Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Grocery list

There was a vintage neon sign outside a run-down motel on the old Route 66. You had photographed it with a Polaroid camera. This was right after college. It was perfect.

You were going to be an artist, somehow. You were going to fall in love and settle for nothing less. You were going to travel the world. There would be more photographs. Exhibits, maybe. Fulfillment.

Then your mother had needed you back home. There were hospital bills.

The canned-goods company that was all there was in your hometown had an opening for a graphic designer, mostly for their company newsletter and PowerPoint presentations. The job would pay well. There were a few "creative opportunities," people in navy-blue suits said in the interview. Your art could appear on a can of peas at the grocery store. Like Warhol in reverse, you told yourself at first. Like nothing like that.

-She returned her clothes to TJ Maxx so you would have extra money for your road trip to see the West. She didn't work outside the home and it was what she could think of to do for money. The clothes no longer had tags, but she'd talked the store into taking them back. She was shy but she did that for you.
-She always drew a heart around your name when she wrote it on your elementary school brown-bag lunches. She did this for years.
-She tells people that she gave birth to her best friend.
-That 1950s chrome-edged diner table you'd always loved from your grandparents' house -- she'd gotten down on her bad knees in the basement and polished it, taking a toothbrush to reach the tiniest nooks and crevices, so it would sparkle in your first apartment. You never asked her to. She just did it. 

You make her dinner and bring it upstairs to her on a tray every evening, like some daughter in a tragic novel or made-for-TV movie. The situation is not temporary.

Your best friend from high school works at a gallery in London now. She goes to the theater, to museums, and you drive 45 minutes to the mall in the next town. Your college boyfriend always said he could never live in a flyover state. He would ask you, "How did you do it before?"

At the store, you stand in front of your peas. Should you buy them, or not? What do they represent, those peas? Failure? Duty? If you buy them, is that acceptance of your life, resignation? If you buy the other brand, is it avoidance, or defiance? All the little choices in life, all the little big choices.

To be loved

He was a cop who sat in one of those cop cars you see parked in a sneaky place along the Interstate so they can catch speeders. Part of what made his hiding place so sneaky was this big overgrown bush that blocked his car from the view of oncoming traffic. He caught them going southbound, entering his jurisdiction. 

The county's grounds-maintenance crews were under strict orders not to trim the overgrown shrub when they mowed the rest of the median. They knew it was the cops' hiding place.

But then one day some new employee made a mistake and cut the unruly sucker down, manicured it down to the nub. The new employee had been trying hard to go "above and beyond" what was asked of him, thinking his supervisors would praise his handiwork. Except no, the new employee was not supposed to do that. He didn't get fired, just reprimanded.

So now the cop sat in his usual perch, the place where his boss always told him to go to catch folks as they entered the county with its notorious "zero tolerance" for speeders.

The coming cars could see the cop car plainly. They slowed down as soon as they saw him.

They slowed down to a conspicuous, unnatural, downright eerie-slow rate. As if to say, "La la la, nothing to see here, just little ol' law-abiding me." The cop knew they all sped up as soon as they were out of his sight.

With each slowing-down car, he felt their contempt. He felt their resentment at having to lie, just for those few moments of road.

He had become a police officer to do good; to be loved, not hated. Now, just like with everything else he had done in his life, his good intentions had backfired on him.

So he took out his gun. He was in plain view of oncoming traffic.

"Do you see what I do for you?"

Monday, February 25, 2013

Like the countryside in my country

We're at Bobbi's house, for a "Cuban festival" party,
and there are three men from Cuba out on the patio in the sun.
We hear and feel their beating hands on the rumba drums
(that I would have generically called "bongos"
were I not told differently by them)
and the knocking of the claves
(two hardwood, cylindrical sticks,
a percussion instrument,
for those of us who aren't Cuban)
before we even see the musicians.
They're missing teeth,
and Bobbi says
it's because they plucked them out
to get a day off from work
at the sugarcane farms,
far-fetched as that sounds to me,
in the days before 
the perilous boat journey to America.
Now they're here
on Bobbi's patio, looking out at
mild, green, tree-cloaked mountains
and singing
(at Bobbi's request)
(all I can make out is the line
about a "rosa blanca").
I worry that they're homesick,
looking at these unfamiliar, deciduous hills.
And they are homesick -- after the music
they talk (in Spanish, politely apologizing
to us non-Spanish-speakers)
about the country they left behind.
Alfredo lives with Bobbi; 
he's excited about the six-person "festival,"
and he sings along gruffly.
Afterward they explain what the song means --
that it's about having no master,
belonging to no country.
And the quiet one finally says something --
how it's about, when you die,
wanting to be buried with your face to the stars.
My companion and I (non-Cuban)
drink our caffeine-free Pepsi
(and I think of how it's just liquid sugar,
and about the pulled teeth, and feel guilty for being so cavalier
because I have insurance including dental, because I can),
and watch the drummer, his callused hands on the drums, 
the rhythm, his life,
and I feel ashamed of my life,
of my petty thoughts, my easy office job.
Alfredo says to hide my purse from the other two,
who seem nice, he says, but who will steal it if they can,
and I believe him because he's been in prison.
After the song, the drummer and the quiet one
stare out at the mountains,
sometimes zeroing in on dollhouse homes through Bobbi's binoculars,
and to my surprise
the quiet one says, as he gestures to the hills:
"This looks like the countryside in my country."

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Come on, Irene

The old man had started something that he couldn't finish. It was going to be the grandest garden-gnome village the world had ever known. But after just four trips to Wal-Mart's garden section, he realized he couldn't afford as many of those little chumps as his vision demanded. He stopped at about 20 gnomes.

It was an underwhelming sight. The gnomes almost blended in with the grass and bushes. None of the neighbors said anything. Even the neighborhood kids, whom he'd imagined lining up to tour his grand village, didn't comment on it. It just looked like he had left a bunch of crap in his yard and forgotten to pick it up.

So when the hurricane came, he looked out his window at their ridiculous imp faces. They seemed to mock him. He left them out there as the trees began to rustle and the birds all flew for cover.

"Come on, Irene," he sang softly, his breath fogging up the glass, invoking the name of this particular storm, although the song was really "Come on, Eileen." He had never been good with song lyrics, either.

He wanted the wind to take them away. He wanted the wind to erase everything his life had never been.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Temporary tattoo

He lay back in the chair, or on the bed, or on the cot, or on the whatever he was on when he got the tattoo.

He welcomed the pain. He felt he deserved it.

"When I look at the tattoo, I will think of you," he lied, not knowing he was lying.

I am always temporary. I feel most at home as someone's mistress.

I feel that I deserve things, too. This is probably what drew us together.


I was drunk on the Metro. I saw a young man stumble. He wasn't far from a pole that he could hang onto.

I said, "Sweetie, there's a bar right behind you."

He was annoyed. We were different races and mine was the race in charge. "Why you calling me 'sweetie.'"

"Oh, I'm sorry! I call everyone that. I don't have any babies, so it's like, everyone is my babies."

Sometimes when I'm drunk, I'm Mother Teresa. Sometimes when I'm drunk, I'm the Earth Goddess Gaia.


I started the year kissing him, midnight at a club. I'd just gone over to say bye.

I was holding my glass, my mouth full of champagne.

I hadn't known he was going to kiss me. He wasn't supposed to.

How do you not be charmed by a "stolen" kiss at midnight with your mouth full of champagne? I mean, god, it sounds like some stupid song.

Don't we all want our lives to be some stupid song?