Platonic Pornography

And we must beg Homer and the other poets not to be angry if we strike out these and similar passages, not because they are unpoetical, or unattractive to the popular ear, but because the greater the poetical charm in them, the less are they meet for the ears of boys and men who are meant to be free, and who should fear slavery more than death.

A Thing Done For A Billion Years Or Not At All: Thoughts on “The Master”

The screen is black and then it is blue and green and white. It is the blue-green of ocean water with the white jutting wake from some unseen vessel. We are moving. Now we see the face of a man obscured beneath his WWII-style helmet. He blinks into some great light, looking lost, confused: a child playing dress-up in his father’s closet. There are other men here as well, sailors like the man in the helmet, everyone nude except for their navy blue shorts and their navy white caps. They wrestle on the beach. They split coconuts with their machetes. They joke about pubic lice. If the war is not yet won, it soon will be.

                We watch them construct a woman out of sand on the beach. The woman is gargantuan and voluptuous in a way that tells us that these men have not touched a real woman in far too long. One of the sailors (our sailor from earlier, the lost little boy) mounts the woman in a display of male comradery and sexual bravado, and for a moment it is as if they are all back home. But there is something too strained and serious in our sailor’s thrusting. It is as if he has lost all sense of where he’s at and who he is. He can’t help but remind them that they are all so very far from home, and that there is no woman on the beach, only sand. Next we see our sailor from behind, his back arched in masturbatory rictus as he pleasures himself into the ocean. The Sailor’s name is Freddie Quell, and he is not going to be okay.

                Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” inhabits this Post-War world of “okay-ness”. It is an American concept for an American century. It parts its hair to the left and gets pictures taken every winter for the family photo album. It goes back to school and starts a small business. It is happily fecund and flawlessly skinned. Families are started. Homes are financed.  All that blood and carnage is now a thing that happened once ago to someone else. We do not need to talk about it.

                But some men do need to talk about it. We see their faces and look into their eyes but they are not looking back. They look pale and sick. They stutter and blink like wounded animals. They are still in uniform, but it is a different sort of uniform now, this baggy vestment of the sick and wounded. Among these men is Freddie, his lips gnarled and trembling as if he has suffered some catastrophic stroke. It is hard to understand him when he speaks. He can barely keep his eyes open. When doctors ask him about certain “episodes” form his past (bizarre dreams about his mother, a seemingly innocent letter from a girl back home that reduced him to a public display of tears) he denies their ominous undertones. He is fine, he tells them. They show him ink blot after ink blot, and what he sees never changes: pussies, he says. Ladies’ pussies. Cock going inside of a pussy. He steals chemicals when no one is looking and makes his own toxic cocktails. But he is fine, he tells them. Everything is fine.

                If “The Master” is about anything it is about this unique moment of historical irony. Much of the world is still on fire, but isn’t the weather fine? It is a film full of men telling us one thing and showing us another. We can admit that Freddie is not okay even if he cannot, but can we discern anything deeper? We see Freddie closely but not clearly. It is the closeness of claustrophobia, of walls pushing in and air becoming scarce. This is not to say that “The Master” is fundamentally inscrutable. In the gap between what is said and what is shown an understanding begins to emerge. It may only be the hazy understanding of a Rorschach test, but this is not without value. What we sacrifice in historical clarity (“I am going to tell you what this meant”) we gain in subjective emersion (“I am going to tell you how this felt”). 

                Joaquin Phoenix’s tortured and slurring Freddie Quell is so violently tossed about by the animal instincts of fight/fuck/flee that it is easy to forget that he occupies our human world. He is not the kind of cinematic “troubled vet” who lurks with knives and bows in domestic forests vaguely reminiscent of the tropical theaters of his wartime existence. His traumatic space is one of mid-level department stores and quiet suburban homes. The world is not Freddie’s enemy. He does not want to be left alone. If he wants anything, it is what everyone else already (seems) to have. Perhaps we have already made up our minds about Freddie’s fundamental inability to exist among us. Freddie is not so sure. For over two hours we will watch him wait outside a building that does not wish to admit him. In this sense “The Master” is a hopelessly sadistic film.

                Consider how we are first introduced to Freddie in his post-psychiatric life. He is one of us now, working a respectable job taking photos for respectable people. Maybe he still looks lost and rumpled in his too-big suit, and maybe he still can’t look us quite in the eye. But there he is, showing up and buckling down. Making money. There’s even a girl, just like he (and everyone else) had been promised. She is young and beautiful, and if Freddie is not in love with her at least the camera is. It follows dutifully as she glides across the department store floor in the finest clothes fit to sell. Everyone looks happy and rich. They flirt in Freddie’s photo darkroom and share one of his homemade “drinks” (best not to ask for the recipe) and she shows him her breasts. He asks her if she’d like to go out with him later that night, and yes, yes she would.

  We hardly need to see the next shot to know what happens. Of course the date is a disaster. Freddie has had too much to drink, and is passed out asleep in the restaurant booth as his date glumly digs at her plate of food with a fork. We are even less surprised when we see Freddie attack one of the men he is supposed to be photographing. It is not an accident that Freddie’s frantic chase around the department store floor echoes so exactly that earlier stroll of his paramour. The message is clear: we belong here, and you don’t. It is only with the introduction of the cryptic and cultish organization known as The Cause that the hope for an authentic home for Freddie takes flight. We have seen him only as a man running. Perhaps now he can catch his breath.

The parallels between Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the megalomaniacal founder of The Cause (and titular “Master” of the film), and L. Ron Hubbard (founder of Scientology) are obvious and trite. It is easy to dismiss “The Master” as an exercise in callow muckraking: here’s this thing that looks like Scientology, and talks like Scientology, and isn’t it terrible? I do not believe that the film is interested in these sorts of value judgments. What The Cause represents to Freddie (and perhaps what Scientology represented to so many people in its Post-War gestational period) is a radical break from the normative schemata (i.e America, the world, etc.) that has so suffocated him. For once the solution is not “do what all those other people are doing”, but “do not be like those other people”. Maybe the solution isn’t to try and cram yourself into a box that will never fit you. Maybe everyone else is sick and twisted and needs help. Maybe this new thing, this Cause, can be different.

 One of the most remarkable aspect of “The Master”, and the one most at odds with its supposed status as anti-Scientologist polemic, is its charitable handling of The Cause and its teachings. Compare the scene where Freddie is being “treated” by military psychiatrists in a medical facility to his first “Processing” with Dodd. Both scenes share a certain formal construction: two men sitting across from each other at a table, one man asking probing questions, the other answering them. Both “treatments” are meant to make explicit some previously obscured trauma, and in doing so allow the patient to address the problem at its root. In the first scene Freddie is evasive and cagey; he knows what the doctors want to hear, and what they must think of him. He doesn’t want to answer their questions. And why should he?

The first half of the Processing scene plays out in much the same fashion. Freddie is delusional and snide. He is either lying or in some drunken state of unearned confidence. Of course he is thoughtless in his remarks. Of course he worries about how insignificant his life is. He is no more willing to play along with Dodd than he was with his military psychiatrist. But then something unique happens, something that up until now has never transpired on screen: Freddie tells the truth. He talks about his pain, his worries, his failures. He talks about Doris (red-headed Doris, sixteen, the only person who wrote him a letter). He cries. In this moment of clarity we are let inside of Freddie’s head. We see what he sees: Doris, the sleepy houses and hills of Lynn, MA, its rows of park benches where young lovers kiss. Is it merely a mixture of Master’s personal charisma and Freddie’s florescent yellow “cocktail” that has dissolved his mental blocks so effectively, or is there something more profound at work?

This flashback is the film’s first of many sincere attempts to grapple with The Cause and its mysterious claims towards a fuller sense of reality and self. Consider Freddie’s appearance when remembering his encounters with Doris. We learn in the scene that she is only sixteen years old, and that this scene must be taking place in the immediate aftermath of the war (Freddie is still in his Navy Blues), which would place the encounter at least five years in the past from the time of the Processing (Dodd makes the year clear: we are in 1950). How then do we reconcile Freddie’s aged and beaten face, his hint of widow’s peak, his tough and leathery skin? It is as if Freddie has walked right out of the processing room and into a moment five years earlier.

And maybe he has. One of The Cause’s principle teachings is the ability to directly access moments from our pasts as total sensory objects. We see the past as if it was present, whether that past is five years ago, or Trillions (and that’s “Trillions” with a “T”). These flashbacks from Freddie’s past always coincide with moments of intense Cause training. A glimpse of Freddie at night in his combat gear with shaky hands trying to light a cigarette is juxtaposed with Freddie being berated by another member of Dodd’s inner circle during one of their “applications”.  Out of nowhere we return to Freddie on that beach from the beginning as he attempts to create his own sand woman, much cruder and less realized than the one before, her body washed away by a sudden surge of ocean water.  This as Freddie is ordered to march back and forth from wall to window in an exercise that he cannot understand. Times and place fold in on each other. All moments eternal, all moments now. The only constant is Freddie’s dazed and wounded face. Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, giving a performance the equal to Hoffman and Phoenix with a fraction of their lines) tells Freddie to make her blue eyes turn black and we see them turn black. Freddie’s mental instability is beyond doubt, but we cannot be so quick to dismiss these surreal moments as the mere expression of a troubled mind on screen. There are tears in Freddie’s eyes when he finishes Processing, but there is a calmness and strength there, too. Something is happening.

If The Cause opens up a new sort of world for Freddie where he can flourish and find some sense of peace, it is not without its tragic parallels to the contemporary society that has so totally rejected him. He is an outsider here, too. Dodd’s inner circle does not trust him. He drinks too much. He seems overly interested in money and women. He is too obviously emotional and quickly driven to anger. Why do they keep Freddie around for as long as they do?

If there is an aspect of “The Master” that is too obtuse and oblique for its own good, it is in regards to this relationship between Freddie and Dodd. When Dodd is directly confronted by his inner circle as to why he keeps Freddie around he gives the answer that the film needs him to give: that The Cause is here precisely to help people like Freddie, that if they give up on Freddie they will be failing their great, unprecedented task, etc. It is the bland pseudo-answer of all Prophets (false or not). The scene tells us nothing, except perhaps that any talk, no matter what its subject, is hollow and false outside of the “inherently perfect” state of mind encountered in the arcane “Applications” of The Cause. Never trust a man who blinks. These platitudes might be enough to momentarily satisfy Dodd’s family but we are no so easily cowed by the man’s status as Great Mystic to easily accept these kinds of answers.

Who is Lancaster Dodd? Maybe in understanding this man we will come to better know our own (Freddie), and untangle their gnarled relationship. Upon their first meeting, Dodd tells Freddie that he is “above all a hopelessly inquisitive man” just like Freddie (and by proxy, us). Being a man (just like us) assumes a whole laundry list of faults and fears. Humans are anxious. They are jealous. They react with terror and revulsion to things that they do not understand. They are so often their very worst when they must be their best. It is a gesture of solidarity towards Freddie in a world that offers no such promises. And it means something to Freddie, no doubt. But does it mean anything to Dodd?

It becomes clear that Dodd does not believe his own words about being just like us, even if the film shows him to be every bit our flawed reflection. He becomes violent and profane when questioned. He is sexually aggressive and frequently drunk. He covets expensive baubles and fast motorcycles, and longs to be seen as a striking, swashbuckling figure. It is a notion out of synch with his paunchy and sweaty physique.  A man accusing Dodd of fostering a cult is called a “rat fuck”, and a loyal follower wondering why Dodd changed the format of one of his Processing questions is screamed at as if she were a teenaged daughter caught sneaking home drunk after curfew. These are moments out of touch with his supposed message of understanding and total emotional control. They show a state of mind that is, to say the least, far from inherently perfect.

That Freddie reacts to these moments of outsider doubt with his own violent outbursts is telling. Perhaps it is the continuation of Freddie’s wartime promise to defend his home and his way of life with necessary violence. But there is another thing at play here too. Freddie’s outbursts are too obscene and panicked to be fully righteous. Does he detect an uncomfortable truth in the assertions of others that Dodd is not the man he claims to be? After Dodd’s son tells Freddie that Dodd is making everything up on the spot it is the cops who come to arrest Dodd that are met with immediate violence, but they are not the only victim. Freddie’s real anger is saved for later when he confronts Dodd from their respective jail cells, hissing at the man and calling him a liar and a fraud. How can the same incident inspire both the violent desire to protect Dodd and to denounce him? This is the unresolved tension at the heart of the film, the door that we never quite open.

Some viewers of the film might object to a lack of growth in Freddie Quell. We watch a man on screen to see him change; this is the essence of narrative. Sameness belongs to drearier places (our own daily lives come to mind). But I think we do see a change in Freddie, small though it may be, in his third act return to Doris. It is, after all, a letter from Doris that brings on his “crying spell”, and a memory of Doris that initiates him into the spiritual swirl of The Cause. She stands astride these two societies in a way that no one else can. That he is too late matters little. Doris has married another man (“Jim Day? Jim Day Jim Day?”) and moved to Alabama. She has two little boys. It is the life that Freddie was promised was waiting for him. And now it belongs to someone else. But Freddie does not react to this news with violence. He does not smash and scream. He does not drink himself into a homicidal stupor. It is a peaceful sort of sadness that flickers across his face. It is a kind of acceptance, and although it is meek it is not without its beauty. He knows that he cannot live in his world. He is tired of running and fighting. He is offered Doris’ address and the chance to write her a letter. He refuses. What good would it do either of them?

If he accepts the fact that he cannot live the kind of life that normal society wants for him he must also accept the fact he cannot live the life that Dodd demands. The final encounter between the two men makes Freddie’s choice clear: Submit or leave. Do this for a billion years, or don’t do it at all. If a happy life with Doris (and everything she stands for) is forever beyond Freddie’s reach, then so too is a happy life with Dodd and his promise of a return to perfection. That Dodd’s plea to Freddie boarders on the homoerotic (“I want to get you on a slow boat to china all to myself, alone.”) is not accidental. He and Doris even kind of look alike with their soft blue eyes and wispy hair. There are tears in Freddie’s face when he leaves Dodd for good, but he is at peace.

I began by saying that Freddie Quell would not be okay. Maybe that’s still true. He is, after all, a man without a home. Doris is gone. The Cause is gone. Who will give him a job, a place to stay? Although we no longer see him brewing up his heinous household hooch, we know that Alcoholism is too strong and wily an affliction to have completely abandoned him. It is almost certain that Freddie Quell will be dead in some ditch five years from the end of the film. But “almost certain” births its heartier offspring in the promise of “maybe”. Maybe there can be peace, or happiness, or stillness. What we call it matters little. It is not a grand promise. Like the woman made out of sand on the beach it is too easily ripped away by careless waters. But it is all that Freddie has. It is all that any of us has.  

Coatcheck Poem

Fourth of July, Long Ago

You asked me about love and I said something like:
It’s the same as China, don’t you think?
Immense and very far away
and I think I wanted you to see me as boyish and charming
but you gave me this look as if I had said something just kind of sad
or maybe stupid

and yes I think I might be  stupid.
I would confess every inner grain of my stupidity in the soft dark hills where your limbs melt into thunderous bodies.

It made me think of a time now gone (more gone than others) where I sat with bleeding feet on rocky beaches but did not care.
She beside me (it must have been summer but I remember colder waters)
to watch our city reflected in the  heart of the lake where moonlight sank heaviest. Maybe there is no summer. The sky at night seems indifferent to season.
When the fireworks scream above the shore the bats buzz our heads like heavy ghosts.
Is that what you meant about love? There are now only memories of those hands that caught the spilling light.
The city stands. The water is cold. 

Coatcheck Poems V

Waitress, Saturday Night, As Seen From The Corner

 

Like a horse for fourteen hours I have been on my feet.

My knees are tired from work.

 I am done for the night

but you,

 glimpsed through street level windows in the warm yellow light that clings to clean

places,

 have no time for rest.

 Your old-fashioned Waitress smock as straight and black as your hair.

Cars drive by (themselves little boxes of light where people glow) and in that space where our

eyes might meet you are as thin as a ghost.

At home I will remember how your slender arms are long and dyed to the wrists with tattoos,

 how they pour coffee by the cup for tired men like me

who think that they can read every thought you’ve ever had

right there on your face,

but can’t.



Imagined Scenes from Famous Films I have Never Seen

 

In Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” a beautiful young man in a suit is spit out onto an endless stretch of sand that cannot be called a desert because of the bank of perfectly green grass (even in the dreamy gray of Black and White-perfectly green, perfectly straight, growing and lush and thickly brambled-) which hugs the bottom edges of our frame like a needy child

and it couldn’t be a desert anyway because the man isn’t sweating. No one sweats in this film.

He’s an Italian and you’d know this even if you didn’t know that the director was an Italian too because the man’s eyes, even hidden behind those chic, obscuring sunglasses, are clear and shocking and hold your attention no matter where you look and makes your heart stop for just a moment, and these kinds of eyes are a special property of the Italian on film

and even if we don’t know anything else about this man or this place we know that he’s been waiting for a very long time for

-Her,

who you are just seeing now, her face filling the entire screen and just hanging there for what seems like minutes

                How far away is she?

He cannot touch her (and so we cannot touch her) but her hair whips around her face from

wind that seems to exist only for this very minute and you’re almost overcome with the urge to cut away from this hair to show a

slow-motion shot of dandelion spores surging out on that same gust of wind, each tuft its own little world

because that’s what her hair reminds you of, but our director fights for stillness and

her face hanging there and there’s something hurt and desperate in her eyes that is so much stronger than anything you’ve ever seen in your own eyes reflected back at you in the morning mirror

and the way her hair wraps around her face as the wind barks like a frightened animal.

Perhaps there are birds in this place too but you’d only ever know from the shadows that their

tiny hollow bodies like stars come to life that dart and fall and swirl

cast about the ground.

When I Grow Up I Want To Be Devoured By Wolves

 

one

                A strange thing happens when Gwen crosses the line separating Washington State from Oregon: nothing at all. A bottle of water at the gas station costs about ten cents less, and eager young men with slicked back hair and neck tattoos pump your gas for you, or maybe it’s a nice older woman who looks tired but smiles at you anyway. And that’s it. The sky stays the same milky gray (if it isn’t already raining, it will be soon), same gray as the road, and people talk the same as they do back home. Dress the same too. Sometimes she thinks that it would be easier if things were a little more different, less like home. Then maybe she’d understand.

                She’s gotten better at the drive, knows where to stop along the way to get a light breakfast and a decent cup of coffee. Knows which bathrooms are halfway sanitary, and which ones should be avoided at all cost. She used to hate driving in the rain. Now she’s done it so many times that she almost prefers it that way. Her fiancé loads up her phone with audiobooks so she’ll have something to listen to on her drives. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him that she hates being read to, that it makes her feel stupid, always has.  She passes the time by listening to the radio.

                When she gets to Portland she stops at a café and orders something to drink before calling Jason. The conversations are always the same. He asks her about her drive and he makes sure to tell her how much he loves her, and she says I know and that she loves him too. And she does. He always sounds tired, and she knows that he is still in bed. If she didn’t have to make the drive she’d be right there next to him. He never mentions her sister. She’s grateful for this (really, she is), but sometimes it’s so obvious that they aren’t trying to talk about Alicia that they might as well be talking about her. Somehow it feels much worse, all that not talking about her.  

                When it’s time for her to leave they tell each other I love you (“I love you, too”) and the last sound that Gwen hears before she hangs up is her dog barking from their living room, and when she hears this it feels like Seattle is on the other side of some brand new ocean, wide and empty and cold.

two

                She checks the trunk before she leaves Seattle, but that doesn’t keep her from checking it before she leaves Portland, too. Nothing is ever missing. Fresh shirts, fresh socks, fresh underwear, fresh everything; and everything plain, black, clean, baggy. A special kind of powdered toothpaste that Gwen has to buy online because Alicia won’t touch anything that comes out of a tube. A few rolls of toilet paper. A book that Gwen read over the summer that had made her cry. Maybe it’ll make Alicia cry, too. Food. A new letter from their mother that Gwen always wants to read but never does. It’s not for her. Sometimes her mom makes her bring along a dish from their youth, something layered in cheese and fat, just warm and soft enough to attract curious insects.

“She’s not going to eat that, Mom.”

“Just bring it. Please.”

three

 She’d like to tell you that the first time waiting for Alicia had been the worse, but that’s not really true. The first lie you learn is that things get better with time. It’s a fine lie, well intentioned, and like all the best lies, almost completely true. No one gets sad thinking about the first boy they ever kissed. You really do forget what your Grandfather’s voice sounds like; Thanksgiving dinners hardly change at all. She’s been visiting Alicia like this for over a year now and the waiting never gets any easier, or shorter, or less terrifying.

                It’s raining, but lightly so, and Gwen doesn’t bother putting up the hood on her jacket until she can feel her bangs beginning to plaster against her forehead. That’s how long she’s been waiting in that solemn strip of dirt where she parks her car, out there in the middle of nowhere, nothing to see but that little bit of sky out above the trees. But she’s not looking at the sky. The trees are tall and beautiful and green in a way that makes her sad, because they really do look like they go on forever, tree after tree, no end in sight. And somewhere in that green, her sister. What if they really did keep on going? How would you ever find someone in all that?

                When she inevitably spots Alicia (emerging from the tree line like the grainy shape of some mythical creature captured with trembling hands on super-8 film, everything quiet except for the sound that the  rain makes on her car) she’s overwhelmed with an emotion she wants to call “relief”, but that’s not what it is. Not quite relief, but a strange cousin that has no name. And she think about all the things that she wants to say to her sister, all the things that she hasn’t been able to say in the two month gap between her visits. She wants to tell her about Mom breaking her leg trying to get their old Christmas tree out of the attic. She wants to tell her that they have set a date for their wedding. She wants to tell her how much she’s missed her, and how much she loves her. They all love her. Her friends miss her and love her. Mom misses her and loves her. She wants to tell her how much she wants her to come back home. Why won’t she come back home?

                But what she actually says to Alicia, time after time, the two of them finally face to face in that empty strip of dirt with soft raining falling around them, rain falling down Alicia’s face (she has no hood), her hair long and thin and dark with grease, dark like her dark eyes, upturned nose just like Gwen’s nose (they really are sisters when you see them together like that, nose to nose), what she actually says to Alicia, no matter how many times it happens, is

“You’re late.”

four

Things you can eat to keep you alive in the woods:

 Green things, leafy and tough. Hard brown roots dug out of the ground. You will have dirty hands out here. Your gums will bleed. There are dead things that you can eat. Some of them you find on the ground, still fresh enough to skin and gut and boil clean. Some of them so fresh that you are there for that last breath. You watch the life beat out of finely furred breasts in soft rolling gasps. Warm organs like little candies in your hand. Everything tastes like blood or grass.

                Gwen will eat whatever Alicia gives her. She knows that she is being tested; she can practically hear Alicia with each bitter handful. You do not belong here. It hurts that Alicia sees her the way a stranger might; something soft and blonde and in need of protection from a world that has no affection for its softest things. She has held the proof of this in her muddy hands. Sometimes she wants to scream at her sister, scream at the top of her lungs, out here where no one else can hear them. At the end of their three days together Gwen is so hungry that she wants to cry. But “Don’t Let Her See You Cry” is the only rule that Gwen has for herself out here.

They never talk about the bags of food that Gwen leaves behind for Alicia. Lentils, beans, rice: the kinds of foods that a horse might eat if a horse were human. It’s a pride thing, probably. She wants Gwen to see how little she needs her help. It’s always been that way. Gwen tells herself this because it’s easier to say than what she actually thinks is happening: that Alicia isn’t eating the food she brings for her at all. That it all gets dumped there in the woods for the birds and rodents to eat. That she needs Gwen so little that even her food is too much of a reminder of everything she’s left behind.

It’s like a little movie that plays in her head as she drives back home. Alicia pouring out bag after bag, nose wrinkled in disgust as if it were shit that she was spilling on the earth. But at least with shit something might grow. And it makes Gwen mad, thinking about this thing that she has never seen. It’s like Alicia’s spitting in her face. Why won’t she just let her love her like she used to when they were kids? By the time she’s half way home she’s too tired to be angry. Now there’s nothing but the hunger and a heavier kind of sadness, so heavy that sometimes she really does start to cry, right there in her car where she can pretend that no one else can see her.

five

                There was a time when they were children. On Thursday nights Mom picks them up from dance class, Gwen sitting shotgun, two years older than Alicia and happy. Gwen is the better dancer of the two. Mom is tired from work, mostly quiet, eyes on the road for a drive that is long (the sky turns black early this time of year; every drive is longer in this black), and lets the girls play games in the car to pass the time. I Spy. The License Plate Game. Punch Buggy. There’s a special game they have, nameless and strange, no rules that either girl could explain to you. But that’s okay. The game isn’t for you. It starts like this:

                “When I grow up I want to be President,” Gwen might say. It is almost always Gwen (happy Gwen, better dancer) who starts this game.

                And then Alicia, “When I grow up, I want to be King of England.”

                “When I grow up I want to be Batman.”

                “When I grow up I want to be the first lady to go to Mars.”

                “-the Sun.”

                “-Queen of the Sun.”

                “-Superman, but a lady.”

                And so on, back and forth, until they are home. Sometimes when Mom is especially tired she’ll stop at McDonalds for their dinner. Happy Gwen, happy Alicia, happy Mom, the sky its darkest yet but now they are home.


six

                She’s not allowed to take out her phone. Alicia despises photographs. Just look, she tells Gwen. So Gwen does look: are those new bruises on Alicia’s body? Are those cuts healing properly? Has she lost even more weight? Yes, she has.

The Alicia she remembers was always heavier than Gwen, fuller mouthed and wide-hipped. She remembers high school, watching Alicia’s body change, her fumbling shame unspoken to Gwen except for the way her eyes searched for skinnier angles in the bathroom mirror they shared. She remembers the boys waiting for Alicia in their parents’ cars on Friday nights, the intensity with which they watched her turn to lock the front door behind her. Where was that sister now? There is bone and muscle where she once was soft. Where has all that softness gone, she wonders. It lives in pictures kept by Gwen in tidy stacks on her dresser. But Gwen does not look at them. They seem lewd to her now, and foreign.

                She resents her sister’s nakedness, the way she sheds her clothes with ease around Gwen. Like she’s proud of what has become of her body. Like breasts and hips and stomach were malignant growths exhumed with purpose by gentle hands.  Her tattoos indistinguishable from the dark welts and cuts that life out here provides in plenty. Gwen will not take off her own clothes. She will not join her sister as she bathes in the cold green waters (green with moss, surface thick and soupy) just down the hill from where her sister has set up camp. She doesn’t think that she could stand to see their bodies side by side like that. She’s scared of Alicia’s body now. She doesn’t know what it means to be scared of her sister’s body, but she is.

                 Three months from now when she’s waiting by her car for her sister to emerge she’ll think: this time she will look better. There will be a familiar shape to her body. Her skin will glow, her hair will be clean. She will look just like Mom when Mom was young and tan and happy. But she never does look like Mom. She looks like less and less of anything that Gwen can recognize. There are black depths to her eyes (eyes that are always beautiful; Gwen has never seen a person with eyes as beautiful as her sister’s) that are frightening. They are sharp and quick like the eyes of an animal. Sometimes they look at Gwen and don’t seem to recognize what they see, as if Gwen were the sister wasting away. As if Gwen were the one transforming into something brutal and sharp.

                There is a tooth missing now, bottom front. Gwen wants to ask her about the missing tooth. A tooth, Alicia. Your beautiful teeth. But she can’t.

seven

                She is in bed with her fiancé. Their apartment is new and naked in a way that makes it feel infinite. On weekends you can hear the other young people as they walk through the neighborhood. No one can afford to drive more than once or twice a week. No one can afford to eat the food they want to eat. But people are in love, inside and out, and in summertime the women look beautiful in their long, cheap dresses.

                “Who owns the land?” he asks her. He has a new haircut and new glasses, and she can’t stop touching the side of his face as they talk. She likes it when he lets his beard grow for a couple of days.

                “Some timber company. They own the whole forest. Well, most of it.”

                “And they just let her stay there?”

                “They have no idea. It’s slow business, cutting trees. Alicia says that she can stay out there for years before they finally get to her.”

                “Jesus. Years? And what happens when they do get there?”

                “I don’t know. Maybe she’ll come home.”

                “You really think that?”

eight

                There’s no good time to bring up Mom, but still Gwen has to try. At night the two of them sit around the fire that Alicia has built to cook that evening’s meal. Gwen helps with the fires now, gathering wood in the morning and tending the flames at their most fragile. She’s proud of how she’s adapting to life out here. She wants Alicia to see how good she’s gotten at it. She is more than the blonde sister, the one with a comfortable bed and two part time jobs.

                Nighttime at the fire is when they talk. The days are too busy, too wide open. The air too clean. If the trees line up right, you can see for miles without something blocking your line of sight. Alicia looks like a ghost in the bits of sun that reach between the branches here. How do you talk to a person like that? The fire and the dark give angles to her face that have otherwise withered away.  She seems more real, somehow.

                Gwen can feel herself blathering. It’s okay if Alicia doesn’t respond, as long as she listens. Gwen needs to fill the air with something more than the snap of burning twigs. She needs Alicia to understand that there’s a life back home that she is missing. It’s not too late. It’s not gone forever. Gwen tells her stories about cute boys who work at coffee shops, nights spent drinking with their friends, shows she’s seen. Shows that Alicia used to go to, not so long ago.  Friends she used to have. Boys she used to fall in love with, get hurt by, forget.

                Sometimes Alicia smiles when Gwen talks about these things from back home. Even with the missing tooth her smile looks like Gwen’s. She never smiles when Gwen brings up Mom. But she has to bring up Mom. Couldn’t she come back home with her, just for a night or two? It would mean so much to her, Alicia. It’s all she ever talks about. If she’s listening to Gwen, she doesn’t show it. It’s like she’s telling her about a character on a show she used to watch, a long time ago.

                When the fire gets low there’s nothing left to do but go to sleep. An animal brays from the dark. Eventually it too goes to sleep.

nine

                Jason is taking one of his long showers, the kind that means that there will be no hot water left for Gwen. She doesn’t mind. They fought last night about money, and the drinking, and about everything else in their lives. They are more in love with each other than ever, but both want things to change. What things? They cannot put their fingers on it. It slips away from them. And so they fight. They make sure to fuck before they go to sleep. They do not want to sleep angry. They want the fight to be in the past, but it is not in the past. It is stuck to them like a spider web in the morning. So let him take his long shower, she thinks. Maybe that will wash it all away.

                She thinks about all of the things that she is going to say to her fiancé, but none of them seem real enough to say out loud. They are just sounds in her mouth. She knows that grown up relationships can have these moments of doubt, and fear, and sadness, but she is shocked that they have finally come into her life. It’s like a wall has collapsed.

                She looks at the space on her bed where Jason sleeps and imagines that Alicia is there with her. And Alicia is smiling. She’s happy to see her older sister. She needs Gwen’s advice. She hates her job and everyone is mean to her there. What should I do, Gwen? And so Gwen tells her what to do. Alicia keeps talking. She can’t stop talking, now. What should I do about this boy that I love, and I think he loves me too, but sometimes he’s so mean to me? He acts like I don’t even exist. Why won’t my best friend talk to me anymore? What should I get Mom for her birthday? Uncle Pete’s been drinking again, did you know that? And Gwen holds her hand and Alicia snuggles in closer to her and Gwen puts her lips against Alicia’s forehead and tells her answers to all of her questions. In her mind they stay like this for hours.

Jason comes out of the shower and apologizes. He didn’t mean any of those things that he said to her. She knows.

She didn’t mean them either.

Belgium: Part Three

THREE

He waved goodnight to the security detail standing in front of his door like imposing mountains, German mountains, the kind that German parents told their little German children about in all those old German stories, craggy and ominous out on the horizon. He’d never seen them look tired, not once. Must be they rotate in and out, he figured. Maybe Brandt and the boys gave them something special to keep the eyes open, something cooked in underground labs by pasty men with advanced degrees and haunting memories of what the sun once felt like on their necks: an unbroken chain of wide-eyed men, alert and serious. They opened the door to the suite without comment. He appreciated their silence as much as he did their protection.

            The books he’d read (back when he still read books) and the movies he’d seen suggested that life on the road was fundamentally lonesome. Nowhere feels like home; not even your home feels like home. But what he never imagined, and what no one had ever written down in a book for him, was that he’d just stop caring after a while. He’d had plenty of places to call his own: studio apartments with cardboard walls and hideous neighbors, rundown houses by the boardwalk with six, seven, eight roommates, people in and out, revolving doors, his uncle’s house in Georgia with its oak trees in the yard and great big windows where he’d spent a summer when he was nine. He’s even lived in stately manors; honest to god manors, with old gothic fences like something out a comic book and state of the art security alarms. For nine months he lived in a house that was supposed to be haunted; a famous actress had been murdered there, back in the 90s, slashed up with a knife in the master bathroom until all those things you need on the inside to keep you going were on the outside, all over the tile, the imported bathroom textiles. Once, he’d spotted a dark spot on the wall behind the toilet that he was sure was blood. Turns out it was black mold. The place had been lousy with it.

 The hotel management made it easy to forget that this wasn’t Kelvin’s home. Change around the furniture. Bring all the pets you want. Buy new pets, if you need to. He never even had to see the bills; there were people to take care of that sort of thing for him now. Karen had changed the place so totally that he couldn’t remember what it had looked like when they first arrived. She had a heavy touch, his fiancée, an awesome gravity that changed the places she went. He opened a bottle of water from the fridge and stared out across the foyer at a painting on the wall. It was large and blue and seemed to depict some sort of clown, a hideous grinning thing, and were those tentacles at the bottom? Had that painting always been there? Better not to even ask her. She often accused him of not paying attention.

Maybe things weren’t so different over here. Maybe the water tasted a little funny, but so what? There had to be ways to fix that sort of thing. Belgium could feel like New York with enough money. Karen could be happy there, couldn’t she? Germany was one thing (he looked out the patio windows, across the jutting tooth line of the city at night, the buildings, all of that Germany out there). But Belgium? Maybe Europe would be easier on him than American had been.  Were there beautiful forests in Belgium? He hoped so. He made a list of all the things he might miss back home. The list was shorter than he would have thought. But still, still. Belgium. He wished he had a map.

He entered their bedroom with the hope that Karen would already be asleep; but there she sat, in front of the vanity mirror (old and marbled and glamorous, like everything that Karen loved), posture perfect, the creams and lotions that were her night-time ritual arranged in deep rows before her on the counter.  Their eyes met in the mirror and she smiled. Sometimes he wished that she’d get mad at him; he was supposed to be home hours ago. Couldn’t he have called? But no, there she was, smiling at him as she traced the perfect lines of her face with a lotion streaked hand, softly kneading her skin the way one massaged the fatty parts of a calf in preparation for its slaughter. He has never seen her angry.

“How was the party?” she asked him as he sat down on the edge of their bed, still a little drunk. He could tell that in the morning he would feel like shit. The hotel made a halfway decent Hamburger (didn’t this country invent the damned thing?), and they could have one up here in under twenty minutes if he made the call. God he’d love a hamburger. He used to stay out drinking until four AM, used to stumble home and eat hamburgers and feel like shit in the morning. Karen’s lotion smelled like campfires, like when he was a kid and his grandfather would take them out into the deep dark woods. How did they get that smoky scent in there?

“Fine,” he said. “Pretty great, I guess. You know. The same.”

She pursed her lips together and went mmmmmm, as if Kelvin had said something of deep interest to her. “I’m glad you had a good time, baby. You’ve been working too hard lately. All that worrying is bad for the soul.”

His back quivered and pulsed as he reached down to untie his shoes. Oh god, maybe he was getting old: memories of his father, beer belly and hairy shoulders, always in pain, usually drunk. He didn’t think much about his father these days, and when he did it was usually something small and mean and pointless. An old man, complaining about his feet.

In three days they were supposed to do a tour of the Riviera. Karen loved the Riviera. But the thought of going anywhere anytime soon made him nauseated. Couldn’t the world just stop for a few days?  There were always being shuttled onto private airplanes, floated from one crumbling city to the next. They’d come to expect the same faces at every airport, cameras in hand, wide-eyed and mouth-foaming, screaming their names. Karen even knew some of their names by now, and could tell you which ones were married, how old their kids were, what kind of cars they drove.  And of course the photographers loved Karen. Everyone loved Karen. She made you love her.

“…I had kind of a funny conversation with Brandt tonight. He’s got a lot of strange ideas about the future, a lot of talk about a new direction for the two of us.”

“I wasn’t aware that we cared what Brandt thought about us.”

“We don’t. Not really.” The pillows felt new. Softly enormous, expensive. He could buy new pillows every day if he wanted to, and match those brand new pillows with a brand new wardrobe. There were whole closets of clothes back home in New York that he’d never even worn. He used to love clothes, could talk to you for hours about the different shades of pink in his wardrobe and what they said about him as a man. Lately it seemed like everything he wore was somber and black: drab, adult, funereal. Karen had asked him just the other day if everything was alright. Was it a phase? He didn’t think so. It just sort of happened that way. You wake up in the morning, grab the first shirt you see, and go out into the world. He didn’t have the heart to agonize over his attire anymore. All those pinks just looked pink to him.

“He’s been talking with the label,” he continued, “says they have a whole plan in place. New album out by next summer, world tour, interactive music videos. Maybe even a tie-in film. Says it would be a total surprise. No one would see it coming, you know. Viral marketing, all that crap. Hashtags.” He thought about the Baron’s face, the blue of his eyes, the fine scar on the cheek like a villain in some movie. How could we explain something like that to someone who hadn’t been there? He wanted to wait until the morning for this conversation, but of course he couldn’t.

“A movie? I didn’t know you want to be a movie star.”

“I don’t. It’s just an idea, anyway.”

“Brandt’s idea.”

“No. Well, yeah, kind of. Maybe a little bit. Brandt’s idea and the Label’s idea. You know how it goes. Everyone knows everything, so nothing is anyone’s fault. Shift the blame, share the praise.”

“It’s a little late in the game to be talking about a new album less than a year from now, isn’t it? Not unless you’ve been toiling away in secret all this time.”

“Brandt says they’ve already got most of the production done. They could have me in a studio by next week ready to work. Scribble down a few lyrics, pawn them off to the Bullpen to round out, and you’ve got a song before lunch time. A whole album in just a few weeks. A stage show worked out by the end of the year.” He watched her reflection for some hint of reservation. She’d been watched by eager men the whole world around since she was nineteen years old, knew exactly what they wanted to see from her. She showed him nothing.

“You think it’s a bad idea,” she said to him as she wiped her hands clean on a towel and moved on to the next thousand dollar tincture. He’d never known someone with such perfect skin, and didn’t care how much it cost to keep her flawless. No one had ever been born that looked as good in a mirror as his fiancée.

“Do you think it’s a bad idea?”

“I think you think it’s a bad idea.”

“Maybe,” he said, knowing of course that it was a lie, that of course he thought it was a bad idea. He’d always written all of his own music. It was the only thing he’d ever been good at, and now they wanted to take it away from him. “Maybe it would be nice to get it over with. The people want new music, so why not? Maybe it’d be nice, like having a real job again: go to work in the morning, come home in the evening, no surprises in between. I could do that. We could be happy, doing that.”

“You never struck me as the happy type, baby. That’s why I love you so much. Happy people are so boring, don’t you think?”

Sometimes Karen frightened him. He’d always wanted to be famous, but she’d always been famous. The gulf between these two realities was enormous and terrifying. He could remember seeing her for the first time in that video so clearly, how in love he’d been with her, how her hair, yanked with sweaty palms by the camera operator (some low level sitcom players, already forgotten by the world) tumbled down her back. He knew, even then, that someday he’d be with the one with the sweaty palms, the one that made everyone else jealous. And then it had happened. There she was. Of all the things that had happened to him over the last decade, this was the one that seemed the most unreal.  Like it could all go away at any moment. Like a mistake had been made, would be corrected soon. That he’d wake up and have nothing of her left.

“They want us to move, too. Give up New York. New York’s all played out, apparently.” He tried to remember the way that they’d explained it to him. They’d even offered a script, something that he could study in the car on the way home. He should have taken it.  “There’s nothing there that hasn’t been seen before. Brandt says that there are people who can sell and move every item we move, practically overnight. We’d be gone from that place faster than you could blink. He said it just like that.” He leaned his head back against their expensive pillows and looked at the ceiling, which was tall and round and like the ceiling of a cathedral, but white: disappointing in its nakedness. “Brandt’s married, right? Didn’t he take some time off last year for a honeymoon?”

“They’ve been having trouble.”

“I didn’t think that Brandt talked to you about that kind of stuff.”

“Brandt doesn’t talk to me about anything, darling. You can just tell.”

“So,” he said.

“So.”

“So what do you think?”

“About moving?”

“Yeah, about moving.”

“He’s right about New York. I’ve been saying that for years.”

“So you could leave it all behind, just like that?”

“If that’s what we need to do, then that’s what we’ll do. I’ll be fine, no matter where we go. It’s all just one big place, you know. The world. My grandparents used to live in Berlin, back before all that nastiness. Maybe it’d be nice to return here as a kind of tribute to them. I like the sound of that. I ever tell you about my Grandfather?

“He had a heart attack when I was nine, and I remember my mother rushing us all to the hospital. It was all very exciting and terrible at the same time, overwhelming and scary but new. Everything is so new when you’re little that it’s almost impossible to not be excited. I think people forget that sometimes. Anyway, there we were in the horrible place and my Grandmother was just sobbing, losing it really, making these horrible old woman noises that I’d never heard before. We’re not really a crying family. It just isn’t done. Anyway, there she was, sobbing, and I remember that my mom and my uncles wanted to go see him,  my Grandfather that is, wanted to go see him and tell him how much they loved him and all that, but my Grandmother wouldn’t let them.

“She kept saying how she didn’t want any of us to see him like that, all grey and old and shriveled up. Dying, really. We all knew it. But there she was, saying that she wouldn’t let us see him like that. She wanted us to remember him how he used to be, big and strong. And then she looked me right in the eyes, and, I’ll never forget this part, never ever, she said ‘Your Grandfather killed two SS men with his own hands at Sobibor. That’s the kind of man your Grandfather is.’ Isn’t that just wild, darling?”

“What’s a ‘Sobibor’?” His limbs fumbled past the unfamiliar sounds.

“So-beeee-booorrrrrr” she sounded out the syllables for him in the mirror.  “One of those places, darling. One of the really nasty ones. Tra-bliiiiin-kaaaaa,” she said. “Burrr-kiiiiiin-owwwwww. They were everywhere, you know. You can hardly throw a brick around this continent without hitting one.”

“That’s terrible.”

She gave a flick of her hair and moved on to the hand cream she’d bought in Paris, rubbing it into her skin with practiced efficiency. “It’s just a thing that happened. Just like everything else that ever happened on this planet, or ever will. Like leaving New York, or putting out a new album a little before schedule. It all works out in the end for people like us. You don’t fight the wind, darling, you blow with it.”

“Either way, it wouldn’t be Germany.  Too many jokes about Volkswagens and dungeon-porn. Too stark, too cold, too brutal. Too much history. Too much everything. Brandt says ‘Belgium’.”

“Belgium?”

“That’s what they say. Belgium. People don’t know about Belgium. Not back home, at least. They like the waffles, sure, but that’s it. Everywhere else is already taken. Brandt says that people don’t want to see us in London. London is out. And Paris, well…everyone knows about Paris. What’s there left to say? It’d be New York all over again.”

“But not with Belgium. Belgium would be new.”

“Right. No one knows about Belgium. It’s virgin territory, ripe for the taking. We’ll be the most famous people that country has ever seen. Brandt says that when people think of Belgium from now on, what they’ll really be thinking about is the two of us. He says they have castles there, real deal old timey kings and queens type castles, and that we could have one of them. Did you know that people still lived in castles?”

“Of course, darling. I always imagined I’d get married in a castle.”

“The Label already has people scouting locations. Somewhere out in the country, remote, austere, but on the cutting edge of things: old world royalty meets new world techno-elegance.” He remembered that phrase in particular, the way it sounded when the Baron had said it. “Can you imagine that living in a castle? A country where people still live in castles. I figured that they were just funny French people who didn’t live in France, but Brandt says that half of them don’t even speak French. Isn’t that crazy?”

Karen stood up from her vanity and moved over to the bed, sitting down beside him and resting her palm on his forehead, the way she always did when he felt anxious. Her hands smelled like pineapple. “Okay,” she said, quietly, the way his mother used to when he was a child, and sick.

“Okay?” he asked.

“Okay. Belgium. If that’s what we need to do to keep all this going, then that’s what we’ll do. We’ll live in your castle, and we’ll put out your album, and we’ll say what we need to say.”

“It isn’t that simple.”

“Of course it is, baby. It’s always that simple. And five years from now, when no one cares about either of us, and it’s just you and me and all of the beautiful children we’ll have there in that castle, we’ll have everything that we’ve ever wanted. Our children will have more things than our parents ever could have provided for us. They won’t even know what poverty is. And we’ll still be young and beautiful, and have all the time in the world to do whatever we want. And we’ll never be sad. And if we get sick, we’ll pay the best doctors in the world to make us healthy. And we’ll never get fat, and we’ll never get old, and we’ll never get tired, and we’ll never hate each other. We’ll be the happiest family that’s ever lived on this horrible planet. Do you believe that, baby?”

He closed his eyes. He did believe it.

“I want you to see it, baby. I want you to see our beautiful family.” He could see it. “We’re going to have a boy that looks just like you, and a girl that looks just like me.” Our children will be beautiful, he thought. People will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just to take pictures of them. “We’ll hire people to clean our homes daily, no dirt anywhere.” People will be so happy to see me in public that they will cry; it will overwhelm them, how happy they are to see me in public. “Our children will speak dozens of languages. They will have advanced degrees from the best schools on the planet, and will never have to work a day in their lives.” They will be tall and beautiful. Their father sold millions of albums; their Great-Grandfather killed two SS men with his own hands. “Nothing bad will ever happen to either of us ever again. I want you to see it, baby. Can you see it?”  I can see it. I can.  Nothing bad will ever happen to us ever again. “You’re going to live forever, baby.” I am going to live forever. I am never going to die.

END

Belgium: Part Two

TWO

He found Brandt by the poolside bar in the garden. The pool: pale blue-almost green water, depopulated and flat.  A handsome man poured champagne for a group of women, everywhere laughter, and there, perched at the edge of the bar with the broken posture of an accomplished Problem Drinker, too-small jacket riding up high, shirt bunching like a diaper where it met his pants: Brandt. The women’s necks were long and white and they wore dresses that made harsh landscapes of their bodies. He wondered if maybe they’d try to talk to him if he went over to Brandt. It all made him   nervous, although he could not tell why. Maybe it was the pool. Why wasn’t anyone swimming in the fucking pool?  

            “Well hello there, you,” said Brandt, turning his face towards Kelvin as he joined the bar. “Enjoying the party?”

            “Where the hell have you been? Do you have any idea how many conversations I’ve had to have with these awful people? ” Brandt’s face crumbled into something sad and panicked as Kelvin chewed him out. He smelled the alcohol on Brandt’s breath, watched a bead of sweat, immense and globular like a collapsing iceberg, slide down his cheek. No one else at the party seemed to be sweating. Not even the dancers back inside had been sweating (although, the more he thought about this, the more it unnerved him. Why hadn’t they been sweating?)

“I’m just having a really great time. Everything is just so beautiful here,” he said.  Brandt stared into Kelvin’s face as if  trying to poke through the back of his skull, searching through brain and bone for that handsome bartender, the fine brown hair on his forearms, the strong hands shaking cocktails, the assured grin and winking eyes, all obscured by Kelvin’s face. “No one told me about the cats. I had no way of knowing that was going to happen. That kind of thing almost never happens. I think I need another drink. Can I get you something? I’m real sorry about those cats. Really. I would never put you in that sort of situation.”

            “Shut up about the damn panthers. I’m over it.”

            “I thought they were leopards. Someone told me leopards.”

            “They were definitely panthers.”

            “Well, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just…I can’t…” Brandt’s eyes went soft and stupid, shapeless. “He’s really beautiful,” he said, peering around Kelvin’s head at the smiling bartender. “I know everyone’s beautiful here, but, my God, look at him. Just look at him. You think maybe if he sees the two of us together he’ll pay more attention to me? I bet he will. I just love all the accents over here, don’t you?”

            Kelvin had never heard Brandt speak like this. Wasn’t there a husband back home? He remembered a picture on a desk at the Label’s New York office: a man, in shape, thick black mustache, his arm around Brandt’s waist. There were so many people back there in New York. Parts of lives like the bombed out rubble of a place he used to know. Sometimes he worried that his European “vacation” would never end, that he’d never make sense of all those pieces ever again.  How long had it been since he’d called his mother? He’d call her in the morning, he decided. Have Brandt figure out the time difference. He watched Brandt sway to the left and back to the right, gently, as if enjoying a nice sunset on the deck of Kelvin’s yacht.

            Two of the women at the end of the bar were watching him now. He knew that look, the way they leaned in close, lips tight, the careful flash of teeth:  You go talk to him. No, you go. He thought about the one with the big brown eyes and he thought about taking her to one of the private rooms upstairs and undressing her as she talked to him in one of those ridiculous baby gurgle languages they spoke around here. Probably she spoke English, too. He thought about her undressing and talking to him in English. He thought about Karen back at the Hotel. He’d told her that they’d be back before 2 A.M. Stay out as late as you want, she’d told him.

            “I think you should call the car. Get me the hell out of this place.” He could feel the other people in the garden starting to watch him, eyes turning one by one, conversations halting. People going so quiet all at once that it’s all you could hear. He’s gotten good at ignoring it.

            Brandt’s eyes squeezed shut as if he were confronted by a fierce light. “We can’t go yet,” he said. “We have to wait a little bit longer. Have a drink, relax, take in the fresh air.”

            “I’m tired, and I want to go home.  You can let your people know that I appreciated the party. Loved it, even. The event of the season. Tell them whatever the hell you need to so they can slap you on the back and tell you how great you’re doing. Make it up. You’ve always been great at that sort of thing.”

            “Have you walked through the garden yet? It’s beautiful. I mean, really beautiful, like something out of a movie. You’ll love it. Let me get you a cocktail.” Brandt looked older than Kelvin remembered. Older than he had looked just the day before. How old was Brandt? He’d never really considered it before. Older than Kelvin was. He tried to remember the name of the husband (it was a husband, he was sure of it now-there had been a wedding, and flowers, and a beautiful summer day, an enormous summer sky, people wearing summer suits). Jerry. Wayne. Etc. “This whole party is for you, Kelvin. You can’t go yet. You’ve got to stick around for the big reveal.”

            Something foreign and dark brewed in Kelvin’s stomach. He hated reveals of all shapes and sizes. Once, when he was seven, his parents had thrown him a surprise party. All his friends had been there, all his happy cousins, stern aunts and uncles. Kelvin cried for three hours straight. Where had all these people come from? Why had they done this horrible thing to him?

            “I don’t think…” was all he could say as Brandt, as if by magic, produced two brightly colored cocktails for their consumption, his eyes cooking with a fevered shine.

            “You’re going to love it. We’ve been working our asses off all year on both sides of the Atlantic, just for this. Just for you. You wouldn’t believe the headaches. The 3 AM conference calls. The sweat and tears. Families…strained. But don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about anything.” He reached out and put his hand on Kelvin’s shoulder, a move that Kelvin suspected had been highly rehearsed in some bathroom mirror just hours before. “Why don’t we take a little walk through the garden, just until the presentation is ready? How does that sound?”

            “Is that woman holding a peacock?” said Kelvin, as a woman walked by the bar with a large blue bird in her arms. The bird’s head twisted back towards Kelvin and blinked its black eyes and looked like something monstrous and from a world a long, long ways away.

            “Beautiful animals,” said Brandt.

            “It’s late. Whatever the Label wants to show me can wait for tomorrow.”

 The bird’s eyes were locked on Kelvin. The woman’s steps took her deeper down the web of garden paths, the bird’s head snapping up then down as it dissolved into the dark. He wished it would stop looking at him like that. Across the garden Kelvin could see a pond (a pond and a pool?), long and flat and reflecting the moonlight back towards the house. At the far side of the pond on the soft green grass lounged young people, shirtless and sinewy, passing a joint to their left in lazy intervals. Watching them made Kelvin feel fat and old; he’d grown a bit of a stomach since the end of the tour. He missed being casually fit and young. In three months he’d be Thirty-six. He never could have imagined that one day he’d be thirty-six. Not in a thousand years.

            “What time is it back in New York?” asked Kelvin. Brandt looked at his watch, which was not nearly as nice as Kelvin’s watch. No one’s watch was as nice as Kelvin’s watch. He did not answer the question. They watched the shirtless loungers lounge until one of the kids (Oh god, how young were they?) with fine marbled ribs that he could count by the reflected light of the pond took notice of him. He watched her lips make flapping shapes from across the water and her eyes squint then widen like the beaked mouth of a squid engulfing a meal. In a few moments when she realized that yes, it really was him (and Yes, It Really Was) she’d tell the others and they all turn and gape. Maybe they’d screw up the courage to come talk to him. He could probably sleep with a couple of them if he wanted. Did he want to?  Sometime he forgets what it feels like to want something so bad.

            “Let me show you something,” said Brandt, turning away from the bar and heading down one of the garden’s paths, away from the pond and its people. Why not? At least it looked darker there, deeper, quieter; almost like the night time walks he remembered as a child, a world of ambient insect noise and nocturnal mammals with their luminous eyes and tiny rodent hands. Did they have crickets in Germany? Their shoes dug into damp grass where they swerved away from the path, tracing the length of the house until they arrived at the back. Brandt raised his hand towards a balcony where human-shaped figures could be observed, four or five of them, leaning on the railing and contemplating the rolling hills and beautiful ponds and flightless birds beneath them. Maybe they were looking at Kelvin, too. “There’s our host. Been with the Label since the beginning. Seen it all. He’s a big fan of yours, too. Told me so himself. You’d love the Baron. He’s a self-made man, just like you.”

            “I thought you had to be born a Baron.” He watched the blurry shapes on the ledge and wondered which blur was the Baron. None looked especially regal.

            “I don’t think he’s an actual Baron. It’s just a name they throw around here.”

            Kelvin looked away from the house and back out into the dark and unexplored corners of the garden. He wondered how deep it went, what might happen if they kept walking. At some point they would reach the fence.  They’d have to.

            “The Baron has some wonderful ideas for you.  We all do.”

            “Who’s ‘We’?”

            “The label, the promoters, the accountants, the world. We’ve all been doing some thinking.” Brandt turned face up towards the sky. You really could see the stars out here. Kelvin had never thought much of the stars; there were better lights here on Earth. But there they were. “We don’t think there’s anything left for you in New York. It’s explored territory, Kelvin. You’ve had everything it has to offer, and you’re not even the first to do so. There’s a whole line of people standing in front of you, and you don’t impress them. How could you? But things could be different here.”

“Here?” said Kelvin.

“Well, not here, here; but here. This.” He waved his hands about in the air, waving at all that This.  “The Old World is new again. We’ve crunched the numbers, plumbed the trends, squeezed all the stones. It’s all leading here, Kelvin. And you can be at the center of it. We’ve seen something bigger and better for you, bigger than anything that we ever could have imagined. And there’s money at the end of this thing. Money for all of us. So much money that you could make a house out of it all, stack on stack on stack.”

            “I have money.”

            “No,” he said. “The Baron has money. You have a bunch of nice things.”

            “I don’t know what we’re talking about anymore.” Kelvin looked away from the stars and down at his glass, which was now empty except for one last ice cube, malformed and thinning in the middle. Fuck the empty carbs, he wanted another drink. He’d pay someone to make him lean and strong before the next round of videos. He’d look better than ever. He looked behind him for the bar but there was nothing there but hills and stars and somewhere to the west the hideous crowing of a bird (is that what peacocks sound like?); and Brandt, of course, the hazy specter of the Baron just beyond his head like a shadow.

“I’m talking about something new and better. I’m talking about leaving behind everything you ever had for something that will shock the world. You and your bride, tabloid King and Queen of Europe. Everything you touch turning to gold. This is the kind of stuff they’ve been talking about.  There’s no limit to this new approach. No limit to how high we can ride this thing”.

­            “We?”

            “We, you know, us. You and Karen, the label, the producers. The team. Us. We. Call it whatever you want. This thing could be good for all of us. I’ve seen the numbers, Kelvin.” He paused, happy with himself, watching Kelvin’s face for some clue. “The numbers are very, very promising. Everyone agrees.”

            “Oh who gives a crap about the numbers? I don’t like it here. Why would I want to be King of a place that I don’t even like? I like New York. I like my life there. I even liked my last album.”

            “The whole world liked it. But I’m talking about something bigger than that.”

            “There’s nothing bigger than the whole world.”

            “There’s always something bigger,” and as soon as Brandt said it, Kelvin knew that it was true.

            “So what the hell are you talking about, then?”

“Belgium,” he said. Brandt’s ringtone, a deep cut from Kelvin’s first album (a gesture that kind of touched Kelvin’s heart, truth be told), went off in his jacket pocket. “That’ll be the Baron. I think we should head back to the house.”

Belgium: Part One

ONE

The stage where the women danced was flat and white and rose out of the clean white marble like a bruise. They danced on platforms stacked on platforms, thin columns that made Kelvin nervous the way they swayed under the long legs of the women. He was watching one of the dancers in particular when a man from the Label’s Berlin office shooed the party guests away from the dance floor with words that Kelvin could not understand. The woman he’d been watching was last to be evacuated from the stage, accepting the hand of the man from the Label with her own hand, slimmer, more chic, as she descended from her perch. Someone gave the cue for the music to be turned down low, and two Asian men, the only Asian men at the party as far as Kelvin could see, entered the dance floor from opposite directions. Each man had a long chain wrapped around his arm, and connected to the end of that long chain was some sort of jungle cat. “Panthers?” he wondered: long and black and shiny, powerful, bored . No one had mentioned anything about panthers. He looked about the room for Brandt. Brandt would know what to do. They’re going to make these cats eat each other, he thought. There’s going to be blood everywhere and someone is going to film it on their phone. My face will be seen on that video and all of this will be ruined. There is going to be blood everywhere.

            The Asian man who came in from the left cleared his voice and addressed the gathered people in German. Kelvin has been in the country for months now, and still the language sounds phlegmy and fake, an elaborate hoax designed to make him feel stupid.  A man to Kelvin’s right with thinning white hair and a suit that smelled like flowers tapped him on the shoulder and explained to him in English that the two cats came all the way from Japan, and that the one cat was in heat, and that the two cats would put on a mating display for the crowd to enjoy, and wasn’t that just wonderful? All the way from Japan. Kelvin was no stranger to the degrading sexual escapades that accompanied the Label’s VIP parties, but at least back in New York they had the decency to keep them confined to dimly lit rooms with fine leather furniture.

            Kelvin thanked the man and watched the two cats bump into each other like dispassionate strangers in line for the train. Neither appeared especially interested in fucking. He didn’t even know that there were panthers in Japan. The crowd murmured to themselves in their gaggle of alien grunts and clicks as the cats continued their celibate examination of the dance floor, noses to the ground, genitals kept politely to themselves. A brief display of initiative from one of the cats (rearing up on its thick hind legs, fearsome paws poised as if to dig into the back flanks of its paramour, only to collapse back down to all fours without so much as a push of its pelvis) drew a collective gasp from the gathered voyeurs.  Kelvin wasn’t sure what passionate love between two cats this size was supposed to look like, but this clearly wasn’t it. Things continued this way for minutes; the cats drifting about the dance floor as the two men on stage quietly argued in Japanese.

            The man switched to German to address the disappointed audience before leading his cat away from the stage with a strong jerk of its leash. His partner did the same, and before long the music was playing loud and the women were atop their wobbling signposts like nothing had happened at all. The man who smelled like flowers turned back to Kelvin.

“You know how cats can be,” he offered in explanation, and Kelvin nodded as if to say yes, everyone knows how cats can be. The man’s accent was strange and trilling, different from all the German he’d been hearing lately. Italian maybe. “My wife listens to your music,” he said, pointing at a tall blonde woman on the other side of the dance floor. The woman looked much younger than the man with the thinning hair, his suit that smelled like flowers.

            “That’s very kind of her. The fans mean everything to me,” said Kelvin, as he always did. Brandt was supposed to be around to protect him from idiots like this. Where the hell was he? The man’s wife moved under the shadow of the dancer that he’d been watching earlier, the platforms turning green, then blue, then red as the lights flashed in time to the music.

            “I am told that you will marry soon,” the man said. “This is a joyous thing, even though there will be times when you will not think so. My wife who loves your music is wife number three. There will not be a four. You can see that she is talking with a man,” and Kelvin could see that yes, she was talking with a man. “First wife, second wife, I would have let her sleep with him. No problem,” the man raised then lowered his shoulders in a display of good natured ambivalence, “I am not so old fashioned. A woman must have something for herself these days. But now I want everything for myself. I’ll put a stop before it gets too far. I will be enough for her. She has no choice. Do you understand?  Nothing for anyone else. Nothing at all. There is no time left for sharing. Whatever I have now is all that I shall ever have. Maybe I would have been happier if I had known this when I was young like you. This is why I tell this to you.”

            “How old do you think that dancer is?” asked Kelvin, more to himself than to the man who smelled like roses. She looked so familiar to him. Sometimes he thinks that he ought to take a picture of everyone that he has ever met and construct some sort of card catalogue for easy reference. They wouldn’t use cards, of course. They’d probably put it all in the Cloud. Or maybe they would use cards. He’d make Brandt carry them around.

            “Who can tell? Better not to ask. There are people around to keep people like you from getting into too much trouble with these sorts of things. You have these people, yes?”

            “Yes.” She looked just like a girl he had gone out with his freshman year of college. Just like her. Long brown hair, tall, dark eyes, nose exploding out of a quiet valley of a face. The dancer looked so much like that girl that for a moment Kelvin thought: It’s her. It’s really her. That’s really her dancing on that platform. There’s no way that’s not her. What the hell is she doing in Germany?

            “I know certain people. You want to see that girl? I can make you see that girl. No problem. Quiet room.  Would you like that?”

            Kelvin looked at the man who smelled like flowers.  Was he one of the people from the Label, or just another hanger on with too much money and the right kind of friends? He wanted to be back home at the Hotel. He wanted to be back home home in New York. He wanted Brandt to come over and make this man go away. “No, sorry. I’m just looking for my friend.”

“I could be your friend,” the man said. “I would like that very much, being your friend.” The next song to come on was Kelvin’s latest single, now some nine months old. He could feel the room’s eyes turn towards him, waiting. He raised high his champagne glass and the whole room cheered. 

Coat Check Poems IV

                Colossus of Bones

I:

                Puffy-faced he sits on mountaintop

                and sings to handsome angels:

                The word emerges at a highest point and takes on flatness.

                He remembers being a child and his father

                (a man who should have glowed in the dark)  who drove his car straight off a ledge

and

                fell out of the sky the way birds sometime die.

                Tumble, Tumble, little Sparrow.

II:

                The only alchemy in this world is distance.

                He has crawled over wet black hills and seen the way

the earth slouches towards its quiet places.

He broods here, where the walls are bone-in-body dark.

He has been taught by learned men about his skin,

they who augured soft seams in the meat where scissors kiss.

In his studies he has learned that death is only temporary.

All the books agree: Do something festive with your rotting parts.

He’ll serve a stew for starving children

and send his severed hands to his admiring mother across the sea.

When he dreams he dreams about love.

There aren’t enough parts in his body to give to this woman he’ll love.

Do Not Piss Here

When Chris thought about Gabby’s cat he saw:  the yellow eyes, long black tail, a hint of face. He thought about the cat and all the ways the cat watched him. It watched him from the stacks of books on Gabby’s floor.  It watched him from its litter box beneath the bathroom sink (always keep that door open, he’d been warned). It watched him from Gabby’s lime-green windowsill. The rest of the studio had been painted a sensibly drab eggshell white a few years prior; only the windowsill stood witness to the room’s garish past. The window sill and the cat; bits of brown and green, little flecks of wood and paint, and those large black paws with their halo of white, the yellow eyes watching. This is what he saw when he thought about the cat.  Gabby scooped the litter box daily, but the room remained like something wet and sad and dying; a place where no plants could grow. Smells were supposed to dissipate over time. How many more weeks would it take? The cat belonged to the apartment, and Gabby belonged to the apartment, and someday soon Chris would belong too. When he closed his eyes he was already there.

                He hadn’t been home in five days. He hated his apartment, the roommate, the one parking space, the severe hill which stretched forever upward and made him sweaty and mean in the summertime. Gabby’s studio was too small for the two of them to share comfortably. Summer would be unbearable in that tiny box, worse than being in an oven. The few nights he’d spent back home since hooking up with Gabby had been frigid and sleepless. He’d missed her stiff mattress and heavy snoring. The numbness in his limbs (orphaned and bloodless, squeezed between her body and the wall) was comforting. It meant that someone was there. He even loved the smell of her hair, which smelled like skin and grease because she never washed it. The only thing he hadn’t missed was the cat.

                The cat was an issue from the first time Gabby brought Chris home. He could feel it waiting for him in the dark.  All he could see was Gabby underneath him and those two yellow eyes watching him from the dresser.  He could have stopped and asked her to lock the cat away in the bathroom, but he couldn’t stand the thought of stopping for even a second. Not with Gabby so close to him. It had all seemed so fragile, like a dream that would melt into groggy daylight with the honk of a car horn.  He’d liked her for months; he liked the way she ordered her beer and how angry she got while playing pinball; he liked the way she got drunk and hung around his neck, whispering into his ear and then walking by as if nothing had happened at all; he liked her tattoos, her glasses, her lipstick, her hair, the way she made fun of his accent, the way she looked at him. They’d finished after a while and she told him that he better get going, keeping the light off as he collected his clothes from the floor. By the time he closed the door behind him, Gabby was asleep, her face turned in tight towards her wall. He saw the cat in the net of light from the hallway as he opened the door to leave. It nestled itself against Gabby in the warm spot on the bed where Chris had just been.

                He hadn’t expected to see her again. But he had, and just the next night. He’d expected her to ignore him at the bar like she often did, but instead she’d come right up to him and laughed, and she’d kissed his neck as he got up from the bar with his drink and before long they were back at her room, the cat rushing up to the door like a starving child as she let him inside. He slept there that night, and as his head jerked towards sleep to the sound of Gabby’s openmouthed snores, he saw those eyes looking out at him from the dark. Those two tiny moons.

                Gabby worried about getting fat. It was all she talked about, and as she talked her eyes would get puffy and red from all the drinking and the bouts of crying that would last for hours. She was terrified of it. Sometimes she wouldn’t eat at all, and Chris would beg her to eat something, anything. He told her that he’d pay for the food, would sit there and eat it with her so she wouldn’t feel so self-conscious. Sometimes that would help. Eventually they’d end up sharing a bottle (something cheap and entombed in plastic) and when the crying stopped, they’d fuck. It made everything else a bit easier.  When they were finished they’d stick their head out the window to smoke cigarettes, which made them feel happy and sophisticated in a way that was unique to their poverty, like something a beautiful French couple might have done a long time ago before dying tragically of Consumption. It made him feel close to Gabby in a way that even the sex couldn’t. Sometimes, looking out at that dirty alley from that window, he felt like they were the only two people left in the world, and he could put up with all the crying and all those uneaten meals. Even the cat was invisible, an insignificant mote of dust already blowing far, far away.

Gabby’s room was a reflection of herself. You could smell her in the sheets. He thought about those stacks of books on the floor: leaning, dusty, covers torn and bent. Had she read all those books? He’d never seen her read before, never heard her talk about literature of any kind. But she was there in them, he was sure. He wanted to know everything there was to know about her. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt that way about a person. It had been close to a year since he’d had a girlfriend. Was Gabby his girlfriend? They never discussed it. But of course she was. Why else would she feel so comfortable leaving him alone all day in her apartment? And hadn’t she told him all those fucked up stories from her past? The time her uncle got drunk at Christmas and cried in front of the family. A best friend who turned out to be sleeping with her first boyfriend. Dropping out of UDub just two quarters in. She’d told him all of those, and more, and had cried in front of him and left dark bruises on his neck from where she’d kissed him and bit him. Hadn’t she told him how nice she thought he was, how he actually listened to her, unlike all the other boys? And hadn’t he told her again and again and again that he wasn’t like the other boys?

                And it felt good to be having sex again, nightly, reliably. The first time had been rough; he’d gained weight in that dark winter between partners (Lisa all those months ago, herself gained weight and straining against her dress) and he’d felt it immediately; the gasping for air, the sweat that came out of his forehead and armpits like a dormant spring rupturing anew. It made him feel dizzy and stupid and a little bit helpless, the way he’d felt when he lost his virginity all those years ago in Iowa.  He wasn’t so sure his performance was getting better, and he was often too terrified and lightheaded to enjoy himself. But maybe Gabby didn’t care, the way she would curl up against him and whisper things that only halfway sounded like words until they both fell asleep. Maybe things were getting better.  Maybe he’d save up money and join a gym, get in shape for her. He wanted to do that for her. He’d look into it.

                But the cat. The cat. It brushed up against him the other night when he and Gabby were together in bed. He’d felt its tail flick across his back and it had scared him, honest to God scared him, and he’d jumped away from Gabby and turned around to lash out at the sudden intruder; lashed out at nothing, just air, and saw the cat halfway across the room, bristling in the dark with those yellow eyes. Gabby laughed at him. Jumping at ghosts, she said. He was jumping at ghosts.

                She’d gotten mad at him the one time he suggested they lock up the cat in the bathroom at night. She wasn’t going to treat her pet like some kind of rabid animal, she told him. This was her cat’s home too, and he could come and go as he wanted. Who the hell did Chris think he was, asking her to lock up her pet? A real man would get over it. None of her other lovers had cared, not even Johnny. She knew that Chris hated when she talked about her past lovers, especially Johnny, and a strange light had gone off in her eyes when she said it, almost like she wasn’t drunk at all anymore. He was pretty much her boyfriend. Didn’t he deserve better than to be taunted by all the other men who’d come before? Hadn’t she told him how much nicer he’d been than all those other assholes? Nicer than Johnny. It didn’t seem like such a bad compromise to him, especially since he’d been sleeping over almost every night. He was willing to do so much for her: lose the weight, clean up his act, get a better job and save up some money so they could get a place of their own someday. She couldn’t do one little thing for him? But no, not that. The cat watched them argue in the same manner it had watched them fuck: from a distance, uninterested, brooding, silent.

                He hadn’t meant for the thing to die. The cat had been walking back and forth on Gabby’s windowsill, one leg over the other the way cats do, and the sunshine had caught its coat so Chris could see the long streaks of grey and brown in the fur. The tail, hooked like a stinging insect, whipped back and forth and the cat turned its head towards Chris (Chris positioned flat on his back on the mattress, his head resting comfortably where his feet usually went) and watched Chris with those eyes as it turned its legs over, one over the other, climbing along the open windowsill, and Chris kicked out his right leg from his spot on the mattress to catch the cat in the soft spot of its hide (just over the ribs), and the cat disappeared into the void. A few seconds later, a sound.

                What had happened? A scene was missing. He could see the way things were supposed to go in his head: the cat strolling along the window, pausing, drawing its attention towards some unseen presence in the room, and leaping from its perch to the floor with the easy assurance of a falling leaf, the empty window undisturbed, serene. He must have imagined the kick; but then the sound,  the residual twinge of impact in his muscle, the coil and release where he’d made contact with that soft slab of hide (there, just over the ribs, that tuft of fur that turned brown then grey then black again). He’d seen a movie in science class once, something slow and silent: a cat tumbling through the air from some unknown height. He remembered how its body twisted and churned in the air until its feet faced the ground; powerful feet, clawed and long and strong. And Gabby’s apartment hadn’t seemed that high up. One could imagine a whole series of items tumbling free from the window only to survive the bricks below.

                Chris stuck his head out the window in hope that the Cat had landed. It hadn’t. It hadn’t fallen to the ground without complaint or scratch, hadn’t bounced off some extraneous bag of garbage or discarded alley couch. There it was, flat on the ground, its stomach collapsed open and slouched across the brick like a rotting pumpkin. The cat was now a broken thing, little more than meaty slabs of fur splashed with blood. It looked like fresh meat from the supermarket, he thought, wrapped up in a little girl’s gaudy fur coat and abandoned.

                The alley ignored its newest adornment. It made the same noises that it always had: the lagging sputter of cars at the four-way stop, drifting notes of techno from the Russian neighbor two floors down, a snippet of drunken argument from the homeless men who circled the block in stumbling, numb-footed loops. They’d be in the alley soon, he figured, the homeless men with their arguments, or else one of the building’s residents coming out to grab a few items from the corner store.  Maybe they wouldn’t notice the cat (from up top he could see how the blood sprayed against the wall like a fine red shadow). But someone would. It wasn’t so far down from Gabby’s window. He imagined dropping a glass, watching it tumble down, more invisible by the second, spinning in the air. He could see it bouncing off the ground, maybe splitting a crack or jagged lip along the way, but not shattering completely. Not like the cat, shattered down there, casting its fine red shadow against the alley door, the one with “DO NOT PISS HERE” scrawled across the top in aggressive black marker.

                He played it over in his head. The cat on the sill, his foot lashing out, the heavy absence in the air as it dropped out of sight. Why hadn’t it landed? Gabby had never really talked about the cat before. Had it been old, sick? It must have been. How else could one explain that brittle and broken thing down below? He thought about the other night, the two of them coming home from the bar and Gabby already slurring (it started with her eyes twitching open and close and then her lips until her whole body was like a slur, leaning against him and going as weak and pliable as rubber in his arms) and she’d made a beeline straight to the cat, swooping it up in her arms and burying her face against the long mane of hair growing from its neck like tangled moss. Had she mentioned anything about the cat? How sick it might have been, how fragile and weak and trembling it felt in her arms. Maybe she had. She must have at some point, and he’d just drowned it out, like he always did when the cat came up. She looked so happy with that cat. Chris wondered what people saw in him and Gabby. Did they look as happy together as Gabby did with her cat? He hoped so.

                He checked the time on his phone: 3:45. What time had she told him she was getting off at? Was it 4:30 or 5:00? He counted out a slow five beat, looking for some hint of movement down below. Five. Nothing. He went to the bathroom cabinet to get one of the large black trash bags that Gabby used to ferry spent litter to its final resting place. Thick bags, inky black, capable of holding any load. No time to wait for the building’s ancient elevator. Take the stairs, quickly. Calm. You’re just taking out the trash, he told himself, and anyone who sees you in the hallway won’t think twice about it. There’s nothing out of the ordinary, you being here in the middle of the day. People know you’re with Gabby. You’re here to stay, not like the other boys who’ve come and gone. You practically live here. You’re a neighbor now. You even know some of their names: Gabby’s neighbor Joe with the strange mustache and the thick black eyebrows, the lesbian couple at the end of the hall (one of them was Sam, Sam and…), a musician she’d introduced as “Frank” one time and “Steven” the next. But the hallways were empty, and so too the staircase that ran up and down the spine of the building. He’d never seen the building so empty before.

                He used the brick they kept by the trashcans to wedge the alley door open. DO NOT PISS HERE. From the ground the cat looked like a limp rag thrown away with the trash: dark and lumpy, dripping with liquid. He should have brought gloves. Chris had never touched a dead thing before that wasn’t cooked and ready to eat. The cat felt damp and soft: not soft like a pet, but soft like clothing. Its mouth jutted out at a bizarre angle where it had cracked against the ground, and tiny teeth like mints crunched under his shoes. It was a struggle to pull the mouth of the bag over the cat’s front half. His palms were damp from sweat and blood and tiny smudges of blood leeched into the soft white canvas of his shoes. That’s what insides smell like, he told himself. That’s what they look like on your hands and on your shoes. He tied the top of the bag shut with the yellow loops at the top and felt the weight of the cat tumble to the miserable center, sinking like a stone in water. He looked up at Gabby’s open window. The sun would be going down soon. Should have brought hot water, soap, something to scrub with, he thought. But blood wasn’t so out of place in the alley. Maybe it wouldn’t even look like blood in a couple hours. He’d seen in a movie once that blood got crusty and brown the older it got, just like barbeque sauce.

                The bag was heavy in his hand and all he could think about was that bottom tearing out, and the cat spilling out onto the ground, and Gabby walking up to the door on her way home from work, so happy to be home and find him there, Chris, the man that she loved with the cat that she loved smashed to pieces at his feet. He saw this over and over again in his head, the look on her face as she found him there, the bloody cat curled around his feet like a loyal companion. He saw again and again how something so beautiful and good could crack like a bone, splinter beyond repair. The building’s trashcans were overflowing, and would be emptied soon. One of the cans, less bulging than the others, became a makeshift tomb for the bag. No one would think to look for the thing beneath the can’s topsoil of rotting food and pizza boxes. No one would ever think about looking there. It would be gone soon, he told himself again. Could be gone as early as tomorrow.

                He stuck his hands in his jacket pockets to hide the blood as he walked back up to Gabby’s room. He’d probably have to throw out the jacket. No big deal. Get in shape. Buy a new jacket. Get a better job.  He washed his hands clean in Gabby’s bathroom sink. The green sliver of soap she kept naked on her counter bubbled away into nothingness as he ran his hands under the hot water. Buy new soap for Gabby.

                His hands felt warm and numb from all the scrubbing. He went over to the window and shut it closed before sitting down on the edge of her mattress.  Looking at the ceiling he lit up one of the Camels that Gabby had left for him that morning. He hated her cigarettes. Buy Gabby new cigarettes. He smoked until the cigarette was half disappeared and a fine skin of ash tumbled onto his lap and he remembered the window. Open the window. The sun made the brick wall across from Gabby’s window look red and beautiful in a way that it had never looked before. Maybe the two of them could quit smoking together and join a gym. They’d been talking about getting in shape. Everything would be better soon. No smell of cat litter and cigarette smoke. They could move her bed to the other side of the room and get a couple of proper bookshelves brought in. They could make something beautiful together now. He could see it so clearly, their future together, stretching out in front of him with no end in sight. He wasn’t sure what he’d tell Gabby when she got home. But cats went missing all the time with no rhyme or reason. People left doors open for a second too long and: poof, gone. It happened all the time.  They’d spend most of the night searching the building, no doubt. Maybe even make some fliers to put up in the morning. But when all that was over, and the crying was done, and the two or three bottles of cheap wine bought from the corner store were drunk, he knew where he would be: here, on this bed, with his ear pressed against the slope of Gabby’s stomach, that flat stretch of land from the bottom of her breast to the swell of her hips, as flat and expansive and close to him as Iowa had been, that home he’d left where tonight he’ll dream he has always been.

Coatcheck Poems (III)

Stabs Towards a Coherent Philosophy

 

We tend our displeasures until they Green and demand a harvest.

For instance:

                I don’t know if I’ve ever really enjoyed sex

but at least it was easier when

I wasn’t so heavy.



If, in shade,

 a complete portrait of grief should grow,

don’t forget the really good stuff: Yes, death

and all, but also stone-faced talks around the dinner table,

the homeless man outside the store, your wobbling knee, the glowering teens on the back of the bus

all elbows and spite and music.

Some people build shrines to the things they’d be better off forgetting.

All our combed and ready dead. Even the suicides are waving.

 

This is what they’ll remember about you when you’re gone,

not the Tiger you dressed in your clothes.

Cats kill mice, yes

but they’d rather be asleep.



Thoughts on New Year’s Eve, in Fragments

(I)

                Jupiter asleep

keeps his moons at a distance.

Their beauty and the distance

amount to a curtain of dust across his face and

nothing.

(II)
                Christmas cracks the year wide,

and trembling for days

It collapses.

A new one takes its place.

(III)

                The moons (perhaps from spite)

are named after women.

He even turned one into a cow

and if you asked him why he’d say it was love.

(IV)

                We are so often wrong about ourselves.

(V)         

                Midnight sets the sky to task.

                It fulfills its promise and reflects the sea

In deep squid panic black and the

cracking lights

The eyeless teeth.

(VI)

                In the morning sober men

in jumpsuits employ a delicate grace

in washing away the vomit.