He stands the doorway while his parents go back and forth about the cost of living. Will they notice his fashion experiment? Pant legs pegged over pearly white tennis shoes? Collar of canary yellow flipped up for extra pizazz? He’s been at his hair with a wet comb all day long. Drying before he’s done with it, it falls forward into bullhorns, one says bullions, until he puts it back again with still more water. “Ahem,” he says. He clears his throat two times with a space in between each like negative space. “If you keep combing it,” his father speaks without looking, “it will fall out like a cancer patient.” “It will not,” says the mother. “That’s ridiculous.” “And put your collar down,” says the father. “You look like a fruitcake.”
When she asks him to take her somewhere nice, he reaches into his pockets to find half the money he thought he had and a piece of paper folded many times over and cut into the shape of a baby. Flap it open into a chain of babies festooned like a banner to include the negative space no one ever mentions, that space around and between the babies, when the cutout parts of each little guy, for there are nubby penises, gives fascinating glimpses of landscapes lovebirds pass through. Such a crude decoration for a shower!
Das Kapital. Karl’s father realized early on that his boy was a wicked genius. How he warned that his son would waste his talents if he did not foster relationships with the right, like-minded people in the highest and not the farthest reaches of society. Karl and Jenny might dodge a life of poverty.
On my way out of town one night I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker who has turned out to be a serial killer. I tell him in no uncertain terms that I am far more than a brand manager. I have my wife and kids to consider. I have a soul wherein winged things rise like heat through an aesthetic seeing God in the wind in the trees Hometown Joycean! If I drive my friends a little crazy with an exaggerated dark side am I not a true patriot? Is not my most successful brand for a new style of hot-dogging? Do I not read my passenger right as a man starved for attention? He tells me his name is clearly a pseudonym. I nod my head in agreement. He tells his victims what is going to happen to them. “Contrary to popular demand,” he says, “my mother was the confrontational one and Father with his flat affect indescribable.” It’s kind of funny. Why not forgive them? When he says, “My teachers were sleeping logs who couldn’t let sleeping logs lie,” not only does no one doubt him for a second but the idea has been rolling around in their heads for centuries. What they have a harder time swallowing is their own dumb knife. Small talk falters, taunting relentless. They becomes we when suddenly we pound the wheel and throw our heads back in laughter as if to say in our own inimitable way what could be so funny? We press cold steel against our Adam’s apples. We rip our eyes out before anyone applies any real pressure. We take ourselves apart limb by limb in the darkness and in the morning pull ourselves together again unaware all the day long of our own majesty. Who can say to whom such fantasies belong or from whence such emotions are far flung when one daydreams of meeting force with force and every third time coming out victorious?
A mother and father in silhouette reach after a boy in britches, also silhouetted, while a girl with a bow in her hair, a shadow of a daughter once present, walks seemingly unnoticed in the opposite direction. Incidental sounds include the mechanics of a man working rods and levers and, as if plywood ever has a say in anything, a miniature proscenium arch painted mustard yellow. How abruptly the man’s voice re-frames the silence as a feat of speechless ventriloquism. He hopes this makes sense. Does it? If we listen to the shadows while he animates them, he insists, we will hear their voices. We will see and hear his putting on of a sad autobiography in the movements of puppets. What is it though? What is it really? Call it an abandoned coming-of-age story. Call it confessional. Call it what we want. Would we mind if he started over again, now that we understand his vision a little better?
If he who flies through the air with the greatest of ease is going to kill himself, he will not be caught dead leaping off the bridge. He will spread peanut butter over a warm piece of cinnamon raisin bread and, taking a bite, chew many times slowly. He will block his windpipe with a wishbone. He will open his mouth slow to show no one his bolus. He will sip from a glass of milk without wiping away the milk mustache. He will swallow a handful of barbiturates. He will dab the corners of his mouth with a cloth napkin. He will weigh himself down with stones and, how everyone got ahead by pushing in line and making a complete ass of them-selves, he will wait for the tide to come in. Without weighty stones or foreskin of knowledge, he will place his head in a bag and tie it tight at the neck. He will turn to the book he’s reading. Once he’s done deconstructing this passage from Great Western Lit, a Herman Melville thing where a mix of races cram together on the same boat to signify the ups and downs of pluralism, he will find it in no small part homoerotic. No one has ever heard this before. It’s sham theory though. He read it in a dissertation a year ago and claimed it as his own. Yet another thing that doesn’t cause suicide, he filched it. He stole his whole shameful analysis from a true scholar. If he were going to take his own life, he would jump off the bridge. He would jump from the western side, looking out across the ocean as a form of oblivion. Or he would close his eyes and jump to the east, where the city sprawls and someone stands a chance of seeing him.
Instructions: Read and annotate the paragraph below. When you are finished, go back and 1) put one line under the subject of each sentence, 2) put two lines under the predicate of each sentence, and 3) bracket the objects.
In the middle of the Twentieth century two million blacks migrated from the south to northern and western cities to get away from Jim Crow. Many were met with racist white violence in their new safer places, call them homes. Chicago comes to mind from my memory of the play by Lorraine Hansberry that I read and saw performed on a no longer extant proscenium stage when I was fifteen. Supported by progressive black and white activists, some schools in those days did moral combat against racism by instituting Intercultural Education. It’s hard to say it wasn’t a good idea. Then we hear the NAACP criticizing songs taught in music classes that use the words “darky” and the most famous and most proprietary word of all, which is not a word for God but the n-word. Words feel most loaded that insinuate and engender a maximum number of oppressors. Then arose the question of what to do with history books in praise of the KKK keeping “foolish Negros” out of government. Then some people wanted to know, ‘Why must my child read about Little Black Sambo at school?’ Even Race Liberals of certain times and places [call it an epoch and approximate the size of it] argued that textbooks can’t influence prejudice even if a classroom is a seedbed for dissemination. Black activists must have been seen as hypersensitive in those days. Back in the day defenders of a status quo must have asked over and over again, ‘Where’s your proof of this?’
Once a toy makes it to the table, the head of the household perched at the head of the table proclaims squirt guns off limits at mealtime. Behold his cowl of soft gray hair. A pale flesh pot of blue irises and gun to bring him back to a day when, craving Band Aids and skeleton keys, he made midwinter flyovers in a rubber-band-propelled helicopter. Gun brings him home to days of craving when the air was gray and clouds muted the sun’s rays, and he monitored from on high the comings and goings at his sister’s dollhouse with the whirlybird he called Peacekeeper. The smell of the gun gives rise to summer when sunshine acts on plastic to warm the grassy water inside. A barefooted boy breaks from a grove of trees and running from lawn to lawn to meet the enfilade head-on reloads at a neighbor’s spigot. The reverie ends with a report from Cleveland in 2014.
There’s a guy here with a pistol.
You know it’s probably fake,
but he’s like pointing it at everybody.
An airsoft pistol is a facsimile weapon indistinguishable from the genuine article.
There’s a black male on the swings…
he keeps pulling a gun out of his pants
and pointing at people.
In a dinnertime prayer for Tamir, the head of the household says of his own safe son
May all boys be psalms
sung before guns get drawn.
The laddies learned what they learned about race relations from the books they read in school and lessons learned from their cunning instructors. It was also all over the media.
The woman in the other room is a grandmother. A grandson watches a grandmother from darkness through a lit door. A grandson knows nothing about a grandmother. A grandmother arrived unceremoniously to a grandson who she has never met before. The articles here confuse intimacy. Though no one is heartless, this isn’t a feel-good situation where everyone is at odds with everyone at first but eventually finds in the other a kindred spirit. This is a story of complete hardness between a mother and a daughter. A son who is a grandson must navigate the ancient rift between a daughter who is a mother and a mother who is a grandmother in a moment before leaving home to work for the Peace Corp in Botswana. A grandson must not dig up the past. A grandson fears not so much the person of a grandmother, who stands barely five feet tall and more often than not is lost in a daydream, as he does her temper. When she speaks to him he feels held at gunpoint. A mother has a similar effect on a son. A grandson feels obliged to love a grandmother he has never spent time with. One essential question is, ‘How can a grandson not know a grandmother?’ This is one of the essential questions a son won’t ask a mother. Another is how a mother comes to have so much power. A grandmother orders a grandson around like she has always lived there. She makes him rewash all the dishes when she finds a spot on one. She browbeats him into pounding out rugs with a broom or the pavement. He must do not only his own laundry but also launder such fabrics of the common areas as curtains, slips, and covers. A grandson and a grandmother both have deviated septa. If there is one way for them to commiserate with each other, a way more intimate than the rote cues they follow, it is a willingness to talk about nasal cycles. To talk about their noses brings smiles to their faces. A grandmother smiling is a major event for a grandson to witness. A son tells a mother in private. If a grandmother wishes she could just leave sometimes, why not just leave sometimes? If a grandmother adores color and figures, why not join an artists’ studio for the senior citizens? A mother asks a son to ride the bus with a grandmother to the rec center in the evening. A grandmother with an evening activity needs a chaperone to arrive safely. A grandmother makes a seascape one week and a herd of wild horses the next. She paints a herd of mustangs from a photograph in a book that belongs to her instructor. She paints halved apples and pots of flowers. A grandson looks at these pictures and thinks he wouldn’t mind having one. A grandson thinks they might be worth something to someone. Because she finds other artists at the artists’ studio for the elderly insufferable, a grandmother paints one last still life, a view from a hilltop looking down upon the valley town in northern Italy where she was born, and puts her brushes away forever. A grandmother claims she’s put her brushes away forever but it isn’t forever. No one is lying but acting out emotion. A grandson sitting in darkness watches a grandmother through a lit doorway. She stands before the painting she calls “Asiago” with a brush in one hand and a palette of colors in the other. She touches it up as it hangs there, framed on the kitchen wall. He doesn’t speak but jots down the changes she makes on the graph paper he used to use to diagram traffic flow on the streets of his neighborhood. He watches her painting over portions of her picture with things that could logically go there. Their routine will go on like this for days and weeks and months, until the day he leaves for Africa. He writes what’s missing and what’s new to the situation across the grid of his paper as if his words and phrases, like places and objects in the physical world, have fixed coordinates,
we’ll take the bus ride into the hills follow the bridge out of this city roll out on a morning like any other
my things are ready
hung on her wall otherwise bare slopes foot the room for so long hills not a thing like the ones first painted
set above our misplaced couch a bowl of cloth flowers a hat rack plates in glass
even the cloth flowers
she sets up a fresh canvas every now and again never makes a mark I used to ask
I don’t ask her that anymore
last year the far away rectangles the little patches of land I noticed more yellow a new cloud hung in the sky a small house appeared on the horizon I don’t know where these people come from
all blank except one
it’s getting darker
I still can’t explain the sun
running my hand over the brown hills I remembered them green and new shadows fell over ones there before before the sun which today shines gray