A Warm Gun

He's back on the wagon
or maybe he's off it--
That expression never
made much sense to me
since both options sound shitty
for different reasons.
Regardless, it's good to see
my friend again.
Whether or not he knows it
and whether or not he's sober
he'll always have that title
be it a blessing or a curse.

"Thanks, Mike," he says
in a humbled, lowered tone
as he picks his cup o' Joe
up from the counter.
We sit and make small talk
avoiding obvious sins
at a decrepit table which should be
thrown out, but is kept for
its shabby chic peculiarity.
"What a piece of shit," he comments
as he fingers the cement hole
where a dozen tiles are missing.
I wonder how many times a day he says that.

We tighten our black wool hats
and mount up after
making a crowded table
of soccer-mom-aged women
in denial about their artist status
uncomfortable with his sailor's mouth.
I'd feel bad for his verbal transgressions
if they'd come from any other person
but from this kid I've known
for most of my life I expect nothing less
than an innocently blind vulgarity.
"Defusing", as his father rightly called it.
Most find it hard to stay mad at a man
whose only true enemy is himself.
This comes as firsthand knowledge
which has helped me notch my pistols.
It's those low-toned Thank Yous
and overzealous questions about
the state of things on my end that worry me.
When manners are grown I wonder.
I like the poison with the snake.
It's consistent, if not comforting.
It doesn't sound like Meeting-speak.

"Want one of these?" I ask
handing him a crisp, white menthol
as our feet pound on the sidewalk.
"Thanks," he says again with a tint of shame
that I wish would disappear
considering shared time.
We walk back to his place
not letting our smokes
get interrupted by too much
half-assed philosophy.
I start to recite an inside joke
from fifteen years ago
but trail off for fear of foolish nostalgia.
He finishes the sentence
and sets me at ease.
It does him the same good
to spit out the old lines.
We're two habits we can't drop.

We watch a movie sequel in his room
as an excuse to stay together.
He was right: it's not as good
possibly due to less sex scenes.
"Nice bush," I say sincerely
during the one bone thrown
by the director. He laughs
unsure if I'm joking or not.
There are some oddities
that even old schoolmates
can't decipher, though they
don't outweigh the cadavers.
Once the credits roll
he hits the lights like they'd repel
ghosts. Some of us have more than others.
We both avoid the City
for our own switch-hitting reasons.

A tiny bug crawls along his makeshift table.
"Is that a roach?" I ask.
He kills it instinctively, swearing he
hadn't seen any for a week.
The hundreds of dots on the sheets
covering his futon shapeshift into vermin.
My mother warned of bringing them home
in clothes, but I suck it up.
Leaving too soon would be disrespectful.
I'll shake out my jeans under the overbearing
overhead light. There's an exterminator
who comes to my building every week.
My friend, on the other hand, may not
be a neighbor for much longer.
Living is prioritizing.
We've seen each other naked
in the showers at the neighborhood pool
growing up.

There isn't much left to discuss.
There isn't much time to deny it.


The Spaniard's Salute

My mother's on her own
search now for her father
who died before her birth.
Her tactics, as always, are razors.
She forwards me a list
of his medals, says the Army
would be happy to get the
cloth-and-brass tokens
of bleeding blue bravado
in the mail right away.

Neither of us met the man
but somehow these pins
will mean something, so she thinks.
Their names are vague:
Good Conduct Medal
American Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal
Honorable Service Lapel Button, WWII

But was he the guy who would always bum smokes?
Did he listen when the riflemen ranted of home?
Would any honest Joe want him in his foxhole?
Those are the things that'd make me proud now.
Hitler blew his own head off. It took a Little Boy
and a Fat Man to beat the Japanese.
My grandfather knew nothing of winning wars alone.
He died and left a family to fight their own battles.

There's a portrait of him in her living room.
His tie's tucked in to his khaki dress blouse
between the second and third buttons down
from the top. The near-black hair of his pompadour
and thin mustache glisten from the yellowed canvas.
In his eyes there swells a sadness that his kin
know all too well. Perhaps he sensed his day would come
so early in that car crash. A taxi's back seat soaked with
blood tells the tale. What are the odds of a fatal wreck
in Manhattan where traffic rarely exceeds thirty?
What are the chances that a poor single immigrant mother
who never learned the language would raise her two sons
and third unborn daughter in spite of adversity
stacked to the ceilings of factories, commercial kitchens
and churches doling out bread and secondhand clothing?

Send me the ribbons for that, Uncle Sam.
Show me the certificate you've penned in her name.
Where is the placard, the mural, the bust?
A street in the capital named in her honor?
Instead she waits in line for a glorified madhouse bed
where rotting minds die as the pills preserve bodies.
That's the fate the true heros suffer.
That's what waits at the Thirty-ninth Line.

There are veterans of wars that waged on for decades
who silently sink to the depths they've desired:
Five feet down to a merciful grave on a hill
near a soldier who died in the Fifties.

Currently reading:
"The Gunslinger" by Stephen King.


A Profitable Practice

They're funny, nerve endings.
That name is misleading. They seem
to be connected to parts wholly unrelated.
I've been conducting research on myself
and others lately.

The smooth spots between my knuckles
tickle the back of my throat when rubbed.
If you breathe in my ear a tingle shoots down
my spine and directly through my loins.
Merely hovering over my right armpit
will send waves of electrons through
the sinews of my lower back.
There are places, here unmentioned
that could crumble me like Jericho.
And, like in most men, a secret path
connects my stomach to my heart.

As for the fairer sex I'll state
the obvious applies
with the colorful additions
that no charlatan could learn.
You can be the judge of neurons
since I won't divulge my findings.
There are saints and there are scholars
and I define myself as neither;
just a man with two hands
and a mouth that loves the searching.

Gringo Red

It's a rare instance where the two of us
are riding together. Usually one follows
the other or we meet at the customer's house.
Today he's my passenger, or maybe it's more
that I'm his driver since he's the one sitting
on a thick wallet. That's how this system works--
the man with the green makes the rules, calls
the shots, decides how to handle the debriefing.
Capitalism's not afraid to get dirty. It lingers
in plumbing just the same as in sales.
My friend, most times my boss, is one of its agents.
He leans against the arm rest and points through
the window on his side of my truck. "I worked
at that house once. A Mexican almost died there."

It's not uncommon for unskilled labor to be injured.
They often don't take proper precautions to work
safely since time is of the essence when trying
to keep a job that a thousand other illegals would
give pints of blood to possess.
For conversation's sake I take the bait.
"Oh yeah? What happened?"

He turns his head and shoots me that sinister grin
that finds its way to his oldest boy's face
when he's about to drop a line.
My friend's fortunate for cloning himself.
He comes from good stock, or maybe he doesn't
but made his own fate and broke cycles.
"He was a carpenter's helper. They were tying off
a temporary scaffold and the Mexican slashed his
wrist by accident. Blood was spurting everywhere.
Major arterial bleeding." He pauses to take a sip
of his coffee as if to flex his hardened stomach.
I fail to see where the punch line is coming
but know that it's there from his tone.
"He refused to go to the hospital. Told his boss
he couldn't because he'd be deported. The guy
was going to bleed out and die on the jobsite
if no one did something quickly."

The corners of his mouth spread. I know
it's going to get interesting, but never
would guess what comes next.
"His boss decked him good. Knocked the little beaner
right out in one punch. We duct taped his arm
as best we could and carried him to the back of
the carpenter's truck. I held pressure on the wound
on the way to the hospital. That guy was lucky."

He shifts in his seat and waits for my commentary.
A good storyteller knows when to pause.
The lousy ones don't allow for digestion.
They fill the air with words like a canary
lines its cage with shit.

"So he made it?" I ask once my laughter subsides.

"Yeah, and they didn't send him back to his country.
That contractor made a tough call. He could've let him
die stubbornly, dumped his body in the river
and saved a few days' pay." He follows his statement
up with what we both know is a lie:
"I would've."

But a man who tapes an unconscious immigrant
day laborer's severed wrist, carries his limp body
to the bed of a truck, and fights against the pumping
of blood into daylight could never do such a thing.
Again, since he's paying, I let him play lead.
"Yeah. One less guy to cheat the system and
take an American's job," though we know
that's not always the case. It just sounds right.

We drive on in silence feeling sorry
for our fellow man who has to sell his soul
in order to make a living.
We only sell pipes and porcelain
and even that's debatable.
At the end of the day it's comfort
we peddle. Who in their right mind
won't pay for that? The luckiest among us
get it for free. My friend and I are blessed
and know it without saying. The saying
sometimes takes away from the doing
and we don't want to risk that loss.


Not for My Agent's Critical Eyes

I have a magic power:
I make streetlights
go out by driving under them

Dale used to do it, too.
It has something to do with
electromagnetic fields
or so he said.
He called it being a slider.
I call that his way
of getting his tongue into
your brain, your rifle on his side:
you and him against the world.
Being a motivator of men
is a power in itself, but there's
a fine line between
motivation and manipulation.
Dale believed his own lies
and didn't see the danger.
The honest painters find
the world in gray.
I'm no good with brushes.
Wrenches aren't my forte either.

You didn't hear this from me
but I have another magic power.
It has nothing to do with lights
or cars or Tesla
or kids I used to drink with at twenty
or anyone else, for that matter--
not even a woman for once.

I don't use it like I should.
The guilt glares at me.
You're watching it bleed out slowly
like a leaking boiler in a basement
no one cares enough to enter.
Maybe you're clapping. Maybe you're cringing.
Maybe you're vicariously embarrassed for me.
It has nothing to do with plumbing
or blood or cellars
but it's too late to shut up now.
It's too late for a lot of things.
Twenty-eight came too soon.
Dale never did, that slider.
I know that.
We shared women
and turned out lights together.

Now go look up Tesla.
He's still in the air.



My grandmother's shell
lays in the hospital bed
no longer combative
or tethered to the rails.
Her face is unfamiliar
with its new slouch created
by a lack of dentures
to match an absence of mind
and the fresh dose of sedatives
coursing through her tender veins.
The sterile stage is set, but the
lights won't dim to curtains.
She's propped up carefully
like a ventriloquist's dummy
sitting on the lap of Death.
Cruelly, He won't take her yet.
To us she died years back
but He prolongs His performance
for reasons unbeknownst.

"Mira, que bonita," she says
in an innocently excited tone
reminiscent of a five-year-old
at Christmas, her gnarled right hand
fingering the purple bracelet strapped
to her left wrist. If she knew what
its three letters meant
she'd find it even prettier--
a ticket out of this pointless encore.
"Si," I quietly agree in the
second language she taught me
when I was growing differently
than I am at twenty-eight.
Love, the first, yearns for a merciful
last show by the Silent Entertainer.

We lock eyes through her cataracts
and smile for very different reasons;
or maybe, in retrospect, our thinking
was the same.



A lazy, brazen doe catches my headlights
while I blame myself for letting
the steel find my friend's arm again.
I'm driving to pay the bills
at an ungodly morning hour
with an empty passenger seat
and too much on my mind.
Those stacks of twenties
that called him back to the fix
came from my zealous hands.
He needed the work, we needed
old friends; too much needing is a curse.
The victims can verify that claim.

I wanted to believe that his
chemical struggle was behind him
just as much for myself as for the kid
who gave me my first cigarette
back when homework, curfews
and dirty knees
were the worst of the world's problems.
The first two disappeared.
Dirty knees are still an issue.

I take a turn too hard and crush a hubcap
in the shoulder. I took the news too hard
and hit the bottle like a champ.
There still may be some poison floating
in the shadows of my system.
We have our separate demons
but we're addicts just the same.

"Your past doesn't define you,"
lies a sarcastic roadside church sign.
A few miles down another congregation
promotes a pancake supper with black lettering.
Those Christfolk have it wrong:
Eggs are best for dinner
and the devil's not so bad.
It's we mere mortals who
mislead ourselves every day
into believing that we can change
a Goddamned thing
other than our clothing.
The skin we're stuck in's welded.
The cover's like the book.
There must be a thirteenth step
that's gone undiscovered.
Kid, we've let each other down again
and this time youth's no excuse.


On Damaging Sold Goods

A sore day of non-existence
is best punctuated
by this one-line message
from a friend who's been
silent for months:
"Bukowski was right
about everything."


Solder Me

A long day of slinging pipe
renders me useless
from the neck down
and arguably north as well.
The sweet stench of that amber
non-precious metal
used to transport water
sustenance, life itself
permeates my pillowcase
my bloodstream, the very core
of who I am--
But I am not a plumber.
I'm a man who pays his bills
with pipes.

Someday, after pocketing some change
in a checkout line and then scratching his face
my son will think of me
when smelling copper on his fingers
if the penny doesn't die
along with my trade and my dream.
"Dad would've been happy,"
he'll tell himself to justify his purchase.
And somewhere, in the special hell reserved
for those who deny what they are, I'll be
nodding my head in sweaty agreement.
One can only be so lucky.

I'll take my chances
at the wheel.
Put it all on red, Abe.
I've got this funny feeling.


Stay True

It used to be lager
and then it was Jack
that gave me the courage
that my stomach lacked
to say what I meant
when it mattered most.
I read all the Russians
and prayed to their ghosts.

I know what you're thinking
'cause they've wondered, too--
Would it be someone else
if it wasn't you?
But I've played the field
so I know what's not there.
Most of those damsels
won't let down their hair
for a guy with a penchant
for blood and the pen
who isn't quite now
what he almost was then
but he wakes in the morning
with a saint on his mind
who unlike the years
has been mighty kind.
I'll never be perfect
but I'll try to be
the man you deserve
to rock you to sleep.

Sometimes it's Sailor.
It sure won't be Jack.
That speech I was slurring--
I don't take it back.


A Master of Suspense

"We're different," Tone confesses, failing to acknowledge that he's not devoted much time to either party's true desires. "I've got all the time in the world, but I feel I'm wasting yours." He takes a sip from his bottle of dark lager and ponders the pending response. Its courier isn't there to spew it. He's talking to the walls. His overly creative mind would normally run rampant with possibilities, but the alcohol's served its purpose in that senses and brain cells have been successfully numbed for the evening. And to think he once foolishly yearned for the traps of drunkenness and monogamy, though not in that order.

Tone takes another liberating gulp. He's starting to remember why he preferred to drink alone when it used to flow like water in his dusty, whitewashed rooms. He's starting to miss no one but the kid who could've turned out differently had he known his full potential. Tone was a fan of nostalgia, especially when it involved former selves. Even the regrets didn't make it worth forgetting: Tone could've been a contender someday. At the end of thirsty, self-destructive nights there were only facts like that one on which to cling for dear life. Tone was a meager realist. He knew which truths could save him. The list was short, but it was there, much like his temper, his vision, his cock.

The dog scratches desperately at the door between his room and the next. Tone breaks his stride as the seventh beer is cracked. If Jodie were here to see him now she'd shake her head and wonder. How could a man so hellbent on living sentence himself to a life of confinement? Even only children need their time in the playground. Tone's problem was that he didn't know how to jump off the swings when the sun was setting. He'd ride it out until no one else was left. He'd done it before, over and over again to the point of an ailing stomach and ringing ears. There was no margin of error once the learning curve was eroded. A conscious declaration to ignore past mistakes prevented him from making more healthy decisions. "It's not conducive," they tended to remind him. "Conducive to what?" he wanted to ask. They never finished their sentences. They never finished anything but that which he hoped would last a lifetime. He was still naive enough to believe in forever. It'd be a few years before words like that would lose meaning. It'd be a few more Jodies before he'd pack it in for good and resign himself to an existence of sporadic carpentry gigs and lonely conversations with strangers while walking the dog. There were worse fates than that. At least becoming his father wasn't one of them anymore. There are people who learn your name because they want it. There are people who learn your name because they want to add it to their lists.

Tone almost knocks his brew off the nightstand while grasping for his ringing telephone, a lifeline tossed from a raft. At this hour it could only be one person. The others got their respective hints one way or another. He saw to that, though the means and ends weren't equal. "Hello," he chokes into the receiver, beer breath bouncing off the plastic and back up into his nostrils. "How was your night?" he asks ever timidly.

"I don't want to sleep alone. Come on over and I'll tell you all about it," Jodie suggests from her end of the line. Tone's not one to argue when a beautiful woman wants his company. He walks to the kitchen to pour what's left of his lager down the drain. There will be other nights to over-analyze the fare on the pity train. Reality seems a better bet than hypotheticals this time. He grabs it before it can pull its head back into its shell and swim away.

The round is won, but not thanks to him. The wrath of Modern Woman is surpassed only by her mercy. There are times to beg, borrow, and steal. Tone, like a reformed criminal worthy of his salvation, knows the difference.