Friday, October 5, 2012

Any Given Tuesday on Chestnut Street

In jail there’s no friends and no real enemies either. Just fellow occupiers of space and time. So you get along. Or you don’t. But even when it looks like violence or oppression or coercion from the outside looking in, the reality is that the violence or oppression or coercion is just a particular tool or guidebook or road map for getting through the string of days, however long, until the days finally, eventually, inevitably end, one way or another.

So, after a few weeks in, when Smut says to Jack, “Hey, you know we’re related,” and when Jack replies, “Huh?” the relationship is commenced.

“How’re we related?”
“Your great-grandpa.”
“What about him?”
“Was my dad.”
“Swear to God.”
“Doesn’t matter if you don’t believe me, the truth is the truth whether you believe it or not.”
“My great-grandpa died a long time ago.”
“And I was born even longer ago….I’m his bastard.”
“…You got that right.” Head spinning, heart pounding.
“You got anything?”
“Course not, Dude. We’re in jail.”
“Well, if you do, remember, we’re blood.”

Months later Smut shows up on Jack’s doorstep, an Incredible Hulk lunchbox full of pills.
“So, this is how the white folks live…”
“I guess. Come in.”
“Came to help out my blood,” tapping his lunch box, winking.
“Come on in. Let’s go upstairs.”

Jack’s brother observing, wary and knowing, the familiar dusk of denial enveloping. “Hey,” he calls, rising hesitantly from his Cheerios.
“Just giving my buddy here the nickel tour of the place,” as the two of them climb the stairs.

In the bedroom, Smut parcels out pills. Small and white, evil benevolence. Jack clutches several and, as he draws them toward his mouth, his brother pushes open the bedroom door, sees what he sees and leaps into Jack like a cobra, seizing his clutched fist in his own, pulling him to the floor in a collapse of elbows and knees and noise.

“Cool it, Man!” Smut yells, his close-cropped, gray-black hair beading with sweat, his large glasses fogging. “At least it ain’t heroin!”

The brothers struggle on the floor, Jack spending all his strength on keeping his fist closed around the pills, as his brother pins it to the floor, vainly attempting to pry it open. “Drop ‘em, Jack!” he yells, “Drop ‘em!” 

But he doesn’t, and when his brother eases minutely, to see what Smut is up to, Jack immediately jams the pills into his mouth and swallows them. His eyelids flutter.

His brother climbs to his feet as Smut—this perfect stranger standing in the same bedroom he and Jack shared as kids—peers down at Jack, who sits slumped over, breathing heavily and slowly, quickly sliding into his familiar cocoon.

“He must not be adjusted to it yet,” Smut says. And as he finishes his sentence, Jack’s brother’s right fist slams directly against the meaty, pork-chop of his jaw. There’s a flash of light in Smut’s head and then nothing. Jack’s brother stands over him, panting. Still out of breath from his struggle with Jack.
Jack’s brother scoops up Smut in his arms like a dangling bag of rocks. He carries him, like a man carrying a drunken bride, out of the bedroom, down the stairs, out the front door, across the sidewalk and into the street, where he drops him like a bundle of shingles. Smut lies there, crumpled and unmoving. Groaning sounds come out of this mouth. His jaw swells like there's a balloon in his mouth. 

Jack’s bother leaves Smut in the street. He returns to the house, climbs the stairs, heads into the bedroom where he confirms Jack is still breathing. Next, he collects Smut's’s lunchbox, opens it. There are eleven bottles of various pills. He opens each lid and spills the contents of each bottle into the lunchbox and closes it. He shakes it. It sounds like a maraca. Satisfied, he bounds out of the room, down the stairs, out the front door and onto the street where Smut is up on his elbows, considering an attempt to raise himself.  Cars veer around him, looking. 

As Jack’s brother approaches, Smut's eyes widen and as he works to get to his feet, Jack’s brother kicks him hard in the ass and he sprawls into the street again, whimpering. Jack’s brother raises the lunch box full of pills over his head and smashes it with all his strength on the street. The lid separates from its thin hinges and a blizzard of white pills spill and roll in the street.  A car, and then another rolls by, gawking, crushing pills to dust.

“There you go, Pal,” Jack’s brother says, stepping over Smut’s outstretched form. “Enjoy your medicine.”

Before heading in the front door, Jack’s brother takes one more look. There’s Old Smut, with whom he either does or does not share blood, on his knees in the street, sweeping drug dust into his hands, crying.
# # #

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Fade to Black

One of my favorite idiomatic factoids regarding the “inherent hopefulness of being” (forgive me, I know.) is a sort of philosophy disguised as a word-play/semantic game. Here it is—you’ll surely recognize it:

“Black is not a color, but the absence of color.” Or, even better:  “Darkness is the absence of light.” I love that.
At some deep level, this makes excellent and hope-inducing sense. The concept that “darkness is the absence of light” implies that the default position, the natural state of reality, is light. Not dark. So, it ain’t so much about the light cutting through, painfully penetrating the darkness, but rather, the natural stateis light, the absence of which, is not natural at all.
 And yes, my physicist friends and their astrophysicist/microphysicist brethren will contradict this point with telescopic evidence of deep space and sub-atomic photography, where blackness and emptiness are the oceans to the observable islands of pinprick galaxies and unimaginably tiny matter.
Of course this is beautifully factual, as the evidence provides.  And the presence of such “infinite” blackness doesn’t wrankle my light-based sense of reality in the least. We share an underwhelming understanding of the concept of “infinite.” And most physicists—scientists and artists of any discipline worth their salt agree that: “what we know is infinitesimal compared to what we don’t.”  You might add: “what we experience is infinitesimal compared to what we don’t.” As such, the potential for the abundance of light is…well, infinite.
So…I agree that what we can see out there in greater outer space, and down there in the sub-atomic landscape, is dark…giving the impression that darkness is the norm. But I know from my own life, my practical living experience—all 47 years of it—that what is observable, knowable, even, is but a tiny representation of the larger truth beneath what senses can observe, much less what we’re able to articulate. Try explaining to a stranger how much you love your wife. Or child. Or Mother. Or golden retriever.  Words quickly fail. As do senses. As does intellect. …When we utter the word “infinite” we are mentioning the presently unknowable. And not knowing something doesn’t make it untrue any more than knowing something necessitates its truth. At one point in our history, we “knew” the Earth was flat. And generations of mariners behaved accordingly. What we think we know is as discombobulating as what don’t think we know.  Lots of room for light.
…When my youngest son was a toddler he somehow escaped his car seat, which was securely strapped into the backseat of our sea-foam green Taurus station wagon. I was driving, my wife in the passenger’s seat. No one else in the car. In the middle of a left turn at the intersection of Carlton Avenue and 14th Street, the driver’s side back door flew open, my son clinging like a barnacle to the door handle, his legs dangling a few inches off the pavement, the sound of rolling tires, horrifying.
Instantaneously, my wife’s mouth opened in a scream and she exploded into the backseat like a torpedo, her body stretched over the seatback, feet on the dashboard, arms reaching, grabbing, then purchasing. Thankfully, she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. I pulled the car over next to Skutevik’s and sat there, hunched over the steering wheel, listening to my wife gasping, my son slowly whimpering, casual traffic passing, heads turning.
“How did that happen!?” my wife screamed, cried, begged to know.
“No idea,” I replied.
“Well, how’d he get out?”
“How’d you catch him?”
The distinction between light penetrating the darkness and darkness stabbing into the light.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Those Brilliant Greeks

(to a moderate clapping rhythm: 4/4 time)

Moderation, that’s the key.
Greeks come by it, naturally.
Germans, Congolese, Croats, Celts—
Mo-der-a-tion ain’t modest for anyone else.
In the Klan I come from, no one knows
What “equilibrium” is, what the Greeks propose:
“A little of this, a little of that—nothing extreme,
that’s where it’s at!”
So back-and-forth we thrash and howl,
like the Bankrupt Greeks, by tooth and jowel
we love, then hate, then fight, then kiss
then spend, then save, then hit, then miss.
Moderation, that’s the key,
stings like compromise, at least for me.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Croatian Dream

Who is that Croatian girl
                Who visits me in my dreams?
What’s the name of that girl I see
                Whenever the yellow moon beams

Through my window, winter night,
Through my dreaming skull,

Who is that Croatian, green-eyed girl,
                 Whose whispering voice does lull
…me back to dreaming, back to black,
Takes me, loves me, takes me back

To paradise.


Friday, September 9, 2011

Keeping up with the Jones

Out-killing the killers,
out-thrilling the thrillers,
out-drinking the drinkers
out-popping the pillers;

Out-loving the lovers,
out-hating the others,
out-waiting the waiters,
out-brothering the brothers.

Exhausted and bored,
gas pedal floored,
mess with the bull,
get yourself gored.
9 2011

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Family Fun at Valley Fair 1995

Driving home from Valley Fair, August, 1995, about 1:00AM, kids conked out and sprawled: a couple in side-by-side, sucker-sticky car seats, one more next to them, asleep against the window, and the oldest, the daughter, fast asleep in the back of the Seafoam Green Taurus station wagon. No such thing as seat belts. Pearl Jam moans on the radio and bugs explode on the windshield like black bullets. Army worms seethe in the trees.
"Can you find something else?"
"I like this song--reminds me of Seattle."
"we've never been there."
"...Can we find something else?"

Forty minutes later, deer, several of them, appear in the headlights, grazing just off the shoulder, their heads jerking up, fixed on the stabbing white beams.
"Jesus!" he says, adjusts his posture, blinking.
"What was that?" she whispers, jumped awake.
"Just deer. They're everywhere. Like running the gauntlet."
"You want me to drive? You look tired."
"I'm alright for a while. Have to get gas. You can drive after that, if you want."

The moon pours over the parking lot like a yellow, touchless pond. Music in the overhead awning over the gas pumps, Muzak-Meets-Carousel. A perverted version of "Benny and the Jets."
"I've got to get something to drink," she says, stretching, flexing in the moonshadow, her limbs angled gracefully, hair down, a little in her face, in her eyes, veiled, dark eyebrows.
"Go ahead, take your time. I'll be in to pay in a minute."
He watches her walk away and his mouth waters like it always does. She walks like she lives in her body, joyful, but wary, not merely inhabiting it. Like an animal. He watches her pull open the door. She looks back at him and smiles. His mouth waters again. He smiles back.
"Fucking beautiful," he says, then looks into the car, the four miniature him-and-hers sleeping there, chests and abdomens rising and falling in unison.

A dirty blue pickup truck with white trim slants into the parking lot and screeches to a stop at the adjacent pump. Four young men pile out, drunk and laughing, one of them shouting a riot of obscenities into the sky, aimed at no one in particular. His elbow bleeds generously.

In a moment, he realizes that the other three boys are bloody as well, none of them as copiously as the one with the injured elbow, but all have blood on their clothes and are decorated with a various assortment of lacerations, bruises and cuts. They gather next to the truck's gas tank and pull out their wallets, their voices down a notch, but still loud and echoing off the brick of the convenience store. They negotiate gas funds and one of them, seemingly the driver, clutches the cash in his fist and raises it over his head as he slams the nozzle into the gas tank.

"Money!" he yells, "it's a hit! Don't give me that do-goody-good Bullshit!" The others cheer in affirmation and commence to fall about the parking lot, wrestling and jousting--the one with the elbow surprisingly aggressive with his mates.

"Take it easy!" one of them complains. "It's me for Christ's sake..."
The one with the elbow laughs, derisively. "I know, I know," he says. "Fucking pussy."

In the car, one of the kids, the youngest, wakes with a start, "Mom!"
He bends into the open window and attends to his son. "Take it easy, Buddy. Go back to sleep," and the child relaxes, but his eyes remain open, bright, attentive.

The tank filled, he returns the nozzle to its place and draws out his wallet from his back pocket as he walks toward the store to pay, just aware of the young men from the blue truck watching him.

His wife exits as he enters and he reflexively kisses her as they pass, the inside of his cheeks salivating. She smiles and holds out her cup and straw.

"Want a drink?" She asks. "Diet Coke."
He leans toward the straw and she jerks it away at the last moment, leaving him lurching forward, lips pursed, like a sunfish grabbing at a worm.

She laughs softly and apologizes, sliding the straw between his lips. "Take it," she says. "You can have the rest."
"No, I just wanted a sip."

"Nice ass." The guy with the bleeding elbow, out of nowhere behind her, facing him, the other three following gamely.

He watches her eyes widen and her lips draw straight. From her face, he moves his eyes to meet those of the guy with the elbow, which now, angled in a V in order to hold the door, drips from it's downward apex, like a leaking drain pipe.

The two men regard one another. He feels strangely out of place and out of character. In another time and venue, this moment would naturally pile into the next and the next and the next--all following a certain logic and form--culminating with a stimulated exhaustion, post-violence. But this--here and now--too old for fighting in parking lots, too out-numbered to take a chance, too compromised with wife and four kids in tow...his mind reels. Tastes bile high in his chest, like heartburn. Fear spreads in his blood, like dye.

Over the shoulder of the elbow guy, the others stand in Back-Up mode, two of them smiling like barnyard felines, the other strangely solemn. Beyond them, in the station wagon, the blond heads of his two older children stirring, looking out the windows, waving.

"C'mon," she says to him. "Let's go."
He moves his eyes back to her face. She is resolved. Time to move.
"Go ahead, I still have to pay for the gas."
"I'll be in the car."

As she walks to the car, passed the guy with the elbow, he turns his head and follows her with his eyes, squinting, which she feels, intuitively, a familiar humiliation. She walks on, self-consciously, stiffly, defensively. The others, mimicking their leader, watch her walk, too.

When the guy with the elbow turns back toward him, smiling garishly, he's met with a pounding blow to his throat, collapsing his windpipe. He clutches his neck, like a man choking and staggers backward, against the rough brick of the convenience store, his eyes wide, his knees buckled and shivering, his elbow running with blood.

One of the others, the solemn one, leaps to the side of the stunned man and holds him up, screaming, "Are you okay?" The guy with the elbow shakes his head, No.

One of the others, the one who'd been singing Pink Floyd two minutes earlier, says, "You're fucking dead, Dude" stepping toward him, slowly, his fists raised like a boxer.

"I'm not here to fight you losers. I'm just buying gas. You and your idiot friend over there are the ones looking for trouble."

"And I guess we found it!" he shouts and lunges, throwing a wide and heavy right hand that would have been a real problem, had it connected. But the mix of alcohol, adrenaline and emotion conspire to compromise accuracy and he misses his target entirely, who, sidestepping clumsily himself, trips off the curb and sprawls into the parking lot, surprisingly noisily, he thinks.

"Start the car!" he yells in the direction of the station wagon, pulling himself up off the blacktop.

"Stop it!" she's screaming and behind that shrill sound, he hears the collected voices of his children in various degrees of distressed screaming.

"Just start the fucking car!" he shouts, turning toward the men, the guy with the elbow, still not recovered and still attended to by the one. The other two now make their way toward him, the first--the one who'd taken the swing--leading. In an instant, the second of those two, makes an arching, flanking movement and heads toward the station wagon. The engine revs.

"Hey!" he yells at the flanking man, who briefly turns in acknowledgment, then returns his attention to the car, picking up speed, starting to jog.

Swiveling his head from the jogging flanker to the oncoming, arms-raised boxer, he progresses backward toward the running car and as the three are about to converge at the station wagon's front bumper, he darts to his left, intercepting the flanker's path, tackling him to the ground in a violent thrashing of legs and arms.

"Roll up the windows and lock the doors!" he yells and he can hear the electric windows abiding, hears the locks engage. "Good," he whispers.

His momentum had carried him almost completely over the flanker and he struggles to maintain his position on top of him, knowing it would be seconds before the boxer made his way to them.

With only his his lower left leg still on top of the flanker, he bends his knee so that it rests, momentarily, on the flanker's chest. Using his knee as a balancing fulcrum, he raises up, depressing the man's solar plexus. He hears air expelling. The flanker rolls to his left side to avoid the knee pressure on his chest and as he does, he grapples for purchase on anything to give him advantage: a wrist, an arm, the crotch. Before he succeeds, a handful of gravel is thrust into his face and as he screams, rocks and sand are shoved deeply into his mouth, his tongue pressed down by the force. As he inhales, gravel and dust flow into his windpipe and he chokes, and coughs in a seizure of panic. His hair is gripped as if to be scalped, his head yanked back and he swallows rocks and dirt. More gravel is caught up from the parking lot and raked into the flanker's eyes, tearing the skin of his face. He tries to scream but his lungs are nearly empty; he continues to inhale small gravel.

"Stay away from the car."

By now the boxer is on them and he kicks wildly at his head. He blocks the kick, partially, but the weight of it throws him off the flanker, entirely and he uses the momentum to roll to the rear of the car where he can use the station wagon as a barrier.

Inside the car the children scream, he only now hearing it. However, one child, his oldest son, autistic and beautiful, looks up at him through the window glass from his place where he's kneeling on the back seat.

The boxer is on him again and he runs away, circling the car as if playing a game. As he passes the flanker on the ground still coughing and choking helplessly, he stomps the man's knee, viciously twisting the heel of his boot as he makes contact. The flanker wails like a siren.

"Get away from the car."

As he circles the Taurus the second time, he makes direct eye contact with his son, his yellow hair straight and perfect. "My little lemon," he whispers at him through the glass. "Open the door."

The boxer, enjoying the role of pursuer, changes direction in an attempt to gain a step or two, and as he passes the rear door where the yellow-headed son is positioned he hears the door lock unengage. At this, the two men stop in their tracks and look at each other, for the first time, really. The boxer slowly reaches for the door handle.

With an explosion of kinetic energy, he sprints toward the boxer, who, momentarily taken aback, gives way to the charge--an intuitive reaction to things charging. Finding himself directly in line with the now unlocked door, he simply opens it, slides in next to his lemon-headed son and locks the door.


With the exception of his silent son, the car interior is a shrieking hiss of terror. The Ford bounds forward, tires spinning, back end fishtailing as it rounds the gas pumps and exits the parking lot onto the frontage road just as two squad cars, lights flashing, glide by them into the lot.

"Should I stop?" she screams above the din.
"Just drive," he says and she does. "And everyone stop screaming now." And eventually, they do.

Five miles later, he climbs over and takes his place in the passenger seat beside his wife. She is angry and scared and beautiful. He looks at her face as she drives, silently. His mouth waters.

"I'm sorry," he says.
"Un-fucking-believable" she says.
"I know."

Fifty miles later he drifts in and out of sleep. In the midst of a lucid dream he feels himself smile, feels her watching him.

"What's so funny?" she asks, her voice tender, if not altogether calm.
"Siphoning is a lot easier way to get free gas."


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Declaration of Independence

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for a person to dissolve the psycho-spiritual binds that have connected him with his particular sense of reality, then...well...then...well then all hell breaks lose. It breaks loose and takes root, like some thorn-filled, evil-blown pollen, in the hearts of those of us, for whom, the distinction between Good and Evil is at first absolute, then subjective and finally, absolutely subjective.

There comes a time, in the course of those aforementioned Human Events, often a time of despair or fear or pain, sometimes in a time of joy or reverence, when our individual sense of evil and good is so intensely personalized, so intensely subjectified, that we're forced to reckon with it, identify it, call it what it is, and after that...troublingly, explain it. Why the evil? Why the pain? Why the addiction? Why the loss? Why the fear, the loneliness, the despair, the broken heartedness? Why?

And, often the answer to this asking is an opportunity for the ever-pressing presence of darkness to pulse through the cracks in our inherent optimism and blacken our thinking...which, of course, is the foundation of our reality. we end up like flock of backwards-hat-wearing college sophomores, asking: "Who the hell is in charge?" "Who is holding the rudder?" "What kind of existence is this if, throughout it, our experience is plagued with pain, heartache, injustice, madness--and at the end of it we die?" And, " for life in the next plane, an afterlife...Why? If there's someone in charge, holding the rudder, steering this ship, why are all these bad things happening and why do we have to suffer through this life to get to the good stuff and why does Charlie Sheen and Kim Kardashian get to be ga-zillionaires while I get to work in the coal mine...and for that matter, why does my sweet, sweet mother get to die, choking on cancer-filled phlegm, while this-or-that child-killer gets to live the life of Riley, writing books, appearing on talk-shows..." AND SO ON....

And some of us remain in that sophomoric malaise all the days of our lives, our brows knitted in consternation and cynicism, even as we breathe our last.

Which sucks. The ultimate heartbreak: No faith. No hope. No truth. Ouch.

In the end, love can/will/does conquer evil. Love conquers fear and pain and addiction and heartache and loneliness and hopelessness...and all that is black. But the battleground remains strewn with the corpses of those whom the darkness has taken—or more accurately, the battleground remains strewn with the corpses of those whose lives have been given to the darkness. I think that’s more accurate: We GIVE our lives to the darkness, it does not TAKE our lives from us. …

Love remains the fundamental creative power of the universe. But not everyone taps into it. This archetypical “LOVE,” not unlike the more earthly, human-to-human, garden variety love, is, by nature, reciprocal and born of intimacy. Real and selfless intimacy. And intimacy, as we know so well, absolutely demands exclusivity. It's not okay in our earthly relationships to be truly intimate with whomever we happen to run into in the grocery store. Indeed, such intimacy, not to be confused with sex, is by it's very nature, impossible.

So, we can choose intimacy. We can choose light and love. What we can't choose is circumstance. So those ready to cry foul, ready to argue that those wrongly accused, those innocents abused, those for whom suffering is an abomination to the concept of justice--I say to them: you are confusing love with circumstance. ...which are only distantly related and absolutely not synonymous.

Every addict, every liar, every killer, rapist, child molester, etc., as well as every innocent victim always has a choice, whatever the circumstance, we all have a choice, up until I stab that vein, tell that lie, pull that trigger, hate that hater, fail to forgive that sinner, dismiss that offender, etc. The compulsion to choose darkness may SEEM irresistible, but that’s a lie. We all know folks who DO resist. We all know folks who DO choose life, light, love...And to pretend our addictions, compulsions, pains, injuries, victimizations are stronger, more important, than the next guy’s…that’s just arrogance.

Fact is, evil, like love, is a choice. Life, or lack thereof, is a mere consequence.