The Donning and Doffing of Weekly Apartments

It's as good a place as any
to churn up my stomach
at the end of a shift.
Horrid wallpaper
nail-holed wood paneling
and peeling linoleum
help see to that.
The claustrophobic choke
of their dreary earth tones
are aided by the poorly installed
drop-ceiling, its tiles of three types.
Thumbtacks hold
the curtains back
and staples fasten signs
to walls in the kitchen
reminding me when to leave
and not to smoke.
God forbid an outlet's grounded
or any lumber leveled, squared.
There's a clock on the wall ticking away
precious seconds of my life
though none of its three hands
see me worth their movement--
a metronome, a cadence, a soundtrack
to the madness that shall undoubtedly ensue
with or without the presence of poison.

If anything matches it's a coincidence
possibly a blunder. The couch's burlap fabric
could probably rub off skin, though I wouldn't know
for certain since I haven't felt the need.
I'll assume the boob-tube works sans disturbing
dusty buttons. There are far more
fitting ways to rot what's left of brain cells.
If one rides on the porcelain
he risks his sliding forward as a draft comes
through the molding to laugh and taunt at feet.
Doors of cabinets won't close
and a sadist did the paint job. Still
I'll call this home until it's time for me
to leave.

"The bed, man! The mattress! What of its
ancient springs? Surely the blanket
is moth-eaten and the sheets are stained
with strangers' blood."

I tell you, friend, I can't complain.
I sleep like a lamb amongst lions
so long as that balled-up tank top
which I've never worn
emits its fragrant magic
from the altar erected
of a pillowcase as fair
as her tenderest of skin
which I, once this job ends
will be privy to again
unlike the jealous sun.


On Petting Burning Dogs (When There's No Option C)

Cigarette ash
falls to the tip
of your black leather shoe
as you knock on his door
being sure to stand to the side
even though there's no peephole.
Too many detective shows
watched growing up
but you won't solve this one--
You're no Dave Duchovny
sex-crazed or sober.
The light was on, you saw it
from the street, but still
no one answers
this wood thick with paint
and years of nicotine stains
between you and the truth.
It's odd, smoking in the third-floor hallway
of a derelict tenement, but no one here will mind.
Tobacco's the least of the sins
on these premises, especially this late at night.
This is what happens
when the day's good deed
brings you to the scene
of a crime.
So you leave
but still love him.
He drinks Coke
but not Pepsi.
The ancient case is cracked:
We're all our worst foes;
some go to extremes.

A train coming at you
(not being conducted
by a prominent male figure
in your life
since that'd be too predictable)
with time only
to push one out
of the way:
the junkie you've known forever
(and haven't they all been
one way or another?)
or an innocent bystander
(who may as well not have a face).
All they find are your shoes
on the tracks, feet still in them
and a few Marlboro butts
smoked by the lone survivor.
(Don't feel bad. There was
no other person standing there.
Is there ever?)
Even in dreams
you die alone.


Nuclear Reminders

I'm not even sure
if it's real gold or not.
My father was never
much of a spender
but he insisted
that the jeweler he met
on his pilgrimage to Israel
five years ago
was selling rings
like they rose out of the sand.
Not being one to miss out
on a deal, he called me
long distance and had me
get sized.
(A ten or eleven, though
I've since forgotten.)
The girl at the counter
wished well to the groom.
The snake oil token
would soon be delivered.

When he came back stateside
and presented it to me
over dinner at his favorite diner
I was rather confused by his reasoning
as usual. It was scrawled with funny lines
on either side of what looked
like a lobster. Upon seeing
the bewilderment on my face
the old man clarified:
my name, Michael David
inscribed in Hebrew
with a menorah in the middle
for good Godly measure.
All of this came as a shock to me
being that we're not Jewish.
I thanked him and tucked it into
my pocket for safekeeping
until I could get home to toss it
onto my dresser where it'd
collect dust with the other
knickknacks time, unlike me, had forgotten:
fortune cookie proverbs;
forklift keys;
hair ties belonging to lovelies long gone;
bits of cardboard with bits of lines
when I should've bitten my tongue.
An ironic Holy Land T-shirt would've sufficed

but that ring, real or not
took on a new role
when the rift hit
that November
like Axl's shrill downpour.
For over five years
my dad was estranged
too jaded by Jesus
and sins of our fathers
to acknowledge that sons
have clouds of their own.
His last gift was treasured
if only for its timing.

Tried wearing it once
but it wasn't my style
even with the image
turned in toward my palm.
The ring rode in pockets.
It hung from a chain.
A few heartless sadists
I mistakenly laid with
tried stealing it on me--
they knew where to cut.
It went into hiding
within my steel safe
flat on one side
where a drunkard had thrown it
against his bedroom wall
during a dark time
when a father's words would've
worked wonders while waiting
for the world to rewind.
Its inscription never told me
who I was, or why.
Funny how letters don't always
give meaning.

With him back around now
it won't be the last.
He's already given me
plumbing work, guns
and a bouncing baby boy
whom I can call brother.
My ring was recommissioned
linked onto a keychain
late at night near
the time of my birthday.
I'll be far upstate
on a powerhouse job
while its keeper
holds down what's left
of the fort.
I ain't got gold
and I ain't got money
but I'll happily share
the fortune I've found.

Currently reading:
"Pulp" by Charles Bukowski.



The edges of memory
are blurred to the point
of questioning boundaries
the details, exchanges.
What does the heart
choose to remember
when the mind and the shaft
have forgotten the truth?
A twin long bed, Christmas lights
bourbon, desire
to raze a sure crop
since the penchant's genetic.
Dorm room rules
were thrown through
the windows
of suites too big
to fit we immortals.

The classes came easy
the hangovers hard
and the tale tells the rest
of countless young prospects
cursing, and spitting, and pumping
through credits
that may or may not
have earned a framed parchment.
Some saw the change
from freshman to sophomore--
a cocky young protege
feeling his oats.
The subject himself
could not sense the calm
waiting before
the foreshadowed storm.

Sour mix mornings
and counterfeit handles
were strewn through the hallways
of a State-funded campus.
Drool on the pillowcase
blood on the sheets
and a girl, exits south, tongue-tied
and belittled
by a fool in dark denim
and black too-tight T-shirts
who held what he thought
were the reins that were promised
by good marks in high school
and pats on the back
from mentors and cohorts
forgetting the odds.

But he made it through death
as he makes it through lay-offs
and bills that come promptly
and rent through the roof.
Sometimes he wonders
if things had been different
would that girl who loved dresses
still toss to the floor
the fabric as thin
as the threads that are tethered
to fates that are options
if strong cards are bet.

He knows what he's holding
this time around.
Not even the Dealer
can pry free his hand.


Three Drivers, One Song

It was a week ago
but relevant now
as it was then
and will be until
the nukes stop
the seasons.
A passing schoolbus honked
as I settled into a chair
on my friend's sunsoaked porch
and cracked an ex-cold beer.
My head jerked up
from my bottle in time
to catch the driver's raised thumb
as she rolled down the lane.
She'd be doing the same
as soon as she could.
I commenced vicarious living.

Then there was the hearse
cruise-controlling up the Thruway.
Its driver, almost fifty
but could pass for thirty-eight
lingered long enough
in the non-passing lane
for me to see the smoke
careening from his Marlboro.
Was it wrong
or unprofessional
in today's antiseptic society?
He caught me staring, shrugged
and I nodded in agreement.
The deceased wouldn't mind
one more in his name--
the one taped somberly
to the black Caddy's window.
An homage, considered
by honorable thieves
replete with caveats.
I pressed harder and passed
them. There was nothing more
to see but doomed floral arrangements
and I'd had enough of those.

There are fleeting cosmic moments
when one knows one's not alone
and another soul's in tune.
Sometimes they happen
with clothes on, too.
Most times the grain's involved.
It's a reminder:
You can only go halfway
into the woods;
any further and you're coming out.

Currently reading:
"The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins.


Cardboard Crux

All at once the gods let go
of a nourishing nectar
new to my nerves:
Canadian whiskey and plain club soda
with two maraschino
cherries dropped in
(three, if I'm honest, since my tooth
needs the sweet).
It tastes like sand and bitterness.
It tastes like two-and-a-half years
of my twenties.
My number's still blocked.
I'm grateful

for things like humor
and piety;
for the way that she knows
I'm asleep
once I've rolled;
for the fact that
the fridge light goes off
and saves on the bill
when the door's shut.
There's air in my lungs;
I'm erect; I'm awake:
There's a list carved
into my skull's flattest plate.

My friend hasn't called
'cause he let himself down.
I told him my love's like the sun:
not a choice.
For now he fights demons
alone in his closet.
His hair lines my sink
from the buzzer's brief shakes.
His head was pitched over
my trash can. His mohawk
would not get a job
for Pete's sake.
His parents were not
so punk rock.
Attempts at distraction
came off like a tic
while I prayed that the
poem wasn't noticed
down there; some stanzas
in marker next to the plant
that I threw out along
with her artwork.


A Sobering Drunk Conversation

It's been a few months
since we've spoken.
Funnily enough
he too has a phone
that goes one way.
Seems a common theme.
Still, it beats the alternative.
I'm not one for faking nice
when the weather ain't so pleasant.

"How ya' been, brother?"
he drawls into the mouthpiece.

"Hurtin' like everyone else
in our local,"
I reply in the tone that comes
naturally to a jobless craftsman.

"I'm not so great either," he tells me.
"Things up here ain't no cakewalk."

I ignore the double-negative
and snort into my cell. It's hard to find pity
for a guy who's been working sixty hours
per week for the last six months.
Then there's that pretty little wife
and two young kids waiting at home
for him when he does finally return.
A dagger to the hilt in the thigh
for that.

"I know a lot of guys who'd kill
to be in your boots," I remind him
somewhat peeved.
There's a fine line between brotherly
empathy and ignorance.
He may have crossed it
aided by the six types of liquor
swirling in my stomach.
Long Island's quite the melting pot.

"You don't know what they have me doin'.
I'm fitted with a respirator, wear a full body suit
with gloves, a face shield, glasses.
None of my skin's exposed.
The chemicals I'm working with
can kill on contact. They eat through everything.
Even bone."

I take a swig while he does
two hundred miles away.
That's one hell of a way to earn a living.
Makes your standard crawlspace plumbing
look like a smelly vacation.

"Jesus, Johnny," I call him
by the wrong name.
A few drinks ago I would've remembered
he prefers to be called Jay.
"Does your old lady know?"

"Not the extent of it. She'd make
me come home. No one else
wants to do this job. It's the only reason
I'm still here. We need the money."

There, he's got it. The elusive pity
of Michael David Vahsen. Someone
admittedly has it worse than I do.
"Well, if they're ever looking for
a few good men feel free..."
I tell him, unsure if I'm
kidding or serious.
He assumes the former
and takes the conversation elsewhere.

"I'm going on the road
down south next year,"
he says. "Power plant
shut-down work.
You want to come
with me?"

"I'm there,"
I tell him.
"I've always wanted
to work on a Southern accent."

"When this toxic chemical job's done
I'm going to Tennessee and West Virginia.
They'll have work there at the nuke plants.
Do you want to come along?"
He punctuates the offer
with a belch that'd start an avalanche
then repeats himself.

"Next year I'm going..."
but I cut him off before he can continue.
It's as though he's telling himself at this point.
He's deeper than I am tonight
at least as far as the bottle's concerned.

"Take it easy, Jay," I say
before cordially hanging up.
There's one truth that rings louder
than any hotel room alarm clock:
Someone's always got it worse.


An Offer I Couldn't Refuse

I swear on everything Holy
that I thought it was the end.
Something about the way
that black luxury sedan came
to a confident halt in the
middle of Main Street
in front of me as I sucked
the night's last cigarette
on my stoop
a little after one in the morning
sent images of mob-style
drive-by shootings
through my over-imaginative mind.
The windows were tinted
beyond the legal limit
preventing me from seeing
my assassin until he was good
and ready to unleash his sub machinegun.
Time froze while I waited to
be gunned down in an epic finale
to what was left of my laid-off life.

It caught me off-guard when the driver's door
opened and a man with black hair
greased straight back and a sweater vest
under his tux stepped out slowly.
At least I'd be murdered with class.
He opened the rear door of the Lincoln
in what I thought would be my final acquaintance.
I braced myself for the end. I wished I'd left
the combination to my safe with one of my buddies
from work. My welder friend would
torch it open, careful not to touch off
the powder. None of my collection would
be lost in the mix. I knew my mom could use
the money once everything was auctioned properly.
A peace came about me while I waited for the hail.
There wasn't a wish for a firing squad's blindfold.
I wondered if that was how Dostoyevsky felt
before the imperial pardon.

But in case you hadn't noticed
it was not my lucky day.
God still had a purpose for His
stubborn clown to breathe.
A small Asian woman in her late-twenties
stepped out of the back seat. The chaffeur
popped the trunk and handed her
her bags. My life unflashed before my eyes
as a new lease on it suddenly presented itself
in the form of my upstairs neighbor's
apparent return from the airport.

"Hey," I told her with a genuine smile
as she approached our apartment building.
"You got me good with that one."
She looked at me, puzzled, until I
explained that I used to live
directly on the other side of the bridge.
"I'm scared to go to Newburgh," she said
clutching her bags more tightly.
I opened the front door and said Goodnight
before burning one more to celebrate.
It's the little things in life
like not being riddled with bullets.

Painfully Pisces

"Did I ever tell you the one
about your dad being psychic?"
she asks, roping me in
like a proficient storyteller
and explaining my curse in the process.
I'm glad he's 'dad' again
and not 'father' or 'sperm donor'.
Those were starting to get as hurtful
as his five-and-a-half-year absence.
Word selection's key
when dealing with a typist.

Dinner at mom's was amazing
as usual, but it's this kind
of quiet conversation in her
dimly lit living room afterward
that's been making my visits
so rewarding as of late.
With her husband out of town working
I get to enjoy her company
without her being stressed as to whether or not
his food's hot enough or the kitchen
is clean in time for their program.
Maybe the void left when it's my turn
to go on the road this spring
will let other people breathe easier, too.
That's not so pleasant to think about.
I push it back out of my mind.

"We'd just bought a new couch
that he was very fond of for some reason.
One night when I was watching TV alone
in the living room he got out of bed
and asked me not to fall asleep on it
for when my water broke. As soon as
I stood up it happened. 'Whoosh',
right there all over the carpet."
How eternally disgusting that image is.
I start to reach toward the coffee table
for a drink that's not there.
The thought of my life beginning
with a stomach-turning mess of amniotic fluid
makes me feel less like a person
than one of the fish in my zodiac sign.
I mentally apologize decades later
to the person who had to clean up that mess.

"I went into labor at three in the morning
but you wouldn't come out 'til nine at night."
The childhood vision of my mom's Cesarean scar
hovering over her bikini bottom at the beach
while visiting Mickey Mouse and my uncle in Florida
during one of our summer vacations
makes me feel guilty for putting up such a fight
and leaving a mark to prove it.
"It was my big head, wasn't it?" I joke.
Mom laughs lightly into her stemless wine glass
as her eyes stare off into almost thirty years ago.
"No. God wasn't done perfecting you yet,"
she responds lovingly. In that case
I wish I'd waited a bit longer. Maybe some of
these flaws wouldn't show. The best of
my critics pick them out like black squirrels.
The rest of the cast doesn't notice, poor things.

The subject changes inconsequentially.
My mother comes back to her present dilemmas.
A man of the pen comes to grips with the fact
that he's part of another's own story somehow.


The moments when I feel
the most like my hero
aren't riddled with drink
or smoke or the word
but rather when watching
a tulip walk by
while thinking what brand
of hell she delivers.

The vase's herd thins
as the dead ones are plucked
day after day
'til they're all in the heap.
It takes gentle fingers
a head clear of bias
discernment of death
to promote making most
of what's left to living
and what's fertilizer
in the grandest of schemes
that's lost in the kiss.

The fragile can't do it.
The ignorant chuck.
Some amateur florists
get stuck on perfection.
Sooner or later
we'll all push up daisies.
For now it's a treat
to sniff the survivors.


March Madness in the Downtime of Cardiac Trench Warfare

What you see's what you get
if you're lucky.
What you paid for may not
fill the bag.
There are times when you won't
get it out of your mind
whether or not there is leverage.

Security's sold by the liter.
Gallons will get you back home.
Thread count will speak
of how soft we may sleep
but without the first two
it's a bandage.

I can't change the way that I shared it.
I've pleaded with many closed doors.
The lines were discovered
through hours of ink.
I promise it wasn't for pity.

There's good, there's bad
and there's ugly.
The world's not ashamed
to dole scars.
We have our fair share
but the present's a gift.
I've meant it since when I first said it.

The Weakness of the Breed

A brisk mist falls
on me
and the February sidewalk
as I stubbornly stroll
to the post office.
People've been whining
of the weather as if it couldn't
be worse, like twenty and snow.
Reminds me that the human condition
is one bereft of gratitude.
Makes me not want to bother with friends
or their wasted little words.

There's a man more foolish
than I am on the corner.
He's huddled under an oversized umbrella
attached to his dull, silver hotdog cart.
No one's in search of a tube steak today.
You can read that however you'd like.
The soggy buns will be a loss
that his wife will pay for later.
It's a sad attempt made
by a sad attempt at arguing
that Beacon's like the City
with its shops, pretentious hipsters
and everything in walking distance.
His lukewarm cup of coffee makes for
poor company while its lid collects a puddle.
Even if I had three bucks, even if
my stomach grumbled
I wouldn't give this fool
the idea that he's got it figured out.
You've got to know when to cut your losses.
There's no honor in forcing
what's not there.

Later on while driving
I see three men circled on the west side
of Fishkill Ave. They carry on their business
like its May in Tuscaloosa, a smile
and a hand way up in the air
for emphasis during a story.
Their clothing, location
and disregard for the weather
tell me that they're crazies
from the madhouse allowed to roam
that side of the street. I've seen ones
thumping Bibles, pleading desperately
with telephone poles, talking to their children
whom they haven't seen in decades.
Part of me envies the innocence there
the simplicity of life when the mind's not left
to wonder things
like how many times I drive by
a trapped genius every day
and why I bother breathing the same air
as men who don't know when
to keep their hotdogs dry
and stay home with the wife.

At this rate I hope the Mayans were right.