I was going around with my birth certificate in my breast pocket, and the sky was the color of used charcoal. Test the water with a tooth, and there are cheetahs in the bath, again, while we wears swimsuits to the chapel. Messed up, with the kids, you know how they wear their hair in the rafters. After that, we had a whole marble-shooting contest in the foyer. You missed it. The barest of essentials, that. King Creole on the TV and Sinatra down the hall, still. Made a cover out of makeup mistakes and called it a morning. Best, they keep spreading on the worst of it. And by midday the air stinks like basement plants. And by treble the cleft goes to the guy who bags your groceries. A potato pie for your trunk of pancakes. We’ve got wars to not fight and cheaters to lose. Ways to never feel. Differentials to march to. A markup in the price of dissections. A confiscated geranium. A show that you just can’t quite place to win. Then there’s that required smirk of driving unsafe for any conditions, and she asks, “Does murder make you sleepy?” in the throes of a passing phase. A stupor never settled on with that look that goes wild without the eyes, a time capsule left buried, and then there’s that bustle of moving on that gets stuck in the scratchy screams. Blessed to be cursed. Adjacent to torment, there are instincts that just seem to burn better, foreboding a photo finish that gets clipped at just the wrong instant. Warier for the wear. The collision’s happening, whether dipshits like me scrap their loneliness for a recalcitrant moment that keeps stalling and berating the competition. A price point for mercy that just never seems to hit. Busiest of minds; laziest of bodies.
There are sheets to ruffle under and silver-coin moons to mistake for shattered stained glass. We keep ourselves to ourselves, mutter to each other too. Stuffy little quips like, “Stop haranguing me.” And, “Ah. You’re in the footlights now,” while we’re soaking in the tub. Everything is a muffled outcry, a chocolate cake to lick the icing off of, and we never seem to know what time it is. But it’d take an acetylene torch to pry us apart.
The sound of biplanes overhead, it just goes right through me. Coming up long, it’s like I’m living in an abandoned macaroni factory over here. They’ve got bubble wrap bigger than people, and, “she held his hand, she held his hand…” is bopping my conscious like a rubber mallet. Just go on and point me in the wrong direction and I’ll take a swing with a sock of batteries at whatever comes around to greet me. My poison’s been picked out for me, in a general self-help sort of way, by a couple of legume thieves out of Miami, Missouri. There’s a new disease just over the edge of sight, blocking all calls for succor, and silence is the best medicine, it seems, but, unfortunately, we’re all out of it. People get persuaded so easily. Get this, I knew a guy who went around buying up all the surgical masks hoping to turn a hefty profit when word of a new virus took hold among the populace. It worked. He made a killing selling these flimsy poorly made contraptions to scared morons. The masks were useless and unnecessary of course: they were too porous to have any real effect on the airborne molecules. But that didn’t stop people from grabbing as many as they could, and for way more than their original market price. They should’ve been investing in soap. The lowest common denominator keeps getting lower and more common. That’s all that you can really count on.
“A beat-up cornet for your thoughts.”
“Nothing to hear of. Bramble and burns, mostly. And this ticker’s running out of tape. Guess which side of my face gets me in the most trouble. Be meaningful.”
“The one farthest from your heart.”
“Makes me bristle, that. God. That’s unsightly. But we are only here to clean up the mess. Get rid of any evidence. And get me somebody to get old with in this drafty uncommon place we get to bide our lives in.”
“Let’s just lie around and watch old movies all day.”
“And the subject was what?”
“Insert laugh track here.”
“Feverishly languid, we stall and become enthralled, at once and never together at all.”
“Predicting the future in the past tense. That’s more to it, before a never that after all is always probably not going to ever happen. Shit. I just got squeamish.”
“Where would you be if you were my keys?”
“Ah motherfucking shucks.”
She was handy with a chainsaw, and I was working on my limp. And we were both getting tired of dreaming about a life we’d rather be leading: something free and lush and musical always playing in the distance of our crammed days. The house, the yard, a couple of clunkers in the garage, meals for two and a bottle of good scotch on the shelf for use on the porch evenings, a couch, a kitchen table, a king bed, a spare room to make things in, maybe even a part-time gig that didn’t worry or wear us out too much, and oodles of time to spend with each other. Just imaging it wasn’t doing us any good. It was all wait and see. But we were going blind.
The ordinary was terrible. It was trouble. Something to get into, like a pickup truck with bald tires or a wedding coat with the arms ripped off. It must be avoided at all costs. And we did. There wasn’t much to go on except each other. And we did.
The basics. The interior thinking of exterior thoughts. Held under when everything was over. Separated by jobs and distance. Basically making no sense to anyone but ourselves. Just the way we’d always wanted it until it came, and then it was too much and never quite enough too. Holed up together for weekends at a time, steeling ourselves for the week to come.
I just keep not remembering what I used to always hold so damn close. “…at all,” was never a recommendation. Another voice to accompany me in the depths of where I’m scared to climb to. She wanted to open up a Drive-In movie theater with roller-skating girls, and to start a print shop in a church basement. Maybe a piano tuner to have over for lunch. Some kindling funneling up smoke through the gears of us.
After you came clomping and cracking up into the broom closet of my life, I had the time to call you a deranged daffodil with fluttering petals going all sorts of crazy and lost in your curls. Possibility was less aggressive before all that. Before the headlights went low and we tripped over older sayings like, “It’s only a matter of time.” Being out of my mind over you always seemed like the right thing to be doing. I was working on my demonstrativeness. Being rebuffed with sadness was within reach.
“I’m worried that I’m just…that it’s just that…um…I feel like maybe I’m just not enough for you.”
Discrepancies in tone, mangled marrow-deep things burrowed into our acerbic wit. Slurred temptations in the never-retrieved places we couldn’t quite not remember anymore. Not so bored at all. The risers hit and the plunks sink, and we finally get that sendoff we were never really looking for. The third-place Bible-Salesman-of-the-Year trophies add up. The lost coins and the spent rounds and the empty bottles and the broken ceramic tchotchkes and the clothes spread all across the floor. A sham of contentment.
“Dear. Dear, dear. That’s not even a matter of a question, to or of, too.”
“I know. We’re a mess. But a wonderful one.”
“The grandest mess around.”
“Come on over here with me. We’re taking a goddamn stroll.”
“Damn right, damn it.”
“Oh, you and your roly-poly eyes, with your space waitress epaulets and your sweaty little palms and your adorable sneezes. I think I’ll just go on ahead and fall in love with you.”
“Watch out. I’m timing you.”
We got ourselves the worst seats in the house, and me with my burgundy and orchid-purple, regimental-striped necktie, planning impatiently my fall from her impetuous graces. Leaving gets lost in bated looks and derivative banter. I get upset.
“But you never call when I want you to, without me having to ask, or expecting you to, just out of the blue, that’s really all I want…and maybe an invitation to a dinner party then and now.”
“I’d be your date to anything.”
“…jeez, you make me weak in the Achilles…”
The blondest woman I’ve ever seen came crashing through the turnstiles of my disenfranchised contentment, busting up the festivities, as they say, while the music died down enough to listen to. Words mangled in stuffy tones.
“Tell me all the things that I don’t know
you drive too fast and you dance this way too slow
“Open up your ears and use your eyes
Tell me what the weather looks like
It’s time to be outside somewhere
“Rolling out of bed just above the fold
two mattress thieves on the nod
trying a bit too hard to not get old
lamely lost in quarter tones
defaulting on the world’s worst loans
that suicide cuisine in us heavy as ore
leap days to wage like salutations or war
“Aggressive light and softer hues of you
in the dark’s singular spell
we line the contours of our bodies with tracing fingers
configured into a lease that never holds long enough
judged by our covers
we feel plenty good beneath them
“Gone fishing on doctor’s orders
losing amends still
crossed off my own list
plastered with complacency’s drowse
waiting to see what happens next
is all that’s left to do…”
“But me? You better bet, I don’t want to walk around with a mouthful of perfectly straight bleached white fake teeth…”
Life is like that sometimes: messy, sticky, and rotten. You get so that your mouth tastes like a fetid orange and the morning sun is something to cringe from. That’s all as it should be. Cracked vocal cords from being on the damn ventilator too long. All raspy and out of tune. Bearing with it but never bored. Ecstatic for as long as it takes to get back to abnormal.
I tend to think too much about things, some would say excessively. Some luckier part of me sent out with the holiest of shmucks. Share some of your worst salutations with me, because, baby, you can always be better than best. Clip my neck hair and call back the nurse. Leave your tiny socks all balled-up on the floor for me to find. We’re resting on fear’s barbwire here, and the worm moon’s out to get what’s coming as March bows and putters on and out. Let’s kiss in a graveyard by the sea. You just better step back 25 yards before you shoot. And keep your distance anyway, at all times. Me? I wash my hands until they crack, until they start bleeding. Almost clean enough to touch. Almost dirty enough to hold. The crueler times, they just doesn’t take quite like these.
The way I love you is uniquely heartening, if not sometimes rending, in the daily fabric of knowing what breathing is.
Sometimes reading into the blundering terror of comfort’s coziest socks, sometimes lasting short in the longest walks, parked perpendicular to your curves, level in the awkward tilt of lunged incessancy, slowed to a hurry of when’s farthest why, all anxiety bundled and included in the price of purchase, here, in the past’s truculent trickle always pounding in our ears.
Nobody pounces like the way you pounce, because the way you wriggle is the genius of casualness’s frailest gesture, and we’re each other’s lifeboats on the pandemic’s whipsaw tide, and the closest closet’s riled for exponentially rising figures and hopes that shadow the moves we’ll never see coming, clipped claws and bald spots and crooked postures’ crescent lipped deliriousness.
We got the worst seats in the house, baby, and the room was light with anticipation’s ponderous weight, steady and slipping from a seatbelt’s safety, all the dry eyes in the house were on you, and even the spots were getting choked up, and the ushers and the ticket takers and the amateur weepers and the tiptoe ballerinas with their push-button eyes and even the chandeliers were swinging with the way we rocked into out of the perfectly fitted pieces and folds of what we were holding: each other.
Spoons of marshmallows dropped from barnstorming skies dark as mulled chocolate, we got along, we split the cuts and gave our wounds the business quite a ways above the fold, slicing fingers with the rosemary bread, all the headlines shot in the crazy distance we never had time use, the pursuit we never used to get used to, can’t always not quite lose the for of it, inseparable in instants and lumped-together instances, place me back apart all over again, please.
We’re concrete with abstractions. And so she spells the names of new diseases with dull sequins on hair paper. And so I nosedive in deeper to get pulled away. Shapes take mistakes from the sound hammers never make. Intake valves of me all clogged with panic, watering the oily shore with bird shit and tallow, and my head’s rainy, and my hands keep digging in so far past where the earth starts, and machinery of me is glitchy with goiters and bloody stumps and the leveler heads of cruel aspirations.
There we were, in a clustered plop of backlit hiatus, all rumpled and dragging around axes we’re too tired to grind. Frustration was scrambled in with the eggs. We had all the onces we’d ever need. Into the paused arms of oblivion, buffering and chancy as expired mayonnaise, there were corners to dust with the starchy stuff of lunges and shallow bows. The wind carried plunging news of deadpanned purpose, rekindling never-sought effort, boosting immorality, and taking rapid-fire potshots at cures. The next disaster always lurking just around the proverbial bend. Who knew the beginning was so far?
You were the music pulsing through distance that never got quite covered, but was always there to depend on too. While all those furious dogs in those fenced-in yards on 27th Street bark at us like we’re burglars as we plow by on the sidewalk. And I let on to a slightly inebriated neighbor, “My girl, she’s working out with a sledgehammer again. Get a load of this one. All barrettes and corny hang ups about ginger syrup recipes. Wouldn’t trade her for a dozen rolls of toilet paper.” A redressed regret swifter than a kick to the groin, joined and wrestled and crumpled without a mess left up ahead somewhere too lonely to ever have to get to. The curled sweep of lost hair on linoleum tiles. Acoustics be damned, and those sunken piano keys were built for me and you to pound through our future on. Intended intentions struck through to the ends of illegible cursive’s last line, we can fight silently over sides of the bed while dinner gets cold in cracked ramekins. And, besides, who mistakes envy for pity anymore?
My piano noodling got to be a nuisance on about the 5th day. All those mis-hit keys and troubling notes, the pedal held underfoot for way too long. I was dreaming of cafeterias with bossa nova background music. Something cracked and lay still between what I wanted and who I was. Any effort I made was just an excuse to keep plugging along. But I loved what had been building between us as much anything else. And I didn’t want to let it go for all the mustard in West Oakland.
We danced by the candles on the piano as the virus spread like pigeon shit over the bay, holding each other by our favorite parts, kissing and singing along to weird, funny, crazy songs, and there was for a moment nothing we’d rather be doing, caught in a squeeze, without fevers or a cough for now, still breathing, and therefore alive, ok, longing for each other in a way that neither of could ever quite explain. We had enough Matzo left to make it through the worst of it, and therefore a chance.
Even a week ago I wouldn’t have thought any of this would’ve been possible. Twirling in the parlor with the love of my life as we did nothing except stay inside, rationing our food, distracting each other in desperate moments of panic, mangling the words to songs we’d always known by heart.
“Do you know any séances we could make pancakes to?”
“Just the maple of you sweetly sticking to the parched still of my shakier moments.”
“Cast the better shadows best you can over there, listening?”
“Let’s partake in it all while we all still can. Let’s get as goddamn tender as the fucking night over here. Please?”
“I’ll sign off on that.”
“Nothing better, huh?”
“Everything. We’ve got it.”
“Hell, you’ve got to admit, the pandemic looks quite lovely in the moonlight tonight.”
“And here I am, holding you, because, you know, I’ve always been the worrying kind. And you, you make it all stop and go fuzzy and soft.”
“Guess my gesture, over here.”
We were doing the Shelter-in-Place Shuffle along Park — taking to the street when necessary if larger groups were coming our way — in a valiant attempt to stay at least 6 feet away from any other pedestrians who had decided to brave the mass almost-quarantine to get a little much-needed fresh air. We’d decided to briskly walk our way all the way to The Morcom Rose Garden, about a mile-and-a-half trek each way, risking exposure to the virus, if a minor one, to get some sun and get out of the apartment.
She said, “Is it aerosolized?” She said, “Can we get it from people breathing on us?”
I leaned in close to her. I said, “It’s like cigarette smoke. Someone exhaling on a cold day. It sort of hangs there close for a second and then it gets harmlessly dispersed.” I said, “It’d be pretty difficult to pick it up.”
She said, “But you could…”
I said, “Just as anything’s possible. But the probability’s very low. ‘He screws up his countenance and says in a reassuring tone.’”
She said, “Thanks. That is very reassuring.”
I said, “We’re all feeling the same way: isolated, whatever. We all feel, a bit at least, like we’re suffering through this thing alone. But we’re not. We’re all in this together, feeling the same things, going through the same torturous turmoil. Nobody’s alone in feeling alone.”
She said, “But avoiding each other, of course. Physically, at least.”
I said, “For sure.”
Of all the different ways to die, who’d pick this one? No. You’d rather get pushed out of a high window and plummet majestically to your demise. Or get gut shot in a gunfight with bandits. Or just pass away softly closing your eyes on your 87th birthday, dressed in your favorite suit, sitting on a very comfortable chair, waiting for your granddaughter to pick you up and take you to a party. I sit here in the glow of late afternoon sun on a very pretty day, outside, a place I can’t go, while a pandemic spreads its tendrils out over the bay like a terrible weed, and I think about all the different ways to die — besides this one. Getting a fever, a dry cough, aches and chills, getting put on a ventilator to fitfully expire alone in a hospital bed? No. Not in this lifetime.
We were lying on the floor, heads under the piano bench, trying not to start crying.
“Let’s get out some brushes and a bunch of paint and do portraits of my cat.”
“But I paint like a 5-year-old.”
“So? I can’t paint either. That’s why they’ll be great.”
“I can’t argue with that logic.”
“Fuck it. I’m making pizza from scratch.”
“Yes. And then we’ll make hideous cocktails. Coconut Elvis vodka, cooking whiskey, coffee liqueur…”
“We don’t have any mixers. Shit.”
“What? Of course we do. We’ve got bananas, peanut butter, marshmallows…and pickles!”
“God. You’re right. We’re set.”
Getting beat up by the morning’s settled dust while the roof just out the window fills with rain. Coffee to gulp down. A broom to scare the cat away. Dishes to stack and scrub and put back. A mission for the day accomplished, the music brushing away the bonds of sluggish contempt, as the smoothed arcs of smiles get back to where they’re supposed to belong.
She’s on the couch clipping faces from old magazines to paste onto a hastily sawed piece of plywood. I’m around the bend, sitting at the kitchen table, nursing a cold coffee and cracking my toes.
“The rain’s our only witness.”
“Jesus, we’re getting young.”
“Getting younger and younger, all of the time…”
“I had a dream we were both dead, corpses — lively though — sitting on the edge of a pool, the water up to our calves, arguing over the best way to cook salmon. There was no pressure. Just empty space to mess around in.”
“Sounds pleasant enough.”
Neither of us coughed at all. I eyed the lawn chairs.
“Let’s go up to the roof. We’ll bring the lawn chairs, a few umbrellas, maybe a couple odd cocktails for the road.”
She got up and went over to where I was. She hugged me with all of her might.
“I want to have a wall of just pegboard.”
“We’re nothing but damn isolations, here. In isolation.”
“I know. It’s the best.”
I motioned upwards with both thumbs, “To the roof with us!”
“To the roof!”
With evening just around the bend, there, on the roof’s pebbled tar and concrete, we sat on the lawn chairs, under a couple of large umbrellas planted between the chairs’ slots, and watched the sky go a little delirious with cattleman clouds and dump trucks of sun. The rain was just a mist, and there was a slight grimace of sun poking out here and there between squalls. Sunglasses on, in t-shirts and shorts and big goofy hats, we sipped ginger-infused whiskey with frozen lemon-juice cubes from Krazy Straws. I kept saying our names together as she cracked her fingers and tried to be lazy.
“I’m just so used to the way you lean.”
“The way we hold each other. Easy. All wrapped up. Calm as it goes.”
The sky got heavy with swirling bruise-colored wisps, stringy streams of gushing scuffed white now scampering off and over the crest of house-lights-spotted deep-green hills. The Bay Bridge sashayed in the distance beyond Oakland’s bundle of Downtown towers, and we sat there and tried to take everything as easy as we possibly could. I curled my toes in my shoes.
“Should we head back in?”
“There could be a nap in my future. A real vegetable-state of an evening ahead of us.”
We packed up our materials and headed back down the stairs.
She curled up on the bed, and slept there softly — the shades wide, the fan rotating in the corner, every goopy thing come to a quiet standstill. I turned to the bottle of vodka in the freezer and poured myself a nice glass of it.
I got to thinking:
Plus All the Minuses
The higher shelved shit gets runny. Don’t placate me with those wormy conniptions. Contraptions? Sure as you’ll get close enough to kiss, maybe. But God I love the way cheap vodka tastes in a paper cup in the early evening when I’m alone in the kitchen with the rain just about to start up again. Preparations for what’s to never come, and the cuts of salmon are getting too thin to count on. Crust it with almond and garlic, maybe a squirt of lemon. But me, I might still…get prepared for an elaborate exit. Probabilities to coast on for a miscalculated moment of foggy notions and counterproductive odds to never bet on. The gaming tables, they were all empty, and the movies had all shut down, and the bars were closed, and then the beaches and parks too. We were scavenging for vegetables and crackers. And she screams, “Oh, fuck off!” into the night’s incipient motives. Trust to tear and scar and slightly tremble to. In the boxed-out pulses of scrambling ghosts we get sweaty above the sheets at closer to 4 a.m. than most ever get to be. The life we used to lead sloughs off like infected cells, and we stumble closer to the wall now, inching along, sure, and you’d better mistake me for a coat rack in the flood lights. So, give a yank to this collar and run. We’re adlibbing with the best of them. We’re handling some of it. And then, out of everywhere, my Check Engine light comes on. So we idle there like that. Sure. Lie and learn, kid. We’re in this together and equal, damn it. From here on out. And then the purrs echo, and the fridge clicks on and hums and buzzes, and we take each other in with long greedy swallows. The spiked proteins get their targets. Sure. The batteries get lower and lower. The hunches get to be all that’s left. Hospitals fill up. Hearts give a bit. Cysts burst. Eyes get poked. Faces meet their makeup. Knees get weak. Drinks get made. Metal legs get hacksawed. Nobody falls harder in love than we do. Nobody. And all bets are on. Sure. Keep ’em coming. Again. The palm trees stand tall for it, bark all scaly and burnt tough, their fronds puffed and regal and lazy. Tear down the window shades, why don’t you? Pull the plug from the record player and sing, with or without the fucking silvery moonlight. Getting dumber still. Abiding with the worst of them until this menacing blur clears up a bit. Shit. I should be famous. Why am I not famous? Fuckers. The scrambled gray sky looks like a punch-drunk possum. And I’m checked-in here for the duration, whatever comes or doesn’t. And right now, with the love of my life softly asleep on the bed, just before sundown, as the cities across the nation all shut down and go silent, as everyone stays inside for weeks at a time, there’s no other place I’d rather be. Light a cigarette as the lights go down for another night I never want to pass. Pucker up, and get that grumpiness gone from your looks. We’ve got a lot of living left to do, and there’s just so much time we get to do it in. Right off, and along, the bumps and the craters of it, we’ve got it licked anyway. So go on and throw them arms around me, despite or because of what we’re both never after, it doesn’t matter in the burnished blame of these last squeamish minutes before sunset. Let’s take this thing private. From the get-go, we’ve made it up out of Spanish tile and Brutalist gestures. Not caring where we were, not caring who was along, just as long as we had each other, at least a little closer than close enough to hold. Now, dance with me. There’s not much else I care to do around here.
She woke up and rubbed her eyes and said just above a hoarse whine: “I want to sit in a dark room and be sad and tired. And then I’ll make dinner.”
There we were: lost insects trapped in the gluey substance of our survival. We had Lucky-brand condiments and other assorted chips and Oreo cookies to go through. I boiled water for the increasingly stronger coffee. And it was never strong enough.
I keep not talking: “This is such a unique situation. I lie on the bed and watch the couple next door fight in their yellow upstairs window, the cat going wild as a lion cub on the sofa, the moon filling up some space up above the shingles. I make plans, things I wish I’d get the guts to do, to make real, in my life, for once. The couple, they start to throw things. Mostly just cushions and pillows and candles. Not stuff that’d hurt too much, but enough to make a point. A rawness is consuming me; that’s really the only way I can put it. An internal unplaced ache that won’t subside. It jumps around a bit, sometimes catching a rib off guard or a wrist at an awkward angle or a twinge in a calf, a slight burn in the temple. I click my tongue at the cat and waste out another broiled lump of a day. My head’s been a mess. Just like a bowl of dirt. I’ve been having some, well, unique thoughts. A footnote, out of place, in the daydreams that’ve been keeping me up at night. It just keeps getting later, no matter what we do. And we do a little. And we do a lot. And we do whatever we want. And we do a limited amount of activities. And we fight and make up and drive each other saner than we’d like. There are warped floors to waltz across, and we’ll twirl with matching marionette strings to snip and get all tangled up in. Us. We’ll flatten the curves of all this with dremels and ball-ping hammers and chocolate chip-marshmallow-banana pancakes. I won’t forget to hold you up you don’t forget to hold on to me so I won’t ever have to let go to let any of this go and we can just stay and stay. And that’s all we’ll ever have to do again.”