It was one of those family discount haircut stores
where you get the next of four or five hairdressers.
She was petite, in her early 20’s likely,
tattoos of something on her upper right arm,
short-cropped hair dyed orange,
a small ring in her left nostril,
and introduced as Megan,
and I wondered what I had gotten into;
then, without my saying, she told me what I wanted,
correctly, and commenced to move deftly
through my shock of wild Einstein hair,
snipping in neat layers with scissors and comb
as snowy tumbleweed rolled down the dark-blue cape;
and my remark that she seemed a pro
set loose a flow of self-revelation
of wanting to get into graphic arts like her dad
but ending up a hairdresser instead,
practicing on her dad till she got it right,
and how this was art too, wasn’t it?
And in no time she was done.
Dropping scissors and comb she picked up her hand-mirror
and flashed back a perfectly-sculpted cut,
saying this was part of her,
and I’d be taking part of her with me.
As I unhooked my jacket and reached for the sleeve,
I looked back to see her sweeping
my hair-clippings into a delicate standing pile
and ever so gingerly picking it up with her fingers
and placing it down under her big-mirror work station,
as if it were a cast-off secondary creation,
just as perfect, from me to her.
They’re seashells grooved to stream her voice;
they’re leathery flaps designed for grip.
We who shrink know oh so well how
mothers from the grave still wag the digit
disapprovingly, and even when we’re sure
we squeezed unnoticed through the crack
or missed the bruising pinches on the arm
with air-tight case to sweep us clean,
an unseen hand swoops down to clip the ear
and drag us to the scene of our misdoing,
leaving only one last judgment, hers.
When other times we don our professorial tweeds
and lay excuses out in rows of chalkboard logic,
a chalky figure made of sticks steps out
from jostling crowds of words, erasing the malarkey,
and then, erasers firmly held in both her hands,
administers a clapping to our ears.
Wedge of Blacktop
All they could wish was this wedge of blacktop
by the back-porch stoop of this matchbox cape
in this shirt-cling evening of a dog-day swoon,
the breadloaf radio set out on the rail,
the longneck beers, dead soldiers on the stairs,
Blanche kicking high in her grease-stained housedress,
her great girth tweaking like she’s traveling light,
Chaz winging free right into tomorrow
in his busman’s pants and his spit-shined shoes,
a sleeveless top – and sweet jazz in his moves
to the toot of Duke in “It don’t mean a thing,”
and a switch of the dial to slow it all down,
to home them into arms ringing round
to a doo-wop tune could melt chrome
from the Chevy.
A Pair of Old Nuns in a Super-Discount Store
Side by side the ancients padded,
pushing plastic shopping carts,
both crowned in white starched wimple
flowing black from veil to skirt
to sneakers velcro-strapped, just like
the ones top-shelf in Aisle Two.
No look of passing tourists holding noses
on their descent to the valley of Gomorrah;
instead, of breakaway schoolgirls on a lark,
twinkle-eyed through waxy, vein-webbed faces
that, eyes excepted, were put to rest years ago.
One, and then the other, reached palms-up
as if to catch a snowflake falling, then their hands
turned to form bird beaks so to snatch the prizes
hung on metal prongs. Glazed-over, they peered
into clear plastic domes that enshrined red ribbons,
can openers, silver coasters, manicure kits,
and glided fingertips across the smooth contours
and ridges glinting in the overhead fluorescence.
They sighed in unison as if rehearsed,
and it carried the lilt of a wishful prayer:
Forgive us, Lord,
for asking that the Great Reward also
have a back-lot store in a low-rent block
where shelves stay full
of trifles and sundries everywhere –
such glorious Miscellaneous, just like this.
Little Jimmy Grayson
In the back of his head,
over and over,
goes the wind-up, the pitch,
the sound of bad wood.
From the boardroom’s oak walls
he hears the same thing,
no crisp crack of the bat,
just the cough of bad wood.
Was Little Jimmy Grayson once,
cut from the peewee team
for all the swung misses,
the dribbles in the dirt.
Now he’s sixty and mighty,
owns a Major League team
which fills up the ballpark,
wins him game after game –
all the more to confound him,
this little conundrum,
that in his head he still hears
the sour note of bad wood.
It was dinner call at the The Meadows.
Slowly they tottered, barely moving in the hall,
propped on canes, walkers, wheeling themselves in chairs,
shepherded with c’mon dears by young aides in white.
She didn’t know yet that I was there visiting,
that through the door-crack I could see her
sitting there alone in the rec room,
deaf to dinner call, all ears to the music
of Benny and his band from the speaker-box behind her,
tootling horn as fleet as a Jesus Lizard on water-feet.
Her smile grew and her body flew to it,
legs bouncing, crimped hands clapping her thighs –
that once plunked piano jigs to her papa’s fiddle,
keyed up parties threatening to go dull,
the same that tended rows of diapers, raised a brood,
broke daily bread near the priest’s table,
rolled beads to restore her mother’s strength.
And so I left her alone with Benny for a while,
and waited in the chapel, her other favored place,
where she’d pray early mornings for another evening
to hear the swing from Benny in the room across the way,
for the reckoning had come, all the earthly work was done,
and now was the time for God’s sublime in the room across the way.
The late-day sun tilts low on the factory walls,
leaves long glowing fuses for telephone lines,
blades running fire for railroad tracks;
red bricks made redder sweat out
the faded names of dead merchants and their sons;
a half-peeled orange sits with its peeled skin
on the green bench of the station platform
as the departing train whistles back;
in the cracked, sun-streamed window
of a long-vacant barber shop next door,
flecks of dust mingle and feud in a whirl
above the tape-repaired barber’s chair;
the sunlight shimmers along the sidewalk
and passes over my walking feet
onto small round faces the color of caramel
and to the soccer ball the children are kicking
below the porch steps of the multifamily.
Up the hill stands a grand old lady of a house,
her paint pulling away, the lower windows boarded;
a golden braid of sun comes undone
from the dormer facing west,
dropping below the eaves and soffits,
stealing across the gravel drive,
slipping out of sight.
On in-country maneuvers outside the base camp,
about twenty of us, all FNG’s (Fuckin’ New Guys),
moved slowly, skittishly, outside the concertina wire,
our heads crackling with the power of small hidden things
they warned us about, all the friendly unexploded ordnance,
trip-wires to booby traps, and the dreaded Bouncing Betty,
a spring-loaded mine that, when tripped, pops up to groin-level,
taking not only the legs but the rest, and your buddies too.
As fresh arrivals to Nam, to this division up north,
we were strangers, just a motley team of infantry grunts,
chopper mechanics, desk jockeys, medics – and one cook
I got to know that morning.
Humping for an hour or so, we reached a small hill looking down
into a shallow ravine with a stream bending through it;
we took a rest after forming a perimeter position.
I was the only one not carrying a weapon, just a radio
on my back. We took in the deep rolling green, the sound
of trickling water, the curious taste of irony in the beauty of it.
The cook, a 40-ish lifer from Kentucky with a big beer gut
and a bigger smile, stood by me with his M-16 tightly gripped,
telling a little about himself and the home he found in the Army.
He asked why I had no weapon, and I told him about anti-war
convictions, about hailing from Connecticut, drafted on
I braced for the lashing to come – a blistering fusillade
about being a yellow Yankee hippy, undeserving of the uniform.
But – it never came. Instead, he said he’d stand by me
with his M-16, just in case something happened.
Was the war that unglued him,
said family and friends,
and the army of shrinks agreed;
it was their drugs that defused him,
gutted the miles of brain circuitry,
dimmed the senses to a flicker,
tamping down the few warm strands left,
and all the aimless strivings,
the volleys misfired into the air,
were no more, were snuffed out
by a pressing weariness come too soon.
They’d silenced the eloquence of falling.
He was living out of his car now,
eating at fast-food joints,
but barely able to hold it down,
or the cheap wine that used to bring sleep.
Was always like this, or so it seemed.
There were jobs once, white-collar jobs,
a condo and a late-model car as well,
but always under the tracking shadow
of a hand waiting to snatch them away,
and the remains, though few, the ex-wives picked over,
looking for something unbroken, untainted.
Was eighteen, only eighteen,
when they dropped him in the mountain clearing;
for a while he was fine, was handling it well,
until, after a night of fire and thunder,
they sent him out on cleanup detail.
Between ragged stalks in the advancing calm,
torn sacks of grain heaved from the ground,
bags of meal that shifted their load
when he shouldered them
like the ones from the barn loft
that summer he worked on the farm.
Some slipped, with sighs gave up their heft,
then rested limply on his arms and neck.
As they told him later,
for he could barely remember,
he kept going back to look for more,
even when it was clear there were no more,
and he wouldn’t stop looking
until they ordered him at gunpoint.
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