Watch Out Ireland

There in the tracks
like slugs slowly melting--
the June-rain sidewalk;
the pouring of salt--

reside my gentle misspellings
of your name
that beg no correction...

Mother, forgive us:
We've become straphangers.

Jack chased Jill
right up that hill
to fetch a better lawyer.
They've waived their rights
on the dotted line.
No docking fees.
It's over.

I know it's a verse
that I've fed you before
but it's not a mistake;
it's a promise:
Someone declared
Every Man for Himself
and we've all paid the price
ever since.

That one with the lisp
and the tick in his neck's
picking his teeth before batting cleanup.
He'll hunt down all of the witnesses
leaving the rhythm for fools.

It's not here, Bailey.
The reasons, the words.
Call off the search
for the night, for the month
and peel off the page of your calendar.


Christ Interrupted

With a prime location like that
it's no wonder that the church
just before the intersection of five different roads
near my union hall posts messages
on its black-on-white deli-style sign near the road;
my only gripe is that something tells me that
God would not be so obnoxiously sarcastic or
condescending, even with His righteousness and all.
"No one knows the pain of rejected love like Jesus,"
reads this week's addition to the list of little gems.
The funny part is that last week it was the same
except for one word: they changed 'unrequited'
to 'rejected'. My assessment of the maneuver
was that a vote at the meeting of church elders
may have decided that a five-dollar word like
'unrequited' was a bit too much to chew
for the target demographic. Dumb it down
for the down and out, Christian soldiers.
Turn the Holy Trinity into a few pan-handlers and
see if anyone notices. I suppose that means
I'm still on the right track, or at least not so deceived.

Three ducks-- two brown females and
one male with his trademark shiny green head--
foraged for worms in a lake of a puddle
formed in the church lawn by the spring's heavy rains.
They didn't know that it wouldn't last much longer
or if they did, they didn't care. God to them was how
He should be: a giver of life, not a dependent neighbor.

We've taken a good script and written out the hero.
It's not who they'd have you believe.

A Good Sport

I could tell by the way that he spoke
that it was family. There's a certain type
of spite reserved solely for ones blood.
A question came and stumped him
shortly into their conversation.

"I'm at...uhhh...uhhhhh...Casey's,"
he explained into his cell phone
as if I weren't there.

To help perpetuate the illusion
I sank further into the crack between
the cushions of my couch
hiding inside the glass of orange juice
that I'd been nursing in a vain attempt
to shake the Sunday morning hangover.

"I'll be home in fifteen minutes," he barked.
A nasal voice squeaked some obscenity
just before he hung up and pocketed his phone.

The three of us stared at the television screen.
My hand reached down to unpause the video game
that'd been interrupted by the unfortunate ring.
We finished the game we were playing.
Both of them.

"Well that was sure obvious," the third party said
after our friend had headed to his house.

"I guess my name's been scratched from the record."

It wasn't the first time.
I hoped it was the last.
I was tired of feeling bad for being.

Nonexistence is a fair price to pay
for keeping that friendship, though.
He'd played his tough role masterfully;
I couldn't deny him that.

And when the time comes he'll know.
He'll know.
Hell knows.

Make it a double.

The second egg rolled across my kitchen table
in a curved path dictated by its asymmetrical shape
finally stopping in a groove between two tiles.
I picked it up and returned it to the blue cardboard carton.
Half the cholesterol if I only have one, I thought to myself.
Besides, the bagel I'll put it on will be filling.

I held the remaining egg in my left hand and cracked
it over a bowl with a fork held in my right-- I've never
even tried to master the edge-of-the-bowl technique
for fear of messy failures during the learning process.
Carefully, I dumped the contents into the ceramic receptacle
below it and shook my head at the ironic affair:
there, like a yellow reminder in futility, floated a nice double yolk--
the first one encountered in years, dozens and dozens of eggs.

I scrambled it vigorously, forgetting the milk.
My left eyelid spasmed for three seconds
as it had been doing incessantly since I woke up.
Some mornings of this seven-month sabbatical
I wonder why I bother trying to control anything more
than my immediate appendages. We've all got to go sometime
clogged arteries or not. Use the second egg next time.

Currently reading:
"The Road" by Cormac McCarthy.


Coping with Groping and Living Apart

If there was one thing Milton Lemlach looked forward to on Sunday nights it was his wife's walk back from work. Marie's twelve-hour nursing shift ended at eight thirty, paperwork permitting, and she'd be back in the apartment that she subletted by nine to shower and get into bed for barely enough time to be rested for Monday's third and final shift of the week. The train ride back Upstate to their newly-purchased home was often hard for her, her heart still belonging to New York and its promising lights, but Milton was always there waiting at the station to help her with her bags and open the car door for her. It was a consolation prize that she'd learned to live with for the greater good of their relationship. Her sacrifice didn't go unnoticed.

Why did he enjoy Sunday nights in particular? Most people were on their living room couches or prolonging the surrender to sleep at that time so the Transit Authority saw fit to pare down its bus fleet in order to cut costs; therefore, when Marie called him during her brisk walk back to her rented room he'd be able to hear her more clearly without being subjected to the violent whoosh of passing buses, the accordion-like extended monsters being the most aurally invasive. "Dammit!" he'd yell when it happened, pulling the phone away from his half-deafened ear. "Why can't the rest of the City walk like you do, Marie?" She wouldn't answer. She knew when not to bother. When the streets and avenues were bustling with Saturday night revelers or Monday night commuters getting home late from work she wouldn't make the call to Milton until she was in the quiet safety of four walls. Otherwise, his frustration could be too easily confused with misdirected anger. It made more sense to avoid that sort of thing whenever feasible.

But this was no Sunday night. It was a Saturday, and an unseasonably warm one at that. The hooters and hollerers had joined the buses and taxicabs in the rambunctious pavement symphony with the coming of warm weather. When Marie reached the tranquility of her room she dialed Milton to say goodnight.

"Hey, Moose," she rasped into the mouthpiece of her phone.

"Hey," Milton responded, fighting back a smile wasted on the darkness of their bedroom. Moose was a nickname his junior high friends had given him long ago because of his disproportionately large ears. When his mother had slipped after having too much wine and told that story to Marie it quickly became her new term of endearment for him. She was the only one who was still allowed to call him that without his temperature rising. In fact, he secretly liked it.

"Good walk today. Needed to stretch my legs after such a slow shift."

Weekends tended to be boring at the hospital where she worked. Doctors were off in the Hamptons cheating on their spouses; patients were sleeping through visits from family members to evade any awkward conversations; the literary half of the hospital staff caught up on its reading and crossword puzzles. It wasn't entirely a bad thing, but the lack of things to do made the day drag on endlessly and the muscles tighten from disuse. There was only so much that even the most attentive of nurses could do to keep busy, and Marie was not one for sitting still.

"Anything exciting happen today?" Milton asked out of habit. He knew that someone was probably admitted. He knew that someone else was probably discharged. He knew, and sometimes wished he didn't, that yet another patient had died. Somehow, even though they were faceless for him, the deaths seemed to hit him harder; at least that's how it appeared. It took a special kind of person to deal with that final aspect of life on a daily basis, a gift of lightheartedness and a sense of humor resilient enough to cope with the passage of a soul into the sky and a body into the ground. Milton knew he didn't have either of those traits and respected his wife for her much-needed ability. At first their many differences seemed to be an obstacle, but once their attributes and downfalls had been identified they were able to appreciate how well they complemented one another. It pleased him to know that others were benefiting from their time apart. He liked the idea of sharing such a special woman with a small sector of the sickly world fortunate enough to know her.

"No one died," she said in that sultry voice that made him want to kiss the neck that produced it. Mind-reading was another one of her many talents, though it was one that Milton sometimes despised.

"That's good," he said, passing casually over the topic. "How was your walk home?"

He usually tended to hesitate before saying that last word. To him her home was where he was, sixty miles up the lazy Hudson in a foreclosure that they'd bought for half its value and were in the midst of renovating. Home was the three-bedroom ranch with the mailbox out front onto which Marie had painted "The Lemlachs" on a sunny afternoon, even though she didn't take his name when they'd married. (That'd always confused him, especially since she was so much closer to her mother's side of the family and didn't bear their name anyway.) Home was with him, wherever it was; but for the sake of conversation he used the term loosely. Besides, she'd probably make fun of him if he made such an obvious effort to avoid using the phrase.

"I was accosted by a man a block away from home," Marie said nonchalantly, free from any pauses at all. The proverbial bush was never beaten around when it came time for her to answer a seemingly simple question.

"What do you mean? Are you alright?" Immediately after his concerned response a very small portion of Milton's brain stopped to analyze the sequence of the two questions. Should one have come before the other?

"Yes, yes. Fine. Some drunk guy on the sidewalk put his arm around me and told me I was beautiful. He tried to kiss my cheek, but I pulled away in time." The words left her mouth like a recipe for chocolate chip cookies. Perhaps it was the flat delivery, not just the content, that made Milton's ears pound with the pumping of his blood.

"You've got to get out of that neighborhood," he said frantically. "It's not safe."

"Oh please," she laughed. "The same thing could happen while walking the strip of bars downtown up there." The tone with which the last word was delivered suggested that it was hated. In her attempt to write off his worry her ruse of having no remorse for leaving her beloved city had temporarily failed. It didn't matter. Milton still admired her act, lapse in persuasion excused.

"It could, yes. But then again, a meteor could also fall on our house tomorrow. Could and would are two very different words. Too many things could happen here and would happen there. I'm just worried about you being down there alone for three days at a time. What if..." but he didn't bother finishing a sentence that he swore he'd heard his mother say before.

"Look, Milton," she said, clearly done with the loving overtones of Moose for the moment. "You knew it'd be this way. We talked about it before buying the house. If you can't deal with my..." but in a rare display of censorship she too prevented herself from sounding like someone she didn't want to emulate.

"You're right. I'm being silly. I'm sorry. Really. I just care about you so much and don't ever want any harm to come to you while I'm not there to protect you."

"Oh, Moose," Marie cooed into his quieting ear canal. "I love you so much, even though you can't admit you weren't put on this earth to protect me from it."

Milton smiled in the dark again. At least she acknowledged his stubborn crusade.

And the last bit of their short conversation went better than any one that either of the couples that'd spawned them ever had; but some things, even for a writer, are private.


The Devil's in the Details.

It came as no surprise when I spotted it
for the first time looming over the entrance
to the Lincoln Tunnel like a futuristic hawk's nest
encased in white steel and tinted windows.
I'd seen man-lifts before on construction sites
but never with a fully concealed control tower topped
with cameras and spotlights and blinking yellow bulbs.
The letters "NYPD" informed the public of its
benign intentions, but I knew better than to believe
the ruse. A portable vantage point from which to spy
on the locals was all too Big Brother for my liking.
"They're probably looking in here right now through
their binoculars," I said from the second-storey bedroom.
"I'll close the blinds, you're still undressed."
No one in the neighborhood will feel any safer
due to its presence. If the shade of the windows
wasn't so impenetrably black maybe it wouldn't
be as imposing. "The sun's rays require it. It's like
an oven in here," the officer in question would say as he tried
to cover the air-conditioning controls with his clipboard.
We taxpayers aren't as gullible as the polls would suggest.

Later on during a stroll through the Bronx I watched
people gathered in a chain-link cage with a wall
down its center, the most appropriately sized venue
for sporting activities that a city that crowded can fit.
Old men with gloves crouched low to reach stray blue balls
and smack them back at the wall, their opponents waiting
for the rebound. They cursed their arthritic knees and misspent youth
as future generations of handball contenders practiced on the court
opposite them not knowing that the world they were inheriting
was a far less trusting place with masses of men in blue
protecting them from themselves and the mistakes they might make.
Maybe the ones who don't want kids are right.


Victoria's Lie

For the first time in months
my laundry appeared to be void
of any female trimmings
as I transferred the load
from washer to dryer.
A Sign, I solemnly considered;
my clothes-processing appliances
had been transformed into
the mage's crystal ball
in an all-too-me skewed perception of reality.
We were doomed.

But then, like the trumpet blast
of the cavalry just over the hills
our fate was mercifully rescued:
some twisted light blue panties
exposed themselves in the pile of soaked
clothing to be dried.
Hers. My favorite ones, no less.
We were saved by a pair of underwear.

I slammed the door and hit the button
content that another near catastrophe had been foiled
by a childish superstition with too accurate
a batting average to be wholly denied.

Lagomorph Blanking

An old friend in the Service called me up--
said she's trading her anti-social cat in
for a rabbit, wanted some advice, knew who to call.
I commended her decision to ditch the finicky feline
while down-playing the fact that my rabbit
wants nothing to do with me most times.

"She's very independent," I told her through two states.
"It's on her terms." It always is, really.

She proceeded to inform me that in Tokyo
or some other Japanese city that we didn't blow up
they now all have rabbits for pets and let them have free range
of their homes like I have here for years, half-way around the globe.

"An innovator," my mind proclaimed to itself
well aware that I've never had one original idea
in twenty-six years. By the time my friend hung up
I'd built myself up to genius status
right there alongside the Greats.

She wouldn't call again for years
and that was fine, just fine.
Men of my caliber have schedules to keep.


Somewhere on a sun-drenched island in the Pacific
a roomful of yawning Asians work their hands like mad
to produce a plastic contraption invented here in the States
and perfected, productionwise, overseas. The shareholders in that
factory feel the same false pride in their actions as I do in mine
and the Yin and the Yang remain balanced enough for the world
to keep on spinning towards the bowling pins.

I look through my side window and see
the neighbor's outdoor cat run to hide under the shed
as a galoot in green and white with a cigarette dangling downward
wanders about the yard in search of something unbeknownst.
It makes me wonder if maybe I'm more
of a cat person than I'll ever admit.

Rising to rip the sour sheets off the mattress
I confess that cleanliness and brilliance can never go hand-in-hand.
It's failures like this one that keep me trying, though.


Lack Toes In Taller Ants.

I snuck downstairs for one last crack
at that compromised half-gallon of 1% milk
that I bought last week and forgot about.
In a rare consumer slip I'd failed to check
the expiration date when selecting it;
I usually sift through the containers
until I find the one with the latest date
but she was on her way to my house
and I was running late and it was bad enough
that we'd argue over whether or not the "sell-by" date
is in fact a scientifically established shelf-life or
a mere estimated suggestion to be flippantly ignored.
That plastic jug hid behind the spiced tomato juice
which had commandeered the short-lived role that the
infamous Bloody Mary managed to play in my life
until this evening when I shuffled some
fridge-dwellers aside in search of something
that I had yet to identify. The date printed
in faint blue ink jumped out at me like a cackling
maniac, pointing and sneering and winning the war.
Today was the day. I couldn't let it go to waste.
I went to the cupboard for chocolate chip cookies
and began nibbling at them ravenously
washing every bite down with a man-sized swig of milk.
A paranoid sector in the sensory perception department
of my central nervous system detected a slightly foul taste
since it was just past midnight and therefore
one day overdue already, but I rejected the notion
that minutes mattered when it came to things such as rot.
Before I knew it most of the half-gallon was gone
swishing around in my gurgling belly. Back in high school
one of the more sadistic fast-food managers bet two of the
slower kids who worked in the kitchen that they couldn't drink
an entire half-gallon of milk in ten minutes without throwing up
shortly afterwards. I, being trusted with the critical task of
timely customer service via drive-thru, was too clever to fall
for such an obvious trick. Here I am, however, ten years later
doing it to myself by my own volition-- but I swear I'm not
my worst enemy. It's them pesky cows, Your Honor.


"Matches for toys!" beg the girls and the boys.

Forty lashes, forty nights
forty degrees outside
pouring through my bedroom window

and I can feel it now
like the pinpointed pressure
between the front part of my skull
and the spongy pink mass
of miswired electrical paths.
I know that this rod is the finger of God--
"Do it," I mock the Father
but I know that He won't
the coward that He is
as Creation, abandoned, shows us.
"They'd all be better off," comes the lie.
It's not so selfless, never is.
We were built in His flawed image.

The pressure builds to a definite climax
an undeniable presence in my senses
and subsides like a broken tide, a broken time.
My eyes open sideways on my shameful pillowcase
seeing nothing in the blackness of my room
and close again-- seeing nothing, knowing nothing
missing nothing.

They come and go, these threats and foreshadowings
of the Maker, of the Grand Puppeteer.
I fear none of them more than a moth
though when it finally burns me
I'm sure I'll scream like the rest, like the wretch.

You're promised nothing by your unfair birth--
not even a good death.


Route 300 was a parking lot
last Saturday afternoon.
The traffic light was taunting me
turning every color but mine
when what I knew would happen
did: the old man standing in the shoulder
clapping his hands in the breeze said Hello.
"Sir, I like your tattoo," he lied unconvincingly through
my passenger window that I'd foolishly left open.
I responded with "Thanks" not knowing
which one he meant and doubting that he could
even distinguish between any of the work
on my left arm which was fixed to the steering wheel.
His green sweater was one size too small
for his bowling pin torso and the dark khaki pants
that strangled his calves
puffed out at the sides of his thighs
like a Fascist field marshal
of the last century's center.
Gaps were more common to his forced smile than teeth
and his pink balding head was crowned with
a cap that looked like the ones cab drivers
and newsboys yelling "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!"
used to wear in the movies.
Everything about him screamed "Escapee!"
though from where I couldn't determine.
It would've been fair to assume that the sign
he stood next to was how his presence
on the side of the road was justified--
a human attention-getter for a one-day sale
or the like-- but I didn't stick around for long enough
to find out. The traffic light finally turned my color
and my foot responded accordingly. I allegedly left him
in my rear-view, though maybe this is proof that I didn't.
Maybe this is proof that I never do entirely.
Haunted or not it's still safe to say
that a rematch is not in the works.


Make it last.

Here it is
a month and five days later
and she still has Valentine's chocolates
left over-- her favorites, of course
since she's saved the best for last again.
I look through the three half-eaten survivors
of the labeled assortment
considering her technique--
she takes small bites, savors a little at a time
as opposed to my pop-'em-right-in method.
In another two hours she'll be here
greasy, hungry, and tired from the ride
and in the same way that the candy tells me
I'll know the Magic Eight-Ball was correct.
It's just a matter of not killing each other first.


Pulmonary Relapse

I finger the pink gouge
on the bridge of my nose
where the beer bottle broke bone
five years ago this month
and remember what the doctor told
an inebriated version of myself
prior to sewing me up:

"Nothing is ever as strong again
after it's been broken."

My limited knowledge of anatomy
is subpoenaed from my baffled memory
and I agree across the board
with that faceless man with the needle.

The sound of water spinning
down the sink drain
sucks me back out of the mirror
and I finish shaving the neck line of my beard.

Sleep won't come easily tonight.
The world's too sad a place.
You don't need a string tied to your finger
to keep that one in mind.


A soaking non sequitur.

Your friend was walking west
cross-town through the Village
with everything still wet
on a hallowed Sunday morning
as the birds tried to make the best
of soggy, swollen bread.

He felt his calf dampen
from the water that'd crawled
up his denim pantlegs
through capillary action
and decided to step higher--
you can never tell
what vile bodily fluids
are reconstituted by the rain
to float in city puddles
alive and well and malevolent.
The fumblings of Saturday night's
overserved bar patrons
become the trappings of
Sunday morning pedestrians
in another one of life's little pleasantries.
The man you claim to know trudged onward.

Food delivery boys of various ethnicities
earn their tips in the rain. Their bicycle helmets
are fitted with clear plastic faceshields, their brakes
screech obnoxiously if they work at all. A Mexican
rode by in his helmet and cheap poncho, his bike chain
padlocked around his waist for temporary storage
and tried to avoid the splintered skeletons
of discarded umbrellas trampled by the legion of taxis.
Wind destroys commuters' umbrellas, automobiles turn
the remnants into landmines for bicyclists. The cycle
continues everywhere, even in the Promised Land.

Smoke poured from manholes and seeped
through the asphalt where sizzling electric lines
had been damaged by the flood. Utility workers
in white and blue trucks worked overtime to combat
the smoldering rubber
more concerned with their pension plans
than the task at hand.
Coffee break came and the smoke billowed ominously
in the company of a nonchalant crew.

A mud-caked ragdoll laid in a puddle:
a sock with a ribbon for a scarf, buttons for eyes
and no one left to care--
another failed attempt
to reach out to fellow man.
The scattered evidence of a bum fight
in the form of tattered clothing
and useless trinkets spewing from a patched suitcase
further proved the point that the genius is right
and we're all doomed.

But never had our subject had so much hungover fun
as the time he watched a car with those sickly yellow plates
try to parallel park on a narrow one-way street
in Manhattan's West Village. The third time was the charm
for the Jersey boy, I mean. I hate to admit that he won.



A hospital waiting room is a funny thing.
In my case when I'm in one
it's usually to wait for a certain nurse
to take a break or finish her shift.
For most of the others there
the faux leather chairs aren't so comfortable
because someone they love
is sick or dying. You can see the heaviness
in their faces like an eight-hour drunk.
It's for this reason that I try to stay focused
on my book and avoid eye contact at all costs
though sometimes I can't resist watching and listening.

The last time I lost concentration on the book I'd brought
to pass the time I looked up and noticed a Jewish family
standing in front of the elevator. The father dressed casually
in a baseball cap with a three-day beard growing, the strawberry
blonde mother in a long, puffy coat. I wouldn't have guessed their
religion had it not been for their pre-teen son who seemed
out of place in his yarmulke, his temples sprouting truncated
versions of what would grow to be the telltale curls. His sweatpants
had thick stripes down each side, his bubble jacket looked like
it belonged back in the mid-Nineties, and the portable video game
he was playing commanded his complete attention-- so much so
in fact, that when the elevator doors opened his mother had to
remind him to follow them into it. The tone in the parents' voices
suggested that someone was dying; dad's hair was becoming more
salt than pepper in anticipation, mom's eyes sank deeper into her
sockets, and the boy, whether he knew it or not, was submersing
himself in the game so effectively that Death couldn't phase him.
When the steel doors closed behind the trio I slouched further into my
seat wondering if any of them acknowledged that their little messiah
was dressed and groomed to make up for the sins of their slacking.
Perhaps it was a charade to please the dying elder upstairs.
I wasn't sure and wouldn't waste any more time thinking about it.

In the restroom minutes later I observed that my fly
was already down and wondered how long it'd been that way--
how many bustling New Yorkers on the streets of Manhattan
had silently witnessed my blunder. That kid, had I been closer
was the only one who would've been honest enough to tell me.
Quite the fool, quite the judge, quite the corrected hypothesis.

Currently reading:
"Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury


Tyne of Cortland

I briefly knew a girl years back
whose taste I never learned.
We'd met through a friend
who went to the same school
as her in western New York
tucked beneath the Finger Lakes
one of which I've swam in, I believe.
A few forgettable phone conversations
one brazen Friday night
was all it took to lure me to
the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pink-cheeked
beauty whose impressive literary knowledge
was only surpassed by her canned beer consumption.
The boxes had been extra heavy at the warehouse that day
and I was in search of a blessing, only finding a disguise.
When I got there three hours later
after deciphering her barrage of drunken messages
my ravenous Zelda had already found her Scottie Fitz
for the night. I settled for a twelve pack that cost more
than the thirties that the undergrads around me
were pounding and found solace in that friend of mine--
the person, not the suds.

I can't remember what she looks like now-- at least
not well enough to picture her in my head
but I do recall that she was named after
a river in England that is probably just as cloudy
as my vision was back then. There are some failures
for which we should be grateful. As for me and mine
we shall.

Currently reading:
"The Voice Imitator" by Thomas Bernhard


Burying his brush strokes, covering his tracks.

In retrospect we should've seen it coming, but who anticipates plague or senile dementia? The once-great cook botched the proportions in some recipes and confused sugar with salt in others. Going to church became more of a chore than it was worth for an eighty-five-year-old woman so my grandmother's friends took turns visiting her to read from her Spanish Bible. She was just as excited to have other visitors whenever they arrived, often unreasonably so, but sometimes required prompting when it came time to greet them by name. The garlic-scented apartment where she'd lived alone for thirty years was more of a living tomb combined with an experiment under glass than a home. But what really should have tipped us off was that abomination she was creating on her living room wall.

It started off as a six-by-four oil painting that hung opposite the couch. The main subject was a small country house sheltered by the proud old limbs of a deciduous tree. A delapidated fence served as the boundary between the tall yellow grass in the yard and the tall yellow grass in the field. Shades of gray and teal made up the oblong pond next to the front porch. No smoke came from the chimney, and from the looks of things no one had occupied the property for quite awhile. The artist's signature adorned his tacky abortion in a vivid red more fitting for a portrait of a vampire than a lack-lustre pastoral scene. I'm not sure where, how, or why my grandmother acquired the piece, but I know that her taste in art and her ability to concoct tasty food were on opposite ends of the spectrum. Then again, maybe that's why she decided to modify the artist's work.

It started with just one or two, but quickly grew to six. By the time we visited the following week she'd already doubled her additions to the canvas. Drawings and photos of birds from whatever magazines and books she could get her hands on began appearing left and right on the painting. She even glued some fish from one of my books to the pond. Nothing was the right size. Birds as big as the cabin cluttered the tree's leaves and a cartoon squirrel from a children's magazine sat smiling on the fence. The fields were teeming with bright and surreal life. When she ran out of creatures to add from her collection of publications she started drawing her own with my ancient crayons and pasted the pages to the places she saw fit on the painting. Somewhere in a shallow grave the original artist was rolling over. His vision, dull as it was, had been corrupted by a woman who'd never driven a car, tasted alcohol, worn pants, or formed a complete sentence in English. My grandmother single-handedly shamed a person she'd never met beyond all salvation. It humored us at the time, but time is known to change.

We should've read the signs and recognized that what was really on the wall was that proverbial writing. Instead we chose to laugh. And now, six years after my grandmother had to move in with my mom, I'm left to wonder two things: what ever happened to that huge collage she gave birth to in the glorious glare of her mental decline, and does she even remember the joy it brought her?


Lion of Judah

From my blue plastic bus seat
lined with fake velvet
I watched a man on the sidewalk
fighting his fate.
A thick brown beard not unlike my own
hugged his face. A worn-in baseball cap
shielded his heavy eyes from the March sun.
The olive cargo pants he wore had pockets
undoubtedly filled with electronic devices
and his sneakers were the same type for running
that are rarely used for their intended purpose.
But what struck me most about this man
in his early thirties walking through the West Thirties
was the prayer shawl he wore under his orange plaid button-down.
I knew it was there because of the long white strands
protruding from the sanctuary of his shirt-tails
as most other people native to New York would recognize
but something in his make-up made him want to blend in better
with the other lost souls of his jaded generation.
I watched him wait at the corner for the traffic light to change
for those few seconds and as my bus glided away
I amended my assessment: he wasn't fighting his fate--
he was making it.


Candles is back in town. Wants to know if you'll blow him.

The first card received in the mail was a dud.
There was no return address on the envelope
let alone a check
and the eight to twelve names
suggesting various ethnicities threw me off.
I flipped it over and noticed the logo
of my insurance agency on the back.
Great-- the people whom I pay monthly in case
I'm robbed, my truck crashes, or I die
are checking in to wish me a happy birthday
or maybe just to see if I'm still ticking.
Those payments come from somewhere.
That's all that matters to them.

My uncle Ray was the first person I actually know
to call and send his best, though his victory
wasn't flawless: he was a day early. The heartfelt
out-of-tune song that shall here remain nameless
for fear of a lawsuit from the estate of Michael Jackson
(that's right, he bought the copyright) was enough
to make up for his error. Besides, it's not his biggest blunder.
He did fifteen years for a heinous crime forty years ago.
I didn't know about it until he let the cat out of the bag
during one of our many fishing excursions when I was a kid.
It didn't change anything in terms of how I saw him.
He liked that. So did I. We dumped the extra worms
and got back in his beat-up silver sedan.
I'd like to say I'd care just as little today, but I might be lying.
I'm not sure how affectedly I measure men anymore.

And then there was the liquor store fiasco.
The middle-aged woman who carded me at the check-out
congratulated my twenty-sixth year of survival
noting that it was the same date as her brother's.
I reminded her to call him after work.
She said that'd be difficult since he'd
been dead for four years. "Well, celebrate anyway,"
I replied, shaking my head at myself
as I ran for the solitary safety of the parking lot.
"See," I mumbled to the upturned collar of my jacket.
"Keep it to yourself next time."



Gwen Reinstahl sat at her four-by-two desk at the front of her classroom. Referring to the desk and other objects around her, even the room itself, as "hers" felt like a crime. Technically they belonged to the generous taxpayers of the City of Ramden, but her students were still too young to challenge her temporary ownership. The "My dad pays your salary!" routine had never been a problem, thankfully. Despite the fact that she was only ten years older than most of the adolescents on the other side of her desk they gave her the respect that the degree on her bedroom wall commanded. Spanish, like most language courses at the high school level, was an elective; students chose to be in that particular course of study at that point in the educational game. What Miss Reinstahl said was the law of the land. Her land. I speak from long-gone experience when I assure you of the existence of such a place.

Gwen looked down at the wooden name placard that sat somewhat uncomfortably at the far corner of her desk. Her father had made it in the garage as a gift to celebrate her first teaching job since graduating from college. Unwanted wooden gifts had become the norm for holidays and special occasions ever since he'd given up drinking a few years prior. Most recipients faked smiles upon receiving the poorly lacquered handcarved abortions and hid them in the remotest of closets, but not Gwen. Her father had funded the secondary schooling that got her where she was; she'd do him the justice of accepting his token of pride humbly, though if it were ever to fall off her desk and into the tin wastepaper basket she'd cordially fail to notice. Besides, her students were not to refer to her as "Miss" anything. To them she was "Senorita Reinstahl", and one day her identity would transform once again to "Senora Luckman"; when that day comes Mr. Reinstahl won't be feigning any craftsmanship. He'll probably go back to the bottle, and rightfully so. He won't be the first man she's driven there.

The first rays of the day penetrated the dusty window at the eastern side of her classroom. Gwen was fortunate in that she'd been assigned a corner room that had windows on two walls. Other members of the Ramden High faculty, primarily and not surprisingly female, complained about such a gross misallocation of prime real estate while sipping stale coffee in the safety of the lounge. Issues of tenure, seniority and general worthiness were tossed out as reasons, but it was quite clear what the true point of contention was: the withered female staff resented Gwen Reinstahl's natural beauty, one so becoming and pleasant that it never could have graced their features even in their misspent youth. People like them had always been too ugly and bitter on the inside to be anything but on the outside. It was a flaw so commonly overlooked every morning in millions of bathroom mirrors across the globe. Gwen always did her make-up in the rear-view mirror on her way to wherever she was going, if at all. She didn't need it, didn't care. That innocent nonchalance was what ate up the insides of her jealous female critics most and made men love her the hardest, made their hearts burn the hottest. It had gotten her this far in life; it'd get her the rest of the way, too. Bear with my insistence for the sake of my delusions.

Senorita Reinstahl scanned the worksheet she'd typed and printed the previous night for places where accents, tildes, and backwards and upside-down question marks were needed. The word processing program she used didn't have a simple way of inserting such specialized characters so she had to resort to the tedious method of printing one copy, inserting the marks herself, and then photocopying the altered version to distribute to her students. It seemed like a futile undertaking for the sake of some curves, dots and dashes, but then how many German Americans have fallen in love with the Spanish language and dedicated their lives to spreading its proper usage? To Gwen it was a small effort she made in an earnest effort to be as accurate as possible in her presentation of the foreign tongue that had changed her life while studying abroad in South America. To her students it was another ridiculous act of an overzealous teacher. To those old bats in the coffee room whose therapy-trained husbands had made sure to buy the right computer program that included a Spanish punctuation feature it was a rookie's way of compensating for a total lack of professionalism. And to me it is a way of knowing she's still out there, hasn't changed.

I have. Still am. Will forever.

Currently reading:
"West With the Night" by Beryl Markham.