One About a Ribcage

the only poetess
I've ever railed
with feeling
asked if I still had it:
the verse she penned
nine years ago:
an ode to star-crossed
"It's been my favorite one
I want to read it again,"
she said.

At first I swore I did--
the packrat sentimentalist
who cherishes his trinkets.
I dug through drawers
in the desk my mother bought
when I was in fourth grade
to no avail:
Just photos of another;
And postcards;
And notes;
Reminders of the criminal
who purged
what wasn't hers.
Pictures painted:
Cursed verses:
Snapshots not including her:
Missing ancient history.
Clandestine acts of vengeance
set like landmines by a maid;
Almost two years later
and she's still staking her claim.
I send a text to tell her so.
Thank God there's no reply.

I may live this life
without another rhyme
ever making way to paper
thin enough to pierce my skull.
There are men who die unwritten.
Most of them don't mind.
But me, I'll always wonder
why the optimist forgot
to commit her lines to memory.

There was one about my ribs.



The patrolman's spotlight
illuminates the stage
through fogged up windows.
Thankfully it's mostly conversation
that he's catching.
We fiddle for ID
and hand it over
promising to leave the park
like truant teens.
"I didn't see the sign.
It's dark and raining."
He buys it because it's the truth.
The best lies usually are.

I follow her
to the train station
and recognize the rollers
on a car parked down the block.
This will be a safe place
to harbor curiosity.
It's almost 3 am
but the Metro runs all night.
"Are you sure we're good?"
she asks as we lean in for a kiss.
"Better than good,"
and I hope this isn't passing
like the empty locomotive
rolling through without a whistle.

I lay awake another hour
after getting home at four.
It's been too long
since someone's
held my hand across a table.
Our waitress at the diner
didn't mind our endless dinner.
Blah blah blah blah blah
and four syllables right here.

(It's not writing if you're happy
but I'd rather live than scribble.)

Currently reading:
"Gates of Fire" by Steven Pressfield.


For Those Just Tuning In

If you read
the written record
of his failures
out of context
you'll miss the point
he's making
and assume
the count is final.

(Final was the morphine
his mom kept in the fridge
that hospice had delivered
when his grandmother
was dying.
Final was the story
that he swore he'd never tell.
Final was the way
they all looked
over shoulders
when they realized
that to stay with him
they'd curse themselves
to Hell.)

There are far worse things
than lonely.
Only sinners learn to love.
He wears and shares
his stumblings
whether with
or without whiskey.

When asked
to sum himself up
in a solitary word
the rambler
doesn't miss a beat--
"Resilient" bounces back.



Cowgirl prevails
and the new year's official.
I left a fresh roll on the counter
but she doesn't see it
and digs under the bathroom sink.
A glass of water is offered and accepted.
Clothes go back on shamelessly.

I hear her sigh
as she descends
my stairwell
both of us confused
as to our intentions.
The deadbolt slams home
keeping me in
more than them out.

It takes an extra blow
to extinguish the candle
on my night stand.
I lay in the dark
staring straight
and scratch myself.
So this is twenty-nine:
more of the same, but closer
to the inevitable.
I dislike it already.

And if you want the absolute
God's honest
Scout's honor truth
I'll give it to you:
I don't want to meet anyone.
I'm tired of explaining myself.
Even those who understood
don't get me anymore.
I'm toward the top of that list.

More staring.
More scratching.
I fall asleep to the intangible.

Michael, row the boat ashore.
We're all tired of your shit.


One Less Dreamer On Main Street

He strides sans braggadocio
some consider swagger
toward his solo bachelor
birthday sushi
not that these dates matter.

When the tiny Asian girl in black
sits him near the sidewalk
he laughs, as any seaman would
considering the times
often wasted with the wrong souls
perched behind the glass
for the passersby to gawk at
while he tried exuding class

but the truth is that he's better
less the mercy of their thighs.
There's no such thing as comfort.
It's another Friday night.

Nothing Like Sheep

My mother's card came first.
The one from my insurance agent
didn't count, regardless of its
real signatures from office staff.
Of course, hers had a religious theme:
the blessing that was my birth, etc.
She penned a script novella
in the margins true to form
and included several pictures
from our last fun time with Grandma.

There were some keepers in there, ones
I hadn't seen til then, the three of us
with smiles that no sadness could repel.
"Thanks, those are great photos,"
I told her on the phone.
"She's been gone now for one hundred
and thirty-nine days," she sighed.
It broke my heart.
She's counting.
And I'll someday know the sorrow
of not having parents left.

We take death as it comes:
the final part of life.
We try to fit the splinters
back together when they're gone.
Like warriors on horseback
we move on counting coup
in the form of days remembered
that no Man in Black can have.


The Heathen's Final Hour

I'm loading up mags
in the back room
when I hear the Secret Knock:
One, two.
One. Two.
It's never been said explicitly
but developed over time--
the hesitant refrain of a friend
who knows better.
I jam the last three rounds in
and make way for the door.

"They're coming for you,"
he tells me through the four-inches
allowed by the chain.
"They caught me in the hallway.
Asked when you're around.
I answered in Spanish to throw them.
Next time they'll bring an interpreter.
They mean business.
They want you.

His news arrives as no surprise.
I knew this day would come.
"Thanks," I tell him
sliding a cheap Chinese food container
through the crack.
The neighbors send me meals sometimes.
My sentence has its perks.
"Tell her it was perfect."

I resume my faithful loading.
Lock the guns up.
Go to sleep.

The sun's been out for hours
when I wake to threatening cadence:
Two-three. Five, Six.
Sev'. Eight.
"Shave and a haircut:
two bits."
It's them.
I'm done.
It's over.

My feet swing down
from the mattress.
They're pounding again
but I'm too drunk with my fate
to notice which chipper tune it is.
The hardware stays locked up.
If they want me, they can have me--
like this, in my boxers, with crud on my face.

I don't bother with the peep hole.

"Hello?" I ask humbly
awaiting my conviction
through that four-inch space
that seems to gape
between me and the suits.

"Mr. Vargas! We've finally
found you!" one of them exclaims.
"Do you know," sings the other
"that the Lord loves you
so much that He knows every hair
on your head?"

I scratch myself through my shorts
behind the safety of the door
hoping God's not granted
X-ray vision to his well-pressed Witnesses.

"Yeah, I've heard that one,"
I remind them with a sigh, rubbing my skull
with my visible hand.
"Do you have any literature on you?"

They beam with delight, ruffle through
their briefcases, and assault me with
some pamphlets that contain pastel cartoons.

"Thanks," I smile piously.
"But I really must be going.
I'm meeting with a man at noon
who wants to buy my soul."

The door cannot close fast enough.
I hear them through the hardwood:
"That poor man is doomed.
Do you think that he was naked?"

I'm still laughing when I flip my eggs.
If there's a God
He's on my side.
We share the same sick humor.


Keep Up Your Kegels

The Devil buys no souls.
He's diversified his bonds.
It's a common misconception
romanticized by lore.

Besides, what's left of ravaged men
can hardly pay a debt;
and as for ravished women:
the Morning Star quotes Job.

If you could hock
what isn't yours--
If you could trade your fate--
Would you sway the Sculptor's swing
so His hammer missed the chisel?

Medals aren't what make a man.
Success: semantic antics.
A bottle broke my nose once.
I wouldn't sell that scar.


Introitus Interruptus

I'm leaning on the bed
sweaty and pumping away
when I'm jolted so hard
that I almost pull out.
"What the Hell?" I yell
as she turns around
making fearful eye contact.

My grip loosens.
I drop my hose and ask
if she realizes what she's done.
A blank stare says otherwise.

I resume filling 'er up
and let her drive away.
I've gotten good at that.

It's only a scratch
on my bumper
but enough flesh wounds
will bleed out the best.

Chivalry's not dead;
it's just drowning in pressed grapes.


Like Sherman Burnt Georgia

My mother swears
"She's out there";
always tells me so.
God, I fucking hope not.
What's life without a hunt?

Shotguns are for peace time.
Rifles are for war.
The truth's reserved for late at night
when you're all at the bar.

Currently reading:
"Against the State:  An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory" by Crispin Sartwell.


Pot Calling Kettle

One of them
carried a Jenga piece
in case she had to knock on wood.

Another slept with a bar of soap
under her pillow
even at my place
because she liked to smell
and fondle it.

The saddest called me
a psychopath
after I brought her flowers
though she's been taking meds
for half her life, been diagnosed.

Then there was the nut
my so-called friends all loathed.
We sometimes wish we'd wifed it.
(We speak in Royal We.)

But whoever said that opposites attract
was waxing roses.
The crazy ones don't find me.
We sniff each other out.

Plenty of Fish

The irony escaped him
like the trout that we were hunting
but I was mortified enough for two
as we fished the lake at Bear Mountain
and the newlyweds appeared
for their sunset photo shoot
the wedding cake just barely
in their bellies.

"We're in the shot, Dad.
We should move over."
He pretends not to hear me
but I slide to the left
still reeling in my lure
while searching for the cameras
filming my reaction.
It seems a well played joke
custom tailored for a bachelor
brazenly sanguine and stubbornly hopeful
for what isn't, but should be.

"Good. Now don't look at each other,"
the photographer demands
from the perfect, snow globe couple.
Her hands cling to his cummerbund.
I throw the hook again.

"It's getting dark," my father says.
"You ready?"

My eyes are catching diamonds
and flecks of polished gold
from their corners
when I answer
a question never asked.

"Yeah, I'm ready."


Sardines for Dinner

My neighbor
growing up
smoked a pipe
in spite of cancer.
That sweet tobacco scent
still comforts me today.
Once, when I was five
I leapt into his pool
without my water wings attached.
I squatted on the bottom.
Pete jumped in and saved me.
It's strange what you remember.

It isn't that we can't
but rather:
We don't want to.
There are lines
in things like sand.
Some cross them
just to see.

My father took the fence down
between our place and the Bakers'.
I smelled when Pete was home
through the hole cut in his throat.


Square Peg. Round Hole. Dead Trails.

My stomach grumbles
on a stiff mattress
that hasn't hosted
the likes of this forlorn lover
in quite some time.
An array of pillows
is scattered on the floor
in the darkness of a room
I've never seen lit up.
The one I kept to sleep on
is too thick, too firm
and breaking my neck
like a slow-working noose.
Gas pains plague my guts
as I try to focus
on the familiar sound of the fan
instead of her eyelashes blinking.

This is the music
when the charm routine ends.

I keep her up most of the night
feeling awful that she works so early.
My tossing and turning
cannot be contained.
I'm a coyote with his leg in a trap
that doesn't want to gnaw through the bone
in case it's never caught again.
Her alarm clock beckons, she stalks
to the shower, I dress and make way
for the door while it's safe.
Goodbyes are harder than hellos
so it seems.
Part of me wants to make the bed
but I don't bother with my own.
Why falsely advertise?
I tried being honest.
I saw where it got me.
I'll slip out like I slid in:

An ice storm coated my truck
overnight. I warm it up enough
for the wipers to work
and pull out
for the second time.
"Bullets," I mumble
as I head for the bridge.
Too many muscles relax
as I cough. 
Those rumbling bowels
get their revenge.
Oh no.
That didn't happen.
My life is a Ben Stiller movie.
The drive of shame's intensified
with a new sense of urgency.
I climb the stairs to my place
and tend to pressing matters.
Maybe not having kids
wouldn't be so bad.
There are certain trials
you have to face alone.
They're the ones that make you.

Sleeping it off until mid-morning
feels better than I deserve.
I shoot back across the bridge
and double-park my vehicle
while delivering a package
that crossed my mind before:
a box of copper bullets
for that gun she's never fired.
I know what it's like
to be unprepared
when the cavalry says
they're not coming.

The bag hangs from her doorknob.
There's no need for a note.
She's never liked my words.
I can't say that I blame her.


Reflections On a First and Last

The coat rack welcomes
me back home
to my still
third-storey walk-up.
Where the metal's
scraped the wood
is clear--
They see where
I'm rubbed raw.

I take a swig of week-old wine
and wonder--
Why'd it sour?

My bladder drains
the drinks we shared
and offers consolation.

I hang my best plaid shirt again
to fight another day
as Casey grips his birch.
We cling to hope like bettors.

The Three-Day Rule is tossed aside
to ask if she's home safe.
My senses prove as honed as feared--
she's home, I'm great
(from a distance)
(for another).

I knew when she
thanked me three times--
the guilt of robbing hangdogs.

More wine.

Blizzards and Bygones

There was a time
though not for some years
that getting snowed in
was a threat of good fortune
with chili and chocolate
and movies on couches;
with anything but
a girl, fully dressed.

"The Words" by Jean-Paul Sartre.


Why I Am Not a Short Story Writer

There was a story I'd been meaning to write for years. It wasn't very good, not even in that primordial mental soup that tends to make lustreless notions shine. Perhaps it was due to the Nineteenth Century Russian novelists I'd been reading with their cynical tears staining the candelit pages, or Papa's blind bravado plagued by the need for a love unreal, but whatever it was should've stayed in my subconscious. Every few cycles of the sun I'd get the sophomoric urge to tackle my ungainly American classic once and for always, critics be damned. All of these spasms were squelched by the vainly conservative belief that it was not yet time to unload such greatness upon the literary battlefield; and so, thankfully for all parties, it was vanquished and banished to the cobwebbed recesses of my over-zealous mind. Only now, in this relatively new rendition of a rehashed predicament that's shadowed my romantic existence, I feel it's time to spit it from my ribcage to end the threat of future failure. There are a handful times when that's within our means. It's best to devour them.

So you have a man, a young man, of dark features and light heart. He lives in a village that could pass for the crystallized Western European backdrop which we've witnessed countless times. There are lots of browns and greens in this description. He wears high leather boots, possibly suspenders. Straight strands of hair fall into his forehead as he toils in the fields, or the mines, or whatever my foolish mind envisioned for this martyr; and you know he is one, because in all tales of love the theme is the same: it ends.

But first, of course, he has to find it; and find it he does, in the most unusual way. A roving band of gypsies comes through town and...nay, that won't do. Too believable. Let's not waste time inventing a story I'm throwing at you so I never actually tell it. Suffice it to say he falls in love, and hard. She's everything he's never realized he wanted. Her mere existence gives him hope for the fate of mankind. I picture her with long, loose ringlets the color of chestnut shells and high cheekbones that offset her frail smile. The rest doesn't matter. She has eyes, she has ears, there are other parts that command his attention, but you don't need to know about them. All that should concern you here is that she's perfect, seemingly flawless, in the longing eyes of our young man who would've been better off in a Bildungsroman than this tragic tale of what we're all in for, one way or another. If you still need to know it to satisfy your curiosity then what you're assuming is true: she wore lots of white.

She truthfully wore it on her wedding day since this custom still meant something. They were united in holy matrimony, cleaved unto each other, and granted the sacred rights that come with such formalities. There was exchange of names and bodily fluids. Neighbors kept their windows closed despite July's heat so as to not overhear the promises and pantings made by young lovers in the stillness of the night where sound is carried farther. God, they were in love, as it was meant to be. And then, as if the depraved of the world became rabid with envy, a War broke out-- a Great one.

Men of fighting age are called to line the trenches. Shiny new machine guns are given out like prizes. There is carnage that should never be seen by God's creations. There is bloodshed that's a far cry from the honeymoon's first night. Half the boys are injured and all of them are starving. There are rumors that the cargo train was blown to smithereens and with it scores of boxes of much needed ammunition. The fighting subsides as both factions wane. In their desperation to gain ground without expending bullets or mortar shells the gas rounds are launched along miles of no-man's-land. Our hero breathes mustard for longer than average while saving a corporal who's caught in barbed wire. He chokes down the poison and loses his sight.

This is the part where you, as the reader, flip through the remaining pages and see how much of this abortion of a story remains. If he dies there can't be so much left to tell. You read on to ascertain his vitality and discover you are right. He arrives home on a train in a wheelchair and a head wrap. His bride carts him home and tends to all his wounds. As is the case with most true love he's healed by acts inexplicable. His vision's restored and his sutures work their weave. As soon as he's well he requests his redeployment. She begs him not to go, but his comrades are in need. With renewed determination he flails through stark engagements. Knowing that his second chance at going home rides upon the outcome of the war he maneuvers like a madman driven only by passion. There are no medals given, but his peers see his courage. At night he pulls shrapnel from his flesh with hot tongs like a child yanks splinters when leaving the playground. When the soldiers still standing at armistice march home our specimen carries an added distinction-- the letters of the fallen are entrusted to him. For weeks he recites accounts of bravery that may or may not have happened to ease the weary hearts of widows and ex-parents. It's one more price to pay before settling into his earned life next to his beloved. And finally, after the dust from the War to End All Wars has settled, he does just that.

If I were telling this story properly I'd spend time on their home life at this juncture; how they nurtured what other couples craved; what their routine consisted of and what they planned on naming their children; but I can't, and I won't, since this is a mere mockery. There's no point in polishing a self-proclaimed dud. It happened as it does in a movie montage. This tired observer won't bore you with facts. There is only one detail that's key to this telling: she sold off her ring to help pay the tax man when the war was still raging and money was scarce. His usual offer to ladies in waiting was spurned and cursed for the sin that it was.

If there would be dialogue anywhere in this nightmare I'd bet that it's here that the author would need it to make it believable. The man who survived the horrors of war can't bear that bare finger on his wife's fair left hand. A new band will cost him more than his budget will ever allow with the post-war economy. He abandons his craft, whatever that is, and takes up a job laying slate roof tiles. It's backbreaking work hauling stone up ladders, spreading slats around chimneys, kneeling for hours on end-- but it pays accordingly. "Blood money", some call it, though he's seen too much of that crimson liquid spilled to throw such terms around. This was when a stranger could tell your trade by the way that your body deformed over time; sunset to dusk, crawling on shale, hands cut from edges the grindsman neglected. It was no surprise when he rolled from the rooftop that Saturday morning. These things happen after months without rest. She ran to his side as soon as she heard, but the doctor had already closed the man's eyelids.

What they didn't know, since autopsy was neither performed nor what it is today, is that exhaustion played no part in his demise. The young man's heart was fine until that shard of steel made impact. A tiny metal sliver in his knee from a shrapnel wound of yore had been pushed a little deeper every time he knelt at work. Eventually it pressed its way into the nearest vein. It didn't take long to reach his heart from there. It was in the name of love that this roofer met his Maker. There can be no greater honor. There can be no bigger fool.

And that's where it would end should I decide to write it. Hopefully now you can see why I'll refrain.


Ancestral Mythology

"Those were my father's,"
my dad soberly states as he notices
the ancient box of bullets
sitting on the front seat of my truck.
I found them while sorting through
some musty bits of leather, steel, and wood
he passed down to me recently.
I've brought the .30-30 cartridges
to give to a friend I may see later
who owns a rifle in that caliber.
There's no sense in hording
what you don't have.

"Winchester Silvertips--
Like he was hunting vampires."
He smiles at his own joke
as the best of us learn to do
and invites me in to the warmth
of his home.

Neither of us say it, but I'm sure
we're wondering the same
as we climb the snow-covered steps:

Do we ever really kill the monsters
lurking in our forests
or do they get bequeathed
like a beat-up box of shells?

Waxing Nostalgic

We were liquored up
best friends
or so it seemed
wasting a perfectly good Thursday
on my couch.
It's unclear how it came up
but it did--
What if one of us should be departed?
(One of us being me, of course.)
There were already thousands invested.

I brought out a sheet of paper
and an envelope, pulled a pen
from my pocket
neatly printed the safe's combination
and scribbled a sentence
asking him to sell off my collection.
"You keep one, give the rest
of the money to my mother."
I signed it with a rummy's hand.
He vowed to oblige, a tear in his beer
and the hacked legal document
was sealed and passed over.

Well, I've changed the code since then
and I haven't seen that kid in two years.
Won't even return my calls.
They're funny, the promises we make
to each other, well aware that
most of them will melt with the ice cubes.

Something tells me man's end won't be by fire.
It will be far friendlier than that.
You'll see.

Familiar Saboteur

The witching hour kills
like a day of closed curtains.
There were words gone wasted--
a writer's pet peeve.

Forced to recite
the same script at gunpoint
until stale lungs
knew the syllables' rhythm.
Marinate in shame
behind enemy lines
where they won't be permitted;
where the blood has congealed.

These chords were stolen
from a man who played better.
This is a song about swinging a noose.


Bear Mt.

"Don't over-tighten them,"
I bid my father
as he tugs at the kid's laces
like it could bring his parents back to life.
Tactfully, I leave out the implied
"...like you did to mine,"
for the sake of letting him
have his second go at it
unfettered, unheckled
unchecked by the truth.

My brother's no better
at walking on knives than I was
at his age
and the ice poses a problem
for both of us.
The knack has lost my legs
and I sneer at the memory
of skating backwards.
It's not like riding a bike.
There's a window of time that closes.
Youth is squandered on the young.
I take a lap around
gaining my bearings enough
to be able to safely steer a three-year-old.

My father and I each reach down
for one of his tiny, gloved hands.
It's a sight to behold, two men and a boy.
Not one of us seems too familiar.
The kid's got it the worst.
Under the ridiculous helmet
his mother picked up
his wool hat is creeping down
over his eyes.
Our dad tries to adjust it
but I intervene with servant's hands
more nimble and precise
though just as sincere.
"He can't skate if he can't see."
"Sorry," the fumbling sexagenarian
apologizes unneededly.
The shaky legged trio manages a pass
around the rink, no innocents taken out
in the process. I can feel the eyes upon us.
I'm jealous that the other two can't.

When it happens I let it.
Falling is inevitable.
My left arm takes most of the weight
so he lands painlessly on the ice.
The pout he shoots up at me
describes the pain of his pride
not his body.
I maintain my composure
ignoring his Oscar-worthy disdain
and gently grip his hands.
"Use your legs. You can do it,"
and he does.

Getting back up runs in the blood.
Getting back up is what matters.
If he learns that now we've won.


Wine, Whiskey, and Several Thousand Shells

Tether your dark
should you want to keep
her fair complexion.

Who needs different grays
when you shit one shade of black?
Maybe it goes back
to the things you've claimed unwanted.

You type since no one listens.
All you've ever sought was home.