Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wild Kentucky River/Black Madonna



“Is broke. Do not sit,” the bartender warns.
I gingerly slide off the stool and he leans across the counter
to prove it to me, spinning it to make it wobble.
“Is broke,” he repeats. It’s close to eleven at night
on Christmas Day, and I’ve just worked
a twelve hour shift before stumbling here
to Tony's, not quite ready to face that empty apartment.
Roger Miller is playing on the jukebox, loud.  
 Not King of the Road, unfortunately, but Dang Me. 
The guy on the next stool over turns slowly towards me 
and stares. I know better than to make eye contact, 
and instead fixate on the TV above the bartenders’
tiny stockings, above the local soccer club scarf 
with its festive motto of NO PITY, 
where a show about backwoods experts 
in the removal of nuisance animals
is playing with the sound off. All the guys on the  show
are big, burly brutes with nicknames like Turtleman
and Squirrel and Thunder. Oh wait, Thunder is the name
of Turtleman's knife. I'm not kidding. 
The stereotypical yokels take a break
from splitting logs and mixing quicklime
to fry up a mess o’ frog legs in a big ol’ pan.
“I’M GIDDY TO SEE WHAT MY BUDDY HAS PLANNED
FOR THIS BACK WOOD SHELTER” 
read the blocky capitals of the Closed Captioning, 
sounding like a redneck Zen koan.
The bartender pours coffee into a teddy bear mug
and pops it into an ancient microwave;
the resulting smell is nauseating.
An old woman points to two Santa Claus figures
that stand on the bar, one of which sports sunglasses
and a saxophone. “Who do they remind you of?”
she asks with a wink. I tell her I have no idea. 
“No sense sitting and feeling sorry for yourself, 
might as well drink 'til you puke!” she cackles.
"Not that I like the puking part, but hey that's life!"
A single spindly string of lights glows feebly against
the dusty bottles of mid-priced booze lining the top shelf.
A man comes in screaming and choking to the bartender
to call him a cab. “I cannot call you cab,” the bartender says. 
The man screams some more but the bartender is firm
and the man runs out, cursing and jerking along the sidewalk.
The old woman is talking to the man who finally
stops staring at me to talk to her. 
“I’m an old person, 67 years old,” she’s saying. 
“What would I do with a young stud like you? 
I’d die of a heart attack.” Wait, was he hitting on her?
Did she think he was? It's never clear where anyone's coming from
at any given moment here at Tony's. 
Turtleman braves the briars and ticks and chiggers
on this wild Kentucky river we’re all caught in
“WE TURNED THE RAW MATERIALS 
FOR OUR SHELTER INTO A RAFT”
as the river carries us along, sweeping us down between
The hills and cliffs and thick woods as I dig in my pocket
(it’s cash only here) to see if I have enough 
for another High Life. 
“I FIGURED IT WAS A SHORT HIKE
BACK TO THE FORGOTTEN VALLEY”
It’s all so staged and scripted, so artificial. Like
Sax playing Santas, like artificial trees.
Turtleman catches a snapping turtle 
with his bare hands. The snapper whips its head back, 
nearly missing his jugular.
The bartender brings my beer, teeth showing through his
salt and pepper beard. Beside the dinky microwave
a hand-lettered sign lists the prices for pizza, hot dogs,
Polish sausage. I’ve never seen anyone 
brave enough to eat here.
“I AM AT A BEAUTIFUL PLACE 
AND IT’S FILLED WITH FREAKING LEECHES!” 
Squirrel bellows in despair.
Cocaine Blues comes on the jukebox 
and the old lady screams “Yee HAW!”
and starts slapping the bar. “Hear them horses movin'?”
Five boisterous kids in Santa hats burst in. 
I’m starting to fade, my mind is dragging itself 
like a fat possum in the quicksand
and there’s a thick glaze of booze and fatigue 
over everything. This place is like a bad
Tom Waits b-side. “Does a bear
shit in the woods?” The old lady yells,
blowing wet raspberries to no one in particular.
A John Denver song comes on,
which doesn't fit at all and is quickly forgotten.
The staring man has started to grill the bartender
about his faith. “Catholic?” he asks.
“No. Greek.” The redneck show is over. Join us next week
when Turtleman takes a trip to New York City.
The clock says it's no longer Christmas.
We made it through another one. 
“Greek Orthodox?” the man asks
as I put on my coat and slide off the stool.
“Like Russian, right? That’s the Black Madonna.
You believe in all that Black Madonna shit?”
The door jingles when I open it. The street is cold and quiet.

“Is no Black Madonna,” the bartender says.  

Monday, December 22, 2014

Tomorrow's Results Today



Four days before Christmas I find myself
at an off-track betting place downtown 
where my friend’s country novelty act is performing.
It’s a strange venue, but I guess the place is desperate
to drum up some Sunday night business.
A horse race is just about to start in Australia,
And most of the regulars are more interested
in the row of screens showing the live broadcast
than a couple of middle-aged women in Western regalia
belting out comedic country songs stuffed with puns
and drenched in innuendo.
Strings of colored lights dangle limply from the ceiling
and a huge Santa leers merrily from the top
of a fuzzy white pine that leans beside the amps.
I sit at a short counter designed for ordering from rather than
lingering at, below a mural of thoroughbreds thundering
in every direction, and wonder if the bartender
is ignoring me or just so stoned he doesn’t see me sitting there. 
The monitors list the names of tonight’s horses.
Idle Shiver. Urban Knight. Crooked Blaze. Caesar’s Revenge.
In the corner sits a large plaster greyhound
its slender neck choked by a shiny red garland.
I can see myself ending up frequenting a place like this
when I get old, blowing my social security on bets based
on the ridiculousness of the horses' names,
scrawling bits of drunken verse on the backs of receipts...
 
Between sets the cowgirls work the crowd.
The one I’m friends with comes over to say hi,
her red ten gallon hat sprouting gold ribbons
and shedding glitter everywhere, a huge gold bow
choking her neck. She looks like an East Texas
Christmas tree ornament. She introduces me
to her boyfriend, whom I’ve met before
but didn’t recognize when I came in. The race is on:
River Flower. Wild Rain. Versace Rose. Hollywood Starlet.
A dented machine advertises “Tomorrow’s Results Today:
Self serve racing programs, handicapping and tip sheets.”
The girls start their last set with a song about men in tight jeans.
A couple of people get up to square dance between
the little tables. A woman sidles up beside me
clutching some slips of paper spit out one
of the video lottery machines
and asks where the bartender has disappeared to.
I tell her I don't know. An old drunk in the corner
cackles with glee every time the band curses.
The bartender materializes and hands the woman
forty-two bucks then sighs and asks if I need anything.
I tell him I need a High Life and when it arrives
it comes in a can decorated with demented Harley Davidson eagles
and I give him a two dollar tip for a two dollar bill,
because why the hell not, it’s Christmas,
and it looks like Crooked Blaze is coming out on top.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Claude on Rye


Claude scraped himself from the pavement
Tried to focus on his wobbling reflection
in the front window of the dry cleaners,
His visage slobbered upon, slurped and chomped
then squirted from cheek to cheek
like a plug of tobacco, eventually spit.
He attempted a smile but that only made it worse.
Claude shuffled off, slid down the steep embankment
to crawl beneath the bridge. Shoes caked, knuckles wet,
He reached up and tenderly fingered the underbelly
Felt it vibrate as the cars thundered overhead.
Stumbled on. Bent down to whisper into the open ear
of a plastic Coke bottle half buried in the dirt.
Staggered back. Unknotted the blinds cord
holding up his trousers
and squatted, felt the tickle of dry weeds
on his chewed-up ass. Claude dreamed
of a tissue paper seat protector
laid upon a plastic toiled seat, dreamed of sitting
warm and dry above the cold porcelain.
Claude sighed and squeezed his biography
into the dirt. It was a good dream.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Assymetrical Angel

-Gently tugged off one wing
-Ripped off the other
-Pressed them both together
One was just a tiny bit smaller
Than its mirrored image
Just like her eyes
-Placed the wings between
Two palm-sized stones
-Tied the stones together
With a frayed piece of string
-Sealed it with wax
-Held it so that it covered one breast
Then slipped it all down
Between her legs
-Flexed each jutting scapula

Mussel halves joined by a hair of gristle
-Unhinged her jaw
-Stood with mouth open wide enough
That I could have passed
My praying hands between her lips
Without my knuckles brushing
A single tooth