Found in sleaze soaked, Del Mar roach motel just south of the Strip: wondrous squalid Fremont Avenue gift-shop prize.
She wanted to remember this time. Remember the glamorous fluorescent marquee,though it didn’t have the thousand tiny flashing lights like the ones on the Metro squad car.
He was ‘spose t’be lookin’ fer work officer. Bring home some KFC fer the babies at least. I don’t know what he was doin’ with the like of them folk sir.
A few months later the 7-11 the graveyard manager still hears the echo of her wail careening down the back alley.
Beautiful mother she was.
He fondles what was left behind every time the echoes come around, still in his greasy pockets all this time. Every souvenir loves a transient town. Knickknacks on tour get epic myths built up around them. Lucky damn trinkets.
Karen bit into the fried egg sandwich, its taste as insipid as last night’s lover. The place had been a zoo, that she remembered. But why that loser? She was a nurse, graceful and caring. He preferred cowgirls, rough and raunchy. She gawked at her breakfast. Maybe ketchup would help.
The girl was only eleven years old. She tried hard to fight
off the tears that had built up inside her after the old man’s
mother had thrown her doll into the fireplace.
She winched as the elderly woman shook her harshly by the
shoulders, telling her from this day on she must begin acting
like a woman.
The girl’s parents had left the house earlier, returning to their village,
taking their daughter’s dowry with them.
The old man did not believe in Western decadence, and the
only luxury allowed in the house was a small radio he had
purchased years ago.
The girl sat silently at the dinner table, barely touching the
food on her plate, trying to avoid the look in her new husband’s
eyes. The man was old, fat and balding, and his presence filled
the room like an elephant filled a water hole.
The girl wished she had been born a boy. She wished
harder still she had been born in America. She knew in
America marriages were based on love and not on prearranged
family custom and tradition.
The girl was too underdeveloped to wear a bra, and felt naked
as the old man’s eyes devoured her. She self-consciously avoided
making eye contact with him.
After the meal was consumed, she helped the old man’s mother wash
and dry the dishes before she was dismissed and sent to her bedroom.
The girl shut the bedroom door behind her, walking over to the dresser
and viewing herself in the mirror. She brushed away a tear forming
Christy had only been hanging out in front of Wal-Mart a couple of hours when an older man in a plaid buttondown, slacks, and cowboy boots stopped and smiled at her. He looked nice, so she smiled back.
“Did you draw these?” he asked, gesturing at the drawings on cardboard squares she had leaned against the building.
“Yes! Ten dollars apiece,” she said.
“Hmm.” He looked more closely at the drawings, and then picked up the one she’d done of Jesus’ face.
It was as close as she could make it to the picture hanging on her grandma’s bathroom wall. It wasn’t that great, really, but she’d discovered she could make a lot more money if she drew religious pictures, even if they weren’t her best work. She liked drawing puppies and kittens best. But people were suckers for Christian art.
“I’ll give you that one for five,” she said, when he seemed like he might be about to put it back against the wall. It was almost two, and she hadn’t had anything to eat yet.
He looked at her, and then pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. “I’ll take it,” he said. He handed her a five dollar bill, and then pulled a folded piece of paper out of his shirt pocket and handed that to her, too.
“I’d like to invite you to my church this Sunday. The address is there on the back. We have a great youth department.”
She looked at the picture on the front of the little pamphlet. Three naked people were burning in fire, and the caption read, “Could this be you?” She fought to keep a straight face. She could’ve told this guy, hell wasn’t burning in fire after you died. Hell was being too poor to buy food while you were alive. But he’d just given her lunch money, so she said, “Sure, thanks” and stuck it in her back jeans pocket along with the money.
As soon as he had disappeared in the parking lot, she gathered up the rest of her pictures and stuck them in a sack, and then headed across the street to McDonald’s.
In three months she would be eighteen, and she could get a job at the club where her mom used to dance. The manager had promised that with her “hot little bod” she’d get a fortune in tips. Three more months of pictures.
At least she wouldn’t have to worry about getting fat.
Manx sat across from the La Salle, enjoying his coffee as he opened his mail. The morning sun was doing its best to cut through the chill of early winter. It was not very successful. Every so often, someone (probably some drunk) would let out a scream from across the street. It was natural. Life is a truly scary proposition these days, and the shock of living it would make the most sane among us cry out if we hadn’t been conditioned since birth to do otherwise. As he contemplated this (and the swirls in his cappuccino) a youth, of passing acquaintance, sat down (uninvited) at the table and began to rant.
“Truth is a broken mirror. Justice is an empty box. Intimacy is a suicide note. Desire is an empty shot glass.”
Your point being…? Manx thought.
Was this really news to this kid? The world was neither safe nor sanitized; yet every time you turned on the box there was some government stooge trying to convince you otherwise. Likewise, every time you went out there was some goon preaching righteous indignation from a makeshift pulpit. Or some kid who had just discovered that life sucked, preaching to the choir at some poetry ‘reading’ or in some alley where the ‘chronic’ burned and spoiled dreams mingled with spilt booze. He wondered where these people had been? How had they missed the decline and fall of practically everything sacred?
The kid was on a roll now. He knew it and Manx knew it. Trouble was, he wanted nothing to do with the kid. The kid brought out a fear that had plagued him for years. A fear which he had learned to suppress by ignoring it. A fear that had gone unnamed for years: homo-phobic. Not as in homosexual fear, but as in homo-sapien fear.
He looked at the kid. He wished he could make the kid disappear… forever. He wondered what would happen? Could he get away with it? Would anyone notice? According to the kid, no one gave a damn if he was ever heard from again. Manx drifted into a murderous daydream of doing vile things to the kid (just to show him how bad it could really get) before dropping him head-first down a mineshaft out in the Panamints, or maybe, over by Pinto Basin.
“Truth is a handful of dirt. Justice is the open grave.”
A scream punctuated this statement. Manx lurched forwards out of his chair, his letters scattering like bystanders at a drive-by shooting. His hands clutched the kid’s throat. It was soft and innocent like a Harp seal. He choked out the words as Manx brought down the club.
“Beauty is getting what you wished for… whether you like it or not.”
“Too true, too true;” thought Manx.
He was long over-due for a change of scenery, anyway.
A crumbling house hugs the side of a junkyard fence. A single lamp-lit window tools a hole through the middle of a Mississippi night. An old man sits alone at a kitchen table, bent over a cheap guitar. Spent ashes fall from a neglected cigarette jammed between metal strings where they run over the headstock. Open chords stumble & stagger behind jagged bottleneck moans—a driving boogie. His left boot pounds the wooden floor like a hammer as he sings in a high lonesome wail…
“I got the key to the highway
Billed out and bound to go
I’m gonna leave here running
‘Cause walkin’s much too slow…”
Outside the window, on the other side of a chain-link fence, a midnight mockingbird rests on the rusty frame of a 1964 Mustang and sings along with this resident composer of twelve-bar concertos—small truths concerning drinking, rambling, gambling, and the devil.
An unknown blues man, lost in waves of cheap whiskey, washed up on this island of broken things—a castaway locked in the sweet release of addiction, a prisoner standing on his own chain.
Luther Whiteside stops playing, grabs a fifth of Kentucky Deluxe from the table, and takes a swallow.
Years ago, he traveled all across Mississippi and into Louisiana playing juke joints and roadhouses. Now, he plays for tips outside the Coffeeville Greyhound station—too stoned to peel his back from the wall, singing his own secret sorrow into the concrete—broken lines caught between cracks in the sidewalk.
Lately Luther stays at home—behind locked doors. He sits. He drinks. He plays guitar. He stares out the window—mind floating, disconnected in time and space. To keep from disappearing, he sings to himself…
“The blues is like the devil
It comes on you like a spell
It will leave your heart full of trouble
And your poor mind full of hell…”
He is scared, afraid of the things that go on outside his door. He used to have a television set. After dinner, he’d watch the 6 o’clock news. Then the stories started to terrify him, so he heaved the TV over the fence into the junkyard. Not knowing makes him feel safer.
Thunder rolls in the distance. Luther, guitar case in hand, moves along the shoulder of a two-lane blacktop, headed for town. He hasn’t had a drink in two days. He needs one bad.
Someone is coming up the road from behind. He turns and sees a red pickup. The driver seems to be slowing down. Maybe today, he’ll get lucky and catch a ride into Coffeeville—a little unaccustomed mercy.
The truck comes alongside where he’s standing. Someone rolls down the passenger-side window and fires one shot. Luther is hit. The truck speeds off.
The bullet passes through the underside of his right arm. Luckily, no major arteries are damaged. Feeling faint, he sits down in the wet grass. As he stares up through the rain, he is startled by the breathtaking splendor of a multi-fingered lightning bolt. Then he blacks out.
Lying on his back in the emergency room, he feels a strange euphoria. Even though he’s weak, his mind is working better than ever. The shakes are gone.
The crazy incident has somehow lifted him out of his melancholy. The irrational act of a madman has changed the state of his life, from that of a lonely old man to an innocent victim—a Christ-like figure—a surrogate sacrifice for the people. After all, it could have been anybody. Channel 2 wants to tape an interview for the 6 o’clock news.
Luther runs his left hand along his bandaged wound. He squeezes the spot, just to feel the pain. Overwhelmed with how wonderful life is, Luther Whiteside weeps.
Betty comes to their table and says, “Good evening, ladies. How are you? Would you like to hear the specials?”
Still smiling, she knows that curtain call is at 11:30. She hands each one a menu; one for drinks and the other, for dinner. She begins her fast-paced list of the evening specials. When done, Betty pauses. One member of her table had too much wine at the bar while the other is trying to keep the conversation under control. The scene is shifting nowhere, which is, ironically, where she is in her life. She, an out of work graphic designer, thinks about relocating to New York or Boston, but why should she move when both cities were targets for the recession. She lives in a town where her peers either get drunk or engaged. She hates alcohol and prefers the company of women. Most of all, she despises her cosmetic smile while keeping her emotions discreet like her underwear – all for rent and food. She takes a deep breath and strives to be Meryl Streep for the next three hours, although her feet still hurt in her new slides.
The women plan to split the seafood linguine special as well as the stuffed mushroom appetizer. Their glasses of Pinot Grigio are almost empty. A carafe will refresh their conversations on sex, bad marriages, kids and Botox.
After they finish, Betty returns with the dessert menu, however, they forfeit the raspberry chocolate mousse and the peach meringue pie served with hazelnut ice cream – they did enough caloric damage tonight. They motion for the check instead.
Betty writes out the check while her left eye offers compassion for the brown-haired woman. She and the other waitress, Hilary, couldn’t avoid overhearing the conversation from table five. The ditsy redhead couldn’t control her alcoholic intake or mouth. Betty hates stereotyping, but this woman is making her sister New Yorker squirm.
After calling a cab for them, Betty heads to the rest room’s lounge. She frees her feet
from the confines of new leather and buries her head in her lap. The cab pulls up and
she watches the New Yorkers climb in. After their departure, Betty returns to her post, forgetting that tear stain on her left cheek.
Patricia Carragon is a New York City writer and poet. She hosts and curates the Brooklyn-based Brownstone Poets and is the editor of its annual anthology. She is the author of Journey to the Center of My Mind (Rogue Scholars Press, 2005). Her latest book is Urban Haiku and More (Fierce Grace Press, 2010). She is a member of Brevitas, a group dedicated to short poems.