January 19, 2018

anna

Anna Yanni was born 22 days after my father in 1931.

She never had a Christmas morning where-as the only child

The room would be full of gifts for the gift.

She never played in the yard or worked in her grandfather’s garden.

She didn’t go to school.

Never acted in the high school production of Best Foot Forward,

Never went to art school-never drew a thing.

Didn’t spend 18 years in the Army Reserves

Pushing and being pushed.

Never worked,

Never laid a brick.

Didn’t marry, raise children,

Worry, love, be paralyzed by fear.

Be proud, prideful or exult.

Yell!

Work, play, fish

Have friends, have family,

Watch the Steelers,

Live, love, laugh, drink,

Die at home.

Maybe that last. Probably.

For 16 days why even leave Heaven?

Who booked her on that cruise?

Who was little Anna sent to serve

Or to save?

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At the VFW

 

I’m BOOZER! he roared

Slamming his fists on the bar,

Rattling glasses and tipping Baldy’s beer.

Jesus Walter, Baldy said catching what he could.

He’d been quiet, blinking behind his glasses for hours.

A man and his whiskey.

Now this.

I’m BIG BOOZER!

You’re Walter Tattalega, old white shirt said,

His officious head up his ass.

That was it from them for now.

When Boozer got started they melted into the dark paneling like oil

Leaving me alone to manage him

Because I was the bartender and bigger than them

But no way the size of Boozer.

Plus, I was a kid. The only battles I’d fought were on the football field-

Which counted for shit.

He had a bad war, they said. Whatever that meant.

Didn’t seem to be having a good peace neither.

He’d a killed me if he had a mind to. But he didn’t.

Word was he served with my uncle who didn’t come home.

He’d always let me walk him to the door, my hand resting on his shoulder

A giant breathing, ham.

Never pushing-just resting there-feeling the strength and the tension.

He touched me on the chin as he left-a soft cuff that

Made me wince.

They oozed back around the bar once Boozer was gone.

You think you could play ball, one said. You shoulda seen Walter when he was a boy.

Shame what happened to him.

Shame what they did to him.

I was suddenly too small to see over the bar.

Had to jump up to sit, legs dangling, on a stool,

Having a Pepsi and chips while the old man shot pool.

Christ, he’d a killed me if he had a mind. to.

 

©TDR-2018

Everything Changes

There had been a light snow around midnight so now I could see the bunnies in the yard, little dark blobs against the light gray. Hadn’t seen them for a while-it never occurred to me that they were haunting the yard all night, nibbling the frozen clover invisible in the darkness. She had stayed over and even the cats were on edge. She slept soundly upstairs allowing me to slip away for a glass of ice water and a pill. Quick shower against the funk of the night sweats while waiting for the tranq to take over. Had to stay ready when she was here. Didn’t know when she would come to me strapped, needing me to roll over and bite down on the pillow. It wasn’t as painful as it had been, but not comfortable, that’s for sure. Actually, after a few times, it felt more sad than anything. She no doubt got more out of it. She forbade haircuts recently-wanted to yank at it. Probably got the idea from that bumper sticker; you know the one: ‘If you’re gonna ride my ass at least pull my hair’, or something like that. She’s gotten pretty handsy lately. We were having dinner a couple of weeks ago over on the South Side at a new place-no one knew us. Everything seemed fine and I said something, can’t even remember what, and when I looked up she slapped me-full across the face. The restaurant was a white tablecloth place, all muted and quiet like and the slap rang out like plates hitting the ceramic floor. Her eyes were not flashing, like they would when she was angry. More questioning-curious. I rubbed the sting out of my cheek and said nothing while the diners settled back into their grazing, masticating and murmuring. Later that night she caned me beforehand and the pain was a true distraction leaving no time to feel anything- which I guess was the point.  Over the last four months I’d pared my book collection from over twelve hundred to eight and sent two closets of suits I never wear to the Veterans. I sold the motorcycle, still in pieces, that had been a project for years so I’m making progress. Still, when I told her once-I think it was the weekend of the slap-that I was in the mood for sex she said ‘Sure. What kind?’ I was stuck for an answer which probably led to what happened. It was fine though-she made it worth my while in the long run. But I have to have a ready answer next time.

He should have turned in his dick

It wasn’t the flu.

She would always think everything was the flu.

There would come a day, he thought,

When he’d come stumbling in with a sucking chest wound

And she’d diagnose the flu and make tea

While he bled out.

Fuck that. She was gone now-ministering someone else.

It was probably a torn meniscus. Fucking stairs.

Had one of them before; fingered the old scar on his left knee

As the right one pulsed-swollen and hot.

‘If I knew I was gonna live this long, I’d a’ taken better care of myself’

Was something his old man used to say.

He mumbled toward the end, his old man.

Didn’t want to open his mouth to show the tumors and sores

That were already too far along to deal with.

He winked at himself-and me behind him-in the mirror.

Dressed like a million bucks he had one more score in him.

Or so he thought.

They found him beside the dumpster in the alley behind the club.

He was barefoot. The fuckers had even taken his shoes.

He was alone now-having broken with his woman last month.

Over sex.

All she wanted to do was blow him.

He wanted something more intimate;

A nice slow screw with kissing. Like that.

She wouldn’t, so he let her go.

When he told that to an associate

Who had gotten exactly five blow jobs in his life-

And one was from his uncle when he was a boy-

The guy looked at him like he was nuts.

‘You should have to turn in your dick’, he’d said.

He took a pill out of the bag before taping it closed.

One more or less – it will still bring two grand.

He limped out the door and took his time

On the stairs.

Mark

IMG_4761

A December warm front had filled the valley with a thick drizzling fog that turned midday to dusk. I had just left the Vet’s club heading for Tony’s Wild Irish Rose on the corner because I had a thing for the daytime bartender. Too early to tell if she was open or interested, but it seemed promising.  Had to put in the time to find out but things had started to look up over the past couple of weeks.

I stopped short noticing a distinctive shadow down the block in the fog.

“Mark?”

He was less a person from here than a dark smudge on a dirty gray sheet.

“Mark! What the fuck are you doin?”

Mark was below me through a gap where a church had burned, across the alley on the railroad track. From what I could tell, he was more than half way through Master Chen’s 60 movement tai chi form. I knew the form well enough; he’d been trying, with varying degrees of success, to teach it to me over the last two years. But that was in his dojo, two blocks up next to the bodega. Not down on the tracks.

He would do this kind of stuff when it struck him. And it was much easier to deal with him when he was drinking. Then he knew, on some level, at some lizard brain level, that what he was doing might be stupid and would allow himself to be talked out of it. He lived with the hard-wired assumption that he might be wrong because he was a drunk.

Now, four months sober, there was no reasoning with him. He could not be dissuaded from ANYTHING! Today he was frighteningly sober. The kind of aggressive-sober only drunks could get. And he was doing tai chi on the railroad tracks.

“I smell the booze coming off you”, he growled when I got close enough.

Better a shot of CC than getting hit by a train, I thought. But said nothing. His movements were crisp but flowing. Hundreds of years of meditative body mechanics brought to bear on the rocky ballast in the down side of town.

“Put me on the list”, he said.

“Which one?”

“Your pallbearer list.“

Shit, I thought. I had forgotten I’d told him about that. It wasn’t like I’d written it down or anything. And it wasn’t final. There were ten or twelve possibles that moved in and out as the mood struck. Unless they died, then obviously, off for good.

“I said I didn’t want to do it”, he went on. “But that will be fine. I’d like to speak too. Say something about you being weak and a drunk who shoulda died years ago and saved the air for the rest of us.”

“I don’t know if that will go over. I’m sure I’ll have family there.”

“Betcha I won’t get an argument”, he said, still never looking my way.

There was a growing rumble in the tracks. The afternoon CSX, filled with coal, was winding its way down river but was slowed by the big curve and the bridge on the other side of the switching yard. Still-by the sound of the whistle-it was no more than a half mile away.

“Train’s comin’”, I said.

He ignored me and kept to his pace. He’d probably finish in time. Nothing to be done.

I walked up to The Rose and sat at the end of the bar where I could still see him through the window. Treena, following my eyes, placed a beer in front of me and poured a shot. “He was in here earlier looking for you.”

“I was at the Vet’s earlier. What time did you start?”

“Trying to get an extra couple hours”, she explained. “Hadda take tomorrow off. Headin’ down to West Virginia. My old man’s gettin’ outta jail.”

“Your father?”

“No dipshit. My husband. Did eighteen months. Early release.”

“Didn’t know you were married.”

“Who wants to talk about their husband in prison? Went in with the meth-hope he’s coming out clean. Said they fixed his teeth.”

She smiled. Her teeth were good, except for the cracked one in front.

I pounded the shot and chased it with the beer as the train blew by a little too fast; it’s whistle, loud and bawling, rattling glasses behind the bar. Couldn’t see Mark anywhere.

I signaled for another round.

 

Someone once told me that Jerry Garcia died getting straight. If he had stayed an addict, he’d still be alive. I don’t know about that but Mark Krajack never woulda faced down a train drunk. He woulda joined me someplace outta the fog for a beer and tried to converse over the roar of the whistle. That’s what he woulda done.

Jake – 2

(Continued from Jake – 1)

The air in the room was a coppery stew of blood, meat, burnt hair, gunpowder and shit. He had to hit the window frame hard with the heel of his hand a few times before it surrendered to his tugging and slid up a few inches.

“You fuckin’ idiot”, he said aloud.

No running his car into an abutment yanking to the left at the last second to deal only a glancing, but totaling, blow. No standing at the bridge rail with an audience waiting to be talked back. No taking a bottle of pills then calling 911. He’s just crying out, they said. Trying to make Mel crazy. This wasn’t that. He wondered what his last thought had been in the nanosecond between clicking the trigger and ending up on the wall. Better off not knowing.

Jake sat on the bloody ruin of the bed and felt it soaking through his jeans, his legs already sticky. He leaned forward and, with his finger, traced a line through the crimson spatter on the yellow wall feeling pieces that were bloody, but more than that. What was in this blood? Were there still traces of the first joint they shared in ninth grade? A taste of the cheap wine they’d shared at the prom a million years before? A whiff of every bottle they’d drained, beer they’d drunk, Quaalude they’d swallowed?

No, those were memories which would now become the reveries of ghosts. This was waste. Jake knew he’d live with one the rest of his life. This other, he needed to get rid of.

You couldn’t call me one more time? When have I not showed up when you called? Or the old man? He could get tiresome, sure, sitting through another story of walking point in the jungle and knowing he wouldn’t die but sure of who would.  Did he have this one?  Jesus, Bull. Again, he wondered about his last thought: was it a relieved “finally” or a regretful “fuck!”. Better off not…

He got up and headed through the house that he knew as well as his own. He’d been here alone many times, but it was never as empty as it was now. He gathered what he needed and decided this would be it for him. There would be no vigil, no sitting beside a closed casket with Melissa and the kids remembering better times. None of that. This was it. This was his closure, this was his vigil, this was his Song of Bull: Lysol, two buckets, sponges and a mop.

The task was simple. Numbing. On his popping knees, dipping the rag in the clean bucket and rinsing in the foul one. When they were both the same shade of red he’d dump and start again. The smell of the cleaner began to win out as the window fogged. He was half way though, still on his knees in that fouled room, when he heard the heavy, halting tread on the steps. Mel’s brother stepped up to the doorway but not into the room.

“What did you say to her?”

“Not now, Tom…”

“She got the three kids at my house now and she gonna half to…”

Jake pulled himself up in sections to his full height, stretching his back, before pivoting slowly, mechanically, his spine clicking like a rusty weather vane. His eyes were a sick animal’s, too exhausted and pained to attack but too unpredictable to offer any comfort. Tom shied from the baleful stare, but held his chin firm.

“Wasn’t right”, he said.

“Not. Now”, Jake answered and slowly turned back to the wall, almost clean now.

“Put the mattress in the garage. Git it out of here. I’ll burn it at work.” Jake didn’t respond. “It’s good you’re doin’ this”, Tom said sliding toward the stairs, “But you’re still a fuckin’ prick.”

Jake, content to hear but not listen, wiped at the wall-now shiny yellow with only a few wisps of pink.

The mattress, older than the man who’d slept on it, rolled easily. The blood was drying now-gummy-not running down his back but staining him just the same as he shouldered the burden and leaned his way down the stairs, across the yard and into the garage. The bulb on the wire cast a wavering yellow light as it swung above the oil-stained spot where the Caddy usually was. Melissa took it, he knew. Which Bull would have hated.

He dropped the mattress against the wall then stripped off his soiled jeans and underwear, tossing them and his shirt onto the same pile. Burn them all, he thought. He yanked off the light and lumbered haltingly back across the dark yard ignoring the stares that he knew were falling on him from those who would always stare at car wrecks, death houses and accidents, hoping for a sign, a vision, an echo or reverb from beyond.

Back in the room, he opened the dresser drawers and pulled out a pair of jeans. They would be big, but there were belts. A non-descript work shirt from the closet; stained but clean. Then, on a hunch, he pulled open the top drawer and reached under the sweat socks to find a thin plastic bag rolled tight and licked to seal. The weed was mostly thick oily buds and smelled amazing fresh. OK buddy, he thought. Paid in full.

The keys were still in the ignition, his wallet still on the seat. He had locked the house but left all the lights on, so it shined brighter than any other on the street where the living hid in darkness. He drove back to the Porter, watching the streets carefully for changes. He figured without Bull on this block or this earth that something should look somehow different.

The bar was quiet when he walked in, the juke muted, whispering some Jim Croce lost love song. Bad news burns through a small town like a fire in a rowhouse. Bull’s stool at the end was empty, as was the one on either side. There was a shot and a flattening beer on the bar in front of it. Jake sat on the stool he’d left earlier and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror behind the bottles. He dropped his eyes.

Dee set the same shot and beer in front of him.

“You ok?”

“Naw…”

She squeezed his hand.  He tossed the shot and remembered. “Shit!” he took the phone out of his pocket and dialed home. Dee refilled the shot. The old man answered on the first ring.

“Pop”, he said.

“I heard” was all he answered. Jake had hoped he had, what with the scanner and Aunt Cil and her sisters all radars for distress and disasters. He didn’t want to break the news though the old man would say he saw it coming. He woulda been right too. They all did.

“Ok. You alright?”

“What else am I gonna be? How ‘bout you?” His answer was silence, Jake again caught staring at the wraith in the mirror. “…You should come home” the old man said.

“I will Pop. I will…I just gotta…”

“I’ll leave the door open. Just come home when you’re done…”

He closed the phone and put it back in his pocket pulling out the bag of weed and tossing it on the bar. “Pipe Up”, he said intoning their collective call to unconsciousness, born a decade earlier when an oldster, long gone now, had told their crew to “Pipe Down!” when they were laughing over his daytime programs.

Dee reached behind the Crown Royal bottle for the stone pipe. Gus, at the end of the bar, got up haltingly and locked the front door then deliberately switched off the sidewalk lights. They were closed for a while.

“I just sold him this last week,” Dee said shaking the bag.

“A wonder there’s any left” Jake said and smiled for the first time in hours.  She packed the pipe and handed it over, lighting it. He inhaled deeply, taking the sweet smoke deep into his lungs; closing his eyes from the prying gaze of the ghost in the mirror.

“What you say?” Dee asked as he exhaled.

He didn’t realize he had spoken out loud. “I said,” he repeated, “Fuck tomorrow.”

“That’s up to you”, she said taking a small toke before passing the pipe down the bar. “But whether you do or don’t, tomorrow’s gonna fuck you sure.”

(To be eventually continued…)

Jake – 1

“He did it!” was all he heard screeching from the phone as he held it hard against his ear.

“What Mel?! What he do?” He felt he had to yell to be heard over the noise on his end banging against the screaming on hers. Even with a finger in his off ear and turned away from the juke, it was damn near impossible. “DID WHAT MELISSA?” Filling in the blanks of her answer was tough, but it sounded along the lines of “He’s your fuckin’ friend, best git here!” Then it went dead. He flipped his phone closed.

There was a fresh shot and a beer on the bar in from of him. He threw back the one and gulped half of the other. “Gotta run”, he told the bartender. “Somethin’s up at Bull’s.”

“Don’t get between ‘em two, Jakey”, she yelled after him as he pushed out the door.

He jumped in his truck and headed the four blocks down the main drag, desolate even this early except for the bars, then a right up the hill, then the left at the old school and two more blocks. His heart sagged when he saw the black and whites and ambulance in the middle of the block. “What the fuck did you do…” he mumbled. He got as close as he could then just shut off the truck in the middle of the street and got out.

Bull’s house was glowing with a light in every room and a seeming houseful of people. Sean Mason, in his white police lieutenant’s outfit, was on the porch. “Sean”, Jake nodded taking the two steps up as one. He wasn’t close with the lieutenant but had known him forever. Even when they played ball together they weren’t particularly chummy but still they had been hip to hip for those four years. They were circling planets in the same small system, nothing more.

Sean wouldn’t meet his eyes. Just shook his head. Jake froze when he saw a thicket of legs up on the stairs struggling with a gurney.  “Where the kids?” he asked.

“Her mom’s. It was just Melissa and him here.”

“Where’s she?”

They paused and stepped aside for the guys-all known to Jake-carrying the gurney. The white sheet covering the bulk was riotously stained red at one end. Jake reached out for a corner of it.

“Don’t”, said Sean quietly. “You don’t want to see that.”

Naw, he guessed he didn’t. He stepped back and allowed them to pass. Melissa came after; for the moment dry, but wild-eyed. She fixed on him, hard and flinty as she would lately. Jake wanted to reach out to her; to somehow recapture for a moment the vibe the three had together before marriage, kids and Bull’s off-ness snuffed it. He really wanted to find something to say that would ease them both through what was shaping up to be a very shitty week, but instead he said, “What you say to him?”

“WHAT? What did I…you BASTARD!” Then, just like in the movies, she started pounding on his chest with both fists and slapping at his face. He made no move to protect himself but, unlike in the movies, neither did he grab her and hug her or comfort her. “I DIDN’T SAY ANYTHING YOU FUCKER” He stood quietly until Sean took her by the arm and pulled her away. “Why don’t you kill yourself too you COCKSUCKER!”

Having handed her off to one of the EMS techs Sean turned to Jake and simply said, “Really?”

©TDR – 2017

(Continuing…. For those trying to find some coherence in my lunacy, this is the same Jake that we find at the bridge rail in “You Better Hurry“)