Genesis 3:19

The sunlight slanting in
through the window,
lingered on a bowl of fruit,
each waxen piece siphoning dust
from the light to immerse
itself in a world where
an apple or banana wears
as much fuzz as a peach.

No one notices this since
no one dines on the mahogany
table upon which the bowl sits.
No one’s moved more than one
of the chairs from beneath
the table in months,
though handprints muss
their dusty shoulders
on the way to the living room.

The tablecloth has yellowed
around the footprint rings
of teacups which helped read
the morning papers, except
for the five that rest outside
upon the threshold. But in
two days, her name will appear
on page C-8 of a seventh.

After that, sunlight will slant
beneath the green marquee,
to linger on the spray of silk roses
atop the mahogany veneer box.
A twirling wind will whirl motes
of west Texas, gilding the teary
lilies peering over prayer books
that, as one, proclaim,
“dust to dust.”

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Chuvash

No one in the big emergency clinic understood a word the old man was saying. They just knew he’d wandered in off the street in distress and collapsed before he could get to the reception desk.

A nurse, tech and Physicians Assistant rushed out into reception with a wheelchair and carefully placed the old man in it after checking his head and spine for injury.

“Let’s get him into Treatment 4,” Maggie Hennessy, the PA, said with the firm and confident voice of someone who’d worked at this East Side neighborhood clinic for five years. She’d seen it all, from overdoses to obstetrics, gunshot wounds to ears stuffed with gummy bears.

“Quick get me some vitals. Sir? Sir? Can you hear me? My name’s Maggie and you’re in the East 23rd Street Clinic. Can you tell me your name? How about what your problem is?” she said.

The old man rolled his head side to side and moaned, attempting to form words but all that came out was an unintelligible slurring in an accent no one understood. Hennessy leaned down so she could hear him, but said, “I’ve no idea what he’s saying. Sounds like an eastern European language, maybe?”

Nurse Angela Mezzanote asked, “Do we have anyone on staff who might know what he’s saying. It sounds something like Russian, but I’m not sure.”

“What about Joey Markov in maintenance? Isn’t he Russian or something?” Bret Nelson, the tech, said.

“Page him or fetch him, would you Bret? This guy’s looking pretty bad and I’d love to have a translator to help me make a damn diagnosis,” PA Hennessy said.

Within three minutes, Josip Markov rolled his maintenance cart up to Treatment 4.

“You need cleanup?” he asked Hennessy.

“No, Joey. I need you to help me diagnose what’s wrong with this guy if you can. I don’t even know if I can give him a sedative if I can’t communicate with him. Do you understand anything he’s saying? Is that Russian?”

Markov moved closer to the gurney and looked down on the sick man.

“What do you need to know?” He asked the PA.

“His name would be a good place to start, I guess.”

In Russian, Markov asked the man his name.

“Śeśpĕl Praski,” the old man whispered through clenched teeth. Markov moved closer, eying the old man as if he was the physician instead of a mop jockey.

“Good, now we’re getting somewhere. Translate for me, please, Joey. Mr. Praski, can you tell me what’s wrong?” Hennessy said.

“Śeśpĕl.”

“What?”

“His name’s Mr. Śeśpĕl. He’s Chuvash, not Russian.” Markov said.

“Do you speak Chuvash, Joey?”

“Yep. It’s my native language.”

“Thank goodness. Would you ask him that question in Chuvashian?”

“Chuvash. Sure.” Markov said, and translated the basic questions Hennessy fed him and Śeśpĕl’s replies. He got closer and closer to Śeśpĕl with each question until his mouth was right up to the afflicted man’s ear. He kept speaking to Śeśpĕl and Śeśpĕl would reply, each time with more agitation and pain.

“He says he’s a hemophiliac and believes he’s bleeding in his gut.”

“Get me some bloods on this guy, STAT. He is showing symptoms of bleeding. Man, his spleen is frigging huge,” Hennessy said as she palpated Śeśpĕl’s abdomen. “And he’s got some nasty bruising on his ribs.”

“We’ve got a lead in, Maggie,” Nurse Mezzanote said. “Blood pressure 80 over 40, heart rate 134, respirations are 22. I think he’s gonna crash.”

“Shit. Okay, let’s slow push one milligram IV of TXA and see if we can get his bleeding under control. Call the OR and let them know we’ve got bleeder down here on his way up.”

Śeśpĕl’s eyes frantically looked around the room until Markov once again whispered in his ear. Then he focused intently on the maintenance man, who smiled and said in Chuvash, “Epĕ Josip Markov jatlă. I’m Josip Markov. I know who you are, who your father was, what he did to my family in 1940. How he forced them to leave our home and move to that frozen hell in Karelia, just to be a human shield between his Muscovite masters and the Finns. My grandmother died on that trip. Our women were degraded by our own soldiers. My great uncle killed himself in despair. I know what your father did. Did you like growing up in our home? Oh, I see your time’s up. Tav sire! Good health to you, asshole.”

Śeśpĕl tried to speak, but he couldn’t. The stroke was instantaneous and massive. The clotting agent Hennessy had administered for internal bleeding was the worst thing she could have given someone with Chuvash Polycythemia. The condition made his body produce too many red blood cells, thickening his blood, slowing its flow, which alone could lead to a heart attack or stroke at his age. Markov was counting on the clotting agent to seal the deal.

“Out of the way, Joey,” Hennessy yelled. But it was too late. Śeśpĕl expired before the ER team could do anything to help.

“Okay, guys, let’s call it. Time of death, 14:20. Sorry we couldn’t help your old countryman, Joey,” Hennessy said.

But Dr. Josip Martinovich Markov, who was a physician back in Tsivilsk before his breakdown and immigration to America, was already pushing his maintenance cart toward the service elevator. He recognized the symptoms and the man from his name and the questions he’d asked.

“I’ve done my job today. I’ll let Julio or Brandon clean up the trash,” Markov said to himself with a satisfied grin. He pushed the elevator button marked B. The doors swished closed in front of him and he dropped one more floor closer to hell.

The idea for this first draft has been banging around in my notebook for months. Perhaps it should have stayed there. But I’m a hot streak of production right now and I couldn’t not push out the first draft tonight.

The Viewing

I never liked this tie.

I must admit, I’m sure I’ve looked better in my life, but my life ended three days ago. I have no say in how my family and the mortician presented me for final inspection by whoever is coming to, at best, say goodbye to me and console my family and, at worst, see if I managed to leave a decent looking corpse.

True, it’s only 6:00 PM, but I expected a bigger crowd. Maybe it’s the weather, rush hour traffic or extended happy hour prices or something. Denise and I were always early arrivers at the wakes we had to attend. Even for the schmucks who couldn’t die soon enough for my tastes.

Ooh, there’s old Fred Howser. Wow, Fred, time to put down the beer and Doritos. There’s room for only one in this box, buddy, and I have the lease until The Rapture. Take care of yourself and moderate some, pal. The world needs more happy drunks like you, not dead ones like me.

Uh oh, here comes a coven of ladies from the old job. Jesus, what the hell are Diane and Sally doing with Elaine and Joanie? I never got any warm vibe from them. Wish I could sit up just a little to hear what they’re saying. I was afraid of this. I’d hoped for some sort of omniscient point of view deal when I tripped on that rainbow. What fun is watching your own wake when you can’t hear what the all the people are saying about you? If I could breathe, I’d be sighing now.

The kids look pretty busted up. I guess the dead can feel guilt, even though your balance sheet for the afterlife is closed. But damn, seeing them cry like that makes me feel good as much as it makes me feel sad. Wish I had been a better Dad. I know I can’t go back to make it right, and that I was a good Dad for the most part. When you’re lying here, you’ve nothing but time to figure out when and how you could have done better. Maybe this is what they really mean when they talk about Purgatory. No fire, no pitchforks, just your soul and time to think about your shortcomings.

Oh no, here she comes. I guess Purgatory is a timeout to think about your sins, even the almosts, too.

Been a while, but she looks pretty good, at least to these closed eyes. But then I always had closed eyes for her, from the first time I saw her. She had all that crazy curly hair, angry victimhood, fierce intelligence in a man’s world and some spark that lit a flame in me I didn’t know I had. She was my red ink, my fall from grace, my weakness in the face of vows, honor and duty. Boy, was I stupid, but boy did I love her.

Okay, Rose, Joe, Jake, Marylou and Bobby, move it along. Nothing to see here but the husk of the entertainer. No more yuks, except for the fact Denise made the mortician put this tie on me. Oh, well. If it makes Denise happy. I owe her that.

Shit, now Teresa’s right there above me. Wow, real tears. I remember how I joked that when I died I expected her to get a gussied up for my wake and then throw herself across my body, shuddering in wracking sobs. Damn, she did wear a dress. If she throws herself atop me now that I’m dead, I’ll be so pissed. No, she’s kissing her fingers and touching my cheek. Well, I’ll be damned. Perhaps. Probably.

Well, last call, I guess. Funny how time moves when you’re not counting it anymore. Bounces around and then you can sit somewhere in the past for who knows how long. There was that bender in ’78 that was like that. I guess I’ll get used to it.

Hi, Denise. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there to support you tonight. It really is all I’ve ever wanted to do. You’ve been my rock, my touchstone, my soul mate, my savior. Don’t know how you can look at me with such pride. You finally got me sober and some drunk plows into me. Sorry I never made it home with your ice cream. This time I remembered—peanut butter crunch.

Aww, man, please don’t cry like that. I don’t really hate this tie. Don’t lay your head on my chest. I don’t deserve…I’ve been a total drunken fuck up…I… Wait, what’s she saying? Damn it, why can’t I hear her? There’s that crooked grin I fell in love with 45 years ago. That’s it, honey. Straighten this cool tie.

Please don’t drop the lid, dude. Denise, I don’t know if we’ll ever be together, you know, on the other side, but if your face is the last thing I’ll ever see before…

I guess that’ll have to do for this eternity.

I wrote this piece in a rush and no doubt sparingly so it would fit within the parameters of my friend Dan Mader’s every-Friday feature 2MinutesGo over on his site, Unemployed Imagination. Since I went away for a week without access to a computer nor my iPad, my writing muscles got pretty flabby fast. So if this looks like I think it does, realize that it’s an exercise to get back in writing shape. In the my case , though, I just choose to exercise here in the equivalent of a picture window…wearing a Speedo.

Asking for Directions

Robert Earl Keen tells me
the road goes on forever
and the party never ends.
But sometimes you reach
a crossroads, or a fork
in your life’s road.
And if you have no map,
or go off the reservation,
you could take a wrong turn,
if there’s such a thing
as “wrong” on your journey.
I only know I never could
remember the way back
from those corners I cut
when I left the path
others set for me.
But these latter days, as I
grow old on the trail,
no matter which way I turn,
I see nothing but dead ends
and I’m not ready to stop.
So that’s why I’m asking you,
since you’re still running
and look like you’re enjoying
your trip more than getting
to that dark place where
the exit signs are turned off,
“Which way to the party?”

No More To Soar On Eagles’ Wings

Bricks fall daily
from the temple,
mortar crumbling
like stale bread,
raining the crumbs
of best intentions
upon whoever walks in
its proximity.
But so few do now.
Within its walls,
words that stirred
hearts and souls,
echo like dust shrouding
its empty tabernacle.
The book lies on the pulpit,
its leathery covers shut,
gilded pages tarnished,
closed to what small
light teases that eyes
will unlock its words.
Someday.
A pigeon whispers
hosannas where once
verses rose to the steeple
on eagles’ wings,
ignoring the signs
it soon will fall,
unnoticed, silent
as a tree
in an empty forest.

Night So Long

The nights are so long
when I’m alone in my bed,
sleep having left me for another.
And yet I wait, listening
to the tick-tock of my heart
beat out the stretch of time
between laying my head
on the pillow and when that imposter
embraces me until my eyes open
and I find it wasn’t sleep,
but some ragged shadow held me down
while it sucked more time from
my life than just the few hours
I tossed in her arms. Maybe
it would be different if you
were here, too. But then nights
would be too short.

The Deal

Life has loveliness to sell. ~ Sara Teasdale

If I had the strength, I’d
steal some, because I don’t think
I’ll ever trade for it once more.
I recall it felt like holding you,
your eyes piercing mine, inspecting
the inventory left upon
the shelves of my soul.
That’s what loveliness feels
like, like holding you in my
ever-weakening arms once more —
priceless, though it’s cost me
so very much of my life.
Would that I had more days
I could barter for that loveliness,
but my stock has grown scant.
I exchanged them for moments
of the loveliness I felt you share
in my daydreaming yesterdays.

I’m not feeling too well these days and mortality has suddenly become my wingman. And, like a lot of people who feel thus, I go back and audit the balance sheet of my life’s black-ink experience versus the red of its too many hopes and dreams, and I’ve found how much I’m in arrears. Don’t waste your life’s assets, children. Splash that ebon ink all over your ledger’s pages until it’s full of nothing but black and the balance reads zero. It’s like they say, “You can’t take it with you.” This poem is in response to my friend Annie Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines prompt up there of a quote from the prolific early 20th Century American poet Sara Teasdale’s poem “Barter.” Hence, my title.