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

Our Ancestor Sir James

Always proud of our family,
Mom sought ways to make us special.
Regaled us about Sir James of our lineage.
Preserved a news clipping about this legend.

She’d squint her eyes and say:
Made the English Navy the greatest in the world,
ruler of the seven seas.
Maybe greater than Sir Francis.
Darn history books couldn’t figure that out.

Scurvy, lack of vitamin C, made you weak,
bleeding gums, pain in your limbs, even death.
If a sailor with scurvy fought
against a sailor who didn’t, no chance.
A scurvied crew could languish a ship,
make it into prey, lose the battle.

Our Lancaster ancestor, Sir James
was the smart one,
just like you kids,
and your poor passed Father.
He brought lemons and limes
on board in barrels.
The English sailors, called limeys,
sucked them,
other nations didn’t know any better.
Made England the mistress of the high seas.

We never knew if it was apocryphal.
I kept the clipping in my wallet
until it got washed in the laundry.

Sir James faded, but his memory lives on.
Lemon wedges in my water,
lime twisting in my gin.

Originally published in Terror House Magazine

THE HELPER

At my in-laws reunion 
we lounge in Paradise,
the Pacific a blue shawl tossed over the shoulders
of a mansion surveying 
endless clouds, sunbathers, yachts. 
We eat, drink, laugh, hug.  

One of the children
who flit around the patio
like multi-colored butterflies,
spills something dark 
on one of the pristine, white stones,
hand-cut patio slab.
                      
Their hired Latina helper, 
an aged lady, 
ignores the party around her,
quickly slips from the shadows, 
falls on her knees,
slaves hard to restore 
purity to that stone,
scrubs and scrubs.

It won't come off, 
There is
lots of stepping around her.  

Originally published in Courtship of Winds

O, LITTLE CHRISTMAS TREE

It just happened. We didn’t talk about it before in our old age. We had gone to the same lot for years after our increased salaries had allowed us to abandon the fake Christmas tree with the green toilet brushes we stuck in a wooden trunk that smelled like nothing and get instead the sweet smelling pines filling our tiny living room. We are thankful that our dear children experienced those live trees through most of their lives into adult hood when they now cut down their own trees every year and never have the toilet brushes themselves.
 
Without speaking, we chose a smaller tree. The kids want Christmas at their houses now.
 
“Mom, Dad, you have blessed us all these years. Now it is our turn to bless you.”

So much is diminishing these days, years. As we decorated our little tree, we had to decide which ornaments to hang, which to leave in boxes instead of festooning the tree, loading it down with all the memories, what the kids made in school, the first ornament of our marriage, two gold metal figures kissing, the ornaments from events, Little League and figure skating, and vacations, Maine and Disney, too many to remember.
 
The angel remains, the one put a top our first fake tree with the color-coded instructions. She remains and looks down and out as always and wonders—Does she wonder?—why, like us, she is so much closer to the ground. 


Originally published in Quail Bell Magazine

THE DRILL

No wailing siren.
No in-school A-bomb drill.
No duck and cover.
Just a zinc-oxided old guy trying
to sit down on a beach blanket.
Tuck-n-roll.
Safe landing.
Crawling, worm-inching
toward a bright green
beach towel pillow
to rest his head.
Still no peace in the world.
Peace in his world.

Originally published in Former People 

BLACK LAMB

Right after I was born my Father and Mother
adopted a pet black lamb
and brought it up the rickety stairs
to their second story apartment
so they told me
and it played with me through my toddling
until it got bigger and butted everything
and broke a lamp and butted me
which is why
so they told me
they sent it to a farm
for shearing and death.

They never told me that my Father
was the black sheep of our family,
tupped my Mother,
sheared her heart,
did that to his next wife
and his next wife.

I found out about his betrayal,
decided to be the white sheep,
be faithful to my wife,
not bring a strange pet
into our marriage
so I didn’t have to
hide anything
from my children,
butt them
in their hearts.

Originally published in Former People

BROOKLYN SCENE

An ancient man shuffles towards me
as I walk down a dark Brooklyn street
past an old park
where trees can’t be woken
by the stare of streetlamps.

Clad in a black cape,
long silver hair.
A breeze lifts the cape slightly
to see if anything is inside.

As a small boy
he cavorted in this park,
his limbs wings.

Dracula has aged,
can only dream of blood
as he slips past me.

A wooden stake in his future,
he spits a few Transylvanian words,
shadows past my rapid gait.

Originally published in Cacti Fur magazine

WHY I FELL OUT OF LOVE WITH DEBBIE REYNOLDS



My Stepmother worshipped movie magazines.
She wanted to be a star, 
almost auditioned for Gene Autry 
with her country band, 
The Apple Blossom Trio,
but a member got pneumonia
and the cowboy never saw her.

She married my Father, 
under the safe umbrella of his adultery,
shading her eyes from what was obvious to all,
Hollywood dreams, the slick pages of those mags
muting her pain. 
She left those glossies lying around.

A curious teen , 
I took them to my bedroom 
and fantasied over and over like all boys do
eyeing the ingenue Debbie Reynolds 
as The One. 

There was an actual diminutive girlfriend Bonnie,
heart trysts with Margaret O' Brien and Shirley Temple,
later Sandra Dee, 
but sparkling Debbie sang and danced
her way into my heart and libido
more than any of them. 
She was Tammy and I was in love. 

I grew up, went to college.
Dad and Stepmother divorced.
The VietNam War started.
I got radical, marched and protested, 
read the Guardian instead of the Hollywood Star.

One day flipping through that Leftist rag
beautiful Debbie's picture danced off the page.
My heart remembered her,
my teen angst throbbed.
I knew vaguely of her bad marriage to Eddie,
how Liz Taylor cleopatraed her, 
America's sweetheart trashed like my Step-Mother.
The caption skewered Debbie, complained
she owned 2,000 pairs of shoes and buying more.
Said she wanted to own the world’s largest collection.

2,000 pairs—pumps,  espadrilles, kitten heels,
winklepickers, ankle straps—etc., etc. 
Silver, mauve, yellows, turquoise, reds, 
a rainbow of shoe colors,
a display of wanton, uncaring wealth,
shoes of clay.  

Ms. Reynolds was still attractive in that photo,
the dazzling, dimpled smile faintly there.
I remembered my crush.
But the web of the Tender Trap was rent. 
My heroes now Che and Fidel,
she the enemy, the ruling class. 

A child of poverty,
did Debbie forget that no one dated her
because she didn’t know how to dress,
wore ratty jeans, a country shirt and tennies?
Is that what made her feet crave 
the feel of slipping on shoes,
one after the other
while children starved?

Debbie is gone now,
stroked out the day after her beloved daughter died.
What kind of shoes did she wear in her coffin? 

I fell out of love and into reality.  
I fell in love with my wife,
marches and protests, 
moccasins, 
beside my own worn down boots.

Originally published in Broadkill Review