A Slow Growth on the Soul

By the time the volunteer ambulance rolled up to 37 Onnit Road the window of opportunity had closed-- not the one to save Gary Schlecker's dwindling life; the one to justify turning the lights and siren on while escorting his body to whatever white, sterile walls awaited it. That was the only reward in a case like his, especially if you'd ever loaned him money or bought him a drink.

"Here, Sam. Wipe this under your nostrils," Lonnie said as he handed Sam a jar of Vick's. He conjured it from under the passenger's seat of the meat wagon after it pulled into the driveway. "The cops on Gary's porch have that twisted look on their faces. It's gonna be a ripe one."

Sam spun off the lid of the pungent cream and spread an over-zealous, two-inch length of blue well past the edges of his nose.

"You're the best tech this town's got, Lon," Sam said matter-of-factly.

Little tricks like the Vick's impressed those who worked with Lonnie. He never discredited their claims, but deep down in his simple, suburban heart he knew that he was an observer, not a genius. He saw the odor-fighting trick on a detective show once. The hip, shoulder-holstered cops applied the ointment under their noses before fingerprinting an especially rancid crime scene. He made a mental note of the technique before retiring to bed next to his slightly overweight wife. I'll wow them with this one, Lonnie thought as he drifted off to the pleasant land where his thirty-year mortgage didn't exist. The monsters of dreamscapes didn't work in the medium of paper. For Lonnie, Sam, and most other men in their tax bracket with similar IQs, the worst things encountered during sleep consisted of the fairer sex and younger versions of themselves. Tight-bodied cheerleaders had transformed into cottage-cheesed soccer moms in the familiar scenario that the game of life churned out over and over. Quarterbacks retired to armchairs and beer packed on pounds with a vengeance. It seemed unfair to all parties involved, including the electric company. Few folks over thirty had their weekly consummation without turning the lights off first.

The things they could've done. The places they could've gone. The love they could've made. The horror of the long list of possibilities crept into Lonnie's distracted mind as he and Sam walked to the back of the ambulance.

"Gary's better off," he slipped, half-consciously.

"What's that?" Sam asked. The overabundance of noxious chemicals under Sam's nose was beginning to affect his brain slightly. It was a side effect Sam looked forward to every time. An innocent buzz was one of the many simple pleasures that Gary would no longer be eligible to enjoy. He'd gone and died. Safer, but limited. It seemed a fair trade to those who knew the score, or could at least read the board. Lonnie was one of the latter.

The two men wheeled the stretcher to the side entrance of the house. Anyone from town could tell that the door near the stone porch was the one to use. Only new delivery men bothered with the one out front. Sgt. Daniels was wiping sweat from his forehead with what looked like a lace handkerchief. No one questioned Sgt. Daniels when it came to his decisions.

"My mouth won't do your eyes justice," the sergeant said in his guttural voice. "And it smells even worse than it looks. You may want to..." but he trailed off after noticing the streak across Sam's oblivious face. "Take a deep breath before you go in there. It looks like old Gary's been gone for awhile, maybe more than two weeks."

"Yeah, haven't seen him at O'Malley's lately," Sam blurted out, instantly regretting his statement and hoping that no one could smell last night's folly on his breath.

"Hasn't been to church much, either," Lonnie said as he locked eyes with the chief. "At least not according to the bingo demographic." Sam exhaled lightly. He loved going on calls with Lonnie. He could get him out of anything.

"You boys leave the investigating to me," Sgt. Daniels told the two unlikely small-town paramedics. "We're all done in there for now if you'd like to dignify the deceased."

That last phrase was one that always stuck in Lonnie's head. It sounded so grandiose, gave his part-time role a true sense of meaning. There were nights when he considered the legitimacy of the siren rides that led right to the morgue. The front page of the 'Herald' was a better place than the obituaries, but someone had to bring them there-- 'them' being his neighbors. "Dignifying the deceased" was about as good a way as anyone could put such a morbid task as corpse removal. Lonnie wondered if Sgt. Daniels had coined the term himself in his years on the force or if it came pre-packaged in some little-known law enforcement handbook.

He doubted that Sam or any of the other volunteer ambulance drivers had the same line of thinking. He doubted if a lot of people thought much at all. It all started with the eyes; sight, an awakening. Too many people wore blinders complacently. Half as many over-indulged in their not-so-innocent thrills of choice. Sam wasn't alone in his cups. Lonnie was alone in his skull. Even his well-meaning wife couldn't help that. She could barely work off last winter's hibernation roll that had formed around the waistline of her jeans. Lonnie didn't begrudge her that. Truth be told, he'd always liked his women a pinch on the plus side. Skinny people, like Sam's habit of chewing gum religiously on every morning call, couldn't be trusted.

"Let me get the door for you gentelmen," Sgt. Daniels said as he turned the volume knob on his radio all the way to the right, putting himself on the grid once again.

The medical examiner was packing a bag of instruments as Sam and Lonnie rolled the stretcher through the kitchen. Neither of them knew his name. He worked for the county and was not as permanent a fixture as Sgt. Daniels. His title sufficed. The harbinger of death was not someone with whom any small-town locals wanted to be on a first-name basis.

"If the fall didn't kill him, the black mold would've," the M.E. uttered. "Another few months at best." His tone was frighteningly professional. It justified the sentiments held by the two men there to collect their neighbor.

"And all this time I thought it was only smoker's cough," Sam whispered to Lonnie, trying not to speak loudly enough to give their ominous colleague a reason to chat any further.

Lonnie maintained his silence. There was a level of reverence he believed should be present when performing such a task. Gary's last passage through his doorway would be an honorable one if he had anything to say about it, or not say; but when they reached the bathroom where Gary's body was sprawled out on the floor that silent state of grace changed.

"My God. Gary's a flower pot," Sam blurted. It was true. Their deceased acquaintance was face-up, mouth gaping, vast expanse of black mold creeping from his throat. It spread down from his face and covered the linoleum floor around him. The shower curtain that he'd grabbed and pulled down in an attempt to break his lethal fall covered his naked body. All that protruded was that cracked, gushing head and the mold to which it gave birth.

"Looks like all the drywall's going to have to be ripped out," Sam said as he locked the stretcher's wheels. Lonnie usually had to remind him to do so, but that was not the case for a change. "They'll probably need a barrel of bleach to scrub this place, too. Once that black mold gets into a house it's almost impossible to..."

"Sam. Shut up and help me lift him," Lonnie said. Sam lowered is head and complied. There'd been enough speculation for one day. It was time to do what they'd been called to do. Silence was golden and Gary was dead and nothing anyone could say would change either of those facts.

Sam reached through the shower curtain and grabbed the backs of Gary's calves with his rubber-gloved hands. There was an unmentioned understanding that Lonnie always lifted the top half of the body, no matter whom he was working with that day. He seemed like a header.

"One. Two. Lift," Lonnie said, his hands hooking Gary's armpits, as they hoisted him onto the stretcher. They covered the body with the white sheet they'd brought in and prepared to wheel Gary out to the daylight. For some reason, as was normally the case, they both paused and turned back towards the spot where the corpse had lain for two solid weeks. The mold hadn't grown on the floor that Gary's body had covered, leaving a perfect outline of his final pose in the form of a white-on-black silhoutte on the cheap linoleum flooring.

Sam couldn't bear to keep it inside of him. It was worth another scolding. Out with it he came. "It's sort of beautiful, Lon."

"Yeah. It sort of is."

And the two of them turned and rolled Gary home.


Friends Don't Let Friends Write Bad Poetry.

Operator! Operator!
We've got a live one on the line.
This is as close as you'll get
to Christmas this year.
What's that I hear
of tactical advantage?
Another flouncing fawn
upon the sacrificial floormat
that like motives
never change.
There are times to run
and times to fight
and times to ration your ammo
'cause the cavalry ain't coming
and the General's dying orders
were lost in garbled lung-blood.
So suit up in the intermission
and lace up for the let-down.
This is not your chapter six.
It's not time to move on yet.
When the barbecue grill's smoking
and the dough is reeling in
you'll laugh off 3:00 am
pretending not to know
these nights.


Missionary, Legs Over Shoulders:

That's how Lady Luck's been
givin' it to ya' lately
and you take it like a champ
not a chump
not crying
about your cervix
to the closest
set of ears.
What's next but
the old Navy saying:
Bend over, here it comes again.
And ya' don't stop
'cause ya' can't stop.
Let the boys be boys, lieutenant.

I spent a lot of time
trying on bodies
and found one that fit
but only at night.
Dammit, corporal.
Fetch her some slippers
and if there are none in this town
we'll blow the next one
to pieces
in the name of the Father
the sun, and the Whole-Wheat Ghost.

A curse upon the silent eye;
the taste of too much pressure.
I don't like it anymore.
It smells like sin and failure.
It's never too late to quit, private.
Not even at twenty-seven.
You can keep her, brother.
I know the scent already.

The truthful scars will free themselves
long after stripes and shots:
Grandpa never jumped
on a grenade to save his buddies.
He was working on the boiler
drunk when it exploded.

Thanks for the grub.
Greece must be better than this.


Whilst rinsing and repeating...

Pisces, unoriginal--
you modern, model youth.
With your phone and late-night glow
you show such little couth.

Driver, now suspended--
who will lead them to the end
searching crowded taprooms
til Last Call for making friends?

Son, not so prodigal--
your dad's laugh sounds the same.
You sold his birthday shotgun.
All that's left now is his name.

Are you wearing ruby slippers?
'Cause you might get blown away.
New York's the same as Kansas:
Nothing gold can stay.


Another reason why the Chinese deserve to win.

In our silent stupor
we pound them back
like lumberjacks.
I drizzle syrup over rocks
on the stainless altar
of the night's slow demise
placing my emptied glass
on the right
because it's easiest to remember
since that's what I am.
A mnemonic device
they call it.
In my case
a condition
though I'm not the only one.

If you're ever in the market
for a comfortable casket
I have a friend
who'll help you look.
Don't worry about his mirror trick.
It's no different from the way
we'll all disappear.

Mea culpa, Father.
It's not one to stick on the fridge
even if there were
magnets strong enough.
I blame its lack in substance
candor, cadence
on a forestalled morning
cigarette: thank God--
something I can remedy.

For every action there's a loss.

Currently reading:
"Narcissus and Goldmund" by Hermann Hesse.


How I'll Think of Manhattan While Burning in Hell

We lay entangled
in her vermillion bedsheets
a lazy Friday night
as we wish the rest of them to be
in our midst
after a meal that more than satisfied
our bellies.
There may be wine or cocktails later
but it matters little to either of us.

I feel the suction give way as
I pull my ear from her right shoulder
to praise the silhouette of her stray hairs
in the nightstand lamp--
a lunar eclipse of the fairest kind.
Lowering my head back down
to hear the ocean of her precious inner workings--
the ebb and flow of a system
that I'm thankful to have found
and pray to mix with mine someday.

My sideways view is simple
but as complex as it need be.
An orange glow illuminates the fine paths
in her skin as I breathe in the smell of home.
She shifts her weight from one shoulder
to the other and for the first time in my life
I fall in love with the tendon in a person's neck.
The strap of her bra curves over her left shoulder
not six inches from my face; though straight
as an arrow, it's the most imperfect line
in my present privileged view.

I'd be lying if I told you
I'm this lucky every night
but the greater shame would be
to deny the truth
that when it's there
I see it
and am grateful.


Pest Perspective

It was a good one, and snuck up on me
like any good one does. The book I'd
recently received in the mail on Papa's guns
kept me company while I sat on the porcelain
and did what I'd gone there to do.
Just as quickly as it started
it was over; conveniently, I'd just finished
a chapter. I love when that happens. It seems right.
Take what you can get and be grateful.
You'll lead a fuller life.

Like most honest people I peered into the bowl
while I stood and wiped. Nothing out of the ordinary.
No blood-- always a good sign. But then that claim
of normalcy changed. Something moved. Then it
moved again. I saw legs and antennae swimming around
at the surface of the water. The venison in my gut
re-sprouted its antlers and turned ninety-degrees.

At first I thought it came from me; a parasite, a tapeworm
a demon from hell. Then I sobered up. It was a silverfish
common to my house at night. It must've fallen into
the toilet before I'd entered the bathroom and I hadn't noticed.
What honest person looks before they squat?

Relieved, though slightly disturbed, I resumed with the
customary wiping. The next wad of tissue landed on the critter
intentionally. I couldn't bear to see its grotesque dance with
death anymore. It made my dinner quiver.

But when I pushed that chrome lever down it dawned on me
which of us was the lucky one. I would return to my nightly routine
only to go down the tubes in a figurative sense if the laid-off pattern
of empty-wallet misery progressed. The bug, on the other hand
would shortly be quite dead after a putrid drowning death
sans company of Davy Jones in my overfilled septic tank.

And yes, I mean to call myself the victor in that scenario.
It could always be worse, ladies and hosts.

Currently reading:
"Hemingway's Guns" by Calabi, Helsley, and Sanger.



I'm not sure which one of us invented it. Lower middle-class kids growing up in a suburban condominium development are always a touch on the sadistic side. Call it an occupational hazard if you must give it a label. It's simply part of the territory. Regardless, we were all to be blamed for its widespread success in our neighborhood, just as the entire group present was responsible if a ball hit a window during an impromptu game. Sure, the glass never broke, but that didn't matter to the bitter old folks inside. We were hoodlums as far as they were concerned, and our parents were to be notified if necessary. Little did they know, and little did anyone know since it never came down to it, but our parents wouldn't have cared. They had bigger things to worry about. They had mortgages and mouths to feed. They were losing sleep at night.

When that snow fell in blankets and school was closed we weren't playing ball anymore. It was snowball fight time. Fortresses could be built out of the heaps left by plow trucks. The older kids learned not to bother with that strategy. Nothing lasted forever, be it the spring thaw or the change in power that rendered its construction pointless. We could all cope with that sun's rays making our winter battleground dissipate, but to see our bunkers taken over by hands other than the ones that built them and then used against us was a price we weren't willing to pay. We tried to avoid being overrun in very much the same way that adults have done it since the beginning of time: we formed teams, alliances, coalitions. Somehow, be it through human nature or the will of the gods, the lines drawn in the snow always made sense. One side was comprised of the honor roll sector, the chorus kids and band kids, and a handful of the less talented sports players. The other team was made up of mouth-breathers, bullies who picked on nerds and music geeks, children of parents who'd blamed their divorces on their offspring, and the sports players who could've gone pro. The little league pitchers with arms worth anything never wound up on the former team. It was strength in numbers and maybe a stroke of luck or two that won wars. That still happened for a few of us back then.

The battle could start at any time. All it took was one innocent throw to commence the onslaught and one well-aimed ball of ice to some poor sap's face to end it. Somewhere in between was where the magic happened, where the early stages of character development shone through: acts of bravery, acts of cowardice, maliciously packed iceballs hurled at wool-capped heads, the celebration of the sore-armed victors, the dispersion of casualties across the white terrain, the retreat of the snow-caked losers-- all of these would shape who we'd become, would act as unnoticed foreshadowing for the rest of our lives, would be the excuse we'd use for being late for dinner.

All of that was fair and good and righteous in its chaste simplicity. But God forbid it came to hand-to-hand combat. Wrestling in the snow never ended well. All parties involved became covered in ice crystals that would penetrate their clothing and make the walk home that much more miserable. It usually started with a bum-rush and ended with the single, most contemptful act that I can remember growing up: the snowjob. As I said, I don't remember who came up with the idea. Maybe it was always there and only had to be discovered by each up-and-coming generation, like French kissing and tax fraud. The snowjob was a cruel maneuver used in desperation by the underdog or as a demoralizing deathblow dealt by the soon-to-be-winner. Its execution was far simpler than its repurcussions-- all one had to do was shove their unfortunate little buddy's face in the snow and hold it there for a few seconds. The aftermath, on the other hand, was not so succinct. There was yelling, there was crying, there were comical forays into cursing which had yet to be explored. All of these were made funnier by the victim's bright red face. Snow, it turns out, burns quite nicely when it comes in contact with human skin, especially that of a tender young specimen. Devices from the Spanish Inquisition weren't needed to perform our childhood torture; nor was an increase in age. There's a bit of a monster in all of us. The only difference is what action it takes, and to what extreme, for that mean beast to come out.

"My pal with the plow truck almost killed some stupid kid the other day," my friend and sometimes-coworker told me as we discussed our current laid-off adventures over the phone. Apparently, as we get older, building a fort in a snow mound goes from being a bad idea for tactical reasons to a down-right deadly decision. The conversation continued, but all I could think of was my days of cupping snow into ammunition. "Hey, are you listening?" he asked after noticing my prolonged absence from the dialogue. "Yes," I lied as I silently considered if I was finally paying for all the snowjobs I'd given over the years, literal and otherwise. Now I know why my mother wouldn't have cared about a ball hitting a window. Now I know why she's suffered from insomnia; still does. Even with only my mouth to feed the world's a harsh enough place. Now I wish that I could endure the receiving end of one last snowjob if it'd make this relentless daymare go away.

Who am I kidding? I invented it.