Morning Meditation

Life makes no sound as it slides along,
A conveyor belt to eternity
Or oblivion.
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.

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Not at First Sight

 

Adolescent companions,

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.

Kevin’s Family

The original prologue of my novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of your Fist, was a scene from Kevin’s childhood. I’ve long since changed that, and so this will not appear in the final canon, although it remains part of the character’s backstory. 


Last night Kevin dreamed about the zoo. He’d been there once, when he was little. He remembered walking between his parents, holding their hands. Together they counted, “One, two, three!” and lifted him into the air, swinging him like a monkey on a vine, and his dad called him Monkey and carried him on his shoulders.

When he woke up, Kevin thought he might ask his dad if they could go again some time. But he couldn’t ask now. His dad was dope-sick and looking for a fix.

“Dammit, Kim, where’d you put the goddam money?” Despite the chill in the apartment, his dingy tee clung to him, and he wiped his palms on his jeans.

“I told you, Gary. I bought food with it. Kevin’s gotta eat.”

Kevin glanced up from where he sat on the worn sofa. His fingers picked at the loose threads around a tear in the upholstery fabric. He wished it was a school day.

“Yeah? Yeah?” Kevin’s father stalked into the kitchen. Kevin heard cabinets being opened and slammed shut. “Yeah, Kim? Where’s all that food? You get a slice of pizza for the kid and a couple of six-packs and smokes for yourself?” He came out of the kitchen, face red with rage, and knocked the beer can from her hand. She flinched, took a few steps back, watched beer pour out onto the floor.

Kevin drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them, trying to refocus on the Saturday morning cartoons. He couldn’t. He shut his eyes tight. “Go away,” he whispered into his knees. “Go away. Go away.”

“You’re holding out on me, Kim. You worked this week. You got some tip money stashed around here somewhere. I just need twenty bucks to get me through the next couple days.” He pleaded now, raking his fingers through his short, blond hair.

“If I had twenty bucks, I’d go and buy Kevin a jacket and shoes. I don’t have any money. Go find someone else to cover your smack.”

Kevin’s father took a backhand swing at her, and she fell hard against the table. Kevin saw her touch her face and his stomach rolled. His father’s ring had caught the bridge of her nose, and blood trickled down from the gash.

“Get up,” his father growled. “Get up, bitch.” He bent down and grabbed her by the wrist.

Kevin propelled himself from the sofa and leaped onto his father’s back, eyes blinded by tears, his thin arms hooked around his father’s neck. “Leave her alone! Go away! Just go and don’t come back!”

His father tore Kevin’s arms from his neck and flung him to the floor, knocked the wind out of him.

“Please, Gary, don’t,” his mother begged.

“You fucking little cockroach, I’ll throw your ass out into the street…” He grabbed the front of the Kevin’s shirt and yanked him to his feet. Flailing his arms, Kevin broke free and scrambled to the apartment door. He unlocked the deadbolt, bounded out onto the landing, raced down five flights of stairs and took off running down the sidewalk beneath a steel-gray Manhattan sky that threatened early snow.

 

It was dusk when Kevin returned to the apartment, shivering in his jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt. He forced his numb feet to mount the stairs, trying to count them as he went up, but was unable to concentrate for the cold and the gnawing emptiness in his middle. The low-wattage light bulb was out on the second floor, and Kevin walked sliding his hand along the banister to guide him through the murkiness. The stairwell smelled of cat urine and mildew. A door slammed on a floor above, and on the third floor landing Kevin passed a heavy-set black man in a parka who made brief eye-contact, but said nothing as he headed down the stairs.

The door to the apartment was locked. Kevin went to the far end of the landing, to the stairs leading up to the roof. He crouched down and grabbed the bottom stair tread with both hands and pulled it out. From the dark space beneath, Kevin retrieved an empty tobacco tin and opened it, dumping the contents at his feet. Four wheat pennies, a hood ornament from a BMW, a chain with his dad’s dog tags from when he was a soldier in the Middle East, and a slightly rusty key. He took the key and returned everything else beneath the step, replaced the stair tread and pounded it back into place with the heel of his hand.

Kevin turned the key in the lock and opened the apartment door. The lights were out in all the rooms except for the kitchen.

“Mom?” He flipped the switch by the door and scanned the living room. As he walked to the kitchen, his sneakers stuck where the spilled beer had dried. He went to the fridge and pulled out the grape jelly, a loaf of white bread and a carton of milk. He took the peanut butter from the cabinet, but as he opened the bag of bread, his hunger sharpened to agony, and he shoved a doughy slice into his mouth, nearly choking as he tried to swallow it. He had another while smearing peanut butter onto a couple slices to make sandwiches. The milk smelled funky, so he left the carton in the sink.

Turning on lights as he walked through the dark apartment with a sandwich in each hand, he looked around. His heart sank. The TV was gone. He guessed his father probably took it to pay for his dope.

He switched on the bathroom light, and a few cockroaches scurried across the floor. On the sink there was a beer can and some of his mother’s makeup. A towel smeared with blood hung over the side.

He went into his bedroom and polished off the second sandwich. Then he pulled on two sweatshirts over his T-shirt, took off his canvas sneakers, and put on another pair of socks. Tired as he was, he didn’t want to stay in the apartment by himself, especially without at least a TV to keep him company. Pulling on a ski cap, he went back to the kitchen and grabbed the bag with the remaining bread, then headed out, locking the door behind him.

On the first floor landing, he looked down the flight of stairs to see someone entering the building. A slim man with a pea coat and a thin mustache looked up at him from the bottom of the stairs.

“Hey there,” he addressed the boy, smiling. “You’re Kevin Sheehan, right? You remember me? I’m John Garrett from Children’s Services. I was here a couple of months ago. Can we go up and talk to your mom for a few minutes?”

“She’s not here.” Kevin eyed him warily and took a step backward. Garrett put his foot on the bottom step.

“Well, how about your dad? Is someone home I can talk to?”

Kevin took another step backward and then spun and ran up the stairs. Garrett took the steps two at a time in pursuit.

“Kevin! I’m on your side, man…I’m not gonna hurt you!”

As Kevin ran up the third flight, Garrett nearly caught up and stood at the bottom, coughing, his chest heaving. Kevin tucked the bread into his shirt and turned to look at him for just a moment. He put his hands on the banister and leaped from the stairs across the open stairwell to the opposite landing. Then he spun on his heels and headed downstairs as fast as he could run.

“Hey, Kevin! C’mon, buddy,” Kevin heard him shout from above. “I’m here to help you!” Kevin’s feet hit the pavement and he was running again, this time down the dark street toward the warmth of the subway, holding the bagged half-loaf of bread against his body as he ran.

For skin

564

“Omigod!”

I don’t know what kind of reaction I was expecting. It wasn’t this. Apparently it was her first time seeing an uncircumcised penis.

“What’s wrong with it?” She was literally recoiling in horror. “Oh god…is it shrinking?”

I leaned back in the car seat, closed my eyes and sighed. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

It was the summer of my sophomore year at a new high school, and the closest I’d come to “getting some.” Ellen, being even less experienced than me, wasn’t really my first choice for lifting my virgin status, but she was cute, curvy and seemed to like me. In all honesty, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t her first choice either. Well, at this point I was very, very sure.

She was quiet for a time. I finally ventured to open one eye. She was still staring at my groin with a look of morbid fascination. Like the way someone might look at the wriggling halves of a severed earthworm. Okay, that was an unfortunate analogy, but there wasn’t much left of my pride or anything else at this point. I sighed again, tucked my shriveled manhood back into my pants and arched my back to zip up.

“I’m not circumcised, Ellen.”

“Which means…?”

“They usually do it to the baby boys at the hospital. My mother refused to let them do me. All boys are like this until they get cut.”

“No way!”

My blood having been first warmed by passion and then by humiliation, I was sweating like a draft horse in a sauna. The car windows were fogging. I rolled mine down a couple inches. “Can we just change the subject?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to–”

“Forget it. It’s okay.”

A pause. “So…what do you want to do now?”

“I dunno. Become a monk, I guess.”

“No, I mean right now.”

I looked over at her in the dim light. She looked so soft, no hard lines. And she smelled really nice, like shampoo and clean laundry.  I wanted to put my hands all over her, squish her body against mine. “Wanna grab a bite to eat?” It was the next best thing.

We ordered a couple burgers and Cokes at a drive-thru, then I parked by the basketball court, under the light, and we ate. Ellen pulled a long, limp French fry from the Styrofoam carton and observed it, wagged it back and forth like a metronome.

“Are you really disappointed?” she asked.

“About what?”

“You know.”

“Nah. It’s okay just hanging out with you. You’re not bad company.”

She smiled. “Thanks. Neither are you. Some guys might have taken me home right away.”

“Yeah, well, some guys are jerks.” Not to mention that I had an older brother who made it part of his daily routine to humiliate me. My ego was used to a bruising.

She dipped the fry in ketchup and held it out to me. I ate it from her fingers. No, she really wasn’t bad company.

We finished the food in silence and stuffed all the garbage into the empty cups. As I walked across the court to take it to the overflowing trash can, I thought about the ridiculousness of this rush to have sex. I mean, two and a half more years I’d be in college. There would be mature people there, right? People who wouldn’t give a shit one way or another whether I’d had sex or not. Experienced women who had seen an uncut dick. I could jack off for a couple more years, wondering what it actually felt like to…

Two years seemed to stretch out before me to a vanishing point on the horizon.

I slipped back into the car and took a deep breath. “Guess I better take you home.”

“In a little while.” Ellen scooted closer, close enough for me to smell the ketchup on her breath. She leaned her head on my shoulder, placed a hand on my thigh. A tremor passed from my chest to my crotch. I vowed to ignore it, but turned my head a little to inhale the scent of her hair. I saw that the buttons on her blouse were undone.

“My nipples don’t match,” she whispered.

A nostalgia for what you never knew

To be sure, some language has a word which sums that up. What we need here is a reverse dictionary. I have the definition; now find me the word.

Anyway, there have been occasions when I experience just that. The difference between it and your run-of-the-mill longing for something-you-can’t-have-but-desperately-want is that with the former you just know exactly how having it feels, even though you’ve never had it. As a kid I got into Medieval European history (thanks, Mr. Tolkien). I longed to live in a time of castles, swords and longbows. I read history books and pined for the past I never knew, for what might have been, if only I’d been born in the right place, at the right time. But the other feeling, the feeling of nostalgia, that’s like a lost memory. I can so connect with the feeling of being there and doing it that I long to remember the details.

I don’t know if I’m making any sense.

I’ve done a shitload of research for my novel. Since it’s contemporary (2010-ish, NYC), I have a lot of resources. And I’ve watched a lot of movies and videos to pick up on the flavor, the general vibe, of the city around that time. Today I had a new inspiration, and I went back to YouTube to find a shared memory of my two MCs. Nothing in three and a half years of research gives me that sense of nostalgia for what I never knew as does this:

I was never one of these boys, but damn, I’d give a few years of my life to have been there with them. To be 15, tanned and skinny, with more more balls than sense; being reckless, throwing caution to the wind. I know–somehow–what it feels like, and I want that feeling.

Maybe I didn’t dare enough in my youth. My kind of reckless had more to do with combinations of intoxicants, walking in unsafe places at night, practicing unsafe sex. But I was never athletic, never gutsy in that way. And I watch skateboarders going down flights of stairs, and these guys, jumping off C-rock into the Harlem River, and I can almost feel that rush, that feeling of being bullet-proof, deathless.

It’s youth. I’m nostalgic not for my own past, but for Youth in all its ballsy, gutsy glory. And the taste is bittersweet for the tang of regret that lies beneath.

Persistence.

I’m not talking to a mob, not even a gathering. It’s probably just me and you (yes, you.) So before I become wildly popular and end up directing my blog posts to an audience, I’ll say a few things about this novel I’m writing. More like get it off my chest.

I’ve been with this thing for 3.5 years. In this time it has metamorphosed so much from the original concept as to be almost unrecognizable. The ex-con and the older woman have remained. The best-friend-cum-adversary is there. But they’re all younger and the ex-con and woman have a different sort of connection. All of them have become so firm in my mind as to be almost as real. When I don’t spend enough time with them, they call to me. I feel as though I have a phone call or email to return, but then realize, no, it’s just my characters trying to get my attention.

I’m in a sense held captive by my novel. Whether I call today a good day or a bad day is frequently dependent on how my writing went today, whether I had time to write or not, whether the words flowed well or came out like dice-shaped boulders rolling down a hill.

And not just any writing, writing the novel. I should say “The Novel” as I refuse to work on any other novels until I’ve done at least a couple drafts of this one and have a few readers perusing it. The things I write in between don’t bring me much pleasure. I’m happy for a day or two, and then I go back to fretting over The Novel.

What I’m saying is, either my mental state has really gone to hell in three years, or writing fiction is a form of mental illness. After all, I spend hours a day in an imaginary world talking to and listening to imaginary people, who have sort of taken on a life of their own. They can actually surprise me, talk to me at odd times and they try to infiltrate my “real” life. Sound nuts? Thankfully, I’ve heard similar things from other writers.

I’m blogging my journey with this thing mainly to keep me accountable to my writing. Not just writing my novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist, but whatever else I might write or reflect upon. Writing a novel can be a very long and lonely journey, so it’s a good thing to find a few fellow travelers along the way, others with whom one may weather the storms, cross the deserts and wait out the doldrums. So I welcome comments, advice, amusing anecdotes, drunken sailor tunes, NSFW photos, whatever. I might say “no thanks” to the week-old sushi…

Poem: Clipping the wings of youth

Young cheek kissed by a fist,
a lick of red like lipstick.
Pain burns white hot in a place
where impotent anger is bound;
sorrow makes no sound
in power’s cold embrace.

Soft sobs muffled into
a sweat-and-tear wet pillow,
crimson and umber smeared on
a pallet of old yellowed sheets.
Crippled hope retreats,
a shadow fleeing the dawn.

Life’s concrete lessons force-fed
hard enough to break the teeth.
Childhood’s a fragile thing,
first mounting the sky on a breeze,
shot down with such ease:
shattered soul and pinioned wing.