Sunday, December 29, 2013

Poem: Mason


Mason

Mardi enters a three-bedroom ranch,
sees the problem right away.

Granite counters, marble floors.
Slate hallways, bluestone hearth.

Basalt tub. Rhyolite toilet.
Limestone sofa. Onyx armchair.
Quartzite bed, jasper pillows.
Obsidian labrador.

Mr. Thompson arrives at six.
Widower, eighty-three, emerald eyes.

When she poses the question,
he gazes at a spot past her shoulder.



When I was nineteen,
I worked in a quarry.
One morning, the sun struck the
cliffs and lit up the feldspar like a
delta of diamond rivers.

Mardi waits.
And?

Mr. Thompson smiles.
Isn’t that enough?



First printed in
The Blue Collar Review
Norfolk, Virginia

From the collection Fields of Satchmo

Photo by MJV

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter Thirteen: Mending the Fence



Read the novel here, a chapter at a time, or buy the Kindle book at Amazon.com

Paul

Sunday is a downer making its way into several uppers. I am awake much earlier than I prefer, conducting an urgent paint job on the front door. This opens the way for a visit from Jasmina, who approaches my work site in her black movie clothes. It’s a wonder her boss won’t let her work in short sleeves. She scratches her arm, which seems to be her favorite tic.

“Don’t tell me.”

I finish a stroke around the doorknob. “I almost left it up. If only they had been more accurate. ‘Godless heathen,’ by all means. ‘Infidel’ – hell yes. But ‘Satan worshipper?’ The bastards make up a bogeyman to take the blame for all the bad stuff, and then they accuse me of worshipping him?”

Jasmina cracks up. “Assholes! Hey, that color is a good match.”

“Last time they did the building, the painters gave me their leftovers. Let’s just say I anticipated some holy vandalism.”

“The meek shall tag the earth.”

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want for semi-gloss. Isn’t it a little early for movies?”

“I’m gonna drop by the Depot for some reading.”

“Cool. Hey, I got some terrific news just now.”

“Stop! Hold it right there. I’ve got some news, too. Why don’t I take you to dinner and we can swap stories.”

“Well!”

“Came into some money,” I say.

“Oh.”

“You are so totally not allowed to go there.”

“Hey! Nice use of the displaced ‘totally.’ You sure you’re not a native?”

“I’ve been practicing. Six o’clock?”

“Sure!”

“Do you have a suit?”

“Somewhat.”

“Do your best.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Ciao!”

I go back to my work for a ten-count, then I turn to watch Jasmina walk away. Instead I find her watching me. Damn women. Always staring at your ass when you’re trying to stare at theirs.


She arrives at six looking stunning: black boots, plush corduroy pants, a charcoal top with smatterings of sequins, and a red crushed-velvet jacket with burgundy lapels. Her hair is up, except for two small tendrils framing her face. It’s the kind of outfit one might wear to a corporate fundraiser, just boho enough to converse with the proletariat. My own outfit – green sportcoat, jeans, white dress shirt – pales in comparison, but with Jasmina around who the hell would be looking at me?

“Ready to close up shop?” she says.

“You got it. Let me lock up the front.”

I’m driving uphill. Both of us are being quiet – an unusual occurrence.

“You know,” I say. “Sooner or later, you should probably tell me where we’re going.”

She laughs, a terrier yap. “I guess I was trying to figure out some way to surprise you, but you’re right. Take us to Lakshmi’s.”

“I’m salivating already.”

We take the long walk to the restaurant, shafts of sun stabbing the walls. I notice a vase holding a dozen silver tulips, the stems wrapped with a rubber band. Jasmina gives the vase a little tap and keeps walking.

We sit at the same table as before. The time for news arrives in the gap between ordering and eating.

“Okay,” she says. “You first.”

I sip from my Zinfandel and run it around my tongue. “Okay. I have an old friend – a fellow JW graduate.”

“JW?”

“Jehovah’s Witness.”

“Oh! Right.”

“Zelda’s a doctor, and an activist in the field of medical marijuana. She has decided to open a clinic in San Anselmo, and wants me to be her supplier.”

Jasmina shoots me the beauty pageant smile. “So you’re going legit!”

“Um. Sort of. The whole field is in this weird limbo right now. Mostly between state and federal. The gist is that she’s free to sell the stuff – at non-profit rates – but not to purchase it.”

“Well that’s just screwy.”

“Yes. But it actually works to my advantage. With a proven record of quality, discretion and espionage, I am the ideal candidate. I will be taking a hefty cut in my profit margin, but the volume is excellent, and who knows? Maybe someday I can take the whole thing above-board.”

“Just legalize the shit already!”

“That’s why I love you, Jazz. You have this habit of making sense.”

And there I go, tripping the wire again. Jasmina goes all silent, and I decide not to push her for her news. The silence continues into our entrees.

“I’m quitting.”

I finish a large mouthful of chicken curry. “Not the moviehouse! What would they…”

“Not the moviehouse.”

Eventually it sinks in. “Oh! That’s… great. Will you be okay financially?”

She’s looking at me but not precisely at me. “Yeah. I’ll be fine. I’ve got… options.”

The silence returns, but eventually, note by note, we build a conversation on easier subjects. Mostly, the effect that her latest book is having on Jasmina’s feelings toward her adopted country. I have come to greatly enjoy the way her mind processes new material. I suppose it reminds me of myself, when I first ventured into the wilds of freethought. She’s still at it as we climb the walkway – in fact, is so involved in her discourse that she’s still holding her dinner napkin.

“The thing that really intrigues me is how the early evangelicals actually encouraged the separation of church and state, because they knew that a religiously free society offered a more fertile ground for recruitment. And now, how those same evangelicals, without the slightest trace of irony, want to tear that separation down.”

She stops at the vase. She takes the silver tulips, wraps the stems in her dinner napkin and hands them to me.

“The thing is, I quit because I wanted to. I also quit because, for lack of a better way of putting it… I want to be your girlfriend.”

Her smile is shaking, the way it did before. She has caught me completely unprepared. I look at the tulips, which are perfect, which are frozen at a peak ripeness of petaldeath. Petaldeath – great name for a band.

“Paul?”

Still there. Still with the smile.

“Geez, Jasmina. I’m flattered. I am. But, well, what do I want to say here? I’m dizzy! You haven’t let me stand in the same spot for more than five minutes since I met you. Mentor? Lover? Friend? What role am I playing? What’s my motivation?”

She kisses me on the cheek. “It’s not a pop quiz. I wasn’t expecting an answer.”

“Oh.”

 We drive home in more silence. Jasmina seems content, holding my tulips, her eyelids at half-mast. I’m feeling foggy, and so is Mill Valley.

When we reach the door of my shop, I turn to suggest, for the hundredth time, that she let me drive her home. She looks like one of those soft-focus closeups from an old movie, her hair loose around her shoulders, her dark eyes marked with apostrophes of light. Her smile replaced by a pair of plush lips, slightly parted, hint of white teeth. A target that no man – atheist, agnostic, evangelical – could possibly resist.

So I don’t.



Photo by MJV

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter Twelve: The Break-Up


Read the novel here, a chapter at a time, or buy the Kindle book at Amazon.com

Jasmina

“Excuse me, ma’am?”

Javid hovers over me, looking all snappy in his uniform.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to confiscate that book. You’re corrupting the neighborhood.”

“Funny! You got the late shift?”

“Just heading in. Is that a good one?”

He refers to Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby, my latest purchase from Paul’s store.

“So far, yeah. It’s a good set of weaponry, next time I meet one of those In God We Trusters.”

“Or a One Nation Under Godder. Or a God Bless American.”

He pulls up a chair and straddles it backward. I’ve noticed lately that all my men sit this way.

“I have come to the conclusion,” he says, “that these confrontations occur mainly in my head. To actually conduct something resembling a debate with one of these church-state deniers would be, oh, I don’t know, like trying to talk to someone who has their head stuck up their ass."

“Ha! You’re funny. The most intriguing part, so far, is discovering how truly atheist/agnostic/secularist many of our founding fathers really were. I mean, George Washington? Who knew?”

“Well, yes. Many of them felt the need to be a little vague about it. Except Thomas Paine, and you see what happened to him.”

“Goddamn Americans.”

“We’re a country of idiots. But we do have a Constitution. Is that butternut squash?”

“Yep.”

“Paul swears by that stuff.”

“Want a taste?”

Javid takes my spoon and gives it a try. “Damn! That bastard is right about everything.” He pauses, looking hesitant. “You know, I see you two together sometimes and I wonder, why aren’t you… together?”

“Wow. Um… that’s pretty complicated.”

“Give me a sketch.”

“Okay. Well. Two people arrive at a… potential relationship with their respective collections of baggage. And sometimes…”

“The baggage doesn’t match.”

I smile. “Ambiguous analogy completed.”

“And secret reasons for ambiguity respected. Still. It’s pretty cool that you have transitioned to friendship. Doesn’t always happen. In the case of my fucked-up culture, you might very well find yourself in a marriage with neither love nor friendship. But enough about my parents. I had better get my sorry ass to work.”

He stands and spins his chair so it’s tucked under the table.

“Bye, Jav. Thanks for dropping in.”

“By the way,” he says. “When Lexi makes the popcorn, it is not half so good as yours.”

“That’s because mine is freethinking popcorn.”

“And Lexi’s is brainless blonde popcorn.”

He leaves on a joke. I watch him disappear past the espresso bar. I feel very much that Javid has just told me to wise the hell up.


Mack takes me to a Cajun place in Sausalito called the Twist ‘n’ Shout. The décor is classic French Quarter: panels of distressed wood, wrought-iron railings, red lamps. The food is downright salacious. I order blackened catfish, a shrimp pirogue and a Hurricane big enough for a Navy squadron. We’re both feeling pretty jolly – especially Mack, whose affection for food is well-established. I sit back, warmed up inside and out, and study his demeanor. Lately, there’s something different about him. Twinkle-eyed, avuncular, Santa Clausian.

“What’s up with you, loverboy?”

He pops a hush puppy and chews it down. “So it shows?”

“It’s like you’ve been snorting glitter.”

He laughs and folds his hands over his belly. “There’s an image for ya. Well, gumdrop. I suppose I’d better ‘fess up. I’m in love.”

I pull up the automatic smile, but the interior walls are quaking. “The redhead?”

“Yes. And, well, I’ve never been in this position before, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to terminate your services.”

I laugh gaily, which proves what a good actress I am. Given the setting, I suppose I’m Blanche DuBois. “I haven’t been in this position myself. When do you need me to… move out?”

He rubs a hand over his moustache. “Well, the lease doesn’t run out till September, so why not September first?”

“Mack! That’s very sweet of you.”

“And I… won’t be so crass as to give it to you here, but I’ve written you a severance check. Five thousand. I also wanted to give you something more… personal, so I got you a day-long treatment at Graziela’s Spa.”

With each tribute, my insides are calming. I’m beginning to see a possibility.

Thank you!”

He gives me a smile. “For all the wear and tear I have inflicted on that lovely body of yours, it’s the least I can do to see that it’s taken care of.” He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes.

“Mack! Are you crying?”

He stares at the tabletop till he regains his composure. The big softie.

“Honey. I know what most people would think about you and me. But I’ll tell you, once my wife got through with me, I felt like a beat-up sack of money. Somehow, by taking the transaction to a more overt level –  let’s call it retail affection – I met you, and you have restored my manliness, my joy. That’s what Marnie – my redhead – saw in me. And so, you see, you have succeeded in working your way out of a job.”

Now I’m the one who’s losing it. I am laughing and crying, all at once. I am craughing. That’s a good one; I’ll have to tell that to Paul.

We walk to the car, arm in arm – for all the world knows, a father and daughter celebrating a birthday. I am downright giddy. I feel the wings sprouting at my shoulder blades. As Mack pulls his SUV onto Highway 101, I get up on all fours and undo his zipper.

“But Jazz, you know you don’t…”

“If I were you, young man, I would concentrate on your driving.”

“Yes ma’am!”


Photo by MJV

Poem: Pal


Pal

Cinema clown on the
center stripe, cleansing the
world of appurtenance.

A hat on a table.
Poet in a parking garage.
A baseball. A pen.

Deal a deck of human flaws,
take none. You are an
augmented note, non-essential,
a little bit off.

Yes, I love you.
But you should fear your friends;
they know your crimes.

Let me buy you a hot fudge sundae.
Let me buy you a cast.
Let me be the first to sign it.



First printed in
California Quarterly
Orange, California

Photo by MJV 

From the collection Fields of Satchmo 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Poem: Litter


First published in Iodine Poetry Journal, Charlotte, North Carolina


Litter

Kinetically armatured to the
greater world, I am all-fire,
I am beasthood, I am gravenous.

The first chapter of an epic involves
lostliness, desperado, great moons of
pain and devastation.
You couldn’t write a blues
song without it.

But even Caravaggios have
daubs of light, even
ghost towns have sheltered
corners where feral labradors give birth.

Her pups wander into the
street and are picked off by tourists,
drizzled with ooh and ah,
taken home and given frontier
names like Pistol and Cody.
Mother stands at the crest of the hill,
breathing the last grains of scent as
her runt grows smaller in a
station wagon window.

She paws the ground.
Goes to the stream for a drink.
Smells a rabbit.
The epic begins.



 From the collection Fields of Satchmo

Photo by MJV

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter Eleven: The Coyote Who Crosses the Bridge


Read the story here in regular installments, or buy the Kindle book.

Jasmina

We are headed down 17 through San Jose, toward a gap in the mountains. It’s not quite summer, but the weather is awfully nice. Which explains the beach traffic crawling through a three-lanes-to-two bottleneck.

“So. My dear Saint Paul. You know I trust you. You know I have faith in you. Hee hee. But I’m not sure if I understand why we’re doing this.”

Paul smiles, just a little, and nudges his spectacles. “Let me first tell you what someone else is doing. Carolyn’s best friend, Yvonne, is a Methodist. She has refused to come to Carolyn’s baptism due to the minuscule differences between Methodist Christianity and Mormon Christianity.”

We pass under a footbridge. A couple of kids wave at us. I flash them a peace sign.

“But you think they’re both garbage.”

“Actually, no. Mormonism holds a special place in my heart. Joseph Smith is one of the filthiest scam artists in theological history. His disappearing golden tablets, so like the missing 18 1/2 minutes on Nixon’s Watergate tapes. ‘Mormon’ should be spelled with only one m.”

“Joke received and registered. So why, then, are we attending a Mormon baptism?”

“Primary reason: I love Carolyn, and Carolyn asked me to. Secondary: as much as I enjoy my atheism, I acknowledge that it takes a certain mental strength to pull it off. Some people are not cut out for it. In the ten years since her parents died, Carolyn has fallen into an aimless drift. A little structure might be just what she needs, and you can’t beat the Mormons for structure.”

“This is just blowing my mind.”

“Good. Oh, and I have a tertiary. The church itself can’t be beat for misogyny, homophobia and a host of other sins, but I have yet to meet an individual Mormon that I didn’t like.”

We finally reach the crest of a hill and come out on a straightaway next to a reservoir. The rains have been kind; the banks are ripe and lakeish. Just as the traffic begins to loosen up, Paul hits an offramp and loops around.

“What the hell!”

Paul smiles. “My point exactly.” He pulls into a turnout that looks over a small annex of the reservoir, tucked against the mountains. He gets out, props a foot on a split-rail fence and looks out over the water. I assume I’m supposed to do the same.

“Oh God, you’ve become one of those enigmatic Buddhist teachers.”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps, when the eagle calls, you must follow.”

“So you’re a Navajo.”

“I am not speaking metaphorically.”

An actual bald eagle crosses the water in front of us, long, fluid wings carving the air.

“I’ve seen a few of them in Washington state,” says Paul. “I have never seen one this far south. I sorta figured I was hallucinating.”

Time stretches. The eagle finishes its left-to-right skim, scales high over the traffic and vanishes behind a stand of evergreens. I kiss Paul on the cheek. We return to his truck.

“You know what a religious person would say at this moment?” I ask.

We slide onto the highway. “Well,” says Paul. “Rather than appreciating the moment for what it was – a beautiful creature who has ventured far from its usual range – the religious person would take it as a personal message from God. Because religious people are the most megalomaniacal folks on the planet, and assume that even the flight plans of bald eagles are mapped out with their personal needs in mind. But then, I’m preaching to the choir.”

“You may be preaching to the choir, honey, but the choir really gets off on this shit.”


The Mormon approach to architecture is a little confusing. We pull off Highway One in Watsonville before what looks like a school, then ramble around for ten minutes before we find the small, plain room that serves as a chapel. We enter mid-service, the Marin County heathens dressed in black. It’s beautiful.

I sit next to Paul as an African man delivers a rambling homily, and I fight off the itch. It usually happens at quiet concerts, that sudden impulse to disrupt the proceedings. Here, it’s worse – gray-haired women dressed in spring-colored dresses and encouraging smiles, stiff-suited elders working up their little auras of authority. I want to scream. I want to strip naked, sing the national anthem and take hostages. But I suppose Paul would never take me to another baptism, so I fold my hands and stifle my urges.

His friend Carolyn seems very sweet – bashful and giggly from all the attention. She’s dressed in a white robe, as is the athletic-looking man next to her. From all the discreet touching I begin to get the gist: Carolyn met a nice Mormon boy. After a few more passages of scripture, he guides her to a side room outfitted with a stand-up bath and one of those angled convenience-store mirrors so the rest of us can watch. Mormon Boy says the magic words and dunks her under. She surfaces giggling, looking even cuter with wet hair.

Afterwards, we adjourn to a small gym with a table of refreshments. I find myself talking to the baptisee herself.

“So I guess this is the obvious question, but are you ready to give up the caffeine and booze?”

“Pshh. That’s the easy stuff. It’s the sex. Can’t do that till I’m married.”

“What about the tall drink of water who dunked you?”

She giggles. “Hey! One life-changing event at a time.”

“Here. Have another cookie.”

“Now sugar,” she says. “That’s allowed.”

Paul’s right: the Mormons are likeable. I look around and find him at the far end of the gym, shooting hoops with one of the elders.


We are midway up the Peninsula when my stomach starts to gurgle. Paul pulls into a vista point. You can see a long distance, the lights wrapping the bay in fields of gemstones. I would be enjoying it more if I were not vomiting into a cypress bush. Paul brings me an old towel, and I clean up as best I can.

“Too many Latter-Day desserts?”

“Too much religion.”

“You’re still in the grasp. It creates a lot of tension. But don’t worry – it gets easier. Ready to go?”

“Sure.” We take a slow walk, looking at the lights, the faint spiderwebs of the bridges. “You had a mean bout of basketball going there.”

“Game of HORSE. Ernie said if I lost, I had to get baptized.”

“And?”

“He kicked my ass.”

“Nice knowin’ ya. Mormon Boy.”

“It’s all right. I’m pretty sure that Mormons aren’t allowed to gamble.”


A little later, we’re climbing the long uphill of 19th Avenue, following the neatly alphabetized cross-streets: Vicente, Ulloa, Taraval. Paul turns on the heater.

“My mentor was a landscape designer. He was the safe harbor, the sounding board for my most radical thoughts. One night, he told me that religion is the thing we must jettison before we can get on with our evolution. That really stuck with me.

“Years later, he told me something else – and perhaps I’m remembering it now due to our eagle encounter. California, you see, has given rise to two distinct species of coyote: one from the south, one from the north. This division derived from the geographical obstacle created by the San Francisco Bay. Recently, however, they found some coyotes in San Francisco. They tested their DNA and concluded that these were northern coyotes. Which means? Class?”

Trying to process a thought right now is like trying to shove a potato through a keyhole.

“I’m… I’m not following.”

“That particular coyote crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. What kind of coyote would you have to be to look at that long, man-smelling, trafficky monstrosity and say, ‘I’m gonna cross that suckah.’”

“Coyote con cojones.”

You are adorable. Honestly. But see, that’s who I want to be. I want to be the coyote who crosses the bridge.”

Paul is radiating with fascination. I want to jump his bones and drink up all that light. Instead, I smile most sincerely and say, “Okay. Let’s do that.”

We hit the crest of the hill at Noriega, and there it is.


Photo by MJV

Poem: Net Creep


First published in Eye On Life Magazine


Net Creep

Counting the song curds, lefty boozing.
Cuticle takes the groove,
a steady mile of entourage.

Caw! Celery’s tameness.
Caw! Tampered by clocks.
Knitting in a smoky tar.

All frayed up with jazz,
hooting in the park,
she dices diminuendos.

Tramming at spy tools, the
bee bleaches heaven, smelling avarice.
To extinguish yourself is to grieve.

Fun times, the lonely dray.
A killer brew lacking ski ruts.
Meh. Too car. King of rhumbas.

Spoon tilde floors the tunecow,
cousin tutors that book like fizz.
Natalie’s other knee.

Dumb synergy be nil.
Flout the stew cook, dirty tears
stall like trucks in a scullery.



 From the collection Fields of Satchmo

Photo by MJV

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Poem: The Military Industrial Complex Expressed as a Glorified Spigot


First published in Eye on Life Magazine


The Military Industrial Complex Expressed as a Glorified Spigot

Take a walk on Avenue J, but beware.
The hydrants are frisky.
Tired of dogs.
Tired of never being used for
their intended purpose.

Ready to start a fire if
only it gave them something to do.
A chance to play hero,
to relieve the pressure.

Leave your lighter on the curb.
Walk away.
See what happens.



Photo by MJV

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter Ten: Customer Relations


Read the novel here, a chapter a week, or buy the Kindle book at Amazon.com



 Sylvia

You’re a goddamn mess. Why would a man have anything to do with you?


Jasmina


I am either healing myself or punishing myself. I am at the Depot, having a bowl of butternut squash soup. Paul would talk about this soup with a particular look in his eye – as if he were talking about an ex-girlfriend who went on to become a supermodel. It’s good, but I’m obviously not getting the same buzz. Perhaps I lack the emotional investment.

It’s been that kind of morning. We managed to get the latest film from Pixar – quite the coup – and the kids have been whining and screaming all morning. My favorite was the mom who apparently brought every kid in the neighborhood. She arrived at the head of a long line, five minutes until showtime, and only then turned around and said, “Okay kids, what do you want?” As if ten wound-up kids are going to give an organized response. I wanted to slap her.

And now, it gets worse. Mack and Tony have just walked in with Tony’s tight wife and a 50-year-old redhead with the surprised look of a plastic-surgery queen.

This is what I’m down to. I am jealous of the woman who is dating the man I’m being paid to have sex with. I’m pretty sure I’m breaking some prostitutional code of ethics. What’s worse is that my occasional glances are getting zero response, not even an undercover wink. Jesus. I am such a product.

I finish my soup and head for the restroom. When I come out, Mack is scanning the bulletin board, waiting for the men’s room.

“Hi.”

He gives me a mystified look, then smiles. “Hello.”

“How’s the lunch going?”

“I’m sorry. Do I know you?”

“Don’t worry. I’m sure the redhead can’t see us.”

Now it’s a blank look, and then a laugh.

“Oh! You’re the popcorn girl, at the theater. God, you really had me going there.”

I can’t believe this. I can’t believe he’s carrying it this far.

“Asshole,” I say, and leave.


Three grinding hours later, Javid and I sit at a table in the break room.

“God!” I say. “I am so glad we don’t do a lot of kiddie movies.”

“I’m betting you got the worst of it.”

“Well that’s nice of you to…”

“Not nice at all. A simple matter of straight thinking. I’m just selling tickets. You’re dealing with the evil combination of kids and food.”

I give him a Hindu-looking bow. “I thank you, Mr. Spock, for your insight.”

“Oh, hey… I got something for you.” He pulls a bag from the shelf and hands it to me. It’s a pair of books: God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

 

“Javid! This is…”


“Once again, I must interrupt you. You should probably read the bookmark.”

The Dawkins offers a moss green marker with a Darwin fish and the logo of The Free Thinker. Halfway down is a brief note in Paul’s handwriting: It’s time for graduate studies.

I burst upon Javid and kiss him on the cheek. “This is even better! Thank you.”

I wrap the books in my jacket, stuff it into my pack and begin the uphill climb, away from all things small and whiny.

Paul

I’m working on the drying table, separating buds and stems, loading a couple of one-ounce bags for delivery. I like this kind of work. It’s tactile, it keeps my mind occupied. My brain is my greatest asset, I marvel at what it can do, but I often wish it would just shut the fuck up. I am lost in the greenery, just about at the level of zen when a knock on the door throws me right back out. In a room full of marijuana plants, a knock on the door is a loaded occurrence.

Whoever’s outside has likely heard no sound. I slip off my shoes and creep up the stairs. Part of the challenge is to fight my innate politeness. I need to be rudely quiet and wait for a signal.

“Paul? It’s Jasmina.”

Clear enough, but just to make sure, I indulge in a worst-case scenario. Jasmina has been busted for prostitution and is turning me in for a plea bargain, standing in my stock room with three sheriff’s deputies. Not likely. I open the door and there she is, alone, still in her work shirt, a black button-down with long sleeves.

“Jesus! This is really not a good idea. How did you get in?”

She scratches her arm. “I’m sorry. The back door was open.”

“I am really a lousy criminal.”

She laughs, then covers her mouth. “I finished the books.”

This isn’t how I pictured our reunion, but still I feel like kissing her. Which is a really bad idea.

“Why don’t we go to my conference room?”

I have recently outfitted the Enlightenment corner with a small sofa and a pair of café chairs. Jasmina slides into the red armchair. I take a chair and straddle it backwards, which I realize is a defensive posture, the back of the chair providing a shield for the family jewels (I have got to stop thinking).

“So. Tell me about the books.”

She lifts her legs to the seat of the chair and folds them Indian-style, then looks at me with wide eyes.

“Thrilling. Absolutely thrilling. All these things I have suspected all my life. All these things I have never spoken out loud because I didn’t want to upset people. These guys, they just say it, and make no apologies. They have roiled up so many ideas in my head that I can barely sort them out. Here’s one: I have noticed this tendency of Marin County folk, so desperate to escape their Christian childhoods that they embrace Hindu, and Buddhism, and Islam, not realizing that they have simply traded one flavor of bullshit for another. It’s all mythology, it’s all been manipulated for the cultivation of power, and the first commandment is always the same: turn off your brain and accept our fairy tales as absolute truth.”

She stops to take a breath. The look on her face borders on sexual arousal.

“It’s pretty exhiliarating to say things like this, isn’t it?”

“God yes.”

“You know, it takes most people – notably Roman Catholics – decades to work all these toxins out of their systems. You’re making leaps.”

“And this idea of Dawkins, that we allow religion to corrupt our politics, to infect our science and to make idiots of our children simply because we have decided that religious thought merits automatic respect, and immunity from criticism. What a load of crap. If the fucked-up patriarchal torturously celibate foundations of your church lead your clergy to molest children, then we have an obligation to criticize your fucking religion!”

I have been here before. I have used Hitchens and Dawkins for years to pull budding atheists over the brink. They are my Atheists with Attitude, and they have a way of switching on so many ideational connections that the reader’s brain becomes an overamped pinball machine. My job is to keep pumping in the quarters until all of the forbidden notions are pulled into the open air, where they may be sorted and assembled into a very necessary arsenal. The rest of Jasmina’s life will be a tricky navigation through well-meaning idiots who worry over the blackness of her soul, and a depressing realization that most of the world is happy to turn off their brains and wallow in superstition.

“One time, I got the black-soul treatment from some old friends who were pagans. I wanted to shake them and say, ‘You’re fucking pagans! Millions of your forebears were tortured and exterminated by people who claimed that they were only doing it because they were concerned about the health of their victims’ souls. And you want to start the same process with me?’”

“So what did you really say?”

“‘Oh look, our pizza’s done!’”

Jasmina breaks up, then catches sight of the clock. “Oh, geez. I need to let you get some sleep.”

My gaze settles on Voltaire, the sharp nose, the narrow features.

“Absolutely not! There are times when the conversation simply must continue. Are you familiar with a fine dining establishment known as Denny’s?”

She rolls her eyes. “All too.”

“Midnight breakfast? Public discussion of heretical ideas?”

“Nothing could be finer.” She smiles and gets up from the chair, her breasts passing inches from my face.


After pancakes, eggs, bacon, several cups of coffee and enough blasphemy to inspire an Inquisition, we exit the restaurant and stand outside. The eastern sky is going baby blue.

“This is epic!” I declare. “This  is the kind of night that American teenagers have after the prom. As long as they’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses.” I feel Jasmina’s fingers folding into mine and I pull away.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t…”

“No,” she says. “It’s me. I…” She falls silent, then pivots to face me. “No! Let’s not be this way. We’re atheists, let’s just damn well say it. I know that my… occupation means that you and I can’t be… involved. But I love you, and you’re my friend, and I want to feel free to express my affection. So set some rules for me. Tell me what’s okay.”

She looks at me with such frankness that I need to look away in order to consider the question. A firetruck rumbles down the freeway.

“Okay. Not the hand-holding. Hugs are fine. Touches on the arm, the back, the shoulder. And… a peck on the cheek, in moments of inspiration.”

I turn back and find myself kissing her on the lips.

“Hey!” She slaps me on the chest. “I was trying to kiss you on the cheek.”

I lean on the hood of my truck and start laughing.



Photo by MJV

Monday, December 16, 2013

Poem: Wake


First published in Eye on Life Magazine


Wake

Combustion ballet in the Arctic ether we
take our pins and poke the balloon,
screaming at the gunshot like two-year-olds.

Would do something but the
chore wheel carries six billion names.
Perhaps we will grow webbed feet,
gills, the rapture, life’s too short and
busy and hard, have to, get into,
children, right schools.

Your children have razor sharp
nails that claw at the sky and
they get them from you.


Shards of balloon fall from the
sky like pancakes. We will
do something about the time that
the Pacific breaks down our doors,
drags us into the streets and
puts us under.

Ask with our last breath who
knew, who knew




From the collection Fields of Satchmo

Photo by MJV