Like It Always Was

It’s not like it used to be,
so many of us old guys say.
But I overheard a twenty-something
whisper that to her girlfriend
the other day in the checkout line.
And I wondered what a kid would know
about the nebulous “used to be.”
How could she relate to changing
what was on television by getting up
from your seat, walking across the room
and twisting the dial to one of
the only four channels that existed?
In pixel-ridden black and white.
Coming out of a piece of
wooden living room furniture?
How could she understand a time
when the scant coffee shops we had
were pretty much limited to an
artsy neighborhood, a block or two
up from the head shop,
where they sold weed
surreptitiously in the back?
What would they know of atomic
missile crises and street-filling protests
over racial injustice,
environmental destruction and
“Impeach the Bastard?”
Then I blinked out of my reverie,
as the girls, with matching tattoos
on their necks, gathered their cloth
refillable grocery bags and walked,
hand in hand, out of the store.
I thought. “No, it’s not
like it used to be.
But, that’s okay, really,
’cause it is.”

If you have been lucky enough, as I, to have lived through the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, etc., maybe you can relate. If not, trust me, I’ve seen this before. But it did take protest to turn things around. Maybe not all at once. But then, folks from these times are used to instant information, communication and gratification, fast as a 64-bit architecture can spit. Patience, children. Such things take time. Like it used to be.

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Over My Head

Seeking escape from that sword’s deadly stroke
I’ve shifted my seat, table to table.
Damocles had nothing on this jamoke,
but I’m real he might’ve been a fable.

His sword was over a seat of power,
mine’s one of my very own invention.
Dam’s hung by a hair ‘neath which he’d cower,
while mine requires proactive prevention.

King Dionysius said “Try my seat,”
and Damocles parked on that deadly throne.
In my case darkness wants to fall complete,
and this daily fight I can’t win alone.

I’m glad I shared with you this confession.
With meds, it’s how I beat my depression.

I can’t tell you how much this 102-word sonnet grates against this compulsion I have that my poems be divisible by 50, but iambic pentameter and the rules of this poetic road don’t give a hoot about my hangups. And that, too, is proof I can beat some of the psychological traps I often set for myself. Thanks, Shakespeare or Plutarch or whoever. Thank you, too.

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

Finally, after all the miles, the training, beatings I took as a kid, the beatings I handed out as I got bigger, I was here.

After all the amateur bouts for nothing but experience, the prelims for little more than bus money, the sparring, the body shots I’d take on purpose, the headshots I didn’t, the blood, the sweat, the loss of old friends, the making of new enemies, I was here.

Vegas, the big one, the championship of something more than a gym, a city, a state, some little pissant boxing fed, to the bigger ones, to this.

And now it’s all up to me. I’ve never been more fit, more excited, more ready for anything in my life. All the kid’s daydreams, the dreams I made, the dreams I had, the dreams I’d shattered, I’d seen it all on the way up. I saw it again before I left home.

“Daddy, you going to beat that guy?” my son Dakota said to me, breaking into the last little bit of positive thought meditation I had before I took my flight to Vegas.

“You know it, Ko. You and I worked really hard to get ready for this one, right?” I said. I’d kept Ko and his mother with me in my last weeks of training, even though old Eddie Marcin, my trainer, said it was bad business for a championship fight.

“You need to an absolute animal when you step into that ring, Jose,” he said. “That means on the bleeding edge of want, want for the belt, want for the fame, the money, want for your woman, your kid, want to put that guy on the canvas, but most of all, want to do anything to get out of there alive with your hand raised. Having your family here takes away some of that want, as far as I’m concerned.”

“C’mon, Eddie, you know I’ve never been sharper or fitter. I beat a guy better than this chump champ in five rounds at our last fight,” I said. Just as I saw it in my meditation, in my last dream before the bout.”

“You and that dreamy shit. I never had a fighter just sit and do nothing for a half hour like you do. Like you was taking a freaking nap or something, right there in the gym.”

“I’ve been doing it my whole life, since Mrs. Ito taught it to me back at Maria Regina in Gardena. It kept me from becoming a gang banger, kept me clean, kept me focused and kept me in touch with who I am and where I want to go. I’ve seen it all ahead of me along the way. And now I’m here. And you try telling me there’s no power in what you call napping?” We’d had this argument before. I think he was just trying to fire me up.

“Yeah, well now I want you to take a real nap if you can. I want you fresh as an eager virgin when you hit the ring,” Eddie said. He left the hotel room with the rest of the guys. And that left me alone with my thoughts again.

It started out as a meditation, but I must’ve fallen asleep, because this was as vivid a dream or whatever the hell it was as I’d had during all my training for the belt.

I felt myself sitting in the forest, like we were in Yosemite or someplace. With my eyes closed, I could hear Maria and Ko calling me. But I couldn’t open my eyes. It was like they were swollen shut, like I got stung by a bee or something.

But Maria and Ko were coming closer to me, so I just went with it. I mean the sun was warm on my face, I felt a great peace and I could hear what sounded like a roaring waterfall nearby.

“Jose, please be careful with this man,” I heard Maria say. “I never worry about you in the ring, but this is something different. Just make sure you come home tomorrow, okay?”

“Not a problem, honey. This is my dream, right? And I’ve been making dreams come true all my life.”

“I’m not worried, daddy,” Ko said. “I’m even giving you this for luck. Just to keep you safe and bring you home.”

And just as I could feel his hand touch mine…the dream ended. I was suddenly in a state of confusion because my dreams always have an ending. That’s when I heard the phone ringing next to me on the nightstand. The screen said Maria and Ko.

“Hello,” I said with must have sounded like fat, mushy lips.

“Hi, Daddy. You all ready?” I heard Ko say on the other end.

“You bet, Champ. Tomorrow we’ll be both be champions, right?”

“Jose?” I heard Maria say, “I couldn’t keep him from calling you. I’m sorry, I know you’re probably resting.”

“It’s okay, honey. Just had a little nap and now I’m ready to go. Even dreamed about you guys.”

“You did?” It was Ko again. “Was it a good dream?”

“Sure was. In fact, you were just about to give me a good luck charm in it when the phone rang.”

“Really? ‘Cause I did give you one. It’s in the pocket of your gear bag. Didn’t you find it yet?” Ko said, sounding a little disappointed.

“Oh, sorry Ko. Old Eddie, he took all that stuff and kept it with the other things I’ll need for tomorrow. I’ll look for it when I get to the arena. Under the brightest lights, little man!”

“Yeah! Well, what I gave you was just to keep you safe and bring you home.” Ko said.

“Jose? I’ll let you go and get ready now, baby. Be careful. And know we love you anyway you come home tomorrow, Champion or not. But you will be champion when you get home. I know you will,” Maria said.

“Thanks, sweetness. You and Ko just wait and I’ll bring you home the fanciest belt, and a check for about nine million to buy us an ever bigger house to come home to,” I said.

“Don’t want a bigger house. Just you. Buena suerte, mi amor,” Maria said. And then they were gone.

By the time Eddie, me and the boys got to the arena, all hell was breaking loose. I had all I could do to make sure my cup, as well as my sweet-ass trunks with Maria and Dakota embroidered in gold script, were each on in the right direction. But I was focussed, man. When they made the introductions, all I could see was that want Eddie talked about. I was on the bleeding edge of it and I was going to make sure I sliced this dude up and was the one whose hand was raised and walked out of that ring to go home the champion.

That guy across the ring, I didn’t even give him a name in training for him, he came at me like a bull, but I met him with enough jabs and counterpunches to keep him off me. We felt it each other out for three rounds and then I began to execute the plan I’d seen in my meditations. It was going as I planned. But my waking dreams never envisioned that sweaty slick spot on the canvas. My foot slipped just a bit, my guard dropped and that son of a bitch caught me a shot right between the eyes. I dropped to my knee and he caught me another one.

Now the whole world felt like a dream and I knew he’d hurt me, could feel my eyes swelling and blood dripping into them. What was it Tyson always said: “Everybody has a plan until you punch him in the mouth?” I got it in the eyes. But this wasn’t going to keep me from the sight I’d seen in my mind for twenty years. I’d seen my hand raised and that’s what was going to happen.

I came out the next round knowing I’d have to drop the guy fast before the ref stopped the fight because of my bleeding or I went blind from the swelling. The swelling, just like in my dream. I managed to step outside a couple of his jabs, each time popping him in the side of the head, a left hook and then a straight right, which I countered with a right uppercut to the button. And then it was his turn to go down on his ass.

But not for the count.

“Jose, man, you better get to this guy soon. I dunno if I can keep your cut together much more and, shit, your eyes are swelling fast,” my cut man Bobby Delaware said.

“You got him figured out, Jose. That punch he got you with was a fluke,” Eddie screamed above the crowd’s roar like it was a waterfall. “Now finish him. I don’t know how much longer you got, either. But I know it’s enough. Now put that sumbitch down!”

Bobby’s use of the chilled steel press on my brows had helped a little and even I knew this was probably my last shot at this guy before the ref called the TKO on me. SO went right at him. Threw everything I had at him while taking more shots to the body and head than I ever had in two and a half minutes. But with about thirty seconds left in the round, I caught him on the temple with a straight and hard a right as I’d ever thrown. And down he went like a sack of wet clothes.

And stayed down. They took him away in an ambulance. Me, they stitched up in the dressing room. Good doc in Vegas. I’d see the plastic surgeon on Monday.

I was the one who had his hand raised, who had his eyes closed, who heard the waterfall, who had done everything I’d seen in my dream, except for one thing. I reached into my gear bag and found something hard and in the corner of the pocket. When I pulled it out I saw it was one of Dakota’s Hot Wheel toys. The ambulance. I put it on the shelf and the last thing I remembered was seeing it there with the bloodstains from my hands from wiping my eyes. And then everything went black.

My dream had come true. Everything, like that last dream. Except for the abrupt wakeup. This was an abrupt sleep.

They took me home the next day in an ambulance, but I came home, safe for the most part.

This is my sixth and last story of this winter’s Six Weeks, Six Senses project from Sarah Salecky. This themed story is about the “sixth sense” some of us have. Maybe it’s instinct. Or maybe, like Jose, it’s the ability to meditate and dream of his future. And then make those dreams happen. The photo prompts were a young man (with some seriously knobby knuckles), a B&W scene of a club or arena full of people and bright lights shining from the ceiling and finally, a toy ambulance sitting on a white shelf with red smudges.

No, I never did do Week Four, but I’m working on it..from the neck up.

A Certain Light in the East

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

This was a Christmas unlike any Skyler Van ever experienced, so far removed from the small tree in the three-bedroom ranch back in Bethlehem, outside Albany. She had no memories with which to compare the way her boyfriend, Schuyler Hewson and his family made their season jolly.

But the Hewson’s celebration triggered one memory which sent Skyler to the back of their living room, with its red-flocked wallpaper, glittering eight-foot spruce and away from the huge hewn-stone fireplace with its mantle full of embroidered Christmas stockings. One of them read “Skyler.”

But she couldn’t stand there with the Hewsons next to the warming glow of their roaring Christmas fire. The pungent aroma of the burning kindling, dusted with a pinch of some sort of evergreen incense, the tang of which Schuyler said tasted of Christmas, tasted of something quite the opposite to her.

“You feeling okay, Sky?” her boyfriend asked, putting his arm around her shoulder.

“I think I might need some air, Schuyler. Maybe that Christmas punch of your grandmother’s was a little too potent for me after all.”

“Well, it’s been known to grow hair on your chest. But don’t tell my sister I just revealed her big secret,” he replied with a grin.

That grin was one of the things that drew Skyler to her now-boyfriend in the first place. That and his sense of humor and confidence.

They’d met a year before at the Starbucks on the Yale campus, each grabbing for the same cup when the barista called, “Sky-ler? Double-shot, skinny, eggnog latte, cinnamon, no nutmeg.”

Truth is, Schuyler never saw her there, since she barely came up to his armpit in height. And that’s where her arm came from–her left, his right. Each suffered from morning blindness and deafness until they had dipped into the mountain-grown elixir some Incan god gifted the Western Hemisphere.

She was an Asian girl in a knit cap and scarf. And she looked up at him and said, “I believe that’s my coffee”

“No, I’m sorry,” he said. “He called my name and the drink I ordered.

That’s when the other barista walked over and called, ““Sky-ler? Double-shot, skinny, eggnog latte, cinnamon, no nutmeg.”

They each looked at the cup in their hands, then the one on the counter, then back at one another and then laughed.

“Here,” Schuyler said. “This is a coincidence for the ages.”

“Yeah,” she said. “The fact the names are the same is one thing, but who the heck orders the exact same oddball espresso drink as I do.”

“I guess I do. By the way I’m…”

“Schuyler, I’d imagine,” she said.

“And so are you, I gather. I haven’t seen you around here before.”

“Well, since your eyes are way up there and your attention is even further up, I imagine I could be pretty hard to see little five-foot-nothing me down here,” Skyler said.

“You in a hurry? Anyone with our particular tastes in Starbucks drinks maybe should see what else they have in common,” the six-three Schuyler said.

“Not today, but I’ll be here tomorrow and I won’t have a class until 10:30. Maybe then.”

“Great. I’m looking forward to it, Skyler…?” The vacant name holder hung in the air by its interrogation mark.

“Van. I’m Skyler Van. And you’re…?” she said, hanging out her own opening.

“Hewson. Schuyler Hewson.”

And, starting the next day, their relationship built up to and including next Christmas Day. From eggnog lattes to strawberry smoothies, to Pumpkin Spice and back to eggnog. All with a little cinnamon.

Outside the Hewson house that evening, Schuyler followed his girlfriend. He found her leaning against a wall with her eyes closed and taking deep breaths.

“What’s the matter, Sky? You look so sad. I thought bringing you here to celebrate with us might make you happy, We do put on quite the ostentatious show, I grant you, but the spirit is universal,” Schuyler said.

“Oh, it’s been wonderful. Look, I’m even wearing Christmas lights, for Christ’s sake,” Skyler said, fingering the necklace of bulbs she wore.

“True, you make a very cute little tree. Much cuter than that behemoth in the living room.”

“Why thank you…I think,” Skyler said with a weak grin.

“Aw, man. You’re not feeling well, are you? I told Mom not to have the cook put so much pineapple, brown sugar, clove and ginger on the ham. Non-Hewsons might find that a little too much for their stomachs. Plus that damn punch. Ya see, that Manischewitz wine my grandfather slipped us when we were eight or ten was the gateway drug to this bacchanal…”

“No, Schuyler, I just felt….uncomfortable by the fire, that’s all.”

“Oh, yeah, the old man really builds that bad boy high, doesn’t he. I always wondered how the ell Santa was going to make it down the chimney with that thing going all night. Poor son a bitch would end up barbecued and…”

“Schuyler, stop,” Skyler cried, her voice cracking like the logs in the Hewson hearth.

“What? Did I say something wrong? I’m sorry, my family’s Christmas parties can be pretty overwhelm…”

“No, Schuyler. It’s not your family, nor the ham, nor the punch. It’s my family that’s putting this sickening taste in my mouth.”

“You mean the cultural difference? I thought Buddhists didn’t mind celebrating Christmas. Think Jesus was some kind of Bodhisattva or whatever,” Schuyler said.

“No, that’s not it, either. We even have a Christmas tree back home in Bethlehem. It’s another thing I don’t talk about, so…”

“C’mon, Sky. I thought we had a deal. If I did something to overstep my bounds with your Vietnamese culture or religion, you said you’d let me know so I could do better,” Schuyler said, pulling his girlfriend closer.

“I…I don’t know if I can this time, hon,” Skyler said. A tear clinging to the corner of her eye.

“Help me make it better, Sky. Really. Was it something I said?”

“Kinda.”

“Well, I’m sorry, whatever it was. But unless you tell me, I can make the same mistake twice. I never want to upset you like this again.”

“It really is the fire.”

“Like I said. The old man, he..”

“Not your father, Schuyler. My grandmother,” Skyler said with a sob.

“I don’t get it. Your grandmother died years ago back in Vietnam. Before your family came to the States, you told me.”

“It’s how she died. And what you said about the fire and Santa and the image was just too much. My family still can’t take the whole sensory panoply of a fireplace, a bonfire, even fireworks.”

“Oh, man. You mean she was killed by an explosion or in a fire during the Vietnam War?”

“No, Schuyler. She WAS the fire,” Skyler said, trembling in Schuyler’s arms.

“Was the fire? How does somebody… Oh! You don’t mean…”

“Yes, I’m afraid I do. After my grandfather was killed in the war, she became even more devoutly Buddhist, especially when my dad came here to go to Cal. So he wasn’t there to help her until just before she and a few nuns sat in the street with their gasoline cans and…and…”

“Holy shit. Sky, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

“Who could? Who really could understand how grief and faith and protest can intersect in such self-inflicted horror on a street corner in Hué?  Skyler said. She looked up into Schuyler’s eyes.

“No. I’m afraid I have no sense of that, I’m sorry. How can I help you, Sky?”

“Just hold me. It’s freakin’ cold out here. I don’t think I can go back in your living room for a while. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the photos of that day and it made me very sick. Seeing your fire just triggered it again, Your parents think I’m some kind of Asian punk weirdo, Don’t they?”

“No, of course not. And screw them if they did. What do you say we go back inside to the kitchen and have something to drink to help wash that taste out of your mouth? No punch. Maybe I can make an eggnog latte?” Schuyler said with a grin.

“Okay. But how about a strawberry smoothie? Christmas is over anyway. And can you come to Albany for New Year’s? I think this is going to be Năm của kẻ si tình,” Skyler said and hugged her boyfriend close.

“What’s that mean, said the willing-to-learn-Vietnamese half-Jewish boy,” Schuyler said as they headed toward the back door.

“Year of the Love Birds. I love you, Schuyler.”

“And ‘Anh yêu em,’ Sky. Told you I was willing.”

After a holiday-induced break and creative malaise, I’ve jumped back into responding to Sarah Salecky’s Six Weeks, Six Senses feature. This past week’s theme was the sense of Taste. One of the photo prompts was of a forlorn young Asian girl in a knit hat and a light-bulb necklace, another of a pink drink, and the final of something aflame in the middle of a street. Not sure I did Taste all that much justice and my use of the pink drink is weak, but the other two photos evoked this story of two kids from different cultures – on many levels – whose love seems like the real deal.

Back in Black

Wearing black again, that dolorous hue,
funereal, joyless, fitting my mood.
Perhaps you’ve noticed my silent adieu;
if you haven’t, maybe that’s why I brood.

I haven’t seen you in so long a stretch,
and you’ve not seen word from me for longer.
In shadows I’ve lived, like a forlorn wretch,
steeped in my own darkness ever stronger.

But back to the black, shadiest of shades,
the camouflage I chose, or it chose me.
This year’s brought so much pain, now it just fades,
and my future, like this past, just can’t be.

I’m done deflecting Joy with all my might,
and pray Hope’s in black’s absorption of light.

Poetic Necessities

Do you recall that one I wrote you back
when I was a good guy and not some fool.
Or do you think I’m just a clueless hack,
despite that piece you considered a jewel?

I wish I could still weave such lovely odes
but I seem to have lost that ability.
They’d flow from my heart and soul by the loads
and you loved my poetic facility.

But those days are gone, returning no more
like the friendship we shared like no other.
Necessities fall from where my heart tore,
each poem bloody Invention’s mother.

I’ll never admit you were ever my muse,
but for some things I wrote, you lit the fuse.

Greasing My God’s Odds

It’s been a while since I sat in a church
without a dead person lying near me.
I sometimes wonder if, from that low perch,
perhaps the guest of honor can hear me.

I’d like to think I’d get to hear you say
some things like “He was a wonderful guy.”
But I also then run the risk that day
hearing, “I couldn’t wait for him to die.”

I know, such thoughts in church are pretty crass,
and I should just pray for the poor deceased.
Someday I could be the one under grass,
and need my holy reward odds increased.

If more church is my heaven test, litmus,
pass the hymnal, pal. My God, it’s Christmas.