with long swift strides into a sprint her hands swaying at her sides to propel her forward common-
sense machinations of the body whose mind’s unreasonable devices throw her off rhythm, she dashes towards the
Asian woman with a knife in her hand, gallops with hardly a sound of footsteps approaching, nimble-footed and clumsy
of mind, the attacker is described as a transient and reminds us of life fleeting, of the sprightly strategies of the mad
who threaten and are threatened by their minds. Did she play it out in her thoughts, the running start, the surprise
surprise moment of stabbing and stabbing then walking away calmly? It could have been an old harmless woman
of any race attacked, but who’s more harmless? Who’s older than these women with blank expressions, as if they saw a thousand years go by a thousand years ago and now walk in enlightened passivity having seen the
pyramids and Pompeii? Who’s more harmless than these women with no soul or backbone, born of cultures without
guns weakened under the yoke of Confucius? “Like shooting fish in a barrel,” and when I was a kid I did, not
shoot but fish for fish trapped for children to trap with poles and hooks. The trapped trout were easier targets
than the wild trout darting through currents in a river and rejecting your lure knowing better than to bite on a
shiny scrap of metal polished in a boy’s soft unknowing hands. I wonder if it’s culture, brute force against a truce with
fate playing out on the street? All-out aggression versus tranquil meditation. No, it’s just the mind
playing dirty tricks on some of us, voices telling some of us to attack, the tormented mind speaking and listening
and arguing with itself until some flagrant solution is reached, and the Asian woman becomes a foil, her face as
if she thought no thought and so a little less human for thinking nothing. The canceler walks away like nothing no
longer there and she isn’t, she walks away before the residents appear shaking their heads.
Asian woman, as if he needed to align himself to handle her oh my god. The small voice comes at a lower volume, he feigns
walking away, three steps then stops, turns, playing with his prey. He’s not leaving just yet. He thrusts his big, open, American
hand in the air to make a point and a threat at once. Why don’t you go back to Asia, the man says, as if to register his complaint in
the annals of American thought. Go back, make the return—to where, there? —everywhere there are men like this, you
can’t escape them coming or going. He blurts out his full name, the middle name dangled there, some sanctioned ticket to
rant and berate. The man blurts out his social security number and date of birth, the scared woman’s camera census-taking,
identifying. He dares her to call the cops, as if color would not make them infer this, that, the little polo pony above his forehead
a kind of badge. No one’s gonna help you, he says. No one sees these look-alike foreigners and sojourners here briefly
under the radar, no one cares about either of them standing off here in El Taurino, the smell of tacos wafting in the taut air. One
used against the other, you don’t forget his stare you don’t forget his voice, a woman says and the other, the woman, yes, it’s the
woman he hates, the woman in the foreigner and not the foreigner itself, the woman who rejects, like the law the fat,
outraged, over the hill woman-hating man, milling about, his body slouched and cocked for a fight.
the corner, the one with yellow flowers painted on it and somewhere in a museum hangs Van Gogh’s sunflowers, the
admiring eyes of the beautiful bestowed stiffly in the vestibule of aesthetic space, portico for the mind that rejects the world
for art, and entrance to an elsewhere, when a man in a hoodie, hands at his waist, thrusts his hips into the shove he gives the
old man who goes flying almost comically, airborne like Jordan in the 90s, leaping for a dunk from the free-throw line,
nostalgically the old man falls flat on his face, unable to get up of his own volition as the assailant walks away pumping his left
fist in the air in triumph as if, his point having been made, he’s done with the business at hand. This happened to me,
many years before the pandemic, a middle school boy walking the halls of John F. Kennedy Junior High in the Reagan years
but there were no smartphones, and even if there were, there was no one to see childhood being warped on video, the woof
sounds coming from their mouths in stereophonic sound, the sounds decades from registering on a graph or gauge. Even
the idea of recording the event by the seismographic network of a poem unthinkable as the internet and its cultures
of vultures descending on Van Gogh, on the sunflowers growing in clusters. I was an easy target at 12, no less easy to attack
than the man made nameless by his race, as we remain unknown and unsung. So let us croon carols now and warble until dawn.
Unnamed, with unfortunate affection
What if I drew your face on the mirror with sea salt
using a moistened boar bristle paintbrush, and
after singing Harry Style’s latest, I licked it off?
Would that be enough? I mean, for me.
If I rode the tangerine Lotus Elise of an idea
across the Rockies, carried this pining obsession
into swaying spheres overlooking
the Strait of Georgia, would that
be enough? I can never sleep, no surprise,
but neither can I eat enough sap to become resin
against this. I’m wrestling in treehouses
with an illusion, and I’d fuck with a worse one
for sure. Can’t I like snow and still shovel it away?
Is it wrong to eat strange plants if they’re not
that poisonous? Isn’t that better than sitting here,
starving to death? I’m compelled like feathers
to static, I’m tapping metal like a prayer. I’m sure
I’ve never seen a wild potato. I don’t know
how to convince my mouth to stop craving
what it craves —and don’t think this is about sex:
I want to taste the nectar of this impossibility
in the most devoted way, and the possibility breathes
not like a right lung, but like a left — one lobe
absent, making room for the volume
of what races and pangs.
Found objects: Saratoga, Wyoming
At the ranch, a warning: wolves
arrived from Yellowstone—one horse
already culled. I’m not yet fearless,
but I wander through the woods,
listen to red soil rustle to thin sky
for a month. Snow falls, and even
moose tracks get hard to follow.
I weave back to the cabins, wary.
Take a whistle. Sure. But breath
won’t stop the pack. The seven
of swords is drawn. I already know
what that predicts. I’m howling —
I don’t want a whistle. I want fur,
sagebrush, wasps’ nests. I want to pulp
and press what I can gather into paper,
a means to write a braver future.
There’s quartz in my pocket
when I leave. It’s not for luck.