Memorial Day

I watch my neighbor back out of his driveway.
He told me he is going to his brother’s grave
to honor a fallen hero,
place flowers or a wreath
his wife and kids in tow,
a visit before a picnic and water-skiing.

I did not lose anyone in a war.
I have no death to remember.
My Dad survived the Merchant Marines.
Once he broke a man’s arm who tried to jump him.
My Step-Dad (Pork Chop Hill) and Father-in-Law (Battle of the Bulge)
fought in horrors they would never share.
My Sister-in-Law’s dad medaled in PTSD
before there was a name for it,
head in his hands in the dark,
sitting alone depressed for hours before he died young.

When Memorial Day comes, I ignore it,
avoid the flags, parades, sonorous music,
pierced by the sound of TAPS,
no picnics or water-skiing or golf,
perhaps cut the lawn.

No one I know died in a war.
Maybe that is why I want a different memorial on this day.
Maybe that is why I see the irony,
remembering what never should have happened.
Instead, my heart breaks when I see the rows and rows,
white boxes lined up in Heaven.

Reminds me of what war truly is
and why it is seldom honorable
but a sacrifice made to some unrelenting god
like the animal sacrifices of old,
striving to appease, never ending.

I know I am not supposed to feel that way,
believe instead that our freedom was won,
cling to the Truth like a flag clutched at the graveside,
guns saluting, honor saved.
I know better.

My neighbor cannot know what I believe.
I cannot ever mention it to him.
His brother died, not mine.

Originally published in The Literary Nest 

Fear at My Doorstep

Today I came up to my front door,
Fear lying on the stoop.

He just lay there looking up,
eyes staring at me.

He changed every time I blinked
to make him go away,

which he didn’t, making me
more frantic because I had ice cream

in my grocery bag that would melt
if I didn’t put it in the freezer.

He was a shape shifter
He looked like a worried line

on the brow of my checkbook,
like my oldest daughter

warbling her songs in California
without health insurance,

like my husband’s coming stress test,
wires strung all over the stoop

like clogged arteries,
easy to trip over.

Fear wouldn’t get out of the way,
just lay there shifting.

This might have gone on forever,
the ice cream soaking the bag.

But I stepped over him,
went into the house

shut the door hard on him.
Put down the grocery bags,

the ice cream in the freezer.
Looked at the kitchen clock

saw that it was time
to pick up my grandson from school,

his single-dad father
working late again.

I thought of escaping out the back door,
but went out the front.

Stepped over Fear
and went right on my way.

Originally published in The Literary Nest

Trumpelstiltskin

You can trap the hearts of
American democracy
in your narcissistic web of lies,
pitch them into a dungeon of untruth,
command they bow to you,
demand they turn gold into straw.

You can love your own voice,
bathe in your own glee,
sing in your tub
as you scrub your hairy soul
till all those who worship you
are raw.

Rumpelstiltskin needn’t crow his name,
dancing before that fire.
But, like you, he had no self-control.
He warbled; you twitter
and your song of ego
will reveal your name.

We hurl every name at you
to change your heart.
We plead for all human rights,
but only the Right you know
is concocted in your rancid stew.
And we will know your name.

In the dark forest of your life,
brag before the fire,
stomp until you split in half
like that evil troll of old.
It will be the vanishing of you.
And we will know your name.

Originally published on I Am Not A Silent Poet

The Girl: Minimum Rage

The girl stands at a train station,
a campaign whistle stop,
the crowd surrounding for the FDR speech,
waves of hope lapping as if they are standing
near a shore.

The President! FDR!
Initials like a rock they throw their arms around
because they were all drowning in 1938,
the weather that day, Depression.
Standing beside him, his sharp-eyed wife.
They say she knows about the girls.
In the night Eleanor feeds his fertile mind,
tells him over and over
about the poor
about a New Deal. 

The girl has a note,
five scrawled words:
“Can you help the girls?”
She knows, not just any girls, 
but the name for the ones who
clean every spot, spill, vomit, shit
that the rich of the world ever make,
who get paid $4 a week
so that the ends don’t even know where to meet.

She lunges forward through the swell of the crowd,
the note stuck out before her, 
waving in her hand above her head.
like fighting to get the attention of the life guard
when you are drowning. 

Close to the shore, a policeman stops her,
shoves her back violently.
As if she were drowning, she shouts: “Help! Help!”
frantic arms waving before she goes under. 

They notice an eddy in the waves.

Eleanor demands, her spouse beckons, 
the policeman relents--
lets the girl through like the sea has parted. 
In a clenched fist,
she shoves the note skyward
toward the caboose.  

Five simple words: 
“Can you help the girls?”
Can you give us decent wages?
I am legion and I make four dollars a week.
Outrageous.

Eleanor and FDR agree.
Twenty-five cents an hour,
triples her weekly, 
changes history forever.

The girl swims back into the crowd,
butterfly strokes as she heads into
the storm of her history,
heard from no more. 

Seattle: Minimum wage: $15.00 now.
Will  be everywhere one day, maybe more.

Praise to the rage of the girl.

Originally published in Quail Bell Magazine

PHONE DAUGHTER


My daughter moved out West,
travels in one of those bands,
the van criss-crossing our country,
leaves dreams like bread crumbs
clawing her way through
brutal, unforgiving woods.
No sight-seeing,
no Grand Canyon, Yellow Stone,
Mammoth Caves, Carlsbad,
but the insides of clubs,
names like racehorses:
Slinky Jim’s,
Nub Buster,
Dark Flamingo,
Carousel.

We visit on the phone a lot,
retired Father and traveling daughter,
music for a soul,
talk for hours, traversing the nation and our lives,
sharing memories and motel info,
what she ate, how did the show go,
how did merch sell?
Will your tour come our way? 

I commiserate with a father,
standing at the edge of his farm
in Missouri
gazing into the horizon
after his daughter and her covered wagon, 
headed West to somewhere, 
husband, beginning brood of kids,  
gear to survive,
no phone, 
and no words. 
 

Originally published in Spindrift

EVE TO THE SERPENT

If you were not so beautiful,
large black eyes
peering down the cleavage of my soul,
tongue fire flicker of lust.

If you didn’t have melting checkerboard skin,
good twisted into evil, clever
able to lie like water quenching thirst,
offer tasty knowledge in a red, round, plump globe.

If you didn’t let me touch,
turn my fingers into loud salve
drowning out the voice in my head:
The warning. The warning. 
If instead you were cuddly,
I could hold you at my bosom
like a Teddy serpent.If you were tiny, shriveled,
not long like a man’s part.
  
Slow too, slithering down the tree like sap,
not slick, shiny-fanged. 

Or even oblong, clunky, some sort of structure
cobbled together by my-yet-to-be-born son.

And hissless, a giraffe voice or ass’s laryngitic bray.

Suppose you were not the Satan.

Then I would have laughed at you
and we would still be in the Garden
not in the burnt out vacant lot
the world is becoming.
 

Originally published in Spindrift

Prevarication

 

Once I heard about an incessant talker who never stopped spewing words until someone told him that we all have a word quota and that he had nearly used his up and that frightened him and he immediately went into a deep silence until he was lying on his death bed and that same woman, now decrepit, told him that it wasn’t true and, on hearing this from her, rose up on one feeble elbow, glared at her and whispered—Good-bye—with as much venom as he could muster and died right into her smile.

Originally published in The Drabble

Insecurity

Old, retired now. 
One errand today—extra-large eggs
at the Co-op. 

It is cold outside. 
My car is warm. 
I have a full tank of gas. 

Sometimes, driving, 
I see black wings
flapping between
bare winter branches.

Originally published in Right Hand Pointing

MEMENTOS

Grandmothers, now gone.
One moneyed, one poor.
Both rich in granddaughter.
One gifted a Grandmother-of-Pearl ring,
the other a practical lip balm tin
among other small items.

The daughter turns from the mirror to her mother. 
“I wear the ring all the time.
I use the lip balm once a year, 
on her birthday. 
I hope she knows I want it to last forever.”

Originally published in The Vehicle

 A MOMENT OF SILENCE

Today they called for a moment of silence.
After violence, a moment of silence.
No one ever killed in a moment of silence.
No bombings or shots in a moment of silence.
Hold a moment of silence
For the rest of time. 

Originally published in Gyroscope Review 

Spiderman

I only remember two names from First Grade. No other kids, not even my teacher. I even forgot the name of my second grade teacher who told my Mom I was a genius. Third grade was sharp-tongued Mrs. Schrum. No one could ever forget Schrum because her dad owned the local pickle factory, the largest employer in our small area.

I do remember Don Fancher, the class bully, and Bonnie Bowie, the dark-haired class belle who was my first girlfriend, standing in for Margret O’ Brien and Shirley Temple.

How curious it is that children often, at an early age, begin to act out what they will become.  In high school, Fancher would roam the boys’ locker room like a prowling lion, threatening with his elastic belt to snap the naked rear of any boy who would not give him pocket change. Bonnie was a petite beauty who perhaps predicted the diminutive young lady who became my wife years later, a brunette at the beginning and a brunette for life.

Don, Bonnie and I were standing at the swing sets at recess. Once I had spouted off I was not afraid of spiders. Why I bragged about bravery toward arachnids I will never know. Perhaps it was to impress Bonnie as so many tried to do because she was the princess of the class. And she really seemed to like me, once pecking me on the cheek without warning. Don saw this and fumed as he was an awkward boy, ungainly, gruff and insecure like many nascent bullies.

He had heard of my bragging so one bright Spring day he approached Bonnie and me  by the swings, holding a stick, not to threaten me this time, but to transport a fierce looking black and yellow crawler with the harmless name of Garden Spider that terrified us all whenever we saw its sometimes throbbing web.

“Fein,” he barked at me. “Heard you’re not afraid of spiders!”
My breath fled. I remember the quizzical look on Bonnie’s face, her black button eyes gleaming, wanting to see what the bully was up to for he had challenged me in various ways whenever Bonnie was present, trying, like Bluto, to steal Olive away.

At the end of the stick was a huge black and yellow Garden Spider. It probably wasn’t that big but it seemed like a tarantula to me as even decades later I can transport myself back to that scene.

“Yeah, why?,” I snapped back, pushing my courage ahead of my abject fear, for I was deathly afraid of spiders.

“Yeah, why?,” instantly understanding what he had in mind.

“Okay, Fein, I heard you say you were not afraid of spiders. So let’s see. Let my buddy here crawl down your arm if you’re not afraid.”

To be tested at six years old! My entire reputation, a word I barely understood, flashed before me. Refuse and Bonnie would never look at me the same, the bully squashing me like the bug I was as I was indeed the smallest kid in the class, other than Bonnie, both of us the opposite of Big Don.

I had no choice. I stuck out my arm and Fancher nudged the spider on to the top of it. It just sat there a bit, checking out its new scene, no way in a hurry, unable to hear my pounding heart.

Every other part of my being froze, but I tried to look brave. My eyes focused on the top of the swings. I never looked at Don or Bonnie. The recess crowd collapsed around us.

Finally, eight black legs, the yellow shining in the sun, sprinted (hooray!) down my arm to my wrist where I quickly flicked the spider off.  A couple of girls screamed.

It felt great to be a hero, to stand tall before Bonnie, to forecast years later that I would be the one who strode into the principal’s office in high school with the courage to turn in Fancher for his bullying in gym class, which caused him to be suspended from school.

Bonnie moved away.  I am sure she does not remember the spider or me, nor does Don. Whatever heroism I demonstrated in life—no more or less a hero than most of us who navigate our average lives—I will remember the black and gold monster that liberated me.

Originally published in The Write Place At The Write Time

Autumn Dread

Autumn the mask of death
I hate those riotous colors

defaces the green leaf
struggles to peek through

shows its disfigured face
knows it will soon be gone

celebrates that dark rainbow
yellow orange red brown

wraps its arcs around
pretends to be summer

an unexpected rainstorm
at the picnic of our lives

blows fiercely into
the icy fingers of winter

grips the season’s throat
doesn’t let go until

every bit of green and sun
warmth choked out

Summer a limp body
our arms can’t hold

Demeter weeps
glares into the distance

Hades steals her daughter again

Published in Spank The Carp

Primary Colors



If you got it right, 
your children are primary colors, 
blue, red, yellow, mine.

You don’t color
the sun blue,
the ocean red,
blood yellow.
That goads, nettles Nature,
angers that Mother. 

They leave and come home, leave and come home.
Blue joys. 
Red hurts.
Yellow needs.
Blue hurts.
Red needs. 
Yellow joys.
Blue needs.
Red joys.
Yellow hurts. 


You set up the canvas before you.
You paint the sun yellow,
the ocean blue,
blood red. 
As you age,
primary.

Published in Imbibe Urbana

Jest

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.

Published in Imbibe Urbana

Blowing Straws

At Walgreen’s soda fountain
when Mom worked there,
so much fun!
In a booth, 
we ripped open the paper,
slid it down the straw,
just past half-way,
how far was key.
Accordioned the paper, 
blew hard,
sent the missile into
our laughing faces,
my brother and me.
Mom taught us
like a little kid.
What other Mom somersaulted?
Barefoot belle.  
Mom blew hard
giggled, laughed,
her Lana Turner eyes flashing.
Direct hit to the nose!
Before the divorce
sometimes Dad showed up. 
No! No blowing! No!

Published in Imbibe Urbana

Mrs. S______

Why would I not include her last name in the title? She can’t be on this Earth anymore, as I am tipping toward 80 and Mrs. S_____ had to be in her thirties when I was the star and the goat in our 8th grade history class. I really have no idea how old she was because kids at that age think everyone who has a job is an old person.

Mrs. S_____ was a student’s terror. Through all of seventh grade, when the subject of teachers came up, which it did back then when there wasn’t social media to inhibit conversation, when kids talked to each other and the lunchroom was the Internet, every student agreed on one prayer: Please don’t let me get Mrs. S_____ next year!

But I did and, even though I expressed the obligatory woe is me to everyone who asked, secretly I liked the challenge and challenge it was. She was formidable. She expected you to actually read the material and do your homework. No student in his right mind would ever consider cutting corners. Because Mrs. S_____ did what every student dreaded: She called on you! And she did not just call on you. She expected you to have the right answer or, more importantly, show that you had engaged the material. If you had not, she would know and her tongue became acid that would sizzle your ego smaller than an eighth grader could ever imagine. No kid wanted be unable to answer and pleading ignorance was like saying you didn’t know how to tie your shoes.

I can’t remember much about what we studied,—probably just the standard American history text— but I do remember that I liked her class though I am sure I complained volubly about how bad it was, how mean she was, so I could stay in good standing with my peers. Later, I was to become a history major in college and teach social studies much of my teaching life. How much did Mrs. S_____ influence that? Who knows? But I know she certainly kindled my life long fascination with history.

Despite all the learning that I did and the knowledge that she considered me one of her better students as manifested by her positive remarks on my papers and tests, two incidents stand out that had nothing to do with history and why, after over sixty years, I decided to write about Mrs. S_____.

The first was when I was thrown out of class. Was it because I failed to answer correctly or, on one particular day, wasn’t prepared? No, that never happened. This formidable teacher didn’t throw you out of class if you did not respond the way she expected. That would have been a blessing. No, instead, her tongue became a knife, eviscerating whatever soul an eighth grader possessed. “Do you want to flunk out of high school?” “Do your parents want you to work on a garbage truck (boys) or in a beauty parlor?” (girls) were a couple of the challenges she threw at culprits because, back then, teachers could get away with saying just about anything and it was virtually sacrosanct. Students had no rights and were lucky to be allowed to breathe in certain situations. And, for parents, if the teacher said it, it was the law even though most of the kids in our blue-collar area would never go to college and a lot would wind up on trucks or fixing people’s hair.

No, one day she asked for suggestions for class colors and, somewhat of a class clown in every other class I had, that jack-in-the-box jumped out of me and I ventured “Black and Blue”, which caused a big laugh from the class and a quick and stern: “Mr. F_____, you may go to the office.”

But I know she liked me, this big-bosomed woman, who was like a mother hen because she really did care about her students and their future and loved history with a passion. And, truth be told, when she had a student, frankly like me, in whom she saw some real potential, saw that they actually might go to college, actually did love history, she was even harder on you, but, also made you her pet in a lot of small ways. One demonstration of that was the most embarrassing event in all my time with Mrs. S_____ , perhaps in all the time I have spent on the Earth.

How many teachers do we have over the years? And how many from back then do we even recall? Not many. Think back yourself. How many?

This is mainly why I remembered Mrs. S_____ after all these years. Not because of the academic gauntlet she put me through and not because she threw me out of class for my quip. No, I most recall Mrs. S_____ because she danced with me.

In that world so long ago, the powers that be used gym class for a variety of things, not just sports. There was some mild sex education, but somehow we got instructed in that without that three-letter word being used much. And I remember too—it seems so strange now—doing a class garden in the Spring. But, mainly, I remember when we were introduced to ballroom dancing, which perhaps is more of a death sentence than public speaking.

And who should be the one doing the instructing? None other than Mrs. S_____.  I will never know why she was the one to introduce us to the one activity none of us wanted to learn. I cannot recall if we had P.E. teachers back then or if various teachers were just assigned occasionally to do that duty as part of their job. But, for whatever reason, Mrs. S_____ was picked, or, I suspect, decided to teach us the Foxtrot as an intro to ballroom dancing, something she assured our frightened faces, we would be very glad to have learned when we were a bit older, having no idea that Chubby Checker and rock and roll would wipe out that era in a short while.

We gathered in the gym, sitting in chairs around the room, the girls in half the chairs on one side and the boys on the other. Mrs. S_____ was in the middle. She was not a dancer type at all. She was not lithe and agile, but a large woman who one would never think would be the one assigned to teach ballroom dancing.

None of that mattered as we tried to sink through the back of our chairs while Mrs. S_____ first verbally explained the Foxtrot technique and then, without a partner, encircled her arms around an imaginary dancer and demonstrated the steps several times in front of our terrified eyes.

We all knew what was coming. Our friends who has graduated last year had told us: “She is going to pick one of you to show how to do the steps—and it won’t be a girl!”

Some poor boy would be the victim of her lesson.

You guessed it. I did not have a chance. I was kind of the class clown, was one of her better students, and was quite small and easy to drag around the dance floor and be held imprisoned in her large bosom while she stopped occasionally to explain each step. While I hung with her large arm around my neck, she began to move, dragging me more than dancing as we proceeded, sometimes, I do remember, leaving the ground as she twirled me around.

I do not know how long the lesson lasted. Eternity can last for a very short time. I am sure no another student made a peep. There were no smirks or titters as she cavorted with me. Not a single other student wanted to be noticed in case she decided to switch from me to someone else. She did not.

I cannot remember the depth of my humiliation. All I know is that I must have swallowed my soul, but, in reflecting back on this unforgettable scene, I can distinctly recall one curious thing. It was not the dance or being squeezed or having a red face or looking into the saucer-sized eyes of my horrified classmates that is stark for me. It was how Mrs. S_____ smelled. She smelled like pepper.

And that was my main struggle back then in that old gym. As Mrs. S_____ pressed me to her bosom, she smelled of pepper, though it is hard to believe that any perfume would smell like that. Maybe it was her sweat revealing that she used a lot of that spice. But those are just guesses now and who would even know or care? All I do know is that my main struggle in that archetypal humiliation was to keep myself from sneezing. I did not sneeze, but just allowed myself to be a dutiful rag doll or puppet or whatever you want to call me as she jerked and twirled my slight frame around the floor.

I do not remember the aftermath. I surely must have gotten some sympathy from my relieved class mates who were so glad I had been the guinea pig and not them. I know there were other ballroom classes with Mrs. S_____ and certainly other students were chosen to demonstrate and I know, because I would have remembered for sure, I was not chosen again.

And I can remember why I recalled it so graphically over sixty years later, for, in old age, the past exists far more past in our minds than future as we tend to look backwards, whether we like it or not and avoid, as much as possible, thinking about the scary future.

I was at the dinner table with my four-year old grandson and he picked up the pepper shaker, sniffed it, and sneezed into his food. Like a specter off his plate, the memory of Mrs. S______ rose up and the rest is history.

Published in Spillwords Press

Laureate

I suspect no one knows
I am the poet laureate
of my street. 
I declare myself him,
but—who knows!, 
might there be a budding
Frost or Williams or Kooser
on my same block?
( I would never think of one block over.)
Should I call a competition?
Go door to door?
Perhaps put a scroll of poems
in each mailbox, declaring...
Ah, I fear,
an aesthetic instinct,
the time is probably not ripe.
When it is, I will strike. 
I have no fear
just as I have no rhymes,
free verse my thoroughfare.
Beware!

Published in 500 Miles Magazine