This freestyle poem was created by brainstorming for words and phrases that characterized Paulie Jensen, the antagonist of my WIP novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist. Sort of a ‘word portrait’.
Son of a streetwalker,
Born in the city
On a sweltering night,
Teenage mama high as a kite.
He came into this jungle
Crimson face, fisted hands,
Roaring like a lion cub,
And he never stopped,
Tooth-and-claw to the top.
As a boy he grew,
Head of his crew,
This boy was too cool,
Work of art,
Poisoned dart to the heart.
Young eagle left the nest
Standing out from the rest.
A natural-born hustler
At a tender age;
He hit the stage
Hanging out at the arcade,
Eyes on the men eyeing him–
“Hey, got a quarter for me mister?”
“Yeah, I just might.”
Looks like he’ll sleep in a bed tonight.
Loaded gun with a hair-trigger.
All flash and swagger,
A little Al Capone,
A little Mick Jagger,
Chalked up, full cup,
Time bomb with a short fuse,
Pierced nipples, tattoos,
Standing between the bar and men’s room,
The men pay, the ladies swoon.
He’s charismatic, cinematic,
Cocksure, pure porn,
Takes a punch to the face with grace,
Spits blood and smiles.
An alpha dog, a lone wolf,
Little work, a lot of play,
Doing eighty on the freeway,
Speeding by, flying high,
Both ends of his candle
Burning like headlights.
Fire can’t burn too long so bright.
He’s gonna go down like Lucifer.
And when his fire’s out
He’ll leave a circle of ashes
That’ll blow away.
A supernova life,
Gone without a trace.
I slouched in the passenger seat of Ricky’s shitty-looking Chevy Cavalier and cracked my knuckles. We were parked across the street from the place I had to go. I knew the building, knew the whole ‘hood pretty well, growing up on the edge of the projects like I did, like Ricky did, like all our crew did. The good feeling from the blunt me and Ricky shared earlier was fading fast, replaced by a nest of writhing snakes in my gut.
A gray-haired old woman in a blue and green flowered mu-mu crossed in front of the car without raising her eyes. She pulled one of them fold-up grocery carts behind her. I thought, if Ricky smacks the horn right now, she’ll probably have a heart attack. She wasn’t fat, but had ankles like tree trunks above her white sneakers. She tugged the cart up over the curb and limped along the cracked walk to the building.
“Hey, you goin’, hijo?” Ricky asked. He flicked his cigarette out the window. The sun had just dropped down below the buildings and the long shadows had disappeared like ghosts in daylight.
“Yeah, gimme a minute.” I wiped my clammy palms on my shorts, took a deep breath. It came back out in a long, stuttering sigh.
“You want a popper? I got a couple amyls in my pocket. Do one, then knock on the door. Give you some cojones, bro.”
I sat up, glared at him. “What, you saying I don’t got the nerve? Fuck you and your amyls. I don’t need no damn drugs to bust a cap in some asshole’s head.” I reached under the seat and grabbed the Glock, then leaned back and shoved it into the waistband of my shorts, pulled my shirt down over it. The salt in my sweat made the day-old tattoo on my chest sting.
Ricky smiled all cool. “That’s m’man.” He put out a fist. I bumped mine on it and slid out of the car. “Party with the homeboys tonight, you do this thing, Leo.”
The building was eight stories of brown brick, surrounded by a black iron gate. There was a couple short lampposts by the front stoop, but only one threw out a weak, yellow light. Some kids were playing on the steps, a little girl jumped rope on the walk.
I went round the front of the car and started across the street, wiped my hands on my ribs. Shit, they were slick with sweat again.
“Yo, perrito,” Ricky called.
He motioned me to him, so I came back to the car.
“You know the dude, right? Apartment 4D.”
“Yeah, Bones pointed him out to me.” I started back toward the building.
“Make sure you take it off safety first, perrito.” He grinned.
“Man, fuck you…”
Like at fourteen I’m still a “puppy.” My older brother Diego was a daddy at fourteen. His babymama Adriana was two years older. I don’t think pulling a trigger is any harder than making babies. Both take cajones, but you don’t gotta be grown-up to do either one.
I looked up at the row of windows on the fourth floor and crossed the street. Music came from one of them on an upper floor, but the hum and rattle of the dripping air conditioners in most of the others nearly drowned it out.
The little girl jumping rope stopped and smiled up at me, front teeth missing. The girls on the steps only threw glances at me as I went into the building.
I decided to take the stairs up. It would give me time to think, which maybe wasn’t such a good thing. I could feel my whole body vibrating. It wasn’t I was shaking, but more like everything in me was buzzing like a power line.
I pulled the gun from my waist and flicked off the safety. Then I stuck it in the back of my shorts and climbed the stairs. When I got up to the fourth floor, I peeked through the strip of wired glass in the metal emergency door. I couldn’t see shit. I wiped my face with the hem of my shirt and pushed the door open, looked down the hallway before stepping into it. It stank of cat piss.
The hall went off to my left. I followed it past the elevators. The grime was so thick on the cracked linoleum floor, I couldn’t tell what color it was supposed to be. Most of the walls had graffiti on them, some in spray paint, a lot in pencil and Sharpie. I could hear music, and people talking. A TV blared some game show from behind one of the doors I passed.
I came to 4D. The door was painted a gross pale yellow, a rotten-egg-yellow, and looked like some little kid had smeared shit all over the bottom half. I looked up and down the hall. Nobody. I tried to pray a Padre Nuestro real quick, but couldn’t remember the words after the first few lines. I tried again. I knew the damn prayer but the words wouldn’t come to me. God probably didn’t want to hear my prayer right before shooting the brains out of some dude I don’t even know.
Get it done and they gonna throw me a party. Get drunk, get laid. And Diego, he’ll know that I’ma be okay, I can take care of Mama and Adriana and little Roberto. I know he’s been worried. A few months ago when me and Mama went to visit him, he said, “Leo, you gotta be the man while I’m locked up. You gotta look after them. You’re young, but not too young to be a man.”
I took out the gun but kept my hand behind my back. Sweat was stinging my eyes, scorching the spot on my chest. I knocked on the door. A little dog started to yip behind it. I heard steps coming up to it and prayed again, this time that I wouldn’t piss myself.
The door opened. It was the old woman with the tree-trunk ankles, varicose veins wrapped around them like vines. She had on glasses with thick lenses, one of them scratched up. The little dog, same frizzy gray as her hair, looked up with black bead eyes and growled, about as scary as a teddy bear. The smell of bacon, and of arroz y frijoles wafted out into the hall like perfume, covering the stink.
“Si?” Behind her, sitting at a table, eating and watching a TV was Tomaso, the dude I was to take out. He didn’t seem to notice that someone was at the door, kept eating and watching TV. He looked a little bit like my brother Diego, but older, maybe three, four years. Old lady musta been his abuela.
When Ricky first told me what it would take to come into the gang, I was ready. I knew from Diego how it would go down. I got through being jumped in, no problem. I felt I’d been dragged over a demolition site after, took weeks for some of the bruises to go away. But it felt good, too, on the inside, knowing I took it like a man. This here was my final test. I could pop the old lady and get Tomaso, too. Or I could just knock her out of the way and get up close to Tomaso before he could even get up from the table. I was ready. But Tomaso was eating, watching TV. He wasn’t coming at me, was holding a fork, not a gun. If I shouted his name, he might come at me. Then I’d have reason to pop him.
Something didn’t seem right. The fear left me, but so did my reason for being here. It didn’t make sense no more. I was confused.
The old woman brushed away a fly that landed on her face. Then she looked back to me. She smiled. “Que pasa, mijo? You look for somebody?”
I swallowed. “Yeah. I’m looking for…Freddy.”
“Lo siento. No Freddy. No Freddy live here.”
I nodded and she closed the door. I flipped the safety back on the Glock, slipped it back into my waistband and took the elevator down. I didn’t think my Jell-O knees could handle the stairs. But the nest of serpents was gone.
I came out of the building into the growing darkness. Ricky had moved to this side of the street and had the engine running. His eyes were wide, questioning me. I shrugged and got into the car.
I put the gun back under the seat. “He wasn’t there. Just an old lady and her dog.”
I felt more like a man than I ever had.
The elevator door opened. Matt surveyed the space inside. A metal box with walls painted to look like wood grain, a stainless steel hand rail wrapped around three sides at hip height, dirty red linoleum on the floor. He contemplated taking the stairs. What’s eight flights anyway?
“Hold that, please.”
He put out a hand and held the door. A woman strode past him into the elevator, turned and smiled. She looked like a young Rosario Dawson, but with a pixie cut. She was dressed like she might have been coming from a job waiting tables, black cotton pants and white collared shirt.
“Thanks. You comin’?” she asked, cocked her head to the side.
Matt blinked and stepped into the elevator without giving it another thought. That was a mistake. The moment he turned and the door bumped closed, he felt a vice tighten around his rib cage and a wave of panic rose into his throat, thick and suffocating. Sweat broke out under his arms, all down his back.
“Where to?” the woman asked.
Matt opened his mouth, but no sound came out. “Eight,” he finally managed, barely above a whisper.
She pressed it, and then hit the button for the tenth floor.
“Oh God,” escaped his lips, and he closed his eyes as the the elevator started with jolt, like a racehorse bursting out of the gate.
“Hey, you okay?”
Matt nodded. Breathe. Breathe, dammit. He wanted to grip the flat, metal handrail, but couldn’t make his hand leave his pocket, where his fingers were curled around his prescription. His other hand clutched his jeans at the hip, white-knuckled. He opened his eyes, saw the woman in his peripheral vision. He thought maybe she was looking at him. He loosened the grip on his jeans, wiped the sweat from his palm.
“Don’t like elevators much, huh?”
Inside he laughed at the understatement. Outwardly, he could only shake his head a little, mouth “No.”
“My daddy was like that. In the end, he had a heart attack climbing the stairs to the second floor. Not here,” she added. “Not in this building.”
The elevator felt like a sauna. Sweat trickled down his side from his armpit, broke out at his hairline and above his upper lip. His eyes darted to the numbers above the door.
“Halfway there,” she said. “We’re gonna make it.”
He tried to push his mind from his own panic, tried to think about what the woman thought of him. Wuss. Crazy person. Something to talk about to her co-workers later.
He felt something prying his stiff fingers from his side. Her fingers. She slipped her small, warm hand into his large, damp one and squeezed it. He squeezed back.
“It’s gonna be okay. Almost there,” she said.
Matt moved his head slightly, shifted his eyes to the side to look at her. She was smiling, but not in an amused way. She was pouring strength and courage out of her brown eyes and into his. His jaw unclenched and his lungs emptied in a long sigh.
He tightened his grip—too tight, he thought—as the elevator made its nauseating little rise and fall before halting. The doors opened. He had to put all his effort into retrieving his hand, locked to hers as it was. He did, and looking at her he blushed crimson.
She reached to hold the door open for him, and he stepped out, cleared his throat. “Thank you,” he mumbled.
“It ain’t nothin’” she said, and beamed at him, like a warrior-goddess. “But I’d take the stairs down if I were you.”
“Hang on, Gramma. My shoe.” She holds up, I put a bare knee down on dirty concrete to tie my worn-out Keds, passed down from my brother. I’m tyin’ it and this slick ride pulls up. Mercedes Benz, G-wagon so fly, I stop what I’m doing just to look. I see my mouth hangin’ open in the shiny, black paint and snap it shut.
Dude gets out, he’s money. He’s wearing shades and a fade with razor lines cut in. He got on black Adidas track pants and a t-shirt so white it almost hurts my eyes. His kicks, man, they Air Jordans, but not like any I ever laid eyes on.
I squat there bug-eyed and he comes up on the sidewalk, sees me lookin’. He flashes me a gold-grill grin and goes into a building. I watch them flash Jordans as he goes past.
Gramma swats me upside the head with the paperback book in her hand. I scowl to match hers.
“Tie your shoe, fool,” she says.
A little writing exercise in keeping the action going, inspired by Kiss With a Fist by Florence and the Machine.
“Don’t, Cherie. I’m warning you…” I could see her deliberating, weighing the consequences. Behind the storm in her eyes I thought I saw a lightning-flash of delight as I threw down the gauntlet. She picked it up, along with a heavy crystal ashtray which she hurled at my head. It passed close enough to my left ear that I could almost hear the death-cries of snuffed out smokes.
She yelled “Kiss my ass!” as it crashed into the glass of the china cabinet behind me. A shower of shards rained on the back of my head and neck.
“I warned you, dammit! You’re in for it now!” I lunged at the dining room chair standing in my way, tossed it aside and reached for her shoulder. She did a one-eighty and ran from me, and my hand clutched air. I came down hard on my knees, cursing, but was up the next second, right behind her. She slid on the polished wood floor into the back of the sofa, ricocheted off it right into me. I caught her by the wrist. She whimpered, let out a little cry like a snared fox, and slapped me in the face, hard. I smacked her back.
Blood trickled from her lip to her chin. She swiped at it with the back of her free hand, narrowed her eyes and spit in my face. Reflexively, I let go. “You little bitch…” I could feel my blood pressure rising.
She ran into the living room and snatched an empty wine bottle from the coffee table.
I stopped in my tracks. “Cherie, you crack my skull, you’ll go to jail and I’ll–”
“Go to hell!” Cherie let it fly. I ducked and the sucker stuck in the drywall behind me. We both stared at it a moment and I turned back to her.
“Oh, babe, you are so going to pay for that.”
“I intend to.”
She turned toward the hall. I grabbed a throw pillow from the sofa and threw it over her head. It landed in front of her, tripped her up, cushioned her shins as she fell on her face.
“Gotcha!” I threw myself at her, meant to tackle and pin her, but quick as a whip-lash, she was up and running as fast as I went down. She ran into the bedroom, slammed the door. I heard the lock click.
“You’re in trouble now, girl.” I leaned on the door to catch my breath, wondered what I might catch on the other side of it. Best not to let her have too much time to think. I backed up a couple feet and slammed my boot heel into the door by the knob. It flew open.
The moment I set foot in the room, something crashed down on my skull. There was a stupefying supernova of light followed by a swirling maelstrom of stars. I waited for them to fade. “Geezus, what the fuck was that?” I looked down at the shattered glass and heavy silver-plated frame of our wedding photo, then looked at Cherie. Her chin jutted out in a self-satisfied grin, challenge glinted in her eyes. Blood trickled into mine. I grabbed the hem of my t-shirt and wiped my face. Cherie stood there waiting for me to make a move.
I took a step in her direction and she threw out a punch. I caught her tiny fist in one hand and laughed. She tried to slap me with the other, and I fished the air until I hooked her wrist. With my head cocked back, looking down my nose at her, I danced her backwards to the bed. She tried to wrench herself from my grip, but I tightened my hold until she cursed and stopped jerking away. When the mattress was behind her, I gave her a shove. She bounced onto it.
She stared, momentarily frozen, like she could read my mind. There was blood smeared across her chin, and her hair was damp with sweat, sticking to her skin at her temples and brow. My bloodied t-shirt was clinging to me.
Suddenly she rolled, scrambled to the nightstand. I snatched her by one ankle and yanked her back. She twisted and flipped onto her back again, breaking my hold. She landed a heel in my crotch.
“Dammit!” It was enough of a blow to make me grab my junk, but not enough to double me over. She smiled, and again reached for the nightstand. She opened the drawer and shoved in a hand. I flipped her onto her back and threw myself on her, but she had the gun and smacked the side of my head with it.
I cursed and grabbed her wrist, shook it hard and the gun flew from her hand, knocking over the St. Jude votive candle she’d lit that morning. Cherie squirmed, looked up into my face.
“What now, Cherie?” I had my hands around her small wrists, my body heavy on hers, both of us breathing in the same cubic inches of heated air between us. A curl of smoke, an odor a bit like burning paper, a little like burning hair, rose from beside the bed. She thrashed beneath me, tried without success to get her teeth into my forearm.
She thought I was cheating on her. This time she claimed it was with my boss’ wife. It was bullshit, of course, but my boss apparently trusted his wife about as much as Cherie trusted me. I’d come back to the machine shop from lunch to find a new padlock on my locker and all my shit in a brown paper grocery sack. Cherie couldn’t keep a job for two weeks, so we’d likely be homeless if I couldn’t find another gig soon.
Tears welled up in her eyes. “I hate you!” she spat.
“Yeah, well I hate you, too, you insane bitch!”
The carpet was aflame, and we were rage-fucking like animals when the police and fire department broke in.
I sometimes write from the point of view of a character I’m creating. This poem is one of those pieces.
Captivating will o’ the wisp,
Laughter like crystal wind chimes.
Willowy limbs, smooth and white as cream.
Teasing and tugging my heart,
Coming only so close,
Going only so far.
Maiden of the borderland
For only a moment in time,
So near, carelessly fanning the flame,
Never dreaming you’d get burned.
My heated embrace consumed the child
and left us both older and wiser,
With hearts full of ashes;
No trophy has ever filled me
With greater regret.
Life makes no sound as it slides along,
A conveyor belt to eternity
No stepping sideways or stepping back.
Days like dry grains in an hourglass
Slip from white-knuckled fists.
I’ve left blood on all the doors
That have closed quietly before me.
Beauty, vitality, opportunity, strength;
Moments pass unnoticed.
Where are the bruises, broken teeth and cracked ribs
Of all my battles?
Memories now, the fighter grows soft.
And if life was such a fight,
Why do I sit here in a chair where I’ve
Had my coffee for fifteen years
Listening to the predawn silence
And ticking clock?
Each day a blank page,
At day’s end a scribbled line or two.
What is this? What is this…?
Breath dies in a sigh.
Under summer constellations
We star-gazed our futures;
Spliffs and cheap wine by the lake,
I knew your features like my own.
So how did I not see you?
Late afternoon, autumn chill,
Sunlight though maples
Like fire against the sky,
And suddenly you were there—completely.
And suddenly I wanted you like nothing else.
You smiled in spite of the long waiting,
Unfolding like a mystery before me,
My eyes finally open, your secrets revealed,
That first kiss stole my breath away.