We're smoking barfront on East Main
instead of in his mother's garage
like ten years ago
the coffee can ashtray
overflowing shamefully.
His arms flail in conversation
proving his points
and that he's Italian.
He pushes his thick-rimmed glasses
back against his face
sometimes in the middle
sometimes at the edge.
I assure him that his mannerisms
haven't changed with time.
"Your laugh's the same,"
he tells me, a compliment
if true.

He built something and walked away.
He didn't profit where he prayed.
He knows about integrity.

Admire whom you're not.


Rellenos de Papa

There's this place on Broadway
in Newburgh where I go for my fix
of Puerto Rican food
once in the bloodiest moon.

My grandmother's dead
and wasn't allowed near a stove
for the last decade of her life
for safety reasons.
My mother doesn't make
most of those country kitchen dishes
fried and basted in garlic.
Besides, her house is off-limits
since I'd speak my piece to her husband
once and for all and with legal ramifications.

Instead I barter with strangers
pointing at trays and forcing a stubborn tongue
to pronounce the nostalgic delicacies
of my youth, sneaking to my refrigerator
to savor a bite at a time
for precious days later.

If growing old is learning to lose
and filling the voids with distant replacements
then Peter Pan was right
though he shot over the moon.



I started the day by saving a turtle
lost on a sidewalk next to the road.
He paddled away in the nearby pond
and I washed my hands, patted my back.

I've only seen the man once
in the last two years
and even that was an accident.
He's more of an acquaintance
than a friend, but he's got enough
charisma for the both of us
so I like him
and I'll bail him out of this jam.
Only a plumber
can truly relate
to the martyrs of this world;
the cheaters of fate.

"Have you been punching walls?"
I ask as soon as I notice
the gouges in his knuckles.
The routine's familiar from formative years.
"Any domestic disputes as of late?"
I had to throw that jab.
I had to.

"Nope," he replies with a gleam I misread.
"My father's dying. I'll find him in a puddle soon."

One of us changed the subject
though I don't remember who or how.
Everything went dull in sound
like a dive made too deep
at the neighborhood pool as a kid.
Another man would have decked me
and I would have deserved that bruise
but everyone needs a trustworthy plumber.

If that turtle could talk
he'd say he was fine
without me.


A Memorable Snapper

She's spread-eagle in the shoulder
of the road, dripping between her legs
as she deposits her clutch of eggs
into a hollow clawed in gravel.

Her pride is prehistoric while she scowls
at passing vehicles, braced inside her shell
like stubborn proof across the board:

Humans aren't the only ones
who curse their offspring's fate.
Some hatchlings might avoid the cars.
She'll never know their faces.


The Flowers He Promised

A timeworn codger
phallocentric in his voting
tips poorly for undeserved service
thinking of the times
he threw last handfuls of salt
for their sake
so they wouldn't bother
to look back
after donning dancing shoes
in anticipation of a night's worth
of forgettable revelry.


Immeasurable Hells

He's got a truckload of groceries
but there's a spot
in front of his stoop
for once.
Some Spanish girls in their teens
run away giggling
chalk in hand
leaving a message on the asphalt
that could only come
from the same place
as that parking miracle:
"God is not ashamed
of you."

It still takes five trips
up three flights of stairs
arms laden with thin plastic bags
and purple without blood
but there's Someone on his side
that he can't acknowledge.

They say if you try a food
you don't like ten times
you'll grow to like it.
The same is true of people.


Jim Jones Bullhorn

An orange prescription bottle stares back from the vanity, merciless in seeking its justification. Howard finds it difficult to wash down any more of them; not without Tanqueray dressed in rocks and tonic. The sun has killed the grass in a record-breaking heatwave. Is this the Promised Land that they spoke of at the Academy? "We need a good rain," a radio personality comments from the kitchen. Howard only hears, "I need a new name." The voices, the changing--other things they don't mention when issuing your gun. There were lies and libations. There was a light under his bushel. I've been humbled by the god of my transgressors, Howard thinks into the mirror. He fumbles with the kid-proof cap and downs his dose of laughter. Some crazy people walk these streets. Howard's here to save them.



A Spaniard in his fifties
tipped me with a Cuban
without asking if I smoke.
The unapologetic flare in his gesture
loosened the tools in my hands
as I packed up the van.
"Sure," I said. "Thanks."
In his country
that's still normal.

Later that evening
I ran into a man
from my formative years
known for his penchant
for scotch and cigars.
"I won't tell my wife,"
he said with a weathered smirk
pocketing the gift
I couldn't retain
since I wouldn't know a Cuban
from a dime-store counter stogie.

That's what you do
with a gem you can't appreciate.
That's why, sweetheart
I've got to let you go.

Currently reading:
"Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx.



We're in the back of our father's minivan
en route to celebrate the kid's fifth birthday
at the sushi bar of his choosing.
He gives me the devious grin
that I know all too well, a sick sparkle
brooding in his eyes before he forms words.
"He's not your daddy anymore. He's mine."

The old man pretends not to hear it
possibly since he bailed on me for six years
the last two of which spawned
my loving sibling seated to my left.
Guilt's one hell of a motivator.
He's old, but isn't deaf.

It's the boy's mother who turns
from the passenger seat to scold him.
At first he pleads innocence
but when it doesn't work
he offers an apology
and reminds me of his affinity
for his one and only brother.

I can muster nothing
in the form of a reply
to any of his sentiments
so pure, so young, so wicked.
He's stunned me into silence
despite the gap in age.
There's a looming truth
that gathers in my forehead
like a storm:

The Vahsen mean streak
runs in blood
and skips no generations.


A Realist Crunches Numbers

The dogwoods blossomed hard this year.
A woman with a sense of humor comes faster.
Only the dust doesn't settle 'round here.
He speaks in tongues like a Pentecostal.

Bookended cheap shots she couldn't resist;
This is how never tastes.
This is your fear.
We tore down our painting, aborted our kids.
Our hearts are bastards searching for fathers.


Shopping Cart Dings

Paul waddles through his wallpapered foyer
complaining of the hips
he had replaced last year
while stroking his liver-spotted forehead.

"The problem is," he confides
"your mother didn't give you life.
She gave you death."
A benign grin creeps across his face
as he blooms into the likeness
of an Italian Rodney Dangerfield
waiting for the rimshot
that would have come
in his bygone black-and-white television era.

I finish working on his boiler
and bring my tools through the garage
only to catch him dancing
to '40s Big Band 8-track tapes--
cane in one hand, Death's neck in the other.

The best men I've ever met
were also the best liars.
He tipped me five bucks
and told me to buy a cigar.