A Splash of Cabernet

He strokes a patch of ceiling
in his mother's empty kitchen
taking note of which spot
at the table is below it:

Her husband's seat.
The brute in buck's clothing.
A wedge driven deep
between blood and family folklore.

With fist raised to mimic
a tossing of the glass
he recreates the action
that left those purple stains.

"This is why I didn't come,"
the son says of Thanksgiving
to a sad and full refrigerator.
His mother saved the food.

There are shames that thrive in alleys.
Death loves fluorescent lighting.
The criminals use banners
to hide their sins in view

but there are some sadder scenes
that one never would expect
like a man without a home
and all his family living.

Currently reading:
"We Are What We Pretend To Be" by Kurt Vonnegut.

Over-the-Counter Remedies for Contagious Genuflection

"Padre Santo, Padre bueno..."
my mother would begin
while pouring medicine
to cure me
or help her sleep better.
She'd end the Spanish prayer
in the name of the Holy Trinity.
Salvation had hints of berries and alcohol.
Not much has changed
though I've ditched the pajamas
and I don't need a chaser
when downing my poison.

The taste of the syrup brings back that scene
as I stand comparing bottles
wondering if there's a difference
in the night and day formulas.
So much of healing occurs in one's head.
I rinse the plastic shot glass
as a cough shredding phlegm
rips through my chest
and transforms into self-aware laughter.

My mother's been right
about many things
but my Savior
will never be one of them.
Am I sick since I'm here
or here because I'm sick?
Whatever that Holy Ghost is
has got a sense of humor.


Better Living Through Chemistry

In a crowded bar last night
I met her.
Cynics have mocked me
said she didn't exist
but I've always known better.
Her tangibility dulls the pang.
I didn't even get to buy her a drink.

Brown strands of hair
that escaped her ponytail's cinching
landed behind her ears.
Every few minutes she'd
swipe her hand across her forehead
to gather any rebellious conspirators
and return them to their cousins.
Somewhere between sips
I imagined having the honor
of doing that for her
on a hungover Sunday morning
with the blinds drawn
as we smiled, close-mouthed
to contain the stench of stomachs.

Then she snapped me out of it.
Asked what I do.
I stammered on about writing and piping.
Left out the part about falling for strangers.
She seemed content with my answer.
So did her husband.

I met him shortly after she told me
the tale of buying a house
here in town.
He seems great.
Undeserving as the rest of us, but great.
Couples like that are rare outside film.
I meant both handshakes.
Even the second.

I wished them both the best
and walked her friend home instead.

It's about a search for
a sweet spot in this killer life
or at least not becoming
an ascetic hermit
who blows out candles
for the smell of it
over and over all night
since he never once surprised them
by leading with the left.

If you want me to talk
about snowflakes landing on eyelashes
I can, but wouldn't mean it.

Currently reading:
"American Short Fiction: Volume 16, Issue 56 (Fall 2013)".


Que Lastima, Amigos

Ridley didn't see himself having much need for his canteen any longer. He tossed it five feet from where he was sprawled out, his back against a stone outcropping, and watched the dirt around the water jug dance. It was as he'd expected: his pursuers weren't taking any chances and compensated for their lack of skill with volume. A cloud of dust rose from the site of his experiment with lead replacing soil in a violent display of physics. Then a stray bullet crashed through the tip of his right boot, taking two toes in the process. He wouldn't need those again either.

From beyond the confines of his rock he heard the frantic directives of the low-ranking officer trying to earn a few stripes with his scalp. His orders, if executed and successful, could amount to a promotion. Little Generalisimo would switch to private school. Ridley had no problem with the way the world trades energy, though he wouldn't make it easy to sacrifice his own. He opened the loading gate of his Colt revolver, swapped out spent shells for fresh ones pushed from his belt, and spun the cylinder with a swipe of his left hand. The last move served no purpose other than compliance with habit. The Mexicans would receive him in his entirety, superstitions and idiosyncrasies included.

A spurt of blood sprayed from his hemorrhaging foot, drawing his attention back to the tactical specifics. He saw a brown mess of leather and flesh in the sand and wondered if they'd take the time to bury him completely, or at all.

"Come out, Comandante," the sergeant taunted in his best pidgin English, the sarcasm implied not lost on its target . "It doesn't have to end this way," he lied without a tremble.

The blood finally clotted in Ridley's mangled foot. The throbbing stopped and the adrenaline in his veins evened out to be of use. As the sergeant made silent hand motions that were meaningless to his poorly trained subordinates, Ridley leveled the blind barrels of his shotgun against the baking desert floor and squeezed both triggers in tandem with the hopes of one last Ace. Another barrage of gunfire chipped bits from the boulder, but this time there weren't statements from the sergeant's thirsty throat. A man so bent on glory would have stood in front, invincible. Ridley knew the type well; he'd beaten him before. Little Generalisimo would now be half an orphan.

The familiar echo of government issued rifles raced away toward the horizon. Things like sunsets did more than inspire a pensive smoke after supper--they could save a man's life, since darkness eases escape. Unfortunately it wasn't yet noon where this standoff was transpiring. Tokens had been thrown across the table and landed on one side. That lucky shot which folded the sergeant was the last favor granted by a god who thrives on numbers.

A corporal rose to fill the boots and split the squads for flanking. Ridley couldn't clone himself. It would come down to which side would first succumb. When seconds are precious and breaths on earth are numbered choices like this one would have to suffice. No more hollow offers came from his relentless assassins; only cocking hammers and footsteps crunching pebbles.

His shotgun was now useless since he'd emptied both its chambers. His clenched Colt felt like a crucifix forged in carbon steel. It had been there for some blessings and would now bestow last rites. He growled a quaint obscenity in his version of their tongue, though it wasn't necessarily meant to curse these strangers.

He'd made them chase him this long. He'd rationed out his ammo. There were no delusions of cavalry thundering over the ridge.

Ridley trained his pistol on a buzzard that was circling. Mexican conscripts cared not for shovels. Death was one thing; being spread across the desert by a scavenger of carrion was another. The .45 rang out twice, felling the vulture and stopping the advancing Federales in their vengeful tracks. By the time the last feather floated to the ground to join its humbled source the soldiers had circumnavigated each half of the stone. Had they not been distracted by dispensing hot brass from their borrowed hardware maybe one would have noticed the freshly carved inscription: "Here lies..."

They left him with his Peacemaker, but divvied up his rounds.


Trifecta Dentata

Somewhere between the sambuca and Chardonnay
we established where she'd be staying: in me.
The exposed brick strikes again
and an alley kitten's killed
for resting in an engine.

If you don't read poetry
with a shotgun on the coffee table
then you don't read poetry correctly.
If you're not writing lines
like there's one aimed at your head
then you're wasting your time and mine.
Saint Dave of the Wilderness would never understand.

So life, or what's left of it, is reduced
to an absence of the shepherd
in search of billable hours
to cram into the day.

"How do you sleep at night?"
his detractors ask in unison.
"I put my head down on the pillow
and close my eyes," he says.

Now let me help you down
off that cross.


Show Review Written On an Obsolete Cell Phone

The drummer was faking the pain on his face. That denim jacket wasn't worn enough to have lived, but he closed his eyes as convincingly as the next rhythmic cat while massaging his cymbals.

The guitarist needed shoes and a friend to tell him that ponytails aren't alright, even for jazz artists. His gear was solid and deliberate. I have a pair of boxers in the same gray and black print as his flannel shirt. The rest I could do without.

Sometime between blurred songlines a half-way to Florida businessman asked if he could sit at my booth. Not having a valid argument in opposition I made the universal face of indifference, sans shrug. That sentiment soon changed. He began smiling with too much tooth for no reason toward the stage. His head rocked so hard that the stubble of his salty goatee began to shake loose. And then the laughing commenced. Maniacal. Senseless. Caught up in a moment that I knew wasn't there, like a Born Again Christian speaking in tongues. It's no wonder this man would leave alone after the gig. A fraud in a herringbone blazer blowing inaudible whistles of approval through cracked lips. When he took the microphone between sets to play MC I wasn't surprised, especially by his quip about "working the box" when it came time to beg for donations.

"I don't know. I guess I'm getting old," I told the kid across from me.

"I'd prefer that to constantly embarrassing myself."

The kid had a point.

But the jazzmaster stole the show--switching between brass and woodwinds, equally war-torn, in three layers of collared shirt; pockmarked and fragile, thrusting his thin hips at the mic stand during a bold improvisation that made my stubborn head spin on the inside. Years of humble penance at his muse's bloody altar showed as scars through the tight curls on his damp tobacco face; raging against pain with the jowls of a black Bukowski, his watchman's cap unquestionable, his jeans worn at the knees. If you saw him on the subway you'd swear he'd never left it. This is why I came here. This man had truly lived it, unlike his choice of  cohorts. It's too bad there's no whiskey. We'd share our fun renditions of making our own blues.


A Flicking of the Switch

I won't mask this in a faded gray font. There shall be no need for dictionaries. I am me and you are you; the cowardly use of pronouns--he, she, they--was done away with when the boxing gloves came off after coffee #3. If I want to address Angela or Stephanie or Joy I will do so. It doesn't matter. Their last names are different now anyway, and rightfully. But Mike Vahsen? (Do you hear that, Mr. Editor? It's Mike, not Michael.) He's been the same since seventeen, at least when it comes to the core and its termites; still searching, still stinging--both getting and giving.

The sentence has been excessive. It's going on two-and-a-half years now in solitary confinement. If a court had been involved I'd argue the Eighth Amendment, but in this case it's merely karma and fate. I come home to an empty apartment on Main after working alone with the boys from the hall. A crew of fifteen, all with their partners, except the odd man who sees his way out. I joke with the steward, mentioning the necessity for a dog, though a shameless accomplice is all that I want: a brilliant belle with a laugh that's infectious for whom I can bring sincere bread to the table. 

Instead there are stand-ins, holders of places; women who throw the predictable pitch. One makes the perfect Bloody Mary, multiple variables be damned. Another has the ultimate lust handles. Way up north there's a reflection of my mind who may be too much like me for her own good. There's always an artist, some self-loathing muse--the beautiful trainwreck the knight longs to tame. These archetypes continue. Don't feel so left out; likewise, I mean not to lessen your worth. I suspect the desire to fall in love with the writer. They'd settle for the steady steamfitter, get stuck with the part-time plumber. For that I pity them. Life's so unkind. I know all of their lines before they can say them, with their eyes or otherwise. I've read too much Hemingway. The dialogue's predetermined. These poor souls don't see the script that they're reading, or maybe they do and stare through the act. 

The coffee's yielded to its cousin. A waxpaper cup filled with water collects the remnants of one vice, though maybe it's time to invest in an ashtray. Kristen would kill me for smoking inside. Kristen would kill me for smoking in general. And to set the record straight, Kristen never killed me. It's the blur of the sidewalk and the weight of my Levis that make it seem wiser to put a box fan in the window and suck out the stench of a man's last cancerous refuge. I lied again: look up "hiraeth".

The solution sounds simple. Keep my head down and work. Be a productive member of society. Install the pipes required to heat and cool, clean and nourish, move some fluid from Point A to Point B. But I've seen what complacency does to a man, the soul's slow erosion that drains one of talent and dreams. I know great tradesmen who've honed their craft exclusively, giving up on passions that once pulled their veins. Look into the eyes of a colleague on coffee break. Find the sacrifice, expose the dull ache. I fear becoming that man who's got nothing but pension credits and consolidated debt to show for the decades. Most are divorced, some went to rehab. Half have some kid whom they see once a week. The dream is a tease. We punch cards for nothing. Then, once we've realized, it's time to pick plots. Bury my heart at Wounded Knee. Leave the rest for the coyotes.

But it's not what you think. There's no cry for empathy. You may keep your shoulder. I've got two of my own. Those blessed with this affliction don't do it to see their names in print. It's not about the glory, nor the mercy, nor the sex. We type to suck the poison like the fan propped in my window. Maybe someone gets it. From this stage I see no lighters; some yawning, a few cocked arms, and a more-than-met two-drink minimum. 

Your ears I'm now returning. My feet are all I need. Tomorrow my alarm clock will silence the madness of dreaming. (She lays her head down nightly somewhere safely far from me.)

I wonder how much less we'd respect our favorite mentors if they didn't show discretion that we amateurs ignore. My defense reverts to childhood: that monster in the dark disappeared with bulbs electrified.