The Abbey  |  Alan Catlin



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                    “The dust of years wandering lies on their boots
                    and their faces; their clothes are torn, their sticks 
                    rough and worn. They must have wandered by the 
                    year before reaching this place.”
                                      —Joseph Roth, Hotel Savoy


             You don’t get to see an outfit every day like the one she had on. Especially not for last call in a neighborhood bar. Not that you’d see it anywhere or any time else, either—unless you worked with monks and Discalced Carmelite nuns for a living. You can bet the farm, no Carmelite nun would be ordering firewater served in shot glasses at quarter to four on a Sunday morning, unless she had been held a captive in one of the strictest Catholic orders known to man. Unless, that is, she was making up for lost time in a hurry, spending the rectory’s petty cash collection all at once, in a mad dash to hell and damnation that no bible verses or papal blessings could undo.
             It was amusing, however, to think of her and the cohorts as way-fallen-from-grace—little sinners on parade. I watched as they gathered to form a kind of clique or coven of like-dressed monks and monkettes, as if on some surreal ungodly mission that I could only suspect the purpose of. I guessed, though, there was a more rational explanation for their distinctive duds than my purely imaginative explanations.
             “What’s with the robes?” I asked the sweet, young forerunner of the group.
             “Haven’t you heard?” she replied.
             “This is the Rapture, and I’m not invited?”
             “Good answer, but no. We work at the Abbey. It’s, like, the ‘in’ place to go.”
             “In place to go do what?”
             “Where have you been, dude?”
             “Under a heavy-duty rock, working hard, and getting nowhere fast.”
             “I believe that,” she said. “Really, like, you’ve got to check it out. It’s a cool place. You wouldn’t believe the crowd we’ve been getting for happy hour.”
             “Yes, I would.”
             “There isn’t a happy hour anywhere like ours, though. It’s from eleven at night until one in the morning.”
             “That’s interesting,” I said. “Which one of the twin cities is it in?”
             “Twin cities? You mean, like, Minneapolis and St. Paul?”
             “Sort of like that, yeah, but not really. I mean is it in Sodom or Gomorrah?”
             “You’re a riot. Gomorrah, definitely. Ain’t no sodom going on under these robes.”
             “I believe that. Eleven to one, huh? That’s inspired thinking. Who came up with that strange happy hour idea?”
             “I guess Mr. Walker. He’s the guy who runs the place.”
             “Mr. Walker. What’s he look like?”
             The guy she described sounded suspiciously like someone I’d known from a ways back, an evil genius of the bar-wars trade. He was the kind of guy who would try anything as long as it was outrageous and unconventional, the kind of guy who would come up with a morning happy hour for the third shift. And the kind of guy who would have a happy hour with midnight in the middle of it. That would be a kind of drinker’s paradise for the soak-head crowd that would give Midnight Madness new meaning. It was so clever that it was diabolical and doomed not to last. The kind of carnage something like that could create boggles the mind.
             “So, seriously,” I asked, “where is this place?”
             “About six or seven miles up the road. Just the other side of Guilderland Center.”
             Jesus, that was one warped idea. Guilderland was known as the community with the strictest, most unfeeling, hard-edged, drunk-driver-crucifying police force on earth.
             “What’s the deal with this happy hour?”
             “Rack drinks are a buck. Heineken and Bud bottle a buck, and name cocktails, like Manhattans and martinis, are two for five bucks, your call on the brand. You’ve got to check it out. You wouldn’t believe the money we’re making there.”
             “I think I will. What’s your name? I’ll be sure to look for you.”
             “Amanda. Everyone calls me Mandy, though. If you’re good, I’ll let you call me Mandy.”
             I wondered how much being good cost. Probably five bucks as a tip for a round of drinks, for starters.
             “I guess I’ll have to check it out. One thing I’d really like to know,” I asked.
             “What’s that?”
             “It’s kind of personal.”
             “How personal?”
             “What do you wear under those robes?”
             “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
             “Actually, I would.”
             “Come see us, and maybe you’ll find out.”
             “See you around, Amanda-who-might-be-Mandy.”
             “See you, too.”
             It would have to be soon. That was one happy hour that wasn’t going to last more than a few weeks, no matter who “Mr. Walker” was paying off.


♥♥♥


             I hated to take a Friday night off when the locusts were in session over at the State University. A decent bartender could make as much as the GNP of one or two good-sized Central American banana republics. I was better than half-decent at my job, despite my near-legendary bad attitude. Still, sacrifices had to be made in the name of knowing thine enemy. I had to admit, I was much more interested in knowing Amanda, in all senses of the word, than I was in finding out the skinny on the so-called enemy, this competitor in the trade.
             Besides, I was fairly certain I knew all about Mr. Walker, as he was calling himself these days. We’d done some serious time together in a jamming bar, fighting off the barbarians with sticks and oversized shot glasses. He thought he was in a league all by himself as Primo Supremo Bartender Numero Uno, until he met me. I had some moves he hadn’t even imagined, and I could answer most of the questions he threw at me from the GRE specialized test in Eng Lit he was threatening to take, “One of these days, when it was time to move on, into bigger and better things far removed from bars.”
             Like that would actually happen. Guys like us get stuck in the quicksand of hard cash, fast women, and lightning from the bottom of a bottle of booze. Any intimation to the contrary was just a line of bullshit that smelled so bad, none of us actually believed it, even as we spoke the line. That line was spoken more than a few years ago, now, and neither one of us had moved that much further down the path of getting out than changing addresses and, in his case, a name or two. It would be kind of cool to catch up and trade a few lies and scam a few drinks for old time’s sake.


♥♥♥


             I started out with a quick pint at the joint, knowing one was the limit, lest I got sucked into the black hole of being in the place where you worked on your own time. The one hard and fast rule of business is: Never go to the place where you work on your time because, without fail, some crisis will develop that you will be called upon to rectify. Usually, without recompense.
             Closely following that law is a corollary: If a crisis does not develop, everyone you know, have known, or ever thought of knowing will turn up and insist upon buying you more drinks than any human being has a right to expect to consume in this lifetime or any other lifetime and you, being the complete fool that you are, would feel honor-bound to accept and to drink every last one of these “sociables.” After which, you will be lucky to have been checked out of the hospital in time to make your next shift, a mere seventy-two hours away.
             Still, it was a risk worth taking. There is only one fluid on earth for the all-important first-beer-of-the-day greasing of the wheels, and that would be a pint of God’s own Guinness.
             That, and I needed some all-important jack. You can never have enough jack when embarking on a fact-finding mission like the one I was about to undertake. Facts like young Amanda were bound to have expensive tastes, and who knew exactly what you might run into during the course of your mission?
             Albany and its suburban were a small, self-contained world, and being a high-profile bartender working the circuit meant you were bound to run into more than a few people you knew. Your profile might list to port, but maintaining the buzz and super cool meant lots of hard work and concentration. And jack.
             Lots of jack.


♥♥♥


             My first big mistake was making “one more wee stop, for one more wee pint” along the way. The first pint had been delicious but only suggested that the age-old adage, “you can’t fly with one wing,” was apt yet again. Faced with the daunting knowledge that the Abbey’s bill of fare no doubt extended from the mundane (Budweiser) to the prosaic, albeit skunky, Green Monsters (Heineken, to the uninitiated) and little or nothing in between. As long as the decision had been made to go all out on this fact-finding mission, gargantuan amounts of alcohol, and whatever else came down the pike, would have to be consumed. There was no reason why what was consumed shouldn’t actually be something you liked.
             So, I pulled over at the last-chance-for-Guinness-before-you-leave-Albany-County sign. There was a good crowd inside the saloon, as there always was. It was a long desert without real imported beer and single malts out there, and the serious drinkers knew it. It might be fifty, a hundred miles in land area barely beyond terra incognito on the state maps, and who knew where that next watering hole was?
             Rotten Richie knew, no doubt. He knew every watering hole in a six-county radius, and, in more than one spot, his picture had a prominent place behind the bar with the admonition: “If you speak with this man, if you serve this man alcoholic beverages, what happens after is disavowed by the management and assumed to have been done so at your own risk—.”
             But that was in the sticks. In the city, they had police forces to take care of folks like Richie, and they knew what to do with a problem child when they had one. The police van they used for such purposes was feared by miscreants of all stripes and color; no misdeed went unpunished once you were inside, and no one could prove that you weren’t bruised and beaten when you entered, because you sure as hell would be when you came out. Where you came out didn’t necessarily have anything to do with where the precinct lockups were located, either. It was always a sound idea to avoid finding out what went into the decision-making process that determined where you ended up or how long it took for you to get there.
             Even Richie had a healthy respect for John Law’s good-humor machine.
             “Good-humor machine?” I asked the first time I had heard the expression applied to the infamous Black Maria of Albany.
             “It puts the cops in a very good humor to get to use it to its fullest capacities.”
             He spoke of the van with a kind of reverence that made me wonder if he had firsthand experience inside. Richie was not known for reverence.
             What he was known for was his Bright Green Pleasure Machine, as he called his bug-eyes Triumph convertible he drove around town like he was the pace car in a personal Le Mans race. Small obstacles, like red lights and stop signs, were mere annoyances to be ignored, except under extreme circumstances that made stopping absolutely unavoidable.
             He had a sixth sense about where patrol cars hid and at what times and seemed to be able to moderate his intemperance according to what this sixth sense told him. Countless nights in a row, you could leave the bar where you were employed, riding shot gun in the machine, with half a vat of scotch on the rocks between your legs as you headed downtown for last call somewhere else, a freshly lit fat rollie between your teeth made from some kind of hydroponic death weed. But one of these times, he would kind of sniff the air and say, “Not tonight.”
             And sure as hell, we’d get pulled over, clean and almost sober. There was no other way to explain how anyone who drove as twisted as he was routinely every single day could still hold a valid New York State driver’s license. I’d seen him pull it out often enough and watched it be examined dozens of times, to be fairly certain it was as kosher as anyone else’s. More kosher than mine, that’s for sure.
             Needless to say, seeing R. R. bellied up at the bar, well into a jug of Jameson and pints of mother’s milk, sighting him thus counted as a mixed blessing. Sure, I could have attempted a quick exit before I was seen myself, but I knew that was futile. Richie and I had tended too long together not to have made it an unconscious habit, a reflex, to check out who was walking in the door at our backs in the barroom mirror. You never knew. Especially in this business. Drinking counted as serious business as much as dispensing the stuff did.
             Still, I viewed potentially hooking up with Richie, not so much as a potential liability, but as finding a partner in crime. One thing Richie was good at was low-life crimes against humanity. Especially when that low life involved wine, women, and DWI. There was one drawback: Richie always insisted he would be the driver, no matter how far gone he was or would be getting.
             I decided to avoid mentioning Amanda altogether and focused on the Midnight Madness. The name was a surefire winner, and the prospect of reduced drink prices to go with the chimes of the hour was too appealing for Richie to resist. Men had died for less. And we’d probably been responsible for those deaths on more than one occasion.


♥♥♥


             Richie ordered, “Dos, mas, dos, por favor,” which the bartender translated into two pints of stout and two shots of Jameson; one of each for the both of us. “What brings you out and about on a Friday night? Not like you to take a night off or for your boss to grant one. Some have dreamed of Friday nights out but never in your boss’ employ.”
             “Don’t I know it.”
             “That’s not really an answer to my question,” Richie said.
             “I’m on a mission.”
             “Any place in particular?”
             “The Abbey. Heard of it?”
             “As a matter of fact, I have. I was thinking of heading that way myself.”
             “Since when?”
             “Since about two minutes ago.”
             “When I brought it up.”
             “When you brought it up. What’s the attraction of the Abbey?”
             “Well, for beginners,” I said, “they seem to have a happy hour from eleven to one.”
             “Really!”
             Rich didn’t have to feign interest in discount drink specials, especially at that hour of the quest—the quest being the search for the perfect high. He’d been pursuing the same for as long as I’d known him, some ten years now, and he’d probably been at it a long time prior to that.
             “And you decided that it was incumbent upon yourself to find out if it was true,” Richie said. “In the guise of keeping a close eye on the competition?”
             “Something like that.”
             “Something like that, my ass. No sacrifice too great for the cause. Whatever. Here’s sod in your eye,” Rich said and fired down his Jameson. I was thinking about how long a night could be drinking this way—or how short—when he said, “Feeling unsociable?”
             “How so?”
             “You didn’t join me in the Irish toast. Come on, now; don’t be shy. It’s unlike you. When it comes to good mother’s milk. We’ll just finish the pint, have one more sweetener, light a little spliffy, and life will be good. We’ll ease on down the road so lightly, you’ll think the tires of the car weren’t touching the highway.”
             “That’s what I was afraid of.” But I drank the shot down anyway, ordered two more for the ditch, and wondered how wide it would be when we finally hit it.


♥♥♥


             Richie’s idea of a little spliffy was roughly the size of a hand-rolled Havana Tampa—something that wouldn’t look out of place in Fidel Castro’s mouth when he was denouncing Running Dog Western Imperialist scumbags. What we were smoking was an appropriate tribute to Richie’s favorite two philosophers of the modern age: Cheech and Chong.
             “Those guys, man, know,” Richie said. “I mean, they have captured the essence of Dasein, what it means to be alive in a modern age of technocracy global dehumanization.”
             If my head would slow down from its current orbit around one of the lesser moons of Saturn, I would have observed that Richie was the prime example of how a little learning about a lot of subjects was a dangerous thing. He gave new meaning to the words, General Studies, that no one could ever have expected, when it was conceived.
             It wasn’t likely that my brain was going to enter Earth’s orbit in the foreseeable future. I decided to go with the sucking of the life force right out of my body and the creation of a new, suborbital being that used to be me. The major problem was the body was still functioning and would be legally responsible for whatever happened in the hours I walked about as a living zombie after the last toke. It wouldn’t be the first time.
             Nor, I suspected, the last time.
             “What was that?” I managed.
             “Good shit.”
             There was no arguing that. I could imagine what was about to happen next: The Blues Brothers Take the Abbey, two retro-hippie types stoned out of their gills, wearing definitely uncool wraparound sunglasses to protect their eyes from the glare of cocktail candles on the café tables. It wasn’t all that difficult to imagine how we would look to some straight boozers well on their way to the daily intake of a vat of Canadian Club. They’d cock their heads in our direction, along with their honey-of-the-moment, then visibly recoil from these obvious slimeball deviants, ringers from another planet, seeking Earthling flesh for an unscheduled flight on a UFO.
             Some hip folks might even relate to how we looked, until we opened our mouths and something like alien speech spewed forth. Alien speech was potentially cool, but it was damned hard to follow and made true conversation nigh on to impossible. Sometimes, folks did clue in to the fact that ten minutes of idle chitchat had been conducted in incompatible languages, and nothing of substance had been said. The ones who took the longest to give up trying to relate were usually narcs who thought they had stumbled upon a major connection to the source for all things illegal in the area. Despite their admirable perseverance under adverse circumstances, they would be disappointed in the end. It was part of the price they paid for being narcs, which was the rough equivalent of being an Irish informer during the Troubles.
             One thing for sure, it was going to be difficult to maintain in this hostile environment. But, like the true soldiers of fortune we were, I had an innate, if misguided, faith in our ability to persevere, no matter how fucked up our situation would get. Besides, I was quite certain that our Mr. Walker would find us soon enough and rescue us from a feeding frenzy by the terminally weird. In our current state, we were not likely to be low profile. Besides, subtlety was never one of Richie’s strong points, even when he wasn’t wired to the gills.
             Or, at least, that was how I imagined us making the scene as we sat in back of Polito’s, breathing in the last redolent toxic fumes of the spliff. And then, the top was down on the Bright Green Pleasure Machine, and we were airborne. Yes, we were airborne rangers on patrol, and then, we were inside the Abbey, and it was just as I had imagined it would be. As I imagined, yes, but much, much worse.


♥♥♥


             We could have used a guide dog to help us to a café table in the dark, but there were none available. A small, overhead stage light was the only discernible illumination in the darkness, besides the flickering votive candles in glass casings. There was something moving out there—dark, hideous shadows like evil spirits; spirits that turned out to be the help in their robes.
             One of them approached us and spoke, “Can I help you?”
             “Table for two,” Richie said, then asked, “Don’t you have trouble getting around in those robes?”
             “You get used to it. Here you go. I’ll send someone around for your order.”
             “I’ll bet you will.”
             A female shadow appeared shortly after, holding a waitress pad and a pencil. It was impossible to see her face with the hood up on her robe. The flickering candle flames cast her in an unnatural light. I was beginning to think coming here wasn’t such a good idea. Coming here with Rich, that is. Coming here with Rich, stoned out of my tree. I felt the fear particular to smoking high-test grass taking over.
             “This place is giving me the creeps,” I said.
             “I kind of like it,” Richie replied. “Reminds me of some kind of black magic rite. Devil worshippers and satanic cults. Cool stuff like that. Do you guys serve steak tartare?”
             “No, we don’t,” the waitress said. “All we have is sandwiches and burgers and some basic appetizers. I could get you a menu, if you’d like.”
             “No, that won’t be necessary. We’ll have two Green Monsters and a wine list, if you have one of those.”
             “Green Monsters?”
             “Heinekens, my child. Forget about the wine list. We’ll just have a flagon of your finest Good Mother’s Milk with two glasses. Bring the Monsters first, though.”
             “We sell bottles of wine, although I’m not sure we have anything called Good Mother’s Milk.”
             “Sure you do; just look under your robe.”
             “Excuse me?”
             “Just kidding. A bottle of Liebfraumilch, please.”
             I watched as the waitress disappeared into the darkness. I thought I heard the Chambers Brothers singing “Time Has Come Today” somewhere in the distance. Ah, the Chambers Brothers, the Hallelujah Chorus for the stoned and the damned, sadly forgotten by all but the most dedicated stoners with whom they had an almost reverent place in the heart next to the Beatles’ White Album.
             “I think there is a good chance she is going to report us to the management,” I said.
             “Good. It will save us the trouble of looking for him.”
             “Well, that’s one way of going about it, I guess.”
             “Trust me. Have I ever steered you wrong?”
             “More times than I can count. Who do you think designed this place? Count Dracula?”
             “Could be. It sort of reminds me of The Fearless Vampire Killers. Maybe we’ll see Sharon Tate before we have to leave.”
             “Sharon Tate is dead; you know that.”
             “I meant the Pre-Manson Sharon Tate. I’d settle for a lookalike.”
             “A lookalike is going to have to do,” I said, as the waitress materialized from wherever it was she got the drinks. I wondered if they carried little flashlights like movie ushers used to have, back in the days before Christ was born, when there were such things as movie ushers.
             “Here’s your Heinekens,” she said. “I’ll get the wine now, if you’d like.”
             “Save your beer glasses, honey,” Rich replied. “We’ll slug the Monster right from the bottle. If you wait a second, you can have my empty, and you can bring us a couple of new ones.”
             I had to hand it to Rich; he sure knew how to get a waitress’ attention. Before she scurried to the relative safety of the service bar area, I decided to ask after my little friend. This could very well be the last opportunity before the summoning of the manager. Rich had that kind of effect on people. I wondered what we’d do if Mr. Walker wasn’t who we thought he was, though I could guess.
             “Plan B,” Rich would say. “There’s always a Plan B.”
             It was better not to know what Plan B was in advance. You’d probably chicken out, and the plan, whatever it was, would lose its spontaneity. Besides, I suspected Rich probably didn’t know what Plan B was, himself, until it was well underway. We’d never been arrested during a Plan B, which led me to the mistaken notion that we must be doing something right. There was always a first time. Especially in this uptight community well known to be hostile toward drunken miscreants under the influence of illegal chemicals. ‘Terminate with extreme prejudice,’ might not have been their motto in this town, but it was damn close.
             So, I asked our server, “Is Amanda working tonight?”
             “Yes, she is. Amanda is working downstairs in the lounge area.”
             “Lounge area?”
             “By the stage. You’ll see.”
             “I’ll take your word for the seeing part. I haven’t seen anything since I got here, including you.”
             There was no good reply for that observation. Taking Rich’s empty bottle, the waitress once more melted into the darkness.
             Rich smirked. “Amanda, huh? You’ve been holding out on me. I thought you said you’d never been here before.”
             “I haven’t. Unless it was in another life or a separate consciousness. You know how your mind sort of astrally projects out of your body, and stuff happens you can’t really swear to after?”
             “Happens all the time. Look, who’s this Amanda chick, anyway?”
             “A waitress, like she said. I met her at the bar. I thought the outfit she was wearing for her work was eye-catching. And so was she. What I could see of her, which, granted, wasn’t very much.”
             “This bears looking into. You’re lagging behind with the Monsters. The Monsters must not be kept waiting.”
             Just then, the stage lights went up, and we saw the pit. Or, more precisely, the U-shaped sunken area that served as the lounge area: small round tables and captain’s chairs crammed together. A server would have to be lithe and agile to make her way around down there. For a brief moment, I thought I saw monks with pointed metal crosses converging for a kill on an unsuspecting patron flinching, sliding unsuccessfully away from the attack against the curve of the wall. Then, a silent scream and the gushing of blood.
             “Finished with that?” our waitress was asking me, meaning my beer.
             “Oh, sorry, just about. Hold on, and you can have the empty,” I said, polishing off my beer.
             “Where did you go?” Rich asked. “I thought, for a minute, that we’d lost you.”
             “Oh, nowhere. Just a brief cinematic flashback. Amazing the kinds of images that stay with you, isn’t it?”
             “Like a naked woman. That’s what this place needs. More naked women. It’s the perfect setting for something Roman. Something like the Satyricon to an acid rock band soundtrack.”
             “Not likely. Those two singers don’t look as if they’d be able to belt out anything like what you had in mind.”
             We listened as they harmonized, singing “Loving You.”
             “I guess you’re right, there,” Rich agreed.
             “Once upon a time, I struggled to name what my least favorite song was. Now, I could recall what that song was. It was “Loving You.” I thought if I heard one more ‘La La La La—,’ I think I might become violent.”
             “Shitfire, yeah. That would get Mr. Walker’s attention. At least drink the beer before you chuck it at the stage. I would suggest something a little subtler. Like some good, old-fashioned heckling.”
             “You’re good at heckling, so be my guest.”
             “Don’t mind if I do,” Rich said.
             I expected the usual bullshit hecklers specialize in. Something like, “I’ve got something you can love.” But not Richie. No, he was going to do something totally unexpected. Like placing a transistor radio on our table and fiddling with the dial to better tune in an Oldies station.
             “You always carry that with you?” I asked.
             “Just about. You never know when you might need one. Like now.”
             “How come I never saw that with you before?”
             “We’ve never been here before. Besides, I guarantee Mr. Walker will notice.”
             “Oh, I’m sure he will.”
             We got to hear the dying strains of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the comforting refrain of ‘a wing a wup, a wing a wup’ trying to cut through the static. Nothing like those real Golden Oldies.
             “Reception in here really sucks.”
             “Maybe it’s the weather?”
             I heard the opening chords of the Stones singing, “19th Nervous Breakdown”—“You better stop, look around, here it comes—.” I didn’t expect to hear the guitar riff at the end of the tune, and I was right.
             Instead of our waitress, a slender, curly haired man stood stiffly by our table, a bottle of Blue Nun in one hand and a wine opened in the other, saying, “Perhaps, you fellows would care to join me for a drink. Some place a little more private.”
             “Of course, Mr. Walker,” Rich replied. “Whatever you say. Oh, we haven’t paid our check.”
             “Don’t worry about your check. It’s on me.”
             “Don’t forget the tip.”
             “Don’t push it, Rich. I had a feeling the power-drinking madmen the waitress described might be you and someone else. I didn’t expect Mr. Cool, here, to be your date. I thought he had better taste than that.”
             “Just when you thought you knew someone, he surprises the shit out of you. Keeps life interesting.”
             We stood up, and Richie dropped a five-dollar bill on the table.
             “What’s that for?” Walker asked. “I said the drinks were on me. Provided you come quietly to my inner sanctum.”
             “You were going to stiff our waitress. She deserves better. Usually, the waitress skips informing the manager about people like us and just calls the cops.”
             “And normally, she’d be right on. But I have enough problems with cops already without inviting them to the place.”
             “It wouldn’t have something to do with your Midnight Madness, would it?”
             “Might. What’s it to you?”
             Mr. Walker closed the door of the back room he had taken us into and set a couple of glasses on some liquor cases. “Make yourself at home.”
             “Aren’t you going to join us?” Rich asked.
             “I wouldn’t drink that shit with someone else’s mouth. What made you order that stuff?”
             “It was a joke, actually. But as long as its opened, it would be a shame to waste it.”
             “What wouldn’t you drink, Rich?”
             “When I find out, I’ll let you know.”
             “One thing puzzles me,” I said.
             “What’s that?” Walker asked.
             “What made you choose Mr. Walker as your cover name? I thought you’d choose something more esoteric, more poetic. Something from Shakespeare, something like Gloucester or Northumberland or Kent. Edgar Gloucester. Now, there’s a name for you. Very tragic. Like Lear. And suggestive.”
             “How so?”
             “Because it’s so provincial and allusive. Because it suggests your real name, but not really. Instead, you go for a rock-opera name. Tommy Walker. Jesus.”
             “How did you know I chose Tom as a first name?”
             “Well, didn’t you?”
             “So?”
             “I hold these truths to be self evident. Really, now, why the phony name? Are you running from a process server or what?”
             “Not yet.”
             “Not yet, meaning?”
             “I’m still collecting unemployment under my real name. This gig isn’t going to last.”
             “No shit, Sherlock. I’m surprised you lasted this long without a warrant and a fleet of dudes with drawn guns like escapees from an episode of The Untouchables. How long have you been open? Three weeks? A month?”
             “Six weeks, smartass. The cops aren’t happy, though; I’ll admit that. They’ve been pulling over guys leaving here at an astonishing rate. They might even have to take on new guys to write summonses and to take extra day shifts to cover guys in court. They should be grateful instead of pissed off. Look at all the business I’m sending them.”
             “Yeah, but, and here’s a clue for you all, cops don’t think that way. They get tired of cleaning up after all those Woodchucks playing Lumberjacks with their vehicles on the way home from your establishment.”
             “Geez, if they can’t take a joke—”
             “What exactly is the joke about drunk driving?”
             “You guys tell me; you’re the professionals.”
             I had to admit he had me there. Richie must have spent a small fortune on an invisibility cloak for his vehicle. There was no other explanation for how he managed to get around the way he did, one eye closed, focusing on the middle of the three sets of double lines he liked to follow wherever they took him. Sometimes, he even ended up home, though there were rumors that he had a permanent parking spot behind a local Price Chopper, where he slept off the previous night’s debauchery.
             That is, until the produce trucks arrived, and all holy hell broke out as they unloaded their trucks. I was surprised that there never had been a shooting of deliverymen, cut down in the prime of delivery by a mad gunman in an alcoholic rage.
             More disturbing than the image of Rich semi-conscious and armed for bear, was the tune I was hearing as Tommy waited for my snappy reply to his statement of fact. The song was “Hippy Hippy Shake” by the Swinging Blue Jeans, a song that seemed so unlikely to have a place on a loop tape, that I wondered if it hadn’t been dredged from my consciousness as a particularly surreal auditory hallucination. It wouldn’t be the first time I had an auditory hallucination. Maybe not even the first time today. All I knew was they were not cool.
             Visual hallucinations, well, that was a different story altogether. The night was relatively young, so having a few of those wasn’t totally out of the question. If I were patient, who knew what might happen. The music might even improve.
             “So, what brings you guys out here to the wilderness?” Tommy asked. “A bit beyond your normal bailiwick, isn’t it?”
             “I’m here for the pleasant atmosphere and the decor. He’s here to sniff out some waitron named Amanda,” Richie said.
             Good old Richie, the soul of discretion.
             “Why don’t you just announce it over the house intercom, so there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind?” I said.
             “You have an intercom outlet somewhere around here?”
             “If I did,” Tommy said, “I wouldn’t admit it to you. I’m not that crazy.”
             “Oh, yes you are,” Richie replied, “especially if there were a threat of violence involved.”
             “And to think, I was just about to float a money-making proposal in front of you guys. But seeing as you’re not interested—”
             “Who says we’re not interested?” Rich asked.
             “Well, if you’re going to trash the place, you certainly wouldn’t want to have the jobs I was about to offer.”
             “What jobs?”
             “Weekend shifts, ten to close, under the table, and all the tips you can glom. And Amanda’s home phone. What you do with it and how far it goes is up to you. I hear the numbnuts I have working the bar for me right now are making a couple of bucks easy on the happy hour alone, and neither one of them could handle anything more complicated than scotch and water, though you might have to point out that not all liquor that comes in a bottle is scotch.”
             “When do I start?” Rich asked.
             “I was going to fire them both and have you on, starting, like, in ten minutes, but under the present circumstances, I think next week might be a better idea.”
             “I’m on. What about you, Cowboy?”
             “I have a job, as you well know,” I said. “Not about to leave for love or money.”
             “Too bad. That Amanda is a pretty hot piece of work,” Tommy said. “I guess I’ll just have to give this number to Rich.”
             “You do that, and I’ll bite your wrist. I don’t know about you, but my distemper shots are way out of date.”
             “All right, I’ll give you some time to think it over. Another bottle of wine’s worth. But this time, we’ll have something drinkable.”
             “Amen,” Rich added. “Whose idea was it to drink this swill, anyway?”
             “Yours, I think,” Tommy said. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back. And don’t even think about opening something else while I’m gone.”
             “Would we do that?”
             “You sure as hell would. So, sit tight and relax. I’ll only be gone a minute. And do me a favor: don’t burn the place down, either.”
             “Jesus, don’t you trust us?”
             “Not for a minute. Not like you are right now, anyway.”
             The door hadn’t been closed more than fifteen seconds before Rich asked, “You think he’s got anything interesting in here worth drinking?”
             “I’m sure he does. I’m also sure that, as your new boss, he might not take kindly to your fucking up completely before you even started working.”
             In my brain-depleted time warp, the Swinging Blue Jeans were replaced by an off-key version of Elton John singing, “Rocket Man.” I’d never quite related to that song previously. It was taking on a new meaning to me, as I drifted in and out of the here and now.
             Not being firmly rooted in time was reflexive for Rich, something that happened all the time for him, but for me, it required some concentration to deal with. Rich’s coping mechanism was to launch into a hypermanic monologue about anything that came to mind. Usually, what that turned out to be defied any kind of sense or logic, but that was of no consequence to him. What mattered to him was the speaking. Having an audience was nice, but it wasn’t essential. I know I routinely tuned him out after the first complex sentence. I mean, if he couldn’t follow what he was saying, who else could?
             I used to try to make some sense of what he was saying, if only to be polite, then, out of some kind of perverse curiosity, then, out of morbid fascination. Eventually, I simply gave up listening. Richie didn’t mind. Everyone gave up listening to him. It was expected.
             As the door closed and our prospective employer—Mr. Walker, looking more and more like Mephistopheles in a white shirt and tie—returned, the loop tape in my head changed from Elton to David Bowie singing about Major Tom and, I thought, Man, am I ever fucked. And then, I was in the lounge, and this voice was speaking to me from beneath this dark-hooded robe. What she was saying had something to do with pentacles and cups and a Hanged Man, and in the woods near a burning vehicle in dark woods, scattered severed heads of goats and slaughtered lambs amid the inverted crosses, and I said, “Sure, but make it a double.”
             A robed monk from some bad dream, some bad place of demons and devils, black magic women and Black Death Plague artists, was reaching out for me with a pale leprous hand, a hand that had touched death in an intimate way and had loved the touching so much, it had joined the cause like a Typhoid Mary with a scotch bottle, everything touched, withered, wasted away, sucked dry all the way to the bones.
             And then, the body from inside the robe was sitting across the table from where I was, a double amber something neat in front of me, empty glasses pushed to one side, a flamed-out candle surrounded by all my empties, and I thought, Not my emptiness. My emptiness is filled. And I saw that it was Amanda. The hood of her robe was pulled down about her shoulders, and she was talking, though I couldn’t figure out about what, as her voice was drowned out by the Rolling Stones singing, “I see a red door, and I want it painted black——I want to see the sun blotted out from the sky. I want to see it painted, painted, painted, painted black—”
             “No more doubles,” I managed. “What about you? When are you off?”
             And she was saying, “I’m off now. I have a van. In the lot. My ex converted it, customized it: rugs and pillows and wall-to-wall speakers. I could sleep in it, if I wanted to. Have more than once, when the occasion demanded.”
             And I was saying, “Like now?”
             “Maybe. Sure. Like now. Mr. Walker says you’re, like, the major stud bartender for miles around.”
             “Not much competition, especially this time of night or day. Or whatever. Which is it?”
             And she said, “You’re a funny guy; that’s for sure.”
             And I said, “That’s me all over.”
             And then, we were in her van, and the sun was coming up from just beyond the trees, and her lips were on mine, and she was groping in the dark, and so was I. Groping toward what, I wasn’t sure, but we were trying like hell to get somewhere, anywhere at all.
             And I thought I heard Hank Williams singing, “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry,” which I thought was more likely than what I had been hearing earlier. I thought, hoped, maybe it was a tape Amanda had put on her deck or maybe, Rich in the parking lot with the Bright Green Pleasure Machine with his tape deck and a not-so-subtle comment about what he thought we were doing inside the van. All I knew was, that what we were doing wasn’t what he thought.
             I hoped someday it would all come back to me. This night. Amanda. Everything. But I also knew that, more than likely, if and when the memory returned, it would be as a haunting more than as a memory, and it would have all kinds of unexpected repercussions I might never be able to undo.


♥ End ♥



Alan Catlin worked at his unchosen profession as a barman for thirty-four years in college bars, banquet houses, hotels, restaurants, a nightclub, and a neighborhood Irish bar, the latter for the last twenty-five years of his so-called career. He has published thousands of poems and stories since the mid-70’s and has over sixty-five chapbooks and full-length books of prose and poetry to his credit. His most recent full-length collection is Alien Nation, a compilation of four thematically interconnected chapbooks. Among his many awards and citations are twenty Pushcart Prize nominations. He is currently the poetry editor of the online journal, Misfit Magazine. [Author photo by and © Valerie Catlin; used with permission, all rights reserved.]


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Baby Girl  |  Owen Macleod



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             I take a lot of drives with Baby. She didn’t fit between my wife and me in the front seat years ago. She’d run around in the flatbed, and my wife would nestle into my shoulder. My wife liked to take drives when she wanted to talk about things, or when she wanted to be quiet for a while. I’d put my arm around her, and we’d drive out of our town and into the next one over, where the houses are much nicer.
             “We can dream,” my wife used to say.
             Now it’s just Baby and me; she’s a German Shepherd and something else that made her fur tan. She still rides in the flatbed. We just cruise up and down the 200; straight shot through our town—roads spidering off every quarter mile. There’s lots of farms; when we had Baby in the flatbed all those years ago, my wife was nervous that the dog would jump out and chase the cows and goats that graze all the hills, because Baby always paced back and forth, putting her legs up on the side of the bed and leaning her head out into traffic. Now, Baby stays pretty still. She takes a few steps here and there to balance herself around turns, but she doesn’t move much. Just stares at the open fields that pass by on both sides. I like seeing the farms. Seeing all the growth and the day-to-day. Seeing cows get born, then get big, then have their own calves, then disappear. Makes me feel less alone. When we’re not driving, I’m in the study.
             My wife and I bought the house five years ago when she got a job at the elementary school. It is a simple ranch—single-story, white walls, laminate floors and counters. It looks just like all the other houses on the street, with one exception. The previous owner built what looked like a shed and nailed it on the side of the house. Walking up with the realtor, she explained that the previous owner used it as his cigar-smoking room.
             “Don’t you smoke cigars?” she said. “You look like you smoke cigars.” Once inside the house, we walked around and commented on all the rooms, until the realtor finally asked if we wanted to see the cigar-smoking room.
             “Of course,” my wife said. It was the only room I had any interest in seeing—we had seen other houses on the block, and they were all the same.
             The hallway leading to the room seemed to get darker as we got deeper, following the realtor. A thick smell worked the air in front of the door. The realtor pushed it open, and the smell intensified, projecting from the room. Hit us in a hot, clear fog as the door was opened. I liked it: wood, and somehow a little citrusy. Cigar smoke had enveloped this room for years. It was in every breath, and my wife cupped her mouth and nose in her hand.
             The floors, the walls, the desk, the bookcases—each a different grain and species—but the room was made entirely of wood. They were stained similarly, a dark brown with heavy gloss so the room shined, even in the absence of sunlight. The previous owner brought in wood from Northern California, Portland, all along the Pacific Northwest. There were no windows, but it seemed perfect. It was a place I could be alone whenever I wanted. I couldn’t have paid Annie to hang out in that room.
             “The owner is going to leave all the furniture,” the realtor said. When we moved in, the only change I made to the room was to add my dad’s rocking chair. It’s an oak masterpiece that he handcrafted and wrote-off to me in his will. I stained it a dark brown, and it fit beautifully. My wife changed the name; she insisted we call it “the study” because that sounded more important and useful than “the cigar room.”
             The room seems even darker now. When I make the walk down the hall, I picture windows looking out onto a garden, or a waterfall or something, but the walls always look that dark, midnight purple, and I don’t think natural light will fix it. The room still smells like cigars, even though I don’t smoke them, so Baby doesn’t like it. She wanders the house and yelps out for me while I sit in my dad’s rocking chair to read. Sometimes when she cries, echoing through the house, it sounds like my wife singing. Annie used to sing while she did laundry or dishes or stuff around the house. She had a beautiful voice and could hit a wide range of notes at just a talking-volume. After a second, it’s easy to tell that Baby’s whining for more food or for attention, so I yell back, “I’m here, Girl,” which keeps her settled for a few minutes.
             Sometimes, I like just to talk to Baby like she’s my wife. I’ve been asking her questions, hoping one day she’ll answer me. I’ll say something like, “What are we gonna do, Girl?” and she just stares up at me, tilting her head to the side and moving her tail back and forth. I was sitting in my dad’s chair when it first happened.


♥♥♥


             The study was quiet. The only sound was the pages of a heavy book turning every few minutes under my fingers. But I heard a mumble through the walls of the house. My back stiffened, and I turned my head toward the door, letting my ears gather the sound. I knew it was probably Baby calling out for her bowl to be refilled, but it initially registered as my wife singing. I got up from the chair and stood there for a second, letting the seat hit the back of my legs a few times while I listened. The sound wasn’t anything I could grab onto.
             I’d been thinking for about a week that someone else was in the house. One night, I woke up to a conversation from downstairs. I didn’t know to whom my wife was speaking, but it was clearly her voice. The slight twang of Tennessee that her mother tried muddling in Michigan all those years ago. I hadn’t heard her in conversation in a long time, and it startled me. I got up from bed and ran to the stairs. But upon reaching the landing, opening to the living room, where I was sure the conversation was happening, I saw no one. The room was as dark as I’d left it before going to bed. There was no one in the house but me, and I told myself I had only dreamed the sounds.
             The study is tucked around the back corner of the house, pretty deaf to anything but loud noises. I thought maybe I hadn’t heard anything at all and sat back down. I keep my walls of books in the study, with a few of them strategically stacked on the desk. I keep the ones on my desk to entice comments from potential visitors. No one ever comes over, but if they do, I’d like them to think I’ve been reading something that carries a weight of importance in its title.
             I returned to the seat of my father’s rocking chair and tried rationalizing the sounds I was hearing. Baby was making the noises; that much was clear to me. What was somewhat unclear was why I registered the sounds as my wife singing. The only place that my wife’s voice speaks, that I know of, is after four dial tones, when the call goes to her answering machine. I haven’t canceled her cell phone—I call it all the time. A few times a week. Her voice, in the message, didn’t sound like her when she was alive. I’d call her to go to lunch and get her voicemail, and upon hearing the voice, I’d take the phone down and make sure I was calling the right person. But now, the message sounds exactly like her. There’s no one else it could be. It sounds like she’s talking directly at me, “Leave me a message, call ya back.”
             Maybe I miss her so much that it’s projecting her presence into my life. My wife is gone, but there’s a part of her that seems to still inhabit me. I wake up some mornings and can see the faintest depression on her pillow. Maybe I’m going crazy.
             I was tracing the grain in the desk with my finger from left to right, when I heard it again. Not a mumble this time, clearly I heard my wife singing. And it must have been louder than her usual talking-volume. It was so obvious, even in the study. I didn’t know what song. I often didn’t know what song she was singing.
             I got up from the chair and hurried into the hall. The kitchen was the first door I came to, and I crept up to it, my back sliding against the wall. I got to the white frame, letting my fingertips touch it, and quickly curled my head inside, eyes darting all over the room. Nothing was there that shouldn’t have been. The room still smelled like the frozen pizza I’d made an hour or so earlier. I stood in the doorway and listened again for the singing, which seemed to have stopped. I wanted to pinpoint the sound and approximate where it was in the house. I wasn’t sure whether I should call the police—it really did sound like my wife.
             Then, I heard it again. Clearer than before. It sounded like it was upstairs, and I ran as fast as I could without making any noise—kind of leaping through the house. The stairs that led to the second floor funneled the sound, and it was unmistakable. My wife was singing from our bedroom. The way she used to do when she folded clothes.
             I ran up the stairs; the clatter I was making didn’t matter to me then. The singing kept coming as I reached the landing, and it radiated from the bedroom at the end of the hall. The door—a flimsy, white press-wood—was half-open, and I pushed it so hard the handle stuck in the drywall. There was no one in the room, and though I could see everywhere for my wife to hide from where I was standing, hovering in the doorway, I looked around thoroughly like I’d missed her somewhere. There was nowhere for her to be. I looked up at the ceiling, turned around to check above the door. Annie wasn’t there, and neither was her voice anymore. I went around the other side of the bed, the only place I hadn’t looked, and was startled to see Baby, curled up in herself next to the bed. Still looking around the room, I called the dog out, patting my knees and putting on a sappy voice, “Come here, Baby Girl.” I ran my hands through my hair, knowing at once that I had heard my wife’s voice, and that there was no way for it to be heard.
             The dog let her head fold out of her stomach and looked at me. She looked at me like she couldn’t remember how she ended up in the space between the wall and the bed, like she thought I had put her there. I called for her again, clapping my hands this time, “Come here, Girl.”
             And then, not quite opening her mouth, but kind of curling her lips around the words, Baby said, “You come here,” in my wife’s voice.


♥♥♥


             I didn’t know what to do. I took a few steps back and put a hand on my chest to feel for my heart. My periphery went black, and it completely outlined the tan-colored lump of dog on the floor. I don’t know what my body was doing during the moments that Baby lay in the darkness. My mind wouldn’t let me think about breathing, or temperature, or the tips of my fingers. I raced through all the possible reactions. I wanted to call the police again. Holy shit. But I couldn’t think of anything sane to tell the dispatcher. I couldn’t think of anything sane to tell myself. I couldn’t describe what I’d just seen. I wanted to get in the truck and find a hotel for the night. Then, she said it again.
             “Come here,” Baby’s head bobbing as my wife’s voice came out. I screamed—a quick, high-pitched burst that I caught with my hand as I slapped it over my mouth. I stepped back, wobbling. All I could say was a mess of Whats and Hows, as I stumbled over to the doorway.
             “What’s wrong with you, Honey?” the dog said, pushing herself up out of the spot between the wall and the bed. It suddenly became real. The darkness lifted, and I was back in my bedroom, the light coming through the window again. The world seemed brighter than it had been in a long time.
             “Annie?” I said, saying my wife’s name, but bending toward my dog and squinting my eyes.
             “What?” Baby said, but it was Annie who said it.
             The dog spoke Annie’s words as if my wife had never died; there was no recognition of physical form. Annie couldn’t tell that she was anything other than Annie. The words were from years ago, when Baby was just a baby. It was like our conversations had seeped into the dog over all that time, and now that the conversations in the house had run out, she was filling the air with what used to be there. Baby used to sit with Annie on the couch while my wife watched TV. With their heads nestled against each other, Annie would lift the flap of one of Baby’s ears and whisper things to her. I never knew what she was saying, just little secrets. I walked around the room, arms extended, trying to feel something, make sure I was still alive. I ripped a few of my arms hairs out. This was still the real world, as far as I could tell.
             I tried to accept the situation, and I asked Baby what she knew. What the fuck was going on? The questions puzzled her greatly. Baby stretched her front legs out so far that her belly touched the floor.
             “What do you mean, Stefan?” she said, standing up and hovering in place for a second. I became harshly aware that I was talking to my dog. I realized it so harshly that it frightened me. I stepped away from her. She came over and pressed herself against my legs. I was afraid even to touch her.
             It was more than that. She, the voice, couldn’t explain how the hell this all came to be. How did my dead wife’s voice now inhabit the mouth of my dog? Then, for a second, I felt like I was on a TV show. That had to be it. I rushed around the room, looking in the top corner of every wall for a camera or a microphone. Anything that would clue me in.
             I didn’t find anything in the room, so I ran out into the hall, expecting to find Assclown Kutchner, or whatever his name is. Baby ran after me. She liked to put her nose on the heel of anyone walking in front of her.
             “What’s for dinner?” Annie said. I turned around, looking at Baby with glaring eyes. We stood there for a few seconds, just staring at each other.
             “Talk again,” I said.
             “Talk, talk, talk,” Annie said from Baby’s mouth.
             “Oh my god,” I said, turning around and heading downstairs.


♥♥♥


             People came in and out like they’d made up a schedule when it first happened, about two years ago. It made me sick after a while. All the food—Baby ate most of it. I would have rather stayed in bed those first months. Let Baby lick my feet sticking out of the covers. The food was nice; my house would have been overrun with pizza boxes without the constant meals that people brought over. Annie had a lot of friends.
             “What’s for dinner,” she said again, when we had both reached the bottom of the stairs.
             “Would you give me a minute?” I said, raising my voice. “Just … I’m sorry. Just hold on, though. I don’t know what to do.”
             “Just call Chinese or something.”
             I took one of the barstools at the island in the center of the kitchen, and Baby followed me. Once I was in the seat, and my feet were off the ground, she pressed her wet nose into my right heel. My head fell into my hands. I rubbed my palms in my eyes, scrubbing them, trying to wash away this dream. I pinched a few more arm hairs out. I took some deep breaths, my eyes still closed, the purple and yellow blotches painting my eyelids. I opened them, just staring forward, looking at nothing. I didn’t want to look down at Baby; I still felt her nose touching my foot every now and then.
             But when I finally looked down, she wasn’t there. I looked around from my seat and couldn’t see her anywhere. I wanted to call someone but didn’t know who. The realization came in a set of waves. Family I gradually weeded out over a few years, in favor of Annie. Friends I haven’t had since college, and I only had one or two by the time I graduated. Words were building in my head, no one to respond to them.
             I had to tell someone about my dog talking. I thought about writing my mother a letter because she doesn’t have a phone. I was going to hope she lived in the house where I last saw her. That beat-up ranch out in Texas that still had the home-wrap showing, even though the builders were finished. Maybe she has a phone number by now, and I just don’t know what it is. It crossed my mind to call Annie, but then I remembered the four buzzes, her voice at the end.
             I looked around and found Baby in the bedroom again. This time, lying on the bed, on Annie’s side, next to the window.
             “You okay now?” Annie asked, Baby turning her head from the window to look at me.
             “I just—I still don’t really know,” I said, sitting on the edge of the bed.
             “What’s to know?”
             “It’s just. Don’t you think this is weird?”
             “Think what’s weird, Stef? Why do you keep saying that?”
             Baby now swung her upper body in my direction, then brought her bottom half around. She crossed her hind paws at the ankles in front of herself, staying balanced, sitting upright and facing me. My dog. My wife, reincarnate.
             “Can we take a drive and talk about it?” Annie said, and I liked that idea.
             I got a coat, and Baby followed me out the front door. Instead of going to the flatbed, Baby went around to the passenger side, got up on her back legs, and started pawing the door handle. That’s when it seemed so clear. It was my wife. Annie. I didn’t know why, and didn’t really care. It was just something that happened. Maybe she would only be able to speak for a week or a few days. Or maybe it would be like having my wife back.
             What I really missed was talking to her. All those couch secrets Annie told Baby were ready to be heard. I was certainly ready to hear them. I really missed her voice.
             I ran around to the passenger side, and Annie leaped up into the seat with an enthusiasm that was noticably different than Baby’s. I shut the door and, walking around the back, took a deep breath, hoping her voice would still be there when I got in the truck.
             “Ready to go?” I said, turning the key.
             “Of course.”
             We passed a few farms and made a turn onto the 200. Annie slowly nestled her head in the crook of my neck, resting herself on my shoulder. The way she always did.
             We got to the next town, where the houses are much nicer than ours. There’s houses that look like castles, houses that look like beach mansions, houses that look like haunted houses because of their gothic aesthetic.
             “Wow, look at that one,” Annie said, lifting her arm in the direction of a sprawling Spanish villa with a wrapping cobblestone driveway. In the middle of the driveway, there was a fountain. A large fish with its back curled, spitting water at the sky. “That one’s amazing.”
             “We can dream,” I said.


♥ End ♥



Owen Macleod was born in Washington, D.C., and immediately moved to Alexandria, Virginia. In 2012, he won the 13th Paul Rice Poetry Broadside Contest, and the poem appears in the Spring 2013 issue of Archarios Literary Magazine. He has also been published in Tempo Magazine and The Folly Current. Owen currently resides in Conway, South Carolina.

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The Poets Tangled in My Sheets  |  Casey Francis



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             Before I ever really became intimate with them, strange women and men lounged around my bedroom. As in the after-blur of a wild party, they just showed up one night to awaken tangled in my sheets, bleary-eyed, still drunk. Some sprawled across my bed, lying face down, and others were spread-eagled, opened, and exposed with their spines broken. A few sat curtly on shelves. Crisp dust jackets hid their true colors. I have no idea where many of these books came from—little somethings I picked up for a quarter at a library sale or the Salvation Army. Others, I paid too much for because my hedonism rushed me into buying the hardback. A few were gifts, and quite a few more were copies from a friend of a friend of a friend. I love them all.
             I can’t remember when Ted showed up. Some time during college: a classic story of an older man seducing an impressionable college student. I vaguely remember reading a newspaper article about him—something about a Pulitzer Prize—and then, before I knew it, he was approaching me in the library stacks, holding out his hand, saying, “Hello, I’m Ted Kooser. This is my collection, Delights & Shadows. And I’d like to see more of you.”
              I was not impressed with his large ears or the talk I had heard—a plain poet writing plainly about the Great Plains. Reviewers use words like quiet and country to describe his work. Plus, he was a little too young for me then. At the time, I liked my poets vetted and appropriately positioned in the canon, often dead. When walking through the quad with an arm wrapped around Yeats, no one asks, “Who’s that?” But, still, Ted ended up being the first poet I ever really loved.
             The Los Angeles Times Book Review described the slim green collection, Delights & Shadows, as having “a deep stillness at its center, perfectly self-contained, yet echoing like a country well.” The quote made my eyes roll the first time I read it on the back of Ted’s book. But I liked the painting on the front cover. The canvas is painted nearly all black. A starburst radiates in the center from an unseen light fixture mounted on a power pole. Only the immediate ground is brightly lit. Highlighted are delicate lengths of power lines and the clapboards of two outbuildings. Viewers of the painting look toward the light from the darkness.
             Ted being chosen as Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress that year may also have influenced my decision to read his book. The bigger reason, however, was that he was from Nebraska. True, he was unfortunate enough to be born in Iowa, but after college, he found good sense and his adoptive home in Nebraska. And my grandparents taught me always to extend my hand and shake firm with any neighbors, even ones like Iowa. Actually, Iowa is a wonderful state, second best to Nebraska, but still wonderful. You get defensive when living in states like Nebraska or Iowa. Everyone talks about what you lack: people, professional sports teams, any shred of cool. You get plenty of credit for possessing ample amounts of xenophobia, population loss, and industrial-scale farming. Because of this, people from states like Nebraska and Iowa have to grasp for any externally validated point of pride. So when The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and The Washington Post said Nebraska poet Ted Kooser was worth reading, I did.
             My copy of Delights & Shadows is pristine. A few notes and dog-eared corners, but the cover shows remarkably little wear, even though it gets packed among pairs of jeans in my duffel bag or rides in the plastic cranny of my car door whenever I travel away from home for more than a day. Home has not been my real home in Nebraska for several years, but sometimes as I travel, an overwhelming feeling that I am not there, not home, not in Nebraska, comes over me. When this happens, I stop whatever I am doing. I open Delights & Shadows, usually at random, and I go home. I’ll read lines like, “A farmhouse window far back from the highway / speaks to the darkness in a small, sure voice” in the poem, “A Winter Morning,” and suddenly I am driving on Highway 77 toward my hometown of Lyons. Farmhouses and outbuildings sit snuggly against their windbreaks. The light from a single window peels a bit of the darkness away to let me know I am home. That’s how Ted seduced me, still seduces me.
             There have been others besides Ted, of course. That’s life, right? A little time goes by, then there’s a spat or a friend insists you meet so-and-so or just some fresh, new, slim little volume comes along, and an entirely new love affair kicks up. I think my love may be too much, too fast. But how can anyone be poetically celibate? How can anyone resist the possibility of feeling that feeling when a poet strokes you just so and without ever being told how you really like it?
             I met and hooked up with my next poet lovers simultaneously: The Best of It by Kay Ryan and Here, Bullet by Brian Turner. They left me thoroughly satisfied, but it made me feel like a floozy when I would be reading in bed with Kay and glance over to see Brian’s glossy cover with its mysterious soldier waiting on my bedside table. And I would feel even worse when I would slip off Kay’s dust jacket and carelessly toss it on top of Brian. But both poets give me something different, something I yearn for, something I need.
             Brian’s poems are romantic, muscular, a portrait of war’s anguish. They are the images of “each twist of the round / spun deeper, because here, Bullet, / here is where the world ends, every time.” Kay’s poetry, however, is supple and petite. Rarely do her lines get wider than three words. She packs in so much, so quickly, that often I read the same poem again without any time for recovery. Kay teases with odd observations, like, “Only two of / the dog’s legs / dogleg … / Fifty-fifty: that’s / as bad as it / gets usually, / despite the / fear you feel / when life has / angled brutally.” Brian and Kay have proven to me that poetic monogamy does not work.
             And to be truthful, there are even other poets who circulate through my bedroom. Nikky Finney, N. Scott Momaday, and Ruth Stone just this month. And as cliché as it may be, I’ll admit that Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost were among my first poet crushes. I met them both in the glow of a fluorescent-lit high school classroom. Emily’s images are rich, and she is pretty and smart. And that dash—who isn’t smitten with her dash? But whenever I sit down to commune with Emily, I inevitably end up with a scalpel, busily dissecting, pinning back the skin to reveal the innards of the poem. Robert’s stories—“The Death of the Hired Man,” “Out, Out—,” “Home Burial”—still sweep me off my feet. Sometimes, though, I feel the need to defend my Bobbie Frost by saying, “No, he meant to do it like that. He’s not being pushed around by any old bully of a rhyme.”
             Regardless, Emily and Robert sit on the very same shelves as Kay and Brian and all my other poets, even my Ted. Ted really wouldn’t have it any other way than standing in alphabetical order, shoulder to shoulder with his peers. I suspect, however, the other books give him a good teasing when he returns to the shelf after a long absence—his pages having been turned slowly between my sheets, doing that thing he does I love so much.


♥ End ♥



Casey Francis works as a gymnastics coach and very occasional adjunct college instructor. He also works for the Center for Rural Affairs.




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The sponsor for today’s fabulous story is Hardly Square, a strategy-, branding-, and design-based boutique located in Baltimore, Maryland, that specializes in graphic design, web design, and eLearning courses. Please support our sponsors. We couldn’t do what we do without them. Sponsors do not necessarily endorse the message of the story, only provide funding for the Go Read Your Lunch series. Want to become a sponsor? Here’s how.


Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.