A view from my flying jimmy.
Listen: hounds loose their run trill reveille behind the lines
of white pine and cedar and elm that guard my seclusion.
I pretend I'm dreaming-then I am-waltzing with Jane
barefoot and ballgowned through a wood: music howls
somewhere beyond the grey, somewhere in the black.
So I oversleep and wonder when I wake why my feet are ice.
I fly to work down back roads that turn suddenly
into streets miles from my driveway graveled and
tucked between menacing rows of black-hulled pecans:
they bear on the third year and I keep their fallen ancestors
packed naked in blue Tupperware tubs stacked in my freezer.
The cockpit of my jimmy is strewn with dead coffee cups.
Jack-in-the-boxes lay discarded and dying on the floorboards
-similar slaughters of necessity-ketchup clotted to their sides.
Last month's cable bill flaps under the visor like a battle flag.
Tobacco whips by on the left and on the right so fast
each leaf on every stalk stands out in surreal base-relief.
I taste the sharp and bitter tang of suckering plants:
it reminds me of my father's pall malls and politics and
the smell of money seeded from blood.
Barn swallows rise in lazy tourbillions from the fields
their beaks and bellies full of yellow and green hornworms.
I wing past Buck's BBQ Pit (You Can't Beat Our Meat)-past
Lucy's Do-Lounge where the girls serve more than shots
-past Big Jim's Quick Mart: the stoner kid who pumps gas
raises a hand in reflex. I don't wave back in sympathetic apathy.
Most mornings I stop to kill coffee cups but today I'm late.
Tenant houses rush by on either side, their concrete blocks
painted with Kudzu and mildew: I think of abattoirs and
oubliettes and other inevitable exits. Children and dogs and
cheap molded toys from the plastic plant over in Elroy dot
the tiny dirt yards-little boys and little girls stand in stagnant
ditches chunking rocks at death while their mamas are inside
fucking the mailman or watching General Hospital on TV.
I see slideshow flashes of their faces and I hope I don't
have to come back out this way: scrape them up, heads
cracked open, futures frying on asphalt like so many eggs.
I pass the city limit sign-some of the holes are mine-ringed
in rust and canted to one side. Courthouse looms right,
county buildings lurch left and blocks ahead day meets night
where tracks split the city: segregation in iron ties old as time.
I pull into my lot-number six, section twelve-filled with cars
and trucks and bikes but I am the only flying jimmy.
Everything ticks: engine, watch, pulse-alpha papa charlie-
the people that mill outside my windshield tick with tension.
I want to turn the key, turn around, turn into my driveway
where squirrels sit stuffing my sweet meats in their jaws:
instead I clinch mine-name rank serial number-open the door
and step out.
Listen: animals sprung their cages snarl in angry unavoce
behind walls of brick and steel and glass that guard nothing.
Today I reached a milestone; no morphine. It's now been
almost 24 hours since my last hit, and it's got me a bit...well...
strange. A good friend I've never had the pleasure of meeting
suggested I try Ketamine as a weener for the opiate,
and for awhile, it worked. But it made me nervous.
I don't like nervous.
So I've just been backing it down and yesterday, 5 mg. Today,
zero. Considering that 6 months ago it was at least 60 mics a day,
I think I'm doing OK.
Circa 6 months ago
(how cliched is THAT)
over some North Carolina
in pulsed pockets
above stagnant runs
that glimmer with rainbowed
slicks across the surface
and in the arc
of a dirty pane
(it looks out at an equally
dirty alley that leads
to some inconsequential river)
an 18 gauge cath
as soon as it unsheaths
it's equally 18 gauged
(HAHA! What a LOADED word)
with a loading dose-
deft fingers can cop
when no one is watching
where the latexed hand went
after the sting
comes the calm
that stays awhile
before going back home
with all its little perks
packed on its glass back
but there's always
where that came from-
it lurks and smiles
(make that GRINS,
it grins with metered teeth)
among versed and valium
(those paens of blessed slumber)
tossed in with toredal and
on such a permanent
maybe that's the level
I find I miss the ritual almost as much as the calm. Drawing up
my morning fix, opening the alchohol prep, carefully swabbing
the spot on my thigh that has grown a little thick with scar tissue.
The thin needle resembles the probiscus of an insistent
mosquito, intent on the sting. I miss that sting, too.
I've been a junkie since 'Nam, where smack was so plentiful
it practically fell from every duffle.
It was a necessary thing, a thing to be done
so things could be done. Once the body becomes
aclimated to the opiate, the 'high' subsides and only that strange
and languid calm remains. It enabled you to wade through endless
days of mindless horror with blinders on. I was there four years,
and by the first 8 months it all seemed surreal;
a vampire flick where all the bloodsuckers
were named Charlie, wore black pajamas
and paper slippers...hello, Harold and Jim.
Harold and Jim.
The people who people my town wear paper shoes,
a lot like charlie did in days of yore, slipping
through fields of gore with barely a bone to rattle
their presence; nothing to signify sound or fury and
it was just so today in the Piggly Wiggly;
10:30 of a bright blue Monday with a hand basket sporting
the latest in milk and brown eggs, at the end
of aisle 6 where they (they?) keep canned peaches,
behind attractive stacks of green and orange cans I hear
"...only a nigger kid, who gives a righteous fuck? Held me up
for two hours because the little coon didn't have enough sense
to cross on the light; now I ask you, Jim, what's a law
abiding white man to do when the po-lice officer's a nigger
Never heard them come up the peach aisle, Jim and his
good buddy Harold (because it said so in neat red stitch
above the pocket of his blue chambrey workshirt) the paper
shoes that covered their approach looked a lot like Redwing
boots that I know Jim and Harold valued almost as much
as the 410's that surely hung against the back glass of their
F150 Fords and when they started noticing my not noticing
I moved on around the corner to aisle 8 (isn't that strange)
where all the things I'll never need like Pampers and Gerber
and Bottle (warmers?) are kept and through the open shelves
that line all the aisles in the neighborly Piggly Wiggly the
conversation continues and from behind strained bananas I hear
"...that dyke who works for the Rescue squad that's who, some
of us went to the county meeting about those types picking up
our wives and such, having to touch 'em and all and sometimes
even taking off their clothes but it didn't do no good and now
I just take my women to town myself if they need hospital help..."
But I've picked up your wife, Jim, and your sister too, both
of them too drunk to have sense enough to not drive home and
if you knew what all they promised the nigger cops we called
if only they wouldn't tell you where they were or what they
had been doing, why, you would just SHIT Jim, I swear-
On those same paper feet two little old ladies who favored
my forgotten ma had sidled up beside me and I realized that
I was giggling to myself, probably looked like I was drunk myself
so I walked away to aisle 10 (?) and as I tried to look
oh-so-interested in pickled okra and sweet rind pickles
some kid without any paper shoes
(just keds with dirty laces) walked
right up and asked me straight-out in a too-loud little kid voice
why my hair was cut just like a boy's and why was I wearing
Dickies just like his dad's- dont'cha know you're a girl-
says he and I never heard his mama (paper shoes) come out of
nowhere to grab him up and whisk him off like I might be catching.
So I add a jar of those sweet rinds to my milk and eggs, find
myself seven aisles later standing in the checkout behind Jim
and Harold and their suitcase of after-work Schlitz, in front
of the ladies with their ensure and wild rice, and I looked
for the kid, but I guess his mama was busy somewhere in the back
teaching him not to talk to strangers with boy-hair
and I wondered if she remembered that it was me
who came to her assistance
the night her lawyer husband decided
that she might look better with bruises-
but then I decided we all must look alike with hats on.
All around me paper shoes shuffled and
Jim and Harold snickered and the older ladies
read the labels on their ensure
like it was the Sunday times; their lips drawn into tight lines.
Behind all those tight lips that never moved (except for Jim
and Harold's, who didn't give a righteous fuck), I could hear
this and this and some more of this:
niggers and dykes and faggots- OH MY!
And I wondered if they could hear
what I was thinking above the silence of their paper shoes.
Two klics outside the port city, thick
underbrush hid clusters of olive clad kids,
bellies flat against slick earth
wet with mud and blood. Days here went
fast into night, and when dark came,
you prayed for light. Nights were bad,
you listened with strained ears through
a din of strange sounds, for sounds that
were stranger still. Most times, constant fear
kept you awake in apprehension, like the
mummy did in the fifth grade; trembling in
your G.I. Joe sleeping bag on Timmy McPherson's
living room floor. None of us knew scared like
that, but we all caught on real quick. Our
backyard battle plans and monster movie
anecdotes didn't apply in this show. By the
second night in the bush, we had all lost faith
in Hollywood. Somebody forgot to yell cut so
the stand-ins could take our places. It all
made you wonder what Audie was singing about.
Sometimes, you imagined that you smelled fish sauce,
heavy, oily; the sour odor of charlies with full
bellies. Ready to hunt all night on papered feet,
mute yellow draculas with a taste for cold blood.
Every now and then we got lucky, and the point man
would hear the low squeak of black silk bat wings
in time to thwart the midnight buffet. But most times
we weren't lucky, and some of us joined the army of
the undead; coming back to feast within the nightmares
of the rest of us. And we wondered what G.I. Joe
might do on a bad night in Haiphong, where the matinee
horrors were real, and none of us could find the
zippers down the backs of the monster suits.
At times I feel like what I write about this period of my life
is just so much cliched hack; a lot of it is old, some of it the new stuff of resurfaced memory. My partner at work, Henry, is constantly questioning my decision to become a trauma queen; says my life as a ditch doc was a poor life choice. He doesn't know that I need the adrenalin as much as I need the calm to face it. What an odd conundrum; a labyrinth of my own design.
Mostly, it's days full of nothing special; parade after parade of the sick, the dying, the dead. You have to find a way to black out the faces; for me, it's morphine. I can wander through blood, guts, and puke all day without a flinch. It's only late at night, when I'm alone with myself that the black peels away and the faces float to the surface. But every once in awhile, in the bright light of day, something will come along and hit me behind the knees, make me lose my balance and when it comes, it lingers.
"Edgecombe County unit 268 to Heritage ED on 340,
I need an MICN or physician to the mic, come back-"
-quick come back quick talk to me talk to me
hurry goddamnit hurry hurry hurry-
"This is Heritage, 268, physician standing by,
go ahead with your traffic"
"10-4, Heritage, we're en-route to your facility
with an approximately eight year old female-"
-six seven eight who knows there's no pubes
not even shadow only blood and blue and motherfucker
tach it out come on come on come on-
"-found in a field this AM, bound, gagged, patient does
show evidence of extensive trauma, numerous lacerations
and abrasions to the head and neck and-"
-fields narrow fields of napalm-charred children
limbs like struck matches raped first gutted second
dead but still running running running-
"-upper extremities show defensive wounds with left
shoulder dislocation, lower extremities present bilateral
femur fractures with the left compound in nature and-"
-butts they break legs and skulls with butts because
the sharp cracks make their dicks hard bayonets only
make sibilant sounds machetes go whicka whicka whicka-
"-pelvis is unstable on side-to-side rock, abdomen shows
obvious distention with rigidity, genitals present evidence
of forced penetration with intestinal protrusion and-"
-the smell is wrong no kerosene no fish copper minus
sulpher ozone missing smoke make this fucker smoke
I'm losing pressure DRIVE goddamnit goddamnit-
"-B/P is 70/40 and falling, respirations at 6 per and
shallow, pupils equal but non-reactive and-"
-focus focus focus this ain't Dragon valley or Tam Ky or
even Phu Bai where Medi-vacs couldn't fly it's just
another day another dollar another kid another-
"-I have two 16 gauge lines of LR going at WO rates,
intubation is precluded due to facial trauma however patient
has an oropharyengeal in place and is being bagged with
100% supplemental o2, patient showing junctional brady
on 12 leads and I have administered 5 of morphine and-"
-day in a field, narrow fields of dead men wearing their
gods on their faces but there are no gods is no god only
purple and silver and green and-
"-Heritage be advised we have a 9 minute ETA,
prepare for trauma code,
patient is bradying down to unnacceptable levels,
CPR begun due to age with one atropine push in
at this time come back-"
-sounds, sounds that lose rhythm and order become wails
become sobs and to cry is to realize and I won't I won't I-
"-10-4, 268, we copy your traffic, continue CPR and give
one Epi push, we are awaiting your arrival in room three;
see you in nine, Heritage is clear on 340."
But I've discovered that the mind is a powerful entity all by itself. When this episode in the day in the life of Blue, Paramedic-addict extraordinaire occurred, I clocked out early...
went home, gathered up my 22 and went out into the woods I live in and stayed there for two days, drawing beads on anything that moved. I killed 8 or 9 squirrels and all memory of that little girl; she resurfaced three years later when I happened to be the medic on duty the night her mother died. I went home and spilled it out on a yellow legal pad admid a flurry of mescal shooters and sweat. Now I can't forget her, no matter how many squirrels I off in the pursuit of sanity.
Boy, I can RAMBLE, can't I? I started out at my keyboard, trying to shake off that nagging itch, that almighty yearning for my mosquito, and now here I am walking backwards again; only this time the colors have lost their primaries. I guess I need to stop before I bore the hell out of everyone who might be reading this long-winded trip down memory lane. But it was good in a self-searching way that I wasn't prepared for or aware of until my skin was already peeling away in painful strips, bloodless yet weeping-
I feel them fall, drifting in dry and dusty piles beneath my anonymous desk somewhere in a river town and I want to gather them up, stick them back to my naked self, shivering and unprotected,
weak and wanting.
My idle words bare me like a lover couldn't, like a confessor might
like a surgeon skilled at the craft; and voices scream from these opened wounds, voices with names that can't be counted, faces that won't be gone. Their tongues scrape my edges,dig furrows through the bone yards that carry my weight- and I stumble, I tire, I wonder will it always be the same.
Dismal rain feeds a restless mind. Before the world went red, I would watch it from the windows of my life; its sound as soothing as Coltrain on a weary night. Now it leaves me caught, a lightning bug in a sealed jar; it dampens my skin with an ill-defined apprehension, and on the chill of its breath rides the scent of fear. It distills geographies, turns dirt to mud. My temples hold its hum verbatim.
Today finds Dismal gray beneath a laden sky. She welcomes it, adds its weight to her mire; continuance ensured. She has not changed; the passage of centuries add nothing but knots to cypress and take away nothing but legend. I am the one who cowers within my walls, trapped by a past I cannot forget, teased by a god I cannot forgive. A dead god, shopping for attention, selling tickets for bone and dust.
I want to put in a box those things that went different- a sturdy box made of what is left after the battle is done, before war becomes epitaph. But there is so little left, the box is just a ramshackle thing held together by spit and blood- and all that was turned is too heavy for its spit-licked sides to hold. Rain makes me drag it out, sends me on a mad search for reasons that were never there; and I know when Dismal has her fill and the sky becomes the slate-blue color of empty, I'll walk for miles in the company of water-shed ghosts.
They rise as the mist lifts, unnamed graves that surface and lay scattered across fresh-wet earth; the bones within clatter and clack against their crumbling lids.
I listen as the bones grow flesh, feel years shift their weight beneath my feet;
and I am in another place- a parallel plane that mirrors my memory, reflects against my mind's eye, casts shadow without sun. Familiar voices whisper from
the other side of time; they ask how do I see my dreams behind closed eyes?
What about the other side? The difference between here and there is logistics; countless miles that separate then and now. Three times I went, three times I came back; decades since spent filling the void left by what I left behind. I count backwards, wait for bruises to fade. Yes, time passes; but not much changes. Memory is like water in my clenched fist; it runs out, heads to earth- everywhere, earth; the odor of turned ground.
And the distance is but the sharp crack of a branch-
a second of sound that blurs into the hard snap of butt against bone, blends
into the soft whicka whicka of machetes through razor grass, becomes the deafening silence of the lull between what was and what will always be. The soft kiss of moments turn today to yesterday, brush back years with lips so gentle the seduction is barely felt; a rape of will that has no defense.
Quick glints of mica shoot through underbrush and fall; instinct ducks my head, bends my knees low against an unseen aim. A rush of wing sends startled swallows upwards in a sudden spiral; in their shadow medivacs pitch and vie for space.
Somewhere behind me, hounds howl for their dinner, the wails desolate, forlorn-
and in their voices I see black-haired women kneeling in tank ruts, children
cradled to their chests like bundled sticks.
The difference is that, the distance is this; this that, that this. Now means sometimes and other times. Whatever it is that looks back is without longing, does not lose itself in the tremble and click of limbs caught in a heavy wind. Tangles of cypress root grip river rock like ribs grip lung, like I grip the visceral strings
that connect what was and what will never be. All night, the hounds will keen lament for the rain, and bullrushes, fragile as burnt matches, will break in the breeze.
The rain is back. It hammers the tin roof, tiny spears like bullets. I feel the muscle rise in my throat, a knot I try to drink clear. My fourth shot finds me here,
stiff in front of a ghost-blue screen. I write; etch words against white that have no meaning, make no sense. In a far corner, the dead pile up, get ripe where they lay; I can smell their insistence move from breath to breath.
The present is ethereous, a documentary of spring in a jungle; olive-clad boys with terror on their faces search through thatch while I struggle to remember the alphabet doesn't string along a keyboard in sing-song harmony. I don't know where they went, wrapped in black and flown home in the cold bellies of planes. On my best nights, I pretend that none of them fell past my fingers on their journey there.
Dismal is like that; a wet spring in another jungle, a place that has never heard of me or my absence. I try for balance, some equal ground where the great Axis Mundi never slips her spokes and lets the green world turn red; but in the end, I'm not much different now from the girl who crawled through mud and guts, an aid-bag clutched in her hand. I still carry that bag, only now I walk instead of crawl and I don't bother to dodge the fire anymore.
My vision is a relentless understanding, no longer able to look away, obligated by depth and a yolk of light. In its field, a universe; an eye engulfed by the far-gone tides of what holds it there. I watch the ceiling fan turn in my kitchen, I try to blink and can't. The whickering blades converge, intrude on each other in endless repetition. I sit in my chair, this necessity of skin, and strip myself to bone.
It's 2 AM here in dismal swamp, the bottom end of the second day of my idiotic cleansing process. It's been a real pisser most of the day. Off work with nothing but time on my hands and mosquitoes on my mind. I think it's only because I have removed my remaining vials that I haven't given in. I clearly didn't remember the nightmare of withdrawal, and I wish I had thought about it a while longer before making this impulsive leap towards a non-existent light. I itch.
I've itched all day; there are millions of ants (that's as close a thing as I can relate it to, having been stung by the fire ants that build condos in my back forty) beneath my skin trying to find a way out. It's maddening, nothing stops it and I keep thinking about what I know will. But I haven't caved, ladies and gents, not YET. I hate admitting defeat, even when it's a sure winner.
I went hunting. Packed a sandwich and a legal pad or two (because I take them everywhere; yellow paper flutters about my house like giant moths) and cruised my land for a couple of hours or three. I have 72 acres of woods with a four room house (cabin, actually) planted in a small clearing in the middle. Today, it seemed like 72 feet. The more I walked the smaller those familiar tracts became. The squirrels were laughing at me; I couldn't draw a good bead on the broadside of a barn. They chittered in the tops of the Pines like gossiping women, tossed pine nuts from their roofs in obvious derision.
I went in a little deeper until I found a nice copse of magnolia; grand old things whose umbrella branches full of heavy, waxy leaves formed a dense wall at least 20 feet around. I dug out a pad and wrote...and wrote and wrote and wrote and none of it made any sense at all. Disconnected spurts of recall and regret. I thought about Calicoe and her saying that my writing was so much better on the ween...but it's not. It just isn't and then I thought about her question; what does Blue love most? The thinking on this quelled the itch, pushed it back a bit and after giving it a few minutes, I could tell her this:
I love the smell of Magnolia on the bloom. Sweet, thick; it's heady scent brings Jessie back from the dead on a waft of recollect so sudden it left gooseflesh in it's wake. Jessie was my first sexual experience. I was fourteen, she was a year older; beautiful in the way that young foals are...all long limbs and awkward grace. I didn't know I was Bi then, it was a term still undefined in those days, but I knew I was different; the tone my mother employed when she called me a tomboy was my first dim clue.
Jessie went on to become the epitome of small-town girlhood; cheerleader, prom queen, tobacco rose in the fall parade...clap as the floats pass, dear; show some respect for the real girls.
Jessie caught pregnant in our senior year, and like all good southern girls who daddy's aren't white trash, she married the guy and had two more babies before she was thirty. Every now and then, I'll see her in town somewhere, her coltish legs grown thick at the ankles, her beautiful face now a ghost in the mirror.
It was summer
when I first tasted a girl-
and I can't stop remembering
bare feet on asphalt, hot;
sweat popping above our lips
as we walked through empty lots,
past houses that watched behind
pulled blinds and barking dogs,
beyond the school where the next year
we would not know ourselves.
You look like a boy, she said
(her daddy wouldn't let her out with boys)
and the smile that tilted her face
tugged all my muscles at once
I can't forget a junked Dodge
half-buried in the woods off Cypress street,
its inside smelling of burnt oil and smoke
and how she felt like wet suede stretched
across the seat; whispers salt-glazed-
our mouths like wind on open wounds.
I put Jessie away, and not wanting the itch back so soon, I kept thinking...thank you, Calicoe...my thoughts breaking apart, flying down different paths in search of elusive love. I never cared for the word itself; I find it overused and overwrought and the subject of countless tomes of bad poetry and Harlequin romances. Never been in love, either; at least not what I perceive love to be. I've been in lust, swam in infatuation until the waters grew cold, dipped my toe a couple of times in actual relationships. But those are not for me, the constant loner. I'm not an easy person to know, much less get along with...I have my ways and I'm set in them like stone.
The last woman that lived with me (and that was 15 years past) was named Billie. She was a real stunner; red hair and gray eyes and possessed of a fair amount of guile. She was great in bed, better in the kitchen and she didn't seem to mind that I spent most of my free time either in the woods with my (much beloved) hounds or scribbling furiously on all that yellow paper. The problems started with all these bottles of lotion and little tins of make-up she sat all over the counter tops in my bathroom.
It took about three months of pantyhose hanging across my shower bar and lipstick love notes on my mirrors to realize the true meaning of the word MISTAKE. It took just a little longer to figure out that she loved my money way more than she professed to love me. It finally sunk into my perfume-fogged brain that snakes with pretty, colorful markings are still snakes. Billie was the last reptile that I didn't aim a 22 at.
"She walked in beauty like the night"
and all that bullshit.
If she had a name I can't recall it;
and it never mattered anyway,
all she ever wanted she got from me;
great head and greater circumstance.
All I ever wanted I got from her,
devotion, emotion, even a decent tear or two,
as long as my wallet fell open
whenever her whims got hungry;
and boy,could that bitch eat.
But it ended one cold November,
when I read somewhere
that if the greed outweighed the need,
the harmonious balance of things
So we came to an agreeable settlement,
she and I,
and she left before I killed her.
So, from all that rambling train of thought I can surmise that I love my privacy. I like being alone, I tolerate my own company well. I love bare bathroom counter tops and naked shower rods. I love red-headed women and red-bone hounds. I love a good squirrel stew with lots of onions...Boy, Calicoe, you've really started a roll; and I thank you from the bottom of my barely-there heart. That itch stayed away for a good while, and as I thought a little longer on the subject of love and where to find it I discovered, buried under several layers of hard, blue slate; this:
I love the feel of the weights; the tension of muscle against bone.
It helps me to remember that certain pains bring perspective.
I love the dip at the base of a woman's spine,
and the way it curves inward if the stroke is just so.
I love Harlan Ellison and Jerzy Kosinski and James Dickey.
I love Lady Day and Sarah Vaughn and Gerry Mulligan.
I love Lenny Bruce
I love the smell of woodsmoke on winter nights, the way Silver Birch cups its leaves before a rain, and the graceful fall of spanish moss from the cypress trees along the river.
I love chocolate Necco Wafers. All the other colors suck like an electrolux.
But Calicoe, my friend, my hand-up, my unlikely Gibralter (Oh, how I wish I could meet you in the flesh!)...you were right. The thing I love most are those damned yellow legal pads. Without them, I would be a dead thing; a shell of bone and blood.
It's close to 4 AM now. The itch grows worse, the thinking done, the things I love lost beneath the rise of demons and dawn. Having held it so long in my hands, seen too often the set of its jaw, I think of death; the sweet release of poets and pawns.
Do not go gently.
Do NOT go gently...
In the tick-down of days,
in barely an open and close of years,
I choose not to die, but to cheat death;
slow the wind of anatomy
that is no more than body,
take back from the gods what was never theirs.
To remain here forever,
a single voice in the silence of time,
a shadow above the soil of the dead.
I will not die denied,
next to an unknown madness,
but wait the birth of each mute hour,
and know the past was never better
than in small seconds.
I started the day with hands. The first thing I saw when waking, they seemed to glow in the half-light that slid through the blind slats...eerie ghost-hands that were seperate from the rest of everything, still and quiet on the red plaid comforter. They looked blue, like corpse hands.
I began to think of them as entities of their own, even though they behaved normally and went through the usual morning rituals just as they always did...they showered, brushed teeth, ran their cool fingers through my hair; they even selected the cracked mug with the faded smiley face when the coffee was ready. The cup barely shook; a minor miracle. Maybe they weren't my hands after all, because my hands were always trembling long before the coffee was done, and never failed to spill a fair amount across the table as I read yesterday's paper.
Yet on the surface of this strange morning, calm. A natural calm that came all alone (On little cat feet, ha ha) without the benefit of narcotics. Amazed at my new hands, I took off to work. They gripped the wheel with confidence, seemed to know the way just like my old hands...they even waved at Mrs. Campos when we passed the Shop 'N Save. She stared and didn't wave back; I don't think she recognized the hands.
Once at work, the hands revealed themselves as imposters. My partner Henry knew at once that they were replicants, a duo far different from my original pair. They were helpful...cleaned our rig, checked our equipment, turned our radio to country music; and this was the REAL betrayal, my true hands would have cut themselves off before performing that blasphemy. Henry kept looking at me sideways, but didn't say much. I think he was scared of the hands.
Our first call was a crackhead frequent flyer named Aaron. He called 911 at least twice a week, complaining of nausea, of vomiting, of explosive diarrhea. We hated Aaron; he always puked in the rig, spit on the floor, shit on our clean sheets. The real hands would have accidentally hit him up side his pea-head with the O2 tank...but not these hands. These hands helped him to the rig, gave him an emesis basin, started an IV and pushed phenergan to ease his nausea; they even placed Aaron on the defib to access his heart rhythm. They seemed to actually care.
Aaron watched them do all of this with guarded eyes, he flinched at each procedure. It was clear that even Aaron knew these hands were faux...he kept his eyes on them like a mouse keeps his eye on the snake. Henry was silent, but obviously siding with Aaron.
And that's how it went all day...the hands did it all. They attended every patient as if every patient was really in need of their expertise. They patted brows, pushed meds, administered painkillers like candy. They changed stretcher sheets, assisted the astounded nurses in the ER, filled out forms in a timely manner, never flipped one doctor the bird. They left the radio alone the whole shift. When our shift was over, they clocked out on time. They waved goodbye to Henry, to the Chief...they didn't wave back, either.
Then we were home, them and I. They opened the door, turned on the light, ran their fingers through my hair...and stopped. I could feel my scalp pulsing beneath, felt the blood pushing past the roots. The mirror by my bed showed a face that looked like me, hands trapped in a short tangle of black and gray...shaking. My hands, my true pair. I wondered where they had been, I knew where they were going. Opening a small drawer in the bed stand, they took up a leather pouch, took out a familiar friend; slender, sharp, 20 CC.
Somewhere in the dark, the replicants died.
A lot of my time is spent contemplating purpose, how it does or doesn't apply to my life. I never thought I had one, not really...for so many years now, the only issue has been survival; learning to wake successfully to another sorry dawn seemed purpose enough. Three tours worth of years before that were spent the same way; in that endless quest for survival. The only difference was the dawn...to wake to it then was a rush I have yet to equal; the particular and peculiar thrill of realizing that yes, you breathe on for a while longer...no one is sweeping you into an anonymous rubber bag as the sun rises over mountains at once beautiful and deadly; their backs packed with their own purpose.
My days come and go like gray shifts of inconsequence, spills of time that run unnoticed into more of the same. Days spent as a mannequin of the self I once was; the shell is there but the turtle moved out long before Saigon fell...now the face that looks into mine from the peeled-back silver of passing mirrors is unfamiliar; and it is only recently that I find myself wondering where I went, what happened to that fearless girl who pretended not to care and did...when did the pretense become the fact?
I could blame it all on Nam, I suppose, as so many do...pile the great non-purpose on the dead heads of all those soldier-boys that poured their lives across the toes of my boots, spilled their thoughts into my waiting hands and lost any memory of those ladies who were lovely once. But to lay it on that lap would be a lie, because it was just a place, a span of miles I ran through when I was young, chased by tigers let loose from someone else' nightmare. Nam didn't mold me; I molded it...shaped it into a bullet that I would never chamber, never fire. That gun doesn't belong to me, the tigers that creep down it's barrel were never mine. Instead, I pulled from it a profession; skills I learned then I use now, the waiting hands are now replicants that act as if they give a damn when all they really give is time.
So I sit and I wonder, why do it? What purpose do I serve spending hour after hour trying to fix people who care even less than I? Most of them addicts, criminals, would-be suicides, drunks...very few runs turn out to be actual accidents or of a natural cause. And then I remember...who am I to judge, an addict myself? Dependent on Heroin as I ran those long ago miles; my own dragon set to fend off tigers. Then later, morphine; another dragon for another generation of nightmares...only this time, the guns are mine; their barrels sleek, disposable stainless steel. I seek the same calm they all do, it's just that my search is private, not left lying in the street or in some seedy by-the-hour room...the difference is really only one of logistics. It doesn't make me better, just better-off...I think my actual purpose all along has been to bury the details, throw everyone's dirt on my truth.
I try to remember why it was once worthwhile...why the effort mattered; why it might matter still. I recall faces, write down names, sort it out on paper as if the words are purpose enough. I think of an old man, dead ten years or more; but it's his wife that I still see, pacing the floors of my memory...countless shots of mescal and morphine won't wash away her face; so I write this:
They lived in a perpetual past,
three dim and heat-heavy rooms
encased them in the crumbling husk
of a brownstone on a forgotten side
of the city.
We ran suicide shifts down dead streets,
and some midnights found our pulsing
red and white outside their stoop,
spinning strobes slapping brick with
He was the Phantom of the Opera,
she was his Christine. She would rush us in,
blue eyes wide in a thin plane.
Her scent reminded me of tabbouleh,
He was ancient, breath like smegma,
face like a leather mask. Cirrhosis ate
his body, drank his mind; accompanied by
strains of Wagner in unrelenting drones.
While we worked, she hovered-
frail wasp patting his brow, humming.
I saw her hug herself, fingers
dripping panic down her back
like slow sweat.
He was a wicked Raoul, hateful in his extremis.
He struck at her, called her a brainless zygote,
rotten whore. She gave him the radius
of her smile and crooned "Papa, papa,"
in dulcet tones.
We lifted him to the stretcher-
she cried when we strapped the belts
and clutched our sleeves in nervous desperation.
She made quiet, pleading noises
in a strange tongue.
They had been someone once;
he a producer of this, she an actress in that.
She had worn diaphanous gowns that clung
to her mons veneris, danced in hot abandon
for his pleasure.
We left her standing in the doorway on that
last night of our aquaintance, calling papa
in a pitiful litany that was at once beautiful
Once out, put down on my blank sheets like the scattered rows in an untended cemetary, I find the ghosts remain. Face upon face, they bob the surface of my mind and break the black water pooled there with an uncomfortable ease. I think of dragons, of tigers chasing miles into decades; their purpose leaps from my pen, ink like blood across the page.
I entertain the demons that follow me from room to room. Vague shifts of space direct me here to here; they follow on the cat's feet of some other time poet my fogged mind cannot name. We have surely danced, them and I; they have led me, I have led them...we have chased each the other across spans of lost years. Now I pirouette alone, spin without brakes into varying shades of black; they seem content to watch. Sometimes, I notice the tightness in the air as they clap.
I find myself at my kitchen table, elbows set on an oilcloth that I must have purchased; I struggle to catch the memory of when. My oilcloth is singular in its ugliness, blocks of blue and white connected by tiny sunflowers that resemble flies cocooned in perfect symmetry within a square web. Burn marks track the path of the spider. I light a cigarette with my Zippo, its pewter body as battered as my own. The thumb wheel is loose; three strikes to fire and I wonder if the snipers are watching alongside my snickering demons. The itch between my shoulders has grown numb, a disabled target. I smell the bite of ozone, and beneath that, copper; always the copper, heavy and sweet.
The floor under my feet peels and fades; its pattern lost to countless steps. Once blue or rose or green, it now lays gray and dead across boards gone soft with rot. There's a hole to the left of my right foot, neither small or large and shaped like a grin, it yawns a welcome; the demons at my back nudge against my ear. I inch my toes through the smile, feel the air of the cellar below, cold, damp. I wonder if any corpses before me have found this hole, slid though it to rest at last nestled in rat shit and dirt. I try to force my foot past the limits of the hole; the edges give without complaint. I take a long drag and wait for the dark below to yank me in; the air clutches my ovation.
Dusk drawing from the blinds finds me on my knees with butter knife and bleeding fingers; splinters pile up on either side like dead soldiers. I think of foxholes and fire pits and the blackened maws of buried screams that have found breath beneath the give of my floorboards. The smile has widened into a laugh; its cool trill dries my efforts to salt. Behind me, whispers of applause pull past my shoulders and fall between my hands; I can hear it echo somewhere in the black.
Demons sleep by daylight. I wake with cheek pressed against a table leg, fingers sore and curled under my chin. For a moment, I can't remember; my eyes, sideways at floor level, pick out shards of wood, a settled haze of smoke, spatters of tacky blood. I smell dirt and damp and the sour odor of spoil; again I think of foxholes, I wonder where the sniper is perched. A ringing phone startles me to my feet, the steady thump thump of the evacs melt into morning traffic that hums from the streets below my window. Shadows of sun shaft through my cracked blinds; the hole reveals itself...only a hole. Jagged at its edges, bigger, empty. I dump the ashtray over its lip; scatter my night cremations and watch as ash sifts into nothing.
Someone asked me today what 'Blue Tattoo' meant and why I chose it as a tag name. Well, for millions it means identification; stamped on wrists and forearms by some long-ago hatred. It's countless bad images and forgotten names forever etched onto skins by home-made artists; they fade and warp as time goes by. It's a book of poems by Lynn Lifshin...'The Blue Tattoo'. Pretty good ones, too. But for me, it's a cool image of a tattoo parlor that I found...I just like the sound of it. It's a start-over, a second chance, it's the wrinkle that my time can't forget. It's my own warp 'n fade, my personal two-step, my sideways shuffle. It's what my life FEELS like most days...a faded, homemade tattoo that isn't quite what it used to be; isn't the beautiful thing it looked like thirty years ago under bad fluorescent lights. It's just a few crooked lines wrapped around a foolish idiom that no longer rings true.
But it's mine, and I love it, in the twisted way you love the scar you got in some bar fight back in the day; the way you love a bad toothache because it reminds you that you can still feel...even if it's only pain. I love it because it won't go away, it's as faithful as a whipped puppy. Every now and then I trace it's face with my finger and wonder where the cobalt went, wonder when the ink clouded into slate...was it the year mama died, or did it happen somewhere in Haiphong while I was busy looking for trip wires? Maybe it was a gradual thing, and I only noticed when someone pointed it out. Maybe it's MY identification, a symbol of self-hatred that I'm not qualified or ready to sort out, that I'm not ready to forget.
So I'll stay up late tonight and find tattoo flash on the net. I'll stare at all the skin art and perhaps pick out a new one to grace my falling flesh...something to remember me by. A vivid dust of color to cover my own faded shade of pale. It'll make me feel young again; bring back memories of when I didn't care and thought I never would. A celtic cross, a rose dagger, a sacred heart with my name across it's apex...or maybe just a zipper down my chest to remind me how easily some things open.
But I'll probably just get drunk, instead.
I read an interview recently where a good man said:
"Blue whacks hard, hits 'em where it hurts; but a little
of that can go a long way..." and of course it got me thinking,
sent me off on a backwards journey that went and came
such a long way that I wonder if I'll recognize the end when it nears.
I thought of my brother Eddie; 10 years older and dead
by 1970, hanging from the chandelier in my mother's great room
because he wanted to run off to Paris or some gay somewhere
to sling paint against curling canvas and that just wasn't done;
couldn't happen said dear old dad; it's a doctorate for you...
So there hung Eddie on a crisp May morning, sneakered feet
drawing lazy circles in shadows on the black and white parquet.
And I remember how my mother didn't scream; or cry or even
drop her bone cup but instead instructed (now there's a word)
the housekeeper to "send for the authorities, Helen", and
instruct (there it is again) them to come quietly, please.
When they cut Eddie down a crystal was somehow broken
in the process and as I watched the fine glass shimmer to the floor
I thought now there's beauty; such a beautiful irony...
Eddie has broken mother's chandelier but he'll never get to see
the distaste that bent her mouth downwards beyond the borders
allotted to his death. At dinner, my father remarked
on the high cost of a replacement. (not Eddie; the crystal)
So there it is; a little that went a long way.
Every time I see wisteria I remember,
it blossomed early that year and framed
the windows of the great room where Eddie dangled in defiance...
I associate it's heavy, purple scent with that final up yours.
Soon after I ran away, joined the army...thus fucking my mother
and my father in the best three-way ever; I was supposed
to be a lawyer and carry on tradition in the time-honored manner.
All the years in between then and now lay markers for that
backwards journey; and today I find myself stumbling upon them,
fascinated that with each mile back the colors still remain vivid
and true; even if most of it is red and black. So along my
reverse search I look for blue, yellow, green, orange; bright bits
that I bury because the dark seems easiest to cover...
but looking down at the buckled road I find this:
A girl named Grace in 1973, just after Saigon fell, living
in a Charlotte loft decorated with prints of Dali and Pollack
that made you dizzy but she said they freed her mind, made
her think and she liked Brautigan because he understood love, she said; she read to me "The Wait' and later,
as we made love on a sprung sofa she cried
and called me by a name that wasn't
mine...I color her blue and sometimes when it rains so light
you can't see it I remember how her hair stuck to her cheeks
after the sweat was dry.
A man who said his name was Jerry gave me a ride one cold afternoon just outside of Chesterfield; and seeing I had no money and no motive took me to his apartment, fed me soup
and pimento cheese sandwiches that were very near how manna must have tasted. We talked for hours sitting at his kitchen table;
and at some point he showed me his collection of jazz wax
that had to be priceless and just before I left he played
Betty Roche and the Savoy Sultans...I can still hear the soul inflection of that voice. Color Jerry orange; and now whenever I eat pimento cheese I think of him and his 33's.
A small boy and his sister who found their way onto my property
not too long ago. Out with my squirrel gun, looking for snakes, I come upon the two of them sitting on the bank of the Tar river that borders my land on the north side. They never heard my approach, being apt at walking the woods line in near silence, but my red-bone Millie startled the shit out of them with a high-pitched howl that set my teeth on edge. They jumped as if shot, and the girl (probably all of sis or seven) screamed and then began to cry miserably. "Don't shoot us, mister", said the boy, who was not much older than the girl, "we was only digging night crawlers..." (I guess I looked like a mister in camouflage; it made me smile) They calmed down when they saw I was no boogeyman, I gave them some of the kisses I always carry in one pocket or another and we spent a pleasant hour or so pulling worms out of the rich river earth and talking about things like why the river runs just one way and why coon dogs are always so skinny.
After they left, I sat awhile on the bank and thought of how
everything goes a long way, but none of it ever seems
to go on long enough. I'll color these two green, for growth...
maybe they'll come back; I'll remember to haul extra kisses.
I'm still looking for yellow.
But on a clear day, You can see through sclera, past the color-wheel of iris, into the natural lens. If you're quick enough, or good enough, you can watch bright fade to dull, see what was drift into what could have been. It's said that the last image perceived is reflected in the corneal eye; but that's bullshit. The only thing left is an eclipse too dim to cast back.
Like the shut of a door against a heated room, what remains is cold. I've watched more doors close than I care to count, seen so much of what could have been...now I wear that cold, an unseen insulation keeping heat at mind's length. To remember warmth is to recall faces, names, the end of every story. Cold is better; numb and hard. I need the feel of the shell.
Then today, a kid grabbed my arm. A hopeless kid with a hopeless wound, face-up in the middle of State street, the familiar aftermath of a common war. No fix here, no TV save. His eyes were green and deep; bending close, I watched frost rise in them like water...and through the fingers that circled my skin, I felt the heat slide away, felt the slam of the door. Hours later, I heard the click of the latch.
Isn't it funny how we return to the places where things happened, old soldiers drawn to land consecrated by battle and cross...just as I sit here tonight, swallowing warmth shot after shot. I remember faces, write down names, turn the pages of an unfinished book and wonder if the story ever really ends. I feel the air thicken, I know that what I've come to find has not dimmed, or waned away.
And in the back of my mind, night storms gather dust.
The Dismal is quiet in that hour before dawn,
when the sun is not here or there but suspended;
a faint breath of light caught on the edge of nothing.
In that hour she sleeps, and tucked within her gnarled arms
sleep all that name her mother; otter and coon, bear and bobcat-
gray fox, red fox, white-tail deer; mink nestle their pelts
deep into moss beds spread like comfort along bank and bough.
Even the cottonmouth lie still beneath rock and log, copperheads
lie above; their night-damp skins shimmer like new pennies.
I alone am awake, but I am not awake alone.
In the Dismal silence ride the voices of time; they travel
years in a whisper, hiss at my ear in the low tones of the damned.
They speak with dead tongues, spin memory from dust and it settles-
kisses my sweat-wet cheeks and drapes my consciousness in webs of what was.
Outside my window, swamp bleeds into delta as night becomes day.
Cicadas, slow to wake, rub their legs together and I hear clackers
popping through razor grass; my fists clinch, I wait for the dull thud
of claymores to follow the din. I can see foxfire blooms in the peat,
but my mind sees arc light through the trees; air bursts over Albany-
and the voices hiss "run, run..." I reach for an aid kit that's never there.
A Pileated woodpecker drills his perch and M-60's rattle my teeth
in mad minutes without end. Tracers fire above the ledge of my sill,
their red tails trail smoke like drifts of fog. Along the rim of reason,
concertinas trip with pings and snaps that nails my flesh to sheet.
The Dismal comes alive by degrees; her children wear paper shoes
that slide through brush and leaf with deadly ease. Squirrels rustle their nests,
warblers call for their mates, and somewhere in between the voices pull away-
threads of their goodbyes knit tight stitches down my spine.
Morning brings life. Otters slap the river in search of brim, they break surface
in pairs. Coons scuttle the deadfall in search of snakes, snakes take to the flats
in search of sun. Deer circle the cypress, stretch long and lovely necks
to prune moss from their canopies; black bears sing to their cubs.
My hounds edge their run on anxious feet, their hungry howls echo in the trees.
Somewhere in the swamp's heart, mink skirt my traps with skilled indifference-
their pelts stained moss green. When the wind is low I can hear them laugh.
And I am awake, alone.