Broken Wings (Story A Day May)

They flocked together. What else could they do? They were all the odd ones out, which made them peculiarly fitting for one another. J, the irascible bartender who barely got shifts and was always broke but pilfered booze from the pub when he was there, keeping them all wet when necessary. M, the concert pianist with fingers broken in an argument with her boyfriend when he accidentally – he said – on purpose – she said – smashed the car door closed on her hand, ruining her career. B, whose business ventures failed as soon as she started them, each and every time, as if she were born to failure. H, whose performance art was more lucrative than it should be and who was waiting for the day they woke up to find that it was just a dream after all, whose entire being was fluid enough to fit in with any other crowd but who couldn’t, in good conscience, allow themselves to be subsumed by these or those or others because to do so would be a falsehood, and if H had one rule it was that performance wasn’t a lie but a truth creatively told.

These strange birds still in pinfeathers, barely out of the pediatric ward of life, found themselves with a semi-regular date at J’s bar, on Tuesday nights, when he could get a shift and the rest of them had nothing else going on, which was almost always, since J wasn’t a very good bartender and so got the off nights, and Tuesdays were empty of almost anything, let alone social evening plans. Except that they became so – social – and remained so – regular, more or less – proving that there was something to do on a Tuesday night, and it was this.

“Where’s H?” M said, coming in, rubbing her hands from the cold. Her fingers ached almost all the time, but most of all in the cold. She taught piano lessons for money and wept in her spare time. J nodded at her, whipping a glass out from under the bar and filling it with M’s poison – the cheapest beer on tap, whatever it was. B already sat at the bar nursing her own drink, a vodka-tonic with a plasticky cherry in it.

“Not here yet,” B said. She waved her phone around. “They called to say they’d be late.”

“That’s H,” J said, resting the beer in front of M. “Calling, not texting. Like he lives in the twelfth century.”

“They,” B and M said together. J rolled his eyes. No one else other than J could get away with it and still call H a friend. Even H didn’t understand it. B and M did, all too well, but since they knew that H didn’t have a shot with J, who was a self-described pussy-eater, man-whore, and pathetic romantic – depending on the night, his mood, and the amount he’d had to drink – they never addressed it with either H or J.

A customer came in and J reluctantly went to deal with the imposition. B and M waited, barely speaking. This was what it was to have friends, for them. To be able to sit silently, unquestioned, until the desire to speak simply arose in them. The four were like a meeting of Quakers that way. When the door burst open again, B, M, and J all turned, expecting to see H, but instead there was a policeman in the doorway, huffing and gesturing outside.

“Can I get you something?” J asked, using his barman rag as a prop, something to do with his hands.

“Your friend is outside, got hit by a car, said he was on his way here, he says you’re next of kin?” The policeman waved his arms pointlessly some more, trying to get someone to come outside with him.

“They,” B and M said together again, abandoning their drinks. J stayed inside. He couldn’t leave the bar. He had a job to do. He couldn’t get fired. He wasn’t paying rent on time as it was. But more than that, he couldn’t see H broken.

Outside was an ambulance and a police car and a gurney and the car that hit H and its driver. B and M rushed to the gurney to see that H was fine, shaken up but fine, maybe a concussion but fine. They hugged B and M and asked about J, and said to tell J that they were fine. B escorted H to the hospital while M went back inside the bar and smacked J upside the head for staying inside.

“I thought they would be dead,” J sobbed later, much later, after closing time, when he was good and sauced, and M made cooing noises and patted his back until he fell asleep.


Go Away

A chalky man walks around Dora’s brain. He’s hard to pin down, never stops long enough for her to get a good look. She knows he is a man, vaguely, or believes he is, because of the effect he has on her. He makes her squirm, not with pleasure, but with discomfort, as so many others have done before.

But the chalk man, unlike the others, doesn’t berate her. He doesn’t mutilate her. He doesn’t corrode her veins and swatches of her skin with verbal acid. His silence is far more terrifying. It is a waiting silence, a tense and pent-up silence, the kind of silence that you can pull like a piece of chewed up gum, pull and pull and pull until it snaps back and sticks to both fingers and is impossible to get off.

Dora walks through her life with this chalk man threatening her. His blurry outline haunts her when she works at the wood shop, overseeing the new people’s handling of saw and sander. He doesn’t distract her – Dora is not to be distracted – but she is as aware of him as of the cyst on her thigh that scrapes every time she walks. He is a physicality that she can put aside, that she can work with, but that she cannot erase with a hot compress.

One day, the chalk man walks through the doors of her workshop and looks around. Looks for her. Frozen, she stands next to a cabinet she has been decorating with delicate carvings, and sees him see her. She feels him come closer. She hears his voice inside her mind and ears both.

“Hi,” he says. “Long time no see.”

She wants to say I love you. She wants to say come back. She wants to say take me. She wants to say you hurt me. She wants to say, and touch, and forgive, and relive; she wants to drink beer in Munich and wine in Madrid; she wants to buy a house and decorate it with her furniture, and she wants him to carry her heavy things inside, to carry her inside too; she wants to erase his erasure of her.

“Go away,” she says. The live chalk man turns, a look of true disappointment blooming around his mouth and crow’s-feet eyes, but the chalk man in her head solidifies and keeps walking in circles.

It will take another year for the chalk man to blur again, to become unknown again, to restore Dora’s ability to keep her hands steady enough to work again. When the chalk man is blurry, he is safer. Not safe, never safe, but safer.

Man on the Subway: A Transcript

On November 5th, I was on a packed subway and I found poetry in an old man’s mouth. The following are not my own words – they are his.

74 year old man need help.
Live to be 74 years old and come back to find another man in your bed.
I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself right now. I need help.
I need help.
Need a psychiatrist on this train.
There ain’t nothing wrong with reaching out.

It hurts.
It hurts real bad.
It hurts real bad.

Come home find another nigger in bed with your wife.

It hurts really really bad.

71 year old man there getting up for you you lady.
If I were you I’d read the sign up there. Priority for people with disabilities.
Give him space. 71 year old man coming through. He’s getting off. Give him room.
Thank you for talking to me. God bless. God bless…

Not crush, I’m crumble.
I got a new word for it.
I’m not crushed. I’m crumble.

Trade In

When I walked into the bar with you, it was a normal night. We’d made ourselves pasta with peppers and onions and a brownish sauce that you invented and eaten it in front of the TV with the latest episode of that crime show you like so much. The funny one. We took showers, separately, and I cleaned your hair out of the drain and didn’t say anything to you about it. I wasn’t being passive aggressive, I was just loving you. It was one of the ways I loved you, without you knowing about it. When Nick called us and asked us to come to the bar he liked picking up women at, we looked at our watches and said sure, why not, it wasn’t even nine and we hadn’t gone out all week.
When we walked into the bar, Nick was already in full swing, a brunette with a great shirt – it was open in the back, and her spine was the kind that sinks in rather than puckers out, which I’ve always found attractive. I pulled on your arm, and asked if we should sit elsewhere. You looked down at me, and I loved you for being tall, and you laughed and said no, we can join.
Nick introduced us to the woman, Gen, with a G, like Gen-X or Y. She said this first thing, and you and I squeezed hands, each of us knowing that the other was thinking about the conversation we’d had sometime recently about how hilarious we thought it was when people insisted, upon first meeting anyone, on explaining how unique their name was because it was spelled differently.
Gen and Nick already seemed like old friends. For all I know they were. I haven’t seen either of them since that night, so I never got a chance to ask. She kept looking at you though, and then at Nick, and then at you. Whenever I tried to ask her anything, she gave me monosyllabic answers.
We drank a lot. Two beers each, and then we got to doing shots because Gen kept ordering them from the waitress. After three rounds, I noticed that only three shots were appearing. None for me, apparently. I didn’t say anything because I wanted to be sober enough to take you home.
The music got louder as the night approached eleven. I was bored. I could barely hear what anyone was saying, and the lights were getting dimmer. I was sleepy. I heard Nick yell, enunciating as if to someone who didn’t hear him the first time, that you and I were “cool.” I didn’t know what he meant, until I did. Gen started being nicer to me, touching my hand across the table and meeting my eyes and then flicking her own towards you. She started buying me shots again too.
Around midnight, I finally dragged you out, Nick and Gen trailing us, and we all got into the same cab. Nick gave the driver his address first, which pissed me off, but when you got off there too, and I sat in the cab, one foot out on the street, and one in, I began to know something was off. Your hand was on Gen’s hip. Had that been happening in the cab? I was in the back with you and her, Nick was in the front. You held your hand out to me and gave me that smile, the one you give me when I come out of the shower wrapped in a towel, and I shook my head.
You beckoned, with your head, with your whole body, and I said no. Gen put her hand in your pocket. I put my foot back in the cab. Nick was waiting by his front door, holding it open for you and her. He was smoking and spitting like he always does. I shut the door of the cab and asked the driver to take me home.
I didn’t have any money. He was angry and yelled at me. I gave him my number and full name and told him to call me tomorrow and I’d give him my credit card info.
When I got inside, nothing looked like you anymore. The hair in the wastebasket in the bathroom made me gag, or maybe it was the alcohol, and when I leaned over the toilet and threw up, again and again until there was nothing left in my stomach but acid and bile, I felt only a shadow of you behind me, an absence, where you should have been, waiting with a glass of water and a toothbrush, telling me sip, brush, come to bed.

Sandra & Richard: character sketches

It was Sandra’s pleasure, on certain nights of the year when she had saved up a few extra dollars from her minimum-wage job as a security camera technician at a large office building, to put on her most expensive-looking blouse and the pants that clung tightly to her in ways that made her uncomfortable on other days, and take herself out to a bar, for a drink or three.

Richard was the bartender at her favorite place, a swanky watering hole for journalists, for which Sandra had a particular fondness that she was pretty certain had to do with an old television show she had watched as a child, sitting in her father’s lap, in which the backroom dealings between journalists and politicians was never overtly made clear and which had conveyed to Sandra a strange idea that journalists were at the end of the day people with integrity and a need to tell the truth. Richard knew Sandra from their days in grade school, though they hadn’t met again until she’d started coming to the bar. He pretended he didn’t know her, since she clearly didn’t recognize him. When he told her his name – he made it his practice to introduce himself to people who frequented the bar, since it usually increased his tip intake – she had looked him squarely in the eyes and had shaken his hand with vigor, hers more calloused than his though he was certain his were stronger, and had said it was a pleasure to meet him.

She hadn’t been aware of him in grade school either, but then again, those years had been her queen bee era. She had been popular, a great wit among her friends, and she had had the special ability to put people down and make them love her at the same time. Sandra didn’t think much about her childhood, because she had never come to really appreciate how magical her grade school days had been. They had always been a distraction, and a poor one at that, from a home in which her brother was both intellectually and physically disabled and required the vast majority of her parents’ attention as well as her own.

Richard was, to put it simply, in love with Sandra. He didn’t know her very well, not in the sense of understanding her dreams and ambitions or her fears and foibles. But he knew enough about her to recognize that she came into the bar with the same clothes every time, indicating a wardrobe lacking in the finery she yearned for. He knew enough to recognize in her a come-hither look that screamed of loneliness as well as a lack of trust, as she rarely agreed to go home with any of the men she talked to in his bar. Her instincts and her sense of self-preservation were keen, Richard decided, or else she would let herself be hurt over and over again. Instead, she kept a close watch on her heart and kept her mind tucked away in a safe place from which it could observe, judge, and make calculated decisions.

Sandra herself would never have imagined anyone was looking at her so hard. She couldn’t fathom anyone taking such an interest. And besides, she wasn’t at the bar to find someone like Richard – a minimum wage worker like herself. She yearned, not for glamour, not even for safety, but for a mindset so different from her own that it needn’t worry about paying rent, buying groceries, credit card debt racking up. She yearned for a carelessness of mind that would have the space to be wrapped up in her, her, only her.

Seventy Four and Human

Seventy-four years old, the old man preserves his memories. Laboriously, he types them into the computer. This is easier on his hands than a pen and notepaper, but his arthritic fingers still ache with every hard stab to the keyboard.

When the bell rings, he stops. He is only allowed to write for an hour a day. His doctor daughter has forbidden any more. He occasionally wonders whether her medical advice is sound. Maybe she just doesn’t want him to get very far. Scared of what she might find out about him.

The old man never thinks of himself as one. He hears that seventy is the new fifty, and he would agree if he had the full use of his hands. But he has been degenerating since his early sixties and has never felt more tired in his life. He feels ill, not old.

He thinks of what he has written today. He doesn’t have a method, a system of chronology. He writes the memories as they come. Sometimes they are of his wooden toys and childhood friends. Sometimes they are of his mother’s death when he was working as a guard on a train in his late twenties.

Today he wrote about Luba, his first love. They were twelve and shared a birthday. They met on the streets of Boston, where both their families had ended up after fleeing Europe. They liked the same flavor of ice cream and the same music. They had very different opinions on kissing. Luba wanted to. He didn’t. The last time he saw her was when he graduated high school and she came to the ceremony as a drop-out watching some boy she was dating get his diploma.

This is the sort of thing the old man’s daughter doesn’t want to know, he thinks. She doesn’t want to believe he has ever been anything but hers, first her father and now her charge. She takes care of him and is a good girl, but she has never entirely believed he is human.

He hopes she will read his memories when he dies. He hopes she will understand. He hopes she will remember.

Goal Oriented

Rest when you’re dead. Carve up those calves, chisel those muscles. Make a sculptor of your will. Your body is the block of marble. The angel just needs to be freed.

Don’t mumble, stand up straight, wear suits. Make a good first impression. Crate your baggage upstairs on your own and leave it there to rot. Leave it in the attic, at the top of the house. Lock the door, swallow the key. Leave the skeletons to decompose. You have thousands of years at your disposal. You can afford to wait.

Sport a pair of sunglasses. Hide your eyes. Leave the sagging skin in bed with the rumpled sheets. Keep the smile in the corners of your mouth. The only acceptable wrinkles when you’re pushing thirty are laugh-lines.

Good Enough

The sponge lying on the floor of the tub is unattractive. It is still relatively new, but its shape is unappealingly squat and it has sooty stains on it, as if someone has been scrubbing rust crumbs off their body.

It is leftover, this sponge, from previous tenants. It is incredibly absorbing, I find, when I get in the shower and begin to use it. Some people would find this disgusting. My roommate would tell me off, like she does when I pee and don’t wash my hands. She is a neat freak, putting ever pin in its place and surrendering her body to the needle over and over again. There are knife scars on the inside of her wrist. She’s exchanged one habit with another when scratching the surface stopped being enough.

She and I have just moved into a new place. We’re getting actual furniture. We listen to music loudly and don’t care about the neighbors. There are children in the apartments all around us and they cry at night. It’s not exactly payback, blasting Led Zeppelin, but it’s close enough to be vindictive somehow.

The windfall that has allowed us to do this comes from my disgusting habits. My frugality knows no bounds. I scrimp and I save for a living. Companies pay me to do this. It’s a handicap that I stumbled through for years until someone told me it was a talent. I get paid nicely now, but I make my roommate pay me back exactly for half of everything. When we move out one day, each of us finding a new home, we will saw our things in half. I can see the gleam in her eyes at that suggestion. She likes playing with knives.

My room is bare of artwork, books, personality of any kind. Like me, it is unadorned. The only items of significance are hidden beneath my bed, in taped-up boxes. The cardboard is old and falling apart, but I wouldn’t let me roommate unpack and repack them when we moved. Their rotting edges remind me that they won’t always stay shut. It’s important to remember that things can burst from their seams.

One day, maybe I’ll open those boxes. And maybe I’ll buy a sponge of my own. But for now, I keep the boxes shut tight, reinforcing the tape and sweeping away the cardboard dust that accumulates under them. And for now, I use the leftover sponge to purify my pores. I shave my legs with my roommate’s old razor. I tie string around my pants instead of a belt. It’s a good enough way to live, for now.

Pillar of Salt

A lamplight of approval blushed up her cheeks, bringing out the radiance she had only imagined in the shower, as the stinging hot droplets of water pinged off her oily skin. Eliza, the letters told her, you are going places. Eliza, the phone calls told her, you are successful. Eliza, Eliza, Eliza: you are beloved.
She believed it, but she didn’t feel it. Her hands and her voice changed gradually with the confidence allowed by such an assumption of power and will. It took some practice to flick the switch that released synapses allowing behaviors she hadn’t known were in her. She ket the electric currents flow through her, unabashed, doing what electrons are supposed to do, magnetically surrounding her with an appeal that called out to others. I am desired, her eyes signaled.

Her hands and her voice became smooth, the callouses chipping away one layer of skin at a time as her confidence grew and the need for such constant participation in her craft waned. The buzz around her rose in tone and deepened in pitch and became a hum, a melody of impossibility. Eliza flourished.

She still didn’t feel it.┬áIt happened to her, around her, an envelope marked with a resounding YES. Still she stood in the eye of the storm that was her durable success. She was a pillar of crumbling salt, and she was certain that sooner or later, the chips would be noticed and people would realize she was not the sugared candy they thought she was.


In the Green Room

This is what they were thinking about as the crowd streamed in through the double doors to the auditorium and created a ruckus that could only be drunk:

They were thinking first and foremost about their bodies. They were thinking of their protruding stomachs or the skin peeking out from under shorts. They were thinking about the comparison the roused audience would no doubt begin to make. They were thinking they should have gone on a diet. They were thinking they were hungry. They were thinking about the cookie in their bag that would find its way to their mouths in seconds.

They were thinking about the end of the night. Which would be morning. They were thinking about the star charts they would fail to fill out because the night would be keeping them indoors, entertaining dozens of people with their feet up on the chairs in front of them and the smell of cigarettes lingering on their clothes and hair.

They were thinking about the impossibility of this endeavor, its endlessness and incomprehensiveness. Why were they here? Who thought they could do this? Who did they think they were? They were thinking about the panic accumulating in their bowels and the crunching of air through their throat and into their lungs. They were certain it was made of glass and scratching every bit of the way down. They were almost sure they were bleeding internally.

They were thinking about the boys whose hearts had been broken and about their own hearts breaking. They were thinking about the text they hadn’t received, the little plus signs they were slowly adding to the ‘against’ column that was outweighing the ‘for’. They were thinking about their love for their friends and the comfort they could take in the vividness of their lives outside the realm of their cellphone screens.

They were thinking about their parents and how proud or disappointed they would be if they were here.

They were thinking about love, because they always think about it one way or another.

They were thinking about life and death because these are matters of great importance.

They were thinking they would be on stage soon.

They stopped thinking. They moved. They felt. They reacted.