The Truth In My Rear-View

Somehow I'm running
on three hours sleep
my foot hard against
the gas pedal's spring.
The truck up ahead
has out of state plates--
we're both hired guns
here for the quick cash.
We storm over
rolling, back-country hills
at warp speed
whizzing by off-season corn
and a river that's lazy and laden with trout
en route to our cherished
but lonely hotels.

Seventy-two in a fifty-five zone
without a care until we come up
on a tired old truck
that's spotted with rust.
It clearly belongs to a native
of here, a farmer or fisherman
or Jack-of-all-trades.
Its cargo of scrap rattles in bed
as the truck putts along
at a turtle's top speed.
My cohort and I take
the first chance we get
to zip around Cletus
and make up lost time.
No finger, no horn
no lights flash at us
as we disregard local
respect for the norm.

It's not until miles
of pavement ahead
that a scene slows me down
to the specified speed.
A house that I've passed
at least thirty times
was gutted by flame
since I've last seen the place.
The firetrucks must come
from townships away
and can't save the timber
in time like back home.
Caution tape lines the yard like a threat.
No Trespassing signs
dot the doors on the porch.

My neck cranes while soaking
the tragedy in and I let my conspirator
race off alone. We're guests in
this town, ours smells just the same
their lives will drag on
long after we're gone.
It takes something more
than a heavy right foot
to make it in such a desolate place.
True grit, some call it, but that's
nothing more than saying
that some folks don't hurry
to death.

All of this is challenged
two days later
when I ask about
the fire
while paying for my gas.
"No one died," she tells me
while reaching for my pack.
"Arson or a meth lab
according to police."
I smirk on my way out
strangely feeling better
since no matter how you spin it
we're all in the same shipwreck.

Currently reading:
"Lone Survivor" by Marcus Luttrell.


Road Trashed

Your boots aren't off for long enough to let the swamp of sweat evaporate. One costly pair have already gone by the wayside. You learn your lesson and where Walmart is located in the strange town you're temporarily inhabiting.

You save all your receipts in an envelope for your tax guy. If he's worth his salt he'll get back a decent portion of what Uncle Sam robbed from your overtime pay.

You shave your throat once a week no matter what. No one respects a neckbeard and it hurts your eyes to see yourself in such disrepair when you wash up in the morning. If there were women in your hotel they'd be frightened. Your outside appearances matches your soul.

Your meals come at times so random they're not designated with fancy terms like lunch or dinner. You just eat what you want when you're hungry. That's often sardines at three in the morning. No one's there to judge or smell your breath.

Your friendships feel on hold until you'll be around to be one. Relationships are a luxury of the past. You fall in love with your bed and your check, though not necessarily in that order. Rare rest and blood money fuel your heavy steps like phantom forces.

If you get hurt on the job you don't say a word. You wouldn't want an OSHA Recordable. They're frowned upon by the men who sign the checks. You've got other fingers, others hands, other feet. You'll use the ones in better shape. If only you'd been born with doubles of every organ.

Using anything above a three-dollar word becomes pointless. You'll only have to define it afterward and risk being scorned a snob. When in Rome you become Roman and don't ask folks to pardon your French. Anything else would be Greek to them. You swallow words like that last sip of a generously poured cocktail that you know won't end well for anyone involved.

You don't remember the last time you signed your name on so much paperwork. It means less with every feeble stroke of the pen. It crosses your mind that even infanticide can be anonymous. There are rights for things like fixing a problem, but not installing pipes for a living. Still, you make your mark when asked. It's good enough for government work.

Your senses are sharpened, your awareness heightened, despite the fact that you're a walking corpse. You turn your head so abruptly at the delicious sound of a woman's voice that it almost spins off your spine. The floral scent of a lady passing by sends you reeling into a world of fantasies where you don't need the money more than the heartache and none of this has happened. None of this.

Your sex life becomes laughable, an unfamiliar thing of the past. Your reunion with your hand makes you feel like a teenager, though now the novelty's faded. You wonder if you'll ever have intercourse again, let alone engage in what no man admits to doing: making love.

And the sick part, the rub, the thing that makes the least sense to others who haven't done it, and even sometimes yourself, is that there's only one thing on your mind while you drift to somewhere safer as the sun begins ascending: when you'll get the holy chance to do it all over again.

But hasn't that always been your case, oh stubbornly cyclic stranger?

--Michael "Shakespeare" Vahsen, Journeyman Pipefitter, Local Union 373
   Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station. Oswego, New York. April 2012.

Currently reading:
"Mockingjay" by Suzanne Collins.


Another Shelved Memento

I almost end a life
with my foot there in the gravel.
The smoke's got me
at ease, my mother's
voice distracted
but I notice the blue oval
right before my boot comes down.

There are no trees
within stone's throw
and the roofline's got no nests
so this windblown robin's egg
will not return to nature.
It's cold to touch already
so I'm guessing it's too late
but I stow it in my pocket
while we end our conversation.
The sorry sack of nerves I am
I take the thing inside.

Some socks within a pot
simulate an incubator.
I turn the bathroom heater on
and leave the manmade nest.
It's doomed to never hatch
if it didn't die in transit.
The sunny side is that
the scrambled chick
was over easy.

It'll wind up on my dresser
with the rest of the sad trinkets--
the reminders that what comes
must go
and all the in-betweens.
Someday someone
who thinks she knows
a shred about her lover
will pick that silly shell up
and ask him what it means.

Currently reading:
"American Sniper" by Chris Kyle.


Another Reason Why I Don't Use Mind-Altering Drugs

No more going to bed on an empty stomach. I dream of what I long for. That kind of ride qualifies as a nightmare, especially when I wake and find it's not there.

I was with her. We were going to ride down with one of her friends to meet a group of people at someone else's house, maybe her uncle's. I don't even know if she has an uncle, but that's where we were going...until I couldn't fit in her friend's vehicle, funnily enough. It was decided I'd ride down with someone else. In an incongruent, dreamworld plot hole, however, I was instantly teleported to our

Two of her male friends were there waiting as well. We sat on couches in the living room and made awkward small talk. Then a big brute of a man wearing a wifebeater came in and harrassed us a bit. It was his house, he was allowed to. I stood for it, or sat, until he came back a second time. "You and you," he spat, pointing at me and one of the other apparently unwanted guests. "Start sweeping. It's a mess in here."

When he went to procure the brooms I stood up, put my welder's hat on, and made my way for the door. It wasn't worth the aggravation, curly red hair or not. On my way out I bumped into the man's wife and two girls in their twenties, presumably their children. I explained the situation and my desire to bow out gracefully, then continued down the walkway toward the street. I wouldn't make it far, though. My angered host would see to that.

I don't ever recall being hit so hard in a dream that I felt it in reality. Not until now, that is. All of a sudden I received a devastating blow in my left ear that loosened my teeth and caused my right ear drum to pop. A southpaw with a mean sucker-punch. Figures. I saw stars and wound up in the grass, the man's bare arms locked through mine as he pinned me to his lawn.

"How dare you leave without cleaning!" he shouted. "And then to tell my family what I asked of you..."

My head spun as I tried to make sense of it. This nut asked two strangers to sweep the hardwood floor of his living room for no reason and then attacked one of them from behind for choosing to leave instead. What was the world coming to? I was afraid I already knew the answer.

Somehow I managed to wriggle my hand into my right pocket and get a solid grip on my cell phone. I opened it up and went to dial the lady I'd been waiting on, but realized she wouldn't be able to help. Perhaps I merely wanted to hear her voice one last time, to tell her I loved her, to apologize for all the damage I'd done. You know: the usual. I opted for 911 instead, but immediately between thumbing the 9 and the first 1 I reassessed the situation. With this goon on top of me I wouldn't be able to effectively communicate what was going on, let alone my location. It made more sense to take matters into my own hands, or so it seemed at the time.

I ditched the phone and reached down for the razor-sharp pocket knife I always carry-- the one that mysteriously went missing at my ex's house one Christmas, thus forcing me to drop $60 on a replacement. The original turned up again almost a year later. She gave it back, even though we were through by that time. I passed it along to the friend I've known the longest in the hopes that it'd bring him better luck. My presents were great that year, but the presence wasn't. There are some things best left uncelebrated. She was peeved when she found out I gave it to him. That made it all the sweeter. I'd given her enough already, most of which could never have a dollar amount assigned to it. What's the cost of sanity?

But back to that knife. I beg your pardon. My thumb flicked open the actuator and it swung into its glory. I flipped it around in my hand so the blade was protruding from the bottom of my fist and positioned it in front of my assailant's liver. All it'd take was a quick jab and twist to end the senseless, brutal beating being doled out like I'd earned it. I hadn't, at least not as far as this man was concerned. Something inside of me couldn't make that incision, though. There was a fine line between carrying a knife and using one to take human life that I wasn't prepared to cross. For what deceptively seemed like an eternity I held the point to his skin. Finally he felt it poke his gut and wrestled it from my hand. It was all over but the screaming, as my mother used to say. I don't know where he decided to plant that sucker, but I'm aware that it slammed home. I woke with a jerk and felt like one. Killed with my own knife. What a way to go. And all of it happened while waiting for a woman, for my love to arrive. The whole scenario dripped with so much irony that my pillow was literally soaked; at least that's what I figured the thick layer of drool on my face and the linens could represent in a perfect literary world. You know us writers: always looking for meaning in metaphor though we couldn't add our way out of a wet paper bag.

I lost the girl. I didn't save the world. I had my own phallic weapon used against me. I died so hard that I woke up disturbed and haven't been able to sleep again in the four hours since.

When my kids get to the chapter on dad's first time working out of town this is the overcast sky they'll discover. It ain't easy to face the Lake Effect winds alone, let alone nuclear radiation. But like Roland of Gilead, son of Steven and last gunslinger said many times over, "Do not forget the face of your father."

Currently reading:
"Catching Fire" by Suzanne Collins.


The Gunslinger's Bluff

The features
of his apparition's face
are so soft it's as though
his Maker
used a dull knife
when carving his bones
or didn't bother
to finish whittling.
Then, as a final kidney shot
to whatever chance
the kid had
He slapped some
red hair on his head.
For thirty-five years
he's slinked about
with this curse
though he looks
not a day over my age.
All six-four of him
could easily disappear
back home out west
and very few people
would know the difference.
I can tell.
It's in that baritone false confidence
he whispers all night long.
Part of me feels bad
for not paying more attention
to his tales of female conquest
which bore me more
than counting ceiling tiles.

But when Buffalo's best lover
starts in on giving pointers
I perk up like a puppet
who's suddenly been fisted.
"You've got to talk to women
like you already know them,"
he says regarding the newly acquainted.
My eyes make the rare gesture
of locking with this ginger's
and give it to him straight
since my tongue's not bred for biting.
"If I knew the girl already
I wouldn't waste my breath."

He stares from stupid eyes
now belittled by a cynic
whose words have cut more flesh
than the Good Lord's busy hands.
Smiling, I change the subject.
There are some battles
best left for better men
way out there across
the desert.
When I find my true opponent
I shall take a sandy knee.

They Should've Stayed In Their Cocoons

I was barely over
the legal limit
on my way home
Monday morning.
My crew stopped
for liquid breakfast
after Sunday night's shift.
The bartender dates
our foreman
so no one could
shoot for the moon.
Free rounds kept coming.
I gave my last chip away
when I started to feel
like staying.
One more brown bottle
may have made
my right foot heavier
during the ride home.
It wasn't worth the jail time.
There were no motivators in sight.

It was the first real
springtime morning
up and out at sixty-five.
God Rays shined down
from between magenta clouds
making fresh grass greener
than the money I'd be making.
In the humid bath tub air
the first brood of butterflies
floated to their deaths
against my windshield
for fourteen semi-sober miles.
I had to veer around
a horse-drawn cart
conducted by an Amish man
in a wide-brimmed black hat.
At first it made me wonder
if I'd felt them more
than I thought, but then
I heard the truck behind me
blow his horn in protest.

When I pulled down
the driveway, parked
and hopped out
lunchbox and backpack in hand
I saw the dusty outlines
of fragile wings
all along my front bumper
and felt immensely guilty
for dousing nature's fire.

A voicemail from my father
set the tone for feeble sleep:
"Hope that you're not lonely
and you're doing well
up there."
I could hear it in his voice.
He knew it all


(I've Been With Women...)

...I should've married.
...who are engaged.
...who deserved me.
...who DESERVED me.
...so innocent they made me seem sadistic.
...so psychotic they made me seem sane.
...who'll take my secrets to the grave.
...who exploited my greatest fears.
...who were out of my league.
...who knew I could do better.
...who said I was a catch.
...who treated me like a chore.
...who were good in bed.
...who were better at sleeping.
...who should've had my children.
...who knew we weren't ready.
...who've hit home.
...who've hit me.
...who still ask how I'm doing.
...who've tried to forget.
...I've never lied to.
...who got tired of catching me.
...who could almost go drink-for-drink.
...who tried being Irish, but only grew horns.
...who encouraged my passion.
...who scoffed at my hobby.
...who deserve a few lines.
...who ruined some songs.
...whom my mom loved.
...whom my mother tolerated.
...who knew it wasn't my dad's fault.
...who blamed my father for my sins.
...who were in the right place at the wrong time.
...whom I should've cut out like a cancer.
...who miss how my saliva feels.
...who know how far I can spit.

Oh God
if You're up there
counting coup
and keeping tally
of all the poor bodies
I've been inside
do this tired clown
one favor
and let them know
I'm sorry.
My only defense is simple:

I've been with women.


You Brandish Summer Nights

I slip it
from my pocket
hold it above the wheel
and examine its profile
using illuminated highway
ahead of me.
It's the smallest one
I own, can hide it
in my palm.
Naysayers scoff
at a .22
but in proficient hands
it can do the same job
The mob used them
to plant men's faces
in their final bowls of spaghetti.
One behind the ear
rattles around in the skull
scrambling gray mass
like some grotesque
ostrich egg.
I'm no gangster
but I'm good
with what I own.

A closer lane-dazed look
tugs me out of autopilot.
The cylinder is angled
down into the barrel.
It should hit when fired.
It should blow up in my hand
but hasn't
and won't.
There's a grand design beyond me.
What's meant to be will be.

I slide it back where it belongs
and head to my motel room.
The part I can't make up
is that a star fell
in the woods.
They asked us on the psych test
if we believed in signs and symbols.
I told the truth and held my breath.
I'm not sure what it means, though.


A Cannibal's Trophy

Samson made a riddle
of a lion's head and honey.
Samson made a mess
when he trusted in Delilah.
She took his hair, they burnt
his eyes, and squared up
for the jaw bone.
Samson made a few mistakes
that outweighed all his strength.

I'm waiting for a verdict, too.
The blade is in the fire.
This one's meant to cauterize
a wound that's bleeding out.
A word will come to sear
the skin, my callous will be formed
and nothing like a hero
I'll go back to taking scalps.


Some Sacrilege to Warm the Ham

On the day
when "He is risen"
gets rammed into
ears of children
as they search
for painted eggs
and the candy
rots their teeth
I find it unimpressive
how the clergy
slung their story
with a stone rolled
to the side
and some linens
left behind.

It'd make for
better headlines
and more candles
lit on street shrines
if their hero
kept His promise
and remained
among the dead
but instead He stole
His thunder
and pulled some strings
with Daddy.
Martyrdom's prerequisite
is rotting with the rest of them.

Currently reading:
"The Waste Lands: The Dark Tower III" by Stephen King.


On Picking Wildflowers

Call me Ishmael.
Call me Ahab.
Call me anything
but late for dinner.

There are times
to use words
to cut down
at the knees
but this one is best
left in silence
where you like me.
Do you know where you belong?

Four-out-of-five dentists agree--
Sugar makes
the world go 'round
and suds slow it down
to a dizzying spin.

The two women
with taut tethers
to my heart
suggest I sprout a set.
Here it is:


Comedic Timing; or, At Least I'm Not the Only One

He almost resembles
a humanized Muppet
a caricature of himself
a beer-soaked plumber of sixty
with white hair wrapped
around a shiny, liver-spotted dome.
Words jiggle through
his loose-skinned throat
with an elder's authority
that can't be faked convincingly
by a cocksure youngbuck.
In every other sentence
he refers to the listener as 'guy'
a trademark poorly reproduced
by impersonators in the local.
The Silver Bullet next to him
on the counter
has freed his lips
to share with the grateful stranger
who's doing the dishes
for the third night this week.

"It's almost time to call the bride,"
he confesses to the can
and whoever else is listening.
What's not to admire
about that quaint expression?
It keeps their love young, makes
the matrimony seem as fresh
as yesterday's bad news.
"Twenty-five years
and we've never had an argument..."
he brags while his pale blue eyes lock
with a set of dark marbles
trying not to flinch
with Heineken and envy.
"...That I've won."

The kitchen roars
with sympathetic laughter
or it does in this sterile placebo
while the hen-pecked victor
proceeds to tap the Rockies.

All is as it should be.
We mortal men are tamed.
Somewhere in the distance
a fox outruns its tail.


Congrats, Brock Davenport

In the hours between
waking and dawn
when my begging bladder
longs for release
come the dreams
that can only
belong to a leper
praying for one chance
at redemption.
Words flow like antifreeze
almost as sweet
with a host of those folks
who in daylight, in real time
would not drop their zippers
if I were in flames.

Sometimes they buy it.
Some mates are stale.
There's always a jolt
when the ruse is discovered--
Waking to radio silence and cereal
for the sixth time this week
along with the blues.
Victories in the world of the conscious
come as the flipside to smaller defeats:
She finally got her single karat
square cut diamond
and one loser claps
from the nosebleed seats.

Right Church. Wrong Pew.

For five years his voice
scared the piss out of me.
Now it's a reminder of
how relative things are.
I heard it last night
in the form of a message.
When he called
I sent him to voice mail
since I didn't feel up to
pretending to be anything
than what I was: lonesome
in a crowd.

As soon as he finished
I dialed and listened.
"Hi, Mike. It's Dad.
Josh keeps running
around the house
saying 'Michael, where are you?'
It's really cute."

He hands the phone
to my two-year-old brother
for corroboration.
"Mi-cull. Broth-er,"
he chirps into the mouthpiece
with an innocence
that can't help
but make me smile
even though I can hear
him being coaxed
a bit from the background.
"Where are you, Mi-cull?
Mommy says..." and then
our father repossesses the phone
while the kid stumbles through
unchartered linguistic territory
that's still mostly undiscernible.

"See? I told you, he misses you.
I took him swimming last week.
He's treading water."
There was more to the recording
but all I could think of
from that point forward
was that one more thing
was shared between the boy and me
aside from common genes.

Treading water, huh?
You and me both, brother.
Let's stay in the game
'til you're old enough
for me to buy you
a celebratory cocktail
or four.
I'll do what he didn't.
I'll tell you where I went wrong
to give you a running start.
You'll never forget
at least one dress
whether or not
you deserved its contents.
Keep kickin'.

Currently reading:
"The Drawing of the Three: The Dark Tower II" by Stephen King.