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   She wears a smile like a plumber wears a tie, begrudgingly.  And over the table, she sneers at me. 

   “And I said to him” her elbow barely misses the glass of wine “‘Look at what your hippie ideals, your beard and beret, have gotten you: a 1987 Aerostar and a bad smoking habit!'”

   When she laughs, she could be at a campfire with a flashlight under her chin.  Other people in their own intimate galaxies of candlelight do their best to rotate and wobble in our periphery, though her laughter sharpens the room, like cheddar or cutlery.

   “And get this.  Are you listening?”  She doesn’t wait to see if I am, she never did, so I’m intent on watching the tablecloth where a fly lands briefly.  Don’t they poop every time they land?

   “So get this”

   She opens her cloth napkin, an origami goose or some other long-necked animal, suddenly undoing the care that had gone into its creation.  The flatware within tackles itself to the table.

   “So listen, I actually tried to wind my window up after I dropped that harsh one on him.  And the fucker had to lean down and actually, physically wind his window up.  A manual!  Like, remember those?”

   The fly draws a drunken spiral above the basket of Bruschetta, an historically toasted bread, rubbed with extra virgin olive oil and topped with spicy red peppers, basil, cured meats, tomatoes; a delicacy wending its way through Italian culinary history all the way from the 15th Century to our table, where the fly promptly lands and defecates.

   “God, how embarrasing for him.   I’m trying to wind my window up, forgetting that the whole fucking ragtop is down, and he’s sweating it out in this heat trying to rotate his window up, like with his shoulder pumping one, two, three…remember those?”

   She does, in fact, grab her wine glass and ask the waiter for more bread.  He looks down at our untouched basket and, instead of interrupting her diatribe, he makes as if he’ll get more.  But he never will.

   I’m now wagging my tongue in my glass of water like a dog, but her story breathes itself on into infinity.  Her poached salmon will never reach the table, and it will never be eaten.  The bowl of Italian Wedding Soup we are to share will not be ladled into either of our bowls because the waiter will never come back.  We won’t leave a tip, or pay our bill, or ignore each other in the parking lot on the way to our car.  She won’t ever finish her story in time for anything else to happen.  Everyone else’s period, is simply an ellipsis to her.

   I add these to the list of things she so easily overlooks: the Bruschetta and I.

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Autumn came late and summer came early so that most of the time the bus smelled like hot vinyl and gym socks.  Even the wind from the open windows and careening around sharp corners couldn’t keep our attention long.  We resorted, then, to dumb tricks to fill the few minutes until classes and teachers took our time for granted.

Alex stuffed his nose full with little shells that fell fom Diane’s favorite necklace.  Each piece disappeared up a nostril as we counted its sudden absence in unison.  The bus bumped the bottom of Riverside Drive, Alex snorted carefully and in perfect time to avoid losing any he’d already inhaled.  Diane whined about how it had been her favorite necklace from Ocean City, from the trip when Tyler told her he loved her and gave her the shells on a fishing line.  We all doubted Tyler’s existence, and were it not for the necklace, none of us would have even entertained the notion.  Diane was not pretty or thin or funny.  And now, without her necklace to prove it, Diane was not anything.

Roddy sat in the furthest seat back so that when we leapt from a sudden small hill, he could grit his teeth and squeeze his fingers over the top of the seat in front of him and jump with the bus.  His head nearly hit the roof every time, and he stuck his tongue out in the air, looking like his heroes in the color ads of Thrasher magazine. 

Roddy had bit his tongue off on a trampoline in his yard, and his mom had saved the severed half in milk until the doctor could sew it on again.  He said that the black stitches, crooked through the meat, would disappear, just evaporate like a Life-Saver in your mouth.  We didn’t believe this, but he’d spent so much time showing us the stitches that we forgot to look for them when they’d gone.

Aaron swallowed hard-boiled eggs.  (This trick was a variation of his spring fair routine involving live goldfish.)  “And this is the shell that will tear my intestine,” he said after each egg.  He survived every one, up to three per bus ride.  

I hated him for swallowing the fish and had my own prayer for each as it went, “If it’s between the fish and Roddy, let Roddy be the one that chokes.” It became a ritual I’d repeat for the eggs as well until Diane caught me whispering as I watched, 

“What are you saying?”

And the white-hot ray of attention burned briefly on me.  Panic and shame pushed blood up my neck and flushed my forehead.  The bus was all elbows and wrists nodding and weaving with the curves in the road, so many eyes waiting for an explanation. 

 I glared, Diane shifted in her seat, unwavering.  The late summer leaves on the trees outside had dulled to a deeper green from too much sun, too much heat.  Now just a blur in the wind-tunnel of the bus, those leaves would soon cede to gravity, flutter to the ground.

“If Tyler loves you, prove it.”  I said.

Roddy’s egg remained half-swallowed forever because nothing ever happened if we weren’t watching.

any city

 

You could be in any city.  Each with its thrift-shop sneakers shifting the grit on sidewalks.  Weekends without work, trapped in an afternoon of half-light, as solid blocks of buildings eclipse the sun.  You could be in any city except mine.

 

There was Atlanta, of course.  Its brown lawns, drying rivers, apartments with gates and tennis courts and pools, over-chlorinated, surrounded by “nature-walks” coaxed from the edges of Publix parking lots.  And you were there with me.  Smoking Camels out of their fancy boxes over Grand Slams at the local Denny’s, and then downing dinner at Taco Bell.  You and I burned Atlanta and its sad, drug-addled scene to the filter.

 

We’d make up weekend plans all summer to do things we knew we’d never do.  Cheer through a Braves game, consider high-minded art with reverence at any dull museum around town, and to lead the Southern lifestyle:  I’d be sipping bourbon, and you’d have your mint juleps.

 

Instead we wasted those years in a blur of malls and parking lots and hot highways with the windows down when the A/C couldn’t pump fast or cold enough. The bass boom and arrhythmic tic of the clubs and their endless supply of powders, pills, liquids, and catastrophe-kids like us.  I remember you taking someone on at the pool table, and after your easy win, I remember you forgetting to look my way, 

 

You’ll remember one weekend at Piedmont Park at something called the Dogwood Festival:  we found too few words when we weren’t fueled on Jack and Cokes in tacky bars with the wrong friends. 

                                                                                                             

We’ve squandered our time, and maybe we’re too dumb to regret it, or even know. 

 

We bought condos within blocks of each other, then moved up and out, on and over to other cities.  Scattering like so many mice from the tracks of an oncoming train.  We got jobs and then promotions in those towns uncluttered with old friends.  It was stupid to think you’d be in each new city waiting for me.

 

Atlanta wasn’t quite how I remember, I’m sure. 

 

In the only city we’d ever shared, you told me your secrets: the dark cloud which hovered like dust around Pigpen. They colored each thought and twisted your relationships slowly, strung them out on the rack, stretching the pain interminable. 

 

But all that I saw was the “Animal Clinic” sign over your shoulder through waves of summer heat weaving up around your neck.  You were spilling it all, confiding, making a moment in which I should have been attentive.  But I was engrossed in the traffic, the speed and metal glint of it, turning to watch your mouth move and hear the sounds come out. 

 

You talked while I thought about how it always seemed to be summer in Atlanta, and winter was just one cold morning: an ice-storm spent together in bed, missing the ashtray and burning holes in the sheets, our mouths full of salt and gauze and the dry taste of each other.

 

Cold blue

from the gas tubes tucked within the drop ceiling.

Tile and commercial carpet

designed to level your eyes at the teller’s height,

like a casino, with fewer bells and not even a feigned sense of winning.

 

Inoffensive colors in blithely executed patterns

make everything look like an imprint of fossilized fern on shale.

 

In here, we are all as calm as the walls of a dentist’s office.

 

At the front of the line on Saturday morning,

sleep dried at the side of my cheek,

leaked from the duct of an eye.

And with cigarette stink still hung over my clothes,

I approach the girl with a fistful of dollars

for deposit.

 

Eyes shift and blink,

acne on the teller’s forehead has scabbed

and slim crescents of pooled blood

cradle her glazed and helpless eyes.

Eyes from the head of any

animal lying on hot concrete

at the zoo.

 

And we all pretend that it lives

in a fair recreation of its

natural habitat.

 

Life outside the bullet-proof glass behind the staff

could be an impressionist’s idea of the perfect summer day:

clouds rendered in watercolor strokes

frozen in the sky and flash-dried

by the kiln of the sun               

 

We don’t breathe,

as if it were a pact that we’d all made.

A deposit slip is scrawled

accompanied by my mumbled apology for the line

winding restlessly behind me

 

Even uncaged,

we are all so organized, so tame.

 

Bite-sized hail.

Ice that falls from the sky in a size suitable to chew

But Mick Jagger and I would disagree
on the size of ice we each might choose.

Wouldn’t we?

What the weatherman said was
“bite-sized hail.”

It was 6:35 in the evening,
when he chose those words.

“Lunch” was convenience store peanuts at noon
at 1 he visited the break-room fridge
from 2 to 6 he nursed a full liter of Diet Dr. Pepper
which he liked less than the Diet Sprite gone awol
(no one gives a damn about propriety in here)
but which he preferred to the multiple liters of Fanta
(who the hell stocks this damn thing?)

At 6:30 he put the final touches on his super-doppler graphic
with the care and precision of a neuro-surgeon
clicks and drags and drops
eyes dried from hours of following the storm in real-time
and planning the perfect arrangement of words
to impress upon his adoring public
over 233,000 people
the severity
of what he was seeing
of what they were expecting
him
to report.

at 6:32:31 he was already rolling the script in his head
And at the convergence of these two fronts
at 6:32:37 the weatherman went live

At 6:34 his stomach grumbled though he didn’t hear it
Diet Dr. Pepper sloshed in his bowels as he dipped his arms
gracefully against the green screen
in perfect unison with the
barbed smile of the animated cold front
you would have seen on your screeen
at your home.

he used phrases like “in the event of” and “seek shelter”
decisive gestures as crisp as his starched shirt
confidence disguising choreography

his suit jacket lifted with the implied drama of the tornado watch
which he was secretly certain would upgrade to a warning in mere minutes

“And at the convergence of these two fronts”
we could see wind gusts up to 40 miles per hour

his tie lept and his face conveyed concern
for his unlucky audience
in houses without basements or trapped in trailer parks

“we could see wind gusts up to 40 miles per hour”
which may be accompanied by likely, sizeable hail

but he suddenly felt less concerned for his viewership
in townhomes and mobile living quarters and duplexes
because, honestly, they probably had jobs where lunch-breaks were
permissable

their sustenance was considered important enough to
cordon off a full hour or more
solely for the purpose of eating
chicken nuggets
or macaroni and cheese

things they could buy with coupons and microwave on their meager salaries

or steak-ums
or fish sticks
or cheez-its
or tater-tots

food as fuel for another night-shift making minimum wage,
sweeping floors, scrubbing urinals,
menial WalMart tasks
which will make possible the next bag of frozen corn dogs
which will make their small lives worth living

“which may be accompanied by”

what the weatherman said was
“bite-sized hail”
but what the weatherman meant was far different.