Dinner Out

Juliette sat across from him, two uneven trails of dust and flakes from the bread bowl, one to him and the other to her. He talked about things, and the air pulled the words from his mouth and they floated. Medium well. The dock. Thanksgiving. He looked at her with such earnestness. It was a look thick and warm with sincerity and she felt like she was eating it. His look took up room in her mouth. Outside, she nodded but inside her brain raged, “Get out of my mouth! Take yourself and your ideas and your thoughts and your tenderness and get them out of my mouth!” She pictured herself raising an open palm and smacking him so hard that he fell from the chair, so fast that she couldn’t see pain pull apart his face, changing his landscape. Falling to the floor, cracking multiple bones in his face while she overturned her chair and fled the restaurant and the street and the town.

His eyes were wide and thick with meaning. The tablecloth was colored deeply, like spilled wine. His chewing sounds, the wet clopping of his tongue, his teeth knocking into his water glass. The dark curls on her head were shot through with static, currents of electricity pushing deeply into her skull. He covered her hand with his. It was too warm. Too tight and heavy and it didn’t feel fair, that he wanted so much from her. And still, she knew he wanted only a small smile, or a quick squeeze to his hand. It wasn’t much and it shamed her that she couldn’t give it to him, but still she was shot through with rage, his hand a heavy, furry paw on hers. She slid her hand out and squeezed her curls, the hair laden with electricity and pulsing into her scalp and temples and the nape of her neck.

They walk down the city street. It is evening and the air is warm. A hazy light, a muddied yellow, falls from the tall streetlights. The sidewalk is uneven and broken in places, overlapped and cracked like bad teeth. This makes the night more festive. Strollers in pairs and small gaggles touch one another, when they laugh or to squeeze an arm or steady a wife or a friend whose high heel as caught itself in a sidewalk crack. Outdoor cafes are held down with wrought iron tables and lit with votives and torches, bearing down and preparing themselves as they head into a raucous state. The married and the middle aged settle checks and finger through bills, turning from the group to count out the tip in bills.

Juliette and Michael walk, the cooler evening air sifting through the gaping holes in her crocheted wrap. ‘It should be enough,’ she thinks. The street glimmers with lit cigarettes and candle flames and waving votives, streetlights lighting upon silver earrings and flashing, teeth winking in the light from rolling headlights. Laughter breaks the night into manageable pieces, pieces the carousers can hold onto, pieces they can fit in their hands.

(Child hurt? Witnesses? Later, in the dark bedroom…)

A Lentil and a Popsicle

I am living just outside my life. On the edges, sewn into the hem, along the outline, in the grout. I am quite sure I can fit myself into one of the cream tiles lining the bathroom floor. Picture it: the tile is a square dime, smaller than an inch by an inch. I could fit there, or on the head of a pin or on the pale green shoulders of a dry lentil. I am bigger than the blue in the sky if it were to be bottled and sold on low wooden shelves at a farmer’s market. I would never sell shit at a farmer’s market. I’m not that kind of person. I’d buy it, though. I like to own things. I’d like to own the pattern of my breath. I believe I can fly. I think I can walk. Walking trips me up. I am usually not here. I cannot put my thumb on life. It is curious. I cannot press it or mark it. It is like this. I sit in meetings and talk numbers and dates. You can’t imagine. It’s not me. I never show up. The furniture is out of proportion and I consider touching the person sitting beside me. To feel their outline. To know if they are as porous as I am. They’re not. They are soup sloshing in a bowl. I’m a flowered bowl holding still soup. I spend a lot of time pressing my back teeth together, like a hot iron held firmly in place on a stubborn wrinkle. I want to flap my wrists and flutter my fingers in the air beside my temples, shaking my head like a child and humming low and deep in my throat. It is curious. I look pretty when I do this, if you have the right kind of eyes. I sit in a meeting. I sit in a chair. I perch on a top shelf. I curl into a candy dish. I drop my eyes onto a pencil on the table, a pencil gnawed by a nervous child. I am a nervous child. Teethmarks run the length of the pencil with dents, the pencil marked like an old fashioned typewriter. I slip into the slats in the heater vents. I pull at my feathers with my beak and chirp from a tree outside the office window. I know songs. I know songs. I’m full of shit in real life. I’m top notch on the edges. This is hard to follow. I could not have names for myself. I haven’t a clue what my name is. I don’t answer to anything. I’m confused like a glass vase holding dirty flower water, dying flowers pulled out from the water with a tight hand around their neck. Maybe it was me who gnawed the pencil in the real life that I sit on the edge of, like a child sitting on the hem of a community pool, concrete pulling at the seat of her swimsuit, legs loose in the water like cooked spaghetti. Her thighs are hot. Her calves and feet slim once they cut through the chilly casing of the pool water. I am stuck in casing. I am going to die in here. It’s definitely probably me who gnawed the pencil. I am always gnawing at something. You haven’t any idea. I am at all times looking for something to bite, something to sink my teeth into, something to fill my mouth, something to worry at with my teeth. I am going to break my teeth doing this, crack them and grind the stubborn ones into a fine powder. I should have been a beaver. I would have been an excellent beaver. I am not an excellent human. Humans aren’t always looking to bite, to snap. Maybe the little girl is me. Maybe those are my thin legs in the water. I left myself behind so long ago, sitting on the edge of a pool and sucking on a grape popsicle. Sucking the grape from the popsicle and leaving behind ice the color of skim milk. My lips were cracked and purple, my tongue wrinkled. I haven’t eaten in years. I can’t stop eating. Maybe somewhere a narrow version of me is walking, thin and tall as a pencil. That bitch is probably living my real life, leaving me behind lead footed. I hate her and mark her as selfish. I cannot fit into my life. I am too big. I cannot fit, I would like to scream. Wrists flapping, fingers fluttering. I ruined my bathing suit sitting on the concrete. The seat is pulled and pilling, so I left the suit behind in a damp pile on the tile floor. I stand naked in the middle of a 7-11 on a fake street in a real town in a fake city with matchbox cars zooming across steaming black asphalt. I clench a soggy box of grape popsicles in my hand. My fury has a fury. The box is soft and furry as it melts, and I scream at the bald cashier with a tattooed neck: I can’t fit. He doesn’t look up, he rings up a young mother with a thick brown ponytail held in place with royal blue elastic. I am too small, and there is too much room to fill. I get tired of thinking about it. I can’t sleep. My mouth aches. I am always tired. My tongue is pilling. A pale green lentil rattles in a mason jar. A string of cooked spaghetti slips down the kitchen wall, leaving behind a tacky streak of starch. Grape syrup can’t just leech back into ice. That’s not how it works. I don’t know how you don’t know these things. My wrists are flapping, my purple fingers are fluttering. Blue pistons break apart the glass bottles, too big to be contained and splitting the glass with sharp cracks. There is no place for me here. It must have been me who gnawed the pencil. There’s no other explanation.

Grape Popsicles and Skim Milk

I am living just outside my life. On the edges, on the hem, on the outline, in the grout. I am quite sure I can fit myself into one of the cream tiles lining the bathroom floor. Picture it: the tile is a square dime, smaller than an inch by an inch. I could fit on the head of a pin, on the pale green shoulders of a dry lentil. I am quite certain that I am bigger than the blue in the sky, if it were to be bottled and sold on low wooden shelves at a farmer’s market. I would never sell shit at a farmer’s market. I’m not that kind of person. I’d buy it, though. I like to own things. I’d like to own the pattern of my breath. I believe I can fly. I think I can walk. I have moments when I feel not here. I cannot put my thumb on real life. It is curious. I cannot press it or mark it. It is as though my life is a flower and I am air. I’m wind. Maybe the flower is alive and a brilliant magenta and maybe it is dead and brown and powdery. It makes no difference. I’m only wind so this isn’t about symbolism, understand. It is like this. I sit in meetings and talk numbers and dates. It isn’t me in a meeting talking numbers and dates. You can’t imagine. I never show up. The furniture is out of proportion and I consider touching the person sitting beside me. To feel their outline. To know if they are as porous as I am. They’re not. They are soup sloshing in a bowl. I’m a flowered bowl holding still soup. I spend a lot of time pressing my back teeth together, like a hot iron held firmly in place on a stubborn wrinkle. I want to flap my wrists and flutter my fingers in the air beside my temples, shaking my head like a child and humming low in my throat. It is curious. I look pretty when I do this, if you have the right kind of eyes. I sit in a meeting, it is not my meeting. I drop my eyes onto a pencil on the table, a pencil gnawed by a nervous child. I am a nervous child. Teethmarks run the length of the pencil with dents, the pencil marked like an old fashioned typerwriter. It is a typewriter, dumbass. I could not confuse words if this life weren’t real. I could not have names for myself. I haven’t a clue what my name is. I don’t answer to anything. I’m confused like a glass vase holding dirty flower water. Maybe it was me who gnawed the pencil in the real life that I sit on the edge of, like a child sitting on the hem of a community pool, concrete pulling at the seat of her swimsuit, legs loose in the water like cooked spaghetti. Her thighs are hot. Her calves and feet slim once they cut through the chilly casing of the pool water. I am stuck in casing. I am going to die in here. It’s definitely probably me who gnawed the pencil. I am always gnawing at something. You haven’t any idea. I am at all times looking for something to bite, something to sink my teeth into, something to fill my mouth, something to worry at with my teeth. I am going to break my teeth doing this, crack them and grind the stubborn ones into a fine powder. I should have been a beaver. I would have been an excellent beaver. I am not an excellent human. Humans aren’t always looking to bite, to snap. Maybe the little girl is me. Maybe those are my thin legs in the water. I left myself behind so long ago, sitting on the edge of a pool and sucking on a grape popsicle. Sucking the purple from the popsicle and leaving behind ice the color of skim milk. My tongue was wrinkled. I haven’t eaten in years. I can’t stop eating. Maybe somewhere a narrow version of me is walking, thin and tall as a pencil. That bitch is probably living my real life, leaving me behind lead footed. I hate her and mark her as selfish. I cannot fit into my life. I am too big. I cannot fit, I would like to scream. Wrists flapping, fingers fluttering. I ruined my bathing suit sitting on the concrete. The seat is pulled and pilling, so I left the suit behind. I stand naked in the middle of a 7-11 on a fake street in a real town in a fake city with matchbox cars zooming across steaming black asphalt. I clench a soggy box of grape popsicles in my hand, the box is furry as it melts, and I scream at the bald cashier with a tattooed neck that I can’t fit. I am panicked because I cannot fit. He doesn’t look up, he rings up a young mother with a thick brown ponytail. I am too small, and there is too much room to fill. I get tired of thinking about it. I can’t sleep. My mouth aches. I am always tired. My tongue is pilling. I am a pale green lentil, rattling in a mason jar. I am a string of cooked spaghetti, slipping down the kitchen wall. I am syrup trying to leech back into ice. I am the blue breaking apart glass bottles, splitting the glass with sharp cracks, too big to be held. There is no place for me here. It must have been me who gnawed the pencil. There’s no other explanation.

September 15, 2012: Town

Town as character

Train tracks ran through the town, passing by the lumber dock that hadn’t been used since the recession took out the construction business, taking under builders and their families, too. The tracks did not separate the well off from the poor or the blacks from the whites or the immigrants from the republicans. On both sides of the tracks, women woke to brush their teeth over dirty sinks, foam filling their mouths. Men set teakettles on glowing burners. Dogs were let outside to make water after long nights at the foots of bed or in the corners of kitchens. Which is to say that the people, and the dogs, lest we forget the dogs, woke up on both sides of the tracks, no better off or worse off than anyone on the opposite side of the tracks. Women pulled coarse hairs from their chins. Children slid toasted waffles into their mouths, leaving behind sticky drips of syrup that would dry into small tacky oil slicks on the kitchen table, spots that wouldn’t be wiped up until that night after dinner. The spots would pull a bit at the wet dishcloth, and mothers would rub the cloth over the spots with their thumbs, lifting away the grease. Clouds would gather in purple blooms across the gray sky all day. The clouds would disappear at dusk. They would return the next morning. Crows would call from trees, cutting the air into sharp, thin white strips. The black shiny birds would swallow large mouthfuls of air, their throats pulsing, working not to choke.

If it is summer, grass will grow. We have to assume grass will grow. It’s what grass does, even though we’ll spend lifetimes looking at grass and never catching it grow, our eyes not once catching it. And if it is winter, snow will accumulate or snow will melt. Our eyes catch snow accumulating. Most of us marvel at it, at least for a moment. Looking at the deck through the window over the kitchen sink, past the curtains littered with small pink flowers, our eyes will actually lift, physically move up, taking our heads along, our chins a bit jaunty and proud that this is the world we live in. This is our world. We will lay claim, although it’s a world not of our making. We’ve nothing to do with it, but we’ll marvel, still, at the snow building up on the deck railing, piling atop the the dome of the black barbecue. And if the snow is melting, our eyes will scan lawns and streets and sidewalks, our chins carrying our eyes from side to side. We will wonder at the queer patches of dead grass, the grass not growing at all now because it is winter. Our eyes will worry at the patches where the grass spreads, the snow recedes. It is not how you think it is. It never is. It’s not so much the snow that is melting. It’s more that the dead grass that is spreading. So dead grass does grow, just side to side instead of up. It is hard to keep track of life. It is important. Or to put too much effort in or you will feel tricked and then, as time passes, you will be resentful. Resent is ugly. Instead, look past the curtains printed with watermarked roses. Look at the snow. Marvel. Wonder. And if it is winter and the snow is not piling nor is the grass spreading as the snow melts, well then you will be disappointed and you will wish for spring and tender waxy stems bending under the weight of heady and garish clusters of petals. You will feel like a flower at the window, looking out at snow that isn’t piling. Snow that isn’t melting. Your head will feel heavy. Your neck will feel weak. You won’t know this in your head. You won’t think it in words. But your neck will sag a little. It’s how things are.

All of this is to say that the town, the one where the train tracks run and it’s snowing or melting or neither, is just like any other town. Or any other bustling city or sleepy suburb or sunlit valley or steep sided mountain. The town is nothing special. Its streetlights change from red to green and yellow to red, slower than you might expect and with a softer switch. It’s surprising. The streetlights in your town are the same. The switch on your streetlights is softer, too, than you probably imagine. Pay attention. You’ll see. Nothing is ever as it seems. What if the air is singing to the crows, and the crows are holding up the sky, their talons pinching the sky into a gray tent overhead. What if the sun makes piles of snow grow and maybe grass is cold. Green is the color of cold and we can blow whistles through our thumbs when we hold fistfuls of snow. Nothing is as it seems.

July 7, 2012: Loving Her. CWE 279

It’s these lyrics that keep running through my head but the song hasn’t been written yet. They wake me from black sleep, and I carry her in my pockets like memories of a trip to Paris, which is somewhere I haven’t been. There are so many stones in my pocket that I wear my pants at my ankles. She’s this candle on the windowsill with a snow white wick and my fingers are warm. An apple in my stomach that I will eat at my desk tomorrow morning. It’s like this to love her. I am weary with love and I slept the soundest sleep last night in my black bedroom. Singing birds woke me when the night was still on its knees. I did not want to shoot them like I normally do because they were singing the song that I sing in my head. That’s what it’s like, loving her. It’s like birdsong, singing a song that hasn’t been written, in a black bedroom in a blue night.

July 1, 2012: First Sentences. CWE 273

She knew shit was bad when lines from poems kept popping in to her head when she waited in line at the grocery store or shaved her left knee without shaving cream. Snippets of heartbreaking poems woke her like bad dreams. She felt like an aluminum popcorn popper shaken over the stover burner, bursting with sadness and apathy and anxiety. She was tired of herself.

She quit drinking on a Thursday. She woke up after being awake since 2:00 AM which is what always happened when she drank too much. She was, as she always was, disgusted with herself and reeling and thinking about how much she sucked at life. She stood in front of the bathroom mirror after she showered, and her skin looked pinker and fresher than it had for years. Her teeth were whiter and her eyes clearer and her hair was drying in a kind of wavy, fancy way instead of hanging limp. This was strange because she had not slept and was still likely drunk and all around, she was hating herself and this day pretty intensely considering that it was only 6:45 AM.

His house was the size of a postage stamp. This is a true story. The roof was even edged with scallops, just like old fashioned stamps were. The kind you had to lick.

When Noreen touched her, she felt like she was being prayed over. And under and through and into. Noreen wrote prayers along her arms and across her stomach and she wrote prayers in the air around her and pulled her hair into long, shiny prayers that were very heavy and very light at the same time. Noreen filled her like water tipped into a vase so that things could begin blooming and the air hummed with yellow and prayers and flowers breaking open in the morning air when the sun burned off the last parts of the night.

It wasn’t so much that she was bossy, although it’s true that the was bossy. It’s more that she was what her grandmother would call a Nervous Nellie. She could work conversations in a certain way, building up interactions and breaking down others. She pulled this string and that leg kicked. She pulled that string and this hand raised.

Title? Prayers, Puppets, and Pumpernickel

She lived in an apartment above a liquor store. All windows to the liquor store had been boarded up years ago. Her attic apartment had to windows at either end, and beams of sunlight met in the middle of the floor.

She sat at her desk going through unimportant emails and she reached down beside her hips to grab two ends of a seatbelt.

I knew the potatoes weren’t soft enough. I knew they should cook longer. I knew I didn’t need another beer. I knew things were getting worse.

***

She kept biding her time, waiting until something came along that was a joy. She kept waiting for joy. I told her over and over that that wasn’t how joy worked. Joy wasn’t going to come along and sit its fat ass in her lap and let loose a bouquet of balloons into a sky washed with a paintbrush dipped in blue. Joy didn’t work that way.

She didn’t listen. She didn’t ever listen. It didn’t matter. I was desperately in love with her. I wanted to name each curl that sprung from her scalp. I wanted to give them middle names and throw each curl a bat mitzvah and a confirmation party and a sweet sixteen. I was at all times twisting garlands of paper streamers and breaking broccoli trees into manageable little bushes to roost beside bowls of dip. She was the party of my life.

I met her in an economics class. It was the second time I’d taken the class. I failed the first time. It was a hard class, but really I failed because I stopped going. That whole experience taught me the importance of failing. Failing will sit you in a plush seat in an ampitheater and raise a red velvet curtain with a fluorish. The curtains will part like the seas and there’s no need for Moses because she will be standing there in the wake, her curls snapping, her eyes flashing.

I haven’t seen her in years. I’ve bought three houses and sold two and cleaned my fridge maybe two hundred times and shaken out clean sheets over a quilted mattress maybe seven hundred times. I’ve made love over and over and slipped my head in to the laps of a parade of women. She still sits in my lap with a carboard book of matches, lighting one match after another and giggling while they fizzle. She still sits her fat ass in my heart, building bonfires and pumping the billows. I smell like sulphur and have spent years in the burn unit.

To contemplate: a story about someone who fell in love with you, instead of a story about you falling in love.