Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Rhyming Pittsburgh: The Story So Far

Read the continuing story on the Facebook fan page, or buy the novel at Amazon Kindle.


I set out to give my heart to a woman. Instead, I gave it to America: the songs of Hoagy Carmichael, Conde McCullough’s bridges, five pinball machines, the city of Pittsburgh, and Jack Kerouac’s nickels. But the story begins with Carolyn Johansen, who was the best screw I ever had.
I met her at The Wit’s End, a bookstore in Seattle’s Fremont district that hosts a weekly poetry reading in its cave-like back room. Carolyn’s schoolmarm features – spectacles, curly blonde hair, a small, brilliant smile – had an immediate effect on my nerve endings, but there was nothing I could do about it. She was a bad poet. Sooner or later, she would roll over in bed and say, “Honey? What do you think of my poetry?”

            She wrote what my pal Rob calls “emu poems” – flightless creatures that roll along from exit to exit, taking you exactly where you figured you were going. He tags it with the foulest word in his vocabulary: “discursive.”

            But then, something wonderful. Carolyn began to ask questions. What do you mean when you say an image is “trite”? What is a line-break supposed to convey? What is the point of a surreal leap in an otherwise linear poem?

            The human mind responds to change, I said. When you throw in something unexpected, you re-engage your audience, put a bend into their thoughts.

            Oh! she said. And the brilliant smile, a rectangle of teeth.

            At the next reading, her poem sprouted an eskimo. A week later, an elephant. Then she began a series of prose-poems about a mulatto rodeo-rider, written in first person.

            She joined us for our post-game blitz at the Triangle Lounge. I asked her out. After the movie, she was at my apartment, at my disposal. I was hesitant, looking for half-measures.

            “Carolyn, have you ever tried mutual masturbation?”

            “Not yet.”

            A week later, we had dinner at her house, near Lake Washington. It turned out that poetry was a first step out of chronic fatigue syndrome. (I had always been skeptical; I considered it a physical manifestation of ennui.)

            Two poets seeking intimacy tend toward Scrabble. We kept up the pretense till the occasional meetings of thigh and shoulder caused us to start losing pieces of clothing. Soon we were naked, in her bedroom. She knelt before me.

            “You’re so good at that,” I said.

            She took me out and laughed. “My old boyfriend said I was ‘unafraid of the penis.’”

            Given my previous hesitation, she was surprised when I pulled out a condom. From there our activities were underscored by enthusiasm, which means much more to men than we will ever admit. Maybe it was the years of fatigue, the years without sex, but Carolyn simply adored it, and exploded twice a minute. I enjoyed her enjoyment so much that I wore myself out. She removed the condom, washed me off with a warm cloth, then used her mouth to bring me back to erection.

            “What can I do to finish you off?”

            “Get on top,” I said. “Face away from me. Now. This’ll take some effort, but lift yourself into a squat, and when you go down ... don’t go down all the way.”

            Now I had the all-important visual element, Carolyn’s generous white bobbing ass. It didn’t take long.

            A week later, we met up again at The Wit’s End. After the reading and the Triangle, I walked her along Lake Union. Her car was parked beneath the soaring towers of the Aurora Avenue Bridge. I began with a kiss.

            “You know I’m leaving tomorrow?”

            “Yes.” She smiled shyly.

            “That’s why I’m trying so hard not to make promises. I want this trip all to myself.”

            “I understand.”

            “By the way,” I said. “You’re becoming a hell of a poet.”



The Train to Unattainia

I inhabit the spaces between the walls
after the flip of the switch –
before the dark of the bulb

I am a ruthless cowboy semicolon
forever inserting myself into conversations
and it always seems to cause

a pause
riding the hum of the intermission crowd like a
sailor, tying silk scarves around their
slow-nodding heads and

the rise of the curtain at the
edge of my sight

The only breath I take (breathe)
comes on the twentieth mile (breathe)
of a thousand-mile drive
when turning around is no longer an option

(The early morning sun blowing through the vents like
powdered sugar)

I go to the land where nothing can be had
running down a long hard ribbon of willful disconnection

The needle winds in and out of the road map
pulling me to places like Cheyenne, Wyoming
where my siren, Improvisia
stands on the green edge of a sidewalk
blowing smoke into a renegade sun

In one hand she holds a book of songs
in the other a bucket of blue paint
dips it in till the
color bleeds out the notes

She hands it to me with an Andalusian smile and says
Here, it’s the one you asked for
open it up and
sing, baby, sing

I woke up at a rest stop in southern Utah, red-rock walls rising around me like a papier-mâché float. A German couple stood at a picnic table, squabbling over a road map. I rubbed my eyes, started the car and returned to I-70, a parade of sunset-colored mesas and sentinels.

            My destination was the Austin International Poetry Festival, and I had my doubts. They accepted me without even looking at my work; how select could they be? I sent “Unattainia” to their festival anthology because I thought it too weird to send anywhere else. Not that I didn’t like it. In fact, it reflected my favorite theme: The Great American Road. And here I was, on it, making myself disappear.

            I reported to a small motel in Austin, where I was greeted with a surprise. The anthology was well-done – interesting art on the cover, professional binding, clean typography, well-written poems. The first reading was not as impressive. I found myself in a sterile big-chain bookstore, sitting through three hours of poetry before I got my ten minutes. I figured we all needed a wake-up call, so I burst into song, a few lines from Stevie Ray Vaughan, the hometown blues hero. It was fun to watch their eyes flash open in that visceral, hunter-gatherer response. A big black kid nearly busted up with joy. Wow! I went to a poetry reading and heard the blues!

            I read three one-page poems and finished with “Unattainia.” Poetry audiences like nothing better than a poet who goes short, and will pay you back for this courtesy by actually remembering some of what you read.

            Free for the afternoon, I paid a visit to the Stevie Ray statue on the Colorado River, waited till sundown to watch the bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge, then wandered the famed nightclubs of Sixth Street.

            The next day, I reported to a small art gallery near the University of Texas. The reading was shorter and better, and I even ran into that rarest of prizes, a poet who sets off sparks between my ears. Her name was Monica, from Las Vegas. I stood outside the gallery, paying due respects, when we were interrupted by Sally, one of the festival directors.

            “Jake? Could I talk to you? It’s kinda ... confidential.”

            “Nice meeting you,” said Monica, who went to join a circle of friends.

            “So,” I said. “What’s up?”

            “Well,” said Sally. “We knew from your application that you were planning to leave tomorrow morning.”

            “Maybe tonight.”

            “Oh, um ... I guess what I wanted to say, then, is that we’re having an awards ceremony at noon tomorrow? And we’d really appreciate it if you were there.”


            Sally’s broad hint sent me into a frenzy of activity. I had just enough money to get to New York – but not if I stayed another night in Austin. I found a payphone and played moneylender roulette. Sass and Mack were gone. Rob was gone. But Anne answered on the second ring.

            “Hello, Ms. Gelhaus, we’ve called to offer you an exciting opportunity in no-interest loans.”

            “Lucky me,” she said in her Jewish voice. “How much do you need, Poet Boy?”

            “Kin ya spare two hundred?” I said in my Irish voice.

            “Yep. Western Union?”

            My friends are well-trained.

            “By the way – it’s for a good cause. I’m about to win a prize.”


            I picked up the cash at a grocery store, then proceeded to discover that every motel in Austin was full-up. Some sort of state-wide soccer tournament. At midnight, I drove to a truck stop in Blanco (pronounced “Blank-oh”), where I spent two hours eating a humongous steak dinner. I then attempted to sleep in my car, as a crowd of black jackdaws swooped and chattered in the parking lot.

            In the morning, I returned to the truck stop for a  rent-a-shower, then drove to the awards site, an art gallery just down from the capital building. What followed was a slow but pleasant torture, as they started with the honorable mentions (ten of them) and worked their way up. The longer I suffered, the greater my reward. I made it all the way to the moment of truth.

            “Our second prize winner is ... Jake Willoughby – all the way from Seattle!”

            Acceptance speeches are rare occasions. I tried to make mine short but meaningful.

            “This is a double honor, because this is one of my ‘weird’ poems, and weird poems are not always appreciated. Which is a shame, because they are usually my favorite children. It’s also a road poem, and after this ceremony I will be jumping into that Miata across the street and driving to New York. So, I thank you for adopting my weird child, and now I’ll read it for you.”

            A half-hour later, I exchanged my long-sleeve shirt for a tee, tucked my fifty-dollar prize check into my writing folder, and headed for Dallas. It was time for Maggie Fox.

Centerport, Long Island

Five minutes out of Charleston, West Virginia, I was headed for a tree-lined ridge (leafy salad of spring greens), when the traffic came to a stop. After five minutes, I turned off the engine. After ten minutes, I snuck off to a construction site porta-potty. Then I cranked open my ragtop, lay back in my seat, and thought about Maggie.

            I took my advertising degree from Seattle University and did the logical thing – moved to Port Townsend to play in a rock band. My classes in copywriting made me the closest thing we had to a wordsmith, so my guitarists assigned me to attach lyrics to their riffs. I figured the first step was espresso, so I went to Vandeweigh’s, a cool little java hut near the ferry docks.

            Maggie was a barista, equipped with some fierce barbed wire: buzzcut hair, sundry Gothic tattoos and a series of T-shirts whose basic message was “Fuck Men.” I honored the warning signs, kept my greetings cordial but brief, and was soon rewarded with a visit on one of Maggie’s smoke-breaks.

            “Whatever you’re writing, it must be pretty intense.”

            “Oh, hi. Trying to write some songs. But I can’t seem to get the rhyming.”

            “Can’t get? Or don’t like it?”

            “Exactly. It’s fucking phony, is what it is.”

            “Lots of songs don’t rhyme. Pearl Jam, 10,000 Maniacs. Do without.”

            “You’re right. I’ll give it a shot.”

            She crunched her cigarette into my ashtray and went back to work.

            Our friendship grew in five-minute spurts of nicotine and coffee. I laid off any funny notions, because I’d seen her boyfriend, a skinny, spastic kid who wound his arms around her in the parking lot.

            He was the reason for the barbed wire. She’d come west with him from Long Island. At first sight of the Puget Sound, he adopted methamphetamine as his new hobby. Two years later, Maggie had kicked the meth but not him.

            It was a sunny Tuesday. We leaned on the railings of the dock. Maggie was giving me the same old vent about Saving the Boyfriend, and finally I got fed up.

            “He’s an asshole! And after you save him from sticking that shit into his body – he’ll still be an asshole!”

            She looked at me, stunned, then burst out laughing – laughed until she was leaning over the railing, gasping for breath. I laid a hand on her neck. She turned with eyes the same green as the water below us, underscored with ten degrees of pain. I kissed her.

            We lasted only three months. The old boyfriend got himself busted, and that was all she could take.

            “There’s too much pain for me here. I need to go home. And my mother needs me.”

            What could I do? I let her go.

Requisite Breakup Poem #3

We travel this highway
as far as our maps will take us
sharing the lead
using each other to block the wind

At night we rest in the orchards
I wander into the rows and pull up mustard
for your windshield
your shadow above me
in the shape of an owl

One day we come to a T
you roll down your window and say

I am going this way
the road is straight and clear
the soil is rich and moist and falls apart in your fingers
there are perfect cows and old trees and graveyards
and there is a town where children play on tire swings
where the motels have ice blue pools and queen size beds
and the car wash sings my name
in a slapping windstorm of towels

And I say
I am going this way
the road is dusty and hard to follow
there are lightning storms and flash floods
but there are canyons the colors of children’s drawings
and at night the sky is wider than time
On top of a mesa there is a coyote sipping cappuccinos
and we will sit and drink and howl
while dead nameless poets play baseball
on the desert floor
reciting villanelles as they run to first base

And we look at each other

You wave and turn right
your hatchback slipping away in the flash of morning
a period at the end of a clean gray sentence

I wrap you up in tobacco
watch the smoke roll off my windshield
check my gas gauge and
turn left.

            The title was a joke. A couple of my friends broke up that same summer, and recorded their heartbreak in poems. It was the first real poem I ever wrote. Naturally, it was a road poem.

            The traffic started up. We climbed into Maryland, the evening sun painting the wooded hills orange. Before I knew it, I was fumbling for my toll at the Washington Bridge, eyeing the proud hats of Manhattan: the Chrysler’s showgirl plumage, the Empire State’s spiked helmet, the twin stovepipes of the Towers.

            I had a plan, based on a walking knowledge of the island, but I never dreamed it would work. South on Riverside Drive, left on 92nd, then north on West End as a truck vacated the loading zone of 666. (Leah notes that the builders retained enough superstition to skip the 13th floor.) I dashed inside, retrieved an envelope from the front desk, then rifled uphill for Broadway. I opened the envelope at the stoplight and found a $500 check from Sass and Mack. Thank goodness.

            Then I got stuck at Columbus Circle. Rather, around Columbus Circle, three orbits until a tender-hearted cabbie waved me over.

            I skirted Central Park, arriving on the East Side just in time for rush hour. I couldn’t quite fathom the feats being performed all about me. These people had psychomechanical connections to the outer skins of their cars; they knew when they had a half-inch to spare. I ceased to breathe for the next twenty minutes – till I spotted an onramp for the Queensboro Bridge. I plowed eastward on Queens Boulevard till I crossed into Long Island and, eventually, Plainview.

            After five years of correspondence, we still found time for flirting. We both love old jazz tunes, and I told her I was going to give her “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” But when she opened the door, I melted into a schoolkid. I aimed for her lips, ended up kissing her on the cheek, and finally worked my way back to an awkward hug. In five years, you lose a lot of choreography.

            “Hi,” she said. “You’re just in time to help me move.”

            “So that’s why you wanted me here!”

            “Sheer coincidence. But I could use the extra brawn. C’mon in.”

            I followed her up the stairs, which gave me a chance to study her figure. She had lost the meth-induced skinniness and blossomed into Irish-American womanhood, filling out at the hips. Even more striking was her hair, which had grown to her shoulder blades, a luxurious stream of honey red. When she turned, I could see that her face had filled out, too, making a better home for those huge, round eyes. I was getting a little enchanted.

            “Here, grab a bag of clothes. My stinky landlady is gone, so we can pile this on the porch till Jerzy gets here with the van.”

            “Stepdad Jerzy?”

            “Mr. DUI himself. He’s in one of his ‘dry’ phases. But he stops every ten minutes to go through someone’s garbage.”

            We arrived downstairs to find the van backing in. Jerzy floated out like a big piece of bubble gum – fleshy pink face, bald pink head – and grinned.

            “All aboard for Smithville!”

            Maggie didn’t seem to feel the need for an introduction (Jerzy and I had heard plenty about each other), so we loaded up and followed him in my car. We arrived ten minutes later at a white house under a sprawling shade tree – and the converted garage that would hence be Maggie’s studio. I brought in the last bag and perched on her bed, checking out the newly installed kitchen.

            “Nice. But why the sudden move?”

            “I was a freakin’ prisoner, is why. No visitors, no property in the common areas, no coming home after midnight.”

            “Shit! I’m surprised you lasted as long as you did.”

            “I lead a naturally boring life, so it wasn’t much of an issue. Till now.”

            That smile needed to have lips applied to it.

            “Now that,” she said, “is a kiss to build a dream on.”

            “It’s great to see you, Maggie. You look gorgeous.”

            “Don’t even start that, pal. We gotta get to Bayville for dinner.”

            “Geez! Full agenda.”

            We came outside to find Jerzy across the street.

            “Hey, garbage man!” Maggie shouted. “Let’s go eat!”

            “Check out this lampshade!” Jerzy grinned and held out his prize.

            Maggie’s mom was a mess – part of the reason Maggie was raised by her grandma. The physical signs were a mop of tangled brown hair and three missing teeth. But she was a likable mess, and if you did her the favor of listening as she rambled, you were a cinch for the top of her list.

            “... and I said, Dolores, honey! What the hell is the difference between a Presbyterian and an Episcopalian? Same cloth, different suit – am I right, Mags?”

            “You’re utterly full of crap, Mom.”

            “The way she speaks to me!”

            They were a classic case of the child-parent flip-flop, and Maggie afforded herself the luxury of contradiction. After dinner, we retreated to the beach, watching the light-strip of Connecticut across the Sound.

            “God. My mother the wind-up doll.”

            “She’s sweet, though.”

            “Sweet like arsenic, dahling. Sometimes I have to hang up the phone mid-sentence.”

            I slipped a hand into hers. The waves made a sound like a thousand beagles lapping at water dishes.

            “When you said they lived on the beach, I didn’t know you meant … on the beach.”

            “In the summer, I go swimming out there.”

            “I’m impressed. I don’t know if I could do that. I’d be thinking of giant squids – clammy tentacles climbing up my legs ...”

             “Oh, thanks for the imagery!”

            We drifted to an awkward silence. There would likely be more; emails and phone calls were no preparation for this.

            “I can’t believe it’s you,” I said.

            She turned to face me. “Do me a favor. Kiss me again.”

            Maggie had the most chewable lips I’d ever encountered. I let a hand drift to her breast. She sent it back to her waist for a five-minute penalty.

            “I’m not sayin’ never, honey. Just not yet.”

            “Sure.” I thought I saw a tear in her eye, but I could have been mistaken.

            “Where the hell are we sleeping, anyway?” I asked.

            “I didn’t want to offend my new landlords, so I got us a motel room in Centerport.” She put a finger to my nose. “Separate beds.”

            I whispered in her ear. “I’ve got the idea now.”

            She slapped my shoulder. “I know you doggy males. Yagotta put it on a fuckin’ billboard.”

            I wrapped her in a bear hug and lifted her off the ground.

            “Put me down, you asshole!” she giggled.

            I lifted her higher. “It only excites me when you swear!”

            In the morning, I finally got a look at the calendar-photo waterfront outside our motel. We spent the day at an old estate that they turned into a park. We walked into some kind of children’s festival, and took full advantage, watching a marionette play before ducking inside for a show-and-tell of predatory birds. The snowy barn owl had Maggie gasping at odd moments the rest of the afternoon.

            “God! Did you see those eyes?”

            We strolled the arboretum, peeked into the mansion windows, then wandered onto the longest stretch of lawn I’d ever seen. We lay under a tree and marveled at it.

            “It’s an ocean of grass!” said Maggie. “A freakin’ ocean!”

            “God!” I mocked. “Did you see those eyes?”

            She simmered her green pupils into my skin. “I will refrain from beating you to a pulp, because I love you.”

            The last four words slipped around the tree, climbed up the trunk and dropped an acorn on my head.

            “You do?”

            “Sure. You’re the love of my life. Am I yours?”

            “Yes. But ...”

            “What are we going to do about it? Nothin’. It’s all right, Jake. It doesn’t change the fact of it. Do me a favor, huh? Rub my neck.”

            I placed a hand at either collarbone and pressed in with my fingers. The love of my life, a white T-shirt, a forever carpet of green. Things were adding up.

            We didn’t have long, She drove me to Hicksville. I had some words in mind, but it would have to wait. We got to the platform five seconds ahead of my train.

            “Goodbye, honey. Enjoy Manhattan. Get your bags, hurry!”

            I grabbed the handles, gave those chewable lips an unforgivable peck, and slipped between the doors. Maggie watched me go, a strand of red hair whispering her face, wearing the most distraught expression I’d ever seen. It went straight to my stomach and stayed there till Penn Station.


Mustang Sally

Call her a red haired Jewish soul eyed brick wall Los Angeles blues belter wide stance evil eye coffee espresso stare melt you into the sidewalk.

You needn’t say more unless you feel like it.

Big Irish lug nut sits on the ride cymbal, too lost in his two four fills to hear the singer, nothing more than a shoulder blade on his middle tom.

Still, two days later he draws the picture in full fashion: shafts of sun piping the next door brickpile; longneck Buds, a shower of smoke, guitar case coffins; stage stack of Clapton drivers, one China rip and roll sax.

Mustang Sally holds up a strong pale hand, cantering the tempo. The band stays rutstuck lagging, but not me, me and my high hat frills. I follow her fingers all the way down with the cue of my sticks: twelve bars, twelve bars and home.

            A year after Maggie, my band fizzled out, and I took my drums back to Seattle. An old college pal (the “China rip and roll sax”) invited me to a blues jam, and there I met Leah.

            “Mustang Sally” was not a crush poem, but obviously Leah made a big impression. She had dark, moony eyes and full lips drawn forever into a pout. She could use either to cut you off cold. She was, in short, the most beautiful hard-ass I ever met.

            She was sufficiently impressed by my playing to ask me into her band, a rock-funk quartet named Psychotrope. We rehearsed in a backyard cottage in Tukwila, and I enjoyed the chance to explore a new kind of music. Our guitarist/songwriter, Geno, had an impressive range, dabbling in syncopations and multiple meters, while bassist Max and I locked in like two bodies sharing a brain. The combination of hip-hop beats and grunge guitar did a good job of hiding Leah’s sappy lyrics. My only real complaint was Geno’s clove cigarettes, whose spicy funk infected my drums for years.

            But we did have our Achilles’ heel. Though our warrior-vocalist was superb in rehearsal, owner of a brassy, soaring alto, she prepared for gigs by dropping shots of tequila. This led her to 1) forget the lyrics that she herself had written, and 2) treat the audience to sudden streams of profanity.

            “All right, you motherfuckers! The name of the band is Psychotrope, and we’re gonna kick your fuckin’ asses!”

            This might have been fine for your typical “edgy” club crowd, but many of our friends had been nice enough to bring along their parents. It didn’t much matter, anyway, because two gigs later, Geno and Leah broke up, and there went the band.

            The poem, however, had a life of its own. In “poebiz,” journals ask for first-time, one-time printing rights, which limits most poems to a single appearance. “Mustang Sally” appeared in an in-house anthology at The Wit’s End (which I didn’t count) and a journal in Illinois (which I did). Then, a poetry newspaper in New York printed it without telling me they were going to. A few months later, the director of the Seattle Blues Festival asked if he could use it for his program. Finally, my friend Sass put out a music issue of her new journal, Jagged Mountain Review, and couldn’t do without it.

            I eventually performed it at a reading with Max and Geno, speaking the poem during the opening vamp of Wilson Pickett’s song, then proceeding directly to the lyrics. I even wrote my own third verse, a small morality play about drunk driving. In subsequent blues and cover bands, Leah’s signature tune became my signature tune, and now I refuse to rehearse it, because I’m sick of the damn thing.

            After the breakup, Leah spent two years in France, then, inexplicably, ended up in New York. I checked into her apartment (she’d left a key with Sass and Mack’s check), but it was two days before I saw her. I was sitting on her bed, reading a collection of comics, trying to come down from one of my marathon walks around the island, when I heard the click of the lock. Leah burst in with jet-black hair and a dozen silver tulips.

            “Jake! JakeJakeJake! How the fuck are you? God! You’re actually here, in New York! Off-Broadway, man. Do you love this city, or do you love this city? I get these gorge-ass tulips – not one hundred feet from my building – for five bucks. Five fucking dollars! Is that great or what?”

            “I ...”

            “What are you doing? Put on some clothes. I’m taking you to dinner, right now!”

            Leah was a radical tide. All you could do was grab a flotation device and hang on. We went to a little French place on 95th and Broadway. Leah kept flinging back strands of hair, eyes lit up with excitement.

            “So what is it, boyfriend? Is this a romance you’ve got a-brewin’?”

            “Maybe. But what can I do? I can’t move to New York just to ‘date’ somebody.”

            “You’re a goner for this chick and you know it. That entire year in the band, you had ‘eunuch’ written all over you. Because you were spoken for – and you still are.

            “Be careful, though. I had a great band going in France. We played the American singer thing to the hilt – called ourselves ‘Yankee Mouth.’ Then my fucking guitarist decides he wants to marry me. That’s how I ended up here. I’m waitressing in a sports bar, in case you care.”

            I didn’t. Leah’s primary occupation was being Leah. After dinner, we took the subway to the Village just to go to a dive bar. Leah seemed to know everyone there, but didn’t see much need to introduce me. I tagged along for a while, then found a table and nursed a Manhattan as I watched her work the room – rubbing up against a guy in a leather jacket, cracking jokes with a circle of women, bumming a cigarette from a guy with a cowboy hat and no teeth. I went to the bathroom and returned to find her gone.

            I spent the next three days making my usual circuit – Washington Square, a jazz club near Columbia U., the shops of Fifth Avenue – then finished off at St. Mark’s Place, where Charles Simic and Jane Hirshfield were giving a reading. I had interviewed Hirshfield for Jagged Mountain, and found her just as pleasant and engaging in person. She was one of the few well-known poets who could discuss the subject without tossing around wanky twenty-dollar words.

            I saw Leah for a total of thirty minutes more – a mad bagel-dash before work, a midnight chat before she collapsed on her bed. With a butterfly, that’s all you get.

            Come Saturday, I left her some purple roses, a thank-you note and her key, then caught the subway to Penn Station.

Cape Cod

After another night in Centerport, Maggie and I got in my car and drove up the coast of Connecticut. We crossed the Cape Cod Canal after dark, yellow lights blinking from the drawbridge, and headed for the bicep of the Cape’s flexed arm.

            Maggie’s dad greeted us in the driveway; I liked him immediately. He had a broad, balding forehead and doughy face, but his eyes were sharp and expressive, filled with Maggie’s emerald color and intelligence. He also had a trout dinner waiting for us.

            He was clearly unsettled by the ambiguity of the situation. For starters, he had never really been Maggie’s father – just the guy who got her mother pregnant, divorced her two years later, and headed for the Cape to go fishing. He and Maggie had hooked back up ten years previous, and built a cautious friendship.

            On the other end was the ambiguous boyfriend. I wasn’t even sure how she had explained me.

            We sat at one side of a long dining table. The other side was pressed up to a window that looked out on a big patch of darkness.

            “So what’s out there?” I asked.

            “You’re not gonna believe this,” said Maggie. “It’s a cranberry bog.”


            “You should see it in the fall, when they do the harvest. They flood it with water and go around in little boats, scooping up the berries. It’s so Massachusetts. Maybe we can walk around it tomorrow and look for birds. Oh, and in the summer we’ve got the Cape Cod Baseball League. You’d like that.”

            “It’s an independent league,” said Gary. “They get some big names through there – lots of college stars who come by after their senior years. Nomar Garciaparra played there. Barry Zito.”

            “Sounds great. I don’t know if Maggie told you, but I’m a huge baseball buff – especially the old-timers.”

            “Oh,” said Gary. “Who’s your favorite?”

            “Probably Willie Mays. Although I was big into Hank Aaron, too.”

            “Hammerin’ Hank. ‘Djou know he used to bat cross-wristed in the Negro Leagues?”

            “Yeah! I can’t imagine how he did that without hurting himself.”

            “Well,” said Maggie, cocking an eyebrow. “I can see where this is headed, so I think I’ll go upstairs to freshen up.”

            We spent a half hour talking baseball, then drifted to poetry. Gary was a fan of Robert Frost (appropriate to his geography). I told him about the new formalists, a group of poets who had re-embraced the traditional rhyme-and-meter forms.

            Maggie broke in to show me to my downstairs bedroom, which looked out onto the cranberry bog.

            “So. Were you kissin’ my dad’s butt, or were you guys really getting along?”

            “I can talk about Roberto Clemente for hours. And I honestly like your dad.”

            “Just don’t get too buddy-buddy, or I’ll get jealous. G’night, honey.”


            I had just settled into the strangeness of the room when my half-doze was interrupted by Maggie, in T-shirt and panties, climbing in next to me.

            “And what do you think you’re doing?”

            “Sleeping with my boyfriend. My dad doesn’t care. Do you?”

            I gave the matter some thought. “Yes, I think I do. Either we’re going to end up doing things we’re not sure about, or I’m not going to get one bit of sleep, lying next to this gorgeous, sexy, half-naked woman.”

            She jumped up to straddle me. “Are you kickin’ me out of bed?”

            “Yes. But I’m being very charming about it.”

            “Can I snuggle with you a little?”

            “Ten minutes. Then you’re outta here.”

            “Yes sir.”

            I was more tired than I thought. Maggie’s warm body only succeeded in furthering my drowsiness. Before I slipped off, I heard her whispering in my ear, “Sweet dreams, Jake. I love you, big bear.”

The next day, we rolled to the tip of the finger, Provincetown. You would think something that far into the Atlantic would feel isolated, but the narrow streets and crammed-in houses made it just the opposite. We paced along with a thin spring crowd, then checked into a cigar shop, where Gary and I furthered our male bonding. I was almost relieved when he took us to look at Asian furniture, which I knew absolutely nothing about.

            We drove back to the elbow to see a herring run, which reminded me of the salmon runs in Washington. This run was much cozier, however, and I’m guessing it contained more cubic inches of fish-flesh than water. I adopted one herring as my own and tried to track his progress. He vaulted two steps just fine, but on the third he tangled with a fellow traveler, smacked his head into the step and fell sideways to a flat, dry stone. He lay there a second, gathering strength, then flopped around till he landed back in the drink.

            I found Maggie at my shoulder, watching the same fish. “The things we do for love,” she said, and squeezed my hand.

            We got adventurous on the way home, stopping in New London, Connecticut to take the ferry to Long Island. The sky was drizzly and gray, which intensified the brightly colored houses of the waterfront and turned the newleafing trees into puffs of green cotton.

            We went to the prow to watch the lonely line of Fishers Island drifting off to port. It reminded me of the ferry rides we used to take from Port Townsend to Whidbey Island. As we came back inside, firmly attached at shoulder and waist, I caught an elderly woman smiling at us. Our fellows are nothing if not social mirrors, and that was my final confirmation: Maggie and I were a couple. A sweet couple. We settled into the forward-facing chairs, and Maggie fell asleep against my shoulder.

            After one more night in Centerport, I figured the motel staff had us pegged as adulterers. But my awakening was far from romantic.

            “Shit! Jake, honey – get up, please. I forgot! I have to take Naomi to the airport. Hurry!”

            I flashed through the shower, threw our bags into the car, and we were off to Jamaica. We arrived a half-hour later in a non-descript suburban neighborhood, where a thin, elegant-looking black woman stood in the driveway, tapping a nervous foot. We introduced each other as Maggie piled her bags into Naomi’s car.

            “So,” said Naomi. “You gonna marry this girl or what?”

            I laughed. “Yeah, probably.”

            Maggie rushed up to take my hand, her nerves firmly in overdrive.

            “Oh, Jake. I’m so sorry to have to say goodbye like this, but we really are late.”

            “That’s okay. But tell me one thing.”


            “How the hell do I get out of here?”

            Follow me. When we turn left toward La Guardia, you keep right to the Whitestone Bridge. That’ll take you to 95.”

            “Thanks. I love you.”

            “I love you, Jake. Have a great drive.”

            They say we will soon be using eye-patterns for identification – security, ATMs, credit transactions. I took a second to scan Maggie’s irises – specks of tan brown around the green center – hoping to use them as a road map for my return. Then I kissed her goodbye.

A few hours later, I stood in a fast-food parking lot, a light rain spotting the asphalt in puddles of onyx. The sign on the roadside said Delaware River 1 Mile. I was about to put a state between us.

            Two days later, I greeted the evening sun of North Dakota by lowering the ragtop and cruising a low downhill toward a far-off rainstorm. I pictured myself as a blip on a geo-satellite map, coursing slowly across the country.

            A day later, I was climbing the evergreen walls of Idaho’s Bitterroot Range when I realized my advance from Sass and Mack was about to run out. I had just enough for gas, so for the next day-and-a-half I existed on two boxes of oatmeal cream pies. I was regular, but I was certainly looking forward to seeing the Puget Sound.


“I call it the Alien Abduction Syndrome. No calls, no emails, no letters. It’s up to me to just assume that we’ve broken up. If I went to his house, I’d likely be met by two guys in black suits.”

            I met Anne Gelhaus at my first-ever reading at Wit’s End. After one date, Anne and I figured out the spark between us was the friendly kind – and lively, filled with mutual admiration and witty repartee. At times, when we’re “working” a room, I feel like I’m in an Oscar Wilde play. We are the closest of friends, and I got some news for the men out there: if you’re ever going to understand women as something other than an alien species, you need to find yourself an Anne Gelhaus.

            At the moment, she was saving my ass, and I wasn’t sure I deserved it. It was I, after all, who had introduced her to Carl, the gutless wonder who absconded with her heart.

            “God,” I said, scoping the Triangle Lounge. “And here we are, at the scene of the crime.”

            “Hey,” said Rob. “I thought he was a catch, too.”

            “Yeah,” I said. “But I’m the one who called Anne and insisted she come over.”

            “Hey!” said Anne, laughing. “You’re stompin’ all over my wallowing session.”

            Rob and I began muttering like elfin pigs: “Wallow-wallow. Wallow-wallow.”

            “Besides,” said Anne. “There is such a thing as free will, and no one forced me to sleep with the bastard.”

            We kept right on: “Wallow-wallow. Bastard-wallow. Fucking-wallow.”

            “Stop!” said Anne.

            Carolyn sat behind us on a barstool, watching the menage a joie, perhaps feeling like she should have paid admission. She was looking especially cute that night (isn’t that always the way?), her eyes glinting behind those winsome librarian specs. I flashed on several images completely unsuited to the occasion.

            Rob stood and put on his jacket. “I gotta get up early and eviscerate Korean tumors.”

            “You make curing cancer sound so appealing,” said Anne, in her Jewish voice.

            I turned to Carolyn. “Like to visit Iron Vlad with me?”

            “Sure,” she said, flashing that small, winsome smile (God! winsome winsome winsome).

            Iron Vlad referred to Lenin, a 12-foot-tall leftover from the fall of the Soviet Union. Lord knows how Fremont got it, but it jibed beautifully with the district’s gay-kitsch sensibilities (the bus stop featured a half-dozen bronze commuters who served as dress-up dolls for the citizenry).

            We settled on a bench at Lenin’s feet. Carolyn took my hand.

            I nodded toward the statue. “I like to make a pilgrimage whenever I get back in town.”

            “So,” she said. “How was your trip?”

            “Pretty amazing.”

            “I got the postcard.”


            “Yes! I’m so proud of you!”

            “Thanks. It was very unexpected.”

            Then came the awkward silence, and it was up to me to fill it.

            “I found out a few things in ... New York.”


            “Sort of. Lord knows, I’ve still got the old feelings. Nothing’s going to come of it. But it reminded me ... what it was like to be in love.”

            You could see Carolyn gathering herself, nudging her spectacles up on her nose, bracing her shoulders.

            “I can’t see you any more, Carolyn. The feeling’s not there. And you’re a poet now, I think you understand. It’s not a judgment on you, it’s just ambiguous, ineffable chemistry. That stuff we spend all that ink trying to figure out.”

            She let out one of those odd, sad half-chuckles. “I guess this is better than an alien abduction.”

            “That did cross my mind. But I swear, I didn’t ask Anne to bring that up.”

            She looked down at her feet and took a breath, trying to hold some strength. “This is gonna cost you,” she said.

            “How much?”

            “A kiss.”

            She raised her face, and I paid my debts. But my lips brought tears. I held her as she cried.

            “I’m sorry,” she said.

            “I’m sorry, too.”

            A phrase appeared in my head:

We’re none of us very good at saying no

Just beneath the sandry mocean
the mitochondria play their sweet fiddles
for the seabass
who cannot keep a beat, nor a secret
in their filthy little hearts

There’s no trust out there only
barren narratives passing from ship
to ship on the sodium tongues of pirates
scurvy dogs who couldn’t make it in real estate
or car bombings

I am a missive for the great unimportant things so
meet me on the swings before midnight
Close your eyes, lay your sweet
shoulders into my palms
Wait as I take careful aim and
launch you into the fishnets of Scorpius

I will
miss you but
will enjoy
seeing your
smile there
just above

comet white

Ashland, Oregon

After wire-brushing the joints, I painted flux over the pipes, pieced it all together and lit my torch. I drew the tip of the blue flame to the copper, waited thirty seconds, then touched a thread of solder to the surface. A silver ribbon flashed around the seam, melting to the space, trailing the flux. I shifted the flame to the elbow, to draw the flux in further.

            I checked the other side for gaps, then wheeled my legs around so I could get to the other end of the joint. Once that was done, I painted flux over the seams, evening out the solder, then ran a damp rag over the whole with a laundry-press hiss. The pipe came out pink and shiny, the solder graying as it cooled.

            Arnold flashed me a ticcish grin. “Are we a go?”

            “Lovely as a rare steak. You got the straps?”

            “Well-hung, sir!”

            “Good. Let’s return to the land of Earthlings.”

            I tucked my torch into the slide-tray and pushed it ahead of me, rolling forward on a shoulder as my legs dragged behind. Arnold’s approach was pure Marine Corps, stomach down, legs digging left and right. Lord knows how he managed, with that old, skinny body of his.

            I met Sass Lotrello at my second reading at Wit’s End – a boisterous, fortyish blonde whose poems applied Ginsbergian overstatement to a sense of humor like a good pretzel: tasty and twisted. Her hubby, Mack, held an outrageously well-paid position at a high-tech firm.

            The Lotrellos didn’t achieve true über-spouse status, however, until they applied said cash to the creation of a literary journal, the Jagged Mountain Review. For their debut issue, they received two new works from a world-famous poet, Denise Levertov, who was dying of cancer. Levertov died just before the issue went to print, and Jagged Mountain had its first angel. The journal went on to great success, largely due to Sass’s prowess at assembling fifty-some poems into a novelesque narrative. (Each issue also had its accidental themes. The first was death and baseball, centered on a poem about three Cleveland pitchers and a fatal boating accident.)

            Suitably impressed by my artistic devotion and reliability, Sass hired me as her poetry editor. In truth, this meant filing, lifting boxes and sending out rejection letters, but any time I got bleary-eyed doing a third proofread, I bought another espresso and reminded myself, You’re getting paid to work on a literary journal!

            Even with the journal, Sass tired of being housebound, so she got a job teaching English Lit at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. The move would also allow them to enjoy the town’s Shakespeare festival, which drew visitors from around the world and gave the area a cosmopolitan feel.

            Mack cashed in his stock options and bought a house in the hills overlooking the festival theaters. A month later, the high-tech market took a nose-dive, and his former employers went belly-up. No man had ever been better rewarded for honoring his wife’s wishes. When asked how much he paid for his house, Mack would grin and say, “We bought it with Monopoly money.”

            After a few months off, Mack turned to a former occupation and started a small HVAC firm (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning). He couldn’t afford experienced workers, so he hired trainable newbies – like me. He offered flexible scheduling and a permanent place in his basement guest room, which more than made up for the drive from Seattle.

            I had doubts about my skills, but after a single 15-minute lesson I was making perfect solders. A month later, we replaced the entire plumbing system on a house in nearby Talent, and when we turned on the water my score was 72 solders, no leaks. I was in love.

            I was also in love with the pinball machine at the Golden Mushroom. When you hit a metallic tombstone three times, it slid open to reveal a grave-like slot. Bury the ball in said slot and you got three balls at once, with the chance to hit flashing ramps for jackpots.

            Pinball machines are ripe with analogies for modern living, and here’s the gem from Hauntology: the machine was too generous. If I was in town all the time, its constant outpour of multiballs, zombie bonuses and “axe-tra” balls would begin to bore me silly. But because I was around only two weeks a month, there was nothing I liked better than shootin’ that crypt.

            “Pizza’s ready!”

            But a guy had to eat. I left my game mid-ball and headed for the bar. Arnold took his usual single slice and retreated to the corner with a pitcher of beer. Mack was chewing on a slice of pepperoni as he read the paper. (You had to appreciate a guy who started with the comics).

            “That Arnold is a marvel of medical science,” I said. “What does he live on?”

            “Beer,” said Mack. “I’ve tried to push him in other directions, but it’s hard to babysit a fifty-five-year-old. At least he doesn’t drink at work.”

            “He’s good, too. Hands shake like crazy, but he wires up those power boxes like a damn artist.”


            We settled into a comfortable silence – a must for guys who work together. After reading his horoscope, Mack rubbed his Santa Claus beard and tossed me a question.

            “What’s up with the Long Island girl?”

            “Hell if I know. We’re still gaga – but what exactly do we do about it? Keeps me in line, though. It would take the equivalent of a female bulldozer to get my attention right now.”

            “Broke it off with the poet-chick?”

            “Yeah. She took it pretty well, damn her. Makes me feel all the more guilty.”

            “No,” said Mack. “You did the right thing. No reason to stretch things out if you’re sure about it.”

            “Dead sure.”

            “Any chance you can stay a couple more days? We’re makin’ good headway on this thing. Starting the duct-work tomorrow.”

            “Nope. Anne’s got a reading Monday. Besides, I think my apartment misses me. Or vice-versa.”

            “Okay. I’ll let you know when the next big project starts.”

            “Cool. Well, I got a couple more pinball credits to waste.”

            “Can’t keep a man from the one he loves,” said Mack, flipping to the sports.


Having applied half my two weeks’ pay to my New York advance, I skipped my usual retreat to the world’s most beautiful Motel 6, but did cut to the coast at Eugene to see some of Conde’s bridges.

            It was my ninth or tenth trip down the Oregon shoreline before I noticed the family relationship of its bridges – their acrobatic arches, art deco ornaments and mint green paint. My inkling was confirmed by a magazine piece on Conde McCullough, a Dakota engineer who moved to Oregon in 1919 and designed most of the bridges along the new coastal highway, 101. “From the dawn of civilization up to the present,” said McCullough, “engineers have been busily engaged in ruining this fair earth and taking all the romance out of it.”

            I liked this guy.

            I arrived in Florence to the modest arch of the Siuslaw River Drawbridge, studded with a quartet of ornate guardhouses, then managed to reach the Yaquina Bay Bridge at Newport just before sundown. “The Yak” has a glorious spine, a series of five underdeck archways that suddenly get inspired and take a tremendous leap over the roadway. I felt like getting out and genuflecting, but I had miles to go before I slept.

            I tooled through the bridgy paradise of Portland, stopped in Centralia, Washington for a late dinner, then blasted through to Seattle, arriving at my apartment at three in the morning. The next day, after waking at noon, I rescued two weeks of mail from my box and tromped downhill to the Still Life Cafe.

            The first item was a card from Carolyn, thanking me for my forthright handling of our breakup (Stop already!). Three were bills, which I set aside for Someday When I Had Money. One was a self-addressed envelope with three of my poems and a letter beginning, “Thank you for your interest in ...” I set it aside for resubmission to Someone Who Had Taste in Poetry.

            The final item was a plain envelope, forwarded from the Wit’s End Anthology. Inside, I found a sheet of blue stationery paper, filled with neat, looping cursive.

            Dear Jake:

            I don’t know if you’ll remember me, but I was in your class at Ballard High. I think we even grew up a couple blocks from each other. I was also on the Pirettes, so maybe you’ll remember that. I have been studying web design the past few years, and have become increasingly interested in things artistic. I spotted your picture in the Fremont paper last year, and have been reading the poetry you’ve published online. It’s marvelous!

            It’s probably a little weird hearing from me after all these years, but I was wondering if you’d like to get together sometime so we could talk about your work. I’m back in the old neighborhood – in fact, the old house, taking care of my mom, who’s been having some health problems. Give me a call! Or just send an email. It’s great to see you’re doing so well.

            Sincerely –
                        Meghan Hightower

I stared at that name for thirty seconds. It was like getting a note from Mozart, on a postcard from Baton Rouge. My female bulldozer had just arrived.

Any man who’s had a high school crush (or woman, I’m sure it’s the same) knows what Meghan Hightower meant to me. The time I spent dwelling on that manifestation of raven hair, great legs and coal-black, off-kilter eyes probably cost me a half-point on my grade average. And she was one of the Pirettes, a drill team of magical precision. They could take a simple finger snap, dress it in white gloves and run it down a line of twelve hands till it was a blossoming flower of motion – a Bob Fosse troupe in cheerleaders’ outfits. And what outfits! Snow-white skirts, gloves and tops, enough to drive a hormone-crazed teenager to his knees.

            I was in the band, saved from geekdom by basketball season, when space constraints turned the drum section into a single rock ‘n’ roll drum kit. Junior and senior year, I was the coolest kid in the gym, and when I played, Meghan Hightower danced.

            I only asked her out once, to a Christmas ball. She said she already had a date, and I never asked again.

            After she replied to my email, I dug out the old yearbook and found her senior photo. Still the buzz at the roof of my palate, and I realized the secret behind those eyes: Asian blood.

            “Yes, of course! My grandfather was a Russian soldier. He fell in love with my grandmother while he was stationed in Japan.

            “Wow!” I said. “That must have raised a scandal.”

            “On both sides. They were amazing people.”

            I couldn’t keep my eyes off her rosebud mouth. The rest was the same, too – a few more pounds, a few more curves, but still Meghan Hightower, in the flesh. And she was the one who was intimidated. With the distancing effect of Fremont papers and online journals, she had built me up as a capital-A artist.

            “And I only asked you out once. You already had a date, with John Peterson.”

            “Oh God!” she giggled. “John was a pest! He always wanted us to be an item, but I just didn’t ... feel that way. If you had asked me out again, I would have gone with you in a second!”

            I took an invisible knife, stabbed myself in the heart, and fell sideways into the booth.

            “Geez! You are a poet.”

            We carried our conversation across the street to an Italian restaurant (“I’m paying,” she said, “because I’m the stalker.”). She talked about her voice, which was high and squeaky like Betty Boop’s.

            “Sometimes a client starts talking to me like I’m a third-grader, and I say, ‘Hey, I didn’t want the voice, but it’s the only one I’ve got. And it doesn’t mean I’m stupid.’”

            I walked her to her car, in the corner of a dark lot, and she invited me into the back seat for a good old-fashioned makeout session. I’d never imagined such passion in that lovely, unreadable face. She straddled me and pulled me tighter, hungry for contact. I couldn’t give myself completely, though, because the 16-year-old in my head kept saying, I’m making out with Meghan Hightower! I suppose the boyhood dream wouldn’t fade until I could think of her without her last name. But I sure as hell was gonna try.

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