Last Man Standing

Another one went last week,
the brother of a brother,
like so many of the others.
I’ve been in this spot
so many times these days.
And while I waited to pay respects,
since these occasions are held
for the living, not the deceased,
it occurred to me that
I’ve reached a station in my life
I’d never thought existed.

Standing there on line,
waiting my turn to view a box
within which what remains
of my friend will be kept forever,
I noticed most of these people
around me were younger than I.
It came to me as a shock,
as so many revelations
come to me at my age.
And a new sensation struck me
in my heart and eyes,
something like loneliness
as my list of friends
grows shorter by the week.

And yet, here I am, still vertical,
still shuffling along, occasionally
thinking of when they stood by me,
as well. But in that moment,
I felt pride and a sense of duty
that they’ve left me here
with a mandate to carry on,
as I hope they would for me.

This isn’t my poem-a-day effort for Day 5. It’s a draft of one I wrote in November when the brother of my now-deceased best friend died, too. I almost never hold on to such things. I either post them or delete ’em. But I kept this one for some reason. Maybe now I know.

Last Rites

An Irish Wake

An Irish Wake

When you lie there in the dark
in the sleep that is not yet sleep,
does the thought ever awaken
(like the pea beneath your mind’s mattress)
what it’d be like to lie in the coffin
within your casket in the not-yet-death?
Do you wonder who’ll come visit
your corporeal self as you, with
maybe one eye slyly peeking, capture
memories as the soon-to-be-tipsy mourners
contemplate, inflate and conflate
your times together, consecrate,
them perhaps with a baptism
of a tear or two?

If the don’t, I won’t judge.
My hands’ll be knotted in someone
else’s damn rosary, so I couldn’t cast
any stones, let alone the first.
But, boy, would I love to roll away
the rock they plant me beneath,
in a fourth-quarter comeback resurrection
just to confirm I saw in your hands
the letters I wrote, even the ones
I never sent, but composed in this,
my warm and waking coffin here in the dark,
here in the sleep that’s not yet sleep,
here where it feels so much like death
in my every-night not-quite-life.

Poem Number 13 of poem-a-day NaPoWriMo 2016. This one prompted by a call for a “Last (Something)”-titled poem. Yeah, I went there. Not sure if this is an egomaniacal exercise or just another potential disappointment captured in verse.

Lucky Guy

When the old vet told me about his
first experience in a fire-fight,
when a metal-jacket bullet
ripped through his khaki jacket,
I asked him if he saw it.
“Saw what?” he asked.
“Your life flash before your eyes,” I said.
“Hell, no, sonny,” he said. “That didn’t
even happen in jump school
when the guy behind me’s silk
pulled a Mae West on top of me
for a couple thousand feet.
I don’t think it actually happens.”
Well, I figured he should know.
But I had to check. I didn’t see it either.
Not when some punk sliced that knife
through my shirt in that dark
Third Street hallway. And all I saw
were circles of steel probably big
as my eyeballs when that farmer
pushed his revolver in my face
while I tried taking a photo of possible
illegal picking his apples.
I’m not sure who came up with that
trope of your life passing before your eyes
in that instant you feel you might die
Possibly he was inexperienced in the true
sweating-like-three-whores-in-church-
from-the-waist-down, piss-your-pants,
flash-of-heat-from-head-to-toe-and-back-up-again
experience of perceiving imminent death.
Lucky guy.

Poem Number 5 for poem a day April. And Experience/Inexperience poem…I think.

The Shoes You Only Wear in This Rain

Muddy-shoes

They’re falling all around me now,
the large and small, old and young,
so many that it feels like
the rains in Spring, their passing,
the sound of water dripping,
falling off the eaves of my heart.
And still I’m here, chronicling
what I don’t think I want to know.
Is there a light you lope after?
Or do you fly like a moth until then?
Does the light, all of it, just go out?
Not a flicker, nor a dimming. Just…
nothing.

These unusual secrets my raindrops
took with them when they fell,
even though I watched and listened
when some of them did.
It wasn’t just a ping on a tin roof
followed by a plop in the muddy puddle
of their mingling with earth.
It was natural, gravity winning out
over angels’ wings, the wings that wrung
these showers from those clouds,
that rat-a-tatted on the corrugated
prayers you huddle beneath,
that collect on your cheeks and spatter
the blessed mud of their ashes
on the shiny shoes you only wear
in this spate of rain.

There have been just too many over too short a time, and I can’t take any more.

It’s Been Two Years Now

It’s been two years now.

The full-face moonlight falls
in rigid rays against my body,
casting shadows so dense I can
hear them rustle the leaves
upon which they stretch.

It must be the shadows, because
there’s no cold wind to torment me
as on all the other November nights
since then.

But I would suffer them all,
the prickly chill upon my cheeks,
the waking moan of the westbound
disturbing our sleep,
just to have you with me
here one more time.

I regret all the times I’d scold you
for the midnight wake ups.
My heart playing the role
of numb somnambulist who didn’t
understand you’d be gone so soon.

Not until it was tenderized with
the club of reality from
those last visits,
when I had to assist you
into and out of the car.

Then came that last time, hefting you in
and the great weight I carried home
and sense even today, of never needing
to lift you again. Nor you lifting me.
That’s why I’m out here tonight.

I carry the gravity of your loss
in my chest. It’s a warm gravity,
so crushing I want to lie beneath it
in my shadow, in a forever dark
and never rise until we can run together
in some lovely lonely nighttimes again.

The Sons of Shem

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The Arapaho boys came across the dead body of the Rev. Linus Quimby wrapped in a wool blanket at the bottom of a buffalo wallow, a thick book clutched in his frozen hands and an expression of joy upon his face.

“It is already the Moon When the Buffalo Calves’ Noses Turn Brown and the first snow came last night, so to find a man, even a foolish white man, traveling without a horse or even a dog to carry his provisions shows he was as crazy as he looks,” said the younger boy, taking the blanket from the would-be missionary.

“Look at the useless fire he made of these white skins with markings, not the leavings of the buffalo or even a stick from the trees on the banks of the Niinéniiniicíihéhe’, only two days ride from here,” said the older boy, as he relieved his brother of the blanket and Rev. Quimby of a knife and a piece of flint.

After riding east until the sun had almost reached its highest point, the boys found the remains of Rev. Quimby’s horse being picked clean by coyotes and birds, stripped of its saddle by a roaming band of Cheyenne hunters and with more of those marked skins scattered on the yellow grass in the melting snow.

If the boys could read, they might notice one that was dated two days before, November 20, 1830, and it said: Last night I burned all my maps, Psalm 23 and First Thessalonians from my Bible, my Lord God, because where I am going in Your name, I have faith You shall guide me, help me lead the sons of Shem back to you, and we shall never be lost again.

A story of unrelenting faith, based on Lillie McFerrin’s prompt word, Maps

Rules of the Game

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The rules of the game
are set in stone.
You can read them
written on each slab
out there on the field.
The great game is summed up
in four numbers on one side,
and four on the other,
of a grooved hyphen.
Funny how those hyphens,
from end to end,
are the width of an N or M,
but a life may be wider
than a thousand thousand alphabets
or as narrow as an I.

You think of these things,
the unwritten,
the randomly ordered
string of letters,
of words, of stories,
of a life lived in
what seems like a hyphen,
a momentary there to here,
then to now,
once to once,
when you sit by a deathbed,
in front of a casket, or
at a graveside.
That’s where they post
the rules for all to see
and no one’s ever broken.

Camouflage

Camouflage
At the picnic after the parade, while vets still in pieces of once-better-fitting uniforms hugged and slapped backs, laughing or whispering recollections, my cousin Brian sat at a table away from everyone drinking two sixes of Miller he’d lined up in columns of two, holding each one up in front of him before he chugged it down.

When I asked him if he was okay, he just shrugged and said, “Billy, this is what I do for the real heroes every Memorial Day…and for a few days before and after.”

“Man, you’ve gotta be kidding, what with all that heavy-metal certification of your courage — pulling your buds from a burning Humvee and fighting off bad guys while you’re burned and wounded from the IED yourself — right there on the front of your jacket,” I said. I pointed to a pile of camo wrapped around a Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.

Brian said in his scorched-throat rasp, “Bein’ a hero sometimes ain’t more than a roll of the fuckin’ dice, Billy, a guy doin’ what he has to do when shit happens, just bein’ scared enough to run in the wrong or right direction — it don’t really matter at that moment — and bein’ lucky enough to make it out with a beating heart and most of his original parts.”

He popped the top on another Miller, lifted it above his head while murmuring something that sounded like “Ramirez,” took three long pulls on it. Then he said, “Sometimes what folks who were never in combat call a hero turns out to be not much more than a wind-blown empty potato chip bag chasin’ a squirrel up a tree.”

Threshing Room

Square-cornered morning sunlight pours
through the window and onto the bar room floor,
dust specks floating in the box-shaped ray
crawling closer to the window and a date with noon.
The day crowd only notice mahogany and bottles
and maybe faces, multiplied as in a housefly’s eye,
as the bottoms of glasses rise over their empty horizons.

At the end of the bar, a man in black looks up
from his crossword puzzle, its ink, his vision, smudged
from the slosh of his three-boilermaker breakfast .
He departs after tossing a crumpled buck on the bar
and steps into an afternoon as empty
as his last glass. At a nearby park he sits on
an empty bench in the small mid-day shade.

His suit and the paper bag in which he carries
six cold cans of Genny are stained in their sweat.
He empties and tosses each green can, as if it
was a seed to be scattered by a prairie farmer.
But it’s not. It’s like his days, mere husks left
on the threshing room floor, where the shadows
crawl longer, closer to his horizon and date with night.

Over at the dVerse Pub site, my friend Shanyn Silinski is asking for poems like seeds, growing something from them. As I always do, I twisted that request a little bit, darkening it and drying it to something different. Back to my gritty city poems.

Just Standing Around

All night she sat in her chair across the room as we watched television. Finally, she muted the show, looked over at me and asked, “Do you still miss her?”

I thought it was a silly question. How could I not? But I answered, “Of course I do. She was such an important piece of my life.”

“Well, what do you miss most?” she said, in that hard-wired interrogative way women have in trying to mine men’s emotions. “Playing with her, petting her, feeling her unconditional love?”

See what I mean?

I played along because she was so damned earnest and I understood she wanted to show she cared. I’m an evolved kinda guy like that anyway.

“Well all those things. Sure.” I said.

She aimed those never-miss, sapphire laser-guided eyes into me and said, “But what most?”

Sigh…

“Give me a minute and I promise I’ll let you know.”

So she went to the kitchen, busying herself with fetching me another beer. After all, I was digging way down to bring forth the Hope Diamond of her hope to connect at a deeper level with me. I began running the home movies of my beloved old dog and me on the tacked up sheet of my heart.

She came back into the room and quietly set a glass of beer on a coaster on the side table. She then curled herself up next to me on the sofa in that way girls do—legs and feet beneath their bottoms like nesting cranes—and smiled a softly expectant smile at me. Its message was plain: “Well?”

Women would love it if the whole other half of the planet’s population could just pull out some emotion or feeling (the coin of the female realm) just as easily as they can. In an oddly effective bit of incentive, she played the cuddle card, which signified to me she expected something not necessarily weepy, but at least eye-blinking.

The funny thing is, I had her answer after my first sip of suds.

“It’s kinda a selfish thing” I said.

“Oh? Well what is it?”

“Just standing around,” I said.

Her expression turned a bit rigid and then fell like a sheet of melting ice off the church roof.

“Oh,” she said.

“No, you don’t understand,” I said. “My life no longer has those periods of…how can say this? Momentary stasis, thought, acceptance of now, that it did when my pup was alive.”

I could actually hear her blink, I think. But not the “Could you give me a Kleenex?” sort of blink.

“Every morning around dawn we’d go out the door and were greeted by a waking world. Pink clouds, tangerine windows of other early risers, hoo-hooing of mourning doves, songs of the other birds. Sometimes, I’d whistle back, just to see if they’d answer. And they DID! At night, we’d hang out and watch the stars look like they were doing the moving, instead of the clouds in front of ’em. And all because, for that moment in my life, I could just stand there.”

Her expression appeared to be taking on a little CPR, color and warmth returning to what a minute ago had all the life of a drowning victim.

“So that’s it?” she said, still on the verge of disappointment.

“I didn’t think you’d understand,” I said. “Look, Old Fluffybutt and I would go out there day and night. She’d do her in-the-moment thing and taught me I’d better learn to do mine, because she was in no hurry. I’d feel the air surround me, winter or summer, full of snowflakes, leaves or skeeters, and I could hear it talk to me, telling me to take it easy, don’t freak, life’s pretty good. Ya know what I mean?”

“M-m-maybe,” she said.

“All the while, I would watch her and then the sky, the trees, the clouds, airplanes’ scratching the sky with their contrails, critters and birds, and her shitty loads I forgot to pick up and the shitty grass I wish I didn’t have to. And I haven’t done that since she’s gone. And it’s a double loss to me, maybe a triple.”

“What do you mean?” she said, perking up a bit.

“I mean I don’t have her to share it with me the way we did anymore. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a guy and his dog thing.”

“No, dear,” she said. “It’s a very, very human thing.”

She hugged me, kissed me warmly and went into full cuddle mode, making these little happy noises as if she’d just enjoyed a fine meal. I’m sure she thought she’d made that brass-ring connection with me. Or a gold one.

I still really don’t think she understood ol’ Fluff’s and my deal, because she’s a woman, ya know?

Not a dog.