The Same Old Story

girl walkng dog

Robyn called Tony, her ex-husband, Prior Fuck. Tony took it for fat shaming. He called her Annie Wrecksit. After they split up, they both missed having someone safe to insult. San Francisco is a big city. It should have been easy for them to avoid one another, but they didn’t. It was obvious to me and to other acquaintances that they still needed each other.

Take the dog park. Along with the condo, Robyn had gotten their dog, an English Bulldog. After the split-up, Tony showed up with his own new dog, a Whippet; and, although he no longer lived here in the Sunset, he would bring it to the dog park in Stern Grove, where Robyn, who lived nearby on Vicente, walked her dog. Somehow, they would both be there around six p.m. to exchange barbs in passing.

I had once lived, with my first wife, in an apartment house in Jersey City owned by her family. One of our neighbors was an old Italian couple, part of her family, who decades before had stopped speaking to one another. They dressed only in black.  Was it an Italian who came up with the idea of hell? Dante certainly got off on it. That couple lived their version of it, bound together by their sacred vows in an inescapable net of loathing. I had watched them at family affairs. They communicated by grimaces and gestures. They read each other’s disparaging minds. She was found dead at the bottom of the stairs. He expired soon thereafter.

My parents were divorced. Dad said it was either divorce her or kill her, and he was afraid of being raped in prison.

I work at home, so, of course, I do all the chores—shopping, cooking, cleaning, walking the dog. It’s her dog. We—the dog and I—chose from the start not to be pals. One of those triangles. We tolerate each other in an unequal relationship. It doesn’t feed me or pick up my shit. The leash is a mutual punishment. At the dog park, it gratifies its sniffing urges and I watch the other dog walkers. After a while, it becomes like a daily soap opera. The same folks, the same dogs. You imagine it. I watch the flirtations, both canine and human.

I have a dog-park acquaintance—let’s call him Jerry—who shared with me that he got his dog on his shrink’s advice. Not as an emotional support beast, but as social enhancement bait. His shrink even described the dog Jerry should get: mid-sized, long fluffy coat, mellow and agreeable. After extensive internet research, Jerry found the prescribed article at a kennel in Wisconsin. In exchange for undisclosed thousands of dollars and a stint of in-depth training for both of them back in Wisconsin, Jerry, with his pure-bred Hungarian Sheepdog, returned to San Francisco and its more-elite dog parks. To hunt. To troll for human connection, especially female human connection. I presumed Mozart was male. It was hard to tell beneath all that fur. Jerry and Mozart disappeared after a while. I don’t know if they were successful or just moved their pursuit to some other hunting ground.

I’ve not met the lady. We’ve not been (even self-) introduced. Actually, no one at the dog park speaks with her. Jerry used to refer to her as Cruella. I gather that is a literary reference with which I am unfamiliar. She is not unattractive—thin, statuesque, fashionably dressed by dog-park standards. It was her dog, a female Doberman on a very short leash and not out for normal doggie fun. A Waffen-SS in the ghetto.

We quite naturally assume some mutuality between a dog and its master. Her sunglasses sort of confirmed it. Stern Grove is not famous for its sunshine. As a woman once asked me about my beard, “What are you trying to hide?” She also, unlike everyone else there, was never seen carrying a plastic poop bag, neither empty nor full. What? Nazi dogs don’t shit? Or were their turds too sacrosanct to disturb? How sophomoric, I thought: consummate Nazis like Hawaiian chiefs had all their bodily effluent clandestinely vanish because it was so sacred. Also, quite naturally, none of the other passive house dogs nor their tenders wished to get close to the bitch, the dog I mean. It looked hungry.

I passed close enough to the Doberman lady to see she wore a wedding ring. I could not help but imagine her mate, or try to. She looked so cold. I came up with someone on the road a lot, a denizen of first-class airline lounges and foreign-capital hotels with apostrophes in their name. How often did he call? Closer, she was not so young. The Doberman growled. Dobermans show a lot of teeth when they growl. Her lips straightened into a line that might have been a satisfied smile.

The other day I read an article about the Australian bloke who created the Labradoodle. He called it his Frankenstein monster. “I find that the biggest majority are either crazy or have a hereditary problem,” he said. I guess poodles and labs aren’t meant to fuck. Had he had to force them? Or did he use artificial insemination? (AI, just like the other one.) Strange matings.

There are a variety of domesticated Canis species represented at the dog park. I don’t know the names of all of them. I wonder, when us hominoids are gone, how all these invented species will sort out. Most will be on the menu, I suppose. But in a dog-eat-dog world, some combined strain will survive and prevail. In some instances, lust shall prevail over hunger. The Whippet shall beguile the Bulldog and beget a Whippull or a Bullwhip, which will fall for a Sheepdog/Doberman mix, and so on, until there is just one breed left, Kingdog.

I follow the Doberman lady out of the dog park. I am drawn to her like prey. She knows that I am following her but doesn’t seem to care. We leave the other dogs behind.





After Labor Day

corn field 1

Most of the way the highway is bordered by expanses of corn, slowly rolling fulvous fields ready for harvest after scorching weeks of no rain, an endless tinder landscape just waiting for a flame to transform itself into an avalanche of popcorn. A cruise-control drive into the sunset. I am headed home after a visit to my wife’s nursing home in Hancock County, a dry county here in bourbon country. In the back seat, along with my walker, is Connie Sue’s weekly laundry for me to wash.

Back over the line in Daviess County, I have two stops to make—the drive-thru liquor store for my week’s supply of bourbon and ale and the drive-thru drug store for one of my exorbitant (the price of two-week’s alcohol) prescriptions. Staying alive past your allotted years in America does not come cheap.

When we were young, Labor Day always meant going back to school, sort of the ultimate Sunday-night of holidays, hardly a holiday at all—the end of your days off, no more baseball. For Connie summers meant long bike rides with a girlfriend into the countryside—this countryside before everything was corn—and the indolence of nothing to do but daydream. Remember the indulgence of childhood boredom? What a gift that was. No worries beside getting home before the streetlights came on.

Now Labor Day semaphores lurking autumn and its ugly brother winter, long early and empty dusks, heating bills replacing cooling bills, uncertain footing, slush. Both Connie and I were autumn babies. Our first months were winter. Summer would have been a surprise—the shedding of clothes, sun on skin. November’s child is meek and mild; come July she will be wild.

Who would have thought, when you got this far, that the importance of all that preceded would get lost? Would become almost laughable, meaningless? Promotions forgotten, books out of print, offspring so fine they don’t need to call. What matters now is just today, its small comforts, pain pills, naps, routines. It’s sort of like summer when we were kids. Then we had the present but no past to distract us. Now we have the present but no future to concern us. Just today and the whole world to ignore us.


Hollywood sign

“Researchers suggest that mosquitoes may have killed nearly half of the 108 billion humans who have ever lived across our relatively brief 300,000-year existence.”  She just had to write that down. It was in the Times, so it was the same as a fact. “Mosquitoes have been around for more than 100 million years.” She wrote that down, too. Big numbers comforted her. “Mosquitoes are our apex predator.” Cool.

Apex predator made her think of a supermarket serial killer. Don’t go down the cereal aisle. That man in the incongruent suit lurking near the Coco Puffs. Sometimes, the news could make her mornings. The Mr. Coffee had gone rouge on her a couple of days before, refusing to brew, so she had to resort to French press. A Parisian gym, a man in a beret lifting his lover like a barbell. Just a normal morning. The half-and-half had spoiled, turning the coffee in her mug into a ying/yang thing of umbra and curds. It was going to be one of those days. The few donut holes left in the box were petrified.

The air-con was off to cut back on the electric bill, but Joanna didn’t mind. She was comfy in just a cotton wife-beater T-shirt and gym shorts. Underwear was not intended for the tropics, and lately L.A. was the tropics. Tropics, from the Latin tropos, to turn, like the half-and-half. No air-con meant all the windows were open, closing the distance between inside and outside. It was Sunday. She’d drive out to Van Nuys to see Uncle Jeffrey, then maybe head on up into the hills, get out of town to look down on it.

Joanna was of the opinion that you could only love something that could love you back. You could appreciate, like, admire, even covet inanimate things; but “loving” them—and all that ought to mean—was pointless, impossible, absurd. She wasn’t sure about pets. Can you love a slave? Hate was different. You could hate whatever you chose. Hate had a big brush. The pleasure of hate was selfish, not reciprocal. You owned hate; you gave love. She didn’t hate L.A.—what’s the point? —and she couldn’t love it. She just drove through it.

Joanna was pretty sure Jasmine was not the woman’s original given name. She was too old to have had hippie parents and she wasn’t black. From her southern accent, the name on her driver’s license was more likely something like Vicki Jo or Peggy Sue. Pretty pretty Peggy Sue. Only she wasn’t pretty, not any more anyway, maybe once, a pudgy high school cheerleader. If she wanted to name herself after a tea, maybe she could have gone all the way with Chamomile or Oolong. Adopted or ascribed first names—Ace, Dolly, Dude, Venus, Brad (she’d met far too many Brads), Sonny, Stormy, Dutch, Chastity, names no parent would ever slap on a baby—were common in L.A.

AKA Jasmine had moved in on Uncle Jeffrey a few years before. Joanna both thought of her little and thought little of her. She hadn’t killed him yet anyway. Uncle Jeffrey was Joanna’s only remaining family; as she was his. It was solely by happenstance that they both had ended up here in this concrete desert. They were both from lower-case elsewheres. They had never been close. There was nothing magical or mystical about their geographic congruence. It was just one of those wrinkles in chaos that provide seers with suckers.

Uncle Jeffrey now had tubes running into his nose. Or was it out of his nose? That scene from Catch-22 with the guy in a full-body cast, where a passing nurse just switches the bottles from the tube running out of the cast with the tube running into it. That scene was so Zen. Uncle Jeffrey’s tubes tried to be invisible but ended up at an oxygen tank he had to drag around with him on a miniature golf cart. He still smoked. He took the tubes out first.  Jasmine was there, dressed in a muumuu and moaning about the heat. Jasmine steeping. Joanna tried to ignore her, hold her tongue. It was part of her battle with herself not to be irksome.

— * —

The word beleaguered comes from the Dutch for surrounded camp. Surrounded by what? By them, of course, the opposite of us. Them, our natural enemy. If a positive is meaningless without a negative, a man is nothing without an enemy. Uncle Jeffrey was wearing a VFW hat with a fighting-something logo and embroidered bill. Vietnam Veteran it said in gold braid. Joanna had never seen him wearing it before. She hadn’t even known he was a vet.

“Ain’t,” he said. “I dodged that piece of shit. But I liked the hat, bought it on-line. Now when I go out, nobody hassles me. I call it my invincibility cap. Now I’m not just some broken-down old reprobate; I’m a disabled war hero.”

“You’re a lying pre-corpse,” Jasmine said and left the room.

“It’s amazing, justly amazing, the respect everyone has for veterans,” Uncle Jeffrey said. “Sometimes men will give me a little salute, and I’ll salute ‘em back. Real vets probably.”

“Just the hat?”

“Just the hat. I don’t claim anything else. You know what you’ll never see? A vet wearing his baseball cap backwards. That would be like raising the flag upside down.”

There was an endearing randomness to Uncle Jeffrey, a mercurial, almost chameleon ability to be anyone he wanted to be, any American anyway. Today he turned into the prototypical patriot—the hat. It was like real-life improv. He even mocked his younger self as a pinko pansy, as if he was talking, third person, about someone else. The last time she had visited he was wearing a black soutane and one of those four-corner pillbox hats priests used to wear and apologized in detailed length for the sins he’d committed on altar boys. Another time, he was dressed in a suit and a red tie, with an American flag pin in his lapel, and became a politician, spouting cliches in broken sentences. Of course, he had come to L.A. to be an actor. Joanna wondered if there was a term for Uncle Jeffrey’s peculiar affliction, beside twisted talent. Joanna came by mainly to be his occasional audience, a corporal work of mercy.

Today Uncle Jeffrey wanted to go out, to show Joanna the effectiveness of his new disguise. She had put on a short-sleeve blouse over her T-shirt, but she was hardly dressed to go public. “Oh, just my diner over on Sepulveda. She refuses to cook because of the heat.” Of course, he had to take his oxygen tank. “Part of the outfit.” They left without telling Jasmine.

— * —

“Knock ‘em dead,” “Break a leg,” “Killer act,” “Dynamite!” The subtlety was cloying. That’s entertainment. What a weird industry. A luxury is something you could live without, like entertainment. Maybe like feast food, now and then throughout the year, on special communal occasions. But as daily fare? Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of being entertained. It wasn’t that many generations ago when entertainers—musicians, actors, athletes, vaudevillians—were among the least respected and poorest paid professions. But now, reality withers in entertainment’s shadow. The celebrity pantheon is almost exclusively occupied by entertainers.

Not that it meant anything to Joanna. Not that anybody wanted to hear it. It was just curious. Over lunch, Uncle Jeffrey confessed—or was he actually bragging? –that his only screen performances had been as an extra, especially corpses. “I do a good corpse,” he said. “The secret is I just take a nap. Sometimes, when the scene is over, they have to wake me up.” Joanna paid for lunch. Uncle Jeffrey had forgotten his wallet. It was the least she could do for a vet.

Joanna appreciated that Uncle Jeffrey was immutably unknowable. There was no need to know who he actually was behind all his veils of disguise. As she was driving him back home, he said no, he wasn’t going there, and he directed her to an address in North Hollywood, a neighborhood a few degrees of swank beneath his own. He had taken off his VFW hat and its persona.

The place they stopped in front was from another era but well preserved, one of those Spanish-style apartment blocks, complete with overgrown cacti and spear-leafed succulents basking in the late afternoon blaze. It was above the street, beside a vacant, overgrown lot. A curving terracotta staircase led up to it.

“Help me get this sucker up the steps, would you?” Uncle Jeffrey said as he wrestled his tank caddy out of the back. At the top of the steps, he invited Joanna in “for a cold drink, say hello.” She demurred but he insisted. She wasn’t on any schedule, so she went with him into the courtyard and to an apartment door at the far end.

The woman was small, tiny actually. A few inches shorter and she’d be a midget. She had striking violet eyes. Her long white hair was cinched in a braided chignon. She was wearing an emerald green kimono. “Absalom,” she said, “I was expecting you, so, of course, I didn’t think you’d come.”

“Are we alone?” he asked.

She didn’t answer but stepped aside and gestured for them to enter. Inside was as chilled as an operating room.

— * —

Belief is weird, isn’t it? You hear people say, you got to believe…in something. Why? You can know things. You can even sense things you don’t actually know but you have your suspicions about. But if you say you believe something, you are admitting you don’t actually know that. “I believe it is raining” is not the same as “It’s raining.” Is it raining or not? If I walk outside without an umbrella, do you believe I might get wet? Belief is a sort of surrender to the safety of uncertainty. Lies exist to promote belief. And people pick all sorts of wacky things to believe—the Earth is flat, Satan is real, Jews are evil, the Pope is infallible, there’s gold in them thar hills. Joanna could only guess that people indulged in beliefs because they needed relief from certainty, from reality, especially the reality of death.

Joanna did not believe—she knew—that the incense she smelled was sandalwood. Uncle Jeffrey—or Absalom—did not bother himself with introductions, and their hostess just looked up at Joanna and then turned away. It happens sometimes, between women; there is an instant electrical discharge of disdain. It is primordial, hormonal, visceral, mutual, and real. Joanna felt the jolt and deflected it right back.  She considered just turning around and leaving, but the apartment’s interior was intriguing, a hybrid chapel/bordello. Drapes were drawn on all the windows. The lighting, such as it was, was all indirect. Candles flickered in the air-con breeze. She lingered. Uncle Absalom sat down on an ottoman and started removing his shoes.

“Dig your décor,” Joanna said to the short priestess’s back as she walked away.

Without turning around, she answered. “Absalom, why did you bring this woman here?”

“She’s my niece. She delivered me. I thought….”

“She should leave. She has no soul.”

Well, that was quick, Joanna thought. “Absalom is shedding his soles right now,” she said.

The woman pivoted so quickly that her bracelets jangled. “There is no humor in this house!”

“That’s for sure. But don’t worry. That wasn’t very funny, just a venial pun.”

Uncle Jeffrey was sitting there, looking up at them, one shoe off, one shoe on.

“This is a temple. You pollute it,” the woman said. “Jests are Satan’s prayers.”

“And to which god, then, is this whorehouse dedicated?”

“Satan’s spoor, soulless zombie. Absalom!”

It was on. “Sacrificed any virgins recently? Oh, I forgot, this is L.A.  Any pagan babies, then?”

Uncle Jeffrey didn’t move. It struck Joanna that he was enjoying this. He would. Was it unreal enough for him?

“As long as I am here, maybe you could explain to me what it is that I’m lacking. This soul thing.”

“Of course, you wouldn’t know. It’s your essence, that piece of God inside you, the immaterial part that survives the corporeal self.”

“All of the above, including immortality? Wow.”

“Every living being has a soul.”

“And they’re all immortal?”

“No, only human souls are immortal.”

“Lucky us.”

“Not you. I could tell immediately.”

“But if it’s immaterial, how can you tell?”

“Out. Out of my house.”

Joanna left, leaving Uncle Jeffrey behind. So, soul, being immaterial, was just an idea, a word for something imagined, unknown, unmeasurable, indefinite. It didn’t even define a feeling or an emotion. It could be anything, even nothing. Joanna opted for nothing. It was just another one of those beliefs, like the tooth fairy. Joanna envisioned a ship filled with dentures, the DDS Charon.

— * —

Joanna didn’t know L.A. well enough to have her favorite spot in the hills above. So she drove and wandered and ended up just where other people went and then tried to get as far away from them as possible. She parked and in the gathering dusk hiked up an unofficial trail into the chaparral. Uncle Jeffrey had left his veteran’s cap on the passenger-side seat. She had put it on when she left the car. Now, alone, in the dark, looking down on the lights of America, she turned it around, bill and braid behind her, so that she could see the sky. There are no stars in the L.A. sky, just the reflected glow of too many people below.

Mount Joy


It was nobody’s fault the tractor died. That hydraulic seal was probably the original. The old man was too cheap to fix anything before it went. Maintenance meant kicking things. After Dell collected his share of abuse, he walked away and let Mr. Hacker curse the machine and the deity. At least he was predictable. Dell drove off to the John Deere place over in Mount Joy to get a replacement valve.

You know what’s funny? All the fancy names and abbreviations they have now for describing crazy people. There’s a spectrum they say, like for canned olives—green, black, pitted, stuffed, large, extra-large, jumbo, giant. Hello, there are as many varieties of whackos as there are whackos. Make your own list. Start with your family and move on to your neighbors. Aunt Garlynda and her thing about cats. Cousin Steve and why he’s in jail. Charlie Pundick and his zipper thing and why he’s not allowed in town. You don’t need fancy diagnoses to make allowances. Dell wondered when Steve was going to get out. Mr. Hacker was just being himself, a shit head.

Anyway, as long as he was going to be in Mount Joy, Dell would stop in to see how Holly was doing. It had been a while since he’d last checked in on her. Holly had once sworn she would never forgive Dell for his getting married to someone else on her birthday, but that was so long ago she sometimes forgot it. Or maybe she just pretended to forget it, just like he pretended to forget things, for simplicity’s sake.

—  * —

Holly hated freezer work. But if she didn’t do it, no one else would. And it had to get done or she would get blamed. She was a shitty boss, hated giving orders. She never wanted to be a boss. It was like a punishment for being there longest. She was surprised when the new guy Troy came in to help her without being told or asked. She was glad for his name tag, because she couldn’t remember his name.

“Aren’t you supposed to be on register two?” she asked.

“It’s slow out there. Thought I’d give you a hand.”

She was doing dairy. “Soda,” she said. She was wearing the down jacket she kept at work just for this duty. Troy was only in his short-sleeve, chain-issued, uniform shirt. “Aren’t you cold?” she asked.

“From Minnesota,” he said. “Don’t mind the cold.” He hauled a case of bottles over and started slipping them into their slots. “I won’t say it makes me homesick.”

Homesick, Holly thought. You have to leave home to be homesick. Well, that was one affliction she’d never known. She had never been out of Lancaster County long enough to have to do her laundry anywhere else. She could see through the freezer’s glass doors, past the necks of the quart containers of two-percent-fat milk, the few customers in the store. She didn’t know who they were—no name tags—but she knew them, knew them the way you sort of remembered but can’t quite pull up the names of fellow mourners at a funeral. Collectively, they were her people; individually, they were nobody.

“Never been to Minnesota,” she said.

“You haven’t missed anything.”

Holly saw him when he came in the door. It was hard to miss Dell. First off, he was big, almost like another species of human. Think Clydesdale. But as big as he was, he always wore work clothes that were slightly too large for him. God knows where he found them. Carhart’s giant catalog? His purposefully loose clothes masked how big he really was.  Then, there was the hat. Not always the same hat—he went through them quickly—but a hat that announced that its wearer was not sure whether he was a cowboy or a farmer. He looked good, healthy, right down to his graying ponytail. What would Dell be doing all the way over here on a weekday?

“Finish up here, Troy. I haven’t done the ice cream or the eggs. Then take a break.”

Luckily, there were three customers in front of Dell at cash register number one. She’d have time. She ditched her jacket on the pile of empty crates beside the outside freezer room door and went from that artificial winter to the blast of concrete-heated summer air outside. She had her car keys in her pocket. She’d go for a ride somewhere. The store could take care of itself for a while.

— * —

When you think of other times, say a hundred years ago or a thousand years ago, you know it would look different and smell different, but have you ever thought about how it would sound different? No traffic sounds or car horns. No weed eaters, lawn mowers, or leaf blowers. No sirens or airplanes or trucks beeping as they backed up from the Turkey Hill Minit Market. No rap music thumping from the car beside you at the West Main stop light. Horses didn’t make much sound when they were working. Holly’s car air-con wasn’t working, so her windows were open and she could hear it all. Holly liked to think that she had been born a hundred years too late, that she belonged in another, more peaceful, quiet time. That thought was a comfort, an excuse.

What are the odds? Well, your odds can change, can’t they? And the longer you’re around, the harder it is for the odds to change. When you start out, a win or a loss can change your odds dramatically, but when you have played the game long enough—life is a game, isn’t it? —each loss or win counts for less and becomes next to meaningless, almost the same. Holly couldn’t be gone from the store for too long. She’d drive up to the park on Little Chiques Creek and go for a walk up the creek. It should be pretty low; it hadn’t rained in weeks. Sometimes it was high; sometimes it was low. What were the odds? The creek bed had no say in it. It was just a passive channel for a foreign element.  Would Dell ever go away?

 — * —

Dell didn’t see why it was such a big deal. All he had done was go to find Holly. He figured the kid who came out of the freezer was lying when he said she wasn’t there. Why would he lie? Who knows? The girl at the cash register had said Holly was back there. People just lie, that’s all, say whatever works best for them in the moment. Hell, he did that all the time. Everybody did. Maybe the kid lied because he said customers weren’t allowed in the freezer. Big fucking deal. No one tried to stop him.

Dell didn’t know if someone called the cop or if he just showed up as a customer, but they got it sorted out. Dell wasn’t trying to rob the place. He wasn’t disturbing the peace. He had just stopped by to say hi to a friend. He wasn’t trespassing, as it was a public establishment. Dell said he was sorry for any misunderstanding, but he wasn’t. He smiled, played dumb, and shook the cop’s hand like they were old buddies when he left. But he thought him a total prick. Dell went to Beanie’s for a brew.

— * —

There weren’t any mountains near Mount Joy. It was just a name. Holly had once heard that the place was named after a ship, but that didn’t make much sense either, as the only piece of water around was Little Chiques Creek that wouldn’t float anything bigger than a canoe. But there were other strange-named towns around Lancaster County—Bareville, Blue Ball, Intercourse, Bird in Hand, even a Paradise. Her mother had come from Paradise. It wasn’t.

Holly didn’t live in Mount Joy any more. She had moved out to Maytown. That was out, not up. She liked it there. She was stranger enough there that her neighbors ignored her. Holly never just did things anymore. She gave herself instructions, then decided whether to follow them or not. It was simpler that way, with a chain of command to obey or ignore. That day, when she got home to her place in Maytown, she followed her internal instructions and watered the garden. It was like a refugee camp of wilted plants. It was a bitch having no one else to blame that on, or to confess it to. Birds or something had gotten to the tomatoes.

It was maybe true that the restraining order she’d taken out on Dell after Maggie left him had expired or whatever, gotten forgotten. She had never reported him when he did show up, but she had warned him. It had struck her that afternoon when she was at the creek what a strange name Chiques was. She had grown up with it, never thought about it. Maye Indian? But it sounded Spanish. She dropped the hose in the raised tomato bed and went in doors to look it up. She did this without obeying any internal instructions. She wondered what it meant in Spanish.

On her laptop she went first to a Spanish-English dictionary. The word chiques was the present subjunctive form of the Spanish chicar, to be drunk, in the second person singular. You ought to be drunk. She preferred that to the Wikipedia info that the name came from the local Indian word for place of crayfish. She remembered to go back out and turn off the hose.

— * —

The most irritating thing about getting older was how often he had to piss. Dell had to pull off twice on the way home to let his lizard, after just a few beers. That second brain below his belt still ruled his life even if it wasn’t about being horny. Of course, the Deere shits didn’t have the valve he needed. “Superseded,” the snippy little oriental clerk had said. “Have to order.” Slants in Mount Joy?

Holly had his number blocked, so he couldn’t call. That sucked. He wanted to call and tell her he’d stopped by to say hello but she was gone. She was on his mind now. Something the kid had said, “I guess she didn’t want to see you.” Little prick. At home, he cracked a beer and went out back to whittle at the chair that he was working on. The fluorescent light brought on all the bugs. He didn’t mind them. The light was what they liked. They were there for it, not him. They were company. As usual, he spent as much time sharpening his knife as using it. He was three legs in, each one different.

Oh well, fuck Holly. Maybe she hadn’t wanted to see him. She was always touchy about how she looked. Maybe she didn’t like the way her hair looked today. It wasn’t like he could have called and told her he was coming by. Dell wondered where she was living now. She wasn’t at where she used to be. He’d swung by there, some negro family.

Two days later, Dell got a call that the valve was in, and he headed back to Mount Joy.

— * —

Sometimes Holly just had to get off the meds, free herself from feeling artificial. It had hit her on her hike up Little Chiques Creek. Here she was playing hooky on a fine—if hot—summer afternoon, in one of her favorite childhood spots, and she wasn’t feeling anything. Everything seemed flat, two-dimensional, ho-hum. That’s what the meds did. They didn’t let her feel. They kept her calm by making life boring. No ups or downs, no cutting edges, no pangs of joy. She had decided to stop taking them then. She’d stop taking orders from the pills. She’d be fine, better.

By Friday it was working. It was like she had hormones again. Before going to work, she washed her hair and fussed with it. She put on earrings and minimal makeup, lip gloss, her best jeans. She could still get into them. Troy noticed and whistled. Maybe that’s what guys did in Minnesota. When stocking cigarettes she swiped a pack of Pall Mall Blue 100s. She craved them again.

After work, Holly hung at the store while a thunderstorm passed. It was that time of year. The storm excited and pleased her. She was all dressed up. Why head home to Maytown? Off the meds she could drink again. She’d have a drink and dinner at Beanie’s. It was payday after all, and she was just a working girl. “Girls just want to have fu-un.”

— * —

Dell was sure they overcharged him, but there was nothing he could do about it. That pissed him off. Old man Hacker would have a shitfit at the price. “Goddamn commies,” he’d say. Hacker blamed everything on the communists. The valve was made in China. It was baking in Mount Joy, even as the sun was sinking. All that concrete and brick. The thunder shower had just added steam. It was unhealthy hot inside his pickup. He went to Mosby’s Pub. But it being Friday happy hour, there was no place to park, so he headed up East Main to Joy’s Tavern or Beanie’s. There were plenty of places to drink in Mount Joy. Was that the joy of the place? It was crowded and noisy at Joy’s, the younger crowd, but Beanie’s was just up the block. He walked there.

Beanie’s was jammed, too, but with an older, quieter crowd. The way humans herded. Dell found a seat at a table in the shade on the back patio, avoiding the crowd inside packed like cows in a corral. He ordered a beer from a big-breasted waitress with tattooed arms. He remembered when only sailors and ex-cons had tattoos. When she brought him his first, he ordered his second. Dell was the only person there wearing a hat.

The back door to the bar was maybe a dozen yards away, with lots of folks in between, but he saw her when she came out. Holly was looking good. She didn’t see him. She was turned away, in conversation with the man she had come out with. They threaded their way between people to an open gate onto the street, the way Dell had come in. The dude didn’t look like anything special. Maybe she was living with that guy now, why she had moved out. Maybe he’s why she hadn’t wanted to see him. Well, you move away, and people move on. Damn, she looked good.

Dell could watch them through the gateway as they walked up the street. Holly was in front, the man behind. She stopped to turn and talk to him. She gestured one way, he another. They’d come in separate cars, Dell guessed. The man approached her, gesturing. He made a grab for Holly’s arm, and she pushed him away. She started running up the block. It wasn’t until the man started chasing her that Dell got up and plowed through the crowd toward the gate.

The man caught Holly, and then Dell caught them both. The man went down easy enough and then took off. Dell stayed with Holly.

— * —

It wasn’t a diary. She felt no obligation to it. It was just a notebook where now and then she let her inner voices have their say. It was a way to silence them. That night, back in Maytown, she wrote in it:

What is a mate? Why do so many people have them? Is it like a pet you

can have sex with? Or is it like a cult of one? An obsession? Property?

Or just a competition—trophy hunting? But men call their close friends mate.

As a verb it means only one thing. If it was all just erogenous hormones,

there would be no need for bonding. Helpmate, that’s a fine old matrimonial

term. Makes more sense. Scratch my back. Pass the salt.

She stopped. There was a fly. She hated flies. She’d have to kill it before she could continue. She had her swatter. Fly survival relied upon erratic flight and quick departures. She had read somewhere that they took-off backwards. Dell had been so polite tonight. He had walked her to her car and complimented her appearance. She was so embarrassed. She always felt so small beside him. The fly disappeared.

She couldn’t go on. That inner voice, the spinster one, had vanished like the fly. She’d go back on her meds. She had forgotten this part, about being scared. Why did Dell scare her so? There was the past, but the past had died. She hadn’t told him where she lived now, that she had left Mount Joy, just like he had. He hadn’t asked.


Tempus Fuckit


By the actuarial tables I have another five years.

The next new moon is three weeks away.

My son is almost 31.

I can’t recall what model year my Toyota is.

A peregrine falcon can dive at 240 mph

which annihilates time. It’s almost dusk.


Are days just parallel scratches on a jail-cell wall?

How many moons to a century?

There must be a language with no word for time

just for the steps of its passing.

The future has no memories

which is why we want to go there.


If there are black holes in space

there must be black holes in time to welcome us.



book shelf


I just moved, again, probably for the final time—I can’t imagine repeating it—to an oxbow bend on the Ohio once called Yellow Banks. The other day someone asked me if I missed Rhode Island, and I said, sure, just like I miss Manhattan and San Francisco and Hong Kong and Pago Pago and some of the other places I’ve lived in between. Life is finding things that you will miss. Never been an owner; always had to move.

Among the possessions moved were twenty-some boxes—half a ton—of books, which now occupy 50 feet of bookshelves in my new study. Many of those books have followed me over 20,000 miles of relocations in the past half century. Along the way, at least that many again have been jettisoned. When I finally got them sorted and shelved, my Kentucky daughter-in-law declared my library quaint. She consults her smart phone for all the info she needs. Books put her to sleep.

What is the purpose of this burden of books? The vast majority of these volumes I will never open again. Why do I still have them, move them, value them? They are not an investment. They were not collected to be resold. If anything, they will be a pain in the ass for my survivors. Most of them are not new, many were bought used. They all are worse for wear and a quarter-century living in the tropics.

Hauteur? Whom do I wish to impress? I remember the pride of my last-mid-century peers in their extensive collections of LP vinyl record albums. It was an outward sign of some sort of class. (Now, it’s all available streaming from the cloud.) Personal libraries were once like that. In Samoa—before the Internet and Google et al—I hoarded reference works. Accumulation with a purpose. (My 50-year-old American Heritage Dictionary defines accumulator as an apparatus for storing energy or power.) I suppose the contents of a personal library may afford a public self-definition of sorts, at least about areas of interest and arenas of ignorance. But who cares?

Books are my only real possession. As I unboxed them this last time, it was a bit like meeting old friends. Aging is a cancer on memory. Certain recollections blossom into iridescent tumors while others atrophy and vanish. Each book was an evocation—a place, a time, a passion. Together, they mosaiced a fragmented history of me. Books as mementos. Lorca, Poeta en Nueva York—my undergrad years, Spanish Harlem. Sauer, Land & Life—Berkeley, the outer world. Olson, The Maximus Poems—the mind as a map. Stevenson, In the South Seas—the Pacific, Samoa, the peace of islands. There were books by old friends, many now dead; books I had edited; books I never finished but had meant to get back to; books I had taught; my worn and taped-together but still vital Peterson’s A Field Guide to Western Birds.

I explained to my daughter-in-law that this was my man cave and that these books were my tools, my memory tools of the past. Not just my past, but of everything I knew of the past, now that the past was all that was left.

The Broken Dick Production’s Handbook of Easy Home Repairs


Atauloma in Afao

Rule 1:            If it ain’t bugging you, ignore it.

Rule 2:            Given the transitory nature of our times, our culture, and our personal lives, more than basic maintenance is not deemed cost effective.

Rule 3:            If part of a couple, best to do what must be done together. Then you can equitably share the blame.

Rule 4:            When possible repeat glaring fuck-ups. It will make them look intentional, perhaps something cutting edge.

Rule 5:            Do not spend money on tools! If you don’t already have the basics, you’ve been institutionalized. What you don’t have you can borrow from somebody. Never rent power tools! Your insurance will never cover the damages. If the job requires a tool you don’t know the name of, hire someone else to do the job.

Rule 6:            Adhesives are good. Stockpile as many types of tape, glue, goop, superglue, and liquid cements as possible. (Adherent exception to Rule 5: If you don’t already have a good industrial staple gun, borrow one and pretend to have lost it. Buy staples.)

Rule 7:            Pretend you’re an artist, a primitivist. That new hole in the ceiling is an invitation to invent a new genre of expression.  You are not a Victorian. Let your domicile speak for you. Would beauty be beautiful if there was nothing else? Remember, this is not your mother’s house.


Stay on Top

cigarette smoker

Tobacco, that is—roll your own.

A pouch was cheap, gummed papers.

Got thirty cigs from a pouch, good

enough taste—no chemicals.

Roll ‘em tight so they’d go out

when you forgot them left

in an ashtray where some head

would think they were a joint

and inhale a surprise—everyone

carried a lighter or matches.


The inside liner of the paper pouch

had silver foil on one side and

you could unfold it and smooth

it out and the white backside

made a fine piece of permanent

parchment for writing poems that

refolded could withstand all the

tribulations of life on the road

stuck in a backpack with what

was left of the rest of your life.


Only, the paper was not that big

so that after time enough

living out of that backpack

the lines of my poems grew

shorter, like this.

A Memory of Trees

black trees

Being dead, it stood out,

its bold blood-brown

against all that green


like a wrecked and rusted

Studebaker wrapped in

mile-a-minute weeds.


His last thought was

I’ll just lie here silently

till everyone is gone.


Ashes are incense’s

sole message—incense

made from the desert’s


thorniest rare briar,

which is never green.


Road Poets

hobo 3

American hobo terms

In addition to words that have entered into the vernacular from American hobo terminology—big house, bindlestiff, moniker, cooties, main drag, glad rags, flop, punk—there are others that deserve an appreciative nod and a smile.

Elevated – being stoned or drunk

Grease the track – to be run over by a train

Cow crate – a railroad stock car

Bone orchard – a cemetery

Tokay blanket – drinking alcohol to stay warm

Sky pilot – a preacher

Stemming – panhandling

Boil up – to get oneself as clean as possible

Flip (also On the fly) – to catch a moving train

Doggin’ it – taking the (Greyhound) bus

Rum dum – a drunk

Meave – a young girl hobo

Blowed-in-the-glass – a trustworthy person

California blankets — newspapers

Catch the westbound – to die

And hobos even addressed each other as ‘bo, just one r short of today’s affectionate fraternal greeting.


hobo 4