GOD'S TOYS

What if all the stores
collapsed into rubble
hauled away?
Or disappeared into the sky
like some concrete Rapture,
all the children left behind
no way to buy new toys
no need to wheedle parents?

Children look at playthings
in their homes,
broken, rusted, boring.

What for
the children of Eden
had Adam and Eve stayed,
eschewed the apple?

Skip rocks in a stream,
swing on a tree branch,
fruit wars,
count the stars,
love their pets,
outrace the four rivers.

Originally published in Mad Swirl Magazine

COSMETICS

Unexpected rain,
a misty, penetrating day,
constant damp, cloudy gray.
As our old truck pulls up with food items,
a long line of people,
many waiting since dawn for our mid-morning arrival,
cheer as we drive up.

At the last minute, we’d thrown a few boxes of cosmetics
onto the truck.

They line up in the drizzle for the food—
mac ’n’ cheese, salad dressing, canned veggies,
frozen chickens until they run out—
children do a food dance in the rain.

Rich people sometimes ask:
Do they really need the food?
We say: When was the last time you stood hours
for a box of mac 'n’ cheese?


The truck crammed with staples,
we set out the cosmetics by the tires,
a splash of beauty products—
lipstick, shampoo, mascara, body lotion, nail polish—
the boxes soaking in the rain.

The women and girls break rank,
no stress about their place in line,
as they scrabble through the bottles, tubes,
beautifying treasures
to paint the gray off their faces.

When was the last time
you knelt before lipstick?

Originally published in Spindrift Literary Magazine

PET RAT

died this morning,
barely breathing
when my wife picked him up
from his cage.

Our grandson
named him after his favorite
Cubs baseball player,
asked us to keep Rizzo
when his dad took
an out-of-town job.

She held, petted him until the end.
"He is cold," she said
through her tears.
" I want to keep him warm,"
as she swaddled him.

He passed in her arms,
a last whisker twitch.
She petted him a long time after.
"To see if he is gone."
He was.

I wondered which one of us
will keep the other
warm
when our time comes?

Originally published in Spindrift Literary Magazine

MS. LACEY

My beautiful third grade art teacher.
You flunked me for refusing to create
a Thanksgiving place mat,
but extolled me for mastering the color wheel.

Stunning, black hair, framing your white skin,
blazing red lipstick,
igniting a crush,smitten as early as eight.

You probably wed some nice guy because you told us
about some jerk you were seeing then who tried to scare the girls
by bringing a snake to the picnic blanket
and how you grabbed it, like Eve should have,
wrapped it around his neck.

You just didn’t wait for me to grow up and marry you.


Originally published in Spindrift Literary Magazine

HONEYGLOOM

          My mother was raised by alcoholics in Arkansas, then fled to an aunt’s house in Gary, Indiana, when she was old enough, or as she liked to say, “just past majority.” She had been raised in the rural south, knew nothing about men and sex, knew nothing about much of anything. Later, she related that when she got pregnant with me, she stayed up all night reading a biography of Napoleon because she had heard that your baby (she correctly assumed I would be a boy) would be influenced by what you read the night before the birth and, somehow, believed I would be born the next morning.
          Stifled in Arkansas and desperate for a job when she moved in with her aunt and uncle, she scanned the local want ads and found one for a bar waitress at a town fairly far away. I will never know why she chose that one, since she only understood the word “waitress” and definitely not the “bar” part of it.
          Raised a quasi-Catholic—the only spirits her mother influenced her with were the ones that came from a bottle—she was hired on the spot by my Jewish grandmother who, given the nature of bars, was drawn to my mother’s Lana Turner-like beauty. She gave Mom the job and put her behind the bar washing glasses, because my mother did not know a single thing about booze. Instant trauma! Couples sat on the bar stools and made out right in front of her. She told me she learned to wash glasses with her eyes closed.
          But her eyes weren’t closed when she saw my good-looking, suave father, a stark physical contrast to this willowy blonde. They were smitten. She had never had a boyfriend, only some crushes when she was a ballet dancer in Little Rock—good enough, she told me, to have a particular restaurant move the tables aside so she could dance. My father—a life-long, arch womanizer until an early heart attack took him at 51, his pre-bypass lifestyle predicting his demise as it did for so many smoking, coffee-chugging, boozing, red-meat-gorging men back then—was mesmerized. My mother’s beauty and naïveté and probably her unwillingness to be physical without marriage propelled him to propose to her in six weeks, an offer not a single part of her meek and mild character could possibly refuse.
          Having no operable religion on either side, they went to a Justice of the Peace in the nearby county seat. After a quickie marriage, they excitedly held hands as they ran down the stairs toward their honeymoon car, where, to their utter shock, they were greeted by a policeman who promptly arrested them for disturbing the peace.
          Into the picture had come my father’s uncle, Art, a rich, influential tavern owner who paid the local Mafia for protection until he refused and they shot him in cold blood, a few years after the marriage, disguising it as a robbery outside his garage. But for now, he was just the influential jokester who had a flare for arcane humor and had decided that his favorite nephew and his new bride should spend at least part of their honeymoon night in side-by-side cells instead of each other’s aching arms.
          My father was articulate, my mother in shock. I am sure my father protested vociferously and got angry—his terrible temper was eventually one of the main things that destroyed this marriage made in haste, notwithstanding the wanton adultery. But his protestations reached deaf ears, and my parents were spirited to adjacent cells.
          They expected it to be short-lived, just a quick prank by Art which would pass quickly, but, despite some cage rattling by my father and a flood of Mom’s tears, the police ignored their pleas and left them in jail. Later, that strange uncle confessed he went out of town and forgot about them, but not before he had given the police, who were his cronies, strict instructions not to release the newlyweds until he gave the word.
          Early the next day, the anxious police captain called Art and my parents were released into their marriage. The story made the front page of the local paper the following morning, the picture showing them peering out from behind bars, Dad with his jaunty hat and Mom with her beloved Mouton coat, shock still all over their faces.

Originally published in River and South Review

Red Tommy-Gun

We lived in the back of a tavern when my Dad went off to WW II, leaving my Mother to bartend and manage the place. I was able to listen and understand when my Mom gathered my brother and me around the radio shrine to hear the daily battle reports, every time wishing I could crawl through the radio, dive into the mud beside my Dad and help him wipe out those vermin. How could I destroy those Japs at 5 years old?

My Mom, though, a gentle woman who would not hurt a fly, had the best solution. She got me a gun, not store-bought. We were poor. Made it or someone did.  It was an awkward looking tommy-gun carved out of a single piece of wood, stained with smelly bright red paint, a gift and the way I could help my Dad destroy the enemy.

For months I lugged that gun around the bar room, which was fairly empty in the day- time, diving behind tables and chairs as I mowed down the Japs. Some of the afternoon customers patted me on the head as I shouted: “Take that. Take that!,” fantasizing the bulging eyes and fallen bodies I wiped out, never stopping until the bar began to fill up for the night and always sleeping with that gun instead of my teddy bear, always believing I was bringing my Dad home. 

Only years later, when I was marching and organizing against the Vietnam War did I flash back on what I did and realize that my barroom heroism was unpatriotic and had nothing to do with the death of my Dad. 

Originally published in Fewer Than 500 magazine

PARTY OFF

Why would a dark story come flying into my head at my grandson’s joyous birthday party? Suddenly sad, my mind swept back to that bleak Saturday afternoon, a cold but clear winter day.

Visiting my best friend George in his tiny house, furniture, leftovers from an unfaithful marriage, his mother abandoned with two kids and not much to make it pretty. 

I remember bare, spare. An odd-shaped table, unmatched chairs, a plastic K-mart tablecloth, bright party plates—cups and napkins embarrassing the rest of the room. And Kitty, George’s thirteen year old sister, sobbing in the corner on her mothers’ s heavy breast. 

No one came. Not one kid. The entire eighth grade class invited. Sometime later, after the four of us ate some of the too large cake, small smiles came through the tears, the repeated “Whys?” having faded away, Kitty would tell us. She had been to a few of “their” parties, always lots of kids, presents, fun, balloons, ice cream, cake, games.

She wanted one for herself, too innocent to know that class extends from birth. Too shy, she asked her teacher to pass out the invites, tried not to notice the lack of eye contact.

Wore her one pretty dress. Terribly poor, but Mom splurged on plates, cups, napkins, hats, party favors, ice cream and a huge cake, decided not to make it herself after a lot of lost sleep. Set for one o’clock. It was a bit past two when George and I arrived, heard the sobs, beat a quick path to his room to shut our ears.

Finally, a knock on George’s door. 

Mrs: “Boys, come out to the party. Your sister wants to share her cake.”

We came right out, Mrs. putting a party hat on each of our heads without asking, the same ones she and Kitty had already donned. The cake and ice cream were already served before us, each plate with a red plastic fork. 

We ate; it was good. Made small talk. You can’t remember small talk. We did not sing. 

As I stood at my grandson’s party, even as memory fades, I realized that all these years I had never thought about why it happened. Then, I was only old enough to feel sad. 

Was it the poverty, the house, the wrong-side-of-the-tracks neighborhood, that Kitty was not pretty, had acne, was overweight, sweat stains, even then, under her party dress arms?

Now I am able to reflect, surmise in my old, retirement, comfortable age, snap back to my own festivities—middle-class children, plates, cups, napkins, hats, favors, pizza, cake, ice cream, games, lots of presents.

Originally published in Adelaide Literary Magazine

SHAVING


I shave every day
even when I don't want to. 

My father went to a barber for his shave,
towed me along.
Many of his friends clustered
at this social club. 
Haircut and a shave,
the hot towel brazed his face,
steam mingled with acrid cigar smoke. 
Bantered with the barber, other men—
politics, the unions, the Cubs.
The strop, strop, strop of the sharp razor.
Watched closely,
I was scared of a cut. 
Eyes averted the pin-up calendars
decorating the wall space
no woman ever entered. 
 
Afterwards outside, 
the pop, pop, pop
of the shoeshine’s 
white rag.

Originally published in the Pangolin Review

EXHILARATION

That summer, a newly licensed teen
eager to drive anytime,
my Step-Mother remembered
what she forgot at the store,
a green pepper, sour cream.

Sometimes, on purpose,
I forgot some of her items,
anxious to drive back
when she beckoned,
handed over the shiny keys.

Years later, my wife and I retired,
after we drive together
on our little shopping trips,
she forgets more and more,
sends me back,
a green pepper, sour cream.
I am delighted to drive.

Originally published in Rue Scribe/Underwood

RISING

Early in the morning
your mind a carousel
riding thoughts, memories
up, down,
round and round
on, off, 
giraffes, unicorns, lambs
or
gargoyles, serpents, dragons
you must choose
hang on tight
face the day. 

Originally published in Rue Scribe/Underwood

LEAVE-TAKING

Does the mother bird rue
when her fledgling leaves the nest,
drop the worm while the
father squawks and squawks,
soothes her ruffled feathers?

We humans though scratch and claw 
when one of ours moves far away
sad over 
the very reason
we raised them.

“But I am not a bird,”
my wife cries, 
as she nests in my arms. 

Originally published in Rue Scribe/Underwood

BIRTH



an egg of pain
fingers flutter atop
   sway and fro
what can break the pain?
   song snaps glass
   a song can…
   shell crack
   struggle out
                      love
flex wings
                      sing

Originally published in Mad Swirl

FOOL ON THE HILL


Whooping, laughter-screaming, silly young boys
sprint from the lunchroom toward a hill
launch their bodies aloft
roll, roll, roll into hysterics at the bottom,
jump up and do it again
despite the threats to take away their pilots’ licenses. 

I thought this.

Fling off my suit coat, rip off my tie,
kick off my shoes (not my argyle socks),
roll down the hill, mirth abounding,
tattoo dark green grass stains on my dress trousers,
as the sun smiles
and the clouds scoff
at my wanton foolishness.

But I didn’t.

Originally published in Ariel Chart

BLUE LOVE


A tribute.

On his first day of college,
he held his tray in a crowded cafeteria,
eyed the room for a safe spot.
Ah, an open seat, three coeds
and one other guy,
strangers to each other
so he fit in.
He sat down with the guy on one side,
a slim blonde girl on the other.
His eyes focused on his tray,
on his uninteresting food,
which he began to pick at,
finally glanced next to him into the eyes of the blonde,
the beautiful, sparkling blue eyes
that chose to gaze in his for forty years.

More than beauty,
a startling painter,
a teacher of craft, 
specialized in blue
as if her blue eyes were her palette, 
indigo, azure, turquoise, cobalt, robin’s egg…
sad and happy blue, 
world-wide galleries. 
No blue marriage though,
twins, world trips to historic forests, 
hearts knotted.

Years later, as the disease slowly
discolors her mind,
he holds her frail hand,
looks into her eyes,
the blue replaced by a cloud of gray,
no spark, not even an ember.
Finally, he releases the hand 
too weak to grasp back
rises
shuffles down the hall of the Unit,
his broken heart 
more full of love 
than it was at that table
long ago.  

Originally published in Ariel Chart

SHEEPSHEAD IN EARNEST

In Florida on vacation, 
our kids pranced on an old pier,
fishing poles in hand.
“Maybe we’ll snag some Whiting!

None of us caught anything.
We tried up and down the pier
in all the deepest parts, 
never the shallow end.

Came a hearty, old man, faded overalls,
a once white, dirty t-shirt,
long, silver, greasy hair,
a big burlap bag over his shoulder.

The old man went straight to the first pylon, 
poured out some fish bait
from the bag he placed on the pier,
pulled out a rope with a hook on the end.

Below, crystal clear water.
Stuck a piece of fish on the hook,
dropped the rope down 
the side of the pylon.

Snap, an immediate lurch.
Dragged up a big, beautiful
black and white striped fish,
wiggled as he threw it in the bag.

Another piece of bait on the hook,
another huge fish lashing the pole,
into the bag, into the bag,
fish after flopping fish. 

Everyone stopped fishing. 
Someone whispered: 
“Look at that!”
“What kind of fish is that?”

Only one among us knew
about the strange fish. 
“Them’s sheepsheads.
Good eatin’.”

Into the bag, 
into the bag, 
as if he were alone,
the old man did not look at us.

He only saw the fish
and the expanding bag,
flopping around on the pier
beside his holey shoes.

He stopped,
his bait gone, 
swung the wriggling,
bulging bag onto his old shoulders.

A Hemingway look-alike,
conqueror of the sea, 
he strode away,
an old man headed for a sale.

Originally published in Ariel Chart

AFTER DEATH

Don't tell me 
my dog’s not 
in Heaven.

It doesn't mean crap
if you think there’s a Heaven or not
and if we can't know for ourselves
how can you know for my dog,
who loved me more 
than any human ever did,
showed me in a million ways,
always wanting to walk, play,
lay by me when I was sick,
not eat till I was well, 
bark every bogeyman,
possum or garbage truck away,
eyes on my every move  
till death did us part. 

What a special man 
I was to her.
I loved her,
walked her, 
mapped our neighborhood,
played with her,
threw uncounted sticks,
scuffled her floppy ears, 
every sniffle to the vet.
I was dog’s best friend.

We gave each other more comfort
than even Heaven could. 

If lots of people
conjure or assume
some kind of afterlife
for humans,
angels, harps, gold streets,
virgins sucking down grapes,
a smothering Oversoul,
one God, many,
don't tell me Lola
is not there, 
damn it. 

Rollicks in those green fields,
romps with other animals,
chases down those sticks,  
inexhaustible as my love.

She is.

Originally published in Ariel Chart

DRUMMER'S BLEAT

Your wife called me

                                        your father
who also smoked
in his young stupid days
because movie stars and cowboys did
and his parents said it was bad 
but smoked constantly in front of him--
    
                                      sobbing

about your lung cancer diagnosis
because your 52 year old self
is curled up on their couch
refusing to talk to anyone

                                       including

your two sons, the engineer and the artist
who never smoked for some glorious reason
even though most nicotine-raised children almost always do

                                        living 

in other towns
they begged you
not to smoke for years and gave up
because you would not
                                        listen

or read the letter we wrote
begging you to quit
because we had seen the ones 
before who did not
                                         listen

die in such dirty, x-ray screaming,
gasping, choking ways
made their inevitable demise
worse than it would have been

                                       but now
what can we do
except commiserate with someone we love
cannot turn the clock back one second 
because time is all you have
and all you ever had 
and it is going to be shorter and worse 
by far than it would have been

                                 recalling

what your best friend in your band, 
the best drummer in town,
just before he died

                                  lamented

a story we often told you: 

It is my fault. It is all my fault.
I did this to myself. 

Originally published in Ariel Chart

Worms

I saw a picture of a small,
refugee girl in Bangladesh,
her eyes wide and frightened
as she peeks from under her mother’s arm
in the tent where they live.
My children think tents are fun when we camp.

When I go fishing,
we buy worms,
but never use all of them.
When the day is over,
I think of the fish we caught.
They stare at me from the creel.
Usually we say:
“We’ll leave after the next one.”
One last unlucky fish.

I plunge my fingers
into the wriggling mass,
pick up a tragic worm,
writhing as I stick in the hook.
I tell it I am sorry
just like I tell the fish.

When I get home, I dump
the rest of the worms
into my flower garden,
tell them they are the lucky ones.

I think of the girl as I pick up
that last worm.
Tangled mass of bodies
in the ever mud.
She is unlucky like the worm.
I wish I could fly her to my garden.

Originally published in Terror House Magazine