Laughing at Sinners, Crying on Saints

There was an electrician on the job
who looked just like Billy Joel.
One eye even shot out to the side
like he'd gotten into one drunken accident
too many, it was almost a thing of beauty.
I built up the nerve to tell him who he reminded me of
minus the whole DWI thing.
He told me he gets that all the time--
the Billy Joel spiel--
and that he recently visited
a high-end whore in the City
who said the same thing, topping it off with
"But you're much nicer, he was here last week."
"Good," he claims to have told her. "You can
put this on his tab then."

I thank God for the people I meet
and the stories they give me.
I'll never run out of material
as long as the world continues
to pump out these freaks.
I sleep surprisingly well.


Working late at the Office.

No one should have to hunt for their heros at a ginmill. I took a chance in driving out there, but his truck wasn't parked out front like I had hoped. The bar seemed pretty quiet for a Saturday afternoon. I assumed that people were out enjoying the early spring day mowing lawns or riding motorcycles instead of drinking, smoking, and gambling away money that they didn't have. The amateurs had better things to do. What better way to laugh off a life of debt, of living in the red as a true American, than to enjoy the pleasant weather? I pulled into the parking lot to join the dregs for a beer or five. There was no sense in turning down a cold one just because it might be slightly lonelier than usual. I had to get used to that eventually, it was in the cards of a future hand.

Paulie had evidently been there for awhile, judging from the bills of various denominations spread across the bar in front of him. The white sweater that clung to his small frame seemed ridiculous in that bar mostly frequented by construction workers and bikers. I suppose he fit in through the same loophole as me, though: the Rogue Clause. His feathered hair and neatly trimmed beard made him look like a miniature lion, his gray eyes twinkled in a key I've yet to identify. B Sharp maybe? C Flat? I already know, you don't need to tell me.

I'd met Paulie at least three times over the years, but he'd always forgotten my name. We'd greet each other on sight and share a bad joke whenever the opportunity presented itself, but other than that we were just two more barflies drinking away the time, and hopefully, some pain. One night I had a few smokes on the porch with him as he told me his latest sob story about the job interview that never happened as planned. He'd met someone at a party who made him an offer that must've been inspired by the booze. Poor little Paulie went out and bought a cheap suit and downed vodka and oranges at the bar all day waiting for the phone call that never came. It was hard to look at him standing there in the dim light of the neon beer signs as that suit screamed "Department Store" at me through a haze of cigarette smoke. People with tragic tales shouldn't be allowed to have props. I tried to cheer him up by asking him how his prized hunter green Jaguar was doing. He told me he'd just sold it, and for less than he was hoping to get. Talking didn't seem like a good idea for me anymore that night so I stuck to listening from there on out. I heard him confess via phonecall to his live-in girlfriend that the interview never happened and he'd spent all his money on cocktails and the suit. I heard she came and picked him up shortly afterwards, but I didn't stick around to see. There's enough heartache in the world, I don't need a front-row seat.

Paulie didn't remember that night too well, of course. When I saw him today with that silly white sweater he smiled like it had never happened at all. A tall mug of ice water garnished with a half-ripe lemon sat in front of him next to his cash. "Hey, Brother," he said when his song finished playing. He called me Brother instead of trying to guess my name, which I appreciated. I felt like I was at a Union meeting. "Hey, Paulie." I extended my hand and shook it firmly. It was good to see a friendly face, even if it wasn't hiding much of a brain. The lull in the jukebox music between songs was taking longer than usual and Paulie took offense in the lapse. He must've been the one to dump singles into it. "Come on, Barb. Get that thing fixed already." A rebellious smile spread across his salt-and-pepper cheeks as he raised the water to his lips. The bartender ignored him, but he didn't seem to mind. "Play it again, Sam," he said proudly as if to display his cultural breadth. "If she can take it, I can take it," I replied into my pint glass, waiting for some acknowledgement of the classic Bogart film from which the famous line came. That reference was never corroborated. Paulie just looked at me, confused but still smiling. I imagined he'd spent much of his life wearing that expression. The next song came on and he picked up a ketchup bottle to use as a microphone. I rest assured knowing that I was in the right place for the kind of mood I was in, Thursday Night Karaoke be damned.

"What's with the water, Paulie?" I asked, throwing in his name to emphasize the fact that I knew it.
"Rough night. Barb's makin' me drink lots of water before she serves me any alcohol."
"Screwdrivers again?"
"Yeah, and shots of cinammon- and licorice-flavored liquors. What's your name again, Brother?"
"Jesus. And Mike. Well, you know what I mean."
He chuckled and the ice in his mug clinked against the glass as his arm brushed against it.
"Yeah, Mike. I know what ya' mean."
He winked at me slyly to express his masterful comprehension of the conversation. I made a mental note to add one to his tally on the invisible chalkboard of Life.

Barb kept refilling his mug with water and ice, ignoring the sorry-looking lemon, and Paulie kept sucking them down in the hopes that a beer would come next. I chimed in with "The Hair of the Dog" Theory to his defense, but it didn't work. Finally, after witnessing him drink four or five glasses against his will, he smartened up and dumped the contents of the glass out when he went for a smoke on the porch. "What happened to the ice?" Barb asked when he came back inside. "I ate it," said the little man-lion with the Cheshire Cat's grin. "What about the lemon?" she retorted in a motherly superior tone. "Damn, the lemon..." he groaned as he palmed his forehead in shame. A man should know better than to try to outsmart a woman. She filled his glass again as a sort of victory lap. "It's OK, Paulie," I offered in my best Bogart, which is actually pretty bad. "You're just as much fun sober as you are drunk anyway." He shot me a harmless look of playful reproach and I saw something in his face that convinced me that he would've outdone Humphrey any day of the week if given the chance. There is much talent hidden in the dark realms of taverns. Don't be fooled.

I disappeared into a few more solitary drafts and listened to Paulie butcher the verses and belt the choruses of classic rock songs from before I was born. Hunched over the oak like that I could almost tolerate his wail without cringing. F Sharp, it was definitely F Sharp. "Barb, are we square?" I asked after downing the last of my fifth pint. "Yeah, we're square." She walked towards the cooler at the end of the bar to grab a bottle of an all-American brand for an all-American blue-collar man who'd just walked through the door. She didn't need to ask him, he was a regular. It's that kind of bar. Paulie and I love it for that. It's the one thing we have in common. I am grateful for that on multiple levels every day that I lace up my boots. On the Seventh Day, as you know, God rested. I figure I'll do the same.


It's not a tumor.

No bathroom break at work is complete
without examining your face in the mirror.
Check for grease stains from the machines.
Pipe dope. PVC glue. Dust from the ceiling joists.
Check your eyes to make sure you're still in there.
It's a process, though not many will admit it.

Today's inspection revealed something new
something I hadn't noticed before.
There was a small flap of skin protruding from my neck.
I tilted my head back to get a closer look, rolled it around
between my thumb and index finger.
It seemed harmless enough, but I wanted to get
rid of it. No free rides here. Besides, it could be cancer.
Pinching it between two fingernails didn't hurt
but when I pulled it did. The little ball of flesh
wouldn't let go of me. It took five tries
and when it finally ripped free
there was blood on my fingers.
I wiped it a few times for the next five minutes
and went about my business as usual with the pipes.
No one noticed anything, not even the red smears.

When she got here tonight it was one of the
first things she mentioned once we got settled in bed.
"Where'd it go?" she asked, rubbing my neck.
"I did a little bathroom surgery today."
"Oh no! I loved it!"
"I didn't even know I had it."
"You've had it since I've known you."
"Well it's gone now."
"That's OK, there's another one over here."
She moved her hand towards the second intruder
but I beat her to it and felt around until it was located.
"No, leave it. You'll bleed."
Funny how she knew that already;
motherly intuition or the female advantage.
I complied after a fake protest.
If she could take it I could take it.

A woman who truly loves you
does it for all your flaws.
Rejoice in the Kingdom of Heaven--
or at least stop making your own little Hell
for long enough to acknowledge the silver roses.

trench stench

My truck seemed to drive better
after the oil change, psychomatic of course.
It was sixty-five for the first time
in six months, the city streets were crawling.
Maybe that's why I didn't notice at first.

But when the novelty of warmth faded
and my eyes unhooked themselves
from the red light I realized where I was.
They poured down the marble stairs
like ants fleeing a hill.

My foot floored the brake pedal
while longing for the accelerator.
My hand reached for the volume knob.
I turned it clockwise, heard his
"Don't you hate it when it turns out..."
get progressively louder.
My hand swiped the knob a few times
even after the volume had been maxed out.

It was like when a soldier keeps pulling the trigger
long after his clip's been emptied, but in my case
there was no seasoned veteran to come
snap me out of it in time to dodge the bullets.
The mortars had thinned to the platoon to a squad
to a one-man kamikaze mission.
I have a receipt to prove it all.

There was still time to dig the foxhole deeper, though.
There still is.
It just gets too quiet sometimes, even for a hermit.
And pretty soon I fear I'll hit magma.

A green light never brought such composure.

can be replaced.
Most have been.

I swear I'm trying my hardest.
Check my knuckles.

Currently reading:
"Go West, Young Toad" by Gerald Locklin.


Don't Try.

I've been reading the third and final book of letters written by my favorite writer, Henry Charles Bukowski (published after his death, of course). I know the year he died, I see that the pages are quickly diminishing; he knew that Death was coming too, despite all the weary years when part of him yearned for it via gas stove, bridge, or butcher knife. He survived the Depression, talked his way out of being drafted in World War II, starved and went mad in roominghouses, didn't overdose in the 60s or 70s, drank his liver into submission for the duration of his seventy-four years, laughed off tuberculosis without even knowing he had it for months, avoided the AIDS epidemic when it came out towards the end of the century...and then there were the women. Surviving them was undoubtedly his greatest feat, other than that of failing to destroy himself successfully. Leukemia, however, is about to take its toll. The letters consist of chemotherapy stories now, friends and long-time publishers being on the receiving end of his final punch-drunk witticisms in the face of the inevitable. These last ten pages will be tough to read. It's like watching the end of a tragic movie when you already know the unfortunate ending.

Ben Gibbard said that "Love is watching someone die." I didn't get that at first, but I think he meant that if you love someone you won't give up on them by turning your head away in their last moments to spare yourself the grief. I know my old friend Hank better than that, though, and for his sake I hope he was alone since being laid up in a hospital bed didn't allow him to be drunk and at the typer like he would've had it if given the option. That's not to say that he lived a loveless life, but his form of love was mostly to be found in the bottle and Word that allowed him to escape this world for a few hours at a time.

He always said he respected plumbers more than politicians and the like, I have those sentences highlighted. More specifically, the blue-collar bums who came home from their back-breaking jobs to try to make sense of it all in front of a keyboard hit harder for him. They, not the snobs of the publishing world, were the true bearers of the flag. Reading statements like that made by my literary (he'd curse me for using that word) hero have encouraged me to continue trudging through the toils tied to this passion. Writing, to people like us, was and is a need much like defecating. Some people won't ever understand that. Those who do prefer it that way.

I'm writing this now before reading the final archived piece of correspondence for a reason: I don't want to be biased by that last shotgun blast from the hip. From one lover of the precious Line to another, I hope that your last one hit home, Hank, though something tells me it didn't. That, as you know it, is Life.


Shower Scene

There was a time
believe it or not
when I was eighteen.
The showers weren't as long then
since the dirt, sweat, and failure of construction
had yet to be encountered.
Sometimes they were just as miserable, though.

Like when I blew my nose in my hand
and saw thick strands of bright, oxygen-rich blood;
my Achilles Heel, at my most vulnerable naked moment.
I became light-headed
believe it or not
put my hand against the tile wall to steady myself
and kneeled down in the tub.
The water splashing against my back
was colder than it had been while I was standing.
It was the first time I noticed that phenomenon.

The steam swirled around my dizzy head
as the blood ran down over my lips and dripped off my chin
forming crimson rivulets in the drainward flow.
Dinner came back up with that gruesome sight
and joined in the exodus of my bodily fluids.
I closed my eyes and bent over as far as I could until
my forehead hit the warm white bottom.

Some days I feel like I never got back up.


Parade me away to sweet Montana.

It was like a 50-ton bomb went off
and I was in my own version of Hell
when the smoke cleared.
Suppose a stiff cocktail or smoke in hand
would've made it slightly more tolerable.

Bagpipes blaring down the drag
with plaid skirts showing knobby knees.
Veterans with liver spots and canes
marching to the death they avoided
fifty years ago in some war or another.
Children too young to be embarrassed pulled on trailers
as they fling candy at the crowd parked in lawn chairs.
Drunken local football team has-beens
pouring lite beer into plastic cups
and heckling their neighbors as they pass.

I'm not sure how I avoided the panic attack.
Perhaps it was the distracting shrill of the party horns.

I'm not proud of a lot of the things
that I am, or can be fairly called
but I'm thankful that Irish isn't one of them.
Most of my best friends have been, though.
Maybe that makes sense.

St. Patrick is turning over in his snake pit somewhere.

I'll drink on Father's Day instead, thank you.

I am not knowing.

Run, don't walk
from that which would plant you in
the easy flow of the moon's attraction.

Whoever did the dishes last
left some shards of glass
that I feel now in the back of my throat.
It's too late. Save yourselves.
It's too late to save yourselves.

Just out of spite;
Just 'cause you can't;
I'll bite--
as long as the red geyser doesn't hit the bookshelf.

It'll all be like when time froze at that traffic light in Memphis.



Fight the truth as you may
there are two kinds of people
in the world:

those who buy lottery tickets

and those who've accepted their bad luck.

Why is it that I often find myself
plagued by the stubbornness of the former
usually when I'm in a rush to be somewhere?
They fumble with their numbers
dates of births, deaths
marriages and divorces
driving convenient store clerks mildly insane
with their onslaught of losing picks
that will ultimately fund State highway construction.
It's a sad dance that's more painful to watch than perform.

There wasn't enough gas in my tank
to get to work this morning so I stopped
at the station at the end of my road.
I was already running a little late
but figured I could make up for lost time by passing
a few crawling sedans despite the double-yellow.
Filling up took longer than expected.
I strode inside deliberately to pay and get back on the road.
There were two people in line ahead of me
after I grabbed a bottle of orange juice and a buttered roll.
I saw the flimsy tickets in their hands.
My hopes of being on time to work died.
I wondered why anyone would buy lotto tickets at 6:30 a.m.
The rest played out like a script I wouldn't fire my agent over.

Middle-aged man, graying at temples: "What's it up to?"
Kid behind counter: "Twenty-seven Mil."
Man, between sips of coffee: "I hope I'm back here to claim it tomorrow."
Kid, half-heartedly: "Good luck."
Middle-aged woman, rotund: "I thought you said it was five numbers."
Kid behind counter, shifting gears: "It's four."
Woman, authoritatively: "I want my money back."
Kid, perturbed: "The machine won't let me do that."
Woman, offended: "But you lied to me. These aren't my Lucky Numbers!"
Kid, sarcastically: "I'm sorry, you must've heard me wrong."
Woman, authoritatively again: "I want to speak to your manager."
Kid, from finish line: "He's not here."
Woman, grasping at straws: "What time will he be in?"
Kid, killing time: "Nine."
Me, stepping forward with cash in hand: "Here's forty-two bucks."
Kid and Woman turn heads my way in unison.
Me, like a half-asleep Bogart: "This should be plenty. I don't have time for this."
Plumber exits, stage right.

I got to work three minutes early
only because I went around a school bus illegally.
Survival of the fastest.

There's a girl I know who feels guilty
because her great grandfather was a key figure
in the Nazi Party, one whose name you hear on TV.
I hold firm that she shouldn't feel so bad;
there are far more common casualties inflicted
every day upon humanity by the down and out
and sore loser population.
Consider yourself warned.



At a traffic light tonight
I scrambled for a pen
to jot something down
that seemed worth it at the time.

I brought the bill I wrote it on
inside when I got home to transfer it
to the digital one-liner database.
I'm reading it now:
"The difference between a squirrel
and a rat is only a tree."
It sounded better at the time, I swear.
I should've run the little fucker over.
I suppose that only would've yielded
an even worse outcome here.
I decided to spare you all.
All twenty-five of you left.

To really make this hobby
what I want it to be
I'd have to dedicate more time--
time that I simply don't have.
The short story, the novel
the decent poem for once;
they elude me like people
who accept hand-me-down mattresses.
I left on the last S, savings be damned.

That's why it's a term I use loosely
and never about myself.
I know a girl who posts many pictures
of herself on the internet.
Does that make her a Photographer?

I never won those reading contests in school.
Hell, I always came in last.
I was the only one dumb enough
to actually finish the book.
The same mindframe gets me no further now.
It makes for funny exchanges, though.
Verbal and otherwise.

He heard me crashing down the stairs
then heard me in the laundry room.
"Oh, you're turning the dryer on again.
It must be bedtime."
My first reaction consisted mostly
of four-letter gems that'd keep me
from getting published in those free 'zines
my mother keeps pawning off on me.
Then I came to grips with the fact
that I had it coming.
"Don't write about it if you don't
want to be made fun of for it."
He was right.
"It's fair game," I told him.
I shrugged my shoulders
even though he couldn't see
the gesture of surrender
from where he was upstairs.

Mockery: the only thing remotely fair about life.

The smell of propane on Amateur Night.
Stories that go nowhere.
Oceanic finger food too rich for my blood.
The swarm intelligence and snoring cadence change.
You see, it was funny because they were...

If I took myself so seriously all the time
I'd look as old as I feel, or maybe that's backwards.
Like the first girl to break my heart told me:
"Go with the flow."

(Did this sound conversational?
It was supposed to sound conversational.)


Where the Drinking Gourd leads you.

It made sense that I was the passenger.
We were on a two-lane highway somewhere.
It also made sense that said highway resembled
the one I take to work every day, but
we weren't going fast so we weren't going to work.

Something was hunched over the double-yellow
ahead of us. We veered around it just in time.
I snapped my neck around to look through
the rear windshield, my eyes weren't to be trusted.
They told the same story the second time, though.

"Did I just see that?" I asked the driver, a nondescript man whose
bland features resembled no one in my nightmares' usual cast.
He nodded his clean-shaven face without looking at me
and kept driving. I watched the spectacle behind us in horror.

A fuzzy brown head atop a slimy pink body.
It was playing with a pile, brown and red.
The creature took a bite from the fleshy suit in front of it
turned and made eye contact with me, smiling.

Then the baboon pulled its skin back on like over-alls and walked away.

I woke confused to the sound of my progressively loudening alarm.
The crescendo climaxed as my fingers fumbled for the button
after stumbling to my desk in the dark.
That's what happens when I go to bed still in my cups.


I'll teach you to drink whiskey.

We weaken our limp immune systems
at the designated watering hole
until our phones start ringing
from wives and alibis.

If I were sober I'd insert something relevant here.
Turns out I'm a nasty drunk these days
and a terrible writer.
I forgot the first and best line in the shower tonight.
It won't be missed.
I'll continue, half-cocked and half-hearted and arbitrarily.

He breaks my heart with every
twist of his broken wrenches.
He pays my bills and much more
with his pints of pilsner lies.

Turns out...

An absent father will make you
a lover of men and barstools
both slightly off kilter.

I've fried bigger fish.
Ink ain't forever.

Fuck, Tom.
I owe you more.

Currently reading:
"Death in the Woods" by Sherwood Anderson.


the clap and toilet seats

I felt bad for not heading out there
to support the band playing that night
but that college bar would've eaten me alive.
Not so much the bar itself
as the man standing behind it
slinging drinks to likewise disillusioned souls.
The Ex Chain of Command would've been implemented;
the Look the one who came after gives
that says it all: "Thanks for letting me bat clean-up."
All because of a Standard Issue Break-Up Haircut
that signaled him right in to make the kill.
Yup, I've made more Assists than Rebounds
in my time.
An accidental team player of sorts.

You said once, though not to me directly, that
you "Read to escape Reality," CAPITALS
being used through my own discretion.
Well, Goddammit, I've filled seven shelves
but that resilient dog is still chasing me.
What's the deal? Stop holding out.
And I finally read 'Tender Buttons'
but the joke had lost its humor.
There's a statute of limitations on that.

It's all about as satisfying
as getting in that list wipe
before it flushes.

Sometimes I run the dryer again just to help me sleep.


His had eighty-seven.

We were there buying boxers
and taking a stroll, not holding hands
or anything. It was good to get out
of the bedroom, put pants on.
It was even better that the store whose
underwear I've worn exclusively for ten years
was having a sale in that department.
A whole new wardrobe of plaids and pirate ships.
My ex's flamboyantly homosexual friend
rang me up. I don't think he remembered me.
I was simultaneously thankful and insulted.

The mandatory loser lap through that pathetic
one-level mall composed mostly of sneaker stores
came next. We rolled with the self-inflicted punches
and were fortunate enough not to see anyone
we disliked in high school and feel the same way about
now, which is usually the case when there.
Those awkward passings-by are easier when
you're not alone; a problem shared
is a problem halved almost fifty-percent of the time.

In one of the larger intersections in front of
one of the larger stores there was
an array of pianos on display where
a few benches and tropical plants used to be.
We approached cautiously and navigated through the
polished chunks of wood and faux ivory.
As if on cue an old man in a gray suit
with a face like a rubber Nixon mask
began playing one of the pianos
as he tapped his foot gently on the
imitation marble floor and avoided eye contact.
It instantly made my heart drop.
Suddenly I wanted to hold hands, but didn't.
It's just not my style anymore.
I've learned where holding things gets you.

Two weeks later I returned to that dismal place
to exchange something at that large store
near that large intersection. I was alone
and in my work boots and dirty jeans
with sawdust in the long curls protruding from my hat.
I heard the music in the piano maze and cringed.
A quick glance shot around my perimeter
left me baffled for a few brief seconds
since the old man in the gray suit
was nowhere to be seen.
Then I saw the sign:
"Learn to play piano on your very own!"
It was propped up on the most hideous one there
which was spewing out a warm melody
that somehow left me feeling cold.

An automated piano for an automated world.
I'd found something sadder than the old gray man
and my boxers weren't on sale anymore.
Served me right for trying.


They name disorders after people like us.

The last time was at a show
we both assumed we'd attend.
I hoped, you dreaded.

A band we loved that you got me into.
A band whose love I've spread since.
A love I haven't quite.

We faked smiles.
We forced questions, answers.
We forged our way through the crowd
in that dark room like we used to years back
even the night we met on that checkered floor.
This time I was old enough to buy you a drink.

The Canadian Club had hit me hard.
The goofy grin helped mask the hidden pain.
That and the nostalgia, the strained lyrics and lines.
I confess that I think I touched your hair
while you were standing in front of me
watching Tim drunker than us on that stage.
I thought that you touched me back at some point
maybe a hug, maybe a mid-sentence arm-grab.
I probably made it up.
Me or the whiskey.

They played the classic Martyr as I played mine.
The one about being "at my worst when I'm at my best"
is playing now, on repeat for the duration of this plea.
When the horn section comes in I crumble.
I remember catching your eye
when we heard it for the first time that night.
The rest of the phrases, the climax
the painfully premature ending: it's almost too perfect.
Most things in your Chapter were, though.

We screamed along to the words we knew
and faked the ones we didn't.
What else can they ask for?

That poem on love and loss and "never at all"...
It's no secret where I stand on it.


On playing guitar alone in a small fluorescent room.

You have to write music
that you wouldn't mind dying to;
not in a morbid sense, but rather
in the way that you know a film is over
when a certain song plays.
A soundtrack
to a life unlived, or lived too well.
Potential in a wasted world.
From the gut, unapologetic.
Dynamic, dramatic.
Moving ahead while looking backwards.
The walk that turned a life around.
The chords that framed the cadence.
A village to raise a child.
A handful to craft a song.
Leave nothing to the imagination.
Leave nothing left unsaid.
Any takers?



He was one of those One-Uppers; you'd tell a story, and he'd magically have a similar one that always out-did yours. It was annoying as hell, but it sure made that first year of plumbing class go faster. Somewhere along the way he fell through the plumber's crack and left the union to pursue his oh-so-thriving auto mechanic business that he constantly ranted and raved about. Probably just more malarkey, mind you, but that was his story and he stuck to it.

My favorite of his many tales involved a tavern down in Rockland that he used to frequent. In true college humor movie fashion there was a designated night of the week where a ten dollar cover charge rented you a dirty mug that you could have filled with cheap beer for a penny. One red cent per brew seems to good to be true, and it was. The catch was this: the deal only lasted until the first person broke down and took a leak. Well, let me clarify-- used the bathroom. Who was to say that people couldn't go right in there pants? He claimed that grown men often times wore diapers under baggy jeans in order to be able to urinate on the sly. Others duct taped their members into plastic bottles. The first and foolish pioneers in cheating the system tried hiding their weakness in condoms, but that plan blew up in their faces. Well, pants. At least that's how his story went.

And then, as predicted, there were the beefy looking biker types standing in front of the entrance to the John. The collective body of patrons had their own bouncers, but they only bounced you if you tried to use the head. We were fed some whoppers about rolling some sorry slobs in the parking lot for trying to relieve their aching bladders. The One-Upper was one of the guys doing the pounding, according to him, which came off a tad too predictable for our taste.

His tall tales were always entertaining, though. He'd ridden every motorcycle, been to every gentleman's club, proposed marriage while skydiving in Cuba. We smiled, nodded, and continued to solder copper pipe until our instructor let us out at eight o'clock. We let him be the hero for three hours a night, two nights a week. No one had the heart to burst his bubble. We all knew deep down that even if that penny-a-beer bar existed he was no enforcer of the common good; he was only one of the guys who woke up in a saturated pair of Huggies on his ex-girlfriend's couch in a trailer park somewhere.

To his credit he never broke the mold.
Any one of these conjured legends follows the same set of rules:
Those who need talk about it probably haven't done it.
Those who choose to write about it probably want your attention.
Those who only read about it should be dragged out back and shot.


Reverse Polarity

Welding class was boring as usual. The basement of the union hall was filled with smoke and disillusioned apprentices, half of which where laid off. Our green jackets, long leather gloves, and face shields made us look like intergalactic visitors. Some of us felt the part more than others.

My phone rang during one of my contemplative homesick breaks in between pointless steel seams. It was Aaron, a kid in my class four years my junior. The runt of the litter, but a third-generation pipe welder. The one who would unabashedly make pipe his life. His long, long life. I listened for the back-country twang in his voice but didn't hear it. He sounded like he was dying.

"What's up, Aaron?"
"You there?"
"Did you leave already?"
"No, I'm upstairs laying down."
"Can you come take me to the hospital?"
"What's wrong?"
"I'm dizzy. I threw up and I can barely walk."
"Be right there."

I told the welding instructors about the situation while en route to my ill brother. Their concern was apparent, though somehow different from mine. Slightly distant. Almost sixty, and therefore mature. The three of us went up the steps. He was laying there in the lobby of the hall sprawled out like a wet noodle on that uncomfortable couch. What little color he usually had in his cheeks was gone. His voice shook when he spoke. I let the men do the talking, then I went downstairs to turn off my welding machine and grab my jacket.

When I returned the mood seemed different. It was an atmosphere of waiting apprehension.

"You ready, Aaron?" I pulled my keys from my pocket.
"You're not taking him anywhere," one of the old men said.
The tone used was almost accusatory. I was confused.
"God forbid something happens on the way."
"Yeah, you're right," I replied as I put my keys away.
"We called an ambulance."
I went back downstairs, but didn't turn my welding machine back on.
I was done for the night.

Twenty minutes later we cleaned up and went home. Aaron and the welding instructors were still waiting for the ambulance in the lobby. Good thing it wasn't an emergency. As I took that familiar winding road like a seasoned veteran the ambulance went by in the opposite lane, rollers still and no sirens. I could've had him there sooner. It was a chance I was willing to take for a friend who asked the favor. I guess that's the difference between a twenty-five-year-old and a man double his age, though: the willingness to risk a lawsuit.

I heard from Aaron the next day. The doctors told him he had a high fever and his blood pressure was low when he finally arrived at the hospital, but they treated him effectively. He thanked me for trying to spare him the five-minute, thousand-dollar ambulance ride. We laughed in spite of our youthful ignorance, silently applauding our foolish priorities.

If I ever ask you to take me to the emergency room, and I won't, just do it.

It's hard to hold a tune when someone's singin' a different song.

The album began triumphantly
from my pick-up's stock stereo.
I skipped the filler songs
but couldn't bring myself
to sing along. My sore throat
tightened up. The ten-year-old
words wouldn't come out
like they had so freely in the past.

A sick kid in my head, a sick girl in my bed.
The accelerator was the alternative.
I took it.

Currently reading:
"The Element" by Ken Robinson.


John made his point in Chapter Three, but what'd you give yours up for?

My father killed God for me a long time ago, probably by the age of five or six. He did it in multiple ways and through various exhibits of over-zealous Christ-cramming. The ones that were most influential in my life, aside from the final conflict of ideologies that led to this two-year rift, were the ones that happened when I was young and still receptive to the conventional doctrines of Higher Powers. I hadn't learned to question things yet, I hadn't put my faith in other places. Whiskey and women were still only things that sinners indulged in. Ah, to be young.

Naturally, in an effort to secure a spot in his precious Heaven, my father taught Sunday School. Well, he did for a few years, until they politely asked him to stay with the adults for the whole service. He was probably scaring the children. I didn't realize it at such a tender age, but he was scaring me too.

I loved art as a child. I was constantly drawing or painting or gluing some sculpture together. Many only children find ways to entertain themselves creatively; if they're lucky it carries over into adulthood. Not even my holy-rolling father could suppress my mind forever. He tried one time. I was using crayons to make a picture of Christ's unfortunately necessary crucifixion in Sunday School. The other kids could draw what they wanted, but my father wanted me to capture this particular moment in mythical time. He paced around the room and waited for everyone to finish their artwork.

My little hands moved quickly to try to please both him and God. Calvary was a huge mound and less of a mountain. And it wasn't as sad a scene as people made it out to be. In fact, the sun was shining and the grass was a bright green and colorful flowers blossomed everywhere. Hell, even Jesus and the two thieves next to him were smiling from their crosses; they must've seen the silver lining. I was proud of my masterpiece when I finally drew the last m-shaped bird.

Good ol' dad wasn't too pleased, however. He walked over to inspect my creation when he saw me drinking my apple juice and munching on my donut and figured I was done. "What is this?" he asked indignantly as if I were the Antichrist. "It's what you told me to draw, Dad," I replied innocently while chewing. "No, no. It's all wrong," he preached. "That was a terrible day in history. The sun wasn't out, the people weren't happy. Even the grass had died. Fix it." He reached down to my box of crayons and rolled the brown and gray ones my way. I knew what I had to do. I hated him for it.

The brown crayon covered up the grass and flowers if I pressed hard enough. The gray one took care of the sun and the blue sky, replaced them with clouds. I couldn't figure out a way to turn the smiles upside down so I blackened out the faces in a frustrated rage. I raised my hand to get the attention of that distant man once again. He rose from his seat and walked over to inspect my alterations.

"Good job, Michael. Much better."
"Thanks, Dad."
"But I can't see that the grass is dying."
"The brown is supposed to be dirt."
"I know. Can you draw a few clumps of grass here and there?"
"It'll show that there once was life there, but it disappeared."
"And why are the faces all black now?"
"We don't know what they looked like and I don't want to lie."
"Good boy. You've remembered the Eighth Commandment."

He took my picture and walked back to his desk. I wished I could recover it and throw it away. Now, in my own way, I suppose I have. In twenty years I've learned that most of the ugliest things happen in the prettiest places. I'm convinced more than ever that my original drawing was more accurate.

God, if you do exist, don't blame the old man for my straying. None of us ever recognize the repercussions of trying too hard at the time. I'm not scared of Hell. I tan well.


An old friend wrote this one, whether she knows it or not.

No matter how much
you love someone

or better yet and more commonly

no matter how well
you pretend to reciprocate

your nose is due to grow
if you can't admit that you enjoy
the temporary ability
to sleep diagonally
when they leave for work or school
or wherever it is that they go

when you're not inside them
or they're not inside you

though you both always are
if you're lucky.

Like hiding that you masturbate.

I wasn't surprised when the beer didn't do it.
It hadn't worked quite right in five
or six years, depending on your mode
of damage assessment and logistics.

At least the shower was warm this time.
A spider two inches in diameter
tried its hardest to cling to the wet tile corner.

The hiccups, or -coughs, or however the hell
decided to hit me hard mid-shampoo.
I felt like a mouse in those cartoons
that they don't make anymore, the good ones.
The first one hit me, made me laugh.
The second one made me grab my chest.
The third one rocked me off my feet.
I hit my head on the way down
like it had a chance of missing.

When I came to my eyes opened
already fixed upon the wall.
The spider was gone.
Respect those who quietly succumb to the inevitable
without an audience.

I knew I wasn't dreaming or dead
because the race still disgusted me.
Any evidence of the fall had been washed
down the drain which was good since I'm bad
with the sight of my own blood
unless it's in size-10 font.

There was a gash in my scalp
that made me grateful to have thick hair.
Less questions. They never ask the right ones anyway.

Water was still warm.
Soap still stung eyes.
I didn't need to pinch myself.
I wouldn't have, regardless.

No one greeted my forehead
with a blackjack when I released the steam
into the hallway after a lazy drying session.
The cowardice of people astounded me again
and I hiccupped or hiccoughed or whatever the hell it is
my way up here to commit another dull night to memory.

That spider had lucked out.

But honestly
I never fell
and neither will you.
Get over it.


First Commandment, Second Amendment, Third Strike.

"Fire protection fitters have it made."

"Why's that?"

"All their pipe comes pre-fabbed from the shop."

"Cut to length. Mindless installation."


"And macho uniforms."

"Whatd'ya mean?"

"You know, the sprinkler guys from that last job."

"The Rock-Safe Boys?"

"Yeah, with the camo pants, combat boots, black shirts..."

"You ever been to their shop?

"No, but it sounds like you have."

"My old contractor sold them some tools once. I delivered."

"So what was the deal with their place?"

"There were M-16s and AK-47s laying around everywhere."


"They think they're some kind of militia."

"You're joking."

"Nope. They even use military issue ammo crates for storage."

"Of the guns?"

"Of the tools."

"So why didn't you sign up? You're from Pine Bush."

"I may listen to country, but assault rifles don't turn me on."

"Construction workers make for good stories."

"Storytellers make good enemies."

"People don't believe me when I tell them these things anyway."

"It's not that. They just don't care."


Shady Dealings in Stranger Danger

Then, in the dim and blotchy blue
of the moon reflected off fresh snow
or the pale white of a charging phone
or the monitor beckoning with bad one-liners
their features always bottleneck
to form What Never Was.

Eyebrows become finer, more arched.
Noses grow slender, round at the end.
Lips fill out, equidistant between smile and frown.
Eyelashes lengthen, sometimes change color.
Cheekbones and jawlines do
whatever it is they have to do
to fulfill your little Fantasy
and of course that smell...

The smell requires no light at all.
None of it does, it's an illusion.
She was what you made her to be
like every one that came after
and every one that will.

It's safe to watch that trilogy now;
someone's plucked her wings.
Row the boat ashore. Hallelujah.


Too young to talk to skulls.

She looked like wrinkled Death
and dressed like Gandalf;
sounded like the Wicked Witch of the West
had been converted to Catholicism;
but that woman loved the hell outta me.

Most elementary school librarians
have some quirks about them, at least mine
didn't smell like fish sticks or cat food.
To this day I swear that if she'd been born sixty years sooner
she probably would've wanted my hand in marriage.
That's the only reason I can think of
to explain why she gave me the role of Hamlet
in the sixth-grade play she proposed to produce.
I had no acting ability and was too shy and awkward
to read aloud without mincing words or pausing mid-sentence
to un-jumble that confounded Elizabethan English.
To top it all off, the too-tall redhead who got the part of Ophelia
was my pre-pubescent female arch nemesis
who had hated me ever since I moved in on her teacher's pet turf
in the oh-so-competitive fourth-grade.

I never learned my lines, of course
and would butcher them quite masterfully while painfully
reading from the cheap pamphlet printed in faded purple ink
that the twenty-or-so of us held in our laps in a circle of chairs
in the library every Thursday afternoon for forty-five minutes.
More than anything it was an excuse for us
to get out of class, and I had no problem
being the scapegoat for the play's indefinite postponement
and eventual cancellation.

Freckle-faced Ophelia never failed to rub mismatched Hamlet's
alleged memory lapses and sheer laziness in his face.
She's happily married now to a man
who swept her off her feet in true fairytale fashion, God bless her.
They both probably sleep with pillows between their knees.

I don't lose any sleep over it.
Some people are just better at sticking to the script.
You can pick them out at an early age--
it's a trait and a fate that sticks with them.

And me? I'm still stalling, just getting out
of class here and there for a little while at a time.
It beats the alternative.