Frozen in Those Four-Alarm Feelings



She asked me what it was like 
to live up there where it 
got Winter early and Spring so late. 
I had to sit for a second to remember. 
Even though remembering’s 
almost all we old guys do.
Mostly what I recalled was the heat 
on my face and the chill on my back, 
like when I would chase the sirens 
and lights to those trailer fires, 
where someone’s whole life, 
and few lives themselves, 
would go up in a smoke so stinking 
it clings to my memory harder 
than it clung to my clothes back then.
But the fires weren’t the recollection 
I was thinking of when she asked me.
No, it was heat of your breath on my face 
and the icy chill of the known unknown 
coursing down my back and how they melted 
together and steamed within me ~ and us ~ 
that one night I’ll never forget. 

Better a Pocketful of Respect Than a Fistful of Lightning

Tuesday was a red glowing promise on the eastern horizon as I blinked the tobacco smoke and whiskey from my eyes as I stepped outside the gambling house. That’s when young Jesse Fountain ran up behind me.

“Do you want to see?” he said. He was pretty lucky I was so tired and my hand was a second slow behind my eyes and head.

“See what? Can’t we talk after I get a few hours sleep?” I said.

“This can’t wait. Do you want to see the piece I bought?” he said, leading me down the alley between The Grand and Mrs Pynchon’s house of horizontal delights.

“Piece of what?” I said.

“A gun, Daniel. I bought me a gun.” Jesse said. He reached down and pulled back the long canvas coat he received from the effects of his brother Matthew, an old acquaintance of mine who was a sometime deputy, other times cheating gambler. When Jesse’s hand came out of its folds, it held a nickel-plated pistol. He pointed its business end directly at my chest, where a triphammer suddenly started banging.

“Jesus Christ, Jesse. Be careful with that thing” I said, as I pushed the .38 caliber muzzle down and away from my chest. If you don’t know, let me tell you, any gun pointed at your vitals has a way of waking you up no matter how sleepy you might be.

“Sorry, Daniel. Isn’t she a beauty?”

“I have two questions. First: Why do you want a gun like that? Second: Who in the world would sell you a gun like that?”

“I want it for protection. And Dutch Van Dorn sold it to me. Actually, I traded my horse for it, now that I have Matt’s.”

“If Van Dorn’s involved, I’d be careful squeezing off any rounds lest the damn thing blow your hand off. But again, why? And put that away.”

“You know. I want it for…protection.”

“Jesse, having a gun don’t mean you can use it. For protection or anything else. That thing was made for one purpose.”

“Yeah, to show everyone I’m not a man to be trifled with.”

“No, a double-action Colt Lightning is made to kill other men.”

“See?”

“See what?”

“Ain’t nobody, not from around here or some yahoo up from Texas, gonna mess with a man like me who can pull his iron and get off six shots without once slowin’ down to cock the hammer,” Jesse said, once more pulling out his eight-year-old roan’s worth of backbone.

“I’m not gonna tell you again, Jesse. Put that thing away. If a lawman sees you waving that around at me in an alleyway, he’s likely to get the wrong idea and drop you like a sack of corn.”

“I’d like to see him try.”

What is it they used to say? “God created all men, but Samuel Colt made them equal.”? In my times lawing in some cowtowns in Kansas and Colorado, I met too many young fellas bought into that bullshit. Some, either touched in the head by going too long without liquor or women or getting too much of either too quickly. Or maybe just plain touched. They believed a gun made them more than equal. Jesse was one of those sad cases that qualified on all counts.

“Shot it yet?” I asked.

“Yep, yesterday afternoon behind the stable. Pretty good shot if I do say so.”

“That’s nice. Loud, wasn’t it? What you shoot at, cans or bottles?”

“Cans…and a chicken”

“I’ve yet to meet any cans — or chickens — that can draw a pistol and return fire with mortal intent. But congratulations, I’m sure you showed those horses who’s boss.”

“Stop it, Daniel. Told you, I won’t be disrespected no more.”

“Jesse, I want you to listen close. I’m telling you this for your own good. A gun — even a wonder weapon like your Lightning — won’t earn you any extra respect. In fact, I can attest to the fact it can get you less. Or killed.”

“I told you, I’m a dead-eyed shot, Daniel.” Jesse’s tone changed. I’d heard it maybe a hundred or two times before and I was ready.

“And I’m telling you that will not be enough to change how people regard you. I don’t want to see you turn out like Matthew, s’all. Listen, you’ve always been a good boy…”

“Don’t you call me that. I’m not a boy.”

“No, not really anymore. But you’ll always be a kid to me, Jesse.”

“What do you mean?” I knew I was taking a chance, but I needed to prove something to him.

“I mean I’ll always think of you as Matt’s little brother, tagging along and watching him swagger into a room, gun slung low, eye’s cold, looking for some mark he could hook while he bottom-dealt…”

“Take that back, Daniel, or I’ll…”

“You’ll what?” I had him.

Jesse reached for his Colt, but he had to pull his coat out of the way. As he looked down, I pulled my pistol and cold cocked him a good one with the barrel. I flagged down Deputy Charlie Bassett, who was making his rounds, and we hauled away young Jesse and, minus his Colt of course, stuffed him into the calaboose.

“Charlie, see if you can hold onto that Lightning, will ya? The kid is in no way one to own a piece like that. Same damn gun the likes of Hardin carries, for Christ’s sake. Maybe you can talk some sense into Jesse before…”

“I know. Maybe you taught him a lesson, though, Dan.”

I left Dodge that day and headed over to Trinidad, Colorado for a couple of weeks. When I got back, Charlie met me and told me the story over a couple of beers.

Seems after his two of nights in jail, Jesse and his gun left the safety of Charlie’s hospitality and right off he walked into the Long Branch and tried big-footing some Texas cowboy. They told Charlie Jesse reached first, but he fumbled his draw. The cowboy didn’t.

“Caught his hand in his coat pocket,” Charlie Bassett told me. “Lying there, four fingers of his right hand tucked inside his pocket and thumb hooked outside. With the exception of a .44 caliber hole in his head, I thought he looked rather respectable that way.”

I nodded.

“Good, good. It was only a matter of time, I guess. But that’s all the boy was ever looking for. Respect.”

Built this Western from a 250-word something I wrote for a mini-competition this past week. It’s still in Draft 1.5 form, but you know I love to share my frontier stories. So bear with me as I try remembering how.

The Forgotten Man

I am the forgotten man,
forgotten by you and you
and, if I’m not mistaken, by you.
(You know who you are.)
But that’s okay. I’ve forgotten
some of you, as well. It’s
something that happens when
we get older and too long hide
behind walls and in our depressions.
I’ve already lost the memory picture
of my grandparents. And recently,
I lost high school, like it’d been
razed and buried with all my memories
in it. I tossed my yearbooks
in the grave with it.
I like my memory of you, though.
I’m sure it’s mistaken and certainly
isn’t the you you are now.
Which is fine. We all change.
Like this morning, I looked
in the mirror and didn’t recognize
that guy staring into the windows
of my soul through this window
of sad truth. I turned off
the light and we each walked away,
as I heard someone say,
“Forget him.”

Class of ’70

I’ve lost so much from
when last we met,
chunks of life gone with a
loss of courage and of memory.
Just like last week, when I realized
I’ve lost high school
from the library where I
can pull bushels of useless facts,
yet not four years of proofing
in the fires of adolescence.
Perhaps that’s because
I never did the fire-walk
across the coals of teen desire,
not for fear of getting burnt,
but more for fear of not.

Oh, there are some scars I find
in the corners where my other
secrets lie beneath the dust,
so I know I got close a few times.
But I can’t remember when.
Maybe the scars were from acid
thrown my way by the guys
with asbestos shoes
and courage to burn.
Doesn’t matter now,
since some of them are naught
but someone else’s history
to forget.
Just like mine.

Masks

Our faces emerge
so smooth and guileless.
But we learn along the way,
as those older ones
teach us how to massage
the clay from which we emerged
into a new mask to wear.
Even the fumble-fingered
can become their own Leonardo,
Rodin or Michaelangelo,
turning themselves into
something they aren’t,
until eventually, they are.

Mask after mask,
thin slip fib or thick layer lie,
we attach to our baby face,
until one day it becomes
the one we wear last.
They grow heavy
after all this time.
They’ve drawn my face down
with the gravity of their artifice.
so much so that I wish
to crack them off my
inner infant’s innocent mien.

All it takes is confession
and a smile, perhaps.
This is not me, I swear.
I am more than words,
more than the lies I’ve shaped,
more than the masks I’ve worn
and you have come to accept.
Though I am not yet that smile.
Touch me, friend.
Let me grip your finger.
I won’t let go anymore.

BINGO

On August 5, 1971, if you asked one of us ’52 Leap Year baby boys what his lucky number was, he’d probably laugh a nervous laugh and tell you 366. Though any number from 200 to 366 would feel quite charmed. On that date, I already carried what you might call an unlucky number, 1-A, Draft Eligible. Like the others, I waited to see where my birthday landed in the Selective Service’s Draft Lotto, a government-sponsored game of chance most guys hoped to lose. When some suit in a suit pulled my Lucky Number — 46 — I was fairly sure I or my commanding officer would one day soon send letters to my parents from an APO somewhere in Asia. At my Draft Physical, where medical corpsmen poked and military doctors prodded lucky losers, one doctor discovered this, and another verified that, which changed the right-hand half of my unlucky numbers — 4 and 6 — into a luckier letter — A. This 4-A spared me the fate of most of my peers huddled close as brothers on that dark January day in downtown Albany. But in the years since, when I observed so many of those guys come home casualties of that life-changing gamble the U.S. forced us to play, I feel conflicted about my eventual Lucky Number. But for one day before or after our births, we all could be sitting here unharmed, pondering the cosmic vagaries and auguries set in motion by the casual spin of a giant bingo drum.

On Day 8, of my poem-a-day NaPoWriMo challenge, I was supposed to write a “lucky number” poem. I’m not sure this qualifies, but we’ll call it a prose poem.  It’s not what I wanted to write, but it’s the first thing that came to my mind. Blame my cock-eyed depression-stoked version of survivor’s guilt.

Heinous Envy

Is jealousy the pain of losing
something to another,
that rips at the heart,
tosses you about your bed
until exhaustion takes hold
and smothers you with its pillow?
Is envy the green-eyed mistress
that poets speak of who tempts
and taunts you as she walks around
with another? For those of us
who split the hairs of language,
perhaps I can best explain it this way:
When I was a youth, I jealously
cared for my black hair,
all shiny and thick, lest
any of them made a break for it
and stepped out of the line
I parted like Moses did the Red Sea.
Today, I am envious of those fellows
with all of those youthful sprouts
of keratin in their original hue.
Not that all of my white ones have made
their new kind of break for it,
choosing to follow gravity to pillow,
shoulder, floor, and shower drain.
In sum: I envy those men who
squire youth around the place,
running her hands through their locks,
playing their abs like a xylophone.
I am not envious of their language though.
And I doubt, as this poem reaches EXACTLY
200 words, they are covetous of mine.

On Day 7 of my poem-a-day NaPoWriMo quest, a poem prompted by the word “jealous.”

The Tenderfoot

The Tenderfoot, Charles Marion Russell 1900

Say there, cowboy, heard you first herded sheep,
but soon enough moved on to real live beeves.
So how’d a kid with callouses that deep
learn to paint as well as a Hopi weaves?

Taught yourself since you were a sprout, you say?
I b’lieve you done good in learning that art.
Now you paint people and things gone away,
real cowboys and Indians, but with heart.

I like how you showed them Piegan fellows
on ponies galloping hellbent for meat.
Them bufflers, I can almost hear their bellows,
like when there were more of them than Blackfeet.

So you’re happy now that you’re in Great Falls
‘stead of wrapped in a blanket under stars?
Or d’you miss them days when the heifer bawls
as we drove ‘em to Helena’s rail cars?

I’d say you done well for yourself, Charlie,
got this fine house and a pretty young wife.
Beats pushing a plow though a field of barley,
but I still think you might miss our old life.

‘Preciate you painting my picture there,
though I’m on the wrong side of that tussle.
Bucked like a tenderfoot on that li’l mare
I believe was your show, Charlie Russell.

For Day 4 of the NaPoWriMo Poem-a-Day Challenge, the prompt called for a “painter” poem, where I am to take a painter and make him or her the title and subject of my poem. If you know me, you know my, ohhhhh, let’s say obsession with the American West. From when it butted up against my backyard in New York to what we now call the Old West. One of my favorite artists of that time is the great Charles M. Russell, who gave new meaning to the term “cowboy artist,” since he was both. This poem’s a conversation, one-sided at best, between an old cowboy chum of Charlie’s visiting him with reminiscences and maybe a slight bone to pick. 

If I Recall, That’s the Spirit

 

I hope someday you reach that point in your life, as I have, when you recognize Christmas doesn’t march up to you like a balloon-festooned Fifth Avenue parade anymore, one whose colors, sounds and corporate sponsorships you can see from blocks away. Nor does it sneak up on you on little mouse feet in the snow. Christmas has become like old age to me now. One day I’m humming along to the rustle of life’s green leaves, all the while ignoring the gifts of my black hair, firm chin and memory like a 100-terabyte computer. The next blink, I’m shaving silver filings off the lower chin of some barely recognizable guy in the mirror. And suddenly I hear (and need to turn up the volume on) a song I think might be called “Silver Bells.” And that’s OK, because the tree downstairs today is always green, and somewhere inside me a little kid is coiled in bed — quiet as the whispers of angels’ wings — for that sunrise when I can charge into the living room in an explosion of torn paper and cardboard before we three brothers trek to church and back. These days, Christmas just IS. And, should you reach my tinsel-topped, Santa-in-training-bodied and memory-leaking station in life, you might recognize it doesn’t need to come at you but once a year. You can charge into it every sunrise, tearing open the gift of that new day and giving it to all you meet. If I recall, that’s the spirit!

A mid-December rambling. Now back to our regular programming.

I Know She’s Out There…Somewhere

Sometimes I wonder if
I ever actually felt her warmth,
sensed her, breathed her in.
I look back and question
any place in my life where
I stood in her presence,
held her, or she held me.
I wonder if she was
nothing more than a dream I had,
when I still had dreams,
an ideal that kept me on
a path to be the nice polite boy
and good strong man, since
that was the way they said
one took to win her favor.
But I never did experience
her love and,
like most sore losers,
I have doubts now she
even exists. Perhaps, in this,
my last dream, if I stopped
searching so hard, one day
Peace will find me.