Rough Night

“Someone’s having a hell of a night out there.” Earl’s rough palm was wrapped around the glass of cool beer, his body heat seeping through it. In ten minutes he would make a face and complain that his beer was warm and blast it all, what was it these days, it was October, the weather shouldn’t be this nice, something was happening and Lord only knows who’s being punished for what.
But his beer was still cool as he lifted it to his puffy lips to drink and he listened to the car alarm circle around itself in endless loops that changed tone and pitch depending on how he concentrated his ears. It sounded either like a repetitive beep-beep-beep or like a continuous whine then pitched up and down like the cheap roller coaster ride he’d helped put up at the Harvest Fair the week before. It was a sound he couldn’t keep his mind as firmly wrapped around as his hand around his glass, and it puzzled and pleased him.
“Mhm.” Rosie agreed, too late, to Earl’s assertion. Maybe she was humming in her head and had let a note slip out. Maybe she was nodding assent at the litter of kittens suckling in the corner of the yard under the cover of the mulberry bush. You could never tell, with Rosie.
“Poor bastard, somebody’ll call the police on him if it keeps on going.” Earl couldn’t tell if the car alarm’s volume was actually shifting or whether it was his ears. He had to go to the doctor again, get some wax taken out. They’d wanted to give him a hearing aid last time. He’d said no-sirree, it was just wax buildup and please take it out. The gold nuggets in his ears would have been worth millions if they were the real metal, Earl always joked. The doctor and his assistant shrugged and looked at each other and Earl had known what they were thinking, because it kept happening – that look. Just wait, just you wait, he’d wanted to tell them, until you get old, and see how you like that look then.
Rosie brushed her hands off from the dirt she’d been digging in. It was soft and moist from the watering can sprinkling she’d given it, and it looked good enough to eat, the richness exuding a smell as succulent as chocolate-pecan pie.
The sun was setting and the car alarm was still going and Earl hoped there was someone out there having a bad night of it. It was all part of the experience, having bad nights. All part of the same process, that getting old part people forget about.

Doing a Karenina

   Red wine goes wonderfully with steak, but Mimi is vegan now. This is her newest thing. Linda drinks the Cabernet in the kitchen, alone, facing the wallpaper she regrets getting now. It is tapestry-like, black and white threaded workers in rice-fields wearing round conical hats. What did she hear someone call it the other day? Coolie hats? She’s sure that’s not the right name. It was probably her husband. He sometimes comes up with racist shit that reminds her that he is, after all, the man who hid a coke habit from her for years, sinking them both into debt.
    Mimi doesn’t help. Her newest thing, gluten-free veganism, means that Linda and Greg are both starving all the time. They sneak out to get pizza in the middle of the night sometimes, giggling and pulling on jeans and baggy sweatshirts, like they’re having an affair.
    The phone’s ring is a pathetic approximation of Fur Elise. Linda’s shoulders tense. She hates the sound so much. Tinny and obnoxious, calls mean work or bad news, almost inevitably. No one calls the landline anymore anyway, except for some of the older people at the PR company she works at and Mimi’s therapists and psychiatrist.
    “It’s Allison!” Greg yells from the other room. Linda looks at the rice-field workers, at the waving bamboo patterns, at whatever nonsense it is on her wall that’s meant to look comfortingly exotic to her Western sensibilities. She picks up the portable out of its cradle and takes another sip of wine before screwing the top back and putting in the fridge. The phone is between her shoulder and her ear, the same spot it’s nestled since she was a teenager. Since she first met Allison.
    “Hey, Greg, you can hang up now.”
    “Okay. Bye, Alli!”
    “Bye! Hi Linda. You sound tired.”
    “I am. It’s been a day.”
    “Want to talk about it?”
    “No. Tell me how Noel is doing.”
    Linda regrets this immediately. As Allison begins telling her about her daughter, a senior in college who’s just returned from an academically rigorous year abroad and is doing great, wonderful, fantastic, all Linda can see is the image of Mimi lying on the subway tracks that time she jumped and survived.
    When your own kid has tried to commit suicide half a dozen times, Linda thinks, you don’t find 4.0 GPAs all that interesting anymore. She knows that if she told Alli that she’d rather not hear about her kids – Alli has two, and the other, the boy, is doing equally well, with a long-term girlfriend who lives with him and makes more money than him – if Linda told Alli she’d rather not hear about any of these fantastic things, Alli’d understand. That’s what friends are for, right? She’s asked before, and Alli’s accepted, keeping quiet about her kids until Linda asks.
            She always does, in the end. She wants to know. She wants to hear about college classes, about PhD programs, about how the daughter is getting published here and joining a singing group there, about how the son has finished his qualifying exams to get into his PhD program and how he’s house sitting for two cats. She needs to know these things. Otherwise she has no images to superimpose Mimi’s face into. And if she doesn’t try to cut-and-paste her daughter’s face into situations other than the thirty-and-home one she’s in, Linda will continue to see her lying in between the subway tracks, or inside her bed in the ward where she’s basically got a bed named after her by this point, or sitting behind the desk of Greg’s office, the only place she’s managed to hold down a job in years. Then again, Greg also employs his no-good, asshole brother, so Linda never knows how much work Mimi actually does there, despite the praise Greg lavishes on her.
    Linda listens, her right ear pressed to the phone, her left ear straining for sounds of an emergency. The worst part of her conversations with Alli is the resentment. Allison’s children had their moments, their years of therapy and fucked-upedness, but then they got over it. They got better. Mimi doesn’t get better. Mimi jumps from veganism to Buddhism to exercising everyday to playing the viola and deciding to join the circus as a trapezoid artist. Mimi stays a constant, unchanging. Allison’s kids get to change. Linda hears the change in Alli’s voice, too, and she knows that she, Linda, will have to remain a forever too. It’s almost worth the train having succeeded in its mission that day.
    Almost.

A Part

Spiraling light fixtures collapse the spectrum of the rainbow into single expressions of color. Mass. You are part of a moving mass. The snow in your veins is made up of each and every one of the lights flashing in front of your eyes. White is not the absence of color. Black is, like the holes in space that haunt your dreams on nights of dark sweats that crawl across the covers in teams of walkie-talkie communicating ants. Dance. Your body is one of a hundred thousand others in a stadium radiating with sweating sound. The screams are as distressed as any single body would be in the presence of such staged magnificence. Sorting out one scream from another is like seeing leaves on trees as individuals when you’re looking at the blotchy rendering three year olds make of the oaks in front of their suburban homes. It is an imaginary, purely self-serving process. Can you do it? Are you good enough? Can you see through the mediocrity into the art? Well. Can you? Hands tighten around your waist. Connection. Is that what it is? Skin on clothing woven by Taiwanese children lying on skin burned by yesterday’s oven mishap. All there is to it is to imagine that this contact is pure melding. The melting of whitened blood snow into your consciousness. Bodies bumping in the night. Carnality made spiritual. Spirituality made carnal. Does it matter which? You are an animal, your pulses tell you this, your sight tells you this. Each of your thoughts is rewarded when put into action, reinforcing the thought – your desire for contact pulses into your nether regions, pushing your back into the depth of a stranger behind you, bringing his arms around your waist. Thought. Action. Reward. Dionysus would be pleased. A spectacle of such end of the world beauty was rarely seen by his maenads.

Haytches

A list. This is what this piece of paper is called. You read it, carefully, before leaving the house. As you shop, you refer to it, often. You don’t get anything – anything – that isn’t on the list. The items on this list are the only ones you are supposed to, and allowed to, spend money on. This is the deal. This is what responsibility feels like. You asked for it. So here goes.
 
*Half-baked cookie-dough, found between the yogurts and the organic milk/yogurt/butter section. It’s in a little area of its own, because it’s a guilty pleasure that most people don’t allow themselves to eat. You’re not allowed to eat it either, so if I see the package open when you get home, or if I see you bought more of it than arrives on the kitchen table, adult privileges are over. 
*Herbal-mint-tea sheep’s yogurt. This is in the organic section, near the cookies. You are allowed to eat this, but not at the store. You wait until you get home. 
*Half-and-Half for your father, because he is spoiled and won’t drink his coffee any other way.
*Honey Bunches of Oats cereal, which you will find in the cereal aisle (you should also get milk, but wait until the end for that, because it’s heavy, and you know how your back gets when you carry something heavy for too long. Also, we, that is unspoiled people, drink 2% milk in this house, not whole, not skim, so look carefully.)
*Honey-nut cornflakes for your little sister, but make sure that it is the gluten free version. There should be a round button-shaped thing in red or blue or green or yellow that says GLUTEN FREE in big letters like that.
*Healthy granola bars – I’m trusting you here. Choose some kind of flavor you like that doesn’t have chocolate chips or drizzles of caramel all over it. You know what I mean. Something with fruit, or with almonds or apple or pear in it or something like that.
*Holly’s Oatmeal. You need to go to the organic section of the grocery store to find this if you don’t see it in the aisle where the rest of the cereals and granola bars are. It’s near the produce section, sort of near the meat section, but not near enough to the meat for you to be able to see anything. Don’t worry, I’m not sending you into anywhere dangerous for you.
 
Now that you have the list, you can go. Remember before you leave to bring: keys, cellphone, sunglasses, sunscreen, grocery list, pen (for crossing off items), wallet (for money), and the whistle your father and I gave you just in case. Also put on your necklace that lets people know you have an allergy to penicillin. If anything happens, I don’t want anyone injecting you with anything you’re not allowed to be injected with.
 
The minute you’re finished shopping, while you’re waiting in line at the registers, call me, and I’ll come in the car to pick you up. After you pay – ask them to bag everything in double bags because we need the plastic for the cat-box – head to the door to the left because that’s where they let cars stop. If you have to wait for me for a while, don’t worry, don’t freak out, it’ll be fine, I’ll be there in a jiffy.
 
Put your calming music on while you shop. Sometimes people are scary in the grocery store. They can be aggressive, or impatient. But if you take your time and do everything you need to do, you should be okay and nothing will happen to you. If anyone asks you to move, move. If anyone asks you about your stye, ignore them, because it’s none of their business. People are just rude sometimes, just like we talked about. Remember that if you get nervous, you can call me anytime, but also remember what doctor Ronaldo said about you taking some steps. You wanted to do this, so.
 
Love, xox, hugs and kisses,
Mom

Prompted: Explain Christmas to a young pine tree

I only know what they showed me on television. But you don’t know what that is either. It’s sort of like how you, one day, might want to feel what it’s like to fly. When you grow up, you’ll have bird families nesting on you. They’ll build their homes in your branches, and they’ll use the worms and caterpillars climbing down your spine to feed their young. And they’ll fly. They’ll fly around your topmost branches and even though you’ll be intimate with the wind, you won’t know what it will feel like to touch a cloud. But you’ll think about it sometimes. And maybe even wish for it. When you see the birds flying – that’s sort of how I think Christmas is. It’s a joyous thing that I’ve seen from far away. I’ve seen others stretch into it like it’s a habit, like it’s as easy as plunging off a branch and rising high into the blue. It’s not something they need to think about. But you and me, we have our roots in different places and no matter how hard we try to picture what it’s like up there in that space, we won’t be able to.

Someday, maybe you’ll learn the language of the birds. Maybe you’ll manage to talk to them. And you’ll ask them what it’s like to fly. That’s what I did. I asked what Christmas was really like. Not the pretend kind I saw from far away. But I don’t know if I ever asked the right question, not exactly. Because even if you’re speaking the same language as someone else, when your roots are in different places, can you be sure you mean the same thing when you say “always” and “regular” and “just”? Could you explain to the birds what it’s like to draw water from the earth?

Prompted: You wake up covered in paint

All you want is some peace and quiet, you know? You’re sitting there, hanging with the terps and the other canvies, and you’re chilling. You’re all a little high, see what I’m saying? Can’t help it, those terps are always high, you catch a contact off them no matter what. Whetheryou like it or not. It’s not a bad life. Sure, some got it better than others. Canvie 98/4 over there, he’s hanging on the wall, just chilling, but every day the skins come in and boy do they worship him. They can’t get enough of him! They’re always talking about what a piece of work he is. Or maybe work of art? I don’t know, man, you can’t expect a canvie to get things straight in this kind of situation. Anyway, point is, I was just minding my own business, you see? Just hanging out, just chilling, and suddenly, I get snatched up from my comfy spot where I was getting to know this new canvie, a real beauty she was too, this really rare oval and tight man, tight like a drum. So I get snatched up just as she’s beginning to warm to me, and I just know that old bastard River Scene At Dawn will go for her because he’s been really nasty ever since he got retired and can’t even enjoy his high anymore, always just talking about the good old days.

So anyway, I get put up right in the light and next thing you know the turps are there with me and damn if I don’t get smothered with them! I mean it’s great for a while, sure, best high I ever had, but you know, it does wear off and eventually I wake up from the drowsy and find I’m covered in paint. All over me, just covered, top to bottom, end to end, and not just that but I find out next thing that they’ve changed my name too! Now I’m not 563/2, I’m bloody Nude On a Bathtub Rim! What kind of name is that, I ask you? Nothing, nothing, not even the wall and the attention, is worth this.

An Unaccepted Submission (#1)

“Sorry. Stinky, get down. He’s got this chemical stuff all over him, you know, the flea stuff. Sorry.”
The paws receded, and the little dog with the wet, searching muzzle was pulled off my lap. His owner was a skinny woman with black hair and a bright metal ball dotting the skin above her lip. She was slurring and her voice filtered through a throat plugged by permanent cigarette smoke and a thick layer of mucus.
“Mummy’s trying to get you money. Oh, he’s so hungry. Stinky – no. You stink.”
The dog was under my legs, eating a sandwich that someone had abandoned at the bus stop. The woman saw me glance down at him, assumed that I wanted him away, and she pulled him back hard. He looked up at me with sad eyes, licking his chops.
“What’s his name?” I asked, reaching down to him. I didn’t meet the woman’s eyes. If the dog’s name was Stinky, I wanted her to admit it to me.
“Simo.”
“Simone?”
“Simo. Es-eye-em-oh. Si-mo.”
“He’s cute. Is he eating enough?”
“I’m trying, I’m trying, but he’s…” She stopped in the middle of her sentence. “Sorry, I’m just waiting for someone.” This was something she’d been repeating for a while. I’d stopped believing it. But this time she added, immediately, “There you are.”
The man I assumed she’d been waiting for seemed to step out of the shadows behind her, clutching a bottle of amber liquid to his chest. He looked as surprisingly clean, young and healthy as she did. He reeked of alcohol too, even worse than her. It was ironic that she thought the chemical smell coming off her dog was bad.
The woman picked up her heavy-looking black duffle bag from where she’d set it between other people waiting for the bus, scaring them away. She pulled Simo’s leash again. I continued not looking at her, kept my eyes on the dog. Animals are easier than people. Even when they’re fierce.
“Are you feeding him enough?” This was a different question than my previous one. I felt justified in asking it. The woman was shorter than me and she managed to stare at my face. I could tell, out of my peripheral vision. She had a pale face. I looked at the man behind her who was tugging at her puffy jacket now, trying to get her to move faster.
“Are you feeding him enough?” I asked him.
“Ask her, he’s hers.” He giggled, and hugged, actually hugged, his bottle. I stared. He ignored me.
“Come with us, you’ll see,” the woman said, jutting her chin up challengingly, pulling the dog’s head closer to her every time he tried to move. She was hurting him. “He eats better’n I do.” She didn’t emphasize any words; just spoke in a flat, dead tone. I met her eyes and thought about Nora, my last alcoholic.
“Okay. Show me,” I said.