the phone in the other
room rings once and
refuses to carry your voice
the phone in the other-
world rings and rings
without disturbing a soul
Fresh ink. This is my subversion of “thoughts & prayers.” Constructive criticism welcome.
Open the rusty screen door
Follow my voice through the center
of the forest with no trees
Float atop the escaping river
like a weekday problem on a Saturday afternoon
Watch the cardinals glide above
this mess of a city, careless, self-absorbed
The drivers in their compact cars, too,
accelerating behind you to dates and games
the scattered possibilities of something better
Take solace in the abandoned
take-out bags and six-pack rings
like embedded buttons to press
along the speckled shore of Lake Michigan
Lives are being lived here—mine, yours too—
Fill your lungs with ivy
Feel each of your toes slicken with grease
and pulverized stone, the natural aftermath
of ten million people using up this world
a paragraph at a time, a paragraph
at a time when each of us yearns to write
A burnished tome
I wanted to write you a poem about horseshoe crabs,
how they are born on beaches, how they spend their lives
sheltered, underwater, and only reemerge when they’re old.
They trudge across their grave, their chestnut lives etching
wales into every grain of sand. Every beach is their archive,
but I forget about your summer house—in Delaware of all places.
You must have stepped over them on your twilight walks. I bet
you think of them as army helmets encapsulating the precious history
of the world’s disappointments. Or maybe you thought of them as pins
pushed in a map, marking the exact moment of abandonment.
If you ask them to, they will arrange themselves quietly,
using their tails as compass needles, to show you the way
to me. They’ll point to a tangle of seaweed, then a perfect
stone for skipping, and finally to a knife laid bare in the sand
at your feet. You will pick it up. You will drag the blade
through the center of a belly. No remorse—just think:
it was finished anyway. Just think: even those most protected
can’t avoid their end. You will tip the shell to your mouth,
you will drink the crab’s blood; and it will search your body,
each magnificent cell, to scour away the etchings I made.
Then you will continue walking without me.
(photo: walknboston on flickr.com; no changes made)
Lisa Burkhardt’s anger surfaced on her skin just like her freckles—slapdash and intense. She bragged she inherited her Irish temper from her mother and I believed it. When Mrs. Burkhardt took walks around the neighborhood without her usual thick ’80s makeup, I couldn’t tell mother and daughter apart. And Lisa could rant for hours using only swear words and the occasional “off” or “balls.” A neighborhood boy once teased me in front of her about being her boyfriend. She leveraged her lanky 14-year-old body to pin him against a tree and asked “Why? You jealous, little boy? Do you want me to give you a smooch?”
I worshipped her.
It helped that her green and black tri-level house peeked into our living room whenever my mom opened the drapes. But I didn’t need a reminder to visit her because I helped her with chores after school every day. I never knocked; Lisa said anyone willing to help clean her house was welcome. Together she and I scrubbed their already-spotless kitchen and bathrooms while blaring MTV.
Lisa wasn’t always angry and swearing, though. She liked to call the mop Boy George, as in “Grab Boy George out of the closet, will ya?” One time when I asked her why Boy George, she jabbed a finger at its shaggy locks and its mascara-thin black seam and said “Are you kidding? It looks just like him!” Then she dipped him in a bucket and sang over the sound of dripping water: Do you really want to hurt me? Do you really want to make me cry? On Monday afternoons when her mom worked late at the cable company, Lisa liked to take shots of Southern Comfort. She always offered me some and I always politely abstained, then lectured her on the perils of teen drinking. My words never stopped her, though. That’s pretty much how our friendship worked.
One morning before school around Halloween 1985, I watched an ambulance back into the Burkhardt’s driveway. Blue and red lights flashed but no siren blared. EMTs opened the van’s back door. I couldn’t see who they carried out on the stretcher, but after the ambulance pulled out of the driveway I watched as the orange leaves settled back down on my quiet street. I didn’t see Lisa that day or the next. The rumor around school was that her mom had died of a brain aneurism in the shower.
I waited exactly a week to climb the steps to Lisa’s front porch. The open-door policy felt revoked somehow, so I knocked until Lisa yelled for me to come in. As I passed the bathroom I noticed perfume misters and several cans of Aqua Net hair spray and the telltale pink of hair curlers jumbled on the counter. Lisa was sprawled on the floor of her room, dirty dishes fanning around her head like pets waiting for attention. Her eyes stayed closed.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Why? You didn’t do anything.”
“Do you want help with the bathroom?”
“No,” she huffed. The red in her eyes matched the red in her hair, and I found myself in a stare-down that didn’t break until she looked up at the ceiling. “Don’t you know that doesn’t matter anymore?”
I slouched back across the street soon after, feeling like I’d failed a test. Our street widened after that. Lisa found girlfriends in her grade and spent less time at home. Despite the constant gaze of her tri-level, I never visited her again. She entered high school; I followed quietly two years later. She said Hi to me in the hallways sometimes and drove me home once with a cigarette jammed in her mouth blasting Guns-N-Roses the whole way.
Twenty years later, she friend-requested me on Facebook. A private message popped up. Lisa asked how I was. I told her about my life in Chicago, about my partner.
—Does he treat you well? she typed.
—He does. He takes care of me when I’m sick. He sings to me when I’m sad.
—Good. That’s all that matters.
The flashing green light in the IM window went solid gray and she unfriended me the next day.