Forgetting

“They tell me I shot myself in the chin, shot somebody else, too, but I don’t think that’s right.  What happened was I fell off a fruit wagon.”

That’s Dr. Wagner.  He’s a pharmacist, had his own small town pharmacy out in the Valley for years, seemed fine they say, until this happened.  I’m his occupational therapist.  It’s my job to determine how well he can perform his activities of daily living, things like brushing his teeth, making out a checkbook, but right now I’m conducting a cognitive screening called the O-Log.  Checking for orientation to place, time, person, and situation.  He’s not doing too well.  Problem is he’s lobotomized himself with an old German Luger and can’t recall that two weeks ago he shot his wife and their twelve-year old daughter, then turned the gun on himself.  So he does what they call confabulation, makes up something that seems probable in the moment, and even believes it.  Would be funny except.

Race home from work and get dressed for my brother’s birthday celebration at our sister’s house.  Leave in a huff halfway through after getting into an argument over the Confederate statues, which he has decided he worships now.  Where did that come from?  Out in the driveway, our sister wags her finger along the lines of,  “You don’t remember much of when we were kids do you?  You messed with him relentlessly and now you think he’s going to listen to your shit?”

“What are you talking about?” I ask.

“You know,” she replies with that drum roll of the eyes sisters are so good at.

Next morning at the hospital I monitor the old pharmacist dressing and grooming.  He manages fine, functioning on remote control, stuff he’s done without thinking his whole life.  There’ll be an ugly court fight about this.  The cops stationed outside his door may lead him to jail or to a mental hospital or maybe even just to a nursing home and none of it will matter a whit to him.  He’s got a confabulous new story for every situation and it’s all just a walk in the park no matter what, which I guess is the beauty of blowing out your frontal lobes.  If you don’t remember it, did it ever even happen?  And if it never happened, what can you make up that might have, that at least for the moment anyway explains it all?

Space Aliens Come Upon the Dictionary Page that Starts with Colonel Blimpism and Ends with Colorway

Discovering that

a phenomenon

of light or perception

is how we distinguish

otherwise identical

things, and that this

flourish named

color is often used

among humans

in that way.

 

Though some are

color-blind, it seems

and others call others

colored, and those

without color – because

the definition of color

excludes the phenomenon

of light we call white

these whites block

those with color

(But why? And how?)

from participating

in various activities.

 

Color bar/color line.

 

Why would the

colorless — ie,

pallid, blanched,

dull, uninteresting

do such a thing?

What activities, exactly?

Colonic irrigation?

 

And how do they

distinguish anyway?

Is that what this thing

a colorimeter is for?

Are there colorists

who decide?  Do they

fear those with something

called color temperature?

Blackbodies that can emit

radiant energy to

evoke color?

 

That’s it!  (They say.)

We’ve got it.  The key’s

right here on this page.

Now we know what moves

them.  And the word we’ll

use when we go down

to colonize.

This Poetry Thang

Last Summer, I was grateful to learn that a pair of my poems had placed in a competition held by the Virginia Poetry Society.  A few weeks later my award, a check for $50, arrived in the mail.  This stunned me.  Over the past 40 years or so, I’ve written at least a thousand things that I call poems, attempting to articulate nuggets of insight or awareness with an accessible line that yet rewards rereading.  It’s a fine line to walk, especially nowadays, when the poetry in journals seems divided between the warring camps of confessional blatherers and hermetically sealed puzzle makers.  Of course, the very  idea of spending time writing poetry is absurd, unless you may be one of the English professors who rely on occasional publication to keep your job.  So for me a passionate hobby, I guess you’d call it.  Sometimes I’d send out a batch (this has become easier over the years, thanks to online submissions), and occasionally one would get published.  But getting a check came as such a surprise!  Who knew that a lifetime of scribbling poems could be so lucrative!

But that’s a snide thing to say.  Millions of people write poems, fretting and sweating over the right word placed just so inside a matrix that doesn’t quite mesh, but let me try this.  When they could be binging Netflix!  Some of this work sees the light of day, so to speak, in journals nobody reads, but most of it collects on laptops or in little notebooks, destined for the dust bin.  A check for $50 would surprise these poets, my kin, as much as it did me.  It’s an odd cult, isn’t it?  At St. Phillips Church here in Richmond, sometimes hundreds turn out for readings by laureates.  In the past year, sitting on a pew at some of these events, I’ve been moved as much by the communal leaning in with ears perked as by the regally intoned prosody.

Then this.  One of my poems “Immigrant Reflection” piqued the attention of the judge in this year’s James River Writers/Richmond Magazine Shann Palmer Poetry Contest.  She’s a well-known, well-published poet, a person who can make a living doing this, a VCU graduate by the name of Tarfia Faizullah.  And what she wrote about my poem when it was (amazingly!) published this month in Richmond magazine touched me profoundly, as if I had been grokked:

I love the lucidity of voice in “Immigrant Reflection.” This poem showed me worlds that I’ve never visited but found warmly drawn and happily familiar.  It reminds me that life is both grand and quotidian at once:  “We never learned much,” the speaker recalls nonchalantly, before stating a number of life’s largest and most crucial lessons:  “How to catch a fish./How to dip in dance.”  The conclusion astounded me in its wisdom, and awareness of every immigrant’s strange inheritance: to be always both there and here.  This poem made me think “Yes, it is like that, isn’t it?”  And that is a very good thing.  The ending slayed me with its casual tenderness.  The narrower lines made for a very satisfying tempo.  I beamed!  Thank you for taking the time to reflect.

No, thank you, Ms. Faizullah.  I share your comment shamelessly, because it seems like such a miracle, and I can’t expect that it will happen again.  On behalf of all of us scribblers who yearn all but hopelessly for such a generous and attentive reading someday, thank you.  We should all be so lucky.

By the way, just learned that the winning poems from the contest are available to read online here:  https://richmondmagazine.com/news/features/2018-shann-palmer-poetry-contest/.  Enjoy!

On Reading a Worn Copy of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums at 62

Finished Dharma Bums, its final rapturous rush as Kerouac’s protagonist (clearly and baldly autobiographical) packed a Summer on a Cascades Mountains (Desolation Peak) fire lookout into half a dozen pages; the final page as innocently exalted as I have felt in my epiphanies, so many of them nature-driven, and heartbreaking since we know how his short life will devolve into alcoholism (his drinking a recurrent theme in the book, the Gary Snyder character deriding him for always needing a drink) and a sequestered death at his mother’s house in Florida. Coming off the mountain, believing he’s learned an ultimate truth through a Buddhist filter, all is right; he fears and yearns for the tumult of the cities, suggests that the lessons of his mountaintop solitary Summer will carry him through. I have felt exactly that, and wondered if I was the only one who had walked that path. Kerouac says, no, this is not an uncommon thing, it’s open to anyone; just let yourself turn towards that edge of madness depth perception, check your everyday cynicism at the door, and grin.

Can’t believe I’ve never read this book before. It sums up so beautifully a path I’ve trod (and you have to think this book influenced the music and literature and the whole cultural gestalt that led me along all these years – it certainly had to up the ante for the coming youth movement, almost seems a blueprint for hippiedom and its many offshoots, in ways that On the Road was not) (that classic almost a cautionary tale about the dread of aimlessness, whereas Dharma Bums, with its hilariously ham-handed and dilettantish Buddhistic flourishes, points the callow reader towards inward-seeking life goals Thoreau or Muir would have appreciated).

The woodsy parties sound like Electric Kool Aid Acid Test fests, minus the LSD (not yet invented), no doubt emulated by all the hippie communes to come. I’ve been to parties like that – I’m thinking especially of weekends at Nora’s rundown Mississippi plantation. Young people at play with flowers in our hair, skinny dipping in the creek, at the cusp of some sort of revelation, and holding it there like a glow of pot smoke swelling our lungs. Those weekends, probably every day of my wild oats years in New Orleans, too, just another On the RoadDharma Bums derivative. And not just then and not just me, of course. Think of their influence on the searching, fulfillment-yearning, meandering way we have all lived in the sixty-plus years since their publication! Even if you never read them, they signified.  What culture shaking power Kerouac’s two great novels unleashed!

A Thing They Call a House

I came back to this box

where we I almost said live.

That’s what they are, of course,

with holes in the side, through which

we seem to sieve.

 

Has the foundation gone off plumb?

Something shuffles in the attic,

shadows dart at the edge of my eye,

things make me itch. Stale breath

from the vents, flits of static. . .

 

And now it’s too big or

probably maybe I’ve shrunk.

Imagine the moment you notice

the echo your own feet make

on the stairs, that hollow thunk.

 

When do you start to pare it down,

put all but one placemat away?

When do you leave the shutters drawn

and forget the mail and fry an egg for dinner

and wear your slippers all day?

 

Or maybe you think it’s time

to leave this box behind and see if you

can find one more compact,

carpeted, cozy, without all the ghosting

features that make you fear for your mind.

 

I’m sure you never dreamed that I would

run into this wall; but then you never

had to watch you go then turn and

lift the lock to this maze of

mocking rooms and narrow halls.

 

This box so empty it rattles, and blinks

and leaks and moans. Weird as a museum

when all the crowds have gone,

a thing they call a house

we used to call a home.

3:30 am

Ginny’s gone, but here’s a pome from before all that, in commiseration with all my Facebook friends who post in the middle of the night.

3:30 am

the witching hour

right?

 

Get up to pee

take my thyroid pill

 

tuck myself back in

with three pillows

 

Chris and our dog Ginny

snuffling and puffing

 

in their dreams. All is right

in this best of all possible worlds.

 

Maybe you know what comes next:

You’re out there like me

 

in your warm bed but the swarm

arises in your head and

 

all the tricks you try only

stir the frenzied buzz.

 

Who batted the hive

between your ears?

 

Regrets are the worst:

How could I have done that?

 

What was I thinking?

OMG, what an ass.

 

So then at 4:30 am

maybe you get up again

 

go to the window

where a full moon throws

 

tree-wide stripes

across the lawn and an owl

 

swoops past like some

cowled and fretful wraith.

 

Go downstairs

pick up a book

 

a diversion in hopes

the hornets will gentle

 

which they sort of do. But now

it’s dawn. Chris is up

 

and in the shower, coffee’s on,

Ginny stretches and yawns

 

and finds you lifting a heavy head

to the new day with gratitude

 

for sunlight, for imposition,

for all the honeyed routines that keep

 

things humming. The hours

unwind with things to do with

 

effort this time to do better

maybe learn from past mistakes

 

then fall to your pillows

and let it all flee

 

until at 3:30 am

you get up to pee.

Tiptoeing with Scissors: Verbatim Chat with My Barber

Did you hear that thing the President’s daughter said, about how he does this whole ice cream cone twirl or something to pull hair up on his head so it doesn’t look so bald?

I did. It’s all the talk in here. We call it the comb over of the gods.

How about the spray tan and the eye goggles? What’s he trying to prove?

Well I don’t know.  One thing with this President. He’s the only one came in and he’s doing what he said he would do. They don’t know how to control him. 

He is mixing it up. I just wish. People are so angry now. I just wish everybody could stop fighting over every little thing. Seems like the first word out of people’s mouths these days, it’s a fight.

Not like the one before. He tried to change everything, but they’re fixing that now. They say racist. Black people are more racist than white people.

How is that? I don’t hear about black people going into white churches killing people. Black cops shooting white people in the back.

Oh it happens. They just don’t put it on the news. And look at this. You’ll never see a black person let a white stylist do their hair. I can do black hair. I wasn’t taught to do process, but I can do weaves, but nope, not a one.

But have you ever seen a white woman go to a black hair salon?

They can’t do white hair! That’s why.

Funny, it seems like it’s churches and barber shops that are the most segregated things these days. 

Oh you don’t touch a black woman’s hair!

Did you see that Chris Rock movie about that? Before I saw that movie, I never knew what a weave was! Now I see them everywhere.

Oh yeah, and some of ‘em wear wigs! You don’t touch a black woman’s hair!

It’s like these old white ladies you do perms for, isn’t it?

It is. Sit up in bed to sleep, so you’re hair won’t go flat.

What’s going to happen to the hair salon business when the old women die and perms and blue rinses go out of style?

Oh, I’ll be retired on a beach by then. Most of my big jobs these days are streaks and hair colors. The younger ones don’t want to see a gray hair.

I just don’t see why they have to call themselves African American. You’re either American or your African, make up your mind. Or go back to Africa. But the African countries won’t have ‘em. If you’d even want to go back to such a place.

Donny, seriously? Do you remember, growing up, it was colored? And then black?

And before that it was Negro.

I went to a show at the science museum a few years ago that taught me a lot. Learned that this whole idea of categorizing people by the color of their skin was invented right here in Virginia back in the 1600s. When slavery started here. Before that, in Europe, skin color was not a racial category. They had prejudice. Mostly around religions. But they didn’t recognize race like we do now.

If you say so. I just wish we could all get along. Mind our own business. All lives matter is what I think.

We’ve got a long way to go to get there.

We do. You want your eyebrows done?

 

 

 

 

The Bird Man of Central Park

Seventh in a series of vignettes based on my work as an occupational therapist with military veterans in New York.

There was a bird at the window, tapping. The heat pipe radiator squeezed between the bed and the wall had hissed itself awake, as it always did at dawn, steaming the window, which then frosted in overlapping snowflake patterns that would finally melt only when that one glimpse of pale sunlight peaked over the brownstone opposite around noon. The bird was tapping its hard black beak on the frosted window, as if it thought the glass was a sheet of ice covering a puddle somehow stood up vertical. No more unusual, certainly, than other adjustments one must make to survive in the city, an aviary that features electrified perches, daylight at night, noxious fog, hurtling metal boxes on wheels….

Terrence DeKalb lay inside the window on a creaky single frame bed, his enormous bulk napkined by a wool blanket that left his feet sticking out, a situation only partially assuaged by heavy wool hiking socks. He waved a beefy hand at the window and whispered, “shoo,” as if to a lover. But the bird paid him no mind. So he reclined there inches from its insistent pecking, observing the performance cock-eyed. This was a method he’d learned from birds without realizing he had done so.   The frosted pane blurred the bird’s shape, made it just an insistent shadow. He guessed a sparrow, maybe of the white-throated variety. The bird paused, as if listening. DeKalb waited, too. He could never tell if in moments like this there was some kind of communion, sharing for an instant the nature of a feathered thing, the exhilarating emptiness of avian consciousness that must be like some exquisite awakened exaltation. Thought like flight and vice versa.

It was a moment of not even breathing. He imagined himself the mountain over which the blackbird flew in that poem taped to his refrigerator, 20 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. But he could not hold his breath or hold the thought forever. It was so hard to focus. And with that the bird threw open its fisted self and was gone, leaving only the milky window, the gray walls, the hissing radiator, the overburdened cot, and a man exhausted – even after ten hours abed – beyond fatigue.

DeKalb was tired for a biological reason that sleep could not cure. His muscles, even during the night, chewed away at themselves. The chemicals that made up his body had gone rogue, lactic acid eroding the motor cells even of his toes and eyelids.   Any effort at coordinated movement involved a mighty heave of courage. To climb out of bed required a siege mentality. Every morning, he fought this lonely war. But the bird, he imagined, had come as a courier meant to call him forth to the day, and for this herald he would gather his dwindling resources and again attempt to do what was needed.

He followed a routine laid out serendipitously over the years but rigidly adhered to now, each step measured for economy of motion, for energy conservation. Donning his clothes incorporated an evaluation of gas in the tank, a calculation of what might be available today in the way of gross motor skill. If it had only been about him, he would never have bothered. It would have been so easy to just lie there listening to the radiator until the hissing faded away. But wild things with the brilliant energies of flight and song depended upon his appearance on each wintry morning. So for that he gathered whatever momentum he could marshal and sallied forth to the park.

The tedious process of dressing, then daring the negotiation of two rickety flights of narrow stairs, the heavy metal door to the street, and the icy stoop left him dizzy and gasping. But he forced himself to go on until at last his feet found their rhythm, shuffling along with an unthinking regularity. Bundled in his stained and pockmarked down jacket, in his khaki slacks over long johns, the old fedora with ear flaps, water-proofed boots and wool gloves with their fingers cut out for dexterity’s sake, DeKalb made his way to the park entrance where he paused to suck at the searingly cold air and delight at the twin vapor trails streaming from his nose. His old lungs still pumping, pushing oxygen out to the remnant cells that still cared, those that had not yet rebelled against their host.

In his backpack, he hauled a pound of lard, Manteca, suet, whatever you want to call it, wrapped in butcher paper. The front pocket held his medicine bottles filled now with sunflower seeds, kernels of corn, peanut butter and nuts. And in the crook of one arm, he carried a new feeder for a dark corner of the Ramble, meant to replace one torn down by greedy squirrels. DeKalb had spent months perfecting a pest-proof feeder and felt that his latest invention was the simplest, most economical and elegant contraption he had yet devised. But squirrels acting in gangs might still launch themselves from ice-stiffened branches and drag the thing to the ground with relentless, determined leaps, unless he found the perfect place to hang it.

Placement was everything, yet there simply wasn’t enough clear space amidst the boulders, pin oaks, and barberry bushes to deny his enemies a launching ramp. Yes, the squirrels were his enemies, but only because at an early stage DeKalb had chosen sides, recognizing the necessity of narrowing one’s ambitions within the realm of the possible. He had met a young man who patrolled the city with a net, capturing feral cats and seeking homes for them in the suburbs. School children and old maids brought peanuts to benches all over the park to feed the ravening squirrels. But managing the needs of the city’s aerial occupants was not so straightforward a proposition. Each breed of bird had its own proclivities and tastes, its own favorite food. He understood the over-wintering types – the chickadees, the sparrows, the cardinals and jays – and made sure to bring the easy to crack sunflower seeds and grain for them. But his choice entailed attention to the specialized diets of migrating flocks, too – protein-rich grubs for the mergansers and snow geese, sugar water for hummingbirds – though in the dark months of deep winter those flocks were long gone, and it was just the birds he called the residents he served.

It was not enough to bring food, of course. He had learned where to place it, how to shelter perches from careening hawks, how to make this unnatural provision seem to have grown from the earth. So he smeared the crunchy peanut butter the downy woodpeckers loved as high as he could reach in the seams of a hickory, he scattered seeds on the wind, he had even concocted this sling-shot apparatus he would take on its trial run today, hoping to wing a knob of suet far out over the high limb of a tulip tree where it would catch and hang like a spent yo yo only creatures with feathers could reach. It would take a mighty heave; he knew it would tax his last reserve. But then if he could just get to the subway and make it down to 23rd Street for his weekly infusion, then he’d recover. He would lounge idly in the warmth of the infusion room, amidst the other systemically-wounded veterans snuffling and snoring in reclining chairs, as the fiery chemicals pulsed into his veins. For another couple of days he wouldn’t have to face that impending horror, the ending he expected (having seen it happen to others), when he would lapse at last, a mummy slowly stiffening on an icy park bench. And while he was away for his hospital sleep over, his feathery charges would have the sustenance they needed to tide them over from any brewing blizzard.

The epidemiologist called it genetic, this slow muscle-wasting death march of his. Mitochondrial disease. But that was the usual BS, delivered with an administrative wink, since the VA had chosen to treat this incurable and purportedly hereditary illness as 100% service connected. Because a hundred flights dumping plumes of Agent Orange on a tropical jungle, wearing just a bandanna to cover your face when you leaned out the chopper door to tip an emptying barrel…. Even the VA didn’t fuck with that any more. They tagged it a presumptive service connection, edging towards a sideways admission. But that was just the usual bureaucracy. Nothing they were ever going to do would extinguish the sapping fire in his organs, the wailing fatigue in his muscles, the spinning colors or the splitting headaches. And nothing he was ever going to do would pay for the voluptuous rainforest he’d burned to wilted desert with those billowing orange clouds that had stifled the breath from every living thing they touched. Now even with eyes closed he saw them, all the time, flocks of birds tumbling out of the air.

Maybe you ran across him that day down the hill from Belvedere Castle? Say you had finished your jog around the reservoir and chose to add a little fartlek variety to the morning, whipping up and down the narrow lanes of the Ramble? But then you slipped on a shard of ice and thought better of your plan, slowing to a walk with your gloved hands further sheathed in the pockets of your running jacket, as you pretended for one moment that this rectangle of woods compressed between walls of brick was a wild place, laughed at your silly pretension and turned to sorting your plans for the busy day ahead. And there he stood.

Later you recounted how this bear of a man, wrapped in ballooning down clothing so he looked like some giant Eskimo statue or something paused beneath a mighty tulip tree and began with what seemed like great ceremony and titanic effort to turn on his axis, grimly accelerating as a rope with what looked like a bowling ball or something at its end swung out in the air and then with a sudden upturning release the slingshot or whatever it was soared straight up on the energy of the spin, trailing some kind of peg or hook, shot over a high branch above the path, caught in a fork and then hung swinging like a gob of phlegm far up and suspended way out in the air.

And then the man sat flat down in the crusty snow hunched like a melting snowman but breathing hard and vapor rising like smoke from his head so you wondered if you should ask and did that familiar hesitant half step forward with a hand out but then stopped dead in gathering wonder as first one then another bird flitted down and landed right on him. A ragged pigeon, then another, on one arm. A mourning dove, a flock of little brown jobbies, on his knees and shoulders. A seagull that seemed as big as an eagle alighted right on top of his hat and let loose with its caustic laugh. I mean in like one minute this guy was positively festooned with birds! They reached in his pockets and seeds sprayed all around. More birds flitted in from everywhere it seemed. And you’re gonna think I’m nuts, but when he came to a stand again, it was almost as if they lifted him up. They were all flapping their wings and grabbing him with their little claws and their beaks.

Back on his feet he stretched out his arms like a hulking fat scare crow, except it was just to give them a better perch. They ate from his outstretched hands. The seagull hopped off his head and stood squawking for a moment at his feet. It flew around him in a circle, then sailed away. I followed his eyes up to that thing he’d thrown in the tree, and already a couple woodpeckers were perched there, hammering away at whatever was in it. I wanted to say something, to speak to him, but he seemed all wrapped up in his work, and I didn’t want to chase the birds away. He was still standing there, and birds were still coming, when I left. I know you won’t believe me, it was just amazing.

No, stop, I totally get it. I’ve seen him, too. A lot of people have. Congratulations, grasshopper, and welcome to New York. No one knows who he is or where he came from or why he does it, but you can consider yourself baptized.  You have now witnessed one of the city’s great unsung wonders, a street angel.  We call him the Bird Man of Central Park.

 

Walking the Dog

A week ago our beloved 7-year old golden retriever Ginny seemed in perfect health.  Today our vet confirmed that the lumps we found at her throat midweek are from canine lymphoma.  She may not live out the Summer.  Our shock and heartbreak may seem silly to you, unless your life has been enriched and in some ways saved by a dog, as ours have.  A couple weeks ago, before all this went down, I wrote a poem for Ginny that seems sadly prescient now, though the “best of all possible futures” cited there will not happen for her.  I’m sharing it here for what it’s worth.  It’s called “Walking the Dog”.

Ginny

our gentle golden

and I walk off-leash

in the band of woods

along a knoll

by the grade school

our boys attended:

thus Crestwood.

 

We drove over.

She sat upright

on a towel on

Stephen’s seat

in the mini-van,

nose divining rod

dipping out

the window.

 

Eager, probably

wishing I’d drive faster,

if gentle goldens even

think like that — just

to race for squirrels

beneath that copse

of oaks then chase

a tennis ball and

bring it sopping

back to me!

 

Ginny squats just inside

the tree line, beside not on

the trail, then bounds ahead

tail high and wagging:

Who knows what our walk

may bring? A squirrel, a deer,

once tortoises mating, his

chest plate flat and scraping

her helmeted back,

reptilian hands squirming

for purchase and she

seeming to smile patiently

allowing the one thrusting

intrusion her armor

would ever allow.  We

animals — how alien

to each other yet how

in our yearning alike!

 

Or that other time

Ginny came bolting back

tail between her legs

because behind her loped

at twenty paces

in no special hurry

a coyote bony

as the wily cartoon

in chilling pursuit

her cousin – what all dogs

would be, I guess,

without us.

 

Most days it’s just

a trudge I hardly register.

She romps ahead then

waits on her haunches

my guide and example

wondering why he can’t seem

to forget himself for one minute.

I mean, how much better to

nose about, to sniff the riches,

all the variants from yesterday’s

adventure, oh here, see this

dead branch has fallen!

 

Begrudge an hour after work.

Let the girl off leash to run,

let me off keyboard to stroll,

and stretch our legs.

Big deal.

 

Exactly. Because

in the best of all possible

futures – we have just

4 or 5 short human years

before this will be too much

for her. Her fluffy coat

thinned, her muzzle grizzled

and yes how I will cry

that day we lay

her ashes here.

 

Because then you know

all these mundane walks

that mean nothing

but catching the air

will rise past goals and

objectives and balanced

books to strike me

hard across the face.

 

While all I fret over, my

schemes and worry my

grudges and drudgery

add up to less

than that cobweb

brushing my cheek back

when Ginny’s tongue lolled

so giddily on her frolic

ahead on a woodsy

lane and oh too late

I hear it now the world

at my knee said, woof.

 

Mister

Sixth in a series of stories from my career as an occupational therapist working with military veterans.

When Carl came up out of it he knew something was seriously wrong. His dog – a rangy stray he’d befriended – had licked his face to wake him and now trembled at his side, whimpering in hunger. Nothing new there, but his arm seemed nailed to the floor and on inspection had swollen like a fat lady’s leg, his fingers black exclamation points sprouted from a purple balloon. Reluctantly he lifted his head, then sat up horrified, having to drag that appalling deformed appendage onto his lap. The dog retreated and cowered in a corner. It took Carl a while to calm himself down enough to stop screaming.

Weirdly, no pain. The arm lay dead as a log, rotting from the elbow. Bloated bodies afloat in yellow water, bursting the seams on their pajamas. They popped and deflated at a burst. Come home to roost now. Red light everywhere, then blue, then darkness again, the dog restless, half-mad hunger in its frightened eyes. Seeking to calm him, Carl explained that time is a lie, measured not by clocks but by suffering. For users and dogs alike, the pendulum swings between hunger and satiation, tick-tock, but in the elastic yet ungiving web that made up the night to come, that clock went still. The only measure Carl’s slow rocking on the floor, the arm in his lap an abomination, like some monster’s aborted fetus. The poison seeped closer, would choke him off. He apologized to the dog for having to leave him like this.

Probably at some point it would begin to hurt, might hurt like hell, but that wouldn’t last. Even a flayed homunculus squirming in the hot piss of soldiers eventually stills, invites the flies. So this was the fate he’d courted. He imagined that the room’s one grimy window was a gaping, hot and greedy maw. The traffic below emitted a persistent rumbling growl born from the dragon’s red and honking belly. It too pulsed with hunger. The city itself and the whole blue ball it rode on just a junkie in need. Then the floor and walls tipped. He’d expected pain but not hallucination, not these shadowy skeletons thrown up in newsreel black and white.

He watched a scrawny man squirm across a floor of chipped linoleum, dig a plastic knife out from under a crusty hot plate, and sit stabbing a black pig held tight in his arms, again and again. The pig squealed, the man laughed maniacally. Sirens sang in the mix. He felt so bad for the poor yellow dog. Across the room, its more than human eyes fixed on the creature to which it had hitched its wagon, who lifted a broken plastic shiv in his one good hand and plunged it deep and satisfying into the swollen bag of flesh, then carved down, mouth wailing, eyes wincing, eventually tugging out a vein and a broken needle tip oozing blood and pus. A river of festering gunk mushroomed out of the wound as if it would never stop. Suicide to have done such a thing. The one straggling drummer in a long suicide parade. Here in this broken ruin of paper walls, cry after cry of sheer anguish and horror across the empty hours after dinner and no one dares to knock, no one bothers to check, no one gives a tinker’s damn. Just stop it, will you? Just keel over and be still. Lie down, damn it. Down.

 

But see, what happened, that old yellow dog, he wouldn’t have it. Sprawled out junkie dead to the world and they’d find me when the stink seeped out to the hall one day. That was alright with me. I mean at the time. But that dog, I call him Mister now, because he’s a man of a dog, you know what he did? You ain’t gonna want to hear this, but it was real as day. He come over while I was out again and he drank it all, every lick of pus and blood, yes he did. Until my arm shrank back to size. And he licked up inside the wound and cleaned it all out with his raspy old tongue. And then he went over in a corner and barfed it all out, and then he came back for more. And he had to of been at it I’m telling you for at least a whole day. Eventually I guess I come to, and my arm was on fire, man, I tell you. Five alarm. I had to go. Left him there alone like the ungrateful son of a bitch I am. Straight to the ED and when they seen me they bumped the line and flushed me out with saline and pumped me up with antibiotics so strong I shit my pants. And you can best believe I hit the bodega for some Alpo when they let me go. Stood on the corner for an hour boosting coin to earn it. And we shared that dog’s dinner, I’m not ashamed to say. That’s Mister. It’s mostly his eyes, man, everything they see. So I decided one thing, and it’s true to this day. I don’t want to say it. Jinx it, but I’ll tell you. My plan is live up to those eyes. What Mister thinks of me.

 

Carl’s not the first man who’s broken down and cried in this clinic. It can be a heavy place. You come in off the street — some of these guys live right down below there in boxes under FDR Drive — and it’s warm and the light’s good up here on the tenth floor, and yes we’re paid to do it, but we sit you down and bathe your wounds and salve your muscles and stretch your joints in a gentle way we’ve learned. You can nap while your hands warm in paraffin gloves. Right now while this wiry Viet Nam vet pulls himself together, I’m at his side working my thumb up crosswise to the fiber along a nasty swath of old scar that runs from his wrist to his elbow. The cicatrix lies deep, thick between the long bones of his forearm, and blocks rotation, so he can’t hold his palm open without bending sideways from the trunk. Frankly, I don’t know if anything short of surgery will help. But for an hour three times a week, we try. He goes home with an elastic band that winds around his arm, tugging a twist. He wears a glove with rubber bands stretched from fingertip to wrist that pulls his mummified hand a few degrees closer to a fist. When he arrives, I measure the change, never much, swap out the rubber bands, work on that scarified flesh, and like it is with most of these lonely guys, maybe it’s just the physical touch, I don’t know. But they talk. And sometimes when the talk takes them down a particular tunnel, you hand them a box of Kleenex. It’s okay in here. Patients and therapists alike, we’re used to it.

 

After that day, all I can say is, I was woke. Me and Mister had a long talk. And then we took us a long walk. We went straight out on the GW Bridge, all the way across there, way up over the river. You ever done that? The wind running from upstate makes the wires sing and that hum from the tires on the grates? Way up high there like it’s all just for you and you decide. Still do it to this day. Went to Goodwill and got me one of them ten dollar an hour jobs, mine’s sorting books, a ton of books come in there every day, and I go through and pick the ones go to the store, the ones go to Africa, the ones go to the mill. VA found me a room but they won’t take Mister, so I’m okay in my squat. Hard to stay clean I won’t deny, the whole street’s a market, but what I found you walk with your dog nobody mess with you. Maybe nod or something but you walk on.

You should see my place. Got enough books in there now I could build an igloo. My new thing’s the slave tales, the bad old testimonies, you’d be surprised how many turn up. Mandingo shit, but for real. Seems like people been bad a long time, you know? We ain’t invented it in Nam. What you think about this arm? Somebody say I should just get them to take it off, be better off without it. But maybe you can fix it. I won’t give up if you don’t. And it’s a badge, too, right? Of how fucked up a man can be. How close you can walk it.

Summer day I get home and it’s still light, Mister and me walk over the bridge to the Jersey side and take that path up the Palisades. We just hike upriver some, it’s all woods along there. It’s a cliff we found and you can lie down on the grass. Highway’s right there, cars going by, but in the trees you don’t see them. And the whole wide river out before you. I’ll bring a box of dry food in my bag and feed him. Might chew a bite of that old crumbly shit myself. And he pulls up in the crook of this same fucked up arm. I tell you buddy, when the traffic dies down and the river fans the air and the trees rustle like they do, for me and Mister that’s the best sleep a man or dog can have. It’s our little vacation. In our little tricky place across the river. And if we don’t get a storm this afternoon, that’s where we’ll be tonight, too.