Clean Conscience

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When I finally got home from work, Mexican takeout boxes squealing to break the bottom of the plastic bag whose handles chafed my hand, nerves in my back holding up strike signs and my boss’s perfect little red lips stuck in my mind’s eye like an obnoxious song, I opened the door. I was immediately greeted by an unwarranted CPR thrust complete with clawed paws and partially digested turkey-delight breath. Understandably, I screamed, not at the dog, but at my husband. “Darryl!!!! Edison is hungry!” My lazy ass of a husband never feeds that dog until I come home and force him to budge his sweatpants. “You never do anything, you lazy ass!”

The dog began gnawing eagerly at the already-tenuous plastic handles keeping the takeout bag around my wrist. I set the bag down on the floor, not caring if the food got cold. Anyone who could ignore an executive order with my delivery style was either impudent or wearing earbuds, and Darryl never cared for music.

I flounced down the hallway at a breakneck pace, Edison slobbering graciously at my heels while trying to trip me. But when I heaved the door to the bedroom open, Darryl wasn’t there. Instead, I found a little pink post-it note he’d pressed onto the cover of my Zen coloring book lying on my night table. On it he’d scribbled: Last minute work party tonite. Wont be home till late. C ya.

Well that’s awful considerate of you, Darryl. I thought of the Burrito Grandioso we usually shared, now shivering alone inside its foil in the bag on the floor by the front door. I guess I can just take $3 out of the anniversary present fund. Not that you would notice if I bought you a watch or tie that cost $3 less.

I was looking for that sexpot pad of pink post-its, digging through his disaster scene of an office corner, when I realized Daniella hadn’t come running to meet me yet. Usually, the first-grader was delighted when one of us was finally home to feed her and spend time with her. But both she and Edison were suddenly missing in action.

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I found her in the bathroom with the door wide open. But she wasn’t trying to make a poop or anything humiliating like that. Instead, she was busy painting the walls, mirror, sink counter, and floor from corner to corner with sparkly jade-mint toothpaste.

“What the – what are you – what the fuck are you doing?!?!” I buy the finest of all toothpaste to prevent her from getting cavities that need filling, and this is how she decides to use the stuff?

Daniella cast me a look of perfect serenity. “I’m putting the toothpaste back in the tube,” she said gravely.

“What are you talking about? Honey, you’re putting the toothpaste out of the tube, not in it.”

“I know,” she replied in that annoyingly calm voice she uses whenever I’m angry. “It’s an experiment. This is the set-up. Ms. Mollie taught us today that ‘you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube,’ but I wanted to see for myself if she was wrong or right. So I have to get it all out of the tube first. Then I’m going to see if I can put it back in.”

“Are you retarded??? No one can put a colloid substance back through the neck of a tube, that’s physically impossible. Do they not teach you guys physics in school these days? What kind of crap – ”

A clamorous whoosh alerted me that Edison had crashed into the file cabinet in the corner. Limping apprehensively out to peer at the bathroom, he started barking, apparently at the unfamiliar green slime that coated its every spare surface. Almost at the same moment, Daniella’s bug-eyes fixated on a particular spot in the empty jacuzzi, where a lopsided crown of jade-mint goop adorned the drain.

It took me a moment, but I too noticed the reason for all this animal/child attention: an army of lumps no bigger than small warts was bubbling up from the drain’s crown. Rings of the bubbles radiated out from the center and around to all edges of the jacuzzi while still blanketed by toothpaste, so I couldn’t see whether they were ladybugs or dismembered soldier figurines or what. I just stood there in a state of suspended motion as the lumps shot up like grisly skeletal fingers, creating a cage all around the bathroom’s main appliances: the jacuzzi, shower, sink, toilet and Daniella, wrapped up in the palm of an unseen hand still gloved in  dripping clean jade-mint slime.

“Daniella?” I yelled shakily, as if she were a world away between those wispy bars. “What’s happening?”

The coating of toothpaste slipped off the prison bars like skin off a rotting cadavre, and I saw that what I had thought was one giant skeletal hand holding my daughter was actually a Stonehenge-like congregation of long tar-black arms sticking up from some underworld beneath the bathroom floor, each one knobbed with an elbow and a few thorns, and capped with a hand that pulsated like a tar-encapsulated squid. Fingers seemed to point at me from all angles. Daniella opened her mouth, but I never heard what she said because the arms suddenly shot towards me all at once, opening like freaky squid ready for sex. I expected a sharp beak to materialize between the noodling tentacles, or some hard hand to slap my face. However, all the horrid things stopped a millimeter away from my face. Without touching me, each open palm struck me with the piercing gaze of a single, sour-sparkling eye. One more strange detail: in lieu of eyelashes, these particular eyes were framed by rows of serrated teeth.

Fingers curled around my neck gently and I was lifted to my tiptoes.

I realized I was probably about to be obliterated in some horrible fashion. I’d better say something to Daniella, so the last remark she could quote from her mother in later interviews would be something a little better than an un-PC accusation of stupidity.

But the flexible fingers swished around my mouth, and when the pinpricks of their fingertips released, a tight band remained, immovable as an inch-thick rubber gag. No sound would come out of my mouth. The scent of toothpaste wafted up to my nose, sickening, acidic, like some mutated onion I was chopping beneath my eyes without knowing it. Tears poked at the corners of my eyes as the world began to darken around me.

I never did tell Daniella that it was okay to cry. Not once in her life. I don’t think she needed to be told, but I’ll never know if she cried for me or not. I think I know what her experimental conclusions probably were, though.

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Image credits in order of appearance:

By Miami U. Libraries – Digital Collections – https://www.flickr.com/photos/muohio_digital_collections/3092864951/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38944572

By Anne Worner – BoogeyMan, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44924498

By James Sant – http://www.southampton.gov.uk/leisure/arts/sotonartgallery/search/view-artwork.asp?acc_num=484, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5546928

 

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Christmas Music

It has lights in it.

Shameless major lifts cascading into perfect authentic cadences

without so much as a dip into the diminished or minor mayhem

of the world outside.

It has bells in it

Plastic candles with off-switches perilously close to where one’s fingers grip the base

It has snow-white children in it, crowned with marigold hair

(and I imagine you)

And millions of Marys, the main characteristic of each being their sexual status

but when it’s in Latin, Swahili or Chinese

even the knifened people of the cold northwestern charcuteries can swallow it

without choking the exit doors, an uncracked nut of protest.

How can people protest

against what has love in it

and joy, joy, joy, an overflowing goblet of it

in it

an ocean of sweet liquid joy to duck your head

under

disappear in it and hear

the music all the same.

Christmas music:

it has ancient ports in it, beckoning green Renaissance tides

with each rise and fall of the organ’s breath

it has angels in it, not graphite rained-on scribbles but real

angels in it has

love in it

blue and white and stars all over the ground in it

resound in it

resplend in it

release your poor tense shoulders so deeply into it

you forget to hold fast to the railroad tracks

and you miss the bloody train.

This music

has friends in it

has scrub jays in it

has dawns again in it

and for now, whatever the gods may think, there is

me in it

and you in it

Mush, major fifths!

And on we go.

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Image credit: By Dchendyson – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9003448

How Dare You Be Smoking

when there I am plundering down the sidewalk

in the opposite direction

in groups of one not two

How dare you be smelling like loosened-belt retirement age

and blood-red steak and plans to die at a ripe married stage

of lung cancer, after

your grandchildren have been born to nurse your

leftover soulmate through the ensuing

dementia and death?

As I walk along freezing at nineteen

Hands burning in the boiling ice of thoughts

of long narrow streets with never another passing soul to cross shadows with

of dreams and the way they splatter fifty meters off the top of an office building

walking with myself

And how dare you come along and be

smoking, poisoning the nothingness

exhaling death, textbook disobedience, statistically correct downfall

and death between

all the

right wrong lines

How dare you be

laughing and killing yourself

slowly while the stars of your yet-unpierced dreams

twinkle, undropped,

unacknowledged

and wasted

and how dare I be made

to watch you do it?

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Image credit: By SuaveKevinKariuki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Echoes

In the reconstructed boneyard dog, though the eyes are blueberry fat and the fur is heartened with sunlight’s touch, there lingers the echo of a deeper mirror, a darker soul, a flatter fall down space’s drafty well, a harder hit. And that is why, when you reach out your hand to the creature that has been given another chance to live in the light, you must not be surprised if it cringes – for just a micro-moment – at the shadow of your fingers. In the absence of darkness, all crooked and transient objects look similarly disparate; it is confusing to the soul in the presence of echoes, when the explosion that spurned them is gone and the shrapnel turns to flowers in the wicked lavender light. So do not curse the dog for whining to be put back in its chains. Give it silence with its nightingales. And wait, for every death has a half-life and a half-life and again…

Frankenstein’s Monster

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The thing was unconscionable. It tried to kill our little angel, our baby brother Saul, with a pickaxe and an empty chicken crate. It also picked its nose. It was a coat hanger draped with pallid animal skins sewed over a stuffing of pig muscle, its eyes were animated beads that glinted in the unlit night but could not blink, its mouth was a tear in the leather face that spewed wormy internal things between grunts and words. It spoke some tormented form of German we could only half-understand, but it didn’t need to say much for us to comprehend that it was bad.

It tried to murder Saul. The bell of his yawn in the dawning chicken coop was strangled by the sudden explosion of wood, the scattering of headless birds. The wall between life and monstrous death was breaking down.

But Andrew, the prince of lumber-armed men of our village, my husband in December dreams at least, Andrew noodled in silently behind the thing and strangled it with a fishing line. It was already dead of course, impossible thus to kill entirely. But Andrew was a genius. He tied the corpse by the wrists to his snowshoes, and dragged it to the frozen lake, where he scourged a hole in the ice using the saw he uses to cut down our firewood. And he heaved the corpse, levied it into the gelatinous gray-blue water, and he pressed it so it floated just against the wall of ice.

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Ice crept back over the gash Andrew had scourged in the lake, and soon the body was no more than a soft black blot beneath a thick window, a joke of a window, one that hid the other side rather than presenting it to the eye. And that was fine with us. And I held Saul, and we were going to walk back and cook the chickens before they spoiled, but we stood and stared at the mirrored window in the ground for endless moments. Breath tugged us back toward the cabin, but we stayed, stood. I noticed that Andrew was trembling, his cheeks the color of a rose exposed to winter frost. Just as I was about to reach out and touch his shoulder, he crumpled to his knees at the bitter edge between muddy slush and tenuously frozen water. He was crying, the way a man cries, and I had never seen it before, and Saul and I stared.

“Don’t worry, Andrew,” Saul ventured finally. “Take my hand. We’ll get some warm breakfast.”

“It’s just the wrong side of the ice,” Andrew said to the blue-black air. “And I got caught on the right side. It’s ice, either way.”

“What are you talking about?” I tried to say, but my voice was raw and guttural and I thought I heard the monster roaring back up from the depths, so I gasped and stared frozen-faced at the lake. The ink blot might have stirred, but all was still.

“It could just as easily have been the uglier side,” Andrew mused, still looking past nothing into something neither Saul nor I could fathom.

“Come along, Andrew,” I pleaded. “You’re a beautiful young man and I don’t want you staring at death like that too long. It will twist something in your eyes.”

“And I won’t be beautiful anymore,” he added, still faraway.

“That’s right,” Saul added helpfully. “Come with us. We’ll have some warm chicken and toast.”

The tears were frozen on his unshaven face, leaving a sort of alpine terrain that shattered when he brushed his hand across his face. “Okay,” he said, “but only if you can look me in the eyes and invite me into your house just the same.”

He was addressing me. My heart jumped, and I took his hands and faced him and I raised my eyes to look right into his.

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I had to break through the invisible stone barrier of my shyness and his aloofness but finally my gaze attained that summit. And suddenly for a moment I was afraid, for there were sort of bruised purple inkblots in his irises, floating like the pox in an unformed egg, and there was a sort of jaggedness that was hard to look at.

But I glanced away and back again, and his eyes were back to their regular cotton blue, and a smile bitter as good morning coffee broke onto his face. “Come in,” I said, and he followed us quietly and did not protest to the open door or the hot coffee or the warm meal. And he never mentioned the other side of the ice again.

But there was a certain defeat in his once jaunty gait from that day on. His smile, though ever-present, had atrophied somewhat. He was still beautiful, but I did not find pleasure in looking at him. And in the thawing of the spring, something dark stirred at the bottom of the lake. We didn’t take notice, but we were afraid. I could not hold his hand.

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Image credits in order of appearance:

By Theodor von Holst [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=858259

By Edvard Munch – The Athenaeum: pic, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45566597

By Dino Kužnik from Ljubljana, Slovenia – FlickrUploaded by Sporti, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25088401

Dead Metaphor

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Allyn walked around all the time with a big black dog. Between stern thin office buildings and across the rain-tripped streets, between the gray and the blue-gray and the black times, always the black dog accompanied Allyn. Some people wondered if it was really Allyn accompanying the black dog. Some people asked Allyn what she fed it, or whether it had a name. She answered their questions with polite nods; she could hardly say more – the black dog was always straining at the leash, dusking towards shadowy corners where it could have its mistress all to itself and the bones of dead alley cats.

There was no longer any room in Allyn’s house for her aging grandmother, nor for her fiancé, nor even for her old collection of sun-polished sea stones. So she sent them all out onto her doorstep to search for new living accommodations. The black dog needed the grandmother’s rocking chair in her needlepoint nook, and the black dog needed the fiancé’s treadmill for a bed, and it needed all of Allyn’s shelves to be empty so that its black reflection in the mirror could not be distracted by shinier things.

Allyn’s mother, the daughter of Allyn’s grandmother, got fed up when she found out her own mother had been dumped onto the street and supplanted by a black dog. So Allyn’s mother marched to Allyn’s doorstep. An army of animal control officers in yellow plastic suits marched along behind her. When Allyn answered the door, the officers clad in tinted goggles brushed past her without a word. They located the big black dog lounging on the old rocking chair, and they blasted the black dog with lasers until its body was a shriveled black crisp, trembling to stillness on the scarred seat of the rocking chair.

Allyn cried in silence, and she ran to the pile of ash that had been her black dog and lay on the floor, weeping and shaking like the ocean congealed by storms.

Her mother tiptoed into the house and demanded to know why Allyn was being so ungrateful, as she had just been saved from a life of isolation and darkness. Allyn shrieked a garbled reply – something about how her only hope of purpose in life had been extinguished with the murder of her single loyal companion, something about time and space and the human joke. The animal control officers, cued by a snap of the fingers of Allyn’s mother, surrounded the crazed young woman and scooped her up in a doghouse and drove her through the rain to another town where they let her off in a garden.

Children hid amidst the dappled rosebushes, and bees spun tremors in the air, and Allyn was free from her black dog. At last, she could feel the sun on her face and smell the perfume of a plush rose. She walked through the garden alone for many hours. Something was missing, but she knew not what, so she decided to ignore the feeling. Wandering the garden alone, having left behind the black pile of ash and the black notebook where she used to inscribe her dreams and the black dress she used to wear dancing with castanets on the drunken table in her empty house, Allyn wandered as a foreigner in this world of colors and wondered what she was ever to do. No artist could sculpt or dance a dream out of color and bumbling music, now could they? Allyn was doomed to a life of nothingness.

Still she wandered the garden. Sometimes she would sit on a sun-warmed rock between two beehives and just sit still and think. There was no one else to talk to, so she thought to herself. She thought her way back through the miserable colors all around her, back to the gray memories of her life before. And with the rosebushes shot through with gray light, and her black fountain pen drawing gaunt black lines on the white tile of the garden path, and her black dancing shoes tapping a rain-murmur in her brain, she gradually gathered together enough of the old good darkness until it coalesced – first a smoke-cloud, then a furry slab of night, and finally the perfected figure of her old black dog stood before her on the pathway, ears hanging heavy as always, tail wagging tentatively, amber eyes asking for a walk. And so Allyn went along with her big black dog as always, and stayed far away from the people who would hurt them or try to bring them apart, and she danced in black nights, but never knew that she wasn’t really dancing. No one would tell her. The big black dog danced nights, too, when it could get away.

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Image credits in order of appearance:

By Parks, Deborah, Photographer (NARA record: 8467939) – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17083187

By Annosaris – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8970188

20 Sounds I Most Detest

  1. Football fanatics in the next room whenever something good or bad happens.
  2. The vault-like door to the laundry room that retorts shut in a sudden, fiery crack, like a bb-gun dropped on the eardrum.
  3. Mothers in restaurants or aquariums or anywhere hurried, scarfing their children’s wide eyes shut with time-related interjections, hovering.
  4. A classical instrument lifted too quickly which bangs and sings against an industrial chair’s bony frame.
  5. My shoe crashing through a snail’s shell and into the soft interior – it makes a din like a bomb decimating a tiny metropolis of fleshy hearts.
  6. The bouncing of a basketball intensifying in amplitude and quickening in period.
  7. Thunder on school nights.
  8. Yellow and shadow silhouettes in the hallways, snorkeling pig-whistles: each squeal could be a sob or a fit of jubilance, as they scream and throw their bull-breasted bodies onto the boy-shadows that make them laugh or cry, filtrating under the yellow door-crack in a lower register.
  9. The fire alarms shrieking – as if a thing inanimate could strangle on mortal terror, could scrape it into our tender nights as genital mutilation in the middle of a baby’s dream.
  10. The fire lady saying we all did a good job, her blare roughened by years of wind, now razing our soft grass afternoon before the red screech has yet faded.
  11. A small child inhaling as a prelude to a wail, particularly when said child has recently and rapidly transitioned from an upright position to a vaguely horizontal one along a sidewalk.
  12. Expo markers poisoning the whiteboard with numbers.
  13. Doors slamming – possessed not of their own heavy will but shoved by a woman with red netting holding in her eyeballs; the transfer of energy echoes inward.
  14. Anyone having audible fun past 9 pm.
  15. Silence when I am trying to fall asleep.
  16. Music that is too delicious not to whimper down my throat and juice the colors out of my veins, to flee into the doctor’s urine cup to make sure my vital isolation is still at the proper level.
  17. Pretty languages tossed between blondes in a cold wind.
  18. A cat with its tail caught anywhere, scouring in a deathly need for release, the spine pressed and folded as a broken book, as a result of hasty door-slamming.
  19. Artificially inseminated earthquakes (commonly encountered in apartment buildings and college dormitories.)
  20. A mouth shaping words at me: Transfixed, my kaleidoscope ears cut purple bruises to amethyst flattery while they smash violet blessings into sanguine ink drying in a parched kitchen sink. Everything is still purple, therefore it must be right. No one will speak, or else my ears won’t listen, and the door itches its paint-chip scars in its frame, no longer even afraid, as such feelings depart when we are slammed enough times we cannot but expect the numbing sound.