I have a friend who says I should be a motivational speaker. Someone who helps people find the right path among the weeds. She laughs when I tell her I lack the motivation, because honestly, it’s a riot to think that a nine to five working class hero dabbling in part time poetry could possibly lack motivation. I laugh with her because it’s easier letting her believe the joke than it is to tell her how rotten I am. It’s easier still, letting her heart sprout wings than telling her I’ve had a firm no tolerance policy on social integration for seven years, and now that someone’s repealing that fundamental (f)law… I’m terrified.
I died in my sleep last night. When next I awoke, we were living in a stranger’s photograph. It was the summer we spent in Townsend. Love was exploding into our lives, making us feel as tall as the mountains we were ascending. We were background fodder in a photograph of a family from Wisconsin. A crisp mountain breeze swept the ridge below and blew your hair into my face. It tickled, we laughed, and our lips became locked in a forever-kiss as a biker from Montana snapped their photo.
I’ve been so lonesome since you went away. I used to wallow in your absence in the days after your departure. Our empty home would listen like a passive deity as I practiced saying all the things I never said, hoping fate would orchestrate one more chance. It never did.
But as your lips pressed firmly to mine and we felt that exact kiss at that exact moment for a second time… you evaporated like a thought bubble in a motion comic. The watercolor mountains wept and faded into nothing. I fell out of frame into the abyss below. Swirling waves of obscurity carried my body ever deeper, as though the entire world were draining itself.
Rock bottom was a twelve by eighteen photo of Pensacola Beach and my trunks were already on when I hit. The artist was a photographer from Oregon. She visited twenty-three beaches before finding her shot. We never knew she was there.
A burnt orange sky on the horizon clung to its last bit of blue. The tide had come in to feed on leftover sand castles. Your head was on my shoulder. You told me I had the memory of an Aquarian and tied a string around my finger. I promised it would never happen again. Time washed the red right out of it, but I died with it around my finger. Even death, the absolute clean slate, couldn’t force me to forget.
A new me stood within the old that you knew. I wanted to plead, and beg you not to let me off so easy but our beach melted into the Persistence of Memory. Our bodies dissolved into sand as well fell through the contours of an hour glass. I felt the nothing around me convulse and then expand in every direction, creating a dark room of shared memory.
Thousands of pinholes, suspended in space and time, opened themselves to me. With my prying eyes, I could see contained within each, a living memory of frozen snapshots. You and I played a walk-on role in every scene. A Laotian couple caught a glimpse of us passing through Magic Kingdom. They were aww-ssshucks posing with Goofy when we crossed the bridge into Adventureland. You were twenty-five years old and it was your first visit. Our excitement glowed in the afternoon sun.
Through another I saw an early Christmas morn. A father had taken a picture of his six-year-old daughter riding her first bike. You and I were on the front porch of the apartment. I had just surprised you with Max, our first puppy. He had peed all over your favorite blanket, the one with the holes for your toes. My head was thrown back in a fit of laughter. Max was licking your disgruntled face, tearing away any shred of residual anger. He always loved you the most.
I’ve spent eternity with you since last night. We shared a good life, you and me. I know it wasn’t all ups. But the downs, well, they never wallowed in ruin, did they? You asked me once if I believed in Heaven. I still don’t know when or where this undiscovered country exists. But maybe… maybe the lesson here is this: Heaven is how love looks at you when no one is watching, and Hell is not paying attention.
Do you remember that coffee house out on Cleveland Heights? Birchtree, I think it was. They served the Wet Chihuahua to us every Friday night at closing. Well, it shut down a few years back. The building still stands. An art café is scheduled to move in, I think. Soon the piano and kazoos will be replaced by paints and brushes.
I ran into the owner of Birchtree a few months back. He was managing a new restaurant off Harden Blvd. He remembered you. Said he never thanked you for turning him on to that Social Distortion record. He said it ended up shaping a year of his life. I told him you were special that way.
Do you remember Hollis Gardens? The concrete barriers still stand like grenadier guards. Remember those days? Our backs wet from the condensation on the cool grass. We lay there watching the stars and listening to the trains pull through the station. I’m not sure if you feel the same, but I’m glad we misplaced so many hours in such a beautiful way.
Our shared memories stand like skyscrapers in this city. Their antennas outstretched, grasping for Orion, and Cassiopeia. Your DNA is spliced with that of our city streets and hot spots. We’re reciting poetry in Munn Park. I watched us just last week. You’re still spilling coffee on me outside of Mitchell’s, and I’m giving pocket change to those who ask kindly. Last Thursday we had dinner at Fat Jack’s and watched Legends of Rodeo play Evolution Records.
I’m working downtown now. All of our memories within walking distance of one another. Inside of a lunch hour I can visit Palace Pizza and the ghost of you and me. This city is as much a part of me now as you are. Lakeland is home.
In closing, I’m sorry for the trip down memory lane. It happens every time I visit you out on Oak Hill. I guess I am writing tonight to let you know that I have finally learned what you were trying to teach me all those years ago. I see now, how Love beckons with a holler and dismisses with a whimper. I realize it is both the parachute in a falling dream and the faulty airbag in a fatal crash. Love knows no limitations. You can never bridle, lead, or command it. All you can do is smile and let it be.
Death mocks my living
by wearing the neglected faces
of all the people
I could never save.
Her many voices
whet with despondency,
have taken up residency in my home.
We share breakfast every morning
while divvying the Times.
She loves lightly toasted Italian Five Grain
with the morning obits.
“Drink your OJ,” she says,
as her forked tongue licks the jelly knife,
“you need your vitamin C.”
Death is a dirty houseguest.
He disrobes in the foyer
upon returning home from work.
A trail of crematory ash follows
as he slinks down the hall.
His bloody scythe, repulsive and mean,
Pollocks the walls of our not-so-humble abode.
I’ve tried to have him evicted,
but Death claims Squatters’ Rights.
She keeps strange company, too.
Just the other day,
Death had Time over for tea,
whereupon they discussed
the morality of Brer Rabbit,
and whether or not
a tar baby would work
on the absent hearted.
And just last month,
she employed ex-pantheon members
in an elaborate pyramid scheme,
designed to trick elderly retirees
into investing in cloud front property.
Sometimes, late at night,
after I’ve drowned my sorrows,
Death delivers a cold cloth rag,
and seltzer tablets.
“Still your heart,” he whispers,
“I’m breathless without you.”
His bedside manners
are quite delectable.
We’re familiar strangers,
this Grim Tennant and I.
Spectators to our very own
We writhe and shake
through empty corridors
where he tickles my fancy
with the beckon of slender finger.
Who am I to deny
Death’s carnal calamity?
I’m his favorite toy.
He spins my crank,
dances to the anxious tune,
but never, does he ever,
pop my jack out of the box.
Death is the ultimate tease.
It’s always the same.
There’s no one until there’s someone.
You appear like Napoleon, 1799, out of nowhere.
Staging coups and exiling her better senses
with good-guy tales of misfortune,
like chocolate dipped delicacies,
always ending in the same
but that’s nothing compared to
what you’ve been through
Her father taught her;
when she was just a top-knot,
to never trust explicitly.
It’s not lost on her that sometimes
beneath a candy-coated exterior
lies a dark and bitter center,
but longing never met a truth it couldn’t erode.
Now your heart is beating in her chest,
and what she doesn’t know
is just how deep your malice grows.
How you move from one forever-love to another
using their affection like a needle and spoon,
to satiate the prosthetic spirit within your shell.
Tell me; was it a game for you?
Did you eeny, meeny, miney, moe?
Or just mark your prey by the wheels on her chair?
You’re like the clown in a dunk tank
crying “Virgin mobile, here! Virgin mobile!” all the way down.
You’re the carnie whose joints are never quite rigged,
just bent bottles and tilted tables,
tipping odds in your favor.
Now her tears trace their tracks,
as you’re off projecting new-life comfort,
flaunting your glamour shots debutante,
hoping the pain you inflict
will, somehow, finally break her.
But what are you?
Compared to phantom limbs and catheter tubes?
What are you, compared to walking memories
swimming through nightmare undertow?
What are you, really, in the grand scheme of all things,
compared to the permanent loss of maternity?
Just one more little boy paralyzed,
watching her walk away.