We Never Got Our Salads

It’s a half hour too late
when we reach the cruise ship dinner table draped
in pink table cloth the shade of tired faces.
What shape are our napkins folded in tonight?
God knows our lives depend on it.
—and you think I’m joking.

Two older men perched at our table.
They tell us they’ll buy us whatever
wine we like, in hopes to discover
where our tan lines end.
We prefer a bold Shiraz, they prefer blonde
fuzz on the smalls of our backs.

But where is our bread?
Where is our butter?
We wait.  Our napkin swans mutilated,
flattened to stretch across our laps
forever.  One man whispers divorce
while the other coughs unemployed.
We smile sweetly through their ribs,
seeing shallow encasings
holding what now beats slower.

Someone makes a toast:
To being young again!

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All Lounge Chairs Are Collapsible

We fan ourselves on deck ten,
the sun smearing yellow slabs of light in our eyes.

You know there are cruises that don’t stop at ports;
they go nowhere
—my friend informs me.
But I need to be moving towards something
at all times.

He won’t call me back;
he says he’s drunk but he misses me.
—the other one whines through a smile of toothy lament.
We all nod in counterfeit agreement.
Within each nod exists a gated community.
This is love. A false sense of security.

Everybody who so much as glances overboard
contemplates jumping.

Five Dollars If You Can Guess Who I’m Talking About

Have you ever seen someone rumored to be dead?
Mumbling in a corridor, locked out of his office
again. Unaware of his ghostliness, still treating life
like a linear passage through square buildings.
I find relief in his life before me,
but there is a trapdoor in every human heart
where we hide to romanticize a beautiful life once lived.
—This is where I am when I watch people disembark
the heaving white ship.

Everyone has spent five days
sifting through the inner-debris, finding
familiarities:
The woman with ocean wavy
black hair has equally deep southern accent
and eyes.  She budges the sandwich line and we let her;
in this world no one will ever be denied
swiss cheese and turkey on sourdough.
The piano player has crooked white fingers
bending into the keys that promise Billy Joel
while the sun sets.  He traded his songbook
for Ray Charles replica sunglasses.
The waiter in his flimsy bow-tie, off kilter,
hurries on a graceful slant
to serve us filet mignon.

Our bodies all adjusted (medium) well
the disjointed, rhythmic scale of the ocean.

I will see these people years later
off the ship: one arguing with a cashier about
the sale price of shampoo; another shouting epithets
against the wind, chasing after a loose dream or dog;
the last under a tree with tangled leaves, sobbing
what course comes next?

I will think I recognize a sense of mercy in them,
worlds folding into each other, a blue-green symmetry
of united territory and memory.
But let’s not try to be too deep here
—I’ll remind myself,
the eternally unreliable narrator
always mistaking ghosts for people.

The Passive Fire

Lately, my life has been exploding in narrative arc,
spinning in car crashes, off-kilter smiles, the force of paper airplane
deadlines cranking like a car jack under my body.
This body of my work. We are strangers, soon to part,
too soon.

What I mean in real life is that the damage is immeasurable.
There’s no going back.
Tomorrow is a whole other day.
—all those clichés
and more, rattle in the trunk of my car.

When you fall out of or into love, there is a dizzying forest
you kneel in to pay your respects to the fire.
The one that’s about to burn you

Tell me. Who has never tried but failed to say something?
Whose knees have never whimpered against
the concrete parts of this world?
Who has never watched a magician pull a rabbit
Or a bird or a bent pink bouquet out of their hat,
and thought: why couldn’t I have done that?
A long time ago, with you?

I stopped wishing for that kind of magic,
the day I started beginning my sentences with honestly…
As my voice trailed off the edge of smoky sincerity.
Because I like to cloud my own judgment until my heart settles
to a skip, shaking Oh man, what did I do?
It feels like rain.
The kind where the earth is a wet sphere that gets stuck
in the mud every time you try to kick it passed the curb.

I realized recently that questions are passive
welts on our knuckles. They don’t move me
along. Because when I’m truly inspired,
in love, in the fire, I will speak in active language,
with conviction, with no paper trail
of crumpled apologies for my life—or yours—
singing behind me in the wreck.

Winter Vacation

Let me tell you something about addicts
Mom says as she forms the face of God
in her mashed potatoes.
They’re depressed. Lonely. Desperate.
We dig our forks in silently.
They’ll lie, cheat and steal
for drug money.

My brother sits in his room
for dinner. He scratches
lottery ticket after ticket.
I need a luckier penny
he tells me. I try to remember
if I ever called anything lucky
or if I just liked the way certain pennies
jingled in my change purse.

2 plus 13 plus 7
He mutters, staring into bright
rectangles with cartoon pots of gold.
Nothing adds up to 21
He turns to me, hopeful I’ll disagree.
I nod, a gesture half thawed
out of some winter chill. He slinks back into
his childhood desk chair.
They’re all losers. Losers.
He cries.

When my mom and I are alone
the next afternoon has frosted over
in the kitchen. A deer appears
through the window in our backyard.
He rummages through a thin layer
of snow and leaf particles of left over
autumn memories.
He comes to the old tree that had fallen last night,
out of agreement to the wind. It sliced
our yard in half. Into two new territories.

Behind the tree, the deer considers the jutting branches.
Contemplates
cold peeling bark. He looks at us finally
to collect an answer, a deposit, a warmed-by-the fire soul.
My mom and I hold our breath.
Maybe we’re counting to heaven. Maybe we’re waiting
to see what he will do.

Rohan

In April the vines twist outside our house
Each time we leave for coffee or beer we return
To find they’ve grown longer and more intricate
Cleverly stagnate when we’re watching
When the center droops and threatens to break
Under the weight of itself
Daniels ties loose ends together like dignified rope
Or a father tying his son’s shoelaces for good

The nights are still cool and disciplined
Best for campfire-less silence and rubbing
Bare feet together during each breeze
Daniel and I contemplate the day
And then the next one
The changes between are only tick marks on trees
But inside the thick wood, another ring is forming
Faintly at first—like the mark around a finger
After you’ve cast off the band by the kitchen sink

Daniel’s worried his job will take him nowhere
I am frightened by where mine is going
And somewhere between, our dog holds the answer
Back arched in simple truths, paws sprawled out
To stretch the sunlight a little longer
We both like to tell him that all dogs go to heaven
Though we agree that heaven does not exist
Perhaps this is what it means to love something
More than the truths that have come to mark our wisdom

The end of spring is already here when the vines become
Entwined with the tangle of bushes in the back corner of the yard
Daniel speaks about it to me through a crooked grin
Like he built the green hammock when I wasn’t looking
When the night is humid like buttered toast against my skin
He says he knows where the vine will extend next
How powerful that makes he, and us, in theory
Until I see the dog sniff underneath it for buried twigs and treasure and
Signs of new life that we’ll never see.

Writers Kill Trees

I have a problem with language
So I went to the bookstore
To be cured by famous names

What say you Cheever, Dumas, Sexton?
What sort of customer service do you offer
With your compact black type
So succinct, so certain
Of your uncertainty
Backhanded phrases, long-winded questions
Raised up from crumpled compost
Of insecurely inked tragedies

Who will tell me right from wrong?
Who will challenge gravity when it keeps us
Swollen, down?
Who will invent a new God to tell the old one
You had your chance
But you taught your kids the silent treatment?

It’s funny that some things float upstream
And some not at all
And some disintegrate at the sight of their reflection in
Mellow, colorless water

But some things know how to live
How to bend then break then bloom
How to write a novel from peeling bark
Favored by old wiry trees
To tell a story about plane crashes or sword fights
or making love under some mess of stars

The walls dividing each bookshelf are thin
So thin you can almost hear voices seeping
From the pages on the other side
You might believe they are right up next to you
Crawling out from wooden planks with little light
Sputtering from dust-coated lungs

They warn me time and time again
You are an endangered species.