The Ecstasy of the Agony

It’s not something I’ve found
very often, or even stumbled upon,
like if I was rummaging for
a lost golf ball in the trees.
My swings don’t bring much bliss,
and I don’t mean golf swings.
We’re speaking in metaphors here.
Bliss, euphoria and the rest
of their cousins gathered under
Roget’s roof never searched for,
let alone found me, either.
But I think I discovered something
equating to that joyously mystical
eruption of transcendence when
I harrow out the right words to tell you
how we feel, no matter my mood.
And that, my friend, might be ecstasy.

Quick one written from Robert Lee Brewer’s request for an ecstasy poem. I think other writers might experience this same feeling, or maybe kid themselves as I probably do, that we actually feel such joy in the creative strip mining of our souls.

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With Apologies to Lizzie Bennett, et al.

It is a truth universally known
that a young single man in possession
of a good fortune, maybe even his own,
must be in want of women’s affection.

And I know I’ve stolen the first sentence
of that famous writer, Miss Austen, Jane.
To steal and twist it I make repentance,
but to grab notice with less is insane.

Here’s the drop, of which I’m guilty as sin,
mansplaining what smart Liz always saw.
How women’s statements get ignored by men
whose pride and privilege feel like law.

Thirteen lines I’ve gone on, regrets I send.
Just like a man, said nothing in the end.

Numb

Sometimes I forget what it’s like
to feel your warmth on my skin.
Or even through my clothes.
Closeness is not my strong suit.
I can’t even get close to
my own feelings for anyone,
let alone feeling yours.
I am numb to so much.
But then, I understand why
you would choose to keep
your distance from me.
How can anyone wish to be close
to someone who cannot feel
what they wish to share?
So that leaves me all alone
again, numb yet somehow
accepting of something
I probably never felt anyway.
But then why does it hurt so?

Listening to Alison

The meeting began as I always expected it would. Awkwardly. And with something akin to pain, though perhaps only because whatever it was attacking my nervous system made me wince like I’d closed a dresser drawer on my fingers.

I never expected such a meeting to occur, but here I was, sitting in a suburban Starbucks, not really hearing the bustle and hubbub clattering and whirring around me. I was more listening to the voices in my head. Mine and what I remembered of hers.

“Hello, Jason,” I heard a voice say. It sounded just like Alison, so I knew my memory might be getting better. Then this somewhat familiar looking woman walked from behind my chair into my daydream-shrunken field of vision and I knew the voice I thought I heard was actually the real thing. Though different.

“You’ve changed,” she said.

“Well, hello to you, too,” I said. She was always one to knock you back a bit, never letting you get too close, even in friendly conversation. I was pretty sure this wasn’t going to be one of those.

“No, I can see it in your eyes,” Alison said.

“Perhaps. No, you’re right. I’m sure I have,” I replied.

“You’ve aged, too.”

“No, I’ve gotten old. But that’s not the biggest change, now that I’ve thought about it. Oh, and I can see how you’ve changed, as well.” Touché.

Alison brought her hands to her hair, which had become wiry and gray, then to her hips, which she shimmied in exaggerated defense of an unspoken observation from me.

I rose from my seat and motioned her to the chair opposite me where I’d placed my jacket to hold her spot for whatever it was she wanted to tell me.

Inevitably, such resurfacing into my humdrum life was never a good thing. Not that it didn’t make the world a little more exciting. As I said, I always kept those old memories. But Alison usually only surfaced to make me feel badly, which I guess made her feel better for a spell by comparison.

“I got you a coffee,” I said, pushing the cardboard cup next to mine toward her. “I’m not sure how you take it these days, so I left it black. But it’s still hot as hell. I can attest to that.”

“Oh, thanks. I’ll be right back after I put in some sugar and half and half,” she said. And once again she lit off for something to temper and sweeten her here and now.

Alison was right, though. I’d changed in my old age. I was thicker around the middle, had an extra chin, silver hair with a sunroof and wasn’t so ostensibly cocksure and snarky as I had been when last we met.

Now that I looked at her, though, all of her, I saw her changes even more clearly. She looked shorter. I wasn’t sure if that was age or the illusion created by her widened hips and the weight she’d put on elsewhere. I’m sure my old 5’10” must’ve looked about 5’3” by now. But I also noticed how her clothes looked baggy on her, too.

“Okay, now where’d we leave off?” Alison said as she woke me from another reverie with the squeak of her chair and the wobble of the little table.

“We hadn’t yet. Nothing to leave off from. First, how are you? Are you doing okay?” I always worried about her, even when she cold-cocked, cock-blocked and outright shocked me over the years.

“Oh, I guess things are the same as always. Fucking miserable,” she said. There was a tone of defeat in her voice I’d not heard before. “What about you?”

“Probably the same, only with some new physical ailments that you earn along with your Social Security benefits. Perhaps some day you’ll earn your own.

“Oh, I hope so. Though I’ve got more than I can handle now.”

Even if I tried hard as I might, I couldn’t help but allow my feelings for her to ask.

“What do you mean? Are you all right? Oh, I’m sorry. None of my goddamn business.”

“No, no. It’s okay. A lump here and a bump there and if they cut ‘em out and start the chemo in time, which I hope they did, you get most of you your health and hair back. Only neither of them as shiny as they were before.”

“Jesus, Alison, I’m sorry. Are you doing okay now?”

“That’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you about. I’m looking to leave a legacy for when I go, whenever it is I go. Something that my kids and whoever else wants to can read and learn about life and the roads some of us have taken, I’ve taken, to all ultimately get to the same place,” she said as she rolled the coffee cup between her hands as if trying to warm them.

“And you want me to…”

“Write it? Yeah, if you wouldn’t mind. I’ve started it but it just sounds like whining to a damn therapist. Clinical, accusatory and bitchy. And you’ve always had that way with words. So, maybe, I thought I could ask if you’d…”

“Edit it? Or ghost it for you? Aw, I don’t know. I’ve never done any memoir or biography or anything close to that, except for obits I wrote in my early days,” I said.

“I’ll bet you were really good at them, too,” Alison said, as I saw her eyes brightening for the first time tonight. Or was it in twenty years?

I was, but this was not the assignment I ever wanted either. I knew this was going to be the ultimate obituary for someone I once cared for. And she knew it.

“Let’s slow down a minute and talk about this, Alison.”

“I don’t know if I have a minute, Jason. I get the latest test results back Friday.”

“So what are you telling me? You believe your cancer’s back and you have a short time to live?” I said, leaning forward and tilting the table her way with a bump.

“Basically, yes. I know how my body works, how it feels. And I know it doesn’t feel, oh…let’s say doesn’t feel right.” she said.

“Jesus Christ. Sure. You know I’d do most anything if you asked me to help. Do you want me to come to your place, wherever that is, or what?” I said, my voice getting a little louder than it probably should. Even in a semi-crowded Starbucks.

“No! I don’t want you coming over to my place. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t call, either. Here,” she said, and pulled two USB drives from her bag, as well as some pages ripped out of a spiral bound notebook. She pushed the pile across the table to me.

“Pretty confident in yourself, I see. You figured I’d never say no, even after all those times you used me as you sounding board, your chew toy, the target for your anger at everyone else,” I said, because it had to be said.

“No. I was hoping, because hope’s all I might have left. And because I trust you. You never told anyone about any of the things I told you, even though we’d have those blowups. Now I want you to,” she said.

That was true. Even after she’d scalded me so many times, knocked me down like one of those blowup clowns with the sand weighing their bottoms. I’d pop back up when she’d call. I had the sleepless nights, the wrinkles, the choked-down guilt and anger to prove it.

She admitted to being a cheat long ago. But I’d come to realize she was a recidivist thief, too. Time and again, she stole my heart. But what else should I expect, always leaving it hanging out there for her like that? My question I always had been why she insisted on giving it back to me only to steal it again, each time returning it more busted than the last. I guess she was a vandal, too. And I was her abettor.

“Okay, I’ll do my best,” I said. And now I was aiding as well as abetting.

“Thank you, Jason. Thank you, my friend, my dear Jason,” Alison said, all the brightness leaving her eyes as she reached her once-soft hand across the table and touched my cheek. Even after rolling her cup, her hand felt so cold. And then she was gone.

I began listening to her recordings that night. A lot of the stories she’d told me or intimated years ago. Nothing about her shocked me anymore. I made some notes and went to bed but didn’t sleep very well. Not for the two weeks thereafter, as I worked on Alison’s memoir.

One night, as I was typing away, the phone rang and it was Alison’s number on the screen.

“Allie! I’m glad you called. I’ve been working away here and have a few…”

“Hi. Jason? This is Gregory, Alison’s son. Mom died this afternoon. Pancreatic cancer. She went fast and in the end we were all there and there was no pain. She just drifted away.”

“Oh, my God! No. This… I… I’m so sorry, Greg. I just have no words,” I choked out.

“Thank you. One of the last things she said while she was still with it was to make sure I called you when she was gone and say thank you for all you’ve done for her and what you’re doing now. Whatever that is,” Greg said, a little puzzlement in his voice.

“Just a little project she asked me to handle for her. I guess maybe she won’t need it now,” I said, mostly to myself. I really didn’t know what to do with her story now.

“There’s one more thing,” Greg said.

“Yeah?”

“She wanted me to tell you she loved you.”

“Oh…”

The next day I handed Greg the most beautiful obit I’d ever written. I left out the hurt, but left in the true. And I cried for three days and for three months and now  three years since then.

Each time I listen her voice again.

A desperate two hours spent trying to write a story. Here’s the first draft. In life, most of us only get a first draft, so try to make it better than what Hemingway allegedly called them. (Shit.) Or what this one probably is. But at least it’s written and that’s the best part. I guess my lesson is to never stop trying to do my best at writing, whether it be a story or my life.

Silent, These Bouquets

When first we met, I thought you were so young,
hands smooth and eyes bright as shining star jewels.
And I’m sure no old poet’s words I sung
to you since back then I lacked any tools.
Dumbstruck, I could but only nod “Hello,”
or I could not express my true feeling,
in a heart that’d whisper, not bellow.
Even today I find my head reeling.
Voicing what my heart longed to say back when
ev’ry fiber of me still wants to shout.
Nowadays I take in hand this hack’s pen,
so on paper I try digging words out.
And still I sit silently hours and hours,
yearning to grow you poems like flowers.

My brilliant poet/teacher friend Bethany Pope encouraged me to try writing a double acrostic sonnet this morning. But I thought I should crawl before I ran. So I scribbled this single acrostic sonnet, a poem of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter (I think) with a rhyming scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. The tricky part is making the first letter of each one, read top to bottom, spell out something that relates to the theme of the poem. (Again, I guess.) So here’s my very first try, with an old message. 

The Lights Went Out

The power blew this morning.
The washing machine, the television,
the internet router, everything
went poof and their little lights
went out as if they lived behind
the closed refrigerator door.

This did not bother me so much,
for my power blew months ago,
so much light already snuffed
in my life when the door
between you and me slammed.
Barely a momentary crack
has it opened since.

They say eventually your eyes
get accustomed to the dark,
but only if you keep them open.
I’ll keep mine closed until
I know you’ll be there
when I open them again.

Keep It Under Your Hat

I just placed my fingertips on the upper part of the back of my head and instead of the old lustrous black hair, which long ago turned steely, then silver, I felt that patch of soft skin again. I can pat it and it sounds like polite applause. 

There really was no escaping it, I guess. What started out as a postage stamp sized bit of “ground under repair” in golf parlance, is now the size of, oh, an old CD-ROM. Yeah, it’s now a sand trap. 

But that’s really the only calamity or four that can specifically affect men when they hit a certain age. I hit it long ago. For some, it’s a genetic thing. Dad and/or Grandpa was a chrome dome, so it often follows that you will be one, too. 

For others, it’s kismet, dumb luck. Their locks seem to hold on just fine, until one winter they pull off their wool hat and, fully charged by static cling, their hair stands up like a cane patch, something resembling the head of an old dolly. They’ll notice and pat it down, but then it looks flat and perforated like an old doily. 

It’s enough to give some men heartburn, but more than likely, any burn they’ll experience will be the red embarrassment that now extends up their cheeks to the visible areas beneath those fronds of once-was hirsute glory. 

I can attest that you’ll never see me with a hairpiece, though. I like to think I’m not vain enough.  Not after I recall all my so-equipped acquaintances and experiences I’ve noted with them. 

Also, you’ve really got to take care of them. A lot. They’re not something you just put on and forget about — like a replacement windshield wiper — until they start getting all schmutzy and unsightly. Heck, half the guys I knew with toupees looked like they’d found some roadkill and lifted it from the pavement with a spatula. Et voila, baldness conquered.  Um, no…

I remember going out with an old secretly (yeah, right) sports editor of mine, who got too deep into his cups and fell over the velvet rope at the laughingly defined “gentleman’s club” he dragged us to. While he’s draped over the rope, his hairpiece went flying and I was charged with picking it up and placing it back on his head, holding it there with my red scarf, like he had a head wound. We hustled him out of there and back to his apartment. 

I don’t wish to add insult to ego injury on the poor old guy, but upon getting to my own place, I felt like washing my hands with kerosene and drying them with a blowtorch.  

The next day, while we young reporters were frittering away at our usual humdrum, the sports guy sat at his desk typing away as usual, but on radio silence. As were we, never to mention it in his earshot again.

And what about, should my skin quotient exceed my hair quotient? What of hair replacement surgery? No thanks. I’m old and retired, so there’s not a lot of discretionary income, nor Medicare, that’ll pay for such frivolities. I’ll just own this badge of masculinity like Dad and Grandpa, a trophy that I made it this far. You know, stoically. 

Oh, this golf hat? I’ve never shown you my assortment of fitted ones? Oh yeah, I’ve got maybe fifteen. I’m kind of a collector since about ten years ago.

A little writer’s block exercise I needed today. It’s based on a word salad prompt containing all the following words: a red scarf, windshield wiper, chrome, doily, blowtorch, spatula, CD-ROM, postage stamp, frittering, static cling, radio silence, kismet, calamity, heartburn, and bandage. I think I hit them all. And I hope I made a nice diversion for you as I diverted myself from a deeper depression. Not writing is bad medicine for me.