Encounters

I was supposed to quit you. Before you kill me, they said. But it’s a cold world and you’re a warm blanket. You’re a beehive in an old, dead tree. If there’s anything buzzing in me, anything sweet, it’s you.

I want you.

Colorless days I spent dreaming of dozing in your velvet embrace. And now my heart pounds against my ribs, a caged bird begging release.

I know you’re dangerous, but I can’t seem to get by without you. And so here we are again, you and I, another secret rendezvous, another encounter. The world’s grown small–just the two of us.

An alley beside a church, the familiar sour reek of garbage and wet-pavement must. I kneel behind a dumpster and, oh sweet Jesus, I draw you from my pocket, little white packet full of promises.

My need is a hunger, a bone-deep pain.

My hands tremble, drawing Love into a shiny new sharp. Bound vein stands proud, waiting. Sweet stabbing sensation, push the plunger and pull off the cord, tied tight around my arm. And waiting, breath held back, for the magic moment, the rush, the nod, the slip into sweet nirvana.

I’ve missed you.

Little wet kisses bless my face. I struggle to open my eyes and oh God everything is beautiful. Raindrops shoot past the streetlight like falling stars and dark oil rainbows swirl on the webbed asphalt. I am wrapped in a warm Universe, and the Universe loves me.

Jesus loves you.

Rain soaks my clothing, and the damp fabric feels like a hug. I drift weightless from alley to sidewalk and look up at the plum-colored city sky. I turn, see a row of angels and saints gazing down at me, and love emanates from their concrete chests, acceptance from their blank eyes. They whisper the gates of Paradise are open, and I have wings to ascend. Warm welcome glows from kaleidoscope windows.

From the vestibule, I peer through glass to the shimmering nave. The priest and pair of matching altar boys–like plump black-and-white pigeons–offer Mass for a handful of faithful, heads bent, gray as ash beneath the gilt of Heaven. Above the towering altar, the Spirit of God spreads its wings and dives straight down to earth to kiss it, penetrate it, make it fertile, fill it with Life.

I can feel it; you are buzzing inside of me and I feel alive.

I go in, take care to be silent, slip into the nearest pew. Across the aisle slumps an old woman in clothing layered like leaves of old newspaper, kerchief knotted beneath her jaw, a jumble of bags around her legs. She looks at me and nods, smiling. In this place we are kin, we are God’s fruitfulness. I smile back.

Sweet scent of incense and candle wax hang in the air. As a child I thought Heaven smelled like this. Here is Heaven’s embassy on earth, here He waits, stealth and silent God, to be consumed, body, blood, soul and divinity.

I watch the motions of the priest, and the soft edges of things sharpen and come into focus. I become aware of my limbs again, aware that my wet clothing is cold and my eyes are burning.

Bells ring alerting angels and men that God is with us, and the priest holds Him aloft.

***

I remember a time in my childhood, before I had ever tasted the dry, crisp, blandness of God, when I knelt in a pew and watched bread become flesh.

“Look,” I said to my mother, wide-eyed, my breath stolen from me. “It’s Jesus.”
“Hush, child,” she whispered back. “This is the holiest part of the Mass.”
I nodded, stared at God-Made-Man suspended between Heaven and earth.
“Hello, Jesus,” I greeted Him. And He smiled back at me.

***

Tears course down my cheeks and my nose runs. The old woman makes noise, rifling through her bags. She pulls out a crocheted afghan, garish colors in cheap acrylic, and limps across the aisle in black galoshes.

The small congregation, dutifully queued, makes it’s way to the priest, who doles out God to open hands and open mouths.

The old woman drapes the afghan around my shoulders and smiles, pats my back. But I don’t know her anymore, and God’s fruit rots on the vine.

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Incendiary

Bourbon, beer, rap & self-loathing…

This viper’s nest
Inside my chest
Can’t be contained
By bone and flesh;
The white-hot flame
Can’t be contained;
Can’t hold the pain
Within this frame.
If I let go and
Let my soul
Overload, overflow,
I’m afraid that
All this rage
Might spring its cage
And I’ll explode.
There’s part of me
That wants to blow,
At the end of my rope,
Just want to let go,
Just don’t know
Why I hang on,
When strength is gone;
This life’s too long.

The Filling of Empty Spaces

Sean stood in the scalding spray, wishing the hot water could wash away the crap inside of him as well as the reek of sweat and sex. No, he thought. For that I’ll need vodka. Maybe check the medicine cabinet, see if she’s got anything good. The buzz he’d had going when she’d picked him up at the club was ancient history.

He turned off the water and stepped out of the shower. A thick, pink, Turkish towel had been left on the vanity for him. He tossed it over his head to dry his hair, toweled off his body and let it fall to the floor. He leaned into the mirror, finger-combed his dark hair.

There was a tentative knock at the door and it opened. Sean’s skin tightened at the air-conditioned draft, his junk retreating like a turtle into its shell. The old lady, in a silky, flowered dressing gown, held his clothes in a tidy pile. Raccoon smudges of mascara encircled her dewy eyes. She smiled a shy-schoolgirl kind of smile in spite of the fact that she was twice his age and then some. “Your things,” she said, holding out the pile.

“Thanks.” He took it and dropped it on the vanity, grabbed his boxers off the top and climbed into them without looking at her.

She made no move to leave, and it wasn’t his place to ask her to, but he wished she would.

“You really are a very handsome young man.”

Please…please go away. “Thanks.”

“Would you like something to eat? Are you hungry?”

He pulled up his jeans, shook his head. He tried to smile, but couldn’t make it work. “No, thanks. I’m fine.”

“Oh dear, I’m a mess,” she said. Sean looked up. She was gazing at herself in the bathroom mirror. She reached for a tissue, wet it on the tip of her tongue and wiped beneath her eyes. She saw Sean looking at her and it seemed she might tear up again. She fought it with another forced smile. “I was very pretty once. Not beautiful, but nice enough to catch a wealthy husband. A good husband.”

Sean pulled on his t-shirt and tried to even his breathing. “Um…I gotta go.” He sat on the closed toilet and stuck his feet into the deck shoes, then stood.

“Of course. Let me call a cab for you.”

She sat on the barely rumpled bed and picked up the phone. As she gave the dispatcher her address, phone tucked between ear and shoulder, she replaced her wedding band on her ring finger. When she’d taken it off, before she’d even undressed, Sean had thought it hysterically funny. Husband’s been worm food for five fuckin’ years…Now it made his chest hurt to think about it.

She pulled open the nightstand drawer, took out an envelope. From it, she counted out five hundred-dollar bills. She replaced the envelope, stood and held out the money to him. “Here you are, Sean. Thank you.”

Despite the air-conditioner blowing hard enough to move the heavy drapes, Sean was sweating. “Um, you know, two would be fine.”

“No, you said five hundred, and I agreed. Take it. I’m sure you could use it.”

Sure. More booze. More dope. “I dunno, I–”

She took his hand, pressed the folded bills into his palm. “Hush.”

Minutes later, a cab pulled into the driveway beside her parked Jaguar. She walked Sean to the door. “Forgive me for not seeing you out.” She smoothed her penny-red salon job. “I don’t look fit to go outside.”

He thought it would have been a nice gesture if he bent to kiss her forehead, told her she looked just fine, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

 

“Five hundred dollars!” Raul exclaimed. “Five. Hundred. Fucking. Dollars. Drinks are on my man Sean tonight!”

Gregory laughed. “What did she want you to do for it? She was old, right? You have to eat her? Was she all shriveled up?”

Sean felt his blood rise. “Fuck you both.” Straight sex. That’s all he’d done. Missionary position. And she’d wanted him to hold her. “She was just lonely, man.” The laughter died to a few chuckles. She’d wept when he slipped into her, and he thought maybe he hurt her, but she said no. She cried quietly the whole time, and then clung to him long afterward.

Fuck the money. It wasn’t worth it. He’d rather have two dozen casual meet-ups for a Jackson apiece than have to do this again. “Tell you what,” Sean said. “I ain’t doing it again.”

Jacob, stretched out on the sofa with a spliff, craned his neck to look at Sean and smiled. “Ah…so you do have a soul, Sean. Afraid you might find your humanity and lose your living, huh?”

Sean’s face warmed. “I didn’t get into this to be somebody’s therapist. I just want to make a buck, y’know?

He could still feel her hands holding onto his arms, still hear her sobbing quietly into his shoulder. It was what made him resolve to never love anyone, to never grow old.

A Supernova Life

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,
Running wild,
Man-child.
This boy was too cool,
Unschooled,
Street-smart
Work of art,
Poisoned dart to the heart.
Young eagle left the nest
Self-possessed, self-obsessed,
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.
Self-employed rentboy,
Swivel-hipped, full-lipped,
Diesel powered,
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,
Bulletproof,
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.

What It Takes

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.

“Yeah, what?”

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.

“Yo!”

“What?”

“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.

“Well, Leo?”

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.

Going Up

A little thing inspired by a prompt on J. A. Allen’s blog.


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.”

G Wagon So Fly

“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.