The One

The one in the loft over on Greenwich Street who used to sing Brecht songs in the moonlight. The one on Horatio with the red hair and the broken nose. The one in the balcony of the Palladium. The one from Texas in the Pickwick Arms. The one from New Orleans in clown shoes. The one with the tattoo feather running down her forearm. The one with the boyfriend whose motorcycle was broken down in their bedroom. The one with the ballerina neck from Maine. The one whose mother died the year before. The one who tasted like tapioca and copper. The one whose father was drinking himself to death. The one in the bookshop. The one in the liquor store. The one in the bar. The one in the airport. The one with no window shades on Ludow. The one on her way to Block Island. The one from London. The one who died. The one who moved to Oregon. The one who opened a bookstore in Vermont. The one with gin in her raincoat. The one. The another one. Then no one. The one.

Utah Avenue, 1968

Fifty years ago I was a baby sitting in my mother's lap in south Louisville, Kentucky. Fifty years ago this day in her parents' kitchen on Utah Avenue, the apartment upstairs to the left. Half a mile from the distillery, half a mile from the L&N railroad, just a couple of blocks from Churchill Downs. Yellow and green parakeet named Peety chirping relentlessly in its cage at the kitchen window, hoping from perch to perch and honing its beak against a cuttlebone. Late afternoon, my mother bouncing me on her knee at the formica table pushed up against the wall, her mother in the kitchen doing I don't know what. She didn't smoke, she didn't drink coffee, she didn't much cook. She loved grapefruit smothered in sugar, and she used to pour a small pyramid of salt into the palm of her hand before licking it off. She was sweet, but that's all she was, and when she sat she sat like layers of bread dough one on top of the next. Her feet were cracked at the heels. April sun stretching across the courtyard, across the clothes-trees outside with the neighbors yellowing underwear and graying dishtowels, across the hoods of the saddlebroke 15-year-old Buicks and Fords parked out across the way. Across the dead yellow grass.

A scream downstairs and I jump in my mother's lap. Somewhere between sexual ecstasy and gut-shot pain, and we could hear the door slam shut in the hallways downstairs. We could hear the feet pounding up the linoleum in their raggedy slippers. The woman who lived below my grandparents since my mom was a baby, hill woman from Shelby County, woman whose husband was on some kind of primitive dialysis provided by the V.A., woman whose daughter's neck and chest were horribly scarred when she reached up and pulled a pan of boiling water down off the stove, woman who used to take my teenage mother in when my grandfather would get really bad, she came running up the linoleum stairs to us. Woman whose name I wish I could remember now. Knocked on the door. Pounded on the door.

He's dead, she cried, in a voice she couldn't control. They shot him and he's dead. She was downstairs ironing when the radio told her Dr. King was dead. Had been shot on the walkway of some rinky-dink colored Memphis motel. Had stepped outside for a cigarette when the bullet caught him in his golden throat. He's dead and I'm glad he's dead. She was almost crying now. I don't care who knows it. I hope they kill every last one of them.

What do you do? What do you do in a place like that?


True Tales of the Old West

"Remind me?"

"We were in the Plymouth your dad sold me the summer before."

"The Plymouth?"

"The Plymouth Valiant, yeah. Mustard colored Plymouth Valiant. Your dad sold it to me for three hundred bucks."

"I remember the car, all right."

"Great car. Your dad had fitted it out with bird feathers for good measure. I still had to untangle the gears manually every once in a while."

"You ended up with that car?"

"I just told you. You and I hit a cement divider going 70 miles an hour in that Valiant. And came away with a few cement shavings on the front bumper."

"We did? I don't remember that."

"Yeah, we did. Steel, cement, sparks. The whole thing. The works."

"Seems I'd remember something like that."

"We were on 17 North about two miles from the New York border. We stopped at a Hess station in Mahwah to assess the damage but there wasn't any."

"We bought that car in Chicago, right after my brother was born. Must've been 1975. We moved to Seattle in that car. Went to Little Big Horn. Went to Mt. Rushmore. We moved back East in it. That car crossed the continental divide twice. The miles we put on that thing."

"I thought we were gonna die. How do you not remember this?"

"I don't know."

"We nearly died."

"I don't know. It was a long time ago."

"The good times must've melted your brain. You gotta slow down, it's too late to die young."



Don't give me that look I know that look I'm not scared of that look anymore. The Pharisees handed it down to the Canaanites and the Canaanites handed it down to us. Your grandfather handed it down to your father on a cold Kentucky plain, stared across from the scarred maple countertop of the inherited flower shop, and he hit you smack in the middle of your frail scared young boy's chest with the butt of an axe handle, hit you like he wanted you to die. At least that was the story. I heard you cried but never had the courage to ask. He gave it to you and you gave it to her and she gave it to me. So don't give me that look. I'm not afraid of your shit anymore.

     My fist thumping against his empty chest. My little brother small and shaking and sick in the corner. My fist thumping against his empty chest thumping like a drum. Little brother sick on the floor, his eyes not meeting the mess, too scared to. Little brother shaking.

   I know you. I wish I didn't but I know you and you're dead and now she's dead and I'm not and so I guess I'll carry you. I still know you, I can still smell you, and you don't even know yourself. Believe me, I would drop/down/lose/leave/shoot/burn you in a heartbeat, if you were sweet baby Jesus himself I would leave you on the shoulder of the highway on a rainy afternoon and never look back, but I can't and you're not and so I still carry you around. But you're mine, because I'm still breathing. You're mine, and I'm yours. But don't try it on me. Don't try that look on me.

Sooner State

When he got back from France he swore he'd never leave Oklahoma again. He built a fence around his house, built another fence around that one, and never talked about where he'd been and what he'd done. He grew thinner than he'd already been. Paler. He'd been considered something of a catch before he went off, handsome young man sitting on a spread of land like that, but those days were gone. People could see the lights on in his house at all hours of the night, could hear strange animal noises echoing across the fields, but everybody knew well enough to leave well enough alone. He came into town once a week for tobacco, coffee, and nails. He'd pick up his mail at the hardware store, get his hair cut early before the Saturday afternoon crowds came in, sit in the barber chair never saying a word. This went on for the better part of a year, and everybody watched but nobody said a word. He'd gone off to Europe one man and had come back another, that was all there was to it. In early March the letters started arriving, first in ones and twos and then in torrents. Beautiful envelopes unlike anything anybody'd ever held before in that Oklahoma hardware store. Pink envelopes that smelled like lilacs, blue envelopes that smelled like the sea. Colored envelopes with exotic stamps and sent in from places with unpronounceable names. La Colle-sur-Loup. Finale Ligure. Cala Cap Roig. All addressed to him in lavender ink, all written in the same spidery female handwriting. He'd pick up his mail without saying a word, those envelopes mixed together with mail-order catalogs from the Southern States feed co-op and official-looking mail from the Veterans Administration, and if he ever noticed the increasingly baffled looks from the men behind the counter at the hardware store he gave no indication. A car rolled into town early one June morning that nobody knew and nobody recognized, the kind of car you saw in technicolor, a low red two-seater Alfa Romero that remained untouched by the dirt of the Oklahoma roads. Those that were awake to see it said it never made a sound, just slid past the barber shop and the bakery and the bar. There was a woman behind the wheel, hard to describe with the early morning sun glinting off her black plastic sunglasses and the wind against the scarf tied tight across her hair. Just slid through town knowing exactly what it was after. For three days that car was parked outside his house, gleaming in the noonday sun. Shining in the moonlight. No lights on in the house at all hours of the night. No animal sounds echoing across the fields. People made excuses just to drive past and see it, and after three days it was gone. Gone like it had never been there at all. Saturdays came and Saturdays went, and no sign of him. Still no lights in the middle of the night, still no animal sounds. The feed co-op catalogs piled up behind the hardware store counter, but no blue letters smelling like the sea and no man there to collect them. Rumors started floating around town. He'd been seen in Enid, drunk as a lord with a blonde on each arm. He'd been arrested just across the state line in Childress. He finally just lost his bearings completely, cracked like an egg. It was always bound to happen, everyone agreed. Just luck it happened before someone got seriously hurt. It was another month before they'd decided he was dead. It went from an idle comment in the barber shop to a stone fact in the space of an hour, and in another hour the Sheriff was standing in the middle of the man's empty house. His shirts still hung in the closet, his socks and underwear still rolled up in his chest of drawers. Milk turning sour in the fridge. But there was no body hanging from the rafters in the barn. No body bled out in the bathtub. No body on the kitchen floor with a shotgun at its feet. He was gone, and no note, nothing to indicate where he'd gone. We used to get stoned in the house, beer and weed and wheelies. Figured it was haunted.

Ongoing Cavalcade

     I'm not asking for anything anymore, except to keep going. You can take it or leave it, makes no difference to me. I've seen people I started out with rise to unbelievable heights, at least by the modest standards we all started out with. I've come across their faces on magazine covers in foreign airports, watched them glide across movie screens, found their poetry in books picked up at random. I've seen people I started out with crash and burn way too soon. Heroin, gunshots, cancer and car wrecks. It's been an ongoing cavalcade of burials and praise.
     The blackbirds hop from branch to branch outside my kitchen window. There are blueberries in a bowl on the table and far off in the distance an airplane leaves a vapor trail as it makes its way from London to New York. It's January and it's cold, but here's a pen and here's some paper and I suppose that's enough for now. But believe me, I'm not asking for anything anymore. Take it or leave it, makes no difference to me.


Life So Long

I used to walk five miles just to stand outside your house, every night for a year. And you never knew. This was back when we were kids, you understand. It's not like I'm like that now, not like I'd do that now. Because I'm not, I wouldn't. Believe me, I've learned my lesson. That's all in the past. But back when we were kids I used to walk to your house after dinner, from my side of town to yours. Past the Texaco, across the river, along the train tracks, through the greenhouses. To your house, standing there.
     What I ended up seeing most of the time was your grandfather, sitting in his wheelchair in the living room. I'd watch from across the street as he'd sit there spitting out pieces of his lung into a nearby plastic pail, parked alone in front of the TV. The TV was always on in your house. He'd stare at the weathermen when the news was over. He'd stare at Johnny Carson. He'd stare at old episodes of "Gunsmoke" and "Columbo." Except for the spitting he never moved, he never said a word. Nobody there for him to speak to. He was wrapped up completely in a green plaid blanket, except for his dry little feet at the bottom and his shrunken  little apple of a head at the top. His ears stuck out. His hair was matted down. His teeth were gone and his face collapsed in around his mouth.
     He'd fall asleep in his wheelchair eventually and eventually you'd come in to wheel him away, I could never see where you took him. You always left the television running. I'd wait there across the street, waiting for you to reappear, but you never did. Just an empty room with the TV running, and after a while I'd start the walk back home. You told me once that he'd been in the First World War, that he had fought in France and was some kind of hero. You told me that he always told the same stories and that all his stories were all lies. And I couldn't imagine being that old, of willing myself to live a life so long, unless you were living it with me. And you never even knew.



The uncle who married the Irish nurse in Boston. The uncle who drank himself to death after his own son died in a car. The uncle who died in the war. The uncle who took his father's job at the Feed Co-Op. The uncle who lived in Korea. The uncle the judge. The uncle the mechanic. The uncle the priest. The uncle the travel writer. The uncle the spy. The uncle who was rode out of Frankfort on a rail after flashing a negro schoolgirl. The uncle who moved to New York, got locked up in the stockades, and ended up driving a cab over on Hudson Street. The uncle who moved to New York and lasted a week. The uncle who moved to Budapest chasing a girl. The uncle who moved to Scotland chasing a girl. The uncle who moved to California chased by a girl. The uncle who still lives in Nashville with his husband. The uncle who quit drinking. The uncle who didn't. The uncle who taught you how to drive. The uncle who taught you how to shoot. The uncle who taught you how to siphon gas out from an old International Harvester. The uncle who fell off a train and died. The uncle who fell off a horse. The hands and the knuckles and the bones in the faces. The shoulders and the teeth and the blood.  Bellies and livers and lungs. The smell of coffee and cigarettes and whiskey. Trucks and the cars and pocketknives and rifles and cameras. Wristwatches. Buckshot. Birdseed and dog food. The uncle who showed you what your own father knew but couldn't show you. The uncle who shows you what his own brother can't.

Sparrow Thin

     When she died she died angry, to nobody's surprise, and when she left she left it with us. "Bad checks written that couldn't be cashed," as someone said somewhere about somebody else. I stayed up late reading her letters, listening to her messages, studying her photographs, and that anger continued to rise off of the page like a fire. Those were scores we couldn't even hope to settle, scores that were firmly in place before we even came along. We knew it, she knew it, but she couldn't stop it. Just knowing it was there wasn't enough. When she died we were just climbing down from one of those big fights we'd periodically have. One of those explosions followed by months-long silences, neither of us willing to put up with the other one's shit. Even after she died, especially so, I searched myself for any signs of remorse and came up mostly clean. Not entirely clean. It was another in a series of fights that made me grateful for the width and breadth of the ocean that separated us. She'd sent us all scattering. Her grandfather used to fly into homicidal rages, incoherent fits of absolute anger that would make him go blind and once landed him in a Gainesville prison. Her father, fueled by speed and evil design, fell into spells of total fury and violence that made her retreat to the relative calm of that same raging grandfather a smart move by comparison. So just knowing it wasn't enough. I look at myself now and I see it right there. I listen to myself now and I hear it. I smell myself now and I can smell the anger off me. I can taste it on my tongue. I can feel it through my uncut fingernails, through my badly shaven face. I can smell it off my skin. When she died she was tiny, sparrow-thin. You could see her heartbeat echoing through her chest. When she died she was tiny. All that anger coming out of a body so small.


Gregory Corso

    Gregory Corso used to come into the liquor store where I worked as a kid, way over in the northwestern hinterlands of Greenwich Village (I still have dreams about the place now, that wherever I am now or whatever I'm doing I have to drop everything and go back to work there, the age I am now, the family I have now. It strikes me as unfair, but inevitably I head back without complaint).

I was eighteen or nineteen years old, stoned and displaced college drop-out living from one couch to the next and had no idea who Gregory Corso even was, just that he had the self-possession of a king and otherwise looked like a cartoon hobo. Lower teeth missing, Beethoven hair, a donated white linen suit hanging off him like a filthy tent. He wore reading glasses around his neck on one of those strings librarians use and he was always talking, you could hear him through the plate-glass windows of the shop. He'd walk into the place walking, leave the place talking, all in a very specific and rapidly fading New York street whine. His purchases were completely unpredictable. So were his hours, and there was no recognizable correlation between the two. Some expensive Burgundy at ten o'clock in the morning, a pint of cheap behind-the-counter vodka just as we were closing for the night. Vermouth at noon, Navy Rum for dinner. Didn't matter.

     He used to get into the muttered fights with the owner's girlfriend Carole, who lived in the apartment upstairs from the shop with her crazy son Shane (a kid we had no sympathy for at the time, but who probably deserved more, a kid who collected military knives from his mysterious Times Square excursions which he was always eager to show us and who always claimed to see the ghost of his father where the rest of us just saw a deeply fucked-up future Army drop-out) Carole kept watch over the shop, its employees, and most of its customers from behind her well-worn spot behind the old National Cash Register with an explicit contemptuous suspicion that made us all - probably the owner himself more than any of us - tread especially careful around her. She hated the black customers who bought half-pints of Bacardi on their way home. She hated the red-faced Hudson Street Irish who drank Four Roses from mid-morning on. She was an angry and permanently short-changed snob who knew where she was supposed to have ended up and didn't, and she carried her resentment around herself like a cloud.

The only customers she really seemed to like were the older and deeply closeted gay men who lived in the apartments around Jackson Square, trim and timid and suited men in their 60's and 70's and whose tastes ran towards dry white wine that they paid for with crisp twenty dollar bills. She considered them gentlemen, and she would address them as "Mr." Mr. Haversham. Mr. Bennett. Mr. Jones. She had once been a San Diego beauty queen, at least that was the story, but even if that was true it was a long time before now. She was angry about where she was but she didn't have any way of getting out of it. She hated the store, hated all but those most reserved and wealthy customers, and the shop itself reminded her that she was just the fading-beauty queen middle-aged girlfriend of a liquor store owner, whose own interests ran towards his own Queens-Irish background of Cadillac fins, Sterling Hayden movies, and the novelty Jim Beam bottles that crowned the register area. He went to High School with James Caan, best looking guy he'd ever met. He was on Varsity wrestling at St. Ingatius. He loved Dion, and women were a permanent mystery. He loved Reagan and JFK. The shop had originally been his father's, a retired cop with two pensions, a couple of decades left to burn, and a cousin in Manhattan. Carole and her son were dependent on the place they had nowhere else to go, and so every evening she's shuffle down in her slippers and her mossy grey cardigan to check the register tape with an angry appetite that always ended in disappointment.

     Corso, whenever he came into the shop, would needle her incessantly. He'd give her shit about the gaudy new display for this year's Beaujolais Nouveau. He'd give her shit about the screw-top difficulties of the Alexi Vodka pints. He'd walk in telling loud stories to no one in particular about taxis and high heels and French foreign pussy while some Wall Street guy was selecting a hundred dollar bottle of wine for his sleek French bride. Stories designed to throw Carole off the delicate balance she was trying to create. He'd thrown his money on the counter and demand service as was entitled to him. Carole hated him all the more for that kind of money coming out of those kinds of clothes, Carole who'd borrowed rides all the way from California, who'd made promises she had to keep with her eyes closed. She didn't know who he was any more than we did, but she knew that he was somebody, and that he shouldn't have been, and the Wall Street guy and his sleek French bride would just have to wait.

He came into the shop steaming drunk one mid-afternoon while Carole was selling an especially rare bottle of poully fuisse to one of her gentlemen callers. We could hear him before he even came up, ranting on the sidewalk on the other side of 8th Avenue. Apparently he'd been thrown out of some boutique coffee shop just down the street for insulting that shop's wide selection of pies. Fucking Fancy Pies, he was shrieking. Fucking Cocksuckers with their Fancy Pies! Cowards! Chickenshits! Bring me the Greeks! You want pies, bring me to the Greeks. Where the fuck were the Greeks?

I wasn't there when Corso got kicked out of the shop for good after calling Carole a cunt just as her boyfriend - the owner - was passing through the shop on the way out to waxing his car. The owner threw a punch which brought the poet down through a rack of merlot. Corso left, blood running down his nose and fanned out across the front of his white linen suit,  ass of his white linen suit stained purple, screaming his outraged indignity up and down 8th Avenue. The string of his reading glasses had snapped somewhere along the way, and the glasses - themselves broken - hung lopsided around his neck like some kind of injured bird. He never came back, and I never saw him again.

I stood next to Kenny and Carole two months ago in Terminal Five at JFK, Aer Lingus to Jet Blue. They were flying someplace warm and I was flying down to Georgia for reasons of my own. It had been thirty years gone but I knew them immediately. She was riding on one of those volunteer wheelchairs, pushed by a huge black guy who looked like he really wasn't expecting a tip. Kenny was standing over a selection box of donuts, a pyramid of selection boxes. He brought her one, and after she shook her head he brought it back to its place in the pile. She was stabbing with spastic fingers at the display menu of sandwiches, her lower jaw seeming to twitch in exactly the direction the opposite direction of her words.

They didn't recognize me. I followed them for a little while. Then it was time to get back to my gate, and I had to let them go.


Cold Clear Night

     He thought he could outrun it, and for a little while he could.

     He thought he could outsmart it. Thought he could outdrink it. Thought he could outwork it. Outswim it. Outwalk it. Outeat it. Outsmoke it. Outfuck it. Outdrug it. Outshout it. Outspend it. Outpace it. Thought he could outdrive it. Thought he could outread it. Thought he could outwrite it.

     He thought he could wait it out, but in the end it couldn't wait.


South of Chattanooga

     Her uncle was a drunk, there's no nicer way to say it. Used to disappear all the time. Used to say he had to go "see a man" and disappear all the time. Wind up in some new ugly situation, jail or hospital sometimes, and her and her mother, your grandmother, his sister... they'd have to go get him. This was a regular thing whenever he was back in Louisville. She saw some interesting things for a girl that age, I can tell you. Anyway, like I said her uncle was a drunk but he had a car and he could drive and so whenever her father got really crazy and they needed to get away from him, get out of town and back down the road to St. Augustine, they called on him, were dependent on him. He had this Cadillac he was so proud of. How he got it is another story for another day.
     This was before the interstates, you have to remember. This is the early 1950s, back in the time of Route 66, and the drive down from Louisville was no joke. No straight shot down I-75 back then. No gas-station Starbucks/Hardees rest-stops along the way. No GPS. No satellite radio. This was two-lane piney-woods highways, a couple of closed up little towns and long stretches of nothing in-between. Farms. Woods. Creatures in those woods.
     Your grandfather, I don't have to tell you what he was like. He was crazy, and the older she got the crazier he got. I'm sure you can put it together yourself. I used to shy away from terms like "evil" - he was crazy and he was out of his mind on speed most of the time, but other people are crazy and other people are stoned and they don't do what he tried to do. He's be OK for a while, then he wouldn't be OK again and then she and your grandmother would head back down to St. Augustine, her uncle at the wheel of his dumb red Cadillac. I suppose she was probably around eight, maybe ten? This one time we're talking about? Eight or ten. Let that sink in for a minute.
     So your Mom and her mom and her uncle cleared Kentucky and were heading down to the Sunshine State. Highway X to Highway Y. Highway Y to Highway Z. Her uncle sweating behind the wheel of his car, her mother talking and talking and talking. Middle of the school year but that didn't matter. Knowing her she probably brought her books along. Her mom and her uncle in the front seat, her working out math problems in the back. This ride already familiar to her. Tedium and radio and cigarette smoke and sometime towards late afternoon she needs to pee. She lets them know, but there's no place to go, so just hold it for now. So she holds it and she waits and the wheels keep turning but she really needs to go and she tells them again. An again, no place to go just hold on. More miles pass and eventually she shad no choice. She tells them again and I imagine there was something in her voice that told her uncle that if he really loved that dumb red Cadillac he'd better pull over quick so he pulls over quick and out she pops. Practically flies out the back seat. Her mom gets out of the passenger side. Middle of nowhere, somewhere south of Chattanooga.
     It's getting dark, but not dark enough, and her mom, your grandmother, looks for somewhere to take her that isn't the side of the highway in plain view of her uncle and the rest of the world. She deserves that much. So she looks around as her uncle gets back behind the wheel of his Cadillac, lights himself another Chesterfield, and waits. He's pissed off, just sick of this shit. Sick of these debts he owed his sister and her angry little bitch of a kid, sick of these drives, sick of this nowhere Georgia heat. Just sick of this shit.
     Meanwhile her mom, your grandmother, spots a clump of trees about twenty yards up off the shoulder of the road, under the most primitive of fences, and the two of them pretty much run for it. She just about makes it. Her mom is close behind. When she's done and she's hitching up her underwear your grandmother has a go. Then they're finished, puddles running down into the dusty red Georgia dirt. Then they're finished, this girl and her mother, this mother and her girl. They stand there looking at each other and dizzy with relief, surrounded by trees somewhere deep in Gordon County.
     They hear the Cadillac's engine turn over while they're still standing there, and whatever smile your grandmother might have been smiling just drops. As they clear the trees, hurrying back towards the highway on the other side of the fence, they catch the sight of her uncle shifting the Cadillac into first. They're running now, but they can't catch up. Her mother cries wait and her uncle calls back out through the passenger-side window that he'll be back, that he can't wait any longer, that he's got to go see a man. And the Cadillac pulls off the shoulder and on down the road, leaving your mother and your grandmother behind. They watch it go until the road curves, then they watch it disappear.
     They walked about three hours south down that same highway until they found the next open town, and then they searched every bar in town until they finally found him. And that's a true story. That's what happened when your mom was a kid.


Vast Distances

Wake up. Make coffee. Stare out the window.

Quarter to five. No need for the alarm. Wake up. Make Coffee. Stare out the widow. Again.

Kids asleep. Wife's asleep.

Radio on. Local news and weather from thousands of miles away. Farm reports. Livestock auctions. Radio used to sound like vast empty distances. Now it sounds like wires. Up close. Too up close. Radio off.

Wake up. Make coffee. Stare out the window. Not waiting. Not thinking. Staring. Again. Still.


Three Witches

The Three Witches, she used to call them. When they weren't much more than kids themselves. Girls. Photo taken early on an Easter Sunday Morning. Easter Bonnets and sun bright against their cheeks, the three of them sitting on the front porch steps of the house in Irvine. Husbands off to war.

Before this one's husband died in Anzio. Before this one's marriage fell apart. Before this one started drinking a little earlier every day. Before her own daughter died in the fire. Before this one got a job in the church and this one started teaching school. Before this one moved to Tennessee. Before this one started to feel a little funny. Before this one got a cough that wouldn't go away.

The Three Witches, back when they weren't much more than kids.


Hospice (In Progress)

Green haired waitress with GRL POWR tattoo on her lower inside arm brings plates of eggs and grits and sausages and toast and biscuits and bacon and pancakes to the table across from me. Six or seven suntanned ropy Georgia farmers and their soft faced sons in baseball caps. Huge black women in hospital scrubs standing closer to the register waiting for their breakfasts to-go. Solitary soldier in desert camo sitting in a both by the window, drinking his orange juice and punching something into his phone. Savannah Morning News, shooting on MLK, robbery in a Walgreens on Derenne, High School football and Anne Landers.

It took forever and then it hit all at once. Backache in August, day of the eclipse. Radiation in September. Hospice in October. Phone call in October. November now. Sitting on the edge of my bed in Dublin, staring down at my bare feet, phone against my ear. Hit with a speed that caught us all out.

My sister's boyfriend Ray picks me up at the airport. I'd never met him before but I recognize him immediately. Thelonious Monk beard, leather cap, sleepy eyes and skin so dark it's hard to see what he looks like. On the drive back to the house on Althea we talk about everything, his recon tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. His weekend passes in Budapest. Why he left the army and why he would have stayed. It wasn't the event but the six months on either side of the event that finally wore him down. For every year you spend in the desert, you gotta spend 6 months before getting ready and 6 months after unpacking. We talk about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and Co-Op city where he was born. We talk about Oglethorpe and the founding of Savannah. We talk about everything but the reason we're there, and I'm grateful to him for that. She's more or less gone, he says. She's pretty much gone.

Skin jaundiced and eyes marble blue and rolled back or suddenly slammed right into focus. Front cap missing and exposing the small gray baby tooth that had never grown out. Tooth that she always hid, always hated. Feet swollen, right hand swollen. Hair grown back, hair she was always so proud of. Hair grown back after the chemo stopped. Smell of dead flowers that wasn't dead flowers. Eyes slammed right back into focus and the shock of recognition throws me back against myself, then it's gone again. Fentanyl patches and liquid Xanax and mix the Hydrocodone with apple sauce and the oxygen tank sounding like a train. You have to mix it like this. It's a tiny pill, but you need to split it into quarters. Put the quarters under her tongue. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Wooden heart brought up from Mexico and on the wall above the rented hospital bed. Hospice nurse smoking in the back yard, wooden cross and face to the sun. Spanish moss on clothes line behind her. Donuts that everybody eats and apples and oranges that nobody even looks at. Halloween and pumpkins and sister dressed as Edie Beale and somewhere off in the distance the Astros beat the Dodgers. Somewhere off in the distance some guy plows a truck into some tourists in New York. Somewhere off in the distance a guy shoots up a church in Texas.

My sister exhausted. Sister dealing with this since the get-go. Sister up until morning, then locked in her room until late afternoon. Sister not sleeping at all or otherwise sleeping all the time.

I'm a mess, she tells us. No, you're not, my Dad says. They gave you a bath this morning. Remember? They washed your hair. My mom says nothing. Eyes considering. Yeah, I am, she says.

Main thing is don't argue with her. It gets bad around seven, gets better by nine. Sunsetting, they have a term for it. Animal moaning. Begging to die. Just whatever she says don't argue. Group hug. At night they're still talking. Sister can hear them talking through the wall. At night it sounds normal. She gets confused, gets scared. The red liquid is the liquid Xanax. Up to five, up to halfway up the syringe. Just don't argue with her. Just tell her you can't, don't get into it.

Nowhere to took that doesn't shout back. Photos on every wall. Chicago, 1974. Seattle, 1979. Lexington, 1968. Rome, Paris, South Carolina. Washington Square. She's everywhere in the house. Loom set up and ready to go. Winter hat still half-knitted on the mission desk and mystery three-quarters read. Dentist's appointment written down in red pen on the kitchen calendar. Uneaten okra in the fridge. None of the books she had read in the preparation of death seemed to be much use now that it was here. "The Plague" and "The Year of Magical Thinking" and "The End of the Affair" and "Mrs. Dalloway." Books by Thomas Merton and Alan Watts. "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones." Those books suddenly seemed like a living person's idea of what a dying person needed to hear, a vanity for the living. Now we were here, she was here, and there was no vanity. Now we were here and it was a whole other thing. We tried to sing to her, we played music we thought she might want to hear. Old Paint. The Girl from Ipanema. We tried to tell her to let go, some variation of go-to-the-light, but it wasn't working. It wasn't like the movies. This wasn't like the movies at all. We were lost without a map. This thing was beyond what we knew, beyond what any of us knew. Beyond what she knew, as well.

Waking up to the sound of freight trains early every morning. Waking up from a dreamless sleep. Just a black sleep.

Mastectomy scars from ten years before. Surgery scars from when her knee blew out in San Anselmo. Five rapid breaths and then no breath at all. Wait, look, wait. Inhale. Exhale. I waited for her not to breathe, found myself hoping she wouldn't. Five more rapid breaths and then no breath at all. Sat and watched as her right hand swelled to twice its size. Watched as purple bruises the size and shape of my fingertips bloomed across her forearm. I guess by the time this is over your parents won't have any mystery left at all, my father says. He's embarrassed, apologizing. If anything the mystery keeps getting bigger.

I pick my brother up at the airport, standing in the same spot where Ray had stood waiting for me. My brother who had flown in from the Caucuses to JFK, then walked across Queens to La Guardia, then sat in a diner until his twelve o'clock flight. He comes walking up the arrivals ramp waving and smiling like any other family vacation. I can barely speak. He comes rolling up with his suitcase rolling up behind him.

Acorns hitting the carport roof like grapeshot. Squirrels attacking the birdfeeder. Spanish moss hanging off the clothesline. Hospice nurse heads out the screen door, lights another cigarette. Inside, oxygen tank inhales, exhales. Inhales, exhales. Whiskey and smoking. Everybody smoking. Whiskey and Camels and pot. Beer and sandwiches. Macaroni Salad. Potato Salad. Donuts and chicken cacciatore. More whiskey. More beer. No music and then too much music. Bob Dylan, somewhere. Linda Ronstadt, somewhere. Mama Tried. Heart Like a Wheel. The Weight. Willing. Coffee. Beer. Somebody's got to walk the dogs.

We need toilet paper. We need paper towels. We need milk. We need half and half. Is anybody hungry? Nobody's hungry. We need bread. Everybody's thirsty. There's money in the change bowl. Coffee, we need coffee. Dead Palmetto Bug trapped in the dirty dishes, floating belly up under a milk glass.

The urine bag runs from amber to purple to brown to black. That's the kidneys going, according to the hospice nurse. Her heart's beating like a jackhammer. Liver pretty much gone. She's waiting for something, according to the hospice nurse. God's not through with her yet, according to the hospice nurse. She's strong. Weren't for this she'd live to be a hundred and five.

I went to the grocery, came back, and that's how long it took. Deciding between soups, deciding between beers, and that's how long it took. Clothes in the dryer still drying. Hospice nurse came out to meet the car. Coffee, toilet paper, beer. Went to the grocery, came back, and that's how long it took. Brother and sister in the bedroom, brother holding sister and both of them staring, mom in the bed. Mom's face not fighting. Mom's face Mom's face again. Mom dead. Not resting, not passed. Maybe at peace. Eyes closed, oxygen tank off. Oxygen tubes out.

Two eggs over easy, hash browns and bacon. Two eggs over easy, sausage and grits. Two eggs over easy, pancakes, maple syrup. Two eggs over easy, whole wheat toast. Coffee, orange juice. Coffee, just the check. Coffee, thank you. Coffee, please.

She was gone within the hour, and that's how quick it was. Black suits, pink jowls, silver hair. Handshakes all around. Condolences. Will there be a church service? No, no service. That's fine. Has everyone had a chance to say their goodbyes? Yes, thank you. That's fine. We'll just take it from here. Not much more than a hospital gurney, and they're figuring out the angles of the hallway. My mom's body hidden but shape visible beneath the dark velvet blanket. Impossible not to think of who had been under that blanket before, who would be under than blanket the next day. Black Cadillac hearse pulling away from the curb, drove away slow from the front door and then sped up gradually as it turned out of view. Dad and Sister following the gurney down the path towards the street. Standing there together after the hearse pulls away. I'm watching through the Venetian blinds and nobody gets close because they know better.

Nothing I could think made me feel more stupid, more childish, more caught off-guard. When the time came, when the time hit, I was stupid beyond. Beyond stupid. It's the permanence of the thing. We kept marveling to ourselves, marveling to each other. It's the permanence of it. Gone. Just gone. Not coming back. Stupid, because we knew that. But just stupid. Because that's just that's how it works. Phone calls from Dublin. Phone calls from New York. Phone calls to Kentucky, California, Florida, New Jersey. She's everywhere in the house. Now that she's gone she's everywhere. Joan Didion on TV punching at the air with her tiny knotted fist talking about death and gold but I have nothing to say. Driving, nothing to say. Walking, nothing to say. Groceries, nothing to say. Laundry, nothing to say.

I go through her desk and she's saved everything. Every postcard, every letter, every photo of her kids and of my kids. I find a Polaroid picture of my wife and myself taken some thirty years before, taken in Ireland maybe. Taken when we were just kids ourselves. I pocket the picture and eventually close the drawer.

Eating microwave dinners over the kitchen sink, but made it back to the table eventually. Made it back to the table after a couple of days. Without her there to mediate we all just become more of who we already are. Sister leaves, needs to get away, needs to wash her hair, needs to sleep in her own bed in her own house on her own street again. Brother claims Mom's chair. Dad on the porch and smoking. Drive along 16 to the airport, fires along the highway. Processing plant off in the distance, fires there too. JFK, and fire out past the runway. Fire out past the runway on the runway home.


Spin out of Orbit

Something wasn't right. He knew that much. The old tricks weren't working and he hadn't even realized it until it was too late. He was abandoned, he had abandoned himself. He felt he was entirely to blame, if blame was the point, but he didn't think that it was anymore.

This air. This November air.

He brushed his teeth. He got dressed. He went to work. All outward signs of normalcy, of an ordinary day following ordinary day in an ordinary life in an ordinary time. He wasn't fooling anybody. He was out of step, it came off him like a smell. So this. So now this.

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Fishamble Street

He walked. He walked for hours, the city wasn't big enough for the streets he needed to walk. He looked for faces, familiar faces, her face. Her face in a crowd of faces, but he never did find it, and not seeing it he walked until he found a face he did know. He walked until he couldn't recognize his own face anymore, staring back at him in the reflection of the plate-glass windows. Butcher shop, book shop, tailor shop, pub. Butcher shop, tailor shop, shoe shop, bookies. Tailor, butcher, tailor, pub. Coffee shop, charity shop, bakery, pub. Camden Street, Fade Street, Cork Street, Butcher's Lane. Bride Street, Montague Street, Hatch street, home. Home eventually. Home at last.

He saw unbelievable things, car accidents and police investigations and a glamorous Italian couple dancing tangos on the street. He saw a beautiful woman once slap herself full-tilt across her own face, her own face as she stood there all alone. She held nothing back. She was dressed in a silk cream dress and looked like a city hall bride, with no groom to be found. Held her purse in the other hand and she slapped herself again. He got caught in flash floods and lovers' arguments and once came across a live crab no bigger than his own palm scrambling helplessly down Fishamble Street in the general direction of the river but he left it there, not knowing what else to do. He walked until his feet hurt and his brain reeled and then he sat down and then he walked some more.

He had a family, somewhere. Wasn't that right? He had a wife, he had children? He had a cold dinner waiting for him on a plate somewhere? How did it come to this? How did it ever come to this?

You'll know...

How will you know?
You'll know because you won't care anymore.

How will you know?
You'll know because all your food will taste the same.

How will you know?
You'll know from the looks they give you.

How will you know?
You'll know from the dreams that wake you up at 4:00.

How will you know?
You'll know because they'll let you know.

How will you know?
You'll know because of the smell.

How will you know?
You'll know because of the speed it takes.

How will you know?
You'll know because you won't know anything else.


Always in Love

He stared at her, not comprehending the enormity of what she had said. Still trying to figure out what just happened. She sat at an angle to him, smiling but a little wary, poised over her cinnamon bagel and strawberry jam. Black coffee and orange peel. Behind her rain against the window. The radio in French. He stared at her and suddenly he was gone. Just gone. Fallen back into a place he thought he'd forgotten.

The chess club on Thompson Street, steaming glasses of tea and opaque glances. The Ukrainian egg shop off 2nd Avenue. Postcards of Marlon Brando and Jasper Johns taped to the wall above his desk. He was young and he was always in love. Secrets traded on the fire escape outside. Endless subway journeys up and down the West Side, the 1, the 2, the 3. She was a Julliard ballerina, she told him, but she dropped out early. Grew up in Maine and mother from Minsk. Russian eyes and an impossibly long neck. She lived on a diet of apples and cigarettes and if she had asked him to go with her, he would have. He wouldn't have thought twice. If she had asked him to go with her, he would. Her kitchen. Riverside Drive, unmade bed still damp from the hours before. Tea and lemon, bare feet along the linoleum. Knife in hand. He threw it in the air, they never took their eyes from each other. He threw it in the air, didn't know where it would land.

He came back. The radio on, the rain against the window. He came back. She was still smiling, but the wariness had set in, and he knew he would never see her there again. So this. Now, this. Now her. He stared at her, uncomprehending.

Whose Face?

He sits across from me, a real-life mid-life crisis sitting in the bar where I once sat and wrote a story about a mid-life crisis, strangely enough. Back before I knew the city well enough to be prescient. Back when I was too young to know what I was talking about. The fingernail-red walls haven't changed. The unforgiving afternoon sunlight reflecting off the shop windows across the street. He stares at me and I squint back at him, we talk and we laugh and he shakes a little from the spine to the shoulders to the belly, and he tells me we're walking in the same shoes, that I just don't know it yet. He tells me I'll get there. I flinch and we laugh and I hope he's wrong. This man is not afraid of anything, won't let anything stop him on his path towards burning it all down.

So. You go to sleep one man and wake up another, you've said that already. So you become the man you never thought you'd be, and used to hold in contempt. You've said that, too. So you write in charming and opaque ways about driving West in Chevy Novas, about begging on the outside of motel room doors, about gunshots and whispers and pleas, but mostly you just patrol the limits of the farm from well inside the fence. And who would blame you? So you wake up holding shame and desire in equal balance, I suppose that's how it works. Holding shame and desire in equal balance but mostly just frozen and ridiculous at six o'clock in the morning. Suddenly. This face, whose face is this?

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