Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Poem: Season


The date was going well
he thought
until the issue of popcorn topping.

He, white cheddar.
She, nacho cheese.
They went with butter, straight.

And there it was.
They had come to their
first impasse as a
couple and vaulted forward.

His fingers found hers.
She leaned her
head upon his shoulder.

Tick tock,
touch upon motion until
the turbines took a charge.

She fell asleep, late that night,
one breast pocketed in his hand.
He gazed at the
popcorn ceiling and thought,
white cheddar.

From the collection Fields of Satchmo 
Photo by MJV

Painting Tacoma, Chapter Twenty: Gold

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“I like the mustard skirt better. It hangs better on your hips. How about with the brown knit top?”
            Tacoma smiled. “I can’t believe I have a boyfriend who actually expresses opinions about clothes.”
            “You ask, you get.”
            “Are you sure you’re not gay? Don’t answer. I’ll be right back.”
            Tacoma headed back to the dressing room. Shawn noticed a rack of tunics, half-price.

“With the rain, I’m not getting much work. And I need to get some new drums for the recording. It’s not a good time for me to be doing costly things.”
            Tacoma ran down a list of arguments, “I’m dying to ski. The snow is great right now. But if I go without you, I’ll be totally bummed.” She paused. “What if I pay?”
            “You’re sure?”
            “Yeah! It’ll be fun. And I’ve got money, darn it – I should enjoy it.”
            “Okay, but...”
            “But my ass! You’re coming, slave boy. We’ll need my car for the skis, but could you drive? I’m no good at mountains.”

“Let’s try Matador. Here, sweetie. Give this a sniff.”
            Tacoma’s bachelor reform program continued. To Shawn it smelled of branding one’s cattle, marking one’s territory. But he also understood Tacoma’s special talent. She could smell a sprig of lavender at a thousand paces. She liked to sniff him all over and tell him what he’d been doing that day: hiking at the waterfront, hanging out at the Kickstand, rehearsing with the band. If they ever married, he would have to resign himself to never getting away with anything.
            “Ooh! Cavalier. That’s you all over, Chucho. Nah, too sweet. How about that, with the blue cap?”
            The sales ladies of Pierce County were being worked hard. This was their fourth department store. Tacoma sprayed a whiskey-colored liquid on her wrist. “Ooh! Huh-nee. Try this.”
            He leaned over and took in a scent with equal measures musk and eucalyptus. It was called Livan. From then on, this was what he would wear.

“That snow! So icy. It was like a hundred mosquitoes biting my face!”
            They went straight for the Mt. Bachelor quad chair, not realizing they were headed straight for the top. They found themselves above the treeline, where the wind was blasting the snow into broad patches of ice. But just as you got your edges into one, you would strike a drift of powder and flop over like one of those inflatable punching clowns. It took them two hours to get back down, and by then the falling snow had turned into sleet.
            “This chili is paradise! Do you think we’ll get back out there?”
            “I think I’ve had enough,” said Shawn.
            Tacoma approached an older gentleman at the next table.
            “Excuse me. Could you take a picture of us?”
            “Certainly,” said the man, with a vaguely British accent. “Is this one of those one-button jobs? Ah.”
            Tacoma plopped down in Shawn’s lap and turned to the camera. Shawn flung out his hand in surprise and broke out laughing. The camera flashed. The man smiled. It was their favorite shot.

“Could I see that one?”
            A gold heart with a king’s crown, held between two hands.
            “What do you call this?”
            “A claddagh,” said the salesman, with a vaguely Irish accent. “It originates from a town of the same name near Galway. You’ll find its meaning on that little tag.”
            Shawn turned over the price tag. Let love and friendship reign.
            “Good for a girlfriend?” he asked.
            “Only one you like.”
            “I’ll take it.”
            It was only December 3, but Shawn knew a Christmas present when he saw one.

“Honey, could you spot me enough for these cigars? It would help keep me alert.”
            “Sure, sweetie.”
            They left the mountain store and drove a mile before hitting the backup. The snowplows were still working the pass. Shawn took a drag, watching the smoke roil against the windshield.
            “You sure you don’t mind?”
            “It makes you look manly,” she said. “Like Ernest Hemingway.”
            He took another drag and pushed Mazzy Star into the tape deck. Lulled by a slow country blues, Tacoma drifted off to sleep. Watching her, curled against the back of the seat, he felt the ache of a moment that refused to stand still, could not quite believe how much he loved her.

Photo by MJV

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Poem: Attempt


In the byway of nightscape,
Isadora walks a huff,
checking her phone, checking her phone.

If Conrad means it, she’s in trouble.
If he doesn’t, she will cut his
pretentious hair and feed it to a
wood chipper.

She should have resigned herself to
cats, goldfish, something
moving but not linguistic,
something that wouldn’t
shake her up like a warm soda.

She buys a token and climbs the stairs.
The train runs on a ridge next to
the freeway, offering a view of
white and red corpuscles,
the Villa Robles trailer park.

She passes the warning sign and
paces twenty like a pirate,
turns east and looks for a
house with green lights.

Raises Conrad’s camera.
Zooms on the window.

He’s taking her from behind,
exposing the Viking tattoo that
she would love to extract with a
steak knife.

She holds her breath and
snaps the photo,
because she will need it, later,
when she gives him another chance.

But this is the problem:
she will give him another chance.

The train noses the
bend like a curious boa.
Isadora sets down the camera,
watches the light grow solar and
calmly walks into its path.

She flies backward,
lands on her tailbone and
flattens out in pain.

The squall of brakes.
A plane overhead.
A black face in the sky, cussing.

Her eyes fill up.
She folds like a wad of paper.

The face comes closer and
speaks words like pillows.
Faint smell of cigarettes.
She lowers her cheek to the
cement and watches the
train heading away.

From the collection Fields of Satchmo 
Photo by MJV

Painting Tacoma, Chapter Nineteen: The End of the Job

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Shawn knelt on the pumpkin-orange carpet of Shelly’s basement, eyeing a wall of freshly primed wood paneling. Shelly must be crazy to think I can pull this off, he thought. He stabbed his putty knife into a bucket of joint compound and smacked a glob to the wall.
            He ran the blade once, twice, then an S-curve through the center, till he flattened it to a quarter inch. He was beginning to see the pattern: Italian restaurants, artful swoops and cuts like the flight of a bird. As in algebra, the idea was to show the work. No room for straight lines or symmetrical intentions. In a blur of three hours, the wall was covered. Shawn sprawled on the carpet to stare, in love with his own work.
            “Shawn, it looks fabulous! I knew you had the knack. Let’s take lunch.”
            They went to Harbor Lights, a seafood place on Ruston Way. The sparkly lightbulbs of the sign reminded him of a Mafia hangout somewhere in Jersey. Shelly signaled her intentions by ordering lobster. Shawn went for the swordfish.
            “The man at the store said it would take 24 hours to dry, so I thought we should call it a day and eat someplace fancy.”
            “Sure,” said Shawn. He tried not to think about his splattered jeans.
            “So how are things with Tacoma?”
            “Superb. I’ve never been this... deep before.”
            “That’s wonderful, Shawn. She really is a beautiful girl. Tell me about her family.”
            “Her family?”
            “Yeah. Let me play amateur psychologist.”
            “Okay. Well, Mom has bipolar, too. Dangerously chatty. Get her on the phone and she’ll talk half an hour before you say hello. She seems to adore me, but I don’t see how she could know.”
            “What about Dad?”
            “Largely absent, after the divorce. But they’re back in touch now. Lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he does some sort of job in between fishing trips.”
            “So all this adds up to being raised by Grandma?”
            “Yeah. Mom was pretty unstable. So she lived with Grandma in South Hills Pittsburgh. Grandma had lots of money – inheritance, I think. Had a live-in boyfriend, young black dancer, twenty years her junior.”
            Shelly laughed. “Grandma had style, didn’t she?”
            “Grandma was a babe. Vaudeville showgirl. Could’ve been in Ziegfield’s Follies, but – well, long story. By the time Tacoma returned from college, Grandma had ditched the boyfriend and refocused her energies on running Tacoma’s life. That’s when she took off.”
            “God! It’s amazing she turned out so well.”
            “Yes. And she still calls Grandma once a week, even though she spends the whole time bitching about Tacoma breaking her heart.”
            “And that’s why you love her.”
            “One of many reasons.”
            Shelly smiled and looked out over Commencement Bay, where a tug was drawing into the harbor.
            “One reason I wanted to take you somewhere nice, Shawn, is that... I’m afraid I’ve run out of house. And I did want to thank you for making it look so lovely. Perhaps next summer we can start on the outside. I hope you’ll be all right, finding work.”
            “I’ll be fine. But I’ll never have as much fun. You’re a dream client, Shelly. And don’t think I’m going to disappear, just because I’m not working for you.”
            “Just as long as the neighbors don’t talk.”
            The waiter brought their dishes and Shawn dug in, savoring the lemon and basil on his swordfish.
            “Richard’s coming back,” said Shelly.
            “Richard? In-jail Richard?”
            “He’s being paroled. I’ve agreed to let him move back in.”
            “Is that... wise?” asked Shawn.
            “No. But... Tacoma loves her grandma, and Richard is still my son. His parole is contingent on regular drug tests, and he’s staying in the basement, where I can keep an eye on him. And, this may be difficult for you to process, Shawn, but Richard’s found religion.”
            “Call me a cynic.”
            “We’re not all as strong as you, Shawn! Some people need rules, discipline, a promise of heaven or hell. Look at Tacoma’s childhood – don’t you think she needed it?”
            Shawn realized that Shelly was debating with him – seeking his approval for a foolish act. He wasn’t about to withhold it.
            “Just as long as you’re tough,” he said.
            “As nails,” said Shelly, snapping her lobster tail.

Photo by MJV

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Painting Tacoma, Chapter Eighteen: The Girls of Idaho


The horseshoe that never saw a horse stood on its toes, leaning against the stake like a drunk on a bar. Another horseshoe cartwheeled in, hooked him by the collar and yanked him off his feet. He landed a foot away, flat on his back, staring at the cloud-spotted sky.
            “You bitch!”
            “That was so rude!”
            “There are no manners in horseshoes.”
            The day before the blues tour, they were walking through Wright Park when they stumbled on ten pair of horseshoe pits. Each end was fitted with a wooden rain shelter; one of them read, “Tacoma Horseshoe Club.” Tacoma insisted that they go out and buy some shoes.
            Two weeks after the tour, it was clear that one of them had been practicing. She had developed a low-trajectory toss that cleared out his point-makers like a linebacker taking out quarterbacks. His only chance was to fall behind on points, forcing her to throw first. Sadly, this was not hard to do.
            Tacoma hurled the next one so low it barely cleared the grass. It landed on the dirt and slid straight ahead, embracing the stake with its outspread arms. Tacoma, 15 to 13.
            “Aiee,” cried Shawn, face in hands.
            “Poor honey,” Tacoma cooed. “Just remember what a nice winner I can be.” She slapped him on the butt.
            “I’ll keep that in mind,” said Shawn, collecting their shoes. “Would you like to whoop me again, or would you prefer a mocha?”
            She was so fond of the beverage, he had taken to calling her “Tamocha.” It came in handy for getting out of unpleasant situations.
            “How come you never get that look when you look at me?” he asked.
            “If you covered yourself in chocolate and espresso, maybe I would.”
            “Okay. But not hot espresso.”
            They carried their horsehoes downhill to the Kickstand.
            “What the hell happened to the rest of the horse?”
            Shawn leaned over the counter to give Wendy a kiss on the cheek.
            “How ‘bout a couple mochas, quick as you can make ‘em?”
            “Sure! Hi Tacoma, how ya doin’?”
            “Just kicked my boyfriend’s ass.”
            “Good. He deserves it, leaving you alone to go on tour. This woman is gorgeous, Shawn! Were you gonna find anyone like her in Idaho?”
            “No,” said Shawn.
            “Good answer,” said Wendy.
            Tacoma and Shawn sat and talked about Tacoma’s job. She’d been promoted to sales, and was excited at the chance to make more money. A half-hour later, they ran into Angie at the elevator.
            “Angie!” said Shawn. He wrapped her in a hug and lifted her off the ground.
            “Hi Shawn. How are ya?”
            “Angie, this is Tacoma. Tacoma, my pal Angie. She lives in the basement with the mole people.”
            “But the rent is cheap. So,” she said. “You’re the legendary Tacoma! I’m so glad to see you guys back together. It was so obvious Shawn was still stuck on you. But hey – I gotta split. Movie date with a girlfriend. Let’s get together sometime for a card game.”
            “Aw, go fuck yourself,” said Shawn. Angie laughed and pushed her way out the door.

After their lovemaking, Shawn lay flat on his back, staring through the blinds at the cloud-spotted sky. Tacoma played with his hair, separating a lock, studying it, setting it aside. Shawn could feel questions coming to the surface like koi in a pond.
            “It was a nice day today,” she said, a trial balloon.
            “It’s a shame I have to go home.”
            “Then stay.”
            “No. Don’t want to stress out the bipolar bear.”
            Shawn rose to his knees and stared at her.
            “What?” she asked.
            “Before you burst a blood vessel,” he said, “you’d better ask me that question.”
            Tacoma ran both hands through her hair. “Well...”
            She took a breath that hunched her shoulders.
            “You’re very popular.”
            “With girls. You have a lot of girl... friends.”
            Shawn was working hard to keep that fatal first response from his lips. Tacoma went on.
            “The girl who used to dry-hump you during the Tonight Show is making our mochas. And Angie, whose eyes go off like flash bulbs when she sees you...”
            Shawn sat back on his haunches and put a hand on her knee.
            “First thought: comparing Wendy or Angie to you is like comparing Puyallup to Paris. Second: nothing happened with either one.”
            “Because they never gave you the chance?”
            “Wendy propositioned me after three hours. And Lord, does she owe me a few. But she’s the past. She’s Ellensburg.”
            “So you turning her down had nothing to do with me.”
            “At the time, you and I were not together. I was free to do what I wanted. But you have succeeded in setting the bar so high that I didn’t want to come down.”
            Tacoma seemed to enjoy that response, but she fought to maintain her prosecutor’s demeanor.
            “But you are attracted to Angie.”
            “Yes. Angie is attractive. But again, two unattached people, and nothing happened.”
            “Because she didn’t give you the chance.”
            “She didn’t jump all over me, no. But think about it: four, five dates and I didn’t even try to hold her hand. I’m not a dog, Tacoma. I don’t operate on automatic. Romance is like a third person in the room. It has to enter of its own accord.”
            Tacoma’s eyes flicked back and forth. “A third person.”
            He brought his face to hers and said, “A third person, made up of the gestures, feelings and intimacies that pass between two people.”
            He kissed her on the forehead and stood.
            “Would you like some water?”
            “Yes,” she said.
            He filled a glass at the sink, relieved that he had passed the gauntlet. Her question drifted over his shoulder like a yellowjacket.
            “So what about the tour?”
            He handed her the glass.
            “It went very well.”
            “What about the girls of Idaho?”
            He didn’t have a good response, so he didn’t say anything. Tacoma took a swallow and opened her eyes.
            “So you and I... were not exclusive.”
            He opened the blinds, Rainier glowing pink in the sunset. Perhaps it would blow up and save him the trouble.
            “I didn’t have faith in us,” he said. “not yet. And I was living out a dream. I wanted it... unfettered. I’m sorry. I was trying not to make any promises.”
            “Did anything... happen?”
            “Because the girls of Idaho... didn’t give you the chance?”
            He had to hold that one for a while.
            A tear leaked from the corner of her eye. Another contribution to the third person. He would’ve done anything to take it back.

He woke at six o’clock, to the sound of his phone.
            “Hi. I’m sorry for waking you, but I can’t go to work without...”
            She stopped.
            “Tacoma? What is it?”
            “Are we exclusive... now?”
            “Thanks. Now go back to sleep.”
            “Consider it done.”
            He slumped to the pillow, cordless in hand.

Photo by MJV
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Poem: Add It Up

Add It Up

Facing the Seahorse Conundrum,
Alexandra scratches the final digits of
her calculations across the blackboard.

The proposition of a simple
one plus one flies in the
face of recorded behavior.
Lock two spouses in a sealed
chamber and they will still
find a way to cheat each other.

The problem originates with the dream of
self-fulfillment, which is never, ever
achieved solely by the addition of the other.
The consequent disillusionment spurs our
wayward steps, fueled by hope, anticipation,
and the next pair of suntanned
legs that trip our radar.

If x + y doesn’t work,
perhaps x + y + z will.
But the trio never holds,
because y begins to believe
that z will succeed
where x has failed.

Perhaps someday the framework of
monogamy will fade like a red dwarf,
and another paradigm will take its place:
simultaneous partnerships in the
distinct areas of sex, parenting and
companionship, a tripart network of
support arranged by computer algorithms.

Dinner and sex with Gunther.
Stan drives the kids to school.
A lunchtime chat with Javier.

If only she could set it all
down in mathematical terms.

Alexandra’s phone plays an
excerpt from the Goldberg Variations.
Martin has sent her a periwinkle,
purple radiant in a bed of ivy.

The numbers fade.
Her head fills with air.


From the collection Fields of Satchmo 
Photo by MJV

Friday, April 25, 2014

Poem: Domestic Dioramas

Domestic Dioramas

Find an old shoebox to use as a backdrop.
Try Legos and pipe-cleaners for furniture;
cut up old shirts and socks for
curtains, tablecloths and carpeting.
You may use action figures,
but it’s more fun to create
your own cardboard cutouts.

Assignment One:
A man has just been served with
divorce papers. He sits at his
kitchen table, considering his options:
a gun, a ballpoint pen,
The Golden Hits of Elvis Presley.

Assignment Two:
A married woman with three children has
just realized that she’s a lesbian.
Give visual hints about her epiphany:
Desperate Housewives on the television,
a framed portrait of Melissa Etheridge;
a hot dog, half-eaten.

Assignment Three:
A large family sits at a dinner table,
enjoying a Thanksgiving meal.
A second tableau reveals what
would happen if they gave
vent to their true feelings:
Aunt Martha rolls an enormous joint;
cousins Teddy and Suki
make out beneath the table;
Uncle Freddie discovers a
fork sticking out of his forehead.

The assignment is due May 17,
after which your teacher will be
marrying a banker and leaving you
little rat-bastards to fend for yourselves.

From the collection Fields of Satchmo 
Photo by MJV