VAL pt. 1
in the west covina walmart / the city
dimming dark as blackberries / your voice
sweat-damp / in the shimmer
of the frozen foods aisle / i am still
happy / i have been writing
and the sound of the gulls / melancholy
in the harbor / does not enter me
i do not / have friends
who hanged themselves / i do not
have notes / i tell you this because there is
a funeral tomorrow / and all my clothes
have turned to paper / so i am
writing you (i hope) / for polyester
on my knees beneath / a streetlight
the sun a memory / as thin as white sand
i sell it by the handful / here is
august in a saltshaker / will you taste it
here is / last summer if you
remember it at all / i remember
it was my hand with roses / it was my hand
these were the roses / your eyes in the sun
drawn soft as petals / your lashes
brushing the curve of your cheek / my hand
with roses / inside your hair
i buy a truckful of august / to give you
in bursts / until your mouth tastes of salt
your skin when i kiss you / even
the skin where your legs meet / where i
find my hand with / roses
in the marina i am haunted / i am
haunted by the darkness / of stormwater
of rain / of your breath on
the side of my neck / and if it hardens
into snow / if i harden it is for you
when you fall sublime as snow / i am
still happy / i fill your face in blue
even if it is / only a shadow i see
only the vague / outline of a woman
i capture / instead of you
and again it is later / again i do not see you
again your number goes / to voicemail
and again i know where you are / bird-soft
your voice / the sun setting
in the window / of your half-bath
the privacy of a tub / filled not with water
but with cleaning supplies / i hold you
you hold / the shower curtains shut
the music dimming / dark as blackberries
dark as your eyes in the / part-light
slow-crawling across the tile / near flight
LAX in the moonlight / grounded
at midnight / you kick snow
from where the streetcars / used to run
and i touch your face / in the haunting dark
as if it is strange / as if you are a stranger
there is a funeral tomorrow / do you
remember / it is yours
i will wear my big white plastic suit / i will
write to you / would you like that
the streets are moving / they turn to water
here is the moon and here is a river / remember
how the river rings / remember to ask for
your mail / before you go home
remember i know / how your ears fold
back against your head / and i have kissed you
there / (am i the only one)
the surface of the snow / black as carbon
in your hair / i am still happy
to be in love with you / though i love
an ever-girl / and i am still writing
as if you’ll hear it / as if your ears are deep
and i am diving / headfirst through cold water
the bay high-tiding / after the storm
your voice haunting in the dark / the narrow
dark / i am void of starlight
i will wear my big white plastic suit / lie in
bed for days / as the gulls begin
to congregate around me / i tell them that
the funeral is not here / california
does not see the rain / instead the storms
pour out a haunting dark / over santiago, santiago
all your white shirts grey with rain / where
the canyons split / the soft earth
to show skin / pale as spring leaves
pale as the stars in their sky-quiver / the night
june-soft and trembling / a summer
not yet drained of salt / and so i kiss it
from your neck / or so i say
for valentina, 1999-2020.
[the moment your skin ends]
& thru the world, fire
fire, fire; &
with a breath, your body births
that is the music. if i shut
the door between the back porch &
you had your first kiss
then it is the space between
& the white snake of the garden hose
flowers that fill the front yard
in summer; in summer’s gaping mouth
you blossom like wildflowers
flowers in the valley your spine makes
thru your waist, your entire
body wet with summer as it
breathes you into miracle
this is the music
the sun makes in the
the wild flowers filling the valley with
a smell like summer, hot as
& the sun in this room is
& the breathing of the garden hose
& the shape of my body filling yours
& the white snake of the saline drip
then it is your hand filling mine
& the heat of you there is
& the heat of your mouth is
at the moment your skin ends
Pa calls me dumber than rocks all the time, especially when he asks for my help, but also when he doesn't. He called me dumber than a rock when I was sitting at the kitchen table stirring my Ovaltine and Ma was right by us fixin' breakfast on the stove. "I didn't mean to spill it." I said, cause I didn't and then cause he made me real mad I also said, "My name is Ralph, not Dumber, not Than, and not Rocks, and then he said, "You're dumb like a fox," and Ma said afterward, patting me on the back real soft, real nice, "That means he thinks your smart, Ralph." Why doesn't he make up his mind?
Ma calls me stupid, but never to my face, only when she's on the phone with Gertie late at night and she thinks I'm fast asleep, but I'm not. Sometimes I just lay awake for no reason at all listening to night sounds, the owls hoot and the squirrels scurrying on the roof, wishing I was one of them instead of me, cause they don't use words; just screams, barks, hisses and coos, which are much easier to understand and less likely to maim.
It would make me smile if Ma could call Gertie when I do things right, like turning the compost, or stacking the wood, or shoveling the snow, but she doesn't. She only calls Gertie to tell her everything I want to forget and hearing it again makes me sad twice in one day. I didn't mean to kill Miss Sarah's kitten. I only squeezed it hard because it was the cutest thing I had ever seen I forgot for a minute how strong I am. And I didn't mean to look in Mr. & Mrs. Gimbel's bedroom window next door and see them both naked. I thought I was supposed to go help people when they moan or scream. Gertie lives so far away, I never get to see her face when Ma tells her about my mistakes. That's what she calls what I do, mistakes, and then she always says, "He's just too stupid to know better. He's really not a bad person."
So if I'm a good person, what's so bad about being stupid, or being dumb? As far as I know there are lots of really smart people, that do lots of really bad things, and not by mistake. On purpose. And as far as I know, I've never done anything bad on purpose, so why can't they just let me be just Ralph, instead of stupid Ralph or dumber than a rock Ralph. I've never met a fox, but if I do, maybe I'll ask him, "Are you really dumb or really smart, and does it matter?" Maybe he'll answer and maybe he won't.
“Don’t be stupid,” Amber murmurs to me in the rasp-breathy voice she adopts around our high school’s gang of wannabe beatniks. Her short fingers, child’s fingers tipped in burgundy acrylic talons, are wrapped around the metal mouthpiece of a hookah, and her pale eyes glare at me beneath her false lashes and cateye. She is not bad, nor is she stupid; we drive around town at night in her 1995 Saab singing Disney songs and declaring ourselves stardust, sharing Big Gulps, makeupless and uninhibited. Her room is a disaster and she fails nearly every standardized test, but she knows a liar by the curve of their tongue against their teeth and that’s more than I can say of the brainless boneheads in most of my AP classes.
I take the hookah and suck in, just barely, careful not to breathe. It is flavored like blueberry, but I know it is tobacco, like I know facts about the solar system, history, Shakespeare. The beatniks debate poetry around us but do not want to hear from me, even though I know many, many facts about poetry. I know rhythms and meters; I charge classmates a dollar or two cookies to write them dirty sonnets in three minutes or less. But when I speak up in a beatnik poetry circle, refute their analogies, criticize their (male, male, male) beatnik gods, they shift in their seats. They cough. They think that I think they are stupid, which is True and Not True; Schrödinger's beatniks.
Hookah, I know, is cool, but it is stupid. Amber knows it is stupid, too, but in the lame way--the way underaged drinking is stupid, and skipping class is stupid, and falling in love with acne-ridden teenaged poets is stupid. She does them all once a week, a religious self-care self-harm routine, with abandon. She is Cool and I am Stupid. She is Stupid, but Smart. Much smarter than me.
“Your pal is a drag,” A beatnik whispers to Amber, his round glasses shining in the porch light, the hair above his upper lip blonde and patchy and embarrassing. ‘A drag’ he says, which is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, but Amber laughs at him and rolls her eyes.
“I know,” she rasp-breathes, like Marilyn Monroe after eight packs of cigarettes. She’ll sound like that for real, eventually, from the hookah, from the cigarettes. She’ll get wrinkly and stained, like an old white t-shirt. I won’t get wrinkled or stained, but in the boring way--the way of a white button-up, the kind you rip off as soon as you get home, that sits in the hamper because it’s dry clean only, the kind that stares at you from the closet as you say, “God, I have nothing to wear.”
My failed surprise
I came back home Sunday afternoon,
After the gig with the two brats.
Entered the "rich gate",
Knowing that my baby's out for walky.
I planned to give her a surprise,
I saw my wife, holding her,
With that red coverall and the bears,
I planned to go by a shortcut,
Where a stepstone path meets ,
By the huangpi tree that i planted.
My arrival was seen though,
Sophia was already flinging her arms,
Like she does when she's super-excited.
She must have seen me,
I'm no ninja.
Graceful and stealthy as a hippo.
Still, seeing how happy my little baby got,
Makes me crazy.
I hope i can keep that up for her..
a knock against the brain.
the ticky-tacky feeling of organ on bone, <i>squish</i>.
I'm sorry—did you hear that? I've never before been much of a drinker, the bitter taste the nausea the way it makes me hate my face the unavoidable social element, balance beams.
But what I do know is stress can kill off brain cells brain cells brain cells, effectively shrinking the organ|do you think it could disappear altogether. I worry.
are you listening—?
and you are always present, always <i>there</i>. But that's not to say you've ever, once in your whole existence given a moments care for my wellbeing oh no no no, no.
is what I want to tell you but I just can't. You wrap your strong arms around my insides and I think I might just melt onto the sidewalk or fall asleep for a long long time, with not a kiss to take. Not a word to spare.
I haven't believed in monsters since I was young small in a ball on the kitchen floor trying to explain bad things were creeping up to get me late at night. And if that is what monsters are then you my undesirable life companion are close to that.
You have no arms or legs or eyes or teeth. No lips, but you still manage to tell me every day what my life is worth. Arguably
than nearly $120,000.
I want to scream but you remind me that no one is listening and even if they were even if they were, even if they were
it's late, its dark.
and the front door is made of bone and I could wouldn't cannot shouldn't leave. So I'm here I'm here in here, see.
I'm home to hear the knocking.
Letting the Wild Flowers Take Over
The letter didn’t mean much when I had first opened it. I had been expecting it for a decade. Knew the kind of person I was. And I knew the kinds of people they were. I remembered the last time they came to “appraise” the house, They had pulled up in something called a Slingshot, something that looks like a motorcycle made out of two sidecars. The song Tainted Love was playing so loud they had to shout at each other.
I had hidden the hand painted Black Lives Matter sign that had sat in our front yard for two years unmoved. I pulled it out of the grass. I pushed it back in the grass. I pulled it out again. I turned in a circle holding the sign above my head. I knew they would ask us to leave if they saw it. How dare we, this used to be their mother’s house, a true Texas woman. It was better to avoid eviction but I keep thinking how easy it is, how easy to pull a sign out of the yard and then just be courteous. How easy it is to avoid subjects that cause conflict. You can’t just hide your blackness the same way you can hide poster board.
And here I was holding the letter anyway.
“At least they gave us three months.”
“You’ve been here ten years!”
“We’re sick of it though.”
“Doesn’t mean we should be kicked out.”
“They’re selling it.”
“They’re tearing it down.”
“The city has changed.”
“The people in the city have changed! They’re using their money to change it. By buying up the property and kicking out the poor people. You’re getting pushed out. Don’t you see that?”
Piles of bags on the lawn. Trash is full. Couch, my favorite couch, sitting by the curb. I call a company that will pick up the mattresses for a hundred dollars each. We leave them in the bedrooms. Her car will never make it to Mexico. A man down the street gives us three hundred dollars “as is”. The house is showing its neglect. The scratches and scrapes and peeling paint. It’s hollow and gross without the art and lights and fabrics. Pitiable. Broken windows and stained carpets. Holes in the drywall, floppy fan blades and exposed wires. Full of asbestos.
I stare out the window into the park. My first week on the street the road was closed off for a bounce house. Tejano music ringing in my ears. Smoked pig in the air. Flock of chickens pecking in the dirt in front of the house with the Latin Kings graffiti on the door.
“Neighborhood’s loud but the rent is just right.”
“You’d be moving in on the first.”
“Or the day before.”
“Oh yeah, you want to move in on Halloween?”
“Sure,” I said, feeling like a conquistador. “I’ll take it.”
“You guys moving out?”
Matt was standing in his front yard with his hand on his hip. He and Liz had moved in almost two years ago. They renovated the place next door and filled a dumpster in the street with all of the appliances, windows, doors, and pretty much everything else, a lot of it was just put in by the kids of my former neighbor, before they put it up for sale. He cuts his lawn twice a week and resents me for growing ours long, letting the wild flowers take over. He’s holding a brand new lawn mower, this one much smaller than the last one. A tiny, neon green nascar with blades.
“Yeah. They’re selling it.”
“Aw, thats too bad,” he lies, “we never really got to hang out.”
“It’s not on the market yet. You can probably put an offer in now if you want. You’re in real estate, right?” I hear myself say. Why am I always so helpful and nice.
“Hmm,” he looks at our safe haven, “thanks, maybe I will. Listen, good luck. And take care.” He reaches out his hand.
“The trucks loaded.”
“With what? It’s all on the lawn! We didn’t take anything!”
“This is what you wanted, right? A clean start. Not to lug around our old junk and baggage.”
“It’s my home! My only constant for ten years. The only security I have. I have no health insurance. I haven’t seen a doctor since I was in high school. My teeth are falling out. I haven’t talked to my family in years. It’s the only thing…”
“What choice do we have? It’s over. They told us to leave.”
“Entonces?” Her mother asks.
“Ya, nada mas. Listo.”
Tears streaming down my face. I don’t understand. This place is an obvious dump. It’s broken in every way. They are clearly slum lords. It’s nothing. Just go, forget about it. There’s bigger things out there. I feel sick. I feel like trash. I feel embarrassed for leaving my trash. I can’t even leave a restaurant without stacking my plates for the server.
“Vienes o no?’ she says, “we are going. Ahorita.”
I lock the front door and leave through the back, passing my little bamboo plant that can’t cross the California checkpoint. It’s too heavy for its stalk so I wrap a ribbon around it and stick it to a post with a thumb tack.
I slide into the back seat of the pickup truck. It starts to rain. I watch the water seep into the fabric of my favorite couch as we slowly pull away, making sure the little U-haul trailer is still securely behind us.