Pop Tart Sky

We’ve stopped off highway 70 somewhere west of Topeka, the middle of a cloudless night. My neck is stiff from the cramped back seat of the Honda. After this break, it will be my turn to drive, so I’ve grabbed some caffeine and carbs for the haul. Mara and Jacob have gone to the rest rooms. The pop tarts are all mine.

 I count the number of dots on the pastry’s surface: 36. Why did I need to know that? Why do I keep counting down miles to the state line? I lean on the warm hood of the car and rest my head on the windshield, looking up.

All the years of traveling and reclining added end to end, reaching out, spiraling like a wave of jewels, would be a whispery thread of cloud against this spangled tapestry. Jacob comes out and asks me what I’m doing with the pop tart box and my eyes in the stars. He looks up and says nothing’s eternal, even that. He insists on it. Until I relent. But it’s all change, like the Kansas song, nothing lasting but the earth and sky. Even that, he says, will go. Like us. We gotta go. Now. Boulder’s flatirons await.

Yes, it slips away, like the song. But relative to me and Mara and Jacob and the car and the pop tarts, this spread of dark is as eternal as I can comprehend. I blink at stars that may no longer be. I pick one out, close my lids, then open. I imagine a spider thread spinning out of my chest, to connect me and it across space and time.

I don’t hear Mara until she reaches for the pop tarts and snatches the can of Pepsi from me. The wind picks up and bites across the prairie. But for the passive fluorescent glow of the rest stop, it’s a black sea around us. We’ll be diving into it soon. I take back the can. It dents in my grasp. I count the soda bubbles on my tongue.

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Learning to swim

At age four, you sit behind a toy drum kit, back straight, arms posed with an intriguing and improbable cross-stick technique that not even Buddy Rich could emulate. You stare directly at the camera, full of moxie and talent—open, honest, proud to be a boy, not yet old enough for school. You get up and hold the drumstick like a microphone—pretending to be Mike Douglas, opening the TV show with a cover of “Fly Me to the Moon”. Your sister, whose bangs are cut straight across her forehead, joins you at the mic, hamming it for the camera, to the delight of your doting parents. You bust some moves, strike the pose. You slide forward, about to do a split, in your white socks on the slippery hardwood floor. You have seen Sammy Davis and Chuck Berry and Sammy Kaye moving effortlessly on the Philco TV screen, and no one has told you yet that you can’t tap, duck walk, or soft shoe it to stardom.

At five, you’re in kindergarten, sitting cross-legged on a brown rug, surrounded by five year old cretins and string bean punks who delight in slapping your head and jumping you from behind. You learn how it feels to be held down, the burn of rug fibers. You are a quick understudy. You learn to keep distant and sip your milk carton at the round table, alone, near the girls. The poetry of five is discovered in the force and tumble of little tykes, and it feels nothing like poetry.

In second grade, it is your jaw being held in Mrs. Handley’s rigid, narrow fingers. You feel her wedding ring cold againt your cheek. You had giggled over something Dean Hickman had whispered about the teacher’s butt. You had watched Dean’s pencil lightly tap the teacher’s ass. You wonder why it is your face being rattled, not his, your gumption beaten like  dust from a door mat. You resolve to keep quiet the rest of the school year.

That night, you bang the toy drums and beat a hole in the snare drum head. Your mother screams she is tired of this, can’t you keep the racket down. You go to other things: examining polished stones, applying strips of modeling glue to plastic car parts, watching a basement spider build a web.

That same night you dream about learning to swim. You and a line of children at the high school pool, good and bad, fat and skinny, white and brown and yellow. The instructor treads water and shows you how to do dead man’s float, elementary backstroke, freestyle, his words scattering like salt from a shaker, rarely landing on you. The teacher only pretends to swim. He is standing on his toes where the shallow angles down to the deep end. His biceps are powerful, and the water beads on his skin like little pearls. You know you will never look as sculpted as this, and you know that you will always be better at the dead man’s float than freestyle.

Years later, you will have become a master of an even subtler art: pretending to float, when really you were sinking discretely, trimming your intake of oxygen, not letting on, lest someone notice or get uncomfortable.

 

Revolutions

He sat at the end of the bar, his back to the video game machine, sulking eyes averting our glances. He had this annoying, boyish tendency of running fingers through his hair ceaselessly like a pitchfork gouging a hay pile. His face was greasy, especially around the nose and upper lip. When someone dropped quarters into the jukebox, he turned briefly to see who it was. A bland dance-pop tune about love oozed out of the machine. He scowled, staring into his beer glass. None of us regulars thought much of him.

I leaned to my drinking buddy Jack and whispered “he looks like the guy in that painting. That one with the old guy and his wife in front of the barn. American something, it’s called.”

“American what?”

“American Something. It’s famous. You’ve seen it before.”

“I have?” Jack wore a Harley Davidson t-shirt emblazoned with an American eagle, its wings outstretched. His arms were crowded with tattoos: an American flag, a skull and dagger poised above a broken heart. He was not an expert on the art world. To be honest, neither was I. I remembered a few pictures from art appreciation class in community college and that was it.

“Everybody’s seen it. The guy has a pitchfork. He and his wife are staring at you. They’re not happy. He’s not getting any from the wife.”

He shook his head, which was bent over his beer glass. “Maybe it’s him. Maybe he needs to take the little blue pill, spice his hoe up.”

“This dude looks just like that guy, except for the hair and he’s thirty years younger and doesn’t wear glasses.”

“Who painted it?”

“Wood something…” said Shirley, who was tending bar that afternoon.

“Woody Harrelson?”

“That’s the Cheers bartender.”

“The Cheers guy is an artist too?”

I let the conversation drop. I thought, I need to stop day drinking.
Continue reading “Revolutions”

Aquarium Lounge

Holding the red plastic cup by her fingertips, she tramps past the VOX amp and stands near a six foot roadie, hair like seaweed, tipsy drunk, leaning into the music waves. Pilsner dribbles over the lip to the sticky floor .

An iron suit approaches behind, crab fingers dancing the tarantella up her back to the border of her buzz cut blonde hair. His metallic blazer, the vacant eyes like bicycle reflectors–none of it adds up. She doesn’t know him, can’t recognize the species crawling over her. She wants to flick him away, but she is transfixed, by what? Eyes as real as the Texas blues banging off the dark glass walls, the swampy thwomp of the VOX amp, the gummy floor her boots are anchored to. Why are the fingernails gripping her shoulder tipped with dried blood?

She looks over her shoulder at him, her lips puckered into a goodbye kiss, a signaled plea to be left alone. She recalls the sensation of leaving home, the way she shrugged when she said goodbye to the parents, the way her car rounded the corner and accelerated, and her mouth formed a rebellious smile, wicked and happy to be the cause of such pain and loss. It was payback for a life of stalled dreams and vanilla habit, and she was determined to forget it all. Now she wants to leave this too, her second home, as if you can leave home twice, another skin to shed. The man in the iron suit hasn’t let go. He squeezes harder.

The marlin tacked to the wall watches and sighs, rueful at being fished out of the Gulf of Mexico for this. She sees the marlin hanging there and thinks of swimming away, floating off without an anchor. Large bodies dance in front of her, like manatees loping through murkiness, too thick to show desperation, too dull to desire anything other than these stale waters. They move humorously. She grimaces. As if manatees could laugh. As if people could understand laughing manatees.

Around her, lizards and flippers embrace fleshy parts pulsing with the house music which has hollowed out a watery dark space nowhere near the sun, a liquid swelling, trance-like and unbalanced, like the bony drummer who can’t keep a straight beat, stuck in a frayed pocket. The man’s tongue licks her earlobe. She receives it, listens for a whisper, a promise that can’t come.

American Studies

Two American college students sit cross-legged on the green lawn in the late afternoon May sun. One in a pink, sleeveless blouse, white shorts, round, tan thighs open to the sky, her brunette hair pulled behind the ears, gently falling down the nape of her neck. The other young woman bends her head idly over a spiral notebook, brown pony tail brushing the pages, her left arm perched on a bent leg. Her back is broad and athletic, spanned by a polo shirt, lavender cotton stretching across her knees. They are grinning, lazily. They talk into the calm air, not afraid of its silence. The one in the pink blouse is doing something with her hands, knitting weed stalks or weaving blades of grass. Time slows around them and their backpacks. The light is good.

The sun’s orange hue deepens as it sinks, becoming level with their heads. The light borrows their hair, irradiating their heads like haloed stained glass angels. It intersects their tanned arms planted behind them, palms anchored to the ground. It forms long shadows of their arms and the surrounding trees on the fresh grass. It clarifies the crevices in the brick facade of the library at their right – flares against the window panels, each a shimmering pool of fire. It is as if the landscape and the building are going to be licked by a giant tongue sliding from a smiling mouth.

Across the street stands a Georgian-revival apartment building. Four pillars painted in antique beige, the walls red brick painted by the sun. As the girls converse with what seems at a distance to be genteel, colonial dignity, a victory of independence over tyranny, a hovering self-reliance trembles in the wind like an afterthought.

Something tranquil and good blossoms into the shining orange moments. Were it not for the light breeze and their mild voices, there would be the stillness of a painting, something to be admired in a warm gallery over white wine and brittle crackers.

One of the girls sets her ballpoint pen to the notebook, tracing casual ligatures. Then, triggered by nothing seen, their legs simultaneously unwind and stretch. In an instant, the position they’ve been imbibing has become cramped, too static. They get up, brush pant legs, adjust shirts. They look at their watches and amble across the street to a pizzeria.

A Ford pulls up and parks around the corner. Two college boys tumble out. They wait for cars to pass, then shuffle into the pizzeria, hands in pockets. The sun has without notice sunk, replaced by a rapid dusk light, round and dull.


Soon the young women receive diplomas, accept rings, take vows, sign insurance forms and Christmas cards, make plans to reunite, produce babies, grow rancid, accustom themselves to traffic jams, rubbernecking, clenched teeth at long red lights, bristle at stop signs, accelerate feebly home after long and crushing work days, persist through Christmas lights, Valentine flowers, holiday sweets, barbecued meat. Trips to the grocery store become routine. PTA meetings. Expected and unexpected funerals. Harried vacations. Appliances replaced. Days take on a patina of sadness. Crows feet. Epsom salts. Cancer tests. Dentist bills. Family happiness tempered by creeping disappointments.

Sometimes at midnight a suspicion haunts their minds, separated by many miles and only slightly different situations. Like a ghost it whispers, you were perfect. I watched and gathered the moment, how the angled rays beatified you for a few minutes on a May afternoon in 1984. It touched you. You didn’t notice, or forgot the sensation. Only sometimes you imagine in day dreams, the little spaces that drop into the din all too temporarily, you imagine the resting point, the glide of seconds, no maps or day timers, an open frontier, a pen doodling wisps of ink, a green stalk, a supple blade, a tether cut innocently, an eddy of moments, bracketed, embraced, then released, lost, bequeathed to a past never captured on film or memory. In front of the library, the grass, your tan legs. In that sunlight you did not need names or identities. You shimmered, you belonged there.

In the space where dreams slide away into consciousness, as if expecting a child to cry from a bedroom down the hall, the women, hundreds of miles apart, lift their heads, jerked awake, eyes blinking into the darkened room, remember who they are, where they’re from, where they’re at. They see the day in May 1984 clearly. A week before graduation. School work done. Courses passed. Books returned to the library. Nothing left to do in the notebook but doodle. They remember now, seeing themselves as someone nearby might have seen them. Why did they move away so quickly? What could have been? What might have been? They yearn for the forgetfulness that sleep brings, wet faces turning into the pillows.