Take things day by day is something they tell you when you’re visibly heading toward a future without days. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just weird that now that I actually want to be here, the entire world is crashing down around me. I go in the backyard, take a few laps, try to clear the sour taste from my mouth. When I inhale, there are notes I never sensed before, little hints of neighborhood post-crisis, and the birds are singing at night now. I’m putting down words, drinking down tea, lining up my queue and working through. I’m taking things as they come, another favorite from back in my therapy days. Scenes play out in my mind’s projector, flickering at twenty-four, showing what I’ll look like at forty-eight, then ninety-six, shuttling through the seams of life till I am the last person out in the world, streets empty, grass clear and tall, and all of the things that used to matter so much are no longer a concern, I’m just carrying on, ever-forward, designing and desiring times like these, as chaotic as they might be, even so, letting them be and become what they will. Counting each day down and watching in eon-time, using the distinctly human gift of forward-thinking. See the sprouts grow, reach their predetermined top, come back down once again, as the human rockets buzz and hum around, appearing and disappearing as the sun yo-yos up ahead, first up then down then up again, stars shifting, spinning the sky in time, and I am here again, all at once, locked in a painfully slow retelling of a life I’ve already lived and seen. These are the things that make up a life, reduced to their core functions, and here are all the rooms you’ve entered, the ones you can never enter again. Here are the people you have seen, none of which you can see right now, some of which you might never see again. Here is the great abiding grief that accompanies the ones who’ve already left you, the ones yet to leave. Here are all of the things you can feel, dry now, because you are sober and will stay that way no matter what, these things you’re allowing yourself, maybe forcing yourself, to feel. Here are all the things that make up your altered, segmented life, the segmented lives of everyone right now. Because there is no going back, and you’ve seen that for some time now, since this whole thing began, but quarantine wasn’t the beginning of the change. It was already shifting, imperceptibly, by degrees so small that you could scarcely notice. You are really alive here, even now. There it is. You’re even breathing, taking down that water, letting light refract and strike the wall behind you, picture-smooth, rippled grooves like vinyl as you wake and wait for the day to stop hitting. And here it is, as it is, right now in this perfect, terrible moment. In this snapshot that is all there is but not all there ever will be, and that’s okay.
fear is a currency
to be used
for good or ill
whatever you choose
the unknown and unknowing
of a person
walking down the street
with knowledge and abilities
for the time to be right
that one can become more
than just a person
that if you’re going to see change
to have to make it yourself
resolve mixed in
with the nerves
a different way
a different lens
taking a step beyond
into a place where you can’t turn back
become something greater
than flesh and blood
than fear and mistakes
like a kid sitting on the floor
at the Scholastic Fair
debating stealing a book
because he can’t afford it
eats public assistance at lunch
can already see the looks of shame
on the faces
of his parents
when they walk into the principal’s office
so he doesn’t
so he puts it back
and tries to picture imagined worlds
his mind won’t be shown.
like hearing “don’t peek”
from the lips
of his first girlfriend
removing her bra straps
and the space between them is filled
and when they touch
it’s a revelation
and when they finish
he tells her stories
makes them up on the spot
like he did
as a kid
when the only time you heard
was during a game
of hide and seek
like seeing your name
on the cover
of a book
and you don’t know
how it got there
even though you do
the steps that got you
from point A to B
and if you try real hard
you can almost see
the kid that would go hungry
can almost see
the kid with ripped-up
and eyes that wanted
but couldn’t always
and now you’re at the top
of a tall
breathing in the thin air
and seeing all
you can see
this is my ex
where the heat doesn’t go down
in a town
where you can take a barbed-wire bat
to the leg
mistaken for a King
or a GD
when you’re just a kid
where you can
walk past grown men fighting
as a child
walking to a friend’s house
at a time when you could see
where everyone was
by the number of bikes left strewn
on the front lawn
this is my ex
His alone and her alone had several vital differences.
His alone had matted hair, gnarled and tangled knots on sides where stale mattress intaglioed body-shaped initials in all the spots he’d see on bloodshot mornings when the faucet’s water was brown and sluggish and pseudopodded in his hands when he tried to make a cup. His alone laughed too loud at stories on the bus and traced profiles to collate and scan genetic material against known ancestry. His alone talked to the descendants of kings and prophets relegated to stooped bus shelters with overhang too low and fickle sunlight sliced open by 747s. His alone input data to watch blank, expectant white slide to green as voices tintinnabulated and grew calm as the day gathered age. His alone could be counted penny for penny at fortnight’s end and hummed in the quiet spaces he left for himself. His alone had sophisticated charm and allegorical weight; it liked to chew through the garbage can every time he took it out.
Her alone was different.
Her alone kept a four by four by four subterranean circadian rhythm with nightwatch to gather drops in the pots she kept outside. Her alone had all the markings of prolonged captivity and none of the benefits. Her alone contained jaundiced dabs and gamboge heat playing on palimpsested canvas where the figures once were. Her alone had a quiet dignity she’d picked up from racial memory transmuted through pretty little tasks she set for herself: dappling leaf edges with pot contents and reloading seed. Her alone was as virtuosic as it was myopic and she wasn’t about to get it corrected: a wheelchair for the eyes. Her alone donated plates with roses on them and counted tile chips on floors microscopic in stores whose names always ended in apostrophe S. Her alone gathered antebellum stories and ripped them to confetti for festive traditions just begun in place of waiting for a one who might never come.
Their alone was different.
Their alone was parched to cracking and sustained with clever shared sips at terminal hours croaked “…in the morning.” Their alone stole all the blankets and wrapped imaginary infants up in swaddling clothes. Their alone felt the bone underneath, neat and trim little rivets set on fault lines whose time was up and whose place was in the swollen belly with rotundity past seeing and feathered touches laying eczema trails. Their alone was a Nemo it’s a Nemo mommy in silver dollar waiting rooms with shirt tugs and defective physiognomy laid out neatly on clipboard ticks. Their alone was the cry past sound on muffled shoulder and the balloon tummy letting out its air. Their alone was sacrificing sleep for gathering seed at night with the light haloing and motors Dopplering past–silly little umwelts moseying on down. Their alone was fingers grazing past in all that dark, laying new seed to ground and pressing earth down pat.
Just like that.
For Xu Lizhi.
The alley where the old man caught the jumpers was pebble-lined and puddle-shorn, with vestiges of pre-SEZ flora twiddling tentatively past cracks to smoggy sun. The windows phosphoresced right before a jump. Something like a glow. Juniper leaves on hoof-trodden hills came up and out of windows emptied of purpose and panes. Bodies hung no less fixed than his constellation of six in a sky coal gray and washed of natural light.
Shenzhen’s adverts screamed their insistence as masked faces moved and cars coughed and the old man stood apart from them, his gilded robe catching garbage water and his beard of white flowing beneath eyes like tired sickles, catching the phosphorescence of the windows before someone else would jump.
Another screw coming loose, another nail swallowed and put back into the machine’s cogs as a worker of words sat in a rented room, a room devoid of air and space, a room with no windows and yet with a view to the other side.
There were bodies clothed in garb no longer relegated to the western, minds consumed with figures and wages and hours and output. The smog came from many places.
Dreams of a life set free from the humdrum repetition of the factory floor flitted past like insistent flies in the village back home, where the hills dipped lazily and the paddies stretched into the past with days spent watching rain gather and coalesce into vertical streams on windowpanes that would remain intact. Pages of print sat stacked in voided room’s corner, where he composed the nails and screws into neat rows for others to see.
His mother and father waited patiently for childhood’s wages, the yuan tallied and calculated down to the last. The old heroes and figures were sold to the highest bidder and divested of the robes that the old man still clung to down below, in the cloying light of a thousand generations come to pass.
Past the concrete sprouts that choke and squelch the green, the plasticine land held in place with mandates and dictates and acetate water gurgling in fetid streams. He looked out of his room with no windows, his room with a view, and saw it all.
Just one more to compose before time card’s last punch would be recorded and sent, one more thought in a brain meant to be cleansed of them.
His words came out like jagged splinters on supple skin, the lines limned in light piercing through summer smog and winter’s too. Words that he couldn’t believe in because to believe was to speak and to speak was to die long before your heart stopped a beat kept counted and calculated to the second. A day’s wages for another beat, hours spent to watch mental landscapes erode and rebuild.
And there were the words of the poets and the bards streaming in from times kept boxed and stacked in another corner, history subjugated to the minds of those kept boxed and stacked in homes. A dragon of computer chips and unknown consequences, with a trajectory set for the sun and climbing against its better judgment.
Windowless room’s window was opened nimbly and gently to particulate wind. No jagged splinters of glass here. Only of words. Waves crested and fell beneath, limbed waves with places to go and people to see. Only the old man watched.
Descent slowed to a gentle lull in life’s last verse. Body held weightless and hovering over arms strong for their age. They phosphoresced as they went away together.
Something like a glow.
I met a guy in September heat whose mouth wouldn’t quite close on the bicuspids he’d had rearranged in his lower jaw. Like an un-WD-40’d hinge, he’d say. I didn’t laugh with him. He put jewels on each cheek, said they’d glow when moonlight hit them. His father caught muskies and STDs and used to give a few to him. He’d ramble on about how his boss was only vaguely mammalian and do things like send postcards with nothing on them to addresses he’d dreamt of. He dreamt in addresses and vehemently corrected those who said dreamed. Said the one thing he wanted was a great big stein of O-Ke-Doke popcorn that he’d never share. Always had to share with his muskiedad as a kid.
Re: your latest inquiry into the longitudinal whereabouts of so-called lost skippers at sea and repeated insistence as to the feasibility of wharf/barge micronations off the Adriatic, a representative will be with you shortly.
He always shat in baskets or basket-resembling objects. Woven was a priority. Handcrafted preferred.
But we went to town square but were stopped by I-don’t-know-whose Finest but our collective metaphorical license was bad but he had a farm in Oakley and’d let us off if we looked at Instagrammed pics of rutabagas and gave our God’s Honest.
Beer foam collected on the bristle tips of Poppy’s mustache, fiber optic cables jutting out at odd angles and leaking, spilling their essential fluids down onto tongue that was searching and seeking and only occasionally finding. Eyes bulged out of skeleton sockets, the skin paper and threatening to tear in the spots where veins were busy pumping and convulsing to keep Poppy alive as he licked for beer and collected his covert McDonald’s cup, the other hand on the wheel and calibrating, adjusting and correcting with a deftness that could only come with practice. And Cal was in the passenger seat with his eyes hardly seeing above the dash, his child’s eyes so unlike the bulging skeleton ones of Poppy as he sat and prayed the prayers that Momma recited on windy nights when Poppy was Out and About and just not quite able to come home that night.
Sunlight glinted off the hood in metallic flames that danced in Cal’s eyes as Poppy reached down for the cup and kept eyes cupbound with the horns and the muted yells to bring hands back to 10 and 2 and he’d give such a Chuckle then and look over at tiny little Cal, miniature Cal who wasn’t buckled in and that bassy laugh would worm its way into Cal’s babychest and tickle his lungs till he couldn’t breathe and could only laugh to relieve it, only laugh to stop Poppy from looking at him with those skeleton’s eyes and put them back roadbound so they wouldn’t Get Hurt, only ever a possibility of Getting Hurt and never anything worse in Cal’s tiny childbrain but that was enough for him and so he made sure to give Poppy a good Chuckle.
They were Picking, or at least ostensibly so, and it was late enough in the season where even errant garbage cans were to be searched and dumped and sifted through, as long as the hood was apt to be deserted and not the type to call the poe leece, because you don’t want to have the poe leece come for Poppy, Cal, so tell me if you see em. Red and blue and we’re through, okay Cally? Red and blue and we’re through.
I say ostensibly cause Momma hadn’t come home from her third shift the night before. She was always so tired as Cal’s childeyes could see, always chuff and sigh and sort of buckle on creaky chair they’d found in Picking, her eyes lighting on the scratches in kitchen table, the spots where the graffiti’d been washed clean but the knife scars would always remain, and she’d say I’m tard just like that with no high “I” or lilting “R,” just tard and she’d look at Cal with the soft eyes she gave him and wouldn’t ever look for too long before she got up and out to do it all over again. But she did none of that the night before. The night before, according to Poppy, she’d been Out and About.
Slouched figures sat stooped on stoops with the brown bags hiding bottles between legs as they watched Poppy swerve his way down car-lined street and scrape firelight on errant mirrors, the tiny things going pop and snap off of hinges as they launched forward and danced their light in Cal’s eyes only briefly before crashing down on pothole-ridden street, the glass sometimes collecting in the holes and scattering out into glittering flatlands and jagged skyscrapers, tiny cities waiting for the dirty rain to come holebound and fill and level out till the mirror city was nothing more than a mirror Atlantis and Poppy was long gone and could never see his work.
Cal saw Momma before Poppy did, and she was none too tard as she sat stoopbound with her soft, Cal-given eyes closed and lips touched lightly on cheek, then neck, then lips of another man, her hands searching and seeking and very often finding. And Poppy saw in time, and there weren’t no Chuckle, no not at all as the wheel turned with 10 and 2 sent spinning as hand went over hand and repeated, as tiny Cal went scrunched against car door and very nearly out window, the tires screaming injustice and wafting out their burning just before the hit.
Stoop bricks flew through air still whistling with car and human screams and made purchase with wall, window, wire on the rebound that knocked out telephone service for the rest of the day as McDonald’s cloud followed Poppy out with his voice up and ready for a big Tell like he’d always give Momma, like I Tell you what or I ain’t gonna Tell you twice and all the rest, but the stoop man weren’t Momma and he weren’t pleased none as he gave Poppy a pop on the mouth where the beer-tipped bristles were, cleaned them right off as Poppy staggered back and fell stoopbrickbound with eyes up and whites showing for the briefest of moments like glinting mirrors waiting to shatter in pockmarked street, waiting to make another Atlantis down here in the hood with its maker nowhere in sight.
And the car stopped screaming but Momma didn’t, with the wail carrying and wavering on the breeze as Cal sat quietly in smoking car, as the poe leece sirens wailed and cried too and the lights started flashing from way back down the street. Red and blue. We’re through.
Dirty fluorescence darted over eyes, mouths, ears. Pudgy repugnant hands stuck in mid-fiddle as the patient’s eyes came up for reassurance and were granted it just as swiftly from the curer, which is what she’d taken to calling herself on the nights when it all seemed just a little too much to handle. It was either stockinged feet dampening the midnight tracks with heels held in hand and hazy trainlight threatening from afar as tonight would be the night she’d do it or else going by the silly name. She took the name.
The fingers exploded from hands engorged to lamb chops, uncooked and sloppy. He had tits, pendulous ones, ones that threatened hers in size and heaved terribly whenever he cried, which was often on these Friday night visits. And he’d Tell, and he’d do his tit heave and his tit cry, and she’d cross and uncross skirted hams and check watch and picture stockinged feet dampening on midnight-lit tracks and open her mouth very wide during those crying sessions when the patient’s eyes were shut tight against the tears, open her mouth incredibly wide and swallow him whole in her mind, eat him up and explode stomach-first like some human slitherer, her skirted hams vesitigial and waiting to fall away.
Maybe she’d bring a gun to their next session. She’d pull out a pistol while he was doing his inevitable Tell and she’d put it in his hand and say Okay. And he’d look at her with tit heave paused and see her intent and maybe even stop crying. She’d grab him by exploded finger and guide him past the trigger guard and say Okay then do it.
But she remained ineffably adept, even in the midst of the Tell and the tit heave and the sweat that glittered in mucoidal droplets at nose’s tip and threatened to fall on putrid lap. Shifted face into pretty concern or pretty shock or pretty authority. Always pretty something and attentive, with eyes shining bright and idealistic even in that dirty fluorescence, practiced looks of attention and intent she looked over in lighted mirrors at home, mirrors that opened up pores to moon crater size, where she could open her mouth incredibly wide and eat herself whole if she wanted to. And she’d tweeze and pluck and squeeze and smile her authority and give pretty solemnity and even crack at pupils’ hollow a little bit and like smile with the eyes even as she ate herself whole on the inside.
And the sessions would end after a big climactic Tell, replete with blubber and hitchy pathetic sobs and he’d cry and say he needed it, as if there was any other way and she’d give pretty authority with just a touch of pretty pity, and that’d give him all he needed until next week, and she’d pretend not to notice his tic-like way of staring at her ass as she got up and left before him, almost bolting and leaving dirty fluorescence to find dirty lamplight out in the night with dampened, stockinged feet still in heels and not yet wobbly but almost psychosomatically so as she walked from one session to the next as she called it, this next session in graffitied bathroom with bassy beat pounding out the one in her chest and the revelers all Outside as she was now Inside the stall, as some anonym was Inside her and giving her a different kind of Tell and she was making all the noises she practiced and kept to herself and even recorded for playback to check pitch and timbre and maximum sex appeal and maybe adjust for the next time, the next Tell in some other tagged stall with some other anonym on some other Friday night.
And so the curer came rollicking down tracks set impossibly close and wobbly and twisting and tracing lines made mapbound with midnight light coming dirtily down as trainlight ran adjacent and refused to be heeded in inebriation. As stockinged feet collected moisture in the fog and transmuted it down on fickle train tracks, left pretty tracks from pretty feet as the curer opened her mouth very wide, impossibly wide and turned to face silly little trainlight down and out there in the foggy black. As she walked nimbly on through the buzz and anonym soreness and mentally unhinged jaw in preparation for the biggest meal she’d ever know.
Train gave futile cry and screamed off into the night without knowing what was coming for it. That it was another patient to be cured, its Tell untenable and so futile. Terribly, unmistakably futile. Pretty, stockinged feet marched on along fickle tracks, heels held aloft and out to the side in balance compensation. Wobble. Tip. Adjust. Wobble. Tip. Adjust.
That same train scream in the night and her mouth opened wide, ready to devour and cure and heal and set things straight so there’d be no more anonyms or sessions or tit-heaving patients.
And a cry.
And a squeal.
Driving steel on steel.