Ignore the Devil's understudy
scowling from the corner.
The clouds over his head
are the same ones over yours.

But beware of the man with only one gun;
he probably knows how to use it.

What's with that yelp we hear through the walls?
It's safe to say she's not singing opera.

And what are the lines? What are the lines?
Where is the script and the poor slob who wrote it?

The nurse shook her head at the sight of my veins
as I sang to myself, "What a wonderful world..."


Reckoning With Myself Ten Years Ago

It happened without profanity or breath wasted on goodbyes; It happened shortly after lunch yesterday, and we laughed about it uncomfortably: A disgruntled plumber walked off the job. He told the foreman to get his check, that he couldn't take the lack of tools and constant criticism brought about by the impossible deadline demands anymore. True, this elementary school bathroom renovation gig will only last a month and is not a high-profile resume gem, but considering our local's had more than half its guys on the bench for over a year you'd think any man would be grateful. We all have our breaking points, though; our own tolerance levels. And it's hard not to respect a man who can turn down such an overpriced package. Money isn't everything to some people, even gray-templed functioning alcoholics with child support payments and ex-wives with frivolous spending habits. There is honor among thieves, there is dignity in tradesmen. More importantly, however, there's an unemployment check waiting in the mailbox. But it doesn't have to be that way for all my fellow man.

"I don't want this for my son," my foreman confessed as we walked down the art-lined hallway of the school in which we're working. The irony of these school jobs never escapes me. I wanted to work in one, but not in a blue-collar capacity. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose. "He's bright. I'm hoping he gets into something interesting and fun, something rewarding."

"Come on, now. You don't get satisfaction out of all this?" I quipped. "We're living the dream, brother." The laugh I held back was closer to tears as I rubbed a painful three-inch-wide burn on my shoulder that I'd gotten the previous day while humping ten-foot lengths of cast iron pipe inside after it'd been baking in the sweltering sun.

"He's sixteen and still has a chance," he said soberly, noticing my grimace as I fingered my wound.

"What's he thinking about doing?" I asked.

"All those forensic science crime shows hold his attention."

"Yeah? I took a class on that in high school. It was interesting. I have a good book by a retired Chief Medical Examiner of New York City that he'd probably enjoy. I'll bring it in tomorrow."

"Thanks," the giant Irishman walking alongside me said sincerely. "I bet he'll blow right throw that."

The rest of the day went as usual: the pipe, the plans, sore knees, and sweat-soaked misery. A coworker asked if I wanted to do a side-job with him that night. That turned to two side-jobs, fifteen miles apart. When all was said and done I didn't get home until eleven thirty. The sixteen-hour workday in ninety-degree heat beat my body to a dehydrated pulp. My feet disappeared in the murky water running down the drain when I finally got to take a shower. Disillusionment, fittingly, is a cloud-like shade of gray. I was so exhausted that climbing the staircase to my bedroom seemed too much to ask of my weary body. It's no way to make a living. It's no way to spend a life. I ain't no senator's son, but I don't want to be no plumber's father, either. Before getting into bed I pulled that forensics book from my tallest shelf and placed it next to my wallet on my dresser so I wouldn't forget to bring it in for the foreman's son. There was still hope for him.

The coffee was mostly sugar and milk by the time I pulled into the school parking lot this morning. That's not to say that it's a long drive from my house; I just drink my coffee quickly, possibly for full effect as well as my affinity for the flavor. I retired the styrofoam to the cupholder in the console of my pick-up and opened the book in my lap. I turned to the first blank page and wrote a few lines for a person I'd never meet:

"Don't do this plumbing nonsense for a living, kid. Stay in school and get a real job where you don't come home smelling like pennies every day from running copper." Signed, "Someone else who had potential," with the second-to-last word underlined.
The book found its way to the front seat of my foreman's truck in a casual, discrete fashion as only the best gifts do. I hope it changes a destiny that has yet to be decided. How else can I ensure that I keep the market cornered in the wonderful pipetrade industry? You've got to laugh, degree or none. You've got to laugh or they've taken it away.

Currently reading:
"Operation Broken Reed: Truman's Secret North Korean Spy Mission that Averted World War III" by Lt. Col. Arthur L. Bord (Ret).


Did the men I love do this in the safety of their bedrooms?

I lay way past my bedtime
in a given orange glow
reading a book of outlaw poetry in my left hand
and flicking open an illegal switchblade
purchased out-of-state
over and over with my right
until both thumbs hurt
for their respective reasons
well-knowing which of the two
is the most dangerous
and resenting the fact
that I'll only ever be part of the other
regardless of my ranting.

It's twelve-thirty.
Do you know where your children are?

Through a lens that's smeared with Thursdays.

Plumber snot is laced
with copper dust and solder paste.
Her body is so hot
that it leaves marks on my skin.

People smell burnt toast
before succumbing to a stroke.
The seagulls fled the fireworks
shot from barges on the Hudson.

My acquittal wasn't clear
so I wore her on my beard.
The red lights will confirm it:
I'm in fact at home in hell.

Raise your head and fill your chest
as you jettison the best.
I've drank with him a dozen times
but he don't know my name.

Rejected from the hive
drones search for food
until they die.
You say that I've had all of you
but now I want the rest.


A Little-Known Tale of Cosmic Intervention

For Connecticut it was unseasonably hot. The Krippels hadn't remembered it ever being so humid, not even on their ancient honeymoon to one of the many tropical paradises to which they had ventured back when they still made love every day; at least that's what they'd called it.

"Susanne, I can't take it anymore," John whimpered as he laid in the puddle of sweat forming underneath him in their sheets. "We're getting central air on Monday."

Susanne mumbled something incoherent and unsympathetic in her half-asleep stupor before rolling over to face the wall. She'd had enough wine to help her doze peacefully. She'd had enough of his whine, as well.

Outside their front door a meteorite hovered ominously. It was small, as far as meteorites go, but big enough to leave a car-sized crater upon impact for the authorities to take photos of later that Saturday night between sips of stale coffee.

"Susanne, I'm talking to you. I know you're still awake. You know how much I can't stand being ignored." For a couple with a combined age barely shy of a century they sure seemed to know a lot, according to John's brazen calculations.

Susanne turned to face him, her eyes still closed tightly, and slid her knee between his thighs. It landed within an inch of making him writhe in pain.

The meteorite stood suspended in the thick summer air like a massive orange yo-yo tethered to the finger of an angry god. The hiss of its flaming aura that licked the Krippels' windowsill flowers was somehow inaudible to the unsuspecting couple. It could've been floating there for hours or nanoseconds. The universe does not concern itself with time.

"Susanne, you almost got me good that time. And I don't care if it's not in the budget-- I can't take this heat anymore. I shouldn't have to suffer alone simply because it doesn't affect you as much. Are you listening to me?"

Susanne nestled her head in the crook of John's neck and drifted further into her lush slumber. She dreamt of her husband happily pissing on lightning bugs that were tangled in the unmowed grass of their back yard. An innocent smile formed on her face and kissed John's clavicle, releasing the tiniest trace of saliva on his skin. He forgot why he was so upset, forgot the heat and misery, and remembered why he'd married her so seemingly long ago.

God shook the yo-yo string from His omnipotent middle finger, delivering the Krippels from that unbearable Connecticut summer. Then it was the seventh day. He rested.

"Jess, did you see that shooting star over there?" Billy asked from the back seat of his father's station wagon as the two sat parked in an empty lot with bellies full of fast food and movie stubs in their pockets.

Jess reached forward to turn the air conditioning up, then moved closer to her future prom date. It was 1989 and the world was still relatively safe.


Quads and Quivers

Then it came to me
like a punchline understood
days after the joke's been told--
Gabo was right
in at least one thing
despite his damned
magical realism:
the buzz of the cicada
makes the summer heat
feel stronger
regardless of which side
of the equator you claim.

I tried explaining that to her as she slid
her fingertips across my bare chest, my arms.
Women need to be caressed.
Men need some of that too, but prefer
to cut to the chase most times.
The chase doesn't come as often as we'd like.
Marriage is a doomed institution
unless it's between two whores.
It's something we must accept
like the fact that the carpet
rarely matches the curtains
if there even are any.

"I've always loved your legs," she said, moving her hands there
as we stared through the living room window
enveloped by the down-filled cushions of my couch.
"Why are you smiling?" She sounded
genuinely concerned. The other sex is good at that.

"Nothing. It's nothing," but what it really was
was that an old friend, Hank, used to say
how proud he was of his big, strong legs
when he couldn't find any other favorable thing
to scribble about himself, to pound into the keys.
The old buzzard meant it. If nothing else
he appreciated the power left in his legs
at the end of the day, even if nobody was there to notice.
It could've come across as a cop-out
to the amateur fan who read the lines
but those of us who've read enough
to see between them and recognize
the pattern got a quiet chuckle out of it.
Maybe I'm speaking too broadly.
Maybe it's just me.
But hell, if you devour almost forty titles
by one man you'd think you'd be able
to say you know him well enough
to know when he was faking--
another field in which
the fairer sex excels.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing. It's nothing."


What I'd Give to Go Back

"Conor, say hello to Austin," said Marla, Conor's over-anxious mother and the woman for whom I'd been painting for the last nine days.

A weak "Hi, Austin," slipped quietly from the eight-year-olds pale lips.

Austin nodded his close-cropped, nine-year-old head in the general direction of his new acquaintance. Dave, his father and my boss, kept framing the wall he'd been working on all morning. Laid-off plumbers make better painters than carpenters, though some are surprisingly proficient electricians due to their practice wiring boilers.

"There, now you two go play," Marla suggested in her tentative falsetto. The two boys complied, probably more out of pity than obedience. I kept rolling on the semi-gloss white. Dave kept pulling sixteens to place his studs. The day went on as could be expected, right down to the radio station's predictable playlist.

By the time Marla was ready to leave her apartment house that Dave and I had been renovating for her a definite change had taken place. She summoned Conor from the other room and he and Austin came galloping into the kitchen. The two of them were speaking quite casually and joking in a way that made it seem they'd been backdoor neighbors for years. No one would've guessed that they'd only met an hour ago. There was not an ounce of awkwardness between the two of them. To further the illusion, Conor gave the ol' "Mom, do we have to?" when she told him it was time to leave. "Bye, Austin," Conor volunteered much more enthusiastically than he had upon their initial exchange. Again, though, Austin only nodded. That's the country boy in him. I respect that.

I slathered the thick paint into corners with my brush as the door closed silently behind mother and son. There was nothing left to do but guess the next song on the radio while contemplating the innocence of the meeting that had occurred there on the jobsite that day. Kids, when thrown together, will make fine friends of each other no matter what. Then we grow up and don't even like the people we call friends sometimes. We love them, sure, but it gets harder to like them. Day by day we lose that skill. Year by year we grow weary of that sense of Other. Cynical? Maybe, but try to deny it.

Though through it all, and regardless of age, race, color, or creed, the crane moves its neck faster than the fish moves its tail simply because it has to.

Currently reading:
"Collected Stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez".


Lost in a Familiar Place

Mark Knobler had been bested by a total stranger whom he'd never met. It wasn't the first time and it wouldn't be the last. The rub was that in a roundabout way his hard-earned money had funded the source of his current vexation. Who knew that a salon employee could be so vindictive?

"Up and to the left, Honey," Vicky said in a frustrated voice as she sprawled out on the mattress. It was clear that she was tired of instructing.

"I know where it is," Mark replied, taking a brief break from the task at hand. He felt like a scolded schoolboy. Normally the act in question was his specialty. Tonight, however, it was like he'd been thrown into the wilderness without a compass.

"Do you want me to turn the light on?" asked Vicky. "Maybe that'll help."

"No, no. I can see fine."

"Then what's the problem?" she inquired. "I haven't even been close to..."

Mark was well aware of what his beloved bride was about to say, but that didn't prepare him for the blow. They'd been each other's best lovers all along, or at least claimed so, and a change in that status would damage his ego more than any boss' berating.

"The damn wax girl's throwing me off!" he finally proclaimed.

Vicky slammed her thighs against Mark's ears as she belted out a roar of laughter. Had she not known her husband better she would've asked him to repeat his statement, but there was no doubt in her mind that he was indeed placing the blame where she'd thought she'd heard him say.

"Oh, really, my love?" Vickie asked. "Please explain this one to me, and be thorough," she said, lifting her left leg above Mark's reddened face in defeat. She knew she wouldn't reach climax by that point, though that's not to say she wouldn't be amused.

"Well, it's simple," Mark started, raising his upper body on his elbows and tossing the blanket aside. "Normally I keep my nose planted at the base of your...hmmm..."

"Strip?" Vicky courteously supplied.

"Yeah. That. But it seems that the new girl who waxed you at the salon yesterday needs glasses. Things are well off center down there and it's affecting my ability to stay on target. My nose keeps trying to make its way towards its usual resting place and as a result it's affecting my performance."

There, he'd said it. It was all out in the open. Foiled by a spa employee who was probably part of some secret organization bent on ruining relationships. It may have sounded far-fetched to some, but in Mark Knobler's experience nothing was to be doubted when it came to the mysterious forces working against him and their Spartan determination.

"Don't sweat it, Mark," Vicky condoled. "Regardless, you're invaluable to me as long as you keep coming out with stories like that one."

Mark found her lips as easily as always as they embraced for much-needed sleep.

Pleading the Fifth on the Fourth

It was ten after eleven
as steam silently poured from an open manhole
in a dark stretch of the street.
We'd been looking for a liquor store
that'd still be open at that hour.
The spoils of our success hung from my
left hand in the form of a bottle of sauvignon blanc.
Proof of another victory clung loosely
in the clammy palm of my right.
Parked tightly to the curb was a dark green minivan
its gaping sliding door on the side
spilling costume parts onto the sidewalk:
a tophat, striped pants, a pair of stilts, a long-tailed blue jacket.
A boy of nine or ten stood in a tired daze
above the mess of red, white, and blue fabric
staring at us heavy-jawed as we walked by him.
Sprawled in the back seat of the vehicle
was a suspendered man, presumably his father
wearing white cotton from head to toe.
A cigarette dangled from his lips. His eyes were barely open.
A fake white beard slung down around his neck like a noose.
The puzzle put itself together in my mind
in the mere three seconds that it took to escape the scene.
We were all Americans on the eve of our independence
though some of us were trying harder than others
to prove something I'm not sure of
there on Thirty-Seventh Street.
None of us made eye contact.
That was the important part.


skipping breakfast

The people I envy most are those
with an internal alarm
that wakes them up at whatever time
they tell themselves
before going to bed.
I'm that sap who comes to
sweating in his sheets
an hour before the dreaded beep
only to dabble in sick lucid dreaming
until waking up with ancient names
plastered in his mouth
and his index fingers rigid
in the form of a last-ditch cross.

In other strange news
I discovered this week
that my left foot's
one whole size bigger.

We're coming apart at the seams, America
like bargain bin clothes in the drier.