Friday, March 26, 2010
My teeth hurt like hell.
Novocaine don’t work.
Gimme some of that gas, like they used to.
Wipe off that dentist smirk.
Yes, I know you’re in charge.
I know you’re the boss.
I know you’re the Man-with-the-Plan.
The twerp with complementary floss.
I’ll see you in the parking lot.
After work when no one’s there.
I’ll introduce you to how pain works.
Fear and submission lain bare.
You’ll ask me not to hurt you.
And I won’t, not much, of course.
But a little bit of pain, a little bit of fear
Not an infinitesimal speck of remorse.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
I pretend with her.
She's good at it.
I suck at it.
She has fun. She imitates and dramatizes and throws her voice all over the room. She's everyone and everywhere at once. She loses herself in fits of situation: she's the teacher invoking a "time out," she's a classroom aide crouched over a struggling young reader. She's an administrator signing a document allowing the hire of more English teachers into the district. She's my hero.
I play along, as always, doing my part to keep the magic going. I'm pretty good at it, but nothing compared to her.
"Okay, Britta," she says in her teacher voice. "It's time to put things away now. It's almost Circle Time."
I'm Britta, so I put away the pile of toys and turn off the booming radio and sit down with my legs folded as well as I can. I look and feel like an enormous goon, part of the daily humility lesson.
"Okay, Britta," she begins. "Can you tell us a little bit about your summer, so far?"
"Honey, I really--"
And, instantly, I'm Britta again. Schizophrenia.
"Okay," I say. "So far this summer, I've watched it rain, listened to the furnace come on during the night, dug up frost-bitten bedding plants, had a broken neck, received several rejection letters, been bitten by a hornet and have failed to catch one fish."
"So, are you enjoying your summer?"
"I quit this game, Babe."
"I can't help it," I say. "My legs can't fold like this for so long. My toes are tingling."
"Then you be the teacher," she says.
"Forget it," I say. "I've been playing this too long."
"Then what can we do?" she asks.
"Let's get the boys and Mom and go fishing."
"Nightcrawlers," I correct her. "Big, fat, squiggly, slimy, blind, mutated nightcrawlers."
"Genetically altered. Screwed up. A mistake of nature."
"Are you crabby, Dad?" she asks, finally dropping the teacher voice.
"No," I say, as honestly as possible. "Just mutated."
...In the boat, we sway over blunt waves. Three bobbers cling to three helplessly tangled lines, held by six hopefully taught arms, connected to the three best excuses for hope in my life. The bobbers dance on the dark water, mesmerizing.
Some feet beneath the surface, three murdered earthworms , pierced and bloodless and drowned, drift lifelessly, awaiting their final humiliation.
"Okay, class," the teacher voice begins. "Let's see if we can have ourselves some luck."
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
About fifty, and trying for thirty-five, the man had, from the looks of his clothes and the smell coming off him, recently exited the nearby "Country Cowboy Tavern and Dance Hall" and somehow found his way to the parking lot, where, by design or fate, he collapsed against the side of my Jetta where he now sat weeping like a giant infant.
In discovering him, initially thinking he was some wounded animal from his slumped, hulking shape and the noise he made, I was struck with a rush of fear, which quickly became annoyance as I neared him. He was an amazing sight. Part fake cowboy. Part inanimate, drunken object. I thought of poking him with a stick, but couldn't find one. I shoved him with my toe and he rocked, back and forth, like a child's punching bag--one of those plastic, balloonish things with sand in the bottom to keep it upright, decorated with Fred Flintstone or Casper the Friendly Ghost.
I knelt down to see him better, to look into his face, and as I did, his eyes blew open wide, startled; he cowered, then went limp as if realizing it didn't matter who I was or what I'd do or anything else.
"This is my car," I said. "You alright?"
He nodded in affirmation, bouncing his chin off his chest in exaggeration. The front of his embroidered shirt was damp with sweat or tears or spit or beer. His face was puffed and heavy.
"This your car?" he said, still nodding largely, taking great gulps of air, like a child who's cried too long.
I nodded back, though he wasn't looking and said again, "You gonna be alright?"
"Oh, I s'pose," he sighed and put a hand under himself in a vain effort to rise up from the parking lot. He fell back, instantly, his body lumped and wadded like a damp piece of paper.
I reached down to lift him, thinking more of my convenience than his grief; it was late and I had a hundred-something miles to drive.
"Don't!" the man shouted, pulling his elbow away, causing him to lose his balance again and he slid, like a swimmer doing the sidestroke, entirely under my car. He lay there making chucking noises, crying or laughing, nonetheless refusing to move. I felt my compassion waning.
There were other people in the parking lot, climbing into cars, finishing conversations, gunning engines, flicking on headlights. A few people noticed me standing awkwardly beside my car, but no one noticed the man on the ground, his pointy boots sticking out from under my car like the Wicked Witch of the East. Someone yelled "Goodnight!" from a neighboring parking space and eased off into the city. I imagined what he thought of me standing with my hand on my door handle, looking idly at the darkness between my tires.
"What the hell.." I whispered to myself, the cowboy boots staring up at me, jesting. I grabbed hold of them, one in each hand and felt the flesh inside them grow tense as I pulled. I dragged him like a bag of sand until he was clear of my tires, his black denim jeans scratching loudly over the mud. It was a disconcerting batch of moments, each of them a singular instant, collected as if for an orchestrated purpose, like shitty ingredients in an Addam's Family recipe.
When I dropped his legs I did so with vigor and his grunt of pain was the only evidence of his consciousness.
"G'Night," I said and stepped over him, exhaling loudly, glad to be on my way toward away from him, away from the muddy parking lot, away from the night, altogether. Drunken idiots make me sad and angry and lonely all at the same time. As I set my foot down on the other side of his head, the cowboy lunged at me like a barracuda, biting into my ankle, growling like a demon as I tried desperately to shake him off, swatting at his head and screaming like anyone would.
"Let go!" I yelled, jerking and spinning and hopping with all my might until, at last I freed myself, sprawling and tripping across the parking lot. "This is nuts!" I said then, mostly to myself, trembling with shock and anger, adrenaline coursing hard in my veins. I fumbled my keys out of my pocket and dropped them in a jangle at my feet.
"Should'a just drove over my head and squashed me!" the man yelled, still unable to raise himself. He sounded better, less desperate, a bit of hope--even strength--in his voice. "Should'a just killed me under the car!" he bellowed and then thumped flat on his back again, his face to the sky, his chest heaving like a tranquilized animal.
"Should've," I said back, my own voice a rattle, stepping over him again, climbing into my car, my eyes fixed on his, which darted like hornets, unseeing.
As I drove away, the cowboy remained, an inky smudge in the vast, black parking lot, the high yellow lights shining down on him like planets or flashlights or eyes. As I watched him in my review mirror, he waved and taunted, flipped me off, his shadow long and incredible on the low sky.
A hundred miles later, thick summer insects thumping like rain against my windshield, I couldn't stop checking the dark in my mirror, couldn't stop wishing I could.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Never heard his song?
Never felt his frozen clutch
make weak which once was strong?
Never tasted bile?
Deep at the back of your throat?
Never felt your own blood burn
'round your heart like a boiling moat?
I'll tell you all a secret.
I'll show you where to look.
Introduce you to the Devil himself;
observe his evil book.
The Devil's name's Addiction,
comes to lie and steal and kill.
Adam and Eve's affliction;
from Eden, to booze, to pill.
Kills you while you're smiling.
Eats you while you watch.
Chokes you as you feed him,
fangs poised at your crotch.
So, swallow those pills, my brothers.
Swim in alcohol.
Fill your veins and drain your pains and hide
from those who call
Friday, March 5, 2010
In the basement there were ants. Across the cement floor and up and down the cement walls, black ants streamed and feasted on the infinitesimal chunks of carbohydrate that filtered through the floor boards from the kitchen above or arrived some other way in the flaking, mildewing basement.
In the middle of ceiling, a single light bulb cast damp, yellow light, under which, Cooper sat on the floor with his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands, sweating steadily. Twenty minutes ago the ants had made way for him and altered their maniacal course while he slowly sank to the floor after lurching down the stairs in the dark and yanking on the yellow light. Now, comfortable with his relatively immobile presence, the ants regained their original course, began traversing over his slippers and bare ankles, several of them making their way up his calves toward the creases behind his knees.
Still, Cooper sat, only dimly noting the tickle of the ants on his skin. He was down there for a reason. As he sat, rubbing his sweaty face with the palms of his hands, he struggled hard to recall what the reason was.
He looked at his watch, which he had begun wearing to bed during college when the height of the loft in his dorm room left him unable to see his desk clock unless he rolled halfway out of his bed and risked tumbling to the floor. Even these twenty years later, he still felt embarrassed about how he looked with his watch on his wrist in the middle of the night. The fact that, saving the watch, he slept utterly naked, made the watch even more embarrassing. He may as well be wearing sunglasses, he thought as he twisted the watch in a grinding, friction-inducing circle around his wrist.
It was He’d been down there 28 minutes. He’d woken with a start, a voice from his sleep sharply imploring: “Go!” As he sat on the basement floor with the ants drizzling over him, he remembered stepping into his slippers, standing up, rubbing his fingers through his sweaty hair and walking toward the basement. Nothing else, except for the intense feeling of compulsion—a pulsing physical demand that he could not now mentally articulate. So, he sat on the cement, the cold of it shivering through him like a dull electrical current.
“What the fuck…” he said to himself and slumped his head backward onto his shoulders. He stared at the bare yellow light bulb and the tattered pull-string that rested against it. He wondered if the string represented a fire hazard and let the thought pass—would’ve burned by now, etc.
Ants, now a good stream of them, negotiated their way across the lower half of Cooper’s body. They climbed through the hair on his inner thighs and finally into his crotch. Cooper stood up quickly then, brushing them away, crushing them, their bodies rolling over themselves into little antballs, falling to the cement floor as other ants stopped, inquiringly, and then moved on toward the other side of the basement.
Cooper realized, suddenly, that he was shivering violently. Cold sweat continued to drip out of his scalp, squeezing from the pores on his back and chest.
“Fucking freezing,” he said to himself and stepped toward the stairs, the muscles above his knees wobbly, as if he’d been running.
In the kitchen, Cooper left the light off and stood in the center of the room in an effort to determine whether or not the kitchen was warmer than the basement. He wasn’t sure. Despite his incessant sweating, he was very cold.
Cooper opened the refrigerator and guzzled the last swallows of orange juice from the plastic gallon container. Not enough. As he pulled the jug away from his lips he remembered that the reason he’d gone into the basement was to get the “lots-of-pulp” orange juice from the spare refrigerator they kept down there for overstock or large items that didn’t fit into the fridge in the kitchen. Cooper’s kids hated pulp. Theirs was the “no pulp” stuff he’d just finished off. There’d be hell to pay in the morning.
“Fuckin’ A,” Cooper said out loud, appreciating the sound of his voice in the dark room. “They can drink pulp,” he said. Again, he appreciated the sound of his voice in the room. Then, suddenly, he wasn’t alone.
“Who’re you talking to, Dad?” said a voice. It was Nick, the oldest son, ten years old. “What are you doing?”
“Christ, you scared me,” Cooper said, his head now thumping as the sucrose flowed outward from his gut, blood sugar rising vainly with every heartbeat.
“Well, you scared me,” Nick said. “I could hear someone walking around in the basement and I didn’t know what it was.”
“It was me.”
“So it’s go-back-to-bed-time,” Cooper said. Then added, “For both of us.”
“Did you drink all the orange juice?”
“There’s some in the basement.”
“The gross kind?”
“It’s fine. Go to bed.”
“I hate that pulp kind.”
“Whatever—its bed time now. We can fight about it in the morning.”
“I hate that pulp kind.”
“Listen, Nicholas,” Cooper said, his voice shifting down a gear. “I said its bed time now. We can worry about the juice in the morning.”
“Dad, you always drink the rest of the good juice. I hate the pulp kind. All that crap floating around in it.”
Cooper’s head thumped—the price of regained cognition. His ears rang with the pulsing of blood through his carotid artery; the building blood pressure pressed against the skin of his face. He could barely hear.
“Nick,” he said. “I don’t feel very well. You need to go to bed and so do I…”
Then, he was kneeling, the points of his kneecaps stabbed painfully into the narrow birch planks of the kitchen floor. Then the floor was on his face, cool and dusty.
From his sideways-prone position he could see under the refrigerator. There were mats of cottony dust there, shifting like tumbleweeds at his breath. Cooper was interested in the tumbleweeds and puckered his lips and blew on them. They twirled like a tornado in their confined space between the refrigerator and the floor and eventually settled somewhere between them, suspended in space—simultaneously too heavy and too light for gravity to decide what to do with them.
“What’s he keep talking about?” one of the voices was asking.
Another answered, “Something about
“What’s that mean?”
“Hell if I know….hell if he knows. He’s really out of it.”
Cooper listened to the voices sailing over him, amused. The dust tumbleweeds rolled and stirred beneath the refrigerator with his every breath. He felt himself laugh, a single, belching laugh, like a hiccup.
“So, give him the Glucogon; what’re you waiting for?”
“Yeah, you’re right; I got it right here. I was hoping the kid would get out of here so he wouldn’t have to see his dad get rolled over and stabbed in the ass with this harpoon.”
“The kid’ll be fine. Give him the Gluc.”
Cooper waited for it, knew it was coming, and then felt it—the stab of the long, heavy-gauge needle in his hip. It hurt. He heard himself making a noise and was embarrassed about it but couldn’t stop. He groaned long and soft—an exhausted, resigned sound, representative of the out-of-control feeling he hated and denied and hid.
“How you dooin’, Nick?” he slurred from his place on the floor, and the dust tumbleweeds danced like dervishes.
“Feeling better, Sir?” one of the paramedics was asking, packing up his things in a plastic generic tackle box. Cooper squinted at him with the one eye he could open. He was young and handsome and confident—cocky maybe, Cooper thought.
“A little,” he answered. “I suppose I’ve been making an ass of myself.” The words were still coming out slow and thick—his mouth not yet fully connected to his brain. “Gimme a sec.,” he said. “Glucogon is kicking in…”
“You’re fine, Sir,” the paramedic said. “We’re in no hurry. We’re going to wait around until you’re ready.”
“And there’s some paperwork,” the other paramedic added.
“Where’s my wife?” Cooper asked, surprised at how alarmed the words sounded.
“She’s got the other kids downstairs. They woke up with all the action; but this guy here won’t budge.” The paramedic nodded at Nick and Cooper saw him giving him a wink, as if they were part of some private conspiracy that didn’t include him.
“Yeah, he’s my guy, alright,” Cooper whispered, his strength ebbing away as his blood coursed hard, working to dissipate the glucose that now saturated his bodily tissues. He imagined his blood as an angry, warring swarm, absorbing, annihilating, killing off the sugar in his cells, leaving the dead skeletons behind as litter, which piled up in heaps to be metabolized later, spit out in tomorrow’s toilet and sweat and water-drinking binge.
“Sir,” the paramedic was saying. “Can I have you sign these for me?”
Cooper’s one eye rolled open, not readily.
“Or should I have your wife do it?”
“I’ll fucking do it,” Cooper said, and sat up, abruptly, surprising the paramedic who stepped back a little, which Cooper liked. “Got a pen?”
“Right here,” the paramedic said, nimbly arranging the pen in Cooper’s rather inflexible grip. He squinted hard at the paper, but the lines of print were like streams of gray fuzz.
“I can’t read it,” he admitted and dropped the pen, heard it rattle on the floor.
“Not a problem, Sir,” the paramedic said. “We can wait.” And then his partner,
“Or we can just have your wife sign,” he said, his annoyance thinly veiled.
“Whatever you want,” Cooper said back, exhaustion rising up in him like a heavy, wool blanket, extinguishing his ability to care about anything but closing his eyes, lying down, going under. “Do what you want.”
And then he was alone in the yellow world between dreaming and not-dreaming, the movements above him vaguely felt, if not seen, the voices audible, if not coherent, the sense of knowing, acute, if not trustworthy. He lay there, the birch floor beneath him, cool and unmoving, everything else a-swirl.
“Dad?” he could hear. It was Nick, he could tell, but responding was out of the question. With all the strength he could muster, Cooper tilted the corners of his mouth, a smile he hoped would say “I’m alright.”
Below, in the basement, the ants kept their march. Their unending line as constant as time, their numbers uncountable, their determination, pure, the world beyond theirs, invisible.
From the collection "Sweet Blood and other Stories," a collection of stories in which diabetes is a fundamental character.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
"Can we talk about something?" she asks.
"Sure," he says, turning down the radio and absently shifting his weight as he drives, steadying himself. "Like what?"
"Well, I don't know--nothing, really," code for Get Ready, this is going to take a while... "I just was wondering about some stuff."
The road stretches on ahead, black mirage-water puddles appearing and disappearing one after the other. The silence isn't bad, just is. Then:
"You're not as nice to me as you used to be," she says, finally, and looks at him, knowing this will need an explanation, but watching for his reaction first, to gauge which explanation to use. She has several.
"I'm not?" he looks at her, honestly asking, leaving the car to the road for several seconds.
"Not saying you're mean," she insists, squeezing his knee, assuring him. "Just not as nice--like in the little ways--that you used to be."
"Hmmm," he mumbles, turning his eyes back to the road, noticing he mirage puddles, tucking under the car at a greater pace. "Maybe it would be helpful to know, specifically, what you mean by nice," he says. "Because, to me, not as nice means pretty close to the same as mean...so....I'm confused."
"You're not getting it," she says, letting go of his knee and facing deliberately forward. "It's like you're trying to make an argument out of this and I'm just trying to talk."
"I'm just trying to talk, too," he says, feeling the pitch of his voice elevating, adjusting his hips in the seat again. "I'm sure as hell not trying to fight--I was just driving...All I asked was for a definition of what you mean by not as nice."
She faces him again. "Alright. This, right now, actually, is a good example. All I'm trying to do is talk. And you're either defensive or just not in the mood, preoccupied, whatever--but it's obvious you're not really into it."
Sighing, loudly, he re-affects his grip on the steering wheel, purposely letting some time pass. "Hey," he starts, "I love you. I want to be nice to you. I want to be nicer to you than I've ever been before. But, since I think I am being nice to you and you think I'm not, I just need some help understanding your definition of what nice means." He looks at her. "Is that unreasonable."
"No," she allows. It's not unreasonable. It's just not nice."
"Not nice in the way you used to be years ago."
"You've lost me."
"Before, you never would argue with me the way we do now--the way you are right now!"
"I wouldn't have?"
"What would I have done--what did I do, back then, when we talked about stuff? What did I do when we argued?"
"Well, for one, we didn't argue very much."
"But we did talk...right?"
"Of course. A lot."
"And we agreed on everything, always? I don't remember that."
"Don't patronize me; I didn't say that....My point, in case you care about the point instead of caring about shutting me up, is that, before, even if we did disagree or something, you were nice about it. Respectful. Loving. Nice....I'm sorry if I can't explain it better. I just know nice when I see it."
"I'm not an idiot, either. I know what nice is. ..and, frankly, I think I'm nice. Not perfect, obviously. But nice. How am I not nice?"
"You wear me out."
"You ain't alone."
"Feels like it."
Ahead, on the freeway, a murder of crows takes flight from a deer carcass, the sun shimmering in waves off the pavement.
Fifty miles later, she opens her eyes from a frown-filled, neck-cramped nap. He's been watching her and feels a flat sense of gladness to see her waking up. He's missed her. She smiles at him.
"I love you," he says.
"I love you, too."
"I'll work on being nicer."
"I'll work on being more articulate."
They smile at each other. She touches his leg. He holds her hand.
"It's too hot in here," she says.
"I know," he responds and rolls down the window, the A/C irritates her throat.
"Not so far!" she chimes, her hair blowing madly, "I hate that wind in the car!"
"Sorry," he says and rolls up the window. "Not sure how to cool it down without the wind or A/C."
She stares at him--eye-darts--and slowly shakes her head, incensed and fuming, the frustration incendiary.
He drives on, his face like the Sphinx. Adding up the miles in his head.
Monday, March 1, 2010
Whose woods these are I think I know...
They're mine, from taxes that I throw
this way and that, year after year
and rarely do I see them grow
to things made real, things made dear
for me or mine to see or hear...
This moonlit trail and falling flake,
Quiet evening, peaceful prayer.
Skupocjen Spruga, her skis, they make
a perfect sifting sound and take
my breath away, makes me weep,
the distance of her snowy wake.
Skupocjen Spruga, dark and deep,
And we have blessings yet to keep,
And miles to ski before we sleep
And dreams to keep beyond our sleep.