Days? No. Good minutes, at best.

When we still spoke
my dad used to tell me
that growing up
he dreamed of being
like the State Troopers
back then.
Needless to say
he made it
while I, of course
fell two inches short.

Was that reason enough, Chaz?

Every six months I ride by
his house, but the car
is never there
and the paint is always peeling
though I'm sure he doesn't care
what the neighbors think
as long as God is still smiling down
upon the little lie of a life he's created.

I was a bill you paid for eleven years
you fucking coward.
At least I had the decency to run...

In my recurring nightmares I beg
for second chances.
Was it Lyn or Lynn?
That's the one thing I've forgotten.


I turn my swag off.

What's worse, Willis?:
the walking pneumonia
or dishpan hands?

I'll tell you right now
that he spits when he talks.
Do you still want to meet the Stranger?
You'll barely be half-pleased
with the Revelation.

There's Fool's Gold in the gravel lot--
enough to convince them
to change all their locks
foolishly, mind you.
The fools stagger on.

We've pulled a few teeth from these knuckles before
and before the lights dim we'll yank a few more.

Never trust a girl who smokes Newports
and run if you see Reds in her purse
'cause she could probably pin your wrist
and would break more than your bloodpump.

And am I too amorous, darling?
Well just circle C
and keep your naked fingers crossed.
Will I tell you there's no Santa Claus?
No, honey; I'm a professional.

But what if the birds ganged up on the cats?

It's too obscure, it's too obscure...

It's so surreal like this month's sun-showers
and scarcely as filling as astronaut food.

"We hate it when you write like this..."

But I never called it writing, Consumers
and I've yet to receive a payroll check
though supper's always served.

Kick me through the phone.



You could call Ed an outdoorsman, but it'd be something akin to calling Bill Gates a programmer; the label wouldn't do the man justice when he summed the word up so thoroughly. At age seven he set his first trap and caught a skunk. "Skin it, if you still want to trap," his father told him when the disappointing news was discovered. He did just that, though the stench clung to him for days, and nailed the tanned pelt up in the garage once it had lost its putrid quality. Episodes like that one gave him character, you can see it in the man today.

His obvious amount of time spent in the wilderness was part of what made a statement like "It was the only time I'd seen it happen" that much more potent. I was surprised to have heard of the phenomenon at all; witnessing it would've been interepreted as some sort of fateful sign to me, but to Ed it was just more proof that Nature's got it right where people have it wrong. He said he was out clearing a path on his dense forest property when a low-flying hawk zoomed over his head, coming so close that it caused him to duck and throw his arms up. Not two seconds went by when an army of various birds flew above him in pursuit of the hawk. Ed ran after them and spotted the reason once the procession reached a clearing: gripped in the hawk's deadly clutches was a small songbird, flapping its wings and pecking at the hawk's talons. Several different species had taken up in the fight to free the captive. The battle was about to escalate in that meadow since the multi-toned shrieks of the different pursuers had summoned more reinforcements to the theater.

The hawk swooped around in large circles in a desperate attempt to out-run the liberating faction which it couldn't out-maneuver. It must've been odd for a creature with no natural enemy except man to be the prey for once. Ed watched in amazement as more and more robins, doves, chickadees, wrens, crows and warblers dive-bombed the terrified predator relentlessly until it finally loosened its grip and let its quarry go. The weakened clump of feathers fell towards the ground, but regained strength and pulled out of its downward spin just before impact. It quickly found a branch on which to perch and chirped an appreciative tune in honor of its allies. The hawk, plenty embarrassed, gained altitude to soar high up with its majestic brethren in the clear afternoon sky, probably hoping that none of them had noticed its defeat. The winged allegiance was no longer needed. Nearly fifty birds could be seen flying their separete ways as Ed scratched his beard and wondered if anyone else had ever seen such a spectacle.

"People aren't as motivated, let alone brave. They just don't care that much," he said as the close of his tale. I figured I wouldn't deviate.

The Silent Dirge

Tax collectors, repo men, lawyers, used car swindlers, door-to-door insurance salesmen: the most hated professions in the history of the world. I pity the men in those fields who can't sleep at night, though most of them justify the means with the ends quite efficiently. I'm pretty sure I had a job like that once, until I gave it up for good in a small rural town in Upstate New York shortly after purchasing a standard marble composition book for three dollars and twenty-nine cents.

Traveling was part of my livelihood then, the business I was in required it. City to city, county to county, state to state; sometimes for an hour or two, other times for the better and worse parts of years. It was an exhilirating quality for a young man's world, but it also aged him fast. Some places appealed to me more than the rest and it broke my heart to leave them, to not be allowed to plant my roots there forever. But money made the world spin then as it does now and I didn't have the luxury of getting out of such a potentially lucrative industry for the sake of my own well-being. I'd tell you exactly what it was I did for a living during that period of my life, but I'm honestly not entirely sure what it was my employer had in mind for my role in his enterprise. There was some sort of commission involved, which is probably why I rarely received a substantial check and wound up having to give the nomadic lifestyle up when it came time to hang up my holsters.

I'd been working in that no-horse town for three months before I had the nerve to ask anyone his deal. Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm no storyteller, even less of an accountant. Let me start with the diner.

The diner was the central hub of the Catskill Mountain valley town with a population of less than three hundred that for our purposes here will be known as Lucretia. I don't recall if the church on Main Street, which should have been dubbed 'Only Street', was Presbyterian or Methodist, or whether the hotdog stand sold ice cream in the winter too, or if turning on red was permitted within the bounds of that locale's jurisdiction. One forgets those details quite quickly, moreso than one realizes until called upon to regurgitate the facts some twenty years later. But that diner-- no one who's ever spent more than three days in Lucretia could deny having a crystallized memory of that diner.

Its outer shell was not decked out in chrome and mirrors, flags and banners, like those I was accustomed to encountering. From the outside it looked like any other building on the strip, red bricks and a pitched roof with its peak in the middle. If the front was not primarily glass then you probably wouldn't even know that it was an eatery. Even that term's a bit generous. An oversized sign hung ominously over the sidewalk like a relic of the post-War age. "Steaks, Chops, Cutlets" it falsely advertised.

The inside was not much more impressive. One entered on the left side of the storefront and was immediately presented with a long countertop that spanned the entire length of the left wall right back to the kitchen. Booths lined the front and right side of the perimeter. A mass of tables and chairs that was constantly liable to slight alterations filled the center of the room. Patrons wiped their feet well on the tattered mat near the entrance, but it was too late; the tiles were already crumbling in their places. It didn't seem such a shame, though, since whoever had installed the black-and-white checkered pattern decades beforehand didn't bother to stick to the prescribed plan too faithfully. Some patches of the floor had clearly been laid after lunch on a Friday. Things on the high side of the room were no less inconsistent; the ceiling fans all spun at different speeds no matter how many times the chains were tugged. The kitchen, as I said earlier, was in the back left corner of the room. One restroom was located adjacent to the kitchen, and there was a glass door at the righthand corner in the back of the building that served as a rear entrance, though more often than not it was an escape route. Two booths were located in that remote corner of the diner, but no one voluntarily sat there. Well, almost no one.

School didn't seem to be an emphasis in Catskill life, at least not in Lucretia, but for the benefit of the metaphor let's pretend that everyone living there had gone to high school together. If that were indeed the case, then the Lucretia Diner picked up where the high school cafeteria's lunch table had left off. Everyone who was anyone ate at least one meal a day at that establishment religiously whether or not the daily specials had been changed once that week. The vegetables were overcooked mush, the soup tasted vaguely of potato dirt and rancid bacon grease, and the morning chef had somehow managed to burn every piece of toast that came out of the kitchen. Eggs. Eggs were the only safe bet on the menu, probably because they were guaranteed fresh by the hens that lived out back. An overhead view of the restaurant would prove that most natives agreed with my assessment; any plate belonging to a true-blue Lucretian would have yellow or white eggs on it, while the plates of vagabonds and passers-through would show faded greens and browns and various degrees of unappetizingly dull hues between the two. I must confess, it took me a full week of experimentation to join the first group, but I suppose that's not the worst track record in town.

The clientele may as well have had assigned seats with their names on them, or at least designated sections. Loggers sat with loggers at the end of the counter. Merchants and clerks huddled at the booths near the front windows, possibly in a subconscious effort to spot potential customers. The postman, the pastor, and the chief of police dined and lounged together at the central table section whenever their conflicting schedules would allow for it. Children congregated at the counter, though their mothers usually made them sit at as far away from the loggers as possible as if the temporary distance between them would save them from such a cruel and common fate. Felling trees was an honorable trade in the community, one that had sustained the local economy since its existence, but it was still hard for a mother to watch her son accept that yoke, or watch a daughter fall into the clutches of the burly, whiskey-ruined remnants of a lumberman who was once young and promising enough to escape Lucretia. The rest of the folks sat scattered here and there throughout the confines of the diner's walls, making sure not to trespass on another group's claim. When it did happen by accident there was never an exchange of words, only a few quick remarks and falsely smiling eyes to show that a foul had been committed. There was, however, the one time when Merle Windham had come back to society from a three-week bender after his wife had died of cancer, only to find some unfortunate soul sitting in his seat at the far end of the counter, but no one ever spoke of that incident or its victim ever again after it happened and I intend to follow suit here.

By this time you're probably wondering where I sat at the Lucretian Diner. I'll be honest: I was content to dine wherever the waitress suggested for that particular time, probably because my first experience there had been on that fateful night when good ol' Merle had stumbled through the front doors wanting some eggs to wash down his whiskey. I didn't mind the passive role I played on that particular stage, it led to some good angles and different perspectives that could've otherwise been missed. One day I was in a corner booth, the next at a table next to the who's who of town, sometimes I sat between the kids and the loggers like some distorted timeline in the form of a rare Rockwell painting. Dorothy, the head waitress, never steered me wrong. "Follow me?" she'd always ask when I walked in, as if I'd have the nerve to disobey after that first spectacle. "Scrambled or fried today, Mr. Thorpe?" was the next query in her service routine after that first week of dabbling in the menu's limited selections. Dorothy didn't bother handing them out to the regulars. I didn't notice that until after I'd been a patron for two months.

Exploring the territory had lost its novelty quickly. Most of the roads were named after founding families of the town where their decendants still resided. I learned the hard way that these funny-sounding streets with names like "Joneswright Way" and "Cockle Lane" were not public streets at all; they were long, winding, and imperatively private driveways which would be defended to the death until the last shotgun shell was fired. Perhaps if my strolls had taken place before the questionable motives implied by the setting of dusk, twilight, and beyond then I would have encountered friendly families sitting on porches instead of warning shots and guard dogs. Despite my less-than-amiable encounters it saddens me to think that those oddly named road names will probably be bought up and changed to things like "Birch Ridge Drive" and "Meadowbrook Road" by the urban sprawl of city slickers, if they haven't already. Lucretia was the kind of town where a communal gas-powered log splitter was left in a lot on the main drag year-round and no one had the audacity to steal it. I'm not so sure it's like that anymore, but I hope that it is.

As I'd bet you can imagine things tended to get a little boring in that lonesome mountain town once late-night walks were ruled out. Many a cup of coffee was consumed there just to kill time by both myself and most of the town's inhabitants. It was a place to be outside of the home or rented dwelling, aside from the daily grind. Again, to this day I'm not sure what my line of work even was back in those crazy years, but I knew it required me to live in Lucretia for a period of five-and-a-half months. Whenever I wasn't off doing whatever it was I was assigned to do, or jotting things down in a marble notebook in my rented room above the Rusty Axe Taproom, or getting lost both figuratively and otherwise in a book near some stream or precipice, I was sitting at the Creesh, as it was called, sipping burnt coffee and wondering when and where my next gig would take me.

Dorothy kept me company as best she could without seeming overly friendly and disturbing the delicate balance imposed by her fellow Lucretians. Standard waitress small-talk was permitted, the occasional laugh was tolerated, but nothing more. No one knew my identity or my purpose in their fine little town, and I wasn't in a position to change that. One day, about two months into my stay there, I left my notebook on the table by accident. Dorothy had always seen me scribbling in it in between coffee mug refills and must've assumed it was important, more important than it really was. She went over to where I'd been sitting to wipe the table and claim her tip when she noticed my blunder. "Mr. Thorpe!" she yelled in my direction as my hand reached for the front door of the diner just before closing time. "You forgot your book." The words sounded unusual coming out of her mouth. I suppose it was my book, though, in the same way that this will be part of it someday. "Thanks, Dorth," I said with a tired smile as I met her halfway to claim it. My hand brushed against hers as she handed me the notebook and one edge of her mouth curved upwards in a genuine show of friendship. From then on we were pals.

Dorothy continued to warm up to me after that episode. The townspeople didn't seem to mind. I don't think she realized it, but Dorothy had more say in who was to be accepted by the population and who wasn't. She was the head waitress, the only waitress to be truthful, in Lucretia's main attraction. Her word was law, but she didn't abuse the power. If Daniel Thorpe was OK in Dorothy Sparker's book, then Dan and his silly book were to be welcomed with at least tentatively opened arms. I'm not sure how or when it happened, but it felt like a secret meeting had been held to address the issue of how I was to be treated. Almost overnight my status had improved. People greeted me more graciously and slowed their strides to make sure they'd be able to hold the door for me if I was approaching behind them. Whatever word Dorothy was spreading about my alleged sanctity was working wonders. I began to write more in that book of mine, and Dorothy fed me plenty of useful information to help my endeavor. When the Creesh wasn't busy, sometimes even when it was, she'd sit across from me for a quick piece of burnt toast and eggs washed down with coffee and tell me the latest gossip or an interesting piece of the town's history. It turned out there was more to Lucretia than one passing through on a weekend trek could ever imagine. My hand would cramp viciously at night from transcribing all of the tales I'd heard that day. Sometimes the specifics were jumbled a bit, but most great fiction is composed of two-thirds of the truth. The checks kept coming from my employer for some reason despite my lack of ambition in the vague work department, possibly due to some mistake in the payroll office. I felt like one of the famous American expatriate writers living in Paris in the 1920s: money for nothing, the cafe lifestyle, and a constant flow of priceless ink on the paper.

By the third month I was no longer limited to listening to what Dorothy chose to share with me. My questions were well received and answered to the best of her knowledge. My marble notebook had overflowed and I had purchased two more at Lucky's General Store. I had dossiers on a majority of the most interesting people in town, all except one fellow who always sat near the rear entrance of the diner by himself and never made eye contact with anyone. Something inside me knew that his was probably the most poignant tale. Maybe that's why I'd waited so long to ask Dorothy about him; I was saving the best for last.

"Who's that gentleman sitting back there all alone?" I asked during a lull in the action at the Creesh.

"That's no one, don't worry about him," came quickly from her mouth in a tone I'd never heard her use before. She avoided meeting my eyes as she said it just as the man in question always did. At first I thought that maybe she was being evasive because he was a past love of hers, but I took another look at his crumpled shirt, unkempt hair, and filthy face and came to the conclusion that no one had ever loved him in his life.

"Come on, Dorth. Don't hold out on me. I'm going to make this town famous someday, I need all the facts."

"This town don't want no fame, Mr. Thorpe. Finish your eggs before they get cold." A strange sense that she was trying to protect me from something swept over me so I let the issue go for the moment.

"Fine, but don't expect as generous a tip today." Her mouth formed that sincere half-smile and that was the end of it.

At least I thought it was the end of it. I found myself unable to sleep as a result of her instant change in attitude regarding the mysterious character who silently entered the diner and never had a soul to keep him company. Even Dorothy, one of the town's most friendly individuals, showed her distate for the man by bringing him a plate of eggs without bothering to ask how he wanted them prepared. Something wasn't right about the situation. All writing ceased for a few days while I wrestled with the enigma in the privacy of my mind until I gave in and decided to find out just who the man was by asking the most innocently honest source. Luckily, Dorothy sat me at the counter that day right between the loggers and the children getting milkshakes with their allowances.

"Hey there, Jimmy."

" D'aftanoon, Mista Thorpe." Jimmy was a fine boy of nine who was about to earn himself a second milkshake.

"Say, I seem to have ordered a milkshake by accident and don't think I can handle it. Would you be interested in helping me out?"

"O'course, sir. What's the catch?" Even country kids knew that everything had a price.

"Well, Jimmy, I was wondering if you happened to know who that man sitting back there is. I'm writing a book about your town, you see, and..."

"No problem, Dan." We were on an equal plane by that point in the conversation apparently. "That there's Mr. Franklin Stevens."

"Now we're getting somewhere, Jim. Mr. Stevens is always by himself. What's his major malfunction?"

"You'd be shunned too if you'd gone and killed your brother."

So that was it. Lucretia had a dark underbelly that it didn't want an outsider to see. The Creesh's new resident loner was a renegade salesman-turned-writer, and the old one was a fratricide.


"What about my ice cream?"

"Dorothy, see that li'l Jim here gets a milkshake on my tab."

I left the diner with an uncomfortable feeling that had never come over me before. A hundred sets of eyes were watching me from the safety of their homes and shadows formed by trees. I knew their secret now, their charade was up. It didn't help my insomnia any.

Sunrise could not come fast enough so I gave up trying to wait for its arrival. Dorothy, as embassador, had some explaining to do. It was so early in the morning that even the loggers wouldn't be there for breakfast yet, but I knew that she'd let me in. She did.

"What brings you here so early, Dan?"

"I know about Frank Stevens. I want answers. How could you leave out such an important character?"

"Look here, Mr. Thorpe," she said with an index finger itching to be raised as if scolding a schoolboy of Jimmy's age. "I don't want to have to ask you to leave."

Her threat was shallow and I knew it. I decided to take the other approach.

"Dorothy, all I want is to know the man's story. I promise I won't spread word of a murder here in Lucretia."

"Murder? There wasn't no murder."

"Did a jury decide that?"

"Wasn't no cover-up, either, Dan." I was Dan again, no longer Mr. Thorpe. I was making progress.

"Then what happened?"

"He was five years old and burnt his house down playing with matches. His kid brother was asleep inside and they couldn't get him out in time. The smoke choked him to death."

"So it was an accident, Frank wouldn't have been penalized. It was never reported?"

"The Stevens family was dirt poor, too poor to afford a lawyer. They could barely support themselves."

"That's no reason to let a death go undocumented, Dorth..."

"It wasn't undocumented. You can read all about it on Frank's face any day of the week. He crawled into some sort of shell after the accident, and no one ever treated him the same afterwards."

"Even so, his brother's accidental manslaughter should've been acknowledged by the law."

"It wasn't no manslaughter, Mr. Thorpe. Like I told you, the Stevens family didn't have a dime. It was a thinning of the herd."

I let it go at that. Dealing with my mother as a child had taught me when a woman was to have the final say in a matter. The case of Franklin Stevens was one of those scenarios. I left the diner, walked briskly back to my rented room above the Rusty Axe, and slept soundly for the first time in days.

A little over two months went by in an uneventful manner. My interaction with Dorothy and the other residents of Lucretia continued as usual, but the checks had been cut off. My employer must have found the error in the payroll department. My stay in town was about to be terminated since I'd have to go back to the real world in search of a real job. I didn't have the hands to be a lumberman, and there sure wasn't an opening in the local clergy for me. I wrote too much to be a holy man, the Good Book had already been written. Packing my things didn't take long. A brand new briefcase that had been issued arbitrarily by my former boss some years back revealed itself once again upon a final inspection of my closet. I tossed it into my car along with my suitcase and other belongings, thanked the barkeep downstairs for letting me occupy his room for so long, and headed for the Lucretia Diner for what would be my last serving of eggs for a long time.

In a lighthearted effort to appear prestigious during my last meal at the Creesh I brought that ridiculous pristine briefcase in with me as my stage prop instead of the customary notebook. The smallest inclinations tend to lead to the biggest discoveries. Just ask Eve.

The mood in the Creesh was uncharacteristically somber. There weren't many customers, but something was off about the general atmosphere. Dorothy barely noticed my arrival at first so I helped myself to a stool at the counter. She snapped out of her daze and pretended to be cheerful.

"You look nice today, Daniel." She must've been referring to my briefcase because my clothes and grooming habits had remained unaltered.

"Don't lie to me, I look like hell. What's with this place? It looks like someone died."

"Someone did, Mr. Thorpe." I really hated how she, Jimmy, and the rest of those Lucretians changed ones title to account for their current attitude towards him so effectively. "The funeral's being held right now."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Who was it?"

"Barry, the barber over there on First Street." First Street was one of the few streets that was not named after a local family, and was therefore safe to travel at any hour of the day or night. I knew it well. Barry had even cut my hair once or twice during my five-month sabbatical in Lucretia.

"Maybe I should head over to the cemetery." It was the kind of place where you went to your barber's funeral, even if he'd only touched your head a few times.

"No, no...It's too late, it should be getting out soon. Eggs?"

"Of course. And a fresh pot of coffee if you don't mind. I'm leaving town today, you know."

"I know." Of course she did. News travels fast in small places.

The coffee was served too soon to be fresh. Dorothy gave no special treatment to a man just because he was leaving town, even though they were practically friends for a time. I respected her immensely for that. I sipped my stale coffee and felt the smooth auburn leather of the briefcase sitting on the floor brush up against the leg of my pants.

"Hey, Dorth. Why's Frank Stevens dressed up if he's the only one here? He can't care too much about Barry if he didn't bother going to the service."

Her cheeks paled as I'd seen them do twice before.

"He probably thought it best not to show his face there." She was dodging me and I knew it.

"Then why the suit? Why the tie?" Part of me already knew the answer.

"Barry was Franklin's father."

My foot jolted to the side when I heard that final piece of the puzzle, knocking over the briefcase.

"I thought you said their family had no money. Barry seemed to have a decent business."

"He did, once he opened his barber shop thirty years ago."

A gust of wind conjured itself within those walls and sent a draft up the leg of my pants. I glanced down at the briefcase my late employer had given me. The impact had caused it to open. Business cards and brochures were sprawled out on the dingy tile. I picked up one of the cards. "Booker's Insurance Agency," I read to myself. It rang a vague bell. Maybe I had worked for that firm at one time. That's when it hit me. I slammed the insurance company's card down on the counter and made my way for the rear of the building.

"Mr. Thorpe, what are you doing? Daniel!"

It was too late to stop me. Someone had to do it. I sat down across from Mr. Franklin Stevens, extended my hand, and attempted to introduce myself as best I could. He barely stirred from his initial position and continued to ruminate over his cold cup of coffee. My faked cordiality subsided once I saw that it wouldn't have an affect.

"It wasn't your fault. I know that you didn't start that fire. It was your father. He did it for the insurance money."

Franklin turned his head and stared at me blankly as if I'd just read the permanent Daily Specials from the menu and he wanted eggs again.

"And your brother, they couldn't afford to take care of both you and your brother so..."

Then, for the second time in two minutes, something struck me. This time, however, it was in quite the literal sense. Dorothy's hand had swooped down and slapped me firmly across my left cheek before I even had a chance to see her coming. My briefcase was shoved into my chest just as instantaneously as the palm had been delivered.

"Mr. Thorpe," she commanded as she stretched that motherly index finer in the direction of the front door, "I do believe you've finally outworn your welcome here in Lucretia."

I glanced at Frank for a word of support that I knew wasn't coming. Everyone, including him, knew what had really happened thirty years prior. He'd carried that cardboard cross for decades. It was a feat that people came to expect of him to maintain the stability of the town. That burden was too crucial to the balance of their world to give up now for the mere sake of the truth.

"Scrambled today, please, Miss Sparker," Franklin said with what were probably the first words uttered publically in years.

"Coming right up, Mr. Stevens," she said as she glared at me until I rose to my feet to leave.

The sun was shining too brightly through the front of the diner as I headed for the door. It was deceptive. Lucretia. It probably meant "Lie" in some foreign tongue.

"Mr. Thorpe," Dorothy Sparker yelled in the same sympathetic voice as she had once before regarding my notebook, "You forgot your briefcase."

"No, I didn't forget. Take care of them, Miss Sparker." I meant all of them, but I doubt she understood.

The funeral procession was walking its way down Main Street in the direction of the diner as I hopped into my car. Merle Windham staggered forward with a few stragglers in the rear, all of them visibly drunk. They broke off from the formation and made their way through the front door of the Rusty Axe to wet their palates in honor of Barry Stevens, a coward the whole town would pretend to miss.

My ride back to the city didn't take as long as it should've. It felt good to be back in civilization again. When the couch got uncomfortable I went out and found a more suitable job; the Lucretia notebooks were shoved into a dark corner for what would turn out to be years; and I vowed to never eat eggs again.


Too soon?

My friend told me that he'd heard
that Michael Jackson started his infamous
surgical procedures after seeing his father's face
in the mirror one day.
That makes the Moonwalker's final stunt
slightly less funny, but I'll run with it anyway.

Seeing the quintessential pop icon
of my childhood die so prematurely
was a bit disheartening, despite the fact that
we all pretended not to feel a little upset.
It's alright, though; he's probably been
cryogenically frozen like Walt Disney
and Wesley Snipes, just chillin'
with the Elephant Mans' bones
in his extra creepy basement.

Part of me believes he's not really dead
and will come back
twice as big and blinking red.

Or perhaps he's just resting up
for the prophesied time in the near future
when he will ironically lead the Zombie Apocalypse.

It's one of those things we won't find out 'til we're dead
like how many morticians are also necrophiliacs.

Ah, the end-time revelations will be numerous indeed...


Milkflesh, philosophically.

If my alarm had gone off a mere
five minutes sooner
I would've been spared
but no.

This time it was a hat trick of misfortune
striking three distinct nerves
in my vulnerable semi-conscious state.

One of the girls whose honor
I borrowed back in my
er, oat-feeling days
was suddenly my English teacher
at the junior high I attended
ten years ago.

Her form-fitting black dress
with gray pinstripes
cut at the thigh, of course
did her justice
though I still wanted to rip
that stupid stud out of her face.

She was passing back papers
and donned a sinister grin
as she casually dropped
mine on my desk, a big "C-"
scrawled across the top
in red lipstick.

It looked almost as horrid
as it did on her face.

"This can't be right, I worked
so hard to put it out there,"
I pissed, shoving the crumpled mess
of my former pride into my bookbag.

Her reply was something
characteristically sarcastic
which I won't attempt to reproduce
fifteen hours later
for fear of misquoting
one of the most spiteful women
known to man.

Suffice it to say that
it didn't go over so well with its recipient.

How dare she insult someone
who took such pride in his craft
such time to get it right?

I stormed out of the class
dodging numerous security guards
and vowing to leave that school forever.

I guess I overshot with that one.

The steady beep
of my alarm snapped me out of it.

All there was left to do was rub one out;
I didn't care that five against one
were unfair odds.

I washed up and went to work.

I wish I could say more than that.

No, maybe I don't.

These things have a shelf-life, too.


Paging Miss Holstein.

I was working near the door
of the courtyard to get some fresh air.
The school was stifling in late June. I couldn't imagine
how uncomfortably hot it'd be if the students
were cramming the halls and classrooms.
Still, I wished they were there.
Maybe that kid who was reading
Dostoyevsky would walk by again
and I could ask him how he liked it.
We've all got a little Raskolnikov in us
whether we know it or not.

Teachers had been passing under my ladder
en route to various yearly de-briefings
in their casual clothes
hoodies and jeans and college T-shirts
as I laid my pipe in sweat-soaked denim
and a dusty pocket Tee.
A few of them were sitting outside
on a bench in that courtyard
talking about what they'd be doing
with their summer vacations.
None of them listed any books they wanted to read
let alone write.
A tenured man mentioned something about a time-share.
One young brunette not more than three years out of college
said how she wished she'd never have
to grade another paper or explain another poem again.

I squeezed the trigger on the electric impact wrench
the kind that auto mechanics use to remove nuts
so the loud buzz would drown them all out.
On lunch break I'd been reading about Hemingway's
World War I experience in "A Farewell to Arms";
The rat-tat-tat sound transformed my impact wrench into a machinegun.
Unfortunately, the battery died thirty seconds in to my venting session.
All of the teachers in the opposite trench
were gone when the imaginary smoke cleared.
Noise always did the trick.
I'd learned early on in my apprenticeship
how to get rid of unwanted guests:
noise, dust, or a whiskey-soaked tongue.
Some people don't know how good they have it.

Behold the green-eyed monster toting his powertools.
He knows he could do it better.


I imagine the shades being half-drawn
forty-something years ago
in that haggard apartment in Haverstraw--
high enough to illuminate the shabby
hardwood floor in need of a good sanding
and a new coat of varnish, low enough to
hide what he was doing from the neighbors.
It's a second-story rental in a low-income
part of town, right above a bodega.
The room he's in is vacant
except for the wooden chair he used
to tie his knot up high
and the dusty baseboard covers.
Maybe I see it that empty because it really was
or maybe I'm just not creative enough to fill it right now
or maybe I'm afraid to look around my own room, room's I've had.
Regardless, it has one of those half-hexagonal
shapes to the street-side, the middle window cracked
where a rock had mysteriously hit it the previous summer.
And then there's that exposed rafter running along
the length of it that enabled his final endeavor.

I can't picture his face, but I have a strong feeling
that he was wearing a blue sweater for some reason.
The rope was one he'd stolen from his after-school job
at the fish market; the detectives figured that out
from the smell when they cut him down.
No, that's incorrect; they wouldn't have been able
to smell much aside from the pile of excrement
that had slid down his leg and out of his cuffed jeans
after he stopped thrashing around.
They don't show you that part in the movies
but I know it's there.
If his mother had found him maybe she would've
cleaned up his mess before the cops arrived to the scene
to spare him that last embarrassment, but it was
his old man who kicked in the door that evening.
He knew that any dignity his son once had
was gone no matter what.

The local paper bid a vague farewell.
There was no moment of silence at school.
It's never as dramatic as one that desperate hopes.
They never get to see that, sadly.
And the ones who fail only learn how little people care.

My mother merely mentioned it once in passing.
The part of me that tries to remember the sequence
of events in a less shameful way wants to say
that she told me after my own little episode
but I'm not entirely sure.
One of the first things she said when she saw me
afterwards was "I forgive you."
Her eyes were off somewhere else, though
as if she were looking right through me
and speaking to another person-- perhaps
the boy whose heart she accidentally broke as a teenager
by saying she wouldn't date him
despite his best speech.
She was the only one who really knew why
there was one less student in the Graduating Class of '72
at North Rockland High School.

I doubt she went to her prom, either.

I'm raising rabbits instead of having children.


Alvin, Simon, Theodore.

My mother called to tell me
that I couldn't come to dinner
as planned this evening.
She said she had to go visit
my stepfather at their summer house
in the Catskills where he'd been
getting some odds-and-ends done
for the past few days.

"What's with the change of plans?"
I asked in a convincingly concerned voice.

"Craig's a little bummed about his friend," she replied.

It seemed odd that a fifty-five-year-old woman
was heading an hour and twenty minutes north
to surprise her fifty-eight-year-old husband
because he was "a little bummed about his friend."
I didn't ask any further questions about it for fear
I'd find out more than I wanted to know.

"How's the landscaping coming along up there?"

"Good," she replied with a sigh. "The mulch is down
and he bought some new goldfish for the pond."

"What about the weasel that kept eating the fish?"

My mother cleared her throat as if to say
she didn't want to field that question, but would.

"That's what he's bummed out about."

It still wasn't coming together.

"He put some poison out around the pond
in the hopes that the weasel would eat it
but he wound up killing his friend instead."

I'm very supportive of my family and would
stick by them to the bitter end
but manslaughter is another beast entirely.
Not something to be taken lightly, that whole
killing another person thing.

"Mom, is everything OK?"

"Yeah, he'll get over it. It sounded like he
had been crying a little when he told me
what had happened over the phone, that's all."

"Right, but isn't the real issue his dead friend?"

That's when the laughter came. At first I wasn't sure
if it was the maniacal laugh of a sociopath
or a sign that there had been an amusing misunderstanding.

"I'm getting senile, Mike. Sorry. I forgot to tell you
that Craig's been feeding a chipmunk up there
by hand for the past few weeks. The poor thing
must've eaten some of the poison and then Craig
found him. 'I killed my little friend,' he told me
over the phone this morning. If his friends knew
how upset he was over it they'd never stop goofing on him."

"Don't worry. His secret's safe with me," I said
as my hands tapped few choice words and phrases
into the keyboard for later reference.

Don't tell a writer anything you wouldn't want shared.
Don't call yourself a writer if you have the nerve
to start a story with 'My mother called to tell me...'
And for God's sake, don't poison your pets.


My completely unbiased thoughts on Country Music.

There are three categories of what many drooling Americans know and love as Country Music: those that are intentionally sad, those that are intentionally funny, and those that are supposed to be sad but are so pathetic that they're funny. I prefer the latter, especially if it involves a grown man's grief over losing someone as near and dear as his faithful pick-up truck. Or the ones about the dangers of drinking with guns in the house, those are always hysterical, too. Whether it leads to a tragically violent domestic dispute or a tear-in-your-beer hari kari session, everyone wins. Well, at least everyone listening. Sayonara, sucker!

Then there's this one intentionally funny little number about fishing. The chorus says something to the effect of "My wife gave me an ultimatum (I guarantee you that this is not verbatim) to choose between her or fishing, and I'm sure going to miss my wife." Sure, it's tongue-in-cheek humor that applies mostly to people with family trees that more accurately resemble ladders, but it's light-hearted and sends a positive message: We'd all be OK alone as long as we have a hobby we love. For me, obviously, that hobby is...plumbing.

Now get ready to bow your head in shame at this statistic: Country is the most popular genre of music in the United States. What Bubba and Cletus won't tell you on their painfully commercial-free morning show, however, is that cities with more Country radio stations also have higher suicide rates. No, I'm not making this up. Do your own research if you don't believe me. You'll also learn that most losers off themselves in July, not December like most people think. Come on, Christmas isn't that depressing, not even when Grandma sends you a five-spot in a lousy card and tries to play it off like her Alzheimer's has caused her to forget that any inflation whatsoever has occurred since the second World War. Not being able to afford air-conditioning in a sweltering heatwave is a far more valid reason to cock your lever-action 30-30 and blow your brains through the patched tin roof of your double-wide. And to think that all these years you've been riding around with that rifle hanging in the rear window of your truck for nothing.

Finally, can we talk about the use of the fiddle a little? I'd like to put an end to this mockery of an artform entirely. It's the only instrument more annoying than the bagpipes; at least those skirt-wearing Scotsmen set some kind of worthy and somber tone with their plaid dust bags. "But Mike, the violin is a lovely instrument that's been used to expressed some of the deepest human emotions by some of the world's greatest composers." Yeah, that's all fine and dandy when that curvaceous hunk of wood is in the hands of some Eurotrash clown or a small-wanged Oriental, but as soon as a redneck picks one up it becomes a darn-tootin' fiddle! That's because our illustrious rural demographic had to go and "improve upon" a style that's been established and working just fine for centuries. Sounds like someone's had a little too much sweet tea again. "But Mike, adding some fiddle to an already obnoxious pop hit in an attempt to make it a palatable crossover cover song is a marvelous idea..."


That was my Mossberg pump-action 12-gauge doing what you're 30-30 should've done a long time ago, partner.


I sat outside my deli again
waiting for that daily sandwich
and smoking that hard-to-shed habit.

There was a clay flower pot
next to my right leg
about two feet tall
suggesting that it was very deliberate
at least at one time.

It appeared to be forgotten by its Italian owners, though.
The only living things residing within the boundaries of
its chipped finish that'd been dulled by acid rain
were a few determined ants
and a poison ivy plant.

At one side of its circumference
was a black and withered flower.
A tag was stabbed into the soil next to it
like a tombstone-- "Draga" was the breed apparently.
I guess it wasn't as strong as its namesake implied.

It didn't seem like such a sin to shove my butt
into the wasted soil; I liked to think myself quite the Samaritan
for helping that dragon breathe fire one last time.

You'd be right in assuming that when I'm not berating my failures
I'm giving myself too much credit.
A fluent German-speaker once told me that my surname
has something to do with water, but I'm convinced
that it translates as "No happy medium."

Currently reading:
"A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway.

post-academic required reading.

So I've finally read "The Old Man and the Sea"
twelve years too late, but in a mere two sittings
and I now have a better understanding
of several different reactions to the book.

To the millions of students forced to read it:
I comprehend why it makes you want to kill
Mr. Hemingway, though he already beat you to it:
it's over a hundred pages of a man hunting a fish
for three days, and he doesn't even get to
reap the benefits at the end; I'm sure
you've learned by now that there are no happy endings
and that even graduation is more of a painful beginning
than a triumphant conclusion.
Read it again after you've lived a little--
no, after you feel like you've lived too much for your years.
You'll thank me.

My literary idol, Charles Bukowski--
you had a love-hate relationship with Hem
for most of your life, and this final work was the one
you used most in your arguments against the man
or at least the writer.
Well now, ten years after your death, a kid
who will never aspire to be half the writer
half the lush, half the tail-chasing tale-chaser that you were
is sitting here telling you that you only hated Ernie's
final masterpiece because you were envious;
your life-long hero taught you that it didn't take
a story laden with liquor bottles, or dead-end jobs
or bad parenting, or a woman (other than the Sea)
to pin down what every writer has always been trying to say:
life's a hell of a fight-- glorious even, if you can pull that off--
and in the end we can only hope to pick up what's left
and start over.

And you, Ernest: you're the real Christ in coward's clothing.
Was it you searching for that majestic marlin too far out?
Was it you holding fast to that rope for three days?
You who landed the harpoon, fought off the sharks
and ultimately lost to them
and your own human nature
by taking on more than you could handle?
You were right to refrain from calling it sin.
I'd like to think that it wasn't a gambling debt
an old flame that you couldn't blow out
or a drunken night of lonesome introspection
that made you decide that your glass of orange juice
was a better place to keep your brains.
I'd like to think that you knew
that in order to live you had to write
and that you'd never be able to top that last little number
your typer and the gods slid your way.
Your shotgun didn't admit defeat, it announced victory.
Don't worry;
I get it, if no one else does.


Been seeing poems, been reading signs.

I wondered if the Mexican kid
or the new girl was making
my sandwich as I sat outside
the deli smoking a cigarette.
I hoped it was the Mexican.

A minivan pulled up to the curb in front of me.
A rushed mother slid out from behind the wheel
to open the side door and release
her four-year-old daughter upon the world.
The part of me that still feels shame
from time to time
tried to hide my bogey
between my bent knees.
My knuckles grazed the bench
as I tried to appear nonchalant.
I'm not much of an actor.

Mom grabbed little Sally by the hand
and pulled her towards the neon signs
that framed the doorway of the deli.
"Best to stay away
from big, sweaty construction workers
with dirty boots and dirtier habits."
I could read minds in that lucid state.
I agreed with mom's assessment of the situation.

Little Sally stared at me sideways
as the tips of her sneakers scraped the concrete
under mom's forceful tug.
In her left hand was an ice cream bar
with the sides bitten neatly off
all the way around.
"Pretty creative for a four-year-old," I thought to myself
as the cherry of my smoke began to burn my fingers.

She'll grow up to be an innovator
after she breaks her fair share of hearts
and vice versa.

Currently reading:
"The Old Man and the Sea" by Ernest Hemingway.


A Gelding, Post-Op

"Did she give your shit back?"

"No, she took her shit back."

"Then she's not really done with you, whether or not that's a good thing."

"How do you know?"

"Think about it-- if she really wanted you out of her life for good she wouldn't want a bunch of things that remind her of you around."

"But but all girls have those boxes they keep under their beds..."

"Fuck those boxes."

"...and the ticket stubs, receipts, and dried flowers they contain."

"Did you keep it together at least?"

"Didn't shed a tear until I changed the subject by telling her about the '87 Monte Carlo I had in high school."

"That awful beige thing that reeked of cigarettes and french fries? Your abandonment issues include former vehicles?"

"I'd give all of them up to have that car again."

"It wasn't even the eight-cylinder version."

"But it was really mine."


A few of his better friends
were standing vigil in the hallway
near the bathroom where he'd been holed up
while acquaintances and bar trash
cluttered his back porch

a few of them throwing beer bottles
at each other, the glass shattering on the patio.

"He only drinks twice a year," someone said in an
apologetic tone as I walked towards the bathroom door.

I knocked twice, entered, closed the door behind me.

"Here's the Birthday Boy..."

He was standing over the toilet
wearing only a bathing suit.
His back was as hairy as mine;
it was one of the few things we had in common.

The familiar scene made me feel his vulnerability
in a way that only someone who's sworn off drinking
at least fifty times can understand.

"Thanks for coming," he said. "I ruined myself."

"At least it smells like coffee in here, not vomit."

"I was puking up coffee," he replied
refusing to accept my consolation prize.

I figured his parents had given it to him
in an effort to help sober him up, but didn't ask.
Mentioning the substance floating in the toilet
is against the rules.

"Are there girls here?" he asked
in search of validation for the success of his party.

I would've lied if there weren't.
Another one of the rules.

That real friend who had tried to explain things
had gone upstairs to deal with
the bottle-flingers after I'd told him about it;
he knew them better than I did
and could probably handle it more
diplomatically than I would've
despite the fact that I was sober.
I hoped that the man hunched over the toilet
in front of me would never learn
about the crime-- it might negate
the female presence factor for him.

"I'm going to take off. Just wanted to wish you
a happy birthday first."

I didn't tell him why I was leaving, didn't quite know why myself
other than the fact that I felt like a washed-up actor
who had forgotten his lines and was stumbling
through a scene he used to play so well.

"I love you, man," he said over his shoulder.
He looked so different without his glasses.
It broke my heart slowly and beautifully.

"Me too," I said as I closed the door behind me
and snuck out to my truck
before I could be guilted into staying
by people I know I'll have plenty of time
to talk to in Hell.


In the Pinch

Every man has a bar, even the ones who don't drink. They have a place out there where they'd feel at home, even if they don't know it yet, or how to stare straight ahead over a double-whiskey among a tired row of men doing the same as if using the urinals at Grand Central Station. Harry Morgan was no saint in denial, though; he knew his place, or thought he did. Knew his friends just the same, same stipulation attached. After a double-shift at the tennis ball factory where he worked that double-whiskey sounded quite appealing. It wasn't hard to force the wheel in the direction of the Rusty Rail's parking lot. Those friends of his were already there; he knew their cars. As the front door of the bar squeaked open the four faces he expected to see turned ninety degrees to greet him. "Hey, Har," they half-heartedly grumbled in unison. It was a routine they'd stuck to since reaching the legal drinking age twenty-something years ago. Traditions don't change much in small towns like Buxton. Traditions don't change much, and word travels fast.

"Let me buy this round," Harry said as he bellied up to the bar. It used to be a longer trip, but his wife's cooking had improved exponentially and he was a firm believer in positive reinforcement. The drinks were doled out dutifully by Doris, the chain-smoking bartender, and various forms of forced gratitude were expressed. Harry had the smallest income, but always bought the most rounds for his friends. That's how that goes sometimes.

The conversation picked up where it had left off when the door opened. "That kid barely knew which way to run around the bases..." Dick Bagg started back up in his trademark superior tone. He was the most successful of the bunch and wouldn't let anyone forget it. "...but by the end of the season I had him knocking them out of the park." Dick was the long-time coach of the Buxton Bucks, the local junior high baseball team. His ability to lead young men to athletic victory had saved him from the typical factory and construction jobs that most men in the neighborhood struggled to maintain. All he had to do was take attendance for eight hours, pass out basketballs, blow a whistle once in awhile, and then drill some fifteen-year-olds in the finer art of America's favorite pastime until dark. The thought of him having summers off made most of his peers sick. His attitude convinced the rest to follow suit. Still, in a place like Buxton with that invisible glass dome, one tends to stay friends with the people one grew up with, regardless of their actual personality.

"Yeah, but don't count on getting that lucky again this year," said Sam Stickler, the local realist. Sam was to Dick what gravity was to their rapidly aging wives-- a constant reminder of the painfully sober truth. A man like Dick needed to be grounded and Sam was just the man to do it. "I saw that bunch of sissies you had running around the track. Ain't no all-stars in that line-up, man." Sam sipped his drink as if to seal some secret deal.

"Hey, now," spat Johnny Stevens, the Buxton's biggest drunk. "My kid's on that roster, Sam. You best watch what you say." Johnny's kid deserved to be on that team more than anyone if only to get him away from his alcoholic father for awhile.

"Mine, too!" exclaimed Frank Muller, slamming his palm down on the oak next to his crumpled pile of singles. It suddenly became obvious to Harry that his friends had been there awhile. He hated working the double-shift for that very reason.

A strange silence hung in the air, one that only Harry's two cents could break. No one looked in his direction, but he could feel their souls' eyes bearing down on him. He knew what they wanted to hear. He wasn't ready to give it to them yet. "Another drink please, Doris. Just for me this time, these boys seem to have had enough." The chorus of drunken laughter that came as request's response reminded him of how right his father had been about just one thing: kill them with kindness.

A few frustrated glances were shot back-and-forth amongst his friends as they settled back down. This was an important juncture in the dance, the next step would be important. Someone had to pick the bat back up and take a swing. Leave it to the coach to go for the rebound.

"Well your kid didn't even try out this year, Sammy-boy," sneered Dick. It wasn't Sam he was talking to. Even Doris knew that from her spot next to the register.

"No kidding. That's 'cause he's playin' for a traveling team this year. Didn't want him to be embarrassed off the field next to a bunch of snot-nosed brats led by the biggest fraud in Buxton." Sam sure knew how to get under a man's skin, four men at once even.

It was Harry's turn again. It was always Harry's turn, he just didn't want to take it. Instead of giving in he ordered another whiskey.

"Jesus, Harry. There a hole in your boot tonight?" asked Johnny. It seemed a bit hypocritical, considering its source. Johnny was known to be found sleeping on the lawns of various neighbors from time to time.

"I used to think you were dropped, Johnny. Now I think you were thrown."

"Maybe your daddy should've thrown you, Har. How is the old geezer anyway?"

"He died two years ago, Johnny. You would've gotten the invitation to the funeral if you were sober enough to walk to your mailbox." The sly smile on Harry's face told his friends that it was OK to laugh, but Doris knew better as she wiped a dirty pint glass with an even dirtier rag.

That was how the game was to be played for the sake of dodging another bullet. He wouldn't let them get the best of him so easily. He owed that to his son, Dave, who was fast asleep at home after a discouraging week. There were three things not to be toyed with: a man's vehicle, a man's livelihood, a man's family. Harry was known to care most about the third.

Dick, Sam, Johnny, and Frank carried on about several topics that were constantly discussed in bars across the globe. Somehow, though, it always went back to that stupid junior high baseball team coached by Mr. Dick Bagg. It was no coincidence, and it was cruel. Harry shot the whiskey back and pretended to have an itch on his earlobe; he was really trying to rip it off.

"Say, Mr. Morgan..." Dick taunted in his increasingly obnoxious voice. It was evident that he was about to go for the jugular out of full-count desperation. "You ever bring home any of those tennis balls you make so well?"

"I see plenty of them at the plant, Dick. No need to bring my work home with me."

"Well maybe you should. I mean then your kid could learn to throw a ball correctly."

There was that silence again, though this time everyone feared what Harry would say next. They feared it as much as they yearned to hear it. An image of Dave's face when he walked through the door and said that he didn't make the team was burned in the front of Harry's mind.

Again, good old Charlie Morgan's advice came into play, God rest his soul. Harry's eyes smiled brightly, half a glow on his sweaty brow.

"Friends are cheaper in bulk, Coach Bagg," Harry said, killing the last of his whiskey in a single gulp. "Just like those tennis balls I make all day."

This time only Doris laughed. Harry tipped her heavily and headed home.

"You're a real piece of work, Dick," Sam said under his breath.

"Last call!" proclaimed Doris as if the four men in front of her didn't know the routine.

Harry did. He always left before being asked to. That was rare for a Buxton boy.


Nothing that'd grab you by your insignificant throat.

"My iPod keeps playing sad Death Cab songs,"
she said loud and clear from the other side of town.
It was almost shaping up to be one of those nights for both of us
since Jesus isn't much of a conversationalist these days
and slapping him around a little doesn't liven him up
just further guarantees my seat in Hades.

The whiskey swirled around in my mug
reminding me that God created our need for sleep
to promise us that tomorrow is another day.
Most nights I'm the rain on hookers' hairspray.

But tonight was different.
Looking through the hundreds of digital pictures
from last weekend's testosterone-fueled Catskill retreat
revealed that I need to stop being such a hermit
since I have some noteworthy men in my life
who aren't dead authors.
I didn't stop to debate whether or not it counted
as drinking alone if I was surrounded by photographs of friends...
Or maybe I did since I've mentioned it now.

Still, it's lonely on top, or bottom
or wherever you and I think I am, not that it matters.

I'm sitting on a pillow; I've been at this desk for too long again.

I don't want someone to tell me that I haven't done wrong--
I want them to tell me that they understand why.

The ice cube bell curve rages on.


Stacey, as he hated to be called, taught computers to thirteen-year-olds as an excuse to run the ski team. One time he brought my friend to the principal's office and accused him of eating his ice cream bar like a penis. We suspected that was just his own little fantasy.

"Mr. Lazarus," I said with a sly smile, a pipe wrench in my greasy hand.

"Yes? Do I know you?" He appeared to be a bit alarmed. I'd grown a bit since then, physically and otherwise.

"You were my seventh-grade computer teacher at South Junior High."

"What's your name?"

"Mike Vahsen," I mumbled. "Andrew Maroney was in my class, and...."

"Don't remember you. I've had so many students over the years."

His beard and hair had grayed since then. He seemed to have shrunk as well, which didn't seem possible since he was already five-foot-nothing. And he still had that snobby air about him, right down to the strict rules he had posted on the door of the classrom he'd just walked out of.

"Were you a good student or a bad one?"

The question didn't seem appropriate so I fielded it diplomatically.

"I was really good at Oregon Trail..."

He laughed and walked away.

"...the rare times when you let us play it."

Not all of us have changed in these twelve years, Stace.



I didn't want to ask that Guinea bastard to move his van, but my twenty-foot lengths of steel pipe weren't going to make it into the building with the entrance blocked. I'd worked on jobs with these clowns before and knew that the whole "Asbestos Abatement" scam was just another mob cover up. Come on, the men in charge of this outfit brought pans of sausage and peppers for the guys once a week and played Sinatra all day long in their break room while using their cell phones to creatively berate the less fortunate in their thick Brooklynese. And that one kid, the son of one of the owners who was younger than me and always had a toothpick in the corner of that shit-eating grin that I'd give a week's pay to slap off his face-- he was on this job too, and still walked right by me like I was nobody just because I actually get my hands dirty for a living. I didn't want to have to ask whoever it was hunched over in the side of the van to move it, but again with those Goddamn pipes...

"No problem, man," said a friendly, middle-aged I-talian who was sneaking a smoke in the back of the company vehicle since it was prohibited on school property. "Where's good for you?"

I instantly felt like an asshole. Well, a bigger one.

"Anywhere you want. Just not in front of this door."

"Hey, weren't you on that job down the road? The courthouse renovation?"

"Yeah, that was me. Working for a better outfit now."

"My old man was a plumber. He tried to teach me, but I wasn't ready to learn a trade then."

"At least you still keep it in the family."

The mafia joke didn't go over so well. He flicked his butt into the lawn, suddenly unafraid of the repercussions.

"Whattaya mean by that?"

"Isn't that kid with the toothpick your son?"

Good save, Mike.

"Ha! That brat? That's the boss' kid. I can't stand that little prick. Thinks his shit don't stink."

"Yeah, at least you wear your gold horn necklace on the inside of your shirt."

I had to. I just had to.

"It reminds me where to stop shaving," he replied. He must've heard the joke before. "Let me move this hunk'a shit outta the way before both our foremen bust our balls for bullshittin' like normal human beings."

As he stepped away from the side door of the white service van I saw two aluminum baseball bats tucked into the frame of the door, poised and ready for action.

"You guys have a company softball team?"

He looked at me and smiled.

"Ya' never know what you're going to run into..."

"You must work in some nice neighborhoods."

"This Newburgh shithole's worse than most parts of the City."

"It's not so bad. Just be sure to look 'em in the eyes."

I knew he wouldn't need any clarification.

"As long as I take a few down with me," he said with a smile boasting of its sincerity via several missing teeth.

"And Jesus, you've got two bats there..."

"One for me, one for my partner."

We both heard the door open behind us, but didn't realize who it was until after he took the toothpick out of his mouth to speak.

"You keep runnin' your mouth instead of workin' and the only partner you'll have will be your old lady sittin' next to you on the couch."

"Sorry, boss," said my newfound friend. "Just gotta move the van for the fitters real quick."

"So do it already," said our mutual arch-nemesis.

We shot each other a look that said "You take one bat, I'll take the other. We'll do this little shithead in"; but we didn't. He walked around to the driver's seat, I went to fetch my Goddamn pipes. It was a moment we'd save for another time, another life, where we'd be the ones blasting Sinatra non-stop to the chagrin of frustrated mere mortals. Nah, that's not our style.


Confucius say: He who walks through airport door sideways is going to Bangkok.

It was a strange turn of events, one that seemed so fitting for this life that feels like a bad screenplay at times. Two days prior I had told the pipe insulator on the job that he looked like that soft-spoken, wispy-haired actor from "Kung Fu" and "Kill Bill". He informed me that I was not the first person to say that so I didn't feel too off-base. One fortunate enough to not be in the building trades cannot fully appreciate how tiresome it is to constantly be referred to as "buddy", "guy", "pal", "brother", or "kid" while working with those who don't know, or care to know, your name. That's probably why this David Carradine look-alike didn't mind me calling him "Grasshopper" when I wanted to get his attention; anything was better than one of those other cliches, even the name of a character played in a lame 70s TV show.

After two short days of using that light-hearted nickname I almost spat out my chocolate milk while reading the newspaper at the deli as my coworkers' breakfast sandwiches finished cooking. A picture of David Carradine appeared next to a headline announcing his death. The circumstances were just as odd as the roles the man played: he was found hanging bound and naked in the closet of a Bangkok hotel. Foul play was not mentioned and no one seemed to want to suggest whether it was intentional suicide, though the man's previous autoerotic asphyxiation hobby had some shameful light shed upon it. I took a picture of the article with my camera-phone to show the insulator.

He already knew what I was about to tell him when I approached his ladder. "Let me guess: it's about my death." The words sounded strange coming from his lips, must've felt even more bizarre to be the one saying them. "I saw it on the news last night and thought of you." That statement left an equally unsettling feeling in my stomach. After all, only I am allowed to bring the characters at work home with me...

"So I guess this means I can't call you Grasshopper anymore," I said, shoving my phone back into my pocket since the proof would not be needed.

"The name's Craig," he said with the same grateful smile that Lazarus must've had two thousand years ago.

"That's easy enough. Same as my stepdad. Hey, Craig, if ya' need to talk at any point, feel free..."

"Don't worry, Mike. I won't go hanging my naked ass in any closets."

The joke went over well and I shot him a half-grin to show it, but on the inside I felt guilty. He'd taken the time to learn my name long before I'd bothered to ask his. There are worse things in life than shampoo in your eyes or buttoning your shirt wrong.

If I had another nose I'd turn it.

While driving up Broadway last week to cash my check
I saw the guy who broke my nose
with a beer bottle four years ago.
He was going to the bank as well, or at least
he was parked in front of one.
My window was already down and I was only
doing twenty-five, but I decided to keep
my mouth shut and let him enjoy
his shiny new Mercedes. The last time I saw him
at the liquor store awhile back
he was pushing a rusty old tank of a Benz--
the boxy Eighties type that wanna-be Yuppies buy used
in order to tell attractive young ladies that they own
German luxury sedans. "Good for you, Anthony,"
I thought to myself as the six-disc stereo in my truck
cycled to the next musical selection.
We're both moving up in the world.


There was something in the water of Ketchum, Idaho.

I've been sending some of the cleaner ramblings to my mother. She usually responds within a day or two with some feedback, tells me she prints them out and keeps them in a folder. It's the least I can do to let her know her son's not totally given up on himself.

Something tells me that it's inspired her to read. Last week she e-mailed me with "an interesting tidbit on Papa [Hemingway]" that she'd recently read, as if she's always had her nose in a book like her progeny. The article said that he was once challenged to tell a story in only six words. He came back swingin' with "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Quite the statement indeed, Ernie, like a more concise version of those damn "Hills Like White Elephants" that another important woman in my life once made me read.

"How good was that?" my mother asked at the end of her informative e-mail.

So good that we both cringed a little on either side of our monitors, though for different reasons.

For a man crazy enough to write standing up at eight in the morning with a cocktail next to his typewriter, he sure knew how to lay down a line. Do they bottle that stuff?

...and the mayor will ride shotgun as we descend.

The eight of us had only been in that quiet mountain village for an hour and a half, but on that glorious Friday night no one would've denied the fact that we owned it. That's not to say that we raped and pillaged, painted it red, disrespected the locals, or failed to tip properly; our solidarity and comradery spoke louder than our obvious out-of-towner status. Who was really going to stop a bunch of happy-go-lucky drunks in baseball caps, bandanas, and sleeveless shirts who had clearly spent a lot of time drinking next to a campfire due to the thick smell of smoke emanating from their bodies from having a good time? Apparently no one, not even the bartender who was chastised by a bitter female coworker of his who felt that we should be cut off. "They're fine, just having a good time! I'll drive them home if I have to!" he shouted as she stormed out of the bar. It's safe to say we had the chips in our favor, if only for that night.

Time wore on exponentially fast as it tends to do as the alcohol filters through the brain. One friend danced for us in a charades-style game at our table imitating whatever ridiculous act we requested, another danced with a forty-five-year-old townie in search of some fresh young meat to make her feel wanted again, and I continued to dance with my demons behind a rum-inspired pirate's smile. Things were going better than I'd thought they would. Everyone was getting along, no one was a maudlin drunk, and the pay phone in the corner of the joint still worked which could come in handy in a pinch since cell service was thankfully non-existent. Buy-backs came every third drink and the bartender was doing shots with us. No one in our group could force a frown if they wanted to. The same went for a quiet, well-dressed old gentleman who had been staring at us from his seat at the bar, a wide mysterious smile glued to his deeply-creased cheeks. I'd notice his blatant observation of our little center-stage party early on, but had thought nothing of it. If anything I figured he was enjoying himself by watching us make drunken fools of ourselves with our raucous merriment. True to character I was wrong.

I found out the real source of his smile shortly before leaving. A few of us were smoking on the patio when he came out and approached me. Apparently I was the leader of the haggard bunch.

"I overheard you say you fellas were from Newburgh."

"That's right. You familiar with the place?"

"I did some business down that way a long time ago. You're not driving all the way back there tonight, right?"

"No, we're staying at my parents' house down the road. Thanks for the concern, though."

I inhaled deeply on my mentholated cigarette as his gin blossom nose glowed almost as brightly as the tip of my smoke.

"Good, good," he said with a sincerity that can only be found in a small town like the one we were in. "I used to be the mayor here," he added, though I'm still not sure why. He handed me a business card with his wife's name on it.

"It seems we have friends in high places," I replied. His gray eyes stayed fixed on me as if I hadn't said anything at all. His mind was somewhere else, there was something he'd been waiting to say. The eight of us would not be able to stop him from saying what we has thinking, even if we wanted to. I know that look.

"You boys are having fun. You remind me of friends I had in high school. I can name every one of you," he said as he pointed to each of us standing in the June air. "Thank you."

I don't recall if we shook hands or if he just turned and left. The conversation hadn't fizzled out like so many taproom discussions-- it had come to a head that meant we'd done something right, made an old-timer feel young again while writing some stories for our unborn grandkids. I reached into my pocket for that business card the old man had handed me, turned it over, and started jotting down what had happened and what he'd said. Normally my friends would've made fun of me, but they got it this time. Some things are undeniable, even for the most allegedly detached.

"That was pretty neat," said my biggest critic as another guy offered me some more paper to write on if need be.

A disinterested "Yeah" came from my mouth as my pen scratched words onto the back of the card. My mind was traveling forty years into the future with the hopes of being as blessed. I walked back inside to pay my tab and say goodnight to the bartender.

"That was the mayor, you know. He took a liking to you guys," said the man in the black button-down. He slid the bill across the oak quite deliberately while maintaining eye contact. I tallied the drinks and noticed several missing.

"Thank him for me the next time you see him," I said, though I knew it wasn't necessary. We'd both earned it that night.


12-bar Blues

If you're ever afflicted with a Southern sojourn
and need your daily dose of heartache
in a falsely friendly Dixie Hell
walk into any given pawn shop.
Take a look around at the failed passion
lining the walls like cheap wallpaper.
There's something very symbolic
about a man selling his guitars;
it's more than just needing money--
it's sacrificing your soul
to a world full of people who can't kiss
let alone dance.

You won't see any typers on the shelves.
This breed knows that
it doesn't get better before it gets worse

and someone's got to remember
what the rest want to forget.

Rum, nicotine, and other perks of working the night shift.

Foreman: Everything locked up?

Apprentice: Of course. See ya' in the AM.

Foreman: Enjoy your reading.

Apprentice: It'll be limited tonight.

Foreman: To what?

Apprentice: The label on my bottle of Sailor Jerry.

Foreman: You won't be worth a shit tomorrow.

Apprentice: Relax, I do my best work drunk.

Foreman: Don't you mean you do your best work in the dark?

Apprentice: No, drunk.

Foreman: Goddamn kids...

Apprentice: It's all fiction from here on out.

Foreman: So?

Apprentice: I'll give you the luxury of having the last word.

Foreman: Don't do me any favors.

Apprentice: Only for the ones I love.

Foreman: Now you've abused your license.

Apprentice: Confiscate my union card.

Foreman: I'll do ya' one better.

Apprentice: Couldn't be any worse.

Foreman: I thought you said you'd let me have the...

Apprentice: Then take it.

Foreman: Goddamn kids...


St. Elmo's Fire

Last night
Well, no
Early this morning
I dreamt
Or dreampt, phonetically
But probably just dreamed
That I was dragged
To a religious seminar
Hosted by those silly Scientologists.

It was impossible for me
To hold back the laughter
As one Mr. John Travolta himself
Gave an almost moving speech
On his cult
Complete with life-sized puppets
To demonstrate whatever the Hell
It is that those clowns
Believe in.

Tim was there, maybe my Dad
And an Eric or two.

For the little life of me I couldn't
Stop laughing at the coining and repetition
Of the term "alien Jesus" throughout the sermon
And commentary of my friends.

At some point I escaped to the basement
Of the compound to reload
Multiple magazines of the .22 caliber variety
Though I never got to empty them
On any deserving parties.

And just when I thought it was safe
Tim hit me with it again:
"Alien Jesus! Alien Jesus!"
It was hilarious to the point of tears;
I almost woke in those.
I woke in those.


I've had a few
And I apologize--

Like I told her last night:
If you're lonely
Talk to Jesus.
They say He's still listening

Rubbed raw and useless
And ready for another round...


On sleeping in the wet spot.

When I came down from the mountains
more like Cain than like Moses
the rabbit's water bottle rattled empty
though I'd filled it two days prior.

I knew then.
I just knew

like when the scrape on my wrist
was still only a scrape
from a fall on a hike
that we all couldn't take.

Funny-- I didn't tremble
talking about the two of them
to the Devil's advocate on the way home.
The cigarettes were purely recreational
that time.

We laid in bed like the LI Double-R
with half as much baggage.
Bit my lip to taste copper
since I hadn't worked in a few days
and that Indian I'd hunted for
continued to laugh from his
spot on the shelf
red and white and making me blue.

I'm begging him to give my god back now.


Note found in a hallway of North Junior High (verbatim, folded sixteen times).

To: Karisma
From: Jessica

I'm so sorry 4 calling u an emo bitch. I'm really sorry. Your [sic] one of my best friends, and I hat[e] 2 c u mad at me. It's your choise [sic] to stop being mad at me. I'll stop calling u an emo bitch. But if you were mad you should of [should've] told me that calling you a[n] emo bitch bothers you and I would have stopped. So it[']s all up to you if you don't want to talk to me anymore. But I am really, really, really sorry. I hope you forgive me.

SORRY!! [two tears streaming down from eyes formed by the dots of the exclamation points to a large frown underneath said punctuation]

[Ed. Note: I too weep, though more for the Future than for Jessica and Karisma.]


Tool sheds of various sorts.

There's a fine line between "burning" and "arson". I forget how it came up in conversation, but one doesn't pay much attention to that sort of thing at work. People think that rambling makes the day go by faster so they flood the air with words. Sometimes its entertaining, other times its obnoxious. Sneaky Pete the electrician was usually on point with his yarns. His barn-burner tale was no different.

But let me back up a bit and tell you about Sneaky Pete: he looks like Charlie Sheen gave up. I'd say "a shorter Charlie Sheen", but all actors are shorter in "real life" than they appear to be in films anyway; Pete was probably the right height. The lazily trimmed beard and slightly sagging jowls betray the sunglasses he wears. Besides, Charlie would rather be caught coked up with a hooker than caught dead in those ridiculous blue reflective wrap-around shades. It doesn't make him a bad guy, though. He's one of the breed that's always smiling, telling a joke, laughing at ones that are neither new nor funny. Sneaky Pete's been even happier ever since handing his wife those divorce papers he'd been talking about at work.

That grin can be deceiving sometimes, like when the topic of arson came up and he said it wasn't a laughing matter while smiling from ear to ear. "I did four months for that six years ago," Pete remarked casually in an ambiguous tone. It was hard to tell if he was kidding or not, but my loud-mouth partner chimed in before I could seek clarification.

"I did six months for the same," said my illustrious partner.

Pete and I looked at each other as if to show our lack of surprise, then he reclaimed his rightful place in the story-teller's position with a mildly excited "I burnt my own shed to the ground." It seemed unfair for a man to do time in county lock-up for burning something on his property down. Pete took the time to inform us where the Law stands on the issue: 1. One must remove any shingles from the roof of the structure. 2. One must dig a trench at least four inches wide around the structure. 3. One must notify and gain permission from the local fire department before incinerating the structure. We weren't about to question the man, it sounded like he had a long time to get it straightened out in his head for future reference.

My mind wandered to the typically nightmarish Hollywood prison scenes, and I hoped that Pete had his own cell and shower stall since he was so small. "Why'd you do it, aside from the alcohol?" I asked. He hadn't fessed up to being drunk at the time yet, but even plumbers aren't that stupid.

"I came home from the bar and my father-in-law was at my house. He stormed inside from my shed all full of piss and vinegar. Said something about me needing to clean up in there so he could work. I walked out back to see what he was complaining about and found all of my tools on the ground. It looked like he'd cleared them right off of the workbench with one swift swipe of his arm. I went to the garage, got a can of gasoline, doused the shed, and torched it. My wife videotaped me pouring the gas all over and lighting the match. Used it against me in court. Had to plead guilty to Arson in the Fourth Degree to avoid a possible conviction in the Third."

Suddenly I knew why he was so thrilled about those divorce papers finally being delivered. His kids were off to college, there was no sense in staying tethered to such an unfair family. I had been sad for the man's divorce and suspected a hidden pain before hearing the story, but not any more. He was free, or would be as soon as the lawyers hashed it out and took their cut. Something tells me that Pete would've paid any price.

"I robbed a house and burned it down when I was sixteen," my illustrious partner said with what sounded like pride. Sneaky Pete gave me a look resembling pity. You can choose your friends, you can choose your wife, but you can't choose your family or partner at work. People like Pete and I just make the best of it.


...as long as the weight that we gain is together.

There's a silverfish next to my keyboard
whose presence is turning my stomach
almost as much as those god-forsaken pre-fab
meatballs I washed down with too much milk tonight
and this other latest dilemma.
The nail of my right middle finger collides with the bug
making it airborne for all of two feet until
its exoskeleton meets with the thick layer of eggshell off-white
to make a metallic sound reminiscent of
my non-existent pill-popping days.

Then the rabbit's snout pokes out from underneath
the wooden baseboard cover, her whiskers covered in dust.
She twitches her nose in general disapproval
and all is well in the world again
for now
or as long as I can continue this tired two-step
convincingly enough...

Sometimes I am grateful for the several states between us.

Currently reading:
The life/limb/eyesight insurance policy that came with my NRA membership.