Photo © Tom Clark, 2011
When she arrived, I wished
mi cara welcome to Purgatory,
this stopover on our journey
from Hell to Heaven.
It is much like the fable
the black padres taught us about
the comforts of the Afterlife.
A myth, no more. But a myth
is better than nothing. Yes?
Perhaps a Heaven really is just
over that hill where the sun
sleeps with tomorrow.
For tonight, though, I am sleeping
with mi ángel, a gift like
cool rain dropped from the clouds.
She comforts my dreams
with her body as I hold
hers together with mine.
Our coupling is a prayer
for the rest of our journey,
where, without fear, we test
the truths of Purgatorio and Paraiso,
because muerte, death, is just
another fork in our road.
I wrote this free-write poem in response to a prompt from my friend Kellie Elmore’s Free Write Friday for June 14, 2013. This week she asked up to look at some dramatic photographs from multi-genre artist Tom Clark. I chose this one and tried to I imagine a simple man lying there with his lover trying to reach their Paradise together…one way or another.
This sun yellow pencil lost its great weight
and near-death infirmity overnight.
It arose like dawn from its sickbed
and, come the morning, once again
we hiked around this open space
visiting its mountainous thoughts and questions,
but not so many enshadowed answers.
We leave our blaze marks upon the snowy spirits
of once-towering Adirondack arboreal tribes
to find our way to and from whispered
babblings of sun-flecked streams
of the conscious and the not, so
full of smooth green-slicked rocks and
pin-prick inspirations darting like shiners.
I hear windsongs breathing suggestively
across my woodwind ears. We mark down
their messages and and pray forgiveness
for exposing this sacred place.
Why couldn’t we find it yesterday?
And why, I wonder, would I ever wish
to find my way back to that place
of mere near-life again?
Hi, all! I had the honor recently to speak with Boston-based writer and editor Lynette Benton for an interview on her Website, Polish and Publish~Tools and Tactics for Creative Writers.
Maybe you’d like to take a moment to stop by and learn a little bit more (or even too much) about your reluctant poet guy. You can read the interview here.
I want to thank Lynette, my family and friends, those of you who just like reading my poetry, and those in-between for encouraging me to keep exploring this silly world and heart of mine.
My initial reluctance has waned considerably and I’m proud to own the title of poet now.
What always surprises me, even now on what will be my last time, is the quiet.
When we climb aboard and the cool brass elevator doors close on the marble atrium where we report for our next assignments, the one we hope is the One, they don’t whoosh or shoop. There’s no swell of harp strings or inspiring Muzak pumping through speakers. There are no speakers. You hear only the harmonized breaths of you and Eternity. You don’t even hear the other souls aboard.
Right there in front, next to the door, you see the spectrum of buttons under a placard that reads, “Find Happiness.” Bottom to top, they’re arrayed Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange and Red – primary color chips of a rainbow for those of us who’ve tripped on one once …or even four times.
This is my fifth trip on this four-dimensional magical mystery ride. Well, it would be a bigger mystery if I hadn’t pushed each of those buttons except yellow on my other tries here in the Happy Box. Four shots at happiness that all ended in something less.
It’s not the elevator’s fault, nor Management’s. We all make our own choices and I made four that I didn’t think came with the top prize, a Mega-Millions of Smiles or whatever is supposed to be waiting for you There. Happy-World, or whatever There is.
My first time, when I didn’t know any better, I started on the lowest floor, pushed Blue. I was let off in that youthful Eden, where I bumped up against Nature and Humanity with all the subtlety of a hopped-up, blindfolded linebacker in a flower shop.
But you never know when the call will come for a new assignment.
Red was bad, Green was moldy, Orange was hot and dry but ultimately a little too like Red. That leaves Yellow, doesn’t it? Yellow, the color of sunlight, illumination, the middle of it all, the mean and the median of Happiness. So here I am, looking around at the other souls on the elevator and see something in each their faces that I probably showed in my previous ups and downs in here.
That young guy there with a crew cut. His mug just oozes determination. I’d tag him for a Green. He’s got GI written all over him. Good luck pal. My Green phase included something to do with a little kid wearing a straw hat during my time in Vietnam. Or was that Okinawa?
“You okay, little guy? Your mama around? “
All about was torn up and tropical. This little kid has absolutely no expression on his face, not fear, nor sadness, no tears. So odd. Gunfire, I hear gunfire over there.
“C’mon little guy, I’m taking you someplace safe.” Why do I remember those eyes turning wide and uniforms and an explosion of red and yellow flame? Hmmph, doesn’t matter now. Semper fi, buddy. Yep, he’s a Green.
That young one over here in the corner, the one dressed in the school uniform is blinking and shaking a little with fear. Might be her first trip. She’s definitely a Blue. My Blue phase… Jeanine, or Janet. Looking into those blue eyes on her back porch.
“Why don’t you stay with me tonight,” I remember her saying. I do.
“Aww.. I’ll be okay,” I said. “Just gonna meet the guys for a few more and then head back home. I’ll see you in the morning. I promise.”
Soft kiss, embrace, breath warm–a sigh?–on my face, a hand holding tightly to my belt. Temptation, testosterone, torment of indecision there in the porch light’s yellow glow.
Why am I remembering this so clearly? Or am I?
I recall a bar called Fillion’s and some other guys drinking as much as we were. One of them, pizza-faced prick with an accent straight out of Hempstead trips one of my guys and it’s ON. Real Red-line stuff.
I hear, “Get the fuck outta here. I’m calling the cops.” And it all rolls outside into the cold. Yeah, cold, dark, snowbanks, and the sidewalks are slippery. Sucker punch haymaker from pimple-puss levels me and I hit my head on the curb. Streetlights hurting my eyes. They all climb into a Pontiac and peel off. I jump into my Dodge and take off after that piece of shit.
I see yellow lights behind the hazy red of the intersection, gliding sideways, and…
I shake my head and notice that middle-aged woman to my right who ignored my nod of greeting feels familiar. I mean we’re all just shadows of shadows here, but I envision some hot piece I took up with in my Red or Orange time. Maybe in both. No, it was Red.
Italian girl? No, Russian, I think. I see me in a leather jacket and I feel something hard between my upper arm and chest. And secrets. I remember secret things and my photos in little books. Different languages and different colored books, And each one, a different name, like I have each time I press one of these damn buttons.
Wait, I recognize that squint-eyed expression of resentment. I recall meeting her in a bar in Moscow. A hooker? That damned testosterone again, but I’m looking for happiness even if my job is kind of dangerous. Yeah, hotel room. Pushed up against the door, my hand cupping her ass, her hand unbuttoning my shirt and her other hand…the red and yellow flash in my face from a pistol.
What the hell did I do to you, sladkaya. Yeah, sweetheart, you! Wait, I know Russian?
The elderly guy in the back, I’ve seen that aura before. Sorrow. Watch, he’ll push Orange. There are those eyes again. I’m lying down, looking up into those eyes. Definitely Italian, I’m sure. Been here a long time and it hasn’t been much fun. The flash of the welding torches and riveting. I hear clanging steel plates and watching the ships roll off the rails into the harbor.
Fights. Screaming matches with this woman. Married and Catholic. Maria or Teresa. Yeah. Mi cara, Yeah, as if.
What are all these wires and hoses? Beeping and disembodied voices. Weak, feeling weak.
I don’t like her. Something’s not right. Smell alcohol, disinfectant.
“You just don’t know enough to give up, do you?” she says.
I can’t answer. Something’s stuck in my throat. Those eyes, brown but burning, burning in my chest. Can’t breathe. Bells and horns all around, can’t breathe, gasping, no air, those eyes, angry but somewhat…not relieved, happy. Peaceful? The light again, that yellow light. I close my eyes.
The elevator doors shut again and I’m left here alone. Haven’t push a button yet.
“Ahem,” I hear behind me. I open my eyes and turn.
Female, look of been-there-done-that resignation on her, like she, too, had smushed the four other buttons before and was sure she was headed toward Happiness. We’ve let the others get off at their potential Edens, Nirvanas, Asgaards. We look at one another but it doesn’t feel like the first time.
“Where you been?”
“Everywhere but Yellow,” she said.
“Me, too,” I said.
She stared into my eyes like she was looking for something.
“I know exactly what you’re thinking,” she says. “You stood here just like I did and watched them all hop off. You’re never sure about what will make you happy until you’ve experienced it, do you? I remember how it was when I pushed There.”
She pointed and sighed a nice sigh, not sad or sorrowful, but really kind of a memorable exhalation of contentment. It sounded so familiar.
I put my arm around her shoulder, maybe even fatherly, and said, “We’ve been there before, I know. But what about…”
Warm, that shoulder, buzzy and fuzzy like a sweater under my touch. Familiar, definitely not fatherly.
She hugs me close and stares right into me again and this soft look that matched her sigh comes over her. We’re close enough that our chests move against one another in a harmony I hadn’t felt since..well, since..
I take her hand in mine and we nod to one another, sure we’ve made the right decision, no hesitance, no remembering yellow lights, yellow flames, yellow anything. Yellow has been staring at us all this time.
Together, we push Blue and, sure enough, we’re There again.
Only this time I’m not letting go.
I recall Mickey Mantle played on the gray turf
of not-as-gray Yankee Stadium, the sun bleaching
his pin-striped uniform stark white,
there on the TV in the front window
of the Green Stamp store on Central Avenue.
Through the glare of youthful fantasy I watched
my tiny hero flex his massively pixilated muscles,
turn on a barely visible fastball and make it
really disappear into the rightfield
masses, each trying to grab their own piece
of white and red-stitched horsehide American boy-dream.
I reached out, too, my hands against the window,
my forehead, hat turned around like Yogi’s,
feeling its coolness, daydreaming that pale
Statue of Liberty green of the upper deck filigree.
I saw myself rounding those bases, slapping my spikes
on that white plate dusted with the red earth
upon which that emerald diamond was set.
I reached back to grab the bill of my Little League cap
so I could tip it to the cheering fans. I heard them
yelling, “Joey, Joey, Joey!”
“Joey,” Mom said, grabbing my hand, cap and all,
“Don’t wander off like that again. Now c’mon
and hold your brother’s hand. It’s time for dinner.”
Life today is still pretty black, white and gray.
But there are times, when I round the bases
of these pages when I can feel the wind and sun
on my cheeks, smell the plaid-cut grass,
and thrill to hitting another one out there
with maybe a chance to clear the fences.
Just like this.
Written to a prompt from my friend Kellie Elmore’ Free Write Friday. Here it is: “You’re young. You are standing in front of a shop window watching something on the black and white television inside. A woman grabs your hand and runs down the street, pulling you along…” Ten minutes later, I turned her curveball around.
So sleeplessly weary was I this morning,
with the rain humming a lie-down lullaby,
I decided to remove my hat,
tip my face upward, and
allow the drops to tap reveille upon
the weighty windows of my soul.
I cracked open each sash of lashes
as soft, cold, silver-sparkled globes
broke upon the lintel and sills
of my brow and cheeks.
That’s when I rubbed the sleep
from my eyes along with
a morning’s tears.
The leaf-strained sunlight dappled your cheeks
like raindrops falling from the maples,
as we wandered through the park and looped ’round
the green-skimmed pond that had become
a metaphor for the river of my life.
Seldom did I look at you as we complained
our individual existences. There was a discomfort
in our eye-to-eye connection, as if
those sundrops ricocheted from your face
to my eyes, draining them down onto my shoetops.
When I did look up, you would break the connection,
its annoying chemistry stinging on your lashes.
And every noon-time, the tower bells would peal
“Happy Birthday to You,” as that morning died
and the sun passed overhead on its way
to some western demise. We would sometimes
wave goodbye as you buffeted away upon your rapids,
your head tossed back in a smile,
and I slowly puttered in ever-shrinking circles
there in the turgid algae of my torporous eddy.
I shake my head when I think how
each of us escaped those days when
we easily could have pulled the other under.
I never could hear your low rasp of breath behind me,
nor feel its chill upon my neck, but I sense
your stalking approach this morning,
panther in the darkness.
You wish to catch me with my head low,
as if I’m pondering my path, where I am and
where I’m bound. You’d love deciding that for me,
dragging me back to your desolate hole in midnight gloom.
That’s why I nod – to write my light, exposing your shadow,
to gather myself and spring from your grasp again.
I can sense you now, these scars you engraved in me
ringing your approach, as an old man’s bones foretell the storm.
I must be on my guard, though, because your shadow,
the one receding to its miserable and destructive source,
your shadow looks exactly like mine, and we were one once,
panther in the darkness.
These fields of lavender stretch
like bolts of corduroy from where we bask
in this soleil d’été, imaginary
Theo and I. Their perfume sweet
and intoxicating, when we need not
their breath, for we are living a dream.
A breeze combs the wales this way
and that. They sway like tiny willows
to the aeolian flute come up from the sea,
that brilliant mirror of the Sun’s face
and never to be my own.
For I am heir to the darkness,
yang to shining yin of this Arles light.
I shall record my impressions of it for you,
because I shall not see you again.
I am leaving soon, dark dawn drawing me
in its charcoal-covered hands, drawing me
as a stick man of two-dimensions, drawing me
smaller and smaller as I approach
that distant vanishing point out there
on these fields of lavender.
My Free Write Friday quickie from my friend Kellie Elmore’s prompt — using the words sweet, lavender, flute, heir, willow, and bask.
From time to time, I post short stories I’m fretting over. Really, until I let them go to some unsuspecting journal, they’re all Works in Progress. And, after their editors reject them, they still are!
This story is my Albany-centric twist on the Hemingway classic “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
It’s a little more than 1,700 words, but hang in and I hope you like it. My fiction group colleagues did. They know me as more than a poet.
The story’s working title is…
The Man in Black
Beams of morning sunlight with squared corners ran through the window and onto the floor of Pauly’s Tavern on Central Avenue. The morning crowd never noticed the specks of dust floating in the box-shaped ray crawling closer to the window as the sun rose in the sky. They only noticed mahogany and glass as drinks sank to the bottom of their mugs and tumblers.
The college kids called Pauly’s an old man’s bar, and in truth, the morning crowd skewed closer to Social Security age than 21. Though checking IDs for the age of patrons was not Phil Papandrea’s problem, working daytime as he did.
Barely a head raised when the scraped and scratched wood and glass door opened and the shadow of the old regular called Johnny stretched across the worn oak floor. Phil looked up, though, and noticed it looked like Johnny already had a head start on the other patrons.
Johnny ambled on long, unsteady legs to a stool at the far end of the bar, upon which the morning Times Union lay. Phil always left it there to save Johnny’s spot, one as sacrosanct in Pauly’s as the place on the shelf behind Phil where they kept the cognac no one ever ordered.
“Morning, Johnny, how we doing today?” Phil said.
“Ummph,” Johnny said, as Phil reached into the cooler beneath the bar and pulled out a green can of Genesee Cream Ale, popped the top and poured it into a glass.
“Here you go, champ,” Phil said, sliding the glass in front of Johnny.
Phil then walked down to the sunny end of the bar where a new member of the morning crowd was nursing a boilermaker and the New York Times crossword.
“Hey, Phil,” Ed Burley whispered, “what’s with the cans for the old guy? You’ve got Genny on tap.
“Aw, it’s just something we do for old Johnny. He buys his own beer up at Oliver’s Beverage store and we keep it cold for him here. Otherwise, I don’t think he could drink here.”
“Because he’s Johnny No-Cash. Can’t you see?” Phil said, in no way explaining other than to point out the jet-black toupee and black shirt and pants Johnny wore that gave him the look of a cartoon version of the iconic American singer.
“We let Johnny slide because the boss loves him. He lets him live upstairs and helps clean the place up at closing,” Phil said. “He’s pretty harmless unless you hassle him. Most of the college guys think he’s a hoot.”
“They don’t bother him?”
“Not too much. In fact, some of the Siena boys took such a shine to him they brought him golfing with them. Let him ride in the cart and caddy for them,” the bartender explained.
“I heard the other day he had problems. I mean besides what you keep under the bar,” Burley said.
“You mean trying to kill himself?”
“Yeah, well, that was something different. He’d been in here drinking all day and afternoon and some punks came in from St. Rose. I was off by then. They thought it would be fun to play with his hair,” Phil said, and jerked his thumb toward Johnny.
“It didn’t end well. He was so drunk and angry chasing his hair while they played keep-away, he fell and pissed himself. Johnny is anything if not fastidious about how he looks. A bunch of regulars stepped in, but Johnny was embarrassed and had to be carried upstairs crying like a baby.”
“Nasty punks,” Burley said. “Was that when he did it?”
“No, when Pauly closed he went upstairs and found Johnny passed out in his bed. Checked on him and he seemed okay. When I got here in the morning, cops and EMTs were already out front.”
“Who found him?”
“Believe it or not, his niece. Found him in the bathroom with a rope around his neck. Pulled down the ceiling lamp. She keeps tabs on him since he’s got no one else after his daughter died,” Phil said.
“Aw, man. really? Man, what happened to her?”
“OD’d. Right down on Judson Street. It’s said Johnny was in fair shape then, had a real job and real money, but that just drove him off the edge.”
“Phil!” Johnny boomed from the other end of the bar, rapping his empty glass on the mahogany.
“Keep your shirt on, champ. I’m coming.”
“Instead of playing slap and tickle with that guy, you might want to see if you can serve the drinking customers?” Johnny said.
Phil took Johnny’s glass and filled a new one with another can of Genny.
“You slept at all, champ?” Phil asked Johnny. “Been going all night?”
The man in black either did not hear him or just flat out ignored the bartender.
“Pauly told me to look out for you. I don’t need the boss getting pissed at me if you decide to keel over.”
“Fuck you. Go check on 39-Across down there,” Johnny mumbled into his glass.
“Careful, champ. No one’s bothering you. No need to get testy.”
Johnny stared ahead at nothing and silently sipped his beer.
Phil returned to Burley, poured him another boilermaker and wiped the bar.
“You say he had a real job?” Burley said.
“Yeah. Was a manager type with Price Chopper, I heard. But the thirst was in him and then his daughter…”
The sun had mopped itself from the floor and the bar glowed in the reflection of the light on buildings across the street and flashed from the windows of each passing car and bus.
“Woe Ho, Philip!” came the greeting from Frankie Noonan, the beer delivery guy, several cases of long necks piled on his cart in the doorway. “Comin’ through, gents.”
As Frankie reached the end of the bar, where it hinged upward, allowing bar staff and deliveries entry, Johnny banged his glass again.
“Phil!” he roared.
“Easy, Johnny. I’m coming. Would you mind scooting over a couple stools while Frankie delivers his goods and hauls out the empties?”
“I would,” came the cold reply.
“No, seriously, Johnny, you gotta move so we can get our delivery.”
“Yeah, c’mon, buddy. I’ve got eight more stops to make today. I won’t be long,” Frankie said.
“Told you, no. Phil, where’s my beer?”
“Unless you move over, Johnny, I ain’t serving you any more. You’’re being a nuisance keeping me from taking care of business here.”
“What’s the problem, old dude? I’m just trying to do my job here. I won’t take long. Promise,” Frankie said.
“Go round,” Johnny said. “Phil, you want me tell Pauly you’re pissing off paying customers? You think he’d like that?”
“I don’t think he’d mind me kicking your ass out of here while his beer’s getting warm and undelivered,” Phil said.
“Another Genny, now,” Johnny said.
“That’s it, you’re outta here. I’ll let the boss settle with you when he gets here. Until then you’re not going to be my problem anymore.”
Phil slid over the top of the bar and grasped Johnny’s shoulder and pushed him to the door, the old man resisting, but unable to overcome the bartender’s strength.
“Just you wait, punk. If I was 20 years younger….”
“Yeah, and about 20 beers lighter. Out,” Phil said and pushed Johnny out into the bright sun on Central Avenue.
After Frankie made his delivery, Phil went back to talking to Burley, who was beginning to show his liquor, too.
“Which way did he go?” Phil asked Burley.
“He didn’t go ’round the corner here?” Phil asked.
“Nope. Headed that-away.” Burley pointed east.
“Okay, he didn’t go back upstairs then. Fuck.”
“What’s a matter?” Burley said.
“Aw, Pauly just has a thing about the old guy. Worries for some reason. Doesn’t want him going to some ghetto joint for his hooch. Or drinking himself to death on the street. Guess he reckons it’s better the old bastard does it in a neat place like his.”
“Yeah, but he can buy his Genny at some store and find a quiet place to drink in the neighborhood,” Burley said. “He’ll be okay on a nice day like this.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Phil said. “It’s just that the boss worries.”
“Sure,” Burley said, “he’s got a nice old-fashioned place here. Not too many around anymore. I guess Pauly figures he needs a crazy old drunk as part of the decor.”
“I guess I’ll be headed out,” Burley said with a grunt, slipping off his stool. “Thanks for the entertainment, Phil. You really should get a band in here during days, though. These passion plays don’t play so well with this crowd.” He pointed to the quietly buzzing mid-day drunks.
“Yeah,” the bartender said.
“Look, you know as well as I do that God looks out for the likes of Johnny No-Cash. Else why would he still be coasting up and down the Avenue and will more than likely be darkening your door tomorrow. I’ll bet he’s back right after you go off shift.”
“You know, you’re probably right. I’ll tell Pauly when he gets in. Let him worry about his old mascot,” Phil nodded.
“Sure, see ya tomorrow, Philip, my boy,” Burley said, oozing out into Central Avenue.
He looked west up Central and then down in the direction he last saw Johnny. Burley smoothed the narrow old tie onto the front of his shirt. He crossed Central and walked south on Quail Street, stopping in a bodega run by a Pakistani guy for a six-pack of Genesee Cream Ale.
“Thanks, my friend! Have a lovely afternoon and evening,” Burley said.
He walked two more blocks south, sweating through his dark suit just as the cold cans of Genny sweat through the paper bag in which he carried them.
Burley stopped at the park on the corner of Madison Avenue and found an empty bench in the shade. The light was good and the shade was cool. Over on the basketball court young black men were running up and down in a loud shirts-and-skins game of run-and-gun.
Burley, pulled a can from the pack, popped the top and took a long, cool draught of ale. Cops would be by to hassle him about drinking in a public park, but not before the black kids got into his face over why an old white dude was sucking down beers watching them play hoops.
Until then, though, he hummed and occasionally quietly sang “Because you’re mine, I walk hmm..mmm…”
©Joseph Hesch 2013