Beautiful Catrina

Day of Wrath and Doom Impending

         Whenever I flip backward the worn pages, I catch glimpses of her in the black and white stills. There is bouffant hair adorned in a pink ribbon, cute and coiffed for our first dance; baby cheeks caressing a button nose, when catching my awkward smile; and pouty lips that cannot decide if they should spring into fits of gay laughter, or smother me into the soft lullaby notes echoing off of the gymnasium walls. And then there are those dreamy eyes; lilting upward to drop a sentimental tear, when the swooning voice lingers over a dabble of sweet and soft melancholy on the keyboard; and blinking in the barest hint of bubble gum love, when the sway of my chest against hers suggests that we are a few dance steps beyond going steady

         I cannot but fall into the pages somewhere along the way. There is really no such thing as a casual reader. Even a spell of listless boredom is not casual, so much as an indictment masked as indifference. 

         And, try as I may from time to time, I really cannot be indifferent to this affair. I see only snippets of smiles and lace. The pages move so quickly back to the beginning; but, with my imagination blushing softly beside my chest, and a certain bit of vinyl scratching beneath my phonograph needle somewhere off to the side, I manage to fill in what I cannot see.

         She kneels into the white sands of our secret cove. The sand pebbles are clumping about her knees as if the cushions of her own, private, little prie-dieu by the sea. The cove is her chapel; the ocean waves the restless gods calling to her from the old country; and the sun the angelic resonance arising up from her freckled skin and auburn hair. 

         She looks back at me and giggles, when I remind her that there are finer kneelers back at the shop. She says that she had never intended to marry into a casket and church supply business, but she had seen something in my smile that told her that it would be a fine bed of roses in the end.

         And it is just then that I snap the picture. She is talking still; somewhere between the bed and the roses; and folding her fingers into the lap of her floral bathing suit.

         She wraps her gloved arms around my back, and looks up at me from the lapel of my white jacket. 

         I cannot remember what she says just then; but my imagination tells me that she sings softly into the slow step rhythm: I never want our dance to reach its final step, and I never want to see another name on my card.

         I nestle her left cheek into my chest. She folds her fingers together as if she can snatch me forever into her dreamy prayer. 

         I sway her hips into the lingering vibrato of “Chances Our,” where every note is the interlude before a blossoming romance, and a remembrance of what has been lost to the unrelenting tides.

         Johnny Mathis will be our voice when all is said and done; our song in an echo chamber; slow dancing notes floating ghost-like up and away from the last bit of vinyl to rotate on the last phonograph in the whole of the universe.

         Perhaps the fates may be left aside, as if the many fur coats and leather gloves forgotten in a cloakroom, I mutter to myself a few years later.

         We are dancing together inside of a wedding cake white tent by the sea; and the band is bubbling into our song, like the fizz from a wave crashing into a stony rock; and she is folding her fingers into my back.

         Perhaps I can resign from the casket and church supply business in a few years, and let my younger brother toil for all of the profit to be purloined from funeral homes. I can be a writer; a dabbler in softer sentiments; and we can be happy together in a cramped apartment at the edge of our own, little world.

         As if reading my thoughts, she glances up at me from beneath her bridal headdress and giggles. 

         I trust that you will do what is right, she blushes; and then we can lay in each other’s arms in the fine bed of roses that you make for us. 

         She kneels into the white sands of our secret cove, but this time it is not so secret. There is another couple in the background, walking barefoot, hand in hand, through the ripples left over from a receding wave. 

         And she is not wearing a floral bathing suit; but a two-piece salted in red and white polka dots, as if she is an Irish Annette Funicello taking a few daring steps away from her former life as a Mouseketeer. 

         And she is not folding her fingers into the lap of her polka dot bikini; but instead cradling a newborn baby; a sleepy tyke already showcasing his mother’s auburn hair and blushing cheeks.

         We are debating names still, even at that late date. The clerk is a friend of the family. She is willing to sit on the birth certificate, until we have a name other than “John Doe” to offer to the restless gods at sea, but eventually even her grandmotherly patience must end.

         I offer my own name. But she giggles, and insists ever so playfully that in her life there is only one Delbert. 

         What about the name of my younger brother? Look at your tyke. Does he not look like a fine and stable businessman, a Chester with a soft touch and an understanding eye for the lonely widows of living morticians?

         Of course, I speak in jest; but she looks away from me. She stares into a sea that no one else can see; not even my own imagination can fashion the soft and supple waves flowing inside of her gaze; and her lips fade so imperceptibly into a girly pout that I sense that she is embarrassed by her own bit of spitfire, Irish melodrama. She seems then never to have known what it is like to giggle.

         Please, little girl, do not be blue by the sea, I insist.

         But she does not turn back to me. There is a very special bubble of foam on a particular wave near the horizon that is catching her eye. It is moving past the horizon; beyond where even her imagination can see; and as a consequence of this impending loss, her heart is drowning in a current of sorrows and fears.

         And what name do you offer? 

         She still traces the very special bubble, but she remarks in a hushed tone that is reminiscent of a lullaby that the name of her paternal grandfather; now a gaggle of limed and salted bones in the old country; will bring a smile back to her lips. And so that is the name of her newborn son at that very moment, and, no matter how I may sway her hips on the dance floor, or hold her tender mind inside of my ravishing heart, it cannot but be otherwise forevermore.

         And the sleepy tyke awakens from his last dream. He follows her longing gaze beyond the sea; and he holds up his little baby fingers, as if he is trying to grasp that very special bubble of foam. 

         And it is just then that I snap the picture. She is staring still; somewhere between the physical horizon and the last twilight of the mind; and clutching a newborn baby into the lap of her polka dot bikini. 

         This is the last picture. Everything forward is captured in the mind, since she is no longer my blushing doll; my baby cheeks nestled into my loving chest; or even my dreamy eyes releasing a sentimental tear or two.

         It is captured in the mind, and not on a Polaroid, because a mind can lie, while a photograph cannot. It takes only a subtle shift in the mind for all of the ravages of time and circumstance to be discarded, if not as totally unreal, then at least as inconveniences best left unspoken. The highest virtue in a lie is that it is the most polite option at any given moment. 

But as for a Polaroid, the image is not going to change, no matter that it is shaken a second or a third time.  

         There is no bubble gum love in the thinning cheeks, the hollowed eyes, a spitfire that is just a bit too salty to be sweet. 

         So you are learning finally that a yearbook gathers dust, my father offers unhelpfully. And we must pray that it be so, even when the Good Lord returns to claim His own from the Heathens and the Democrats, lest we close our doors for the last time. 

         I should have known. No matter how he insists that he is liberally minded on this side of the pond, he never really approves of my mind to marry a simple fire crotch in a poodle skirt and a pink bow. Until his last haggard breath, he is unable to preside over a Thanksgiving supper without carving out the same, old chide about how “his blacks” just did not get around to cooking up any “potato stew” this year. We’ll all just have to starve on spiced ham and bread puddings served on the finest wares to be swindled out from the hands of a “Ming Khan.”

         And there is no more help when I consult Little Father Willow, the plump and prodded Vicar of Our Lady of Perpetual Pleasantries Episcopal Church. His is a kind disposition, to be sure; but he can think of no other words for me than to recite the Black Rubric from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

         And so I surrender my desire to write my way into a cramped apartment.

         The vibrato notes bounce off from the gymnasium walls, as if the loving beats from the tell tale heart, and swirl together above the center of the large dance hall into a sweet menagerie of sound and sentiment. It is all but a dream up there; somewhere between the class banner and the rafters; but she feels it bubbling out from inside of her open, bleeding soul. It is the same anticipation that she first released into her pajama bottoms and, amidst the gaggle of geese at a slumber party, shared with a pimply swan on the feather down beside her.

         Her words are lost in the moment; but, with my imagination providing a lyric for the song sheet in hand, I hear her pout so charmingly: Kiss me beneath the unseen moon, so that the only light that I may ever see is the true love and adoration in your eyes at that moment. And I shall never know the warmth of a different man upon my lips, no matter what the tides may gift upon our shores.

         I take her hand into mine; and, together, we escape into the darkness, a pair of lost loves and airy sentiments just beyond the steady glares of the girls’ chaperones. We shall have but a moment, before one of the schoolmarms takes her back into the charming, little giggles and bubble gum snaps of adolescence.

         I cannot remember that first kiss; and, in this respect, even the colorful brush strokes in my imagination cannot make out a scene from the abandoned, decaying bleachers beside the new gymnasium. 

         But truth to be told, neither can I recall what we shared before the altar as Little Father Willow sniffled into his stole (the compromise of not having our wedding in a “den of popery” seemed to mollify my father for a while); nor, for that matter, whatever love ditties we may have exchanged with one another in our honeymoon by the sea. My imagination fails me even where it should reign, since who remembers anything of his wedding and first night but what romantic snippets and swoons may be hobbled together from the dreams of a foolish girl?

         Notwithstanding a certain bit of vinyl scratching beneath my phonograph needle somewhere off to the side, those moments have been lost. I suspect she sees them; or what is left of them bobbing about the ocean waves; when she is staring out into the unfathomable distance in the last photograph I have of her.

         I suspect her newborn baby sees them too, when he follows her eyes.

         The only kiss that I know is the one that never left my lips.

         She is wrapped in our satin sheets and is clutching her stomach still; but, as the silver haired doctor stoops over his bag, whatever he administered a few minutes ago is dulling her pain for now from a spitfire moan to a sickly whisper.

         There is nothing else I can do. It is best that you get some rest. 

         I hear that the end is near, because such is what they always say when a death rattle and a sunken jaw are a few eternal minutes or hours or days away.

         And so I call Father O’Byrne. Ever since my father died, she has been an aggrieved, thinning, stooped regular at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows Catholic Church; a mainstay in the altar guild; and a welcome addition to the coterie of old bats in formless black there which stare and gossip the undesirables (really, anyone who is under seventy or not terminally ill) out from their polished pews.

         The Red Priest stumbles into the Last Rites. 

         For the first time, I share in the bigotry of my father, as I avoid all of the Popish Pomp and Circumstance on parade. I fumble with my pocket watch for a while, and then I focus in on the flaming, red hair and blurry eyes of the priest.

         I wonder if such are the outward expressions of his union hall sentiments and half expect him to turn to me when all has been said and done and to offer me a pint of Guinness back at his den with all of the other red faced comrades. I am so caught up in this image that I do not really hear him tell me that she is forevermore “a white angel in heaven,” or something similarly unreal and trite.

         I watch the sunken light of a late afternoon bleeding through the blinds. I know that it will be dark soon; and, in the high tide, the waves will beat hard against our respectable, little beach home beside the wry and quarrelsome sea.

David’s Word with Sibyl’s Blending

         The white steeple church arises from the beach sand as if the strong and steady hand of God Himself had chiseled it out from a primordial dune. It is the grand beacon of hope for the disabled and the lost; its patriarchal architecture (exact, vertical lines and square angles ascending into a garish Victorian Gothic steeple that had been added onto an otherwise simple country church design as a testament to the growing commercial success of the harbor community at the end of the nineteenth century) softened by the feminine airs of charity that are the mainstay within the walls; and, as a point of historical fact well trumpeted in each and every Sunday sermon, many storm ravaged fishermen and dissolute buccaneers had felt the very first stirrings of salvation in their bowels upon the sighting of the starched and salted steeple in the gray fog. 

         There had been so much blue blood flowing through its beams and walls; and the musky mix of Ben-Gay and Chanel No. 5 wafting up from the pews as if the unseen incense offered by the Priesthood of All Blue Haired Believers; that it had been impossible frankly to imagine its soaring edifice and polite decorum as anything but the vestigial of the High Church. It had the airs of a “hold out,” even before there had been any pompous miters and new wave sermons against which to hold out. Perhaps it had been inevitable that this stained glass icon to the faded glories of an imagined past; standing astride the ramshackle tides on a beaten shore; should be a witness to the Old Testament verity that the White God on High has a special place in His Heart for His Beleaguered Remnant. 

         The leisurely class needs a crusade every now and then, so as to rekindle in its waxen veins and graying hearts the sense that there is still hardship in the world. Ours is a faith born in the catacombs after all; and although we have no mind to return to the dim candle lights and bloodied floors of a cave (there are enough Methodists in the world to minister to the Heathens, while living in huts alongside them and falling every now and then to the swords of the Infidel), we sense a certain filial duty; a calling peculiar to our breed; a mind crafted over a great many years from a kind of temperate bigotry; to fear as ignoble, and to castigate as impolite, the prospect of change just around the corner. We retain the virtuous bearing that comes from knowing that we are close, ever so close, to being washed away by the high tides of interesting times; and we are apt to presume, however vaguely, that such inchoate trepidation is the outward mark of an “Onward Christian Soldier.” Fear is our chief sacrament. It is the “inward grace” by which we are finely resurrected into a catty, blue haired remnant, or as our sex may determine into a contingent of doddering and dying vestrymen.

         Man is never more than a bonfire and a dance step removed from his old pagan dream. He much prefers magic to salvation; superstition to faith; and his foil, the self-righteous iconoclast, cannot but be by contrast an outcast. No one actually likes the icon smasher. They may acknowledge his fidelity to Holy Writ and Pharisaical high mindedness; but privately they are as happy to see him go as the thirsty cowboys were to see Carrie Nation waddle off to another western town. And so the iconoclast is the holy remnant, even among his own ilk; and it is his lot to showcase that, indeed, a prophet is never loved in his own country.

         My father teaches me what it means to be a remnant, when one wintery Sunday after Holy Communion he takes me out of Sunday School early and leads me to the back of the church. 

         It is cold and foggy; and, as we stand upon a sand hill facing out into the sea, the mist from the crashing waves below pastes scales over our eyes. I am a precocious enough boy, even at that very moment, to imagine sullenly that my father is the mirror opposite of Ananias of Damascus. 

         A strong man stems the tide, he intones. 

         I do not respond. I just wrap my arms about my chest and count the sand pebbles in between my loafers. 

         My father sweeps his hand over the sea. This grabs my attention, and for a moment I imagine that he is Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.

         The devil always sails in from beyond the sea, he continues. And he does not frighten, so much as he charms. The truth is cold and barren, much like the fog in front of us. The little man; the man without bearing; the man born into a soiled race; he is not satisfied with what is right but with what is fair haired, or faddish, or just foolish. He craves the mystical; the scintillating; the chasubles and charms of a wicked priestcraft in lace that sanctifies his petty and peculiar indulgences. He needs his Shaman, his Guru, his Pope (he intones this last word with the aggrieved snarl of a bigot), whichever of the endless panoply of robed men with forked tongues will be best in convincing him that the chimeras of an imagined Babylon somewhere out there are better tonics for the restlessness of his savage soul than a dose of Samuel Johnson and warm milk before bed time.

         I want to run back into the church, and bury my face into my Archbishop of Canterbury Coloring Book; but my father takes my right hand into his and, as a solemn gesture, stares coldly into my face. Of course, I cannot see any of this on account of the scales before my eyes; and it occurs to me just then that we are the blind facing into the blind only steps before an unfathomable chasm.

         Do you remember our sacred song about truth, justice, and the American Way? My father inquires, while rubbing a bit of sea foam off of my baby cheeks.

         The Know Nothing Song, I mumble.

         Yes. How does it go? He bellows to be heard over the crash of the waves.

         Millard Fillmore went to town

         A-riding on a pony

         He stuck a Papist in his crotch

         And called him macaroni

         Millard Fillmore, string him up

         Millard Fillmore dandy

         Cinch the Papist at his neck

         And drown him in his brandy

          I step away when I am done. I am ashamed of the song, not because it is a paean to nativism, but because of its sexual connotation. I am at that strange and ill-fitting age; a few years before the sting of puberty; where I know just a bit more about drawn blinds and fragrant lace than I care to admit. 

         There are wrinkly spinsters kneeling right now on our own polished pews who know nothing about the Know Nothings, he hisses. I have heard them. They imagine that their coy whispers back and forth are obscured by the devout way in which they recite their prayers, as if even the First Episcopalian, Christ Jesus Himself, may be so moved by the beauty of Archbishop Cranmer’s Collects as to be oblivious to the sin and skullduggery slipped in between the flowered prose. But if I hear them, then we may be certain that He does. And as I am perturbed a bit, so we may be certain that He is preparing even now to unleash a winning score of atomic fire and brimstone; a barrage of heavenly thunder dropped by a Seraphim Angel masked as a B-52 Stratofortress; upon their perfumed hairs and downcast eyes. And what are they uttering but the rubbish of a union agitator; the creeds of a big city boss; the leprechaun curses of bootleg whiskey and New Deal corruption; all coming back, as if arising from out of my own fine caskets, to coalesce about the sweet smile of a mick scoundrel. And they swoon for this baby face, like he is an Honorary Dago in the Rat Pack, when in fact he and his clan are nothing more than the latest batch of potato monkeys to sully our fine shores and ancestral claims. There is talk; rumors afoot our red-scorched lands; that Mr. Stevenson is going to support an effort to put this Mickey Mouse on his ticket. They will herald him as the reincarnation of Al Smith; the vanguard of a kind and temperate popery, as if the devil himself made respectable enough by lathering gloss on his skin and featuring him on an episode of I Love Lucy. And I shall not fall for this charade; but, even more so, I shall not condescend myself to kneel beside those who do. Ours is the Church of Republicans at Prayer; and, so long as I have any breath in me, ours will continue to be no matter the tides of fashion, nor the waves of popular appeal. It is better to be the church of one righteous man, than to be a quiet fellow in a church with reprobates and rubes.

         True to his character, my father did not remain silent. He harassed those wrinkly spinsters, until they finally found a refuge for their political treacheries in a “den of popery” closer to town. 

         I know nothing of their souls; but I know that, in the fullness of time, my father outfitted each and every one of them in his finest caskets. He practically gave them away to the grieving nieces and nephews; knocking on their doors as soon as he saw the obituary notices; and pleading with them to take a heartfelt tour of his inventory before even inquiring about the competition.

         The Papists in town figured that, in his own peculiar way, and just a lick in time before his own scheduled appearance before the Golden Judgment Seat on high, my father was attempting to make amends. But I knew better, even in those Hazy Technicolor Years of syrupy sweet innocence and well-done blushes. I knew that he just wanted to be absolutely sure that they had been sent off in a hermetically sealed cemetery torpedo from which they could never be reborn even on the Last Day, lest their brassy whispers mar a nice, clean Resurrection. 

         My father wins that struggle. 

         Four years later, when the same Smiling Mick is the Presidential nominee of the Democrat Party, no one in our parish will swerve away from our common fidelity to Tricky Dick. Indeed, with his Ed Sullivan mannerisms in tow (stooped shoulders; dragging arms; and long, ape-like face), and his Charlie Brown air of perpetual defeatism (a pall over his eyes that suggests that, even when he wins at the ballot box, he thinks that Lucy has managed nevertheless to snap the old football away from him one more time), the Starched Dickey (as I prefer to call him beneath my breath) is a virtual icon for our beleaguered church beside the tumultuous tides. A framed, autographed, black and white still of the Starched Dickey pointing at Comrade Khrushchev hangs on the sacristy wall; and I cannot help but stare at his stabbing finger, while I am vesting into the Minor Order of Acolytes alongside the two other adolescent boys snatched into sanctuary duty.

         But like each and every one of his customers; decaying corpses snuggled into firm, ornamented boxes; my father loses more than he wins. 

         Father Valentine does not like to be outscored. He had been a tackle for the Redskins at the height of the Depression (or so he tells us in each and every one of his sermons, usually just before reminding us about those storm ravaged fishermen and dissolute buccaneers finding Christ Jesus in the thick fog in front of them); and he remembers every backhanded slap or sucker punch from a big and brawny leprechaun on the field. He despises the Papists so much that he is rather fond of pronouncing the word “Pap Piss,” even within hearing aid shot of one of the blushing blue hairs on the altar guild. 

         My father loves the collared bigot, even though he thinks that he is a bit of a boob and no match for the Jesuit trained Papal Priests who troll the coffee and donut shops in town. 

         At that time, no doubt in celebration of the recent victory of the Smiling Mick at the stuffed ballot boxes in Illinois and Texas, the Roman Rage is to find a fitting tribute to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A minor statuette above a few votive candles in a side chapel will not do. Not even a new stained glass window will suffice. No, if they are going to pay due homage to their kind and fair haired Mother in Heaven, then only a towering statue of their Blissfully Contented Everlasting Virgin (usually depicted with her arms outstretched or as if administering a pontifical blessing from the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica) will be enough to stack the cards in favor of eternal life.    

         Not to be outdone, Father Valentine unveils an even bigger statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the middle of our own parking lot. 

         My father is aghast. The Crowned Queen of Heaven occupies significantly more than her fair share of the driving space down the middle of the sand dune that passes for our parking space.

         That’s not a problem, Father Valentine replies triumphantly. We have so few parishioners who still drive (since most of them are dropped off in front of our door at exactly ten minutes before eight o’clock every Sunday morning by a van from the nearby rest home) that there is plenty of space left for the rest of us to go around her. 

         Well, certainly she is not up to code. 

         And neither our steeple, Father Valentine snaps testily.

         My father holds his tongue. But he never again stumbles into church on a Sunday morning without casting his eyes away from the garish icon to All Things Roman and mumbling some sort of epithet about the “Blessed Virgin Olive Oil.”

         I have to agree with my father on that one. She does sort of look like the loopy, rubber band girlfriend of Popeye; a thin face and a goony giggle beneath a bridal headdress of stars and fairy nymphs; and a bony body buried beneath a rumpled robe and a wild assortment of black pearls and amethyst stones. She is Olive Oil returning at dawn from an All Night Binge at a Gatsby Party with all of her Dago and Fire Crotch Queen Friends still vomiting up what scant remains of their cheap whiskey and wine. In the end, she is more socially scandalous, than theologically problematic (since as High Churchmen we are very inclined to ape the latest doctrinal fashions from Rome, even while insisting to ourselves, first and foremost, and to anyone else who may care to listen that we are anything, anything under the sun at midday, but Papists); and that is what really incenses the iconoclastic heartburn in the chest of my father. 

         Still, notwithstanding his temperament, my father does not contemplate knocking her into the sand with a sledgehammer in the blackness of a moonless night. He is a business owner, after all; and a Republican. A property right is as sacred to him as the fairy lore and discrete rites of our Know Nothing Fathers.

         But the law is a sledgehammer in a velvet glove; and as the treasurer on the vestry, my father is the law when it comes to the old thirty pieces of silver tucked away in a church safe behind a painting of the Baron Fisher of Lambeth.

         He had not been able to stop Father Valentine from commissioning her in the first place, since the priest had used what he had been stockpiling inside of his own discretionary account over the past several years. 

         But he will be a butler at Saint Peter’s Basilica before he approves even a pittance for the maintenance and manicures required of this Olive Oil Queen; and he has just enough allies among the doddering drool drippers who serve on the vestry to keep the boob priest at bay. 

         The successful standoff is a Pyrrhic victory for my father. 

         Rather than lick his wounds, and sulk in his office with his bottles of fine sherry imported in boxes each month from the Mother Kingdom, the sore tackle reaches out to his retired football buddies in the bookkeeping trades.

         Before long, Father Valentine has more lines of credit than he can count on his arthritic fingers; and the white steeple church arising out from the sandy beach is drowning in a sea of liens and third party interests.

         Actually, as it turns out, Father Valentine drowns in his sherry addiction, before the church succumbs to the waves of desperate finance. He is buried in one of my father’s finest caskets beside the Queen to whom he gave the golden years of his pastoral life; and his remains are still there, despite the land being consecrated in later years into the See of Rome.

         Little Father Willow discovers the debt on the very day of his investiture as Vicar of Our Lady of Perpetual Pleasantries. 

         Every new task is born out from a high ambition; but, unless Lady Luck is so kind as to leave her calling card at the door every now and then, it will die a lonely and forgotten orphan somewhere along the shoreline. 

         And such is the history of Little Father Willow at our church. He makes a noble enough effort to raise the bullion necessary to pay off the cigar chomping loan sharks. But he has no particular talent for the battle he has inherited; and my father, in spite of his intemperate harangues that the good priest should try to do something decisive (he probably means selling off the Queen, but by then it is such a sore point that he is unwilling to mouth the words), is much too sick at this point to do anything constructive in the matter. 

         There is only one bright moment in this downward spiral; and that is my “High Church Wedding to a Virginal Irish Lass” (as Little Father Willow dutifully announces from the pulpit each and every Sunday for a month prior to our “Big Day,” in keeping with the novel practice of publishing the “banns of impending matrimony,” not as they appear in the Book of Common Prayer, but as they are written out in a fit of rage by the curmudgeonly father of the rebellious groom) on a beautiful afternoon in the Summer of ’66. 

         My father scores two victories on this day. They turn out to be his last.

         First, he presses my fiancé to agree to a High Church Wedding in a “good and proper Episcopal Church,” namely his own parish. She is so blossomy in the throes of love that she would have condescended to marry me in a hermetically sealed cemetery torpedo six feet under the breezy sands. 

         Then, he presses our priest to conceal the Olive Oil Queen in a dark robe that hangs from her fluttery eyelids to her bare feet. 

         Of course, this has the unintended consequence of bringing the statue to the attention of the arriving guests. 

         A crowd assembles around the mysteriously cloaked obstruction. There is a boisterous guessing game about what is behind the veil; and as soon as one of the Irish guests passes around a half-opened bottle, there is a sad bit of shoving and cursing thrown into the mix.

         The melee ends, when an older guest sporting a white Panama hat and a pince-nez (no one is sure then or now, if he had been a friend of the bride, or a friend of the groom) says emphatically that it is an “Oriental Ottoman veiled in a Moroccan Burka.” Apparently, he is an authority on the issue, as he had been a young doctor in the “Sands of Arabia” during the War to End All Wars. 

         My father is relieved. He would rather have his church identified with an Aladdin Ishtar Princess than with a socially scandalous Blessed Virgin Mary; and, even after Little Father Willow removes the dark robe, the tale continues to be that the churchmen beside the sea are toying with a variant of Mohammedism.  

         But, as I indicated, notwithstanding this little victory against the tides of change, the downward spiral continues unabated. 

         Soon enough, the white steeple church is on the auction block; and what remains of the parish is meeting in a hardware supply storefront in town. Little Father Willow really tries his best to celebrate Holy Communion beside a table display of second hand pliers and a crate of discarded screws, but in the end it is just not the same. 

         Indeed, nothing is ever the same in the end. 

         And this is what I am thinking; repeated in my mind like a mantra sold to me by a guru with a ponytail somewhere in the Himalayas; as I stand on our old parking lot and stare into the eyes of the Queen of Heaven.

         I have not been here since the Papists bought our Know Nothing Church and all of the breezy sand dunes surrounding it for pennies on the dollar. 

         She used to come here on her own. She found a home in its old, weather stained walls; its union hall priestcraft and its blue haired cliquishness; where I had lost my home to the very same tides that welcomed her. 

         The church bell rings. Everyone else is inside already; seated and sullen, as the occasion merits; while I am allowing the sea breezes to paste new scales over my eyes and to bury my heart alongside the bones of our Father Valentine.

         Someone takes me by my hand. It is one of the old bats in formless black that had been so important in her life towards the end.

         I am reminded again of the blind facing the blind near the unfathomable chasm; and I want nothing more at that moment than to run back to our beach home and to bury my face into my Archbishop of Canterbury Coloring Book.

         The next thing I know I am seated in the front row. There is a tense buzz sifting about the pews, as if everyone is aware that something dreadfully wrong is about to happen right before their downcast eyes. 

         I look back at the row behind me.

         The old bats in formless black are there; so close to me that I sense that they are protecting me from the other guests and smothering me into their own peculiar doldrums; and so close to one another as to be a single line of maudlin scowls etched into wrinkled facades. There are twelve of them; but, in reality, they are one beast of burden; the incarnation of self-absorbed sorrow; the high promise of eternal life shown to be as whimsical as a bit of foam bobbing about the crest of a receding wave. They are a menace; but they are also as thin, and as malleable, as the dust swirling up from a sand hill beside a treacherous sea.

         She will be with you in your future life, one of the old bats intones. 

         I am taken aback by the otherworldly voice (gravelly and masculine, like a chain smoker ghost groaning out from inside his buried casket), even more so than by the words themselves, which after all can be set aside easily enough as just the usual fairy tale sentimentality that must be dished out to any widower.

         It is as if the voice itself is an unavoidable omen. 

         And, again, she is staring out into the sea; focusing in on a particular bit of receding foam that my own imagination cannot fathom; losing herself in that first sparkle of mature awareness that she cannot hope to giggle away with the charms of stolen kisses and bubble gum love; while her newborn baby awakens just enough to follow her gaze into an eternity all their own.

Heaven and Earth in Ashes Ending

         The omen is lost as soon as it has been imparted to me. There remains a vague sense of foreboding; much like a stomach that has been twisted so slowly into a tight knot that the original inspiration for the torture has been forgotten in the conscious mind, but the chance that nevertheless it may be twisted even a notch tighter remains a palpable quiver in the sunken heart; and I imagine an enfeebled hero of the Peloponnesian War stumbling out from the inner sanctum of the Oracle at Delphi and having nothing better to remark than that the sun is so very hard to endure after a lifetime in the shadows. 

         And so I cannot hold onto the heartfelt eulogy slithering out from within the reddened jowls of Father O’Byrne. It is a dank cloud of incense arising from an inflamed thurible; a cauldron bleeding through a thinning veneer of gray fog in front of the open mouth of the golden censer; and then it is no more than an ashen color seared into the rafters, indistinguishable from the rest of the decay seething through the beaten walls, and lost altogether when the workmen wash the interior structure of the white steeple church sometime next Spring. It is a captivating seduction for a moment; perhaps just enough to tilt a nubile girl on the fence into acquiescing to the beautiful caresses of sin; but it is soon enough a small and stupid thing, a Hallmark Card lullaby that seems incommensurate in hindsight with all of the bedeviling scorn that it has wrought.

         There are sniffled well wishes; mumbled condolences; frigid handshakes quivering out from downcast eyes and starched high collars; but there is no real life that can be said to come from all of this ritualized cleansing. It is the priest who finishes the Holy Communion Rite; stares down at the white wafers resting upon the paten; takes a sniff from the wine settling into the chalice; and knows that Christ Jesus is no more there now than He had been prior to all of the lace and the stiff upper lips. 

         So much death comes from so little effort at sin.

         So little life comes from so much effort at grace.

         Saint Paul is as much kicking at the pricks after Ananias as before, I say.

         What? The old Irish shopkeeper with the hooked nose asks incredulously.

         It is nothing, nothing at all, I answer, while dropping his beefy right hand out from mine and wandering away from his dumb stare as casually as possible.

         I do not know where I am.

         The Papists had not made any changes to the interior of the church since the days that I had burrowed my knees into the prie-dieu of its side chapel and hidden away my acolyte cassock in its unused confessional (a unique quirk of an ostentatiously High Church parish is that it will ape the Papists in town, even to the point of building a confessional, but will avoid the stings of Popery by never ever condescending to use it for its intended purpose), but everything inside of the white steeple church appears as if it had been engulfed in a tidal wave and then built anew in the twinkle of an eye. 

         Heaven and Earth shall pass away, Father O’Byrne remarks, as if reading the distress lines etched into my graying face and tired eyes just then.

         He takes me by my hand and leads me to the rectory. 

         I had spent many Sunday mornings inside the cramped, mahogany walls; playing “Onward Christian Soldiers” on the burgundy red carpet with the little, green, army men kept in a fish bowl in the foyer for any beanie boys who might drop by to visit with Father Valentine; while my father had been back inside of the church haranguing the rest of the vestry into adopting his position of this or that all important issue. 

         Once, I had found where Father Valentine had hidden away his black and white glory days: photographs of him in leather skin, bending forward to tackle a squeamish running back, and snarling epithets with his devil eyes. I had been giddy; curled under his desk, and flipping the images from front to back; until I had found something less glorious: a photograph of him in leather skin and frilly lace, bending forward to tackle a squeamish beanie boy, and beaming love with his godly eyes. I put the photographs away without even exhaling and stumbled wantonly into the tears of a child who first realizes that he is so far from home.

         But now I do not recognize the space. It is the same cramped, mahogany walls; even the same burgundy red carpet, and little, green, army men in a fish bowl; but it is an image from a dream that I have taught myself to castigate as totally unreal. And it is falling away with every passing moment, like the smoke from the thurible clinging to the rafters only so long as to be blown out to sea.

         Father O’Byrne sits at his desk in a back room.

         He flares a match. This has the effect of highlighting momentarily an old crucifix hanging stoutly behind his head against a backdrop of faded desert rose wallpaper. The crucifix is snatched into an ashen shadow once more, as soon as he lights a thick Cuban that had been smuggled out by a clandestine cell of the Sisters of Charity; and soon enough it is as if the crucifix had never been there.

         He drops the pretense for a brogue. He is now a union hall agitator in an intemperate exchange with an Ivy League suit sent over from the management.

         She’s always going to be a daughter of the clan, he harangues. And there is nothing that you can do about it, no matter the limey blood pumping through your veins. Oh sure, for a while, she had been a fire pudding for your little bits of English seed; a roll in the hay to the tune of “God Save the Queen,” while all her brothers are marching to the clarion call of The Troubles. But that is square in the past, like the last pint of Guinness downed after the last bell, and all the likes of you can do is stumble out into the cold and hope the old billy club does not mistaken you for a Son of the Grassy Knoll. In the meantime, she is with all the Harpists; bathing in the sun in the Four-Leaf Clover reserved for her kind in the Happy Heavens; never again to shed a tear over a dead mother, or a potato snatched from her hands. And I aim to keep her there; safe and sound from the billowy sails of Her Majesty’s Admiralty; the Protestant Winds never to snap her blushing cheeks, nor to whip the bubble gum from her eyes. To you, now and in the end of times, I am Father O’Byrne, Pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows and Friend of the Working Stiff; but to her, I am Great Uncle Seamus, surviving brother of the Great Man in whose honor she named her son. I wiped her tears, and sang her lullabies, while you were crawling about your father’s caskets and church supplies. And I remember once. We were sitting together by a bedroom window, staring out into a torrential downpour, holding each other for fear of a crackling thunderbolt from our spiteful Father in Heaven, when she looked into my eyes and pleaded with me to explain the Resurrection. Perhaps she thought that the trumpets were about the blare, so bitter was the storm knocking upon the window before us. And so I told her all about the sheep and the goats; how all the English will get their due; and the unions will run the company stores all across the fruited plain. But she persisted: How should a lily be buried when all is said and done? I thought that this was a rather precocious question for a girl, but I answered her as infallibly as if I had been the Holy Father. I said, tenderly enough, that a lily should be buried, and never cremated, lest the Good Father not be able to reassemble all the pieces in the Resurrection. Even God will not be able to distinguish the ash particles of an Adolf Hitler from those of a simple sweet tossed out over the sea. They’ll look all the same to Him, just as they do to each and every one of us. And so what would happen? Well, I answered, God would do His best, of course; but we should expect some of the Hitler ashes to be mixed in with some of the simple sweet variety; or perhaps for the cremates to be brought back only partially, missing a limb here, or an eye there. And so, I concluded, it is best never to be cremated in the first place. And if one should be so foolish as to marry outside of her clan, I added as a postscript to my kind remarks, then at least she should be careful to be buried with her clan, prior to a Red Coated Devil snatching her into the bowels of a libertine Protestant Hell.

         So you do not want me to cremate her? I inquire absently.

         No. I want you to suckle my old Guinness spout. Of course, I do not want you to cremate her, you limey lick. If money is an issue for you, then I shall pay for a box and a hole at Holy Cross. If your bulldog ego is an issue for you, then I shall even condescend to have her married name carved on her tombstone. The world will know she married an infernal Brit; but she’ll still be with us, living in the bosom of our clan, and Irish Green for the coming of Our Lord from on high.

         I am tempted by his offer, though not for any of the reasons he supposes in his union hall harangue. I have a tidy nest egg, and I have no ego to bruise in this issue. Rather, I am tempted to try to reverse the last of the receding tides.

         But then I remember my last photograph of her; how she is seeing what I cannot even imagine in the sea; and I run from the priest without further word.

         And so a few days later I am standing at the edge of the tumultuous sea; holding an urn that I had carved and painted with my own hands specifically for this occasion; and sensing the heat from her ashes burrowing through the white lapels of my prom jacket and into my heaving chest. 

         There is a vicious snap in the air above me, followed moments later by a gurgle and a flush, as if a constipated angel has managed, after a heavy dose of homeopathic laxatives, to relieve his feathery bowels into a heavenly bath that stretches from one horizon to the next. The clouds are absorbing the angel soot at the very bottom of the drain, as if a bath outfitted with a menstrual pad the likes of which even a gushing Big Bertha would find to be unnecessarily “pretty and plump” for her own purposes. But even the largest sponge has a saturation point; and I suspect that, in a minute or two, the black stew will be releasing a waterfall of sea ice and soot onto my heavy head.

         In my sunglasses, the mists swirling up from the churning waves seem as if maudlin ghosts sifting through cracks in a volcanic crust. The living dead wail into the black stew and then loop back down to the surface; smashing headlong into the sharp rocks along the shoreline; and mixing into the grimy foam that is spit up by the obstructed lava waves. All is a shade of burgundy red or brown in apparent homage to the time before history, when the earth did not yet sport a breathable atmosphere, and the dead surface bled as the outermost reach of a young and brassy Hell. In this primordial past, as today, the living dead precede the living; the maudlin ghosts soar over a landscape that has yet to blossom her first red rose; so that the death omen sets her sign before the chance of dawn.

         I finally see Little Father Willow waving frantically for me. He is standing on the deck of his sailboat only a few meters out from the breezy sands, but he and his sailboat had been well camouflaged by the tempest and the gray.

         I roll my white trousers over my knees and splash into the waves. I carry the urn above my head, like an African native hauling the chest of his Victorian gentleman from the horse drawn carriage to the white picket porch.  

         I hand the priest the urn and climb onto the deck. 

         Chester is there as well; resplendent in his glories; lounging lazily on his beach chair in a white suit, polka dot ascot, and Panama; and draining a bottle of imported sherry, the label of which I have not seen since Father Valentine finally gave up his liver and his ghost to the promise of a better vintage yonder.

         Welcome Aboard our motley crew, Chester scoffs. 

         Hello, brother, I respond formally.

         Our sympathies, Little Father Willow offers. She is a white angel….

         I know, I interject, sitting on the wet deck beside my brother’s legs.

         Little Father Willow fumbles with the urn for a while, and then he raises a sail for the lonely and the lost. 

         You’d think that if our priest can pirate a boat, our parish should be able to wine and to dine Our Lord in a place more fitting a blue blooded suitor than a hardware store, and a second hand hardware store to boot, Chester chuckles.

         Our church is not the same, I comment. I was there, you know, for a fine eulogy and a kick in the knockers. Father O’Byrne gives his regards. He told me to tell you that he’ll be looking you up in Hell when all is said and done to beat you at rummy and to snooker you into giving up your dealer. 

         As soon as he lets me fondle a Cuban out from one of those nuns of his, I shall give him the keys to my sherry. That’s the problem with the Papists. They presume the Keys to the Kingdom are theirs by right; and the rest of us are just Amos and Andy, chuckin’ and jivin’ whenever they intone: Hoc est enim Corpus meum. We’re supposed to feel lucky that they’re carrying the cross for the rest of us, indolent heretics and liberty lovers that we are.

         We have a more beautiful rite, our priest offers.

         That’s right, Chester laughs. They’re just jealous ninnies, from the snow white Holy Father down to the velvet altar boy, ‘cause they never had the likes of Archbishop Cranmer among their sadistic Jesuits and their queer Dominicans.

         And it’s not so much what our rite says, our priest elaborates; it’s how it sounds, especially when set to one of our polite and purposeful hymns.

         What purpose is that? I ask, staring down at my bare feet and hoping just to pass the time well.

         Little Father Willow is stumped. He crosses his arms and paces the deck.

         I don’t know, he finally admits. I just know that they are purposeful.

         And they’re polite, Chester smiles. Don’t forget that they’re polite, too.

         Anyway, what matters is intention, our priest comments. We three were all acolytes once. We sat on our stools in the sacristy and watched as our elder Father in Christ Jesus, the Esteemed Reverend Doctor this or that, meticulously tied his amice and cinched his alb. We saw how he donned his ornate chasuble; the armor of the sacrificial king going out into the arena to fight for the eternal salvation of his prayerful subjects; and then eyed his glorious apparel within his dress mirror. And in those precious moments; when we were the voyeurs of the scandalous and the sacred; we came to realize that the clothes make the priest as most assuredly they do any other gentleman.

         Here, here, Chester agrees, holding up his bottle. I offer a salacious and solemn toast to all gentlemen in loafers and plaid. They create the world anew whenever they replace their ties. And is this not fitting the Spirit of ’76, where the Queen wipes out two hundred years of history by standing on a tiny balcony with the President? It is the gesture that counts; the strut against a backdrop of cardboard and lace; and the gentleman who has no scruples in being the circus barker and the freak show has every right to strangle a simple ticket purchaser.

         Chester swigs another mouthful of his poison. He looks out over the high waves and tosses them an obscene gesture and a bellicose laugh.

         Little Father Willow is fumbling again with the urn, while he is humming:

         Jesus loves me! This I know,

         For the Bible tells me so.

         Little ones to Him belong.

         They are weak, but He is strong.

         I am seasick. I clench my ashen mouth with my right palm, and I squeeze my shiver me timbers bowels into my iced butt beside my brother’s salted feet.

         And then, from the foam splashing upon my face, the thought emerges: I am self-love; and there is no greater expression of self-love than the proverbial death throes. With whom else but himself will a dying man dressed in his white suit give his undying attention? With whom else will he share a wink and a nod?

         Here, take a sip, and chuck up what’s left of your innards, Chester offers me his bottle. It’s best to die while ejaculating a seed into the untamed shrew.

         I refuse the bottle and instead wrap my arms about his legs.

         Chester looks down at my womanly pose and fondles the top of my head.

         He winks at our priest and launches into a song:

         Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish Ladies,

         Farewell and adieu to you, Ladies of Spain;

         For we’ve received orders for to sail for old England,

         But we hope in a short time to see you again.

         It seems my brother wants to return to port and to resume his old dance with his favorite among the ghosts, Chester comments after the rest of his song is carried up by the screaming wind. But, alas, no matter the tides, the fair lass will not be waiting for him at the dock. She will be in the arms of another; rose a blossom beneath her latest nocturnal sun; ‘till the heat wilts away the last of the dew; and there is nothing left but thorns writhing in satin sheets by the dim candle light. And all the while the returning seaman wanders the dark alleyway this way and that, poking his head into every fine bit of ill reputation to inquire of her scent and song, until there is nothing left of him but his sordid memories and a ditty to pass the wayward times. Love lost is a lust; the fiercest curse for a fair man to endure, as it cannot be quenched, no matter the wench, and will be around in the morning for sure. And with that refrain, I welcome my poison.

         Little Father Willow prepares to scatter what scant remains of the past.

         I look away. I fear that I would see only the ashes swirling into the gods.

         And she continues to look out into the sea; waiting for her love to return from the old country, where the memories prattle onward as old, salted bones.

Oh, What Fear Man’s Bosom Rendeth

         And when ye hear the seven trumpets sound from above the pearly gates (so that even Old Saint Peter is startled off of his padded high seat of judgment and made to scramble comically for the loosened pages of the Book of the Dead and the Manual for the Damned); the clarion call from beside our company flag to seek out and to embrace the sharpened scythe that has been poised to strike down each and every one of us at the end of our tired march; pray in the sweat of your brow that your heart may sink into your bowels, as if the menstrual red oozing out from a sore and into a bottomless drain. Pray that ye have no higher resolve than to be taken without a struggle; to be judged guilty without even a pretense of due process; to be flogged before the mirth of your brethren in the faith; and to be flayed alive and torn limb from joint without so much as a wail of protest. Pray that ye are not alive enough to be smashed under the boot and burrowed into the dry dust. Pray that ye are judged to have been all along just a silly ghost in drag; a bitty nuisance rattling a chain somewhere off to the side of the graveyard; a brief flutter in the shadows just before the blossoming rays from a tell tale sun brighten the sheep from the goats and settle the last of the wretched scores. But, above all, pray that just before ye descend into the fiery pit, ye may be able to identify and to strangle that pimply pip in high stockings who first said: It is better to have loved and lost, than not to have loved at all.

         And so I am praying, when I fall over the side of the sailboat.

         I am too tired to take in deep breaths of water and sand, and we are too close to the shoreline for me to sink very far. Indeed, so inconsequential is this fall from grace that some time passes before Chester stumbles out from his wry drinking game with our chortling priest and determines that something is amiss.

         He is not sure what, though; and so he flails about the sailboat for a few more minutes, searching for a lantern and a match, and cursing an ear splitting snap from a thunderbolt somewhere far above his bloated head.

         I hear this same thunderbolt. So there are eight trumpets from on high….

         He holds up the lantern and stares out into the darkness. He is much too inebriated in his sin and song to straighten his stooped shoulders and to restrain his lower lip from drooping dumbly into his chin. Even his dapper attires; salted and seared from the bellicose sea winds, but still the fashion of a gentleman on the mark; cannot crack the illusion that he is a plowed retard ready to drool on whomever or whatever has slapped him silly from his little evening amusement.

         And who but death himself should bedevil our motley crew? He taunts as soon as he is able to spit out enough imported sherry to unearth his ballsy voice from beneath his bouts of acid reflux and his occasional hiccups.

         Death sails far and wide from a Christian shore, our priest comments.

         Nay, ‘tis death, Chester rebukes him. 

         And how can you be so sure? 

         Every buccaneer has had the occasion to sully a dried prune, when there are no other fruits available for harvest. The cackling croon, the wrinkly rump: all unwelcome reminders that he is soiling the sheets with overripe flesh fit for a bonfire. But the very worst sign, as if a broken seal from on high, is when the old prune is ready to squeeze out what little juice she has to offer. There is the ashen taste; a sour sting to a tongue already beaten by the grand effort needed to reach this point; and then the stink of sour eggs baked by a spiteful, old sun.

         I am not so well versed, our priest retreats.

         Ah, dear Father, but you should be, Chester chides. No man of the cloth is worthy of the designation, if he is not intimately familiar with the snares of a creeping death. Now, even a pagan, let alone a gentleman of reason, is able to contend with a sudden, senseless death. He can chalk it up to the circumstance of a cruel world; or the unlucky roll of the die; or the contemptible behavior of the black beard gods. But the creeping kind stumps him. Why must flesh return to the dust from which it springs, so that, in a sense, time is reversing direction back to its crib, while also marching forward to the empty grave that awaits it?

         I am happy enough with my polite and purposeful hymns; my books piled beside my crackling fireplace; and my bedtime respite in warm milk and spiced rum. Every other bit of fiddle-de-dee is a plaything of the devil, our priest says.

         Then, I am the devil’s plaything, Chester laughs. I am the slippery stone; skipping lightly off the crests of the stooped and beaten waves; tumbling about the salted breezes; kicking back the foam that is spit up from the jagged rocks; so that there is a ballsy charm and a loving touch for the bereaved madam, lost as she is in her locks and lace, before she falls for the Siren serenade wafting in and out of the howling winds for the likes of her. It is not just the sad seafarer, shanghaied from his favorite stool, or escaped from the snares of his babushka, who flails about his weeping willow wanderlusts at the last moment. The fair is as capable as the fowl of lusts limed and salted by a heavy hand attached to an indelicate tongue. I am deliverer and seducer; fluffy angel and scaled devil; all mummified inside of my fine suits and base charms; the walking dead, while all my brother can do is wish that he had never been alive; the merry ghost, while all my brother can do is strike a maudlin note that remains unheard. I am a fair haired scoundrel; but at least I am not a sap; and that is why, in my time, I am able to reap a bit of folly and flair here and there, while all he can do is prattle about the spindled wool of a lass who does not even recognize that he is there.

         The sailboat hull bobs into the back of my head, and I shove myself up at once from a bed of seashells sloping up and away from the last grasps of an old and stubborn sea.

         I am standing ankle deep in foam; cold and clueless of my own condition just then; but dimly aware of the sailboat grounding into the sticky sands by my side. I am able to stumble out of the way of the slurred curses and flailing fists.

         Little Father Willow is leaning against the Spinnaker Pole; sputtering out what remains of his laugh spasms; and spitting up the imported sherry that had never found a permanent rest for itself in the snap of his tongue and the linings of his throat. He is trying to say something, but cannot fashion the proper tone, much like the obligatory sermon that he delivers each and every Sunday beside the lipstick red and orange banner that reads: 50% Discount on All Used Screws.

         Chester stumbles over the side. His lantern smashes against a stone; and for a while, we are each enshrouded inside the syrupy goo of a moonless storm.

         We are grounded, my landlubbers, Chester boasts, as if the final word on a debate that has been drying the lips of lesser men since the first of the salted highballs. We have skippered ourselves into the fate that awaits every charmed knave and brute buccaneer. 

         Yes, we are grounded. But ours is a Christian shoreline; a fate delivered unto us by the hands of salvation; and a warm hearth to soothe a cockled heart awaits us in the passing of the sacramental wine, our priest offers in between a cacophony of crazed chuckles.

         I just want to go home, I mumble.

         Ah, are you feeling sick, my saintly brother? Chester chides.

         I do not have enough vomit left in me to feel sick, I respond.

         Ah, behold the man; Chester scoffs before an imagined mob.

         Leave him be, our priest admonishes. Charity has no orphan.

         But the truth leaves many in her wake, Chester slaps. She also leaves the most rancid of the ragtag widowers; the lost loves; the bastard sons; all the old secrets best swept off the deck and torn asunder by the bloodthirsty sharks. As a knave, I can find no refuge in myself; nor even in the arms of a lass; but I can in the poisonous sting of truth. And what is the truth with my brother? Have we forgotten already how he refused our entreaties; turned aside our silly drinking game, as if wine has never passed a pair of lips in the course of a remembrance for an Irish mare; and instead reaped a nasty bout of sickness by salting his own sores? Why the truth is that my brother here is the only man ever to score a big hangover just by being alive. He is the man. He is the fool. And as the spotlight of truth shows the two to be the same, he is as worthy of a lasting kiss upon his lips, as he is of a backhanded slap from the likes of a bully buccaneer like me.

         But I do not remember her kisses, I blurt out.

         Little Father Willow strikes a match against the sailboat hull and lights a new lantern. He remains on the deck, but there is enough light spreading out in all directions that I am able to imagine a rip in the storm clouds that have been holding back space and time. And within this rip there is a portal that leads the traveler into a timeless moment, a black and white still, a breath without end, and in the end a place where the possibility of love and loss can be set aside in the mind with the other bitty oddities cluttering up an unused desk in an attic.

         And the lantern of truth dangles in the sea breezes; clutched in the little hand of a priest who is fond of many polite and purposeful hymns; and affirmed in the soft and simple feeling of contentedness that it inspires within my heart.

         Ah, so you claim to be above the silly sentiment of a kiss remembered in dark and lonely nights, Chester chides, while pressing his nose against mine.

         No. I do not claim to be above anything. But I cannot remember any one of the kisses that we shared; neither a silly peck, when returning with the dust and dirt of a new casket plastered still on my hands, nor a passionate embrace, when soiling the satin sheets with the dust and dirt of a new tyke on our minds.

         Nonsense. I have pegged you as a hopeless romantic, Chester growls.

         Neither can I remember them in my mind, nor hold them in my heart.

         You are wandering the dark alleyway, inquiring for the lass who left you, Chester shouts at the top of his lungs, as if trying to drown this conversation in a waterfall of spitfire and scorn.

         But even the most earnest inquirer surrenders his chin to his chest, when the last of the cheap boarding houses and ramshackle saloons has provided him no clue as to her whereabouts. She is “gone,” he will say to himself. And if that is the twisted caress of fate, then it is better, “if she had never been,” or so he will say to himself in between his stiff upper drinks, until he has an opportunity to sign for another merchant ship. And, for a while, he will remember her even as he is busy in his labors among the working crew. But as he has signed for the ship that is destined never to return to those parts, he will lose her altogether, bit by bit, like a ghost fading away in a dream, until finally he is freed one day to be just another curmudgeonly, heartless boatswain. He can strut the deck as a supervisor among thieves, because he will have managed to rob from his own humanity the one trinket, which could never have been taken by another. He is thief and victim; closing the loop; tying the knot; and, when he advances to be the chief of the black beards, hoisting his sails into those winds that never howl near the shoreline. And the ocean blue will remain so unchangeable; the waves ever kissing the hull to the same tempo; the foam ever splashing the old cheeks with the same measure of salt; that he will not be able to distinguish a forward motion from standing still. And when there is that sleight of hand in some black corner of his mind, he will have that silly lass right where he has wanted her all along. She will be stuck inside the tearful embrace; her blushing cheeks curling up into her button nose; her upturned eyes capturing the dream of bubble gum love beside abandoned bleachers, just before he had left her for the open seas. The man who stops time is the heartbreaker; the man who does not cannot but have his heart broken. And if I may claim any virtue in having vomited out what little remains of my heart and bowels, then it is the grand insight that mine is a life best lived far from the ebb and the flow of a time that murders a moment. 

         I finish my monologue and stand there, stupidly, in the glare of the light from on high. I am not sure if I feel that I have been poignant, or if I am just in the throes of the same sickness that had knocked me over the side of the boat.

         I stare directly into the light. I sense that I am about to be raptured into the portal; lost forever in the timeless moment; and discovered anew as a man absorbed in old passions made unchangeable. I am soothed by this anticipation.

         And then Little Father Willow stumbles over the side of the hull. He also smashes his lantern against the very same stone that had robbed Chester of his.

         Chester laughs uproariously at this bit of slapstick. 

         Little Father Willow is mortified at first; but then he chortles even more boisterously than my brother, as if trying to surpass the Alpha Male of our pack.

         Chester directs their shared laughter back at me.

         You will never leave the tides behind your gaze, Chester scoffs, while he grabs my soggy lapel and practically stuffs my face into his rotting flesh mouth. You have been the poster child for “Stockholm Syndrome,” since before anyone of us had heard of Patty Hearst. Time is your kidnapper. It captures you, when you would presume to ensnare it into one of your “timeless moments.” And as much as you despise this, it is in the stigmata left over from the passing of time by which you establish your eternal name. Christ Risen is first Christ Crucified; and as we may presume He retains His fears of a cross, so you will retain yours.

When from Heaven the Judge Descendeth

         I did not ascend into the portal on the wings of a blushing angel, though I had the vague sense of being lifted up from the beach and carried through the howling winds. I could see nothing ahead of me, but lightning bleeding through dark clouds, and swirls of salted mist looping down from above the heavens.

         I surmise later that I had fainted and that Chester had carried me like a load of old Irish potatoes back to my home beside the waves. I sense that Little Father Willow had been careful to follow a few steps behind him, as someone must have carried the urn and placed it on my bed stand near my cold sweats.

         And after I surmise all of this, I slide back into a restless sleep inside the same satin sheets that had contained her at the end. 

         I had not been observing her at the end. I had been dabbling wantonly in the kind of thoughts that prevail when a gentleman is leaning inside of his open doorway and avoiding the spectacle in the light bleeding through the shades. If I had been in the torrid crowd amassed before Golgotha by the cloaked and the comfortable, then I would have caught the eye of a limp sparrow off to the side just as the darkness rumbled and the temple veil tore down the middle. 

         But if I had been watching, then I would have known that she was just as contained at that exact moment in my satin sheets, as she had been by my first photograph of her in our secret cove.

         Now, I cannot be so certain, as even in the darkness of sleep I tremble in the lash of the waves against the outer wall of my beach home. I sense vaguely that the wave that has beaten into the cracks is washing back into a tide that is going to carry it beyond the horizon. 

         And as the wave recedes, it passes the very same spot along the cracked and corrupted surface of the sea that had captured her keen attention and had drawn out the gaze and the fingers of her sleepy tyke. 

         I want to turn my back to the wall. 

         I want to smother my face into a pillow.

         But there is a knock against the wall that is unlike any of the waves. 

         I startle out from the bed and nearly knock over the urn. 

         It is pitch black, as if the whole of the world has been drenched inside of a lonely shadow. Only the sleet of rain bulleting against the window, and every now and then a powerful wave splashing up against the wall, remind me that in fact I am not inside some sort of dark and penetrating limbo. There is untamed life just beyond the thinning shell; time, and wetted blood, and blazing spirits, all incarnations of the Vishnu god wreaking his joys before the first scents of an adolescent dream; and it is seeping into the closed closet door across the room and the dusty lampshade by my side. It is everywhere; abundant in its own life; and tossing aside whatever hope I may have had for a bit of limbo before dawn.

         There is another knock against the wall. 

         I stumble forward and brush up against the drawn shades. I look out into the sleet of rain and imagine myself to be a voyeur of an illicit sex act between a dead Father Valentine and the faceless silhouette of a towhead in his charge.

         There is a third knock against the wall.

         Ah, ‘tis the sign of the devil leaving his calling card, and an invitation to return to the strapping arms of your Father in Rome, Father O’Byrne bellows in a corner of my mind somewhere.

         I pull back the shades. I imagine that I am opening a tomb that has been embedded into my wall; but I cannot tell if I am trying to flee the heavy press of a death that is hunkered inside my bedroom, or if instead I am inviting in the light caress of a death that is swirling in and out of the bellows.

         Neither, she remarks. You are taking my hand and following me at once to our secret cove. 

         She has been a bit more cheeky since we shared our first kiss; taking the initiative; telling me what to do with a devilish wink and a blush; but I still feel just enough of the bubble gum love gnawing at her simple heart to take it all in stride. I tell myself that it is absolutely peachy to be indulging her Irish spitfire.

         Hurry up and lace your shoes, she insists from the other side of the shut window. She is still no more than a vague silhouette; a play in the soft shadows bayoneted by the rain; but her troubled voice is as clear as the dead are silent.

         There is no time to change out from my nightshirt. I imagine my father; clutching his lit candle and fluttering his eyes out from beneath his wooly white night cap; burrowing through my door just in time to discover me pulling up my trousers. I do not want to imagine the dead stench in his breath, while he snaps my day clothes off from my quivering limbs and pulls the rest of me back to the proverbial woodshed tucked away in his master bedroom closet. 

         And so I sneak into my loafers; open the window; and stumble out into a clear and balmy night as far from my childhood home as my dreams may travel.

         She looks back at me and giggles. She is the little girl again; wondering if she should whisper her secret to the silly ears and pink fingernails lounging on a pillow beside her; laughing away the anxieties of an innocent heart in blossom.

         We kick back the sand along the shoreline; chests heaving in the old lime and salt from the foam splashing against our legs, and smiles dancing in and out of the mists looping back into the sea. We are cavorting with danger, like little children discovering a loaded pistol in a closet, but having no idea what will be in store for them when they should happen to pull back the trigger. There is an untrammeled joy in the affair, which may be held onto only as fleeting images, and peculiar tingles in ghostly breezes, after the sting of gunpowder is lost in a yellowed newspaper and a tattered certificate.

         There is an adult stumbling along the shoreline. He is swimming inside of his lullaby to wayward wenches and clammy cuckolds; oblivious to the innocent giggles scampering past him; focusing instead on which wave should drink in his toast to the limey and his old man pee.

         I poke my head up from my wanderlusts just long enough to look back at the old man by the sea. I cannot quite make out what he is cursing into the soft and lazy breeze, as he lowers his trousers into the lukewarm foam.

         But I sense that I shall know soon enough. 

         Stop crying, my father scolds me. Since Her Majesty’s sun first beat upon your face, you have known that I kept a tidy woodshed stored inside my closet. And if that is so, then you must have known that one of these days I would find a mind to use it. So stop crying, and take it like a soldier fending off the Boers.

         She takes me by my hand and pulls me out from this memory. There is a dream in her steady gaze that says that this moment can be what we want it to be forevermore, no matter the wanton waves that may scold the trepid shores.

         And I sense, even then, that I shall hold onto her silly dream, even after she has handed it over to the wily gods that are seducing her back into the land of her bewitching mothers and cursed fathers. I shall hold onto her silly dream, long after I have laid my own to its eternal rest.

         She leads me into our secret cove. 

         There is a portable record player by a blanket. Stitched into the blanket is the iconic image of the Holy Spirit descending onto Christ Jesus at the Jordan River. It has been faded by the ravages of time and the outpouring of unspoken lusts, so that by now the imagination must fill in the blanks in this gift of grace.

         She switches on the player. 

         Somewhere in the crackling static puttering out from the lone speaker is the enchanting melody; the long notes wrapping gently about the fragrant lace and string of a girl swaying into her womanhood, before wafting off into the old and tired waves a hundred yards or so beyond the cove; and the bubbly vibrato of a boy awkwardly taking hold of the mantle of a man just enough to caress an untutored mare back into her proper poise and step every now and then. There is a beautiful orderliness in the rhythm that nevertheless evokes the possibility of uncontrolled passion; an intimation that inspires a blush in a rose; and yet in all of the airy sweetness and soft touches, a sure and steady hand that suggests that there is something at play more definitive than the wily whims of a chance encounter. There is fate in beauty; the kind that can be preserved from a cycle in nature, or a sudden kick into the grave from out of nowhere in particular; so that no matter the season, the song may be heard still in the measured breath.

         My father nearly had an aneurysm when he discovered that this song had been played at our dance, I remark casually. He set me aside and asked me if I had known that they were going to be playing “race records” at our dance.

         What did you say? She giggles, while nesting her cheek into my chest and wrapping her hands tightly around my nightshirt. 

         I admit that I was a smart aleck at first, I whisper coyly.

         No. I cannot imagine you with a sharp tongue, she chides.

         I told him that Johnny Mathis was not the only Negro in the song list and that there were a few others with even darker complexions than his. He had to step back and brace himself for a moment. He finally managed to ask me if any of the singers performed a Bog Irish Jig. I had to hold back from laughing in his red face, as I assured him that there was nothing at the dance that could have converted a Good American Boy to the Roman Catholic Church.   

         Ah, except the charms of an Irish Lass like me, she teases.

         I chuckle nervously. It had never occurred to me that she could entangle my heart so much as to turn me away from the comforts of the past. I visualize marrying her at Saint Peter’s Basilica with the Holy Father himself as our pastor of choice and the burly Swiss Guard having to restrain my accursed father from tossing a Molotov cocktail into the sanctuary.

         Still, there is something strangely noble in how he tries to hold onto the past and pack it away like a bit of unsold inventory in his store, I reflect after a while. I mean, he is always wondering if this or that blue hair in our church has a wayward son who has joined the Jesuit Order. I do not know which one of his friends on the vestry suggested that as a possibility. All I know is that, once the seed found a bit of fertile soil in his mind, he watered it daily, until it bore the fruit of a persistent paranoia. Now, whenever a family member living out West; a straight arrow son in the cattle trade; or his fairy brother in a beatnik colony near San Francisco; comes out to spend the weekend with his loopy little mama and dutifully attends our Sunday service, my father corners him during our fine and lovely coffee hour to pepper him with questions. You’d think my father had been deputized by the House Un-American Activities Committee to sniff out the slightest conspiracies from Rome. Maybe he’s a fool; but at least he’s doing his part to keep the waves from knocking over our old church altogether.

         You can be a white steeple church all you want, but in the end I’m going to knock down every last one of your walls, she teases, before shoving me back to the blanket and straddling my chest with her strong hips.

         I look up into her face. There is a maniacal look in her eyes, and a bossy flare to her lips, like she wants all at once to behold and to devour me, and has yet to figure out how to do both. 

         For the first time, I feel unsettled by her. I want nothing more then than to reach up and to squeeze the life out of one of her breasts; but her hips have pinned my arms to my side. 

         She senses my fears, and blushes back into her bubble gum innocence.  

         She apologetically releases her grip on my chest and arms.

         I take advantage of her weakness by turning her onto her back. She does not struggle, as I press the fullness of my weight against her chest and look into her eyes. She is a fragile rose about to be crushed; her nostrils flaring in heated anticipation; her dreamy eyes excited and forlorn; and there is nothing under a moonless veil than can be more beautiful to the mind of an aspiring gentleman.

         The bully receives his just desserts, she whispers.

         I care not if my father hauls me back to the woodshed, I remark with as much swagger as I can muster at that moment. 

         Apparently, my affectation works, because she literally swoons inside of my petrified and bloodless grip. She is putty in the hands of the angel of death; and there she can never go elsewhere, but where our star-crossed fates forever reign and bind the tides of lesser men.

         In the magic of moonlight,

         When I sigh, “Hold me close, dear,”

         Chances are you believe the stars

         That fill the skies are in my eyes.

         An unexpected wave reaches into our cove and knocks over the portable record player. The rest of our song is lost in a mad flurry of foam and mist; and much to our consternation, we spend the remainder of our time together trying in vain to reassemble what had been smashed by the incoming tide.  

On Whose Sentence All Dependeth

         The wave recedes, and I am able at last to crawl out from a dead sleep.

         My waking thought is that this is the very same wave that had clobbered her portable record player so long ago. It had slithered its crest through the old Straits of Magellan; splashed against the side of a beached whale; and wrinkled the brow of a native spear fisherman; so many times in sundry seasons as to be unimpeachable in the eye of an observer. It had been just any other wave in an everlasting sea; a death ripple bleeding up from the unfathomable limbo, to be sure, but with neither more nor less of a sting than any other bit of bluster that is foaming up the shoreline every few seconds; so that in its inconspicuousness, it had obscured the fateful curse that would bring it smashing again against my sleep. It had been the beautiful curtain hiding the dagger thrust; the whimsical pout in the lips of a girl veiling her impending womanhood; the certainty of the last death obscured in the smooth flow of an elongated crest, but then exposed as a gaping mouth of sharpened teeth as soon as it is condensed in between the corral knives a few hundred yards out from the tranquil beach.

         But as soon as it has been exposed, it is gone again; off in the pursuits of a mindlessly irreverent nature; the kind of brutal, dumb force that will drown a little girl caught in a whirlpool, or splash harmlessly against the painted hull of a pedophile yachtsman. It is amorality; a heart bobbing about the tides neither by one star nor another; so that there is no longer a measure between love and loneliness; and the Siren song is well masked in the hymns of a Christian at sea.

         I almost knock over the urn, as I unroll myself out from her satin sheets, and stumble onto the floor beside her bed. I am throbbing from what feels like the worst hangover to be inflicted on a first time drinker, except that the pains seem to be pulsing out from my heart and slithering into my chest cavity.

         There is a somber gray light bleeding through the blinds, and I wonder if I have slept until the late afternoon. 

         I do not know why, but it is suddenly critically important for me to know what time it is. I cannot open my eyelids any more until I am staring at a clock.

         Well, not any clock, but a clock that works.

         My father does not want to stay longer than he must. He is bending over a serpent headed cane at this point in his last illness; gasping in the curses that used to uncoil methodically and then snap out at the most inopportune of times and circumstances; and hissing something or other about the unwelcomed, new face that has been showing up these past few Sunday mornings at our church by the sea. Apparently, he suspects that the newcomer is a whimsical sailor; a boy playing out his con within the wrinkled and stooped body of an old man; whose skin has been darkened a caramel hue by his undoubted affinity for the coconut coves that, in my father’s imagination, remain as enshrouded in mystery as the old dragon’s lairs that yellowed and parched maps designate as terra incognita.

         Ever since the Negroes ransacked Selma; and then perpetrated the hoax of putting a Catholic on the Moon; no one seems to know that the reason we all paint our churches white is to keep out the flies, my father grumbles.

         Neil Armstrong is not a Catholic, I comment halfheartedly.

         And the worst part is that some of the old biddies like the pagan pimp. It was all I could do to take Miss Sally May aside and ask her what she sees in such a devil monkey. She had the gall to say that times are a changing; that we need to embrace the Age of Aquarius; or something along those lines. So I called her a Hairy Lipped Handmaiden to the Whore of Babylon. And she just looked at me like she did not have a clue. Mark my words: No one in our time has a clue; not even the sense to swat back at a fly. The old bats with the frizzled furs on their chins will be clamoring for a Catholic President; some sort of charming olive oil ginny or well baked paddy cake in a silky suit and a pair of Bruno Magli loafers.

         We’ve already had a Catholic President, I mutter.

         But he does not hear me. He has blotted out totally “those years,” as he refers to those one thousand and thirty-six days during which the Massachusetts Mafioso, and their big-haired goomahs, liquored up and raped our White House with the off-color jokes and Playboy Bunny swing indicative of all things pickled and popish. He sees the scepter of a Catholic President as the fume of a rotten egg sifting into his dried nostrils from somewhere in time beyond his own tomb.

         And why should I disabuse him of his fitful coughs of fantasy? He is trying to hold onto a singular moment; that millisecond before his hope for the future is outweighed by his insight from the past, and all of his feint smiles are sullied by a dismissive and unassuming twitter in the far right corner of his mouth; and there is something beautifully noble in the futility of his struggles against time.

         We’ll never endure a Catholic President in our lifetime, I offer helpfully, no matter how much Miss Sally May is fond of sunburnt sailors in old dungarees.

         My father looks up from his cane long enough to eye me suspiciously, like I am a newcomer lowering my dirty fingers into a cookie jar during coffee hour, and praying that none of the blind and bumbling blue hairs slapping their gums on the other side of the cavernous guild hall will be ever the wiser.

         Where is the woman? He snarls into a gravelly cough.

         He never refers to her by her name. For him, she is simply “the woman,” or sometimes “the lass,” depending upon how his gout is aching at the moment that she happens to pop into his paranoia.

         She is somewhere, I mutter into my shoes. She is always somewhere.

         You should never have built your home so close to the ocean, he bellows all of a sudden from inside of his wretched weakness. I told you at the time. No matter the strength of the outer wall, if it is battered enough by the waves and the wind, then it will succumb to its wanderlust and sail across the ocean blue.

         Like Christopher Columbus in 1492, I finish his comments.

         Yes, exactly, he reasons. What did he accomplish anyway, but bring corn to the old country and smallpox to the new? And then there are the Troubles. If the Western Hemisphere had been kept in the shadows; somewhere beyond the fire breathing dragons and the sea nymphs; then the Negroes would be happy in their teepee huts in the wild jungles of the Congo, and the Irish would not soil a bar stool outside of the Bogside.

         I step away from my father and shove the grandfather clock into its new home in my living room, while my father snarls his usual invective into my back from inside the kitchen. I pretend not to notice that the family heirloom; a fine hulk of carved wood and painted glass that had been taking up a valuable space in the storefront for as long as I can remember; and a maudlin reminder to any man who might happen to rattle the sanctus bells above our door that, indeed, the time is nearing when he too will need to be outfitted into our merchandise; displays the correct time only twice in a Christian day. It had been perpetually three o’clock in the storefront, and it will be perpetually three o’clock here.

         And so it is still, I mutter, stepping away from the grandfather clock.

         It remains critically important for me to know what time it is. 

         And so I stumble about the beach house, searching frantically for my fine pocket watch, and spitting out invective when I stub my toe into a half finished mermaid that she had been carving out of lime wood just before the end.

         When I am tired of grabbing for the tail of time, like the hungry tigers in The Story of Little Black Sambo, I mix an Old Fashioned into a bowl of Cheerios and drop myself in front of my typewriter at the head of the dining room table.

         I had thought that it might be a good idea to take up writing again, when she had decided to stoop her thinning frame and witchy hair over her thick slab of lime wood. I imagined clanking out the Great American Novel, as she sobbed from the pains in her stomach, and every now and then turned her mouth away from her mermaid and vomited some sort of foul scented pus all over the living room carpet. I imagined anything and everything, but could not quite shake the loss emerging right in front of me as a scarecrow mothering over her final baby.

         Apparently, I still think that it is a good idea to take up writing again; so I roll a white sheet into the carriage, arch my fingers into the starting position, and stare down at the black and white keys that are smiling up at me. And then I stare a bit longer, when I am bored from staring, as if somehow an extra little dose of death injected into a gray corpse will make him “more dead” than that old fashioned run of the mill death with which we all have been accustomed, in one way or another, since we first snagged a bit of frozen breath out of the air.

         And then I stare even longer than that.

         I mix another Old Fashioned into a bowl of Cheerios; and then another at the conclusion of that one; until my left nostril is making out with the space in between the letters “g” and “f” on the keyboard.

         I am not aware that I have awakened. It is charcoal black; and the sound of the high tide beating up against the side of my beach house could be the last bit of graying blood spitting through the lining in my heart. 

         But then there is the warm ooze of a nosebleed dripping over my swollen lip and into my tongue, and I know that I must be in front of my typewriter into which I have been involuntarily banging my filmy face for the past few hours of creative excess. It is as if I cannot be anywhere else ever again, no matter that the armed guards change, and a new and improved warden always replaces the retiring one. I have my place in the universe, and it is right here and right now.

         The phone rings. It sounds at the outset like one of those nasty rings that will never stop ringing; not even if the trumpets sounded and the stormy clouds opened to reveal the descending white feet of Our Lord and Savior Most High in the Heavenly Sky; until I shove myself up from the dining room table and knock the crass noisemaker off of the pink wall beside my avocado green refrigerator.

         I do not manage to cast the phone into hell, so much as tumble it against my own cheek, while trying to answer it.

         It is Chester. He is as drunk as a skunk in a silk bowtie, and he is already midway through his ode to love lost, when his voice breaks through the static in our telephone line:

         Now let every man drink off his full bumper,

         And let every man drink off his full glass.

         We’ll drink and be jolly and drown melancholy,

         And here’s to the health of each truehearted lass.

         What time is it? I inquire despondently.

         There are no more words to the song. Chester spits something grotesque into his end of the telephone line; and after a bit of a stutter, he starts to hum the swashbuckling melody with the careless abandon of an incorrigible boy on a binge. He seems giddy at first, but there is just enough maniacal intensity with how he cavalierly spits out the raw tune as to suggest that he is devilishly mad.

         What time is it? I inquire more aggressively.

         Chester loses the melody for a moment. He slurs an obscenity that is not clear, and then he begins to hum the sea salty melody again from the very top.

         What time is it?  I scream from a pit of rage.

         She’s a truehearted lass, even if she blushes blue in the tight squeeze of a grin with clean whiskers and wine. Sin beguiles her. Death becomes her. But I say, with a shot in my hand, and a glint in my eye, that there is no lady but the whore and the saint. Anything in between is indecisiveness; a kind of virtue in a fair man who would presume to be a tragic hero; but a kind of moral blight in a foul woman who would presume to be an honorable wench. There is no blush in a Hamlet; no rose in a Lear; but there is the lovely madness of a cunning shrew or the distasteful solemnity of a careless saint. All we can do is wander about a foreign dock; our fists tightened to punish the whore, when we should stumble upon her in the act; and our fists loosened to rescue the saint, when we should stumble upon her in the knowing eyes and flared nostrils of her seducer. She is a petulant girl, as deserving of a spank as of a kiss; and ours is the task to guide her and to wrong her with every shot that we raise to our lips and song that we belt from our hearts. My brother, know that the sentence has been rendered on your head; and relish in the time to be served; because she will be by your side until you let out your last breath; a joy and a curse, no matter your thoughts to flee from the sea; and a life more real to you, no matter you deny her ghost.

         Are you saying that our father did not spread her ashes?

         Chester laughs. He spits once more into his end of the telephone line.

         You forget without drink, as I remember with mine, Chester comments.

         So what about her ashes?

         Father spread most of her ashes into the spitfire winds. I have no doubt, none whatsoever, that the better part of her life is on its way even now to the finest bar stool in Belfast. She will be buried yet with her clan, when a drunken leprechaun inhales the dust off of an old Guinness stout. But our father left the rest of her ashes in the urn. She will remain by your side; the first and the last name on your dance card; your jailer and your redeemer now and forevermore.

Wondrous Sound the Trumpet Flingeth

         Chester is wrong, I scream inside of my own mind, as I gasp in a punch of coagulated dust in the still air and lift my bloodied tears up and away from the typewriter keyboard.

         The problem with Hamlet is that he is nothing but an embarrassed blush. He has all of the anxiety born from having moral conviction in an amoral world, but the rouge in his cheeks is never hot and sweaty enough to inspire his sword.

         And as for Lear, the problem is not that he is without a rose, but that he is forever enamored with a particularly nasty thorn slithering out from the stem for the honest mind to chide and to scorn.

         I am a man; and yet I am as much a shrew, as I am a saint.

         And sin beguiles me. And death becomes me.

         So that I am as much speckled dust responding to the touch of the wind, and burrowing my ashen cheek into the crests of the waves, while dancing the hop or the sentimental swing to the fancied beats in time. I am the eternal girl in a bubble gum ball; and fate is the boy resplendent in white; and together by his lead we step, and we spin, and we wiggle our waists, all the way into green pastures and grimy bar stools just beyond the careful eye and floral pink gloves of Her Majesty. And as I am free in the currents, so am I lying in state; a spittle of dust at the bottom of the urn on my own bed stand; and as much the fool, as the tragic hero; a maudlin indecisiveness that cannot but reflect a graying cast.

         There is a soft light bleeding through the drawn shades in my living room and rippling unevenly across the surfaces of salted dust. There is just enough of a light to inspire the nervous shudder of a boy first approaching an open casket and wondering if there might be a touch of life left in the embalmed Frigidaire.

         I look down at the sheet in my typewriter. It is about a quarter of a page of the letters “f” and “g” in no noticeable order. It is as if I have unconsciously tapped out an e.e. cummings poem that may be comprehended only by a small conspiracy of stoned literary critics. 

         And yet I must have pushed the carriage return lever several times.

         And that suggests that I have not been as unconscious as I may imagine.

         There is a knock on my front door. It is loud and determined; but, where I am right now in my mind, it is so unreal that I shrug it off entirely as a spitfire kiss from an unforeseeable gust. 

         I return the kiss, but there is nothing more to feel against my lips than a balmy mist that is about to fall back into a receding wave. I relax my pouty lips and open my dreamy eyes just enough to see that I am back at our secret cove, except this time despondent and alone.

         The blanket is by my feet. There is a hint of Johnny Mathis somewhere in the static that is sifting out from the portable record player speaker. 

         But it is enough of a melody, and a lingering note here and there, for me to dance with myself no more than a few skips and a jump from the endless sea and the unobservable horizons.

         There is another knock on my front door; even more determined; as if an old and heavy fist that is accustomed to pushing its ways and its wares through a world of downcast eyes and shuffling shoes.

         But I am not yet done with my slow steps. I fold my quivery hands behind the protective back of a soft sea breeze, and nestle my blushing cheek into the masculine chest of a balmy mist, so that there is nothing left in me but the old, wanderlust prayer that this fairy sprinkle dust moment in time shall not depart.

         The third knock almost beats the front door off of its hinges. 

         The unforeseen wave fans into our cove and washes me out to sea.

         I shove myself up from the dining room table. I knock over my half eaten bowl of liquored and limed Cheerios, and again I stub my toe against a mermaid partially carved out from lime wood.

         I pull open the front door and groan audibly from the sting of the sun.

         I am as happy to see you, a whimsical sigh sings from inside the glare.

         Gertie, please come inside from the sun, I welcome my dearest friend.

         She takes my hand, before I am able to offer it to her, and hoists herself over my threshold. She is like a giddy swan bubbling into another cocktail party no more than a skip and a smile ahead of the compromised vice officers in tow.

         I shall be comfortable, she comments unnecessarily.

         I know. I failed to dust the sofa just for you, I offer.

         Gertie lounges on the sofa. She is old money stuffed snugly into a mauve cocktail dress before nine o’clock in the morning; her breaths charmingly laced by the scent and the texture of two straight bourbons and a cup of Earl Gray at the cusp of dawn; and her ruddy skin wrinkled not so much by the ravages of all the time in the world as by the salted airs and the lazy dances of a senile youth fashionably squandered with the beautiful and the best.

         Forever lit for another cigarette, Gertie removes a long hairpin from the frizzled mess of feathers that passes for a hairdo. She exposes the hairpin to be an ornamented cigarette holder that she had smiled out from the silky queue of a Manchu prince more than a few moons ago, when she inserts one of her most cherished “Luckies” and tilts it upward for my match.

         I oblige her with the diffidence of a boy standing before his grand dame.

         She gestures for me to be seated across from her.

         I settle into a chair only a moment, before stumbling forward to ask her if she would like another drink. I am embarrassed at once for acknowledging, in a socially clueless manner, that I am aware that she has been drinking already.

         She smiles; blows a smoke circle; and gestures toward my chair with the ease of her culture and the billowy smoke from her cigarette holder.

         And, sure enough, without any real exertion on her part, her gray smoke seems to draw me back into my chair and to keep me seated for the duration.

         I am not inclined to be a fool, she comments after a while.

         Certainly not, Gertie, I agree at once.

         But Miss Marble condescended to return to our ladies’ bridge. She played our sympathies better than her own hand. Oh, she remarked, I had to put down my dearest Wilbey. And when I objected, she continued to tell us all about how Dr. Klutz is a Jew and will not perform house calls on the Sabbath; and how she begged and begged; and appealed to his Christian sobriety; or more likely what should have been his Christian sobriety, if he were a Christian; and, when there was no alternative, how she had to call upon one of her Negroes to fire her own rifle; a family heirloom from the old country, or so she insists when she’s had a few too many sweetened cocktails; right into the soft patch of flesh in between the eyes of her dearest Wilbey. And she started to tear; without even bothering first to be excused from our fine linen table; and, notwithstanding my clenched jaw, the others cast down their eyes and folded their cards. I glared at each of them; one by one; and then I said: You are weak biddies, each and every one of you. If there are too many like you come November, then we shall be electing a peanut farmer to our White House. That’ll never happen, Miss Marble remarked from beneath her tears, ‘cause the rumor is that the peanut farmer is a quarter Negro or Cherokee. Well, I scolded, it doesn’t matter if he’s Little Black Sambo in whiteface, ‘cause if there are too many weak biddies at the polls, then he’ll be the man of our times. Mind you, unlike your beloved father; may he sleep in his eternal peace; not even to stir when the seven trumpets blare, like the very polite and unassuming Episcopalian that he is even in his death; as I said, unlike your beloved father, I have never misplaced an eyelash at the contemplation of a Negro or a Cherokee President. I am a daughter of the Hudson River. I shared my very first kiss with a Black Irish rail engineer on the Poughkeepsie. I married my very first Knight and entertained his Brothers in Arms with my fellow Sisters in the Beauceant. I even lifted my heels to “The Sheik of Araby,” once or twice or maybe even thrice, with a coven of flappers from the Colannade Row. I have had the charmed birth and the gracious fortune to be able to afford not to be a bigot. But I am aghast at Miss Marble and all of the other sentimental sweets in our ladies’ bridge. They are fools enough to let a new wind sweep through their open windows, just because it makes them feel a little less despondent with all that they have lost in their lives. That’s not life. That’s a kind of walking death in sensible shoes. I two-timed every one of my husbands, even the Commodore, whom I loved. I stole an hour here and there, not out of spite, nor even a tired, old gloom, but because I still felt the warm blood pulsing through my veins. As I had two-timed the Commodore in his living years, so I have been chaste for him since I laid him into your father’s best casket and delivered him back to the old sea. I am a matron, to be sure, not because my blood is any less warm, but as a testament to good measure. I reckon that when I return to the flappers and the fawns who are waiting for me to uncork the bottles at the Fair Ladies’ Cotillion tucked away somewhere in the Hampshire Heavens, I shall have been a matron as many years as a shrew. Equanimity is the mark of old money; just enough of the fashionable graces on one side of the scale to balance out the ill-fitted sins on the other; so that, in the end, a lady is polite to everyone and intimate with none. But try explaining the niceties in life to Miss Marble and her new friends, who are too caught up in their tears to know that life is best lived as a shade of gray; a bit of black here; a bit of white there; and that the bleeding heart truly cannot but be a tramp of low estate. And I mean it when I describe them all as tramps, because a bleeding heart is promiscuous with her tears and tribulations even unto the smallest matters, and inclined to take her sisters down with her.

         My father told me once that you had been in a kind of self-imposed exile for a while after the Commodore died. What really happened in your lost years? I ask so delicately as to remain almost unheard.

         Gertie lounges on the sofa pillows, and lazily tilts her cigarette holder by her left ear, as if she is the Queen of Sheba in a film noir scene. There is a soft but menacing sexuality in every fiber of her bearing that, in an inexplicable but viscerally real way, is even more erotic because of the severe morality that she had embraced after the Commodore died. 

         That is your father speaking, Gertie chuckles, before exhaling three new smoke circles in quick succession to one another and purring into the ear of the black cat that she imagines to be nestled on her left shoulder. I always traveled blindly, but I was never lost. Fate is a charming suitor who stumbles into one of your formals still wearing his white knee-highs and his newsboy cap. But no one mistakes him for the help. He is a rake with a flare for the lindy that will make even one of the Negro musicians blush. And the ladies will be in bloom, as soon as he carves out a bit of charm beside them, and reminds them that everything is swell without so much as breaking his smile or even parting his oyster whites. They will swoon the coon masked in white; the promise of a titillated swing off the well-trodden path in the hands of a fair and fragrant gentleman; the allures of an Ethiopian prince who is donning just the right Venetian mask to swindle in past the guard, but who is recognizable to any girl who has been toiling away in her silly dreams and pondering what it may be like to be in the touch of a lover so far from her heart and home. Only the wallflowers sitting out the dance with the likes of Miss Marble will turn their noses away and fan their hot flashes. But your father never understood anything. He stared into a four-by-four and saw a blunt instrument. He was too straight to be gay. And so that very last time that we stole a moment for ourselves; I remember it well, since that was the dreary afternoon that Doc told the Commodore that he had no more than six weeks to sit in his rocking chair and look out over the sea; I smiled, and I whispered that I loved him so, and I knew that our parting kiss would be our last. I returned to the Commodore and prepared him for his bon voyage. Always punctual, he died six weeks to the day after receiving his final orders from Doc. On the day that I released the Commodore into a receding wave, your father sent me a telegram offering his hand in marriage. I never acknowledged the sad missive, but rather hoisted the sails of The Tigress Blue. By the way, how did you three boys really manage to scrape the chastity belt off of her whitewashed hull? I wandered the aisles at the hardware store, until I found Little Father Willow burrowing into a pile of used screws. But no matter my smiles, he only commented that he could not in good conscience divulge what is hidden behind his purple stole.

         How long has it been? I blurt out.

         Since she lost her innocence?

         Yes, since she last saw her chastity belt rolling around in the seaweed.

         It has been the better half of a week. So what happened? 

         We ran aground, I confess sheepishly.

         I presumed as such. Frankly, I think that Little Father Willow had the sad lot to be born aground. But, alas, perhaps I have mellowed in my tender years, but I am not inclined to send a bill to a parish that has been reduced to seeking out the Body of Christ in a tabernacle full of chotskies.

         Please, tell me about your blind faith on the deck of The Tigress Blue. In this hour of the morn, there is nothing better than one of your bedtime stories.

         Gertie chuckles and crinkles her nose, as if she is the whiskered and wily Cheshire toying with the last of the wanton charms beneath her paw. There is a beauty in deceit, when wrapped in the ribbon and the yarn worthy of the story.

         I lifted my sails into the most powerful gusts to blow back the waves in a generation. My Beauceant Sisters were beside themselves. You will not find any Knights to serve down there, they cautioned, assuming you survive the baptism and the betrayal offered up at any given moment by the cutting waves. I raised my flute and toasted the adventure before me, as the treacherous winds at my frozen back snuffed out the remainder of their prattling pleas. But I must admit that, notwithstanding my temerity, I had embraced more unpleasantness than I had wanted. Without invitation, a party crasher of a wave reached into my fair weather deck and knocked over my last few cases of oysters and champagne. If I had lost my jugs of fresh water, then I would not have been more despondent, since a lady cannot but live on her spirits alone. I toiled with my sea journal for hours at a time, as if by preserving the details in paper and quill I had managed to tame the old and sordid lusts into something more polite. That worked for a while; but then the feverish sun yellowed the pages; and I had no recourse, but a case of vodka beneath my hammock. I soiled and slept, until the gods on high condescended to blow my craggy sails into the crosshairs of an undersexed and overwrought friend of Papa Doc just outside of Port-au-Prince. By the whims of fate, he did not fire his rifle, but rather followed me to the secret cove where I had run aground. I stumbled onto the white sands and fell asleep directly under a noonday sun. For the first time in my life, I dreamt that I was alone; no more than a bag of shriveling bones; rattling beneath a thin veneer of sunburnt flesh; and dumped on a cracked desert plateau that is stretching out in all directions. I do not know how to say it. But I was not so much in a place, as in a time, or a time before time. And then there was a terrible earthquake. The earth opened; sort of like the veil of the temple ripped down the middle on Good Friday; and, from seemingly everywhere and all at once, lava gushed upward into terrifying, beautiful geysers. I felt myself falling through a crack; but I did not fear what I might encounter in the darkness. I enjoyed the whole experience; relished with complete abandon my vulnerability, like a fair virgin when she is first rent by a brutal, dumb, aboriginal, “missing link” kind of a man. I am a fool. I fancied all the while that when he had had his ways with me, I would be spit back up from the bowels of the earth. I half-hoped that, when I had scraped off the soot and the semen, I would discover that I had a dark and unwholesome scandal stuffed inside my carriage; a pair of dead eyes on a simian baby face that could not but raise eyebrows and inspire whispers at the next ladies’ bridge. And just as I felt myself springing upward inside one of the geysers, I awakened from my fantasy to find myself staring into the barrel of a rifle. I had an orgasm that felt as if it came out of nowhere and everywhere at the same time; like it was not my own but rather one that I had stolen from some other woman; so that the relish was not just the overwhelming sense of love released, but the insipid joy that I had been naughty enough to rob someone else of this sublime moment. I glanced up at the Negro on the other side of the rifle. I could not really see his black face, his bully forehead and flared nostrils, because of the sun radiating from behind his head. The sunlight bathed his charcoal black skin in a kind of golden luster, so that he seemed to be as much Oriental as African; a prince far from his own kingdom; an ape exiled from his own tribe; and finally, unmistakably, a man on his own in a sea of pretenders. I fell in love with him, not lust, but love. As lust is a momentary escape, so is love a prolonged narcissism; a sultry wish initially, and then a determination, that we shall see in the other person what we see in ourselves. And so with my lust set aside, I refused his demands for sex. Instead, I asked him his name. Solomon, he mumbled, while lowering his rifle to his side and scratching his sweaty balls. You may think of me as your African Queen and help me up from the sand, I said. And as you are repairing The Tigress Blue, I pray that you will not be so single minded in your loving services as to forget to light my Lucky Strikes. A man knows that he is loved when he is being told what to do. And I loved Solomon so meticulously that he restored The Tigress Blue to the prime of her life and outfitted her enough to span the globe. Solomon came to me one night, as I was readying to set sail, and told me that he had deserted his unit to join my own. I kissed him lovingly; but when he tried to caress me, I deflected his more amorous passions towards the preparations underway on our new home together. We must sneak away, hidden inside the shadows of our full moon, before the sentries arrive to put a bullet in your head, I pleaded with my adorable smile in tow. I rechristened him as my skipper; a term of my affection as much his obligation; and we managed to hoist our sails, and to slide into the receding tide, just as the first break of dawn sounded the distant clarion call of a soldier not in formation. And so like the conquistadores, we skipped the fairy crests of waves splashing on and off our deck; and remained just a timid breath ahead of the winds behind our backs; as we fancied our sights beyond the most distant horizon and beheld the pot of gold reserved for us there. Well, as I soon discovered, Solomon had a real gift for cooking on the open seas. He fashioned a banquet fit for a queen with the food and the spices that he had stolen in the dead of night from his own unit. We dined and danced the days into the nights; hoisting a black shirt as our flag; and daring the Haitian tugboat navy to find us in the Caribbean mists in which we played out our sordid dreams. But try as he might, I would not condescend to anything more passionate than a platonic kiss beside the whimpering sails of a dead afternoon. And so, when I chanced upon a case of liquid gold, he snapped my hand from the bottles and said that, if my lips should happen to taste his rum, then his would have free reign to savor my bum. I laughed at his affected speech, but then remembered that, as a Haitian born and bred, he was indeed as much a son of the lost ten tribes as any one of my fellow blue bloods in white stockings weaned off of Plymouth Rock. No, my skipper remarked after a while. Haiti had been stolen by the French and not by the British. Oh, I paused, well perhaps we may imagine then that a straggler or two from the lost ten tribes gave up the long and lonely trek to the Druid lands and instead took up with a harem of Parisian Mademoiselles. He broke out into a fit of laughter; but, notwithstanding my charms, he would not give up his rum without receiving the key to my chastity belt. And so, one night, as he grappled with a terrible storm, I stole away to the storage cabinet to retrieve a bottle of rum. I had managed no more than to smell its sweetness, when he stormed into the cabinet and bit one of my breasts. I screamed out in excruciating pain, as much as in ravenous delight, and would have given myself to him right then and there, if the torrential winds and waves had not capsized The Tigress Blue. We managed to hold onto the hull and to ride out the rest of the storm; but by the time a patrol boat from Veracruz had spotted us bobbing about the salted foam and had pulled us into a dock, the moment had passed, to say the least. I could not look at my skipper for several days, as I blamed him for the severe damages and caustic insults inflicted on The Tigress Blue. Somehow, I do not know how, I just knew that if he had not forced himself upon me, then our boat would not have capsized. I was going to leave him with the remainder of the wreckage he had wrought, when I chanced upon an artist bartering his wonders and wares by a wharf. I do not remember anything about that little man, except the pleasant timelessness in his eyes, and his recommendation of an international art school in a Mexican village named San Miguel de Allende. Frankly, I had never heard of this tranquil road stop on the way to Eden. Like most Americans, I knew Mexico as little more than a long shoreline adorned with palapas and littered with the shards of broken margarita glasses. But San Miguel de Allende had been built by the Spaniards to harvest the silver in the Sierra Madres; and while the mines no longer existed, there remained the allure of a colonial hideaway a few hundred kilometers inland that, in more recent years, had become a home to artists and pot smokers from around the world. I envisioned a Greenwich Village hidden in and among the sleepy sombreros south of the border; not unlike the speakeasy I had hosted with another flapper in the Colannade Row way back when; and an unexpected sense of ease settled over my troubled heart. I forgave my skipper, as much as any lady can let aside her natural inclination to hold a grudge; and purchasing a pair of horses from a local dealer, we made our way to that pot of gold waiting for us beyond the last horizon. I can no longer describe the village in any details, except to say that time stands still there, and even a recurrence of the Great Flood from on high would not manage to sully her cobblestone and terracotta walls. I submitted to my skipper there in the shadow of a new moon.

         I thought you said you have been chaste since the Commodore died.

         I am not a bigot. But as we all know, dark meat doesn’t really count.

Through Earth’s Sepulchres It Ringeth

         I look up from my lap. I cannot make out anything in the billowy cloud of smoke in front of me; and, for a moment, I fancy that I am hearing the bedtime story of a polite and pleasant ghost calling out to me from inside its own shades of gray; singing a lullaby to the last of the fizz bubbles in a flute of champagne; and inviting me to spend my own eternity where the ghosts do not rattle chains and the devil is no more frightful than a lush picking up girls at the punch bowl.

         Gertie had been a trailblazer; a trespasser more than a traveler; and yet in her own mind hers had been gold plated paths, laid out and swept for her by the little people, and fated to bring her back to a beautiful gesture somewhere tucked away in her own past. 

         And so that is where she is now; swinging gaily on a grassy knoll over the Hudson River; imagining what it must be like to kiss the hardened cheek of one of the boys on the crew; and blushing in and out of a harmless trifle of sunlight that is bubbling down to the earth from a heaven that knows nothing of sin and salvation. She is just before time; bobbing about the senseless breezes of a soft limbo that is at once everywhere and nowhere; and safe from any touch of joy.

         Let there be light, she chides from somewhere inside the fog, but not so much light as to spoil our good time.

         I light another match and wade into the waves of smoke to find her. I am barely able to breath, as if I am trapped inside one of my father’s caskets; and, as a result, I am able to understand why my father had insisted that I look upon our dearest family friend and respected church benefactress as “Aunty Gertie.”

         She blows another three smoke circles into the soiled air, and softly pets the fancied feline on her shoulder, before nudging me back into my seat with a subtle wink and a smile. There is just the right measure in her gestures, so that she appears neither more nor less than a fair steward of my own best interests, like a benevolent queen with no other claim than the protection of her subject.

         Chester stumbled into our ladies’ bridge the other day, she comments as nonchalantly as if remarking about the weather. Frankly, in spite of the breach in protocol, I was pleased to see him arrive at our table, since his burly blusters managed to frighten Miss Marble into dejected silence. But I could not decipher his words from his spittle; and so I decided to bring him down a few notches by offering him a Cosmopolitan and assuring him that my bartender uses the same lemony vodka that is popular in Provincetown. He must have reached his fourth or fifth sheet to the wind, because he did not even blush. He brought a chair to our table, buried his face into his arms, and moaned. The blue haired biddies in unison cast down their eyes and folded their cards, and Miss Mable took out her handkerchief and started to weep uncontrollably. I pestered him to snap out of his fit; and, as soon as I could smell his gurgling pee geyser springing up into his floral boxers and sliding down his pant legs, I knew that he would start to make some sense. He is going to leave us, he said. What do you mean? I ask, not with my beautiful voice, but with the steady glare in my eyes. My brother is going to leave us; he slobbered, while Miss Mable wailed so inconsolably as to sound like the Blessed Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross. I shot her a glance; and after a while, when she still did not let up, I kicked her in the chins.

         I am not going anywhere, I offer sheepishly.

         I said the same thing. But try as I might, I could not console him with my sentiments. He blacked out after a few shots of bourbon; and we ladies figured out a way to play around him at our fine, linen table; but I could not shake that testy voice inside of my own head that said that my beautiful Del indeed might be taking his loss a lot worse than I had supposed. Frankly, that burdened me a lot more than you can possibly imagine, as I had counted you among the polite. 

         Gertie stops speaking for a moment; and although I cannot see her in the gray foam sloshing about in front of me, I sense that she is waiting patiently for me to say something obligatory. This is the right stance among the blue bloods, as there is nothing more polite than to wait for the other person to be polite at exactly the best time. And Gertie has had always a knack for knowing the time.

         I look back at the half finished mermaid. I imagine that I find every little splinter of lime wood in the carpet and piece by piece reattach them to what is left of the thick slab. When I am done, there is no trace of this last wanderlust.

         I was fond of her, Gertie continues. Of course, on the proper occasions, I cast down my eyes and nodded my head in assent with those who mattered. No good may come of it, we all said. And poor, little Del will have nothing to show for it but another wrinkle in his heart. But I stole away in the dead of the night to visit with her in town. You two were set to be married the next day; and, as a consummate bride myself, I knew what must be in her mind. After all, even a lass conceived in a union hall under the steely gaze of Our Lady of Knock is like every other girl on the eve of her wedding. She was not in her apartment, but a neighbor directed me to a seedy pub in the wrong side of town. I wandered the narrow streets; grayed by the thinning lights slithering down from an occasional light post; and stooped by the sagging roofs teetering over walls of dry, peeling brush strokes; so that I felt as if I was walking among witchy, old hookers in sad clown make-up trying still to lure the innocent into their dusty tombs. And, as I happened to pass in front of a storefront window, I saw at once that just by my willingness to follow in her steps for a while, I had become as gray and stooped as her haunt. I must admit that I felt a terror that I had not known; not even as I set sail in The Tigress Blue; but I am of a stock that does not turn back from a tomahawk chop in the bush, or an envious stare at a cocktail party. And so I did what I am privileged to do. I turned a dark corner and pushed through a hulking door that had been painted in vertical stripes of green, white, and orange. The limed patrons eyed me, as if Her Majesty had stumbled inside all of a sudden in search of her Randy Prince Philip. The bartender indicated that he did not want any trouble; but I shoved him aside, and I made my way to a high back piano on a patch of floor littered with lime and salt. There was that priest of hers; drunk as any soggy old sagart about to deliver his Sunday sermon; blithering his string of piano notes in search of a sad melody; and she sat on his lap, resting her fair cheek and auburn hair against his head, and coughing up a tear to his late night charms. I wanted to snatch her away from his coarse superstition and bumbling manners; but then I saw her turn her face away from his, and stare through the wall that faces in the direction of the beach many miles away. I know that I am speaking like a fool, but I sensed that she could see the beach, and zero in on a bubble of foam sliding this way or that on the crest of a distant wave. Unsure, I stepped back into the bar and noticed that the hands of the cuckoo clock there permanently read three o’clock. The bartender noticed my fear and, with a big smile swimming about his boggy mug, told me not to worry; that the old cuckoo had been removed long ago, because no one wanted to be reminded that it was forever striking at the third hour; and that I could drink whatever salted poison I might want on the house, if only I would condescend to one of their stools. As the patrons roared, I escaped into the hands of the pretenders and the clowns. 

         I think that it will be good for me to take up writing again, I toss into the mix awkwardly, while forcing my eyes away from the half finished mermaid for which she had given her last moments.

         You are suggesting that you have written before, Gertie chides.

         I have written a lot in my mind, a little on paper, and nothing at all that I might want to publish. So I suppose that I am a professional writer after all by any standard that would pass muster at one of your cocktail parties.

         Gertie bursts into laughter and sits up in the sofa.

         She pulls the feathers (“hairs” in her imagination, and “creative license” in the imagination of her frilly hairdresser in town) away from her eyes, so that she is able to see more clearly. She then unceremoniously dumps her hot ashes onto the sofa cushion beside her and returns the cigarette holder to her hairdo.

         Evelyn is living with me now, Gertie comments. I presume that you have heard that through the grapevine. 

         No, I did not hear anything. I have been preoccupied with some personal matters for the past thirty years.

         Gertie stares at me for a moment. She cannot decide if my comment is a slap of a kiss. She pretends that it is the latter and smiles in return.

         I am hosting a fashionable soiree tomorrow evening, Gertie announces to me, as if speaking before a crowd. The norm will apply: cocktails at seven; jazz at eight; promising interludes by ten, and blackouts after midnight. Of course, I have invited several of the best people; but I want you to focus your eye on my granddaughter. There is no better time than your own for a scandal and a song.

All Before the Throne It Bringeth

         I spend the remainder of the day trying to perfect my Old Fashioned; but no matter the expenditure of my mind and my balance, I am never able to find just the right mix of Angostura bitters and sugar loaf carvings. I do not quit this effort, even when I have vomited Cheerios all over the carpet beside my dining room table, as I sense, however vaguely, that I would be abandoning a touching gesture if I did not try at least to balance out the bitters with the sweets.

         And when I am not fashioning a lyric or two in honor of Colonel James E. Pepper, or pretending to saddle up to the center stool at the Waldorf-Astoria, I am staring stupidly at the e.e. cummings poem in my typewriter. 

         I do not add anything more to the letters sprinkled on the page, except a self-indulgent tear that smears an “f” or a “g” into an insensible blob, here and there and then everywhere. But having mastered the boorish gestures of a man of a few letters in the hunt for a heroic idea, I am able to swagger in my spittle just enough to fancy myself a reincarnated Ernest Hemingway. 

         I even taste a bit of warm gunpowder on my tongue for good measure.

         And thus, by the graying lights of the next afternoon, I cannot but be the honored gentleman who has just returned from his sordid duel, as I am standing in front of my polished oak dress mirror and wrapping my Mulberry plaid bowtie into my starched, oyster white collar. I even rub a little shine into my buckle in the hope of reflecting back the deferential smiles.

         I lift my eyes into the dying sun, wipe away the beads of sweat that have been clinging to the top of my forehead all afternoon, and stride down the side of the highway along the shoreline. I block out any and all other sensations, but the vents of my white jacket flapping open and shut in the persistent sea gusts.

         And I make a good show of it, indeed, until I first witness the beachfront mansion in the distance and, as if opening a tap of pent memories, recall how I had travelled this same path so many times with Evelyn remaining dutifully and lovingly a few steps behind me. I can hear her still prattling on and on about all of those friendly jungle beasts featured in the CBS television series, “Daktari.”

         The only one that scares me a little is Clarence, she remarks.

         I look back at Evelyn but continue to walk as quickly as ever. I am late in dropping her off with her grandmother; and if I do not get her back soon, I shall be late in visiting with my father at the storefront.

         Who is Clarence? I ask amusedly. 

         He is a lion from dark Africa. And he is the King of the Jungle. But I am a little scared of him because of his eyes. My mama comes downstairs and says to me: What’s the matter? And I say: Look at his eyes. They’re scary. And so she is looking at him for a long time, and then she says: He has cross-eyes. Remember how I told you not to be a scaredy cat of dark people. Well, you should not be a scaredy cat of cross-eyed lions, either. And I say: Okay mama. I promise I won’t be a scaredy cat. But do I have to look at Clarence? And my mama cries; well, a little bit of crying; not like a crybaby; and she says: Peach, you don’t ever have to look at anything you don’t want to. You can just close your eyes and say our little prayer. And the scary scary will go ahead. And my mama drinks the grown up juice that is locked in her feel good place. And then she sits me down in her lap and says that we should say our prayer together. And I say: I’m so sorry that Clarence scares you, too. But she just drinks the grown up juice and smiles and says strange things to me. So now Clarence just scares me a little, because all I have to do is close my eyes and say our little prayer; and then he goes bye bye.

         I look away. I do not want to see that with every one of our steps toward the mansion off in the distance, Evelyn is losing a bit more of the peachy fizz in her cheeks and the dumb innocence in her eyes. 

         Maybe it would be best if you looked at Clarence, I comment. Watch him like there is nothing else in the whole world. And then, at the one moment that his eyes do not cross; maybe because his eyes are in between crossing from one side to the other; or maybe because of a camera trick; close your own eyes and imagine what he looks like. Keep the special memory hidden inside of your own feel good place; and return to it, whenever you are scared of Clarence.

         I am just a little scared, she says.

         Even if you are just a little itsy bitsy scared, I conclude.

         I return Evelyn to the Negro manservant who answers the door. 

         I want to offer my regards to Aunty Gertie; but even from the doorway, I am able to smell just how much she has been indulging her own grown up juice this afternoon. I know all too well that nothing that I may say right now is going to be remembered on the other side of dawn.

         And so, with a subtle nod to the manservant, I return to my own labors.

         I did what you told me, she says when we are next together.

         I look back at Evelyn; but, as always, I am so late in returning her to her grandmother that I continue to pull her into my brisk and impatient stride up to the mansion. And if I do not get her back soon, then I shall be late for a date in town with my fiancé. 

         What do you mean? I ask exasperatedly.

         I am watching Clarence like there is nothing else in the whole world. And I am not a scaredy cat, because I tell myself that at any moment he will be just like all of his friends in dark Africa. And when he has normal eyes, I close mine; and I count to ten; and I see him with normal eyes inside of my head, like he is the friendly lion in my coloring book at school. My mama comes downstairs and says to me: Where is the key to the feel good place? And I say: I don’t know. So she slaps me, because I am a bad girl. And she gets the screwdriver in the scary room and takes off the doors. But there is no grown up juice. And she says: Put on your slippers. We are going to the store. I cry. I do not want to miss my good friends. My mama slaps me; picks me up from my pony pillow; and puts me into the car. And I am in the backseat in the dark all by myself, because only a good girl can go into grown up juice stores. My mama comes back to the car; hides in the backseat with me; and drinks lots of grown up juice. She slaps me over and over again; and says strange things; and spits up grown up juice. And Policeman Pete takes me out of the backseat and drives me to grand mama. So I am never going to watch Clarence again; not even that friendly lion with the normal eyes that is inside of my head; because I am really really scared and a scaredy cat. 

         I look away. I say nothing, because I am helpless before the power of the mindless waves splashing into the coral and pulling away the smallest seashells. 

         I am stumbling past more memories along the shoreline; some of them as clear in my mind as a film projected on a screen; others no more than a collage of surreal impressions plastered upon a black wall; so that by the time I stagger into the front gate, Evelyn is a well endowed, smart mouthed, foamy spitfire of adolescence just shy of her seventeenth birthday; but I hardly know her at all. 

         I just know that I am in love with the possibility of stealing an intangible something or other from out of her dreamy eyes; or perhaps instead in how her baby cheeks blush crimson red, before falling into a down pillow of bubble gum pink; or perhaps for that matter in how her sweet lips fold now and then into a petulant pout that is more suggestive of the temper tantrum of a babe adorned in her pink ribbons and bows than of the pathos of a woman living in her scars.

         And as I am cursing at a front gate that does not have the mind simply to unlatch and to fall by the side of its own accord, I know that I have squandered whatever second wind I may have had when I set out way back when. No doubt, I remain among the gentlemen; a puss scampering about in an oyster white suit and plaid bowtie; but I am stooped and disheveled. 

         And I am aching for a goddamned drink.

         May I help you, Master Delbert? The Negro manservant asks me from well inside his broad smile and even broader shoulders. 

         I know that the proper word in this day and age is “black.” Nevertheless, for me, he is the same “negro” who always answered the door, when I dropped off Evelyn, or when I wanted to spend an hour or two taking in whatever sordid and beautiful bedtime stories Aunty Gertie might be slurring at that time. And I am the same “master” of about six or seven who will be seen but not heard for a brief moment with the grown ups, before being whisked off to the playroom.

         It seems that I am a bit of a helpless bunny at the moment, I babble.

         Not at all, he laughs. Let me help you.

         He unlatches the front gate and shakes my hand.

         I thank him. I cannot remember his name. I am not even sure that I ever heard it mentioned somewhere in the foggy past. But I am a gentleman guest, I think; and a man in a white suit should never really know the name of the help.

         I glide into the garden and pretend that the roses are so delightful. 

         The Dapple Twins are stooping over a particular bush; prickling their fine noses in disapproval of something or other; and mumbling to one another in the manner that is peculiar to a pair of gnomes. Their frail bones are draped in the same black, ruched, paillette, Oleg Cassini cocktail dresses, so that it is all but impossible to distinguish Myrtle from Turtle.

         Hello, ladies, I offer gamely.

         The Dapple Twins look up from their conversation and glare through me.

         These roses are fit for the fryer pan, Myrtle or Turtle scowls. 

         I look down at the bush. Indeed, the roses have wilted.

         The Negro manservant smiles broadly, and it occurs to me just then that over the years he has acquired the calm and respectful patience of a night shift nurse at an insane asylum. He is as nonplussed by hours of nothingness, as he is by a sudden shriek from one of the padded rooms.

         I’ll be happy to water the bush, he responds amiably.

         It is too late for water, you chocolate ninny, Myrtle or Turtle screeches.

         Always forgetting the second step in a swing, Myrtle or Turtle scathes.

         Eunice Doolittle waddles down from the porch. She is a heaping lather of rouge squeezed into a black, long sleeved, sheath, Christian Dior cocktail dress that is trimmed with lace just an inch or so below her rumble seat. A feathered headdress loops over her eyes and tickles her porky nose, so that she is as blind as she is full of good cheer. 

         Do not fret, Eunice chirps. Wear a button.

         She pins a button onto the chest of each of the Dapple Twins, as if she is a beaming troop leader rewarding a pair of petulant Rainbow Girls. She notices that I do not have a button, so she affixes one to my oyster white lapel as well.

         I look down at my button. Mine reads: Whip Inflation Now.

         I look at the buttons that have been pinned to the old, heaving chests of the Schoolmarm Spinster Dapple Twins. Theirs reads: Re-Elect Betty’s Husband.

         The Negro manservant does not get a button, as Eunice is not aware that he and his kind have been granted the vote.

         Aunty Gertie stumbles down from the porch and joins the other ladies by the dead rose bush. She is aflutter in bubbles, swimming in bourbon, and lost in the whims of a spent afternoon. She is donning the same mauve cocktail dress, as when I saw her yesterday morning, except that now she is sporting a mess of buttons that feature either GOP elephants or boots stomping on a peanut shell.

         We shall win in November, Gertie charms. I can feel it in my gout.

         Hello, Gertie, I mumble, holding out my hand.

         And then I notice that I have made the worst faux pas.

         I forgot to bring a hostess gift.

         And I am much too loopy to crack a really winning smile.

         Aunty Gertie ignores the insult. Or maybe she is just too blitzed. 

         Regardless, she takes my hand into her chest and tilts my face into hers, as if she is about to impart a special confidence that has been reserved just for me. Her gesture is as touchingly sentimental, as it is awkwardly inane, and the combination cannot but turn any man into a sweltering swoon beside her heart.

         Madelyn is in the funny farm, she laments.

         I am sorry, I offer lamely.

         Actually, I am not sorry at all. The wench should have been carted off to Bellevue before she had had a chance to inflict so many emotional scars on her Evelyn. And the worst of it all, she had neither been socially charming, nor the least bit silly, even when she had been bleeding bourbon through her lily pores.

         I suppose she will be happy there, Gertie reasons. I mean, she had been always a bit of a princess; but now she is the queen of her own domain. Even if her reign does not extend beyond six by eight, at least there is no time in there and nothing to remind her that time is ticking away beyond her walls. And most of all, she will never again have to look upon anything that makes her feel even a bit uncomfortable. Really, there is nothing better in the world for a little girl lost in her ribbons and lace. Now, let us be gay, and re-elect our fair President.

         Aunty Gertie twirls back to the other ladies and reminds them with a sly wink and a smile that I am the latest widower on this side of the town and even more importantly a stately reminder of the fashionable charms of a setting sun.

Death is Struck and Nature Quaking

         Or she says something along those lines.

         Frankly, I am not sure what Aunty Gertie says to the other ladies at that moment, as the next thing I know I am fondling the cold and lifeless stem of an aqua blue martini glass and indulging a step or two with the ocean breezes that are snaking up from the shoreline and snapping the wilted rose petals. I believe that a pirouette is thrown in there at some point, which whisks me into the sad and lonely arms of a thorny rose bush by the porch steps.

         Would you like another drink? The Negro manservant asks me, as he pulls me out from that entangling embrace, and gathers up the shards that remain of my dance instructor. 

         A gentleman should never forget the lady he brought to the ball, I reply, while fanning the dirt and the twigs off of my oyster white jacket and trousers.

         A witch smothered in rouge and curtained by a long, loose, flapper gown bends over the porch railing and cackles something or other in my direction. No doubt, whatever she is saying is quite amusing, as there are plenty of giggles in her entourage of merry maids, and the hint of a cool and collected grin appears from out of nowhere in particular on her pruned visage.

         Or perhaps she is calling out to the manservant, who responds by bowing and grinning like a wind-up Stepin Fetchit doll, and lighting the end of her ever dangling and debauched cigarette holder.

         She returns the favor by snapping his derriere, and the merry maids then erupt into an unrestrained fit of hoots and howls. 

         The manservant takes in this applause with his broad smile, as the witch leans into his beefy chest, glares into what is left of my heart, and gestures for me to follow her through the open doorway.

         I follow her lingering smoke trail like a dog on the scent.

         She taps her left leg for me to heel and pushes open a sunburst door just off of the foyer. She switches on a phallic lamp to reveal stark lines and angles that, in spite of their symmetry, slap the eyes silly with their flourish of colors.

         She pats one of the cushions on the tiki rattan love seat beside the lamp, which I interpret to be a command to sit. I oblige of course; and as soon as I do so, she collapses onto her side of the love seat, wraps her left leg over my right knee, and leans back into the erect penis that spits out what passes for light in a room of brilliant shadows. 

         She seems oblivious to the fact that her charcoal black, sequin, beaded, cloche hat is no more than an inch or so from the radioactive light bulb. It is as if she is impervious to the hot and the heavy that may emanate from anywhere outside of her own imagination. 

         She does not blow smoke circle like Aunty Gertie. Rather, hers is a snake slithering out from her clenched lips; lassoing around the porcelain shaft of the lamp behind her head; and snapping the stiff mushroom that serves as the base of the light bulb. From there, the smoke does not create an impenetrable cloud so much as linger with the rest of the shades of stolen kisses and long forgotten conversations. It starts off as a definite impression, but then matures over time into a vague sensibility in the air, like the dapper snake in the garden shedding its fashionable scales to slither about as the inchoate sense of guilt in my mind.

         Darling, you are beside yourself, she scolds me.

         Aunty Maude, may I have another drink? 

         Even after all these years, I feel still a certain devilish glee in thinking of her as one of my honorary aunties. It is as if I am a boy reaching into the cookie jar, knowing that I am forbidden to do so, and yet loving the sinfulness of it all.

         My father had resented her close and comfortable friendship with Gertie over the years; and even in the innocence of my youth, I had suspected vaguely that he had regarded her as a competitor of sorts for her affections.

         I never want to hear you call her that again; he scolds me, after we have left the mansion well behind us. Maude is not like your Aunty Gertie, no matter what she may suggest. Maude is what we Christian gentlemen properly refer to as a sinful woman. I am not going to go into specifics, except to say that she is a bad girl who deserves a heavy spanking. And I would not be at all surprised to learn that she is a Floosy Papist, even if she has never stepped inside a church.

         Aunty Maude glares at me for a while. She then hisses out another smoke snake and snaps for the manservant to fetch me whatever I may want from the bar in the other room. 

         I place my order and sink into my chest. But I am hardly able to shed one of my endless streams of tears, before she slaps my head upward with the back of her hand and clenches my right knee even more tightly inside of her leg grip.

         I have no patience for a queer in a white suit, she scorns.

         I am sorry, I mumble.

         Oh, you may pull the skullcaps over the eyes of the merry maids; maybe even earn a pittance of their pity; a downcast eye and a polite nod, in payment for your song and dance as an aggrieved widower. But you cannot fool me from noticing the limp in your wrist and the sag in your derriere.

         Aunty Maude releases her grip. She crosses her right leg over her left and exhales another boa constrictor. She studies my face intently, like she is seeing some sort of tick in me that had eluded her past observations.

         I have always loved you. I never loved Chester. I knew that he was just a run of the mill rake who would blossom into a boozing cad; really no more than a pompous pimp of someone else’s wanderlust; imagining that he has fashioned what he has pirated; but I knew that you were different. You have been always real; a ghost of a boy; maybe even a bit shallow; like the runt who is not aware that he has been born without a finger or a toe, but who is suspicious enough of his own imperfections as to seek out what is perfect in someone else; and yet is that not what is most real about any one of us? Joy passes; but the unquenched passions linger; and you have been wailing for so long for what you cannot have I could not but see myself in you, and love you as if you are my own. You know that you are nothing. You know that you can never quite capture what you may be able to see in someone else from time to time. And yet you cry out in a rage of self-righteous contempt, like Salieri learning to hate Mozart, since you know that in the end the private hell you devise for yourself is better than the public hell to which you have been assigned by someone else. It is that contempt that I love in you. And so you may imagine how disaffected I am to see you drowning in your self-doubts; twiddling your thumb with your black beard of a brother on The Tigress Blue; seeking the redemption of your soul in a hardware store; and bemoaning the spent ashes of a woman of ill repute. There is a new canvas out there to be harassed with whatever splashes of color and sweat and excrement you may decide to throw upon it; girls to be soiled into motherhood; boys to be castrated into manhood; and yet you are belaboring your heart on what little is left of the previous canvas on your wall. So many years ago, I had been the real scandal of the town. Gertie always had her husbands and her gentleman suitors in tow; the kind of whitewashed men that her peers could never really despise; but when we were together, we were the “new women,” the kind that inspired a more visceral fear than is even contemplated, let alone explicitly condemned and eradicated, by the quaint moral platitudes of a Sunday sermon. Ours really is the love that has no name; not because of what is known about our love; but because of what is not even imaginable. We could paint a new canvas, just by a trip into town hand in hand, or a shared gesture that might or might not be the prerogative of a pair of lady friends. Keep them guessing; inspire the old rumor mill; give the church mouse a reason to blush beneath her whiskers. Recently, I had the occasion to be invited to a swanky affair in Manhattan. I brought Gertie along as my guest, just to see whose eyebrows might rise, or whose faces might study the floor, when we happened to pass by their tables. But not one of them even flinched, let alone cast an air of disapproval. The man that sat next to us; a New York Jew who has his own advertising firm and whose only claim to fame is that he knows the guys who produce the Budweiser Clydesdales commercials; well, he did not seem to notice that we were a pair of “new women;” but, boy, did he howl in contempt when I admitted that my mother had been a D.A.R. in New Hampshire. Here we are in the Spirit of ’76; and instead of inspiring a note of shared celebration, patriotism is the new scourge, if not among the common people, then at least among the sophisticates. Now, I could have wallowed in a sea of self-doubt; lamenting the extent to which we “new women” are now old hats; but I saw the opportunity to erect a new canvas on the wall. I decided to embrace right then and there everything that the D.A.R. represents: God, flag, motherhood, apple pie, even Richard Nixon. I dished it all back into the face of that little Jew, so that he left the table convinced that Gertie and I were a pair of Birchers intent on deporting every new arrival who had a trace of Cossack or Gypsy blood in them. So as long as patriotism is suspect, we shall be patriots; a pair of one hundred percent Americans adorned in red, white, and blue bunting and bombast. The sophisticates will scoff; the Catholics will tremble; the Jews will fear another pogrom; and we shall be fashionably attired in our old plumed hats and flapper gowns; resplendent in the affectations of an America unsullied by foreigners; free and proud to return to normalcy; and happy enough to know that we are a thorn in their sides, and a threat to the ideals that they intend to pass onto their children. I presume that Gertie told you yesterday that there is no better time than your own to be a scandal and a song. Well, unless you want to be a bruised derriere for the rest of your life, I know that you will grab all of the instruments before you; the lute and the harp; and start singing the psalms that are bursting out from your own heart. And when you are donning the stage finally, I can only pity the girl who will be the next object of your wanton lusts.

         The manservant hands me a martini.

         I inhale the splash of alcohol. The room spins; and the colors merge; just beneath the receding tide. And somewhere inside the sinking bubbles, it occurs to me that the only distinction between a gentleman and a fool is if the passing wave happens to lift him into the glare of the brilliant sun or to drown him into the blindness of the confused depths.

         Perhaps it is best if I am not in the sea at all, I mumble.

         And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, she comments.

         I am taken aback. I have never heard Aunty Maude quote from the Bible.

         So I suppose if you are going to exit the sea, then there is no spirit in you after all, she continues, while hissing out another smoke snake. A self-righteous contempt is a spirit. It crafts the life of a man out of water and dirt; provides a goal for his ambitions, and an excuse for his excess; and, in the end, carves out from the depths of hell an eternal home for his petty and proud obsessions. The esteemed pastors and prelates castigate this spirit as sin; and they warn us that the cost to be born from its indulgence is damnation. But I say that it is not sin, so much as life; and that damnation is not a punishment, so much as a constant reminder that mine had been a life worthy of judgment. You are either living in this spirit; raising eyebrows; reddening cheeks; capturing the very last moment of innocence in a girl and holding onto it as a blank canvas for your own private indulgences, even if that should result in her moral and physical demise; or you have been wandering this earth as if a stillborn in the womb, puttering about in this or that moral platitude, offering this or that safe opinion, until the hand of the Old Grim Reaper sees fit to pull you out with the rest of the uterine refuse.

         The sitting room door bursts open. A wave of merry maids in plumes and pearls splashes onto our love seat. It spits up a frothy mist of giggles and groans that are incomprehensible at first, but that eventually configure into a number of garrulous pleas that the two of us join them in lindy hopping the night away.

         Aunty Maude is swept away with the tide; and, for a moment, I am alone with the fear that I too may be a man adrift in his own sea. 

         There is no better time than your own for a scandal and a song, she says.

         I look up from my doldrums. Aunty Gertie is standing beside me.

         I take her hand; and, together, we stroll into the living room and kick up our heels with the rest of the ghosts to the sweet sounds of our moral abandon.

         The world has gone mad today

         And good’s bad today

         And black’s white today

         And day’s night today

         And that gent today

         You gave a cent today

         Once had several chateaux.

         So perhaps it is true that “Anything Goes,” I mumble.

         But even if I am to be swept out to sea, and torn asunder in the deep, at least for the remainder of this song I am not in any particular time whatsoever.

All Creation is Awaking

         Somewhere the solemn chimes strike ten; but it is the same exact sound, whether it is the loss of dawn or the anticipation of midnight. There is no great joy to be embraced in the moment, as when the heart takes in the first whisper of sunlight; nor is there the subtle tear to be shed in the moment, as when the heart releases the final kiss of sunlight. And it is not close to the witching hour, when the last bits of dandy decorum are tossed aside flippantly for the writhing limbs and confused groans of a dance with the demons. 

         If it is anything at all, then it is an unremarkable transition of sorts, a bit of blather with a sour drunk we do not recognize while trying to slither our way to the next girl all a twittered in her false eyelashes, or a prolonged line at the bar smack in the middle of an even longer intermission set between two acts of a play. And who remembers the intermission, when the matronly curtain snuffs out the last coughs of applause, and the schoolmarm ushers usher us into a cold and uninviting evening? Who is going to set aside his reaction to the final scene that is still playing out in his mind; or to refrain from praising the performances of the star-crossed lovers; in order to recall watered martinis and urinal stalls?

         Is it not time for a promising interlude? Aunty Gertie prods me up from a wilted floral cushion on one of her living room sofas.

         It takes me a while to bleed through all of the ribbons and lace wrapped tightly around my face, and then of course there is the vexing matter of how to dislodge the grizzled gnome wife of a pretty plastic surgeon who is gnawing the skin away from my left earlobe. I want to open my legs, but I sense that the old hag will be stumbling onto the dance floor with my ear lodged still inside of her teeth; and I am not enough of a fairy artist to be resold as a Vincent Van Gogh.

         I cry out for the Negro manservant, as if he is the only friend that I have; and sure enough he arrives from out of nowhere in particular, and carries away the pressing load of tears and lip hairs. 

         I reach out for my Aunty Gertie, like a child stuck in his high chair who is tired of the ribbon and lace pacifier stuffed in his mouth.    

         Come now, she scolds, not verbally, but in the perverse manner in which she glares at me. This is the hour for the “promising interlude” of which I spoke to you yesterday morning. No matter that this may be an unremarkable spot on the crest of time; a transition very soon to be lost, then forgotten, as the crest arches higher or slumps lower on its path to the shoreline; it will wash over and pull out to the sea what little is left of your corpse, as surely as any other point of foam or mist snapping this way or that on the ocean blue, if you should be so careless as to squander the moment. Hoist your sails, and you may have a small chance of outpacing the wave; lower your sails, and you cannot but be smashed asunder when it catches up with you. So perk up, and paste a grin on your face.

         I have no choice. I shed the rest of the ribbons and lace, and I follow the clicking heels of my Aunty Gertie to the first step of her grand, spiral staircase.

         I shrug my shoulders, look down at my loafers, and ascend the staircase.

         Just as the steps are about to make their first curve into the darkness up above me, I stop briefly to look back down at my Aunty Gertie. She is staring at me with a look that I can describe only as a devious amusement touched by the barest hints of jealousy. I am stealing something from her, as certainly as she is from me; and, however inexplicably vague, we both realize that the underlying indecency in what we are doing to one another means that we shall never again be able to look into each other’s eyes in the soft and comfortable manner of an innocent boy and his loving aunty.

         I walk to the guest bedroom in the far corner of the third floor. It is very small in comparison to the grandiose showcase rooms on the second floor, and I am reminded of my own past in the proverbial woodshed.

         Evelyn, would you like to come out and play? I ask, assuming that casual, playful tone that I had contrived so many years ago. 

         She does not answer, but I suspect that she is in there. 

         I knock on her bedroom door with an air of impatience.

         She does not answer still, so I know that she is in there.

         I rattle the doorknob, kick the frame, and belch the bray of an irate ass.

         She opens the door and immediately nestles her tears into my chest.

         I do not know what to do, she sobs. I have begged my grand mama to let me visit my mom. I have promised her over and over again that if she drives me out there she can stay in the hospital lobby the whole time; and she really does not have to worry about losing too much time, because I just want a little peek to know that my mom finally is where she has wanted to be all along. I realize that I am sounding ridiculous; like a foolish girl, my grand mama says; but I just have to look into her eyes once to know that she has cracked the spell that has been hanging over her head for as long as I can remember. Why is it so wrong if I want to know? Why is it so wrong if I want to have one little image in my mind that does not scare the devil out of me? I remember the last time I saw her. My mom is sleeping face downward in her own vomit; and she awakens just enough to look over at me, crack a corny smile, and tell me that our special prayer just does not work any longer. I have a fit; a fit of hysteria, my grand mama says to me afterwards; and I knock everything off of the bed stand, including even that goddamn urn that my mom bought for herself. I even manage to shove my mom off of her bed and to upturn the mattress. You are a liar, I scream. You know it works. You know it works. You know it works. But she does not reply, so I begin to pound her chest, like she is having cardiac arrest or something. And then the neighbor breaks into the bedroom and pulls me aside. And as they are removing her from our home, I say that special prayer one last time. I am praying neither for myself, nor the two of us together, but for her alone. Just let her be where she wants to be. And if she is there, then make it so she will never change. I do not want her to get better. I do not want her to return home. I just want to see that she is where she has wanted to be all along and then to capture her there; right there; where everything stands still, and is beautiful, and does not cry out ever again for what has been squandered and lost. My grand mama flat out just refuses to listen to me. I have even tried to speak with Maude, but she just sits there and blows smoke into my face. And what am I going to say when I go back to school in September? I am going to be a senior, you know. And the other girls will know that something is wrong. And who is going to ask me to the prom? No man wants to go to the prom with a foolish girl, my grand mama reminds me all the time. But if I know that my mom is where she has wanted to be; not getting any better, but not feeling any time either; sort of like McMurphy at the end of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest;” then I know that I can hold up my face and tell anyone who cares to know that my mom is not sick in the head; nor is she a handful of ashes in that goddamn urn of hers; she is just not living in any places or times she does not want to be. And if she is not at my high school graduation ceremony, then it is just because she doesn’t want to be there. And if she fails to drop by on my little wedding day, then it is just because she doesn’t want to be there, either. And if she fails to give her blessing to her little grandchildren, then it is just because she doesn’t want to be there, either. And, someday, if a nurse finds her dead inside of her cell, then it will be because she decided that she doesn’t want to be there, or any place else. And all that will be fine for her in the end, because it will mean that she never again has to stare at her cuckoo clock and wonder if it is time enough to stumble downstairs for another glass of grown up juice. If my mom is where she has wanted to be all along, then now it is always time enough; now it is always just gay; now there is no past to lament neither future to fear. I just want to know that this is so. I need to take a peek.

         Evelyn succumbs to her own tears. She is anguished innocence burrowing into the lapel of my jacket and wrapping her bubble gum arms around my back.

         You are an accomplished writer, she says after a while. You know how to preserve something special: a moment captured in beautiful words and written on a sheet of paper, so that it may be revisited as it was once forever and ever. 

         Yes. I am an accomplished writer, I lie in a soft and wholesome whisper, as I nudge her left cheek further into my chest and stroke her soft, auburn hair.

         Well, I need to take a peek, so that I may capture inside of my mind how she looks as much as you capture the beauty of any moment in your fine words.

         Evelyn is so wise; mature beyond her years; but she is also a foolish girl.

         And so I walk her to her bed.

         And we lay down beside each other.

         Somewhere in the darkness I hear the solemn chimes of midnight. I know that she is safe in her dreams now, and so I black out to the ghosts in our night.

To Its Judge An Answer Making

         I am not suffering from a hangover when I arise suddenly from out of the deepest sleep that I have ever known. I know this is so, because I rest my index and middle fingers against my temples and do not feel anything at all. I may be a dead man; or a shade in someone else’s dream; but at least I am not about to vomit the toxic mixes of the past night; and that alone warrants a childish grin.

         I massage my own side; tentatively at first, as if I am afraid of what I am about to feel beneath my creased oyster white jacket; but soon enough with all of the abandon of a bedeviling boy who has just discovered what it means to be more than a tad bit amorous with himself. I may be missing one of my ribs; or I may be starving for my Old Fashioned and Cheerios concoction; but even if I am a bit dull at the moment, I am lacking just enough of the old manly resolve and virility to shove myself off of the comforter and to stoop out of the wood shed.

         If I had been more of a man, then I would have remained on that bubble gum pink comforter and pony pillow for the rest of my years. I would have been able to listen to the solemn chimes from the clock downstairs without flinching a muscle or batting an eyelash. 

         And I would not have noticed that Evelyn is no longer a soft sniffle and a blush by my side. For that matter, I would not have noticed anything at all that might detract from my burgeoning devotion to what is beautifully innocent and timeless in that foolish little girl life of hers. 

         I skip down the spiral staircase. I stop for a brief moment to rub the silly soft spot in my ribcage, and then I skip over the floral and feathered headdress of a snoring corpse splayed on the unforgiving floor of the foyer. 

         I do not pay attention to the unrolled stockings and the spent cigars. I do not even care if the fatso flapper bent over a floral nightmare of a sofa is alive or dead or somewhere in between. 

         Really, I do not do much of anything at all, except periodically caress my ribcage and admire how the shine in my loafers reflects so well the geometrical lines and the surreal colors off of the lingering ghosts in the walls. 

         And then I push open the back door, and the vicious slap from a morning sun scorches the scales off of my beautiful eyes and scatters the bristling ashes all over my fashionable shoes. 

         I stumble back into the door and groan like a beaten animal. 

         We are as happy to see you, a blithe chorus chants from inside the glare.

         I recollect my vision from among the ashes and step back into the scene.

         Aunty Gertie and Aunty Maude are breakfasting beneath an umbrella just a few precious inches away from a sharp descent into the crashing waves below them. They are parading the same magenta scarfs, rose pink floral kaftans, and groovy amulets, so that at first glance they seem as if a pair of African Queens, who have taken it upon themselves to charm their grateful subjects by donning a respectable shade of whiteface. And they make a point of turning their faces out to the sea, whenever one of the crashing waves manages to spray a mist up the side of the cliff, so that their whitefaces glistening in a salted dew are as if translucent shades clinking bubbled flutes and hovering over half eaten melons.

         There is a third ghost at their round. She is a Victor Victoria adorned in a charcoal black tuxedo, oyster white gloves, and blood red cummerbund; and in between her well buttered and salted thighs, she is holding a Cuban that is still smoldering from an hour or two before dawn.

         I recognize from her dangling right earlobe that she is Old Lady Charles. I cannot see the rest of her face, as it had slumped into her bowl of porridge and had started to snore sometime before I had awakened to the sun.

         I cross the croquet lawn and join them by the cliff.

         You are looking a tad bit too chipper this morning, Aunty Gertie observes with her charming smile in tow. May I presume that you did not indulge enough last night? Or may I presume that you are exhibiting the fine resiliency of a lad?

         Perhaps a bit of both, I offer with a loopy smile that cannot do justice to her beaming one. I really do not know what to make of it all. 

         Now, drop all of that faggot talk and drink up, Aunty Maude presses. The kitchen is serving a kind mimosa this morning. 

         Yes, and melons, too. They’re so sweet; Aunty Gertie continues to smile. 

         I sit beside Old Lady Charles.

         She is not stirring at all now. Maybe she is dead.

         No, she is not dead, Aunty Gertie responds to my quizzical look. She will not give up the ghost until the majordomo at the Happy Prairie Lands Episcopal Cemetery agrees to let her be buried in her family crypt there. Someone higher up the chain apparently objects to the tone of her friendships, since her lovely ghost of a husband died on the links last May. 

         They are all of a suspect class, Aunty Maude observes. And I suspect that one of them may have been her Polack chambermaid.

         A girl with a broom is a bit nasty, Aunty Gertie continues. But a Polack in a French Maid costume with a feather duster in her jaw is downright disgusting.

         And I have a friend who swears that she saw her Polack chambermaid go to a Catholic Mass in town, Aunty Maude wraps up the case for the prosecution.

         And I bet there were other Catholics at that Catholic Mass, too, I offer as a show of support for their moral judgment.

         Think if your father were still alive, Aunty Gertie suggests with a devilish wink. He would have followed her into her Babylonian Temple in town and then castigated each and every one of them as a Papist Scoundrel and a Foreign Spy.

         Do not bring him into our nice conversation, Aunty Maude scolds. He was an intemperate bigot and a bore.

         The Negro manservant serves me a mimosa and a melon. 

         Aunty Maude snaps his butt and holds up her empty flute.

         Shuffle along and fetch me another drink, Aunty Maude snarls playfully. I am an irreconcilable bitch if I sober before noon.

         The Negro manservant smiles broadly and takes from out of her mannish fingers the very best part of her sharp tongue. 

         Aunty Gertie takes my hand into hers and looks deeply into my bloodshot eyes; but, as I had suspected last night, I am compelled by a moral revulsion of sorts to dart my eyes away from her old and decadent stare.

         She takes the hint and does not articulate her inquiry.

         And so I spend the next half hour or so breakfasting alone, while my two aunties banter about this or that friendship and make sport with the moral and intellectual deficiencies of several other races from the other side of the pond.

         Old Lady Charles releases a loud fart, just as I am excusing myself, so at least I am able to make my merry adieus with the consoling thought in my mind that she will be around for the foie gras and apple soufflé to be served at noon.

         I start to wander down a trail that winds to the beach.

         I have no particular place to go and all the time in the world to go there.

         I turn a corner and stumble into another bit of debris from the party last night. She is as much of a seasoned citizen as Old Lady Charles, but the twisted hands of time have been much kinder and gentler to her face. She is curled in a large basket full of rose petals that looks as if it belongs in Alice’s Wonderland, but which I gather is probably a prop from the annual Mardi Gras party that my Aunty Gertie hosts for the very best of the betters who live along the shoreline.

         She is a cooing flapper baby; oblivious to the ashes that swirl in from the blackness of night at the stroke of midnight; and, more like my father than any one may guess at first glance, undeterred from the dream of the moment when the seven trumpets blare from on high. 

         She is cradling an open bottle of champagne. It is nearly half empty, and dead in its own bed of bubbles; but as the only sin in these parts is to leave the seductions of any fine drink unrequited, I sense no moral peril in dislodging the bottle from in between her chest and arms and exposing her to the moving sun.

         I turn another corner, and then I see her, as if for the first time.

         She is only a speckle of pure whiteness in the distance; just a shade finer than the other sand pebbles; and so precariously fragile against the roars of the waves that I relegate her at once into an ephemeral fantasy. Somewhere there, in that dreamy corner of my mind, there is nothing to fear in the reach and the pull of the tides. No doubt, the waves will come; but they will flow through her body, like a train barreling through a ghost on its tracks; and will recede to the horizon from which they came without so much as vexing the blush on her soul.

         I am walking up to her, while learning to love every strand of her hair.

         And I am turning over in my mind how to introduce myself to her. 

         But she turns on her heels before I arrive; and faces me head on with the spitfire tenacity of her race; and smiles with all of the love and admiration that is possible in her bubble gum world of boyfriends and dances and fragrant lace.

         She speaks before I do, and I have yet to say a word unto this day.

         I knew that you would find me here someday, she whispers to me.

         I stop dead in my tracks. Her voice is just a little off.

         I knew that you would find me here this morning, Evelyn repeats.

         I had been caressing the open bottle of champagne like a newborn; but I respond to her voice by lowering it to my side, and sitting down in the wet sand beside her bare feet.

         Evelyn sits beside me and curls up into my left arm. But notwithstanding our proximity, she is a windswept angel in her long, flowing, white dress; and a wild gust is all that is necessary to drag her back into her very first nightmare.

         And the wind tingles her bare feet just enough to inspire a solitary tear. 

         I try to see what is pretty in the world, Evelyn reflects, while leaning her head into my left shoulder and observing how the foam floats so gracefully over the crests of the incoming waves before churning into the pockmarked boulders just beyond the shoreline. I catch only snippets; here and there; like something that is receding as soon as you sense that it has been right in front of your face all along. I remember hearing a story from the Bible. It is about Moses asking to see God face to face. God says to Moses that, no matter how much he wants to do so, Moses cannot see God face to face, because the divine brilliance is much too great for any man to bear. Really, the best that Moses can do is to cover his eyes, while God is passing in front of him, and then to sneak them open, just as God is escaping around the bend. Moses will not see God, but he will be able to catch just a momentary twinkle of His divine aura; like the last sparkle of what had been the very best of the firecrackers ever to inflame the night sky, as it is dipping into the sink without any fanfare; and realize that God had been there, no more than a second or two beforehand. Now, Moses may have imagined that he is being cheated. After all, what good is a spark, in comparison to the sound and light show that had preceded it? Isn’t this a lot like being admitted into the Disneyland theme park, but only after midnight? And that is what I thought too, when first I had heard this story. But then it occurred to me: Isn’t a divine aura as much the fullness of God as His face? Isn’t He as much in the smallest things, as in the biggest? The problem is not that we can catch only a snippet, or just a vague feeling of something or other; the problem is that we start to forget just as soon as we get a hold of it. It is pushed out of the mind by all of the bad and ugly things; so that, before long, it is a perverted memory; a bit of good mixed in with a lot of bad; or it is lost altogether. Whenever I am alone beside the sea and am aware of just how far and wide the world stretches away from me, I try really hard to imagine that I am back in my crib. I cannot tell if I am unearthing memories or fantasies; but the snugness of that crib; the sense that there is no difference between day and night; the childish intuition that the blessed angels are as much the kind words and empathetic nods here on earth, as the girls and boys who have been born are the fairies and unicorns in the clouds; that reality is more true to me than the roar of the waves and the splash from the sea mist. And one day, my mom hands me a doll. She is a baby girl with a dash of auburn hair and aqua blue eyes. And we are about the same size. Now, I am barely old enough to hold her porcelain hand in my own; but I know that she is not a fancy toy in a white baby dress. She is alive. And she is the sister that I seem to know already that I shall never have. It is as if we are the same, except that her soft smile never fades; her eyes never shed tears; and her pretty pink blush neither reddens, nor disappears. And I love her, because I know that, like everything in my crib, she will never change. She will adore me, as I am falling into a dream; and she will adore me the same, as I am ascending from a dream. And precisely because she never changes, I do not need to remember her, in order to keep all that she is and ever will be close to my heart and mind. What need not be kept in memory cannot be lost. And so, even though I have yet to speak to the world beyond my crib, I have rendered my first verdict: that there is something, or in my mind someone, that will never be lost to me; that time cannot tear the love of sisters; and that life, therefore, is the peace and the warmth inside my crib. And so life stands before me as judged; and it is judged to be good. But time is not subordinate to the docks; even when an acquittal has been cast; and I learn soon enough the extent to which time will dispel even the surest of judgments. 

         Her voice is just a little off, I repeat in my mind. And she is not speaking to me at all like a foolish blush of a girl who is just shy of her seventeenth year beside the sea, no matter how much the anguish in her life may have bestowed upon her a real capacity for introspection well beyond her years. She is just too linear in her thinking; too clear in her conclusions, as if hers is the living soul of a man capturing into prose the starry lusts of a mad woman and her daughter.

         I reach for that soft spot in my ribcage; and a stiff upper lip in one of my vague memories of Sunday school sputters: She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. 

I suspect that if I take her hand into mine, and pull her suddenly into my chest, she will feel like dead porcelain. And there will be a soft pinkness to her blush. And her wide smile will not be encumbered by the memory of loss or the expectation of joy. And we shall be snug in our secret cove beyond the reach of the waves; lovers of limbo; and pirates of loopy smiles and bubble gum dreams.

Except that her voice is just a little off….

And so one day I know that something is going to happen. I am sharing an Eskimo kiss with my doll, when I notice something peculiar about her aqua blue eyes. It may be a shadow cast from a lamp behind my crib; or it may be a thick curtain somewhere that is drawn just a bit too snugly; but all of a sudden she is staring back at me from behind a pair of charcoal black slits, as if lifeless snake eyes slithering out from behind a bush of auburn hair. And I push her face back from mine and see that her smile is just a little too wide. It is crinkling into her cheeks; laughing mischievously; reveling in what she senses is about to happen. I push her into the bars; but she sits up and stares at me still. And, for the very first time, I sense that she has changed; that we are not really the same person after all; and that one of us is less alive than the other. I am too terrified to be a cry baby; or even to move; but I watch her from the other side of the crib, as the shadow creeps across her face, elongating her slits until there is a dark line cutting across her face just above her button nose, and twisting the ends of her smile into her forehead. Her face is contorted, like a scary beast that has been smashed by a tire and is no more than scraggly lines charred into the pavement somewhere; and yet, because she is reshaping in the movements of the shadow across her face, she is maturing into her own peculiar kind of life. And then the thought hits me: If she is living; not just alive, but living; then I am dying just a bit more with each new breath and every lost tear. Even an innocent blush dies as soon as she acknowledges that she is dying. Sure enough, the next night, as I am shuddering for the first time from the crackle of thunder, and imagining the bars of my crib falling away one by one, my mom carries me into my own bed. I am writhing in her arms; trying to drop the doll along the way; and pleading for my crib. But my mom shuts her eyes. And the doll is holding onto me more than I am letting go of her. And so the next thing I know I am shivering underneath a thin wool blanket that seems to stretch from one end of the earth to the next. I am a baby exposed; a sacrifice left on a barren plain for the grinning shadows to carve up into little pieces, too small to be reassembled. My mom is lost in all of her strange words, but she hears just enough of my plea to know that I really do not want to sleep with the doll. So she takes her out of my hand and sits her up against the mirror of a chest of drawers facing my bed. My mom leaves; and a crazy flash of lightning reveals the face of the doll as my own; not the loopy smile of my past; but the knowing grin of my future. I scream out in fright, but my mom does not hear me. And every time there is a crazy flash of lightning, it is as if the doll has moved just a few inches closer from the chest of drawers to the foot of my bed. And every time, she is a bit older; more wrinkled about the eyes; more decadent in her grinning lips; as if matured beauty cannot but twist and stretch into grotesque old age. Peek-a-boo, she says to me, just before the next flash of lightning. I am you, she concludes, while the flash reveals that she is just a bit closer than the last time. Time is a dirty doo-doo, I think. I am very much ashamed, as soon as the thought passes. But notwithstanding my use of a no-no reference, I cannot but acknowledge that the fundamental insight is true and unavoidable: Time is scooting up to me. And when it touches my toes, I am going to stink to high heaven like a dried turd discarded by the side of the road somewhere. And then she reaches the foot of my bed and laughs at me. I try to close my eyes but cannot. And she says: Someday, you will not even manage to stink to high heaven. You will be a brown cloud twirling with the tumbleweeds; and then maybe a stain on a highway speed limit sign; and then nothing at all. I cannot understand all of her words. I am still practically a baby. But I know the truth of what she is saying. And so she opens her lips just enough to reveal two teeth; one on top of the other, like the nasty daggers in the mouth of a rodent. I scream: Mama, Mama, Mama. She starts to gnaw on my toe, like a chubby girl in her high chair at dinnertime. I scream: Mama, Mama, Mama. But she pays no attention to me. She is in the feel good place. And the feel good place is above my toenail and munching bit by bit toward my foot. I am convulsing in my fears and unable to scream out anymore. But inside of my head, I am bleating like an old and desecrated lamb: Mama, Mama, Mama. Frankly, I cannot tell how much time gnaws up my foot. It may be minutes or hours. Or maybe it is still chewing off and spitting out my baby flesh. But, finally, my mom staggers into my room, and I can smell that she has been singing strange words into a glass of grown up juice downstairs. She slaps me. The doll goes away. And a part of me has loved her vicious slaps ever since. I do not know what to say, except that I am in fear of the storm and am praying that she can make it go away now and for all time. And my mom just looks down at me. After a while, she smiles and says that, if I want to join her beside the bedroom window, then together we can see what it had been like before there had been anything as troubling as a storm. I hold up my hands to indicate that I want to go wherever she is going. And so she carries me to a rocking chair that is facing into the bedroom window; slumps all of her muscles onto the seat; and places me on her lap in such a way that I cannot but stare into the rain splotches bleeding down the window into the wooden frame.

I hear her story; each and every pause; and I listen to it as my very own.

And whenever her voice is not quite right; and I cannot put my finger on it really, except to say that it is not quite right; I drown my petulant self-doubt in another playful swig from the champagne bottle that I am cradling in my lap.

And so I stare into the window. I want so much to be a good girl. But all I can see is one raindrop after another; and one splotch of madness blending into another splotch of madness; until there is nothing in front of me but the surreal faces of rats and devils and goblins. I want to close my eyes, but my mom holds my face even closer to the living glass and insists that I look through everything that is scary. What do you see? She asks me after a while. But try as I may, I am not able to observe anything at all through the rain splotches and the flashes of lightning. All I can do is look up at her eyes and shrug my shoulders. She laughs; and says strange words; and closes her eyes. After a while, she remembers that when she had been a little girl, she too had been afraid of a troubling storm. In the shadows, grand mama says to her: It is just water, Maddy, and a good girl is not allowed to be afraid of kind, old fashioned, Hudson River spring rain water. But she is still scared, so Aunty Maude says to her the next morning: Your lovely mom is going to host a summer soiree in four months, and it promises to be the most dandy affair this side of the Hampshire Heavens. And it simply will not do for you to stand aside with your thumb in your mouth, while every one else is a soggy peach in the pool. And so Aunty Maude takes her to one of her girlfriends in town; a “new woman” with a cleft chin named Stew; and over the next week or so Stew teaches Maddy how to swim in a baby pool. As it turns out, Maddy is a natural swimmer; and, before long, she is occupying nearly all of her daylight hours in her Olympic pool at home. Aunty Maude later asks Stew to take Maddy out in a rowboat, so that she can learn how to swim in the Hudson River. By the first dawn of summer, Stew is driving Maddy all the way out to the ocean beach and resting patiently on a hammock, while Maddy fins in and out of the arching waves as far as the eye can see. Now, Stew is just batty enough to convince her polite peers in town that she is a mannish woman, instead of a man in costume; but notwithstanding her peculiarities, she is careful enough to provide Maddy a bit of sage advice. Listen to the cuck cuck cuckoo clau clau clock inside of your sss sss swim cap, Stew stutters. It wi wi will tell you whe whe when to return to sh sh shore, lest you be cau cau caught up in the cur cur current. Maddy smiles. She has learned to trust in her internal clock, since her very first lesson in that baby pool in town. She knows that the current is out there. It pushes the water parallel to the shoreline, so that an ocean swimmer who happens to be snagged by the passing train will not be able to swim back to her hearth and home. But, as if an insight blossoming at once from within a beguiled heart, she is as aware that her internal clock will sound the proper alarm well before she is in danger.

An insight blossoming at once from within a beguiled heart, I think. Now, there is no question in my own mind that these are my words; mine alone; and, wordsmith that I am, I should shove myself up from this bed of wet sand and go back at once to the e.e. cummings poem that is in my own typewriter carriage.

And I should bring my bottle with me, since candy may be dandy, but the old liquor is quicker, when a writer is looking to be inspired by his own vomit of words and punctuation marks and learned pauses. 

Except that there is nothing left in this bottle; not even the old itsy bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka dot bikini drop that should be clinging right this very instant to the punt; except one or two of my loose tears sliding down the neck.

And then there is that goddamned voice of hers; or maybe I should try to be consistent with my own internal logic and say that it is my goddamned voice staggering about my own head. Regardless, it is still not right. Well, okay, I am going to say that it is not really really right. 

And that is a real pisser of a problem.

I lay my head on a seaweed pillow and stare up at the sun.

Really, there is nothing to see up there; nothing that is not already in all of that salt and foam splashing up against the heels of my loafers; and nothing, really nothing at all, that is not already slithering in and out of the monologue; much like a snake winding about this or that word in search of a profound idea, and hissing out nothing but a simple charm for a silly little girl to pass her time.

And so she swims with confidence to a spot just before the horizon; and, hearing the simple alarm warble out from her internal cuckoo clock and bounce back a hundredfold from the dense purple haze beneath her limber backstroke, she turns around at once and butterfly strokes back to the beach. But while the Stuttering Stew is driving her back to her home, she wonders if maybe her little alarm is too conservative. Surely, she can swim one more stroke; or maybe two or three; and turn around without any more difficulty than today. Regardless of what her internal cuckoo clock may be telling her, she knows that she is able to judge this situation just right. And so the next day, she swims one more stroke; and the day following, two or three; pulling herself forward a little more every day, until finally she is beginning to make out a slight change in how the waves splash against the sides of her swim cap. She stops her backstroke and dips into the water to take a look. At first, she is not able to see anything at all, except an occasional string of seaweed slithering in and out of the purple haze in front of her. Then, suddenly, the scales drop from her eyes; and she is confronted by the terrifying roar of a wall of water flowing perpendicularly to her line of sight and whipping up tornadoes of sand and corral from one of the extinct craters of hell. It is an impenetrably dark wall, so that the purple haze before it looks like it is being radiated by many millions of strobe lights in contrast. She knows that she cannot stay long. It is much too turbulent near where Poseidon passes. And then she remembers the story about Moses and God; and about how Moses must cover his eyes, as God is passing in front of him; and at once her awe turns into fear. She tries to turn back. But she cannot do anything at all but swallow a lot of sea water and writhe about her own confusion. She has no bearing; no sense of where the ocean surface may be; and her internal cuckoo clock is as if it had been smashed by a mallet and is nothing more now than a handful of gears and loose string. By the time she stumbles back to the ocean surface, and manages to take in a breath, she is too far out to see the beach anymore. She is lost; all alone and forgotten, like a cremated ash that will not be reassembled with the others that had been tossed out from the urn. While treading water, she is able to devise in her own mind what will become our special prayer. But, no matter how often she repeats it, she does not really believe. It is just something to say until the wave that has been destined for her catches up to her tired limbs and smothers her once and for all time. And even when the Coast Guard manages to retrieve her, and Stew hangs a blanket about her shoulders, she does not really believe. She realizes that the judgment of God is a bit more just than merciful. 

Lo! The Book Exactly Worded

So you really cannot look through the storm after all, I mumble.

Evelyn looks down at my chest. She notices something peculiar; maybe a sand pebble that looks different from all of the others that have been splashed onto my oyster white jacket; or maybe the crease in a broken heart. No matter really what she sees; it is all the same; it is the raw sore left behind when time arches the wave just enough to bury a blushing girl who insists on standing still.

That is what my mom has been telling me my whole life, Evelyn reflects. But I think it may be different now. I think she may have shattered through the rain and the lightning flashes; through the angry faces bleeding down the other side of the window and collecting in the cracks of the wooden frame; and, even if this may sound incredible, through the impenetrably dark wall that she found just a few confident strokes beyond her horizon. Really, I just need to look into her eyes; no more time needed than in the blink of my own; and I shall be able to tell if she is finally where she wants to be and seeing what she wants to see. 

And you will know if you are a daughter or an orphan, I comment.

Are they not really the same? Evelyn sighs. Isn’t it just a matter of time?

I look into her face. 

Her voice is just plain wrong; but the face; well, the eyes really; and the sad blush in her cheeks that is just a soft tease away from warming into spitfire red; and then that petulant pout in her lips when she is consumed in thought or is irascibly thoughtless. And then there is the auburn hair. It is perhaps the very closest of them all. It is the hair of a doll; a splash of fantasy color that is to be expected in a scene of leprechauns and unicorns prancing about the lily greens, but that is beautifully offsetting against a backdrop of maudlin faces and polite tears in a white steeple church by the sea.

Assemble all of the pieces together, and they miss the mark. But observe each of them separately; dab a bit of something right here, and shave off a bit of something right there; and she may be glimpsed as surely as in the black and white smile contained in my photo album back home.

And I remember how she stoops over her thick slab of lime wood. 

There is not really a mermaid yet; not enough carved out from the wood so that a casual observer would have no choice but to point it out on the carpet and to remark, yes, that is surely a mermaid finning through the tranquil waves at dusk; but that is not a problem for her. She sees everything in the angle that she happens to be carving at the moment. She knows that it is all right there in its eternal fullness, when she chisels out a scratch of wood and indiscriminately releases a fingertip of shavings into the air about her. 

Evelyn rests the back of her head against my chest, so that she is looking straight into the sun and breathing in the ocean breezes. She is tired and alone in her thoughts; beaten down by everything that has been roaring and splashing about her since she first laid her giggling eyes on that devil doll in her crib; and as a result, she is a petrified slab wrinkling what is left of my starched shirt and affable reserve. She is a scandal and a song in how she belabors me in her tears and invites me in her silence to roll onto her and to push her into the soft sand.

I am about to strangle her first and last kiss out from her, when a craven wave lurches up from behind and momentarily buries the two of us in its forced embrace. It is the stalker that has been traversing the globe since the very first cloud cast its shade upon the surface of the sea. It spends its passions in an itch of time. And then it is gone; swept back into the grave with no other mind than to be pushed and pulled by the tides to a pair of would be lovers on some other shoreline; and remembered only in the hiss that slithers in the still morning air.

I look back down at what I presume will be her face.

She has turned her head to the side, so that I am staring into a curtain of auburn hair that has been braided and green tinted by strands of seaweed from the old country. She is coughing into the wet sand by her mouth and spitting up her own share of strange words.

I curl my hands about her neck. I want so desperately to squeeze. I want so lovingly to preserve what otherwise will be squandered and lost by the hands of time. And I trust the seven trumpets then will not release her from my mind.

But she swoons. And I hear her. And so I recoil and slither off to her side.

Wherein All Hath Been Recorded

And when I awaken, she is gone.

She is always just around the bend somewhere. 

I shove myself up from my bed of broken seashells.

That is not true. I do not actually shove; certainly not the sparkling sand that is hissing in the sticky film that has been left behind by the receding wave; and not much of anything else; not even my own conscience. No, I do not shove so much as flap and squirm like a simple sea bass that has been reeled out from the blue and tossed aside somewhere. 

And I am stumbling in and out of a crazy ass dance. I cannot find my own girl in this mess. She is probably by the wall giggling with the other bubble gum tarts in sugar sweet ribbons and lace. 

But that is no matter. I have a dance partner for the moment. 

Her name is Miss Haddy Hangover, and she is a belching slob.

I manage to arch my back like a serpent that is about to pounce its prey, except that I do not snap forward, or anywhere else for that matter. I just land on my butt and sit upright with my back to the ocean. 

Perhaps I am a waterlogged wall restraining the waves from the very last moments of their advance; sort of like an oyster white card inserted in front of the camera lens just before Rudolf Valentino kisses his swooning sweetheart on a sand dune before a crescent moon; a bit of decency tossed into the mix to be of aid to the easy blushes and the weak tickers in Peoria, Illinois. 

But when the next wave roars over my shoulders, and rings my ears, and vomits a puddle of what looks and feels like lukewarm beer foam into my limp lap; well, when all of that is said and done, I cannot hold onto the illusion that I am a rock of ages. I am not Martin Luther nailing my eighty thousandth edition of the Ninety-Five Theses and, turning to a stinky peasant, saying: Here I stand, and this time I really really mean it. I am not even my father cornering a bratty blue hair at coffee hour and insinuating this or that moral failing, until the blue hair sighs and agrees that it is best not to wear a JFK button at a polite church.

No, I am not a rock at all; more like a rolling stone; and not even a fancy ball that is smooth to the touch, but a Cratered Cheerio that is bobbing about a sweet and sour Old Fashioned. I am just there to be chewed and swallowed and bandied about from one silly organ to the next and squeezed out the other end.

And then it occurs to me: Life is a metaphor for sodomy. 

Or maybe it is the other way around. I am not really sure.

I am only sure that, whatever it is, it is a profound thought; truly worthy of the history books, or at least of one more mimosa from the kitchen on top of the hill to make up for the empty bottle of champagne down here; and capable of inspiring a loopy grin on my face. I know that I am no more than a cardboard cut out of the happy camper and that the next wave likely will wash away what little is left of me. But what is more profound than knowing just when to smile? 

And so I look up and smile even more broadly. 

There is a kind black face smiling back down at me. Actually, I am not so sure that there is a face at all above the handsome set of teeth and lips, since I am blinded temporarily by the sunlight beaming into my tired eyes from behind its head. Frankly, for all that I can see, it may be a smile transfigured magically from out of the sunlight and floating about the shoreline in search of a sad face to brighten. Or it may be a trifle that I have spit out from my bowels; what bits of bone had been left behind when the rib had been removed, coagulating with my liquored blood over time into the form of a handsome grin, and spitting out with the rest of my rotten bile to become a silly adornment to the sea breezes.

I am not sure what it is. I am not even sure that it is profound; whatever it is really; or that I am profound in smiling up as it is smiling back down at me. 

But I am sure what hour it is. Since the sunlight is directly in front of me right now; descending from on high to the back of the mansion on the hill; I am sure that it is the third hour of the afternoon. And that means that my priceless heirloom; that grandfather clock that has been correct twice on each and every day for as long as I can remember; is in sync with the exact position of the sun.

And then I cover my eyes; and I can see that it is the Negro manservant.

He is holding out a silver tray. There is a fresh mimosa from the kitchen.

May I offer you another mimosa, Master Delbert? 

I knew that you would ask, I chuckle, while reaching for the mimosa, and enduring yet another sneak attack from a wave behind me. We are shades of an idyllic past; happy to play out our roles in a time standing still; captured in our own minds, while the rest of time keeps moving further and further ahead of us and more removed from our frames of reference. You are the Happy Negro just handing me a drink. I am the Master who has yet to spike his first glass of warm milk. Ah, it is all so scandalous, is it not? It is our song. Shall we dance? You are contributing to the delinquency of a boy. I am served by a chuckin and jivin boy in a borrowed tuxedo. And which is the lead then in this little two-step of ours?

There is no dance if you cannot find the rhythm, the manservant reflects without wrinkling his smile a bit. 

Always keeping time, I comment. Have you ever noticed that the blacker cultures; the ones that never manage to progress beyond the thatched roof and the teepee; they are the ones with the best dancers. There is something real in capturing a moment in time, like an unbroken note that continues throughout a full orchestral piece. It is not a beat. It provides neither a rhythm nor a melody that will tickle the conscious mind. And yet it is more lovely than anything that will be remembered, since it is the barest indication that not everything is lost, not every note exists to be played before or after some other. And if eventually that single, unbroken note starts to grate on the nerves, then that is a blessing of sorts. It reminds us that hell is a refuge as much as a punishment, a retaining of something as much as a losing of something else. We keep the note in return for our peace of mind. No offense, but you blacks, well you cannot know about this. You are too busy dancing around the campfire to jump into the flames. As a result, you are just not altogether real. You are an offsetting Orientalism; an Arab lurking behind his own bushy mustache; more a plaything in our fantasies, or a cheap trick in our nightmares, than a real man progressing in his own time.

So which is it, Master Delbert? 

What do you mean?

Well, first you say that we are shades of an idyllic past, and then you say that you are progressing into the future and leaving we blacker folks in the dust kicked back by your fine loafers. 

You presuppose that there must be a choice; I shoot back at him with my finest rendition of a contemptuous grin. But since you are always keeping time, you fail to see that the eternal present; the smile captured in a still and locked away in a photo album; encapsulates the past as much as the future. It is like a whole library of books recorded in a single period; not a question mark; not one of those damned exclamation marks; just a boring period typed onto a sheet of white paper and kept in the carriage to be adored forevermore as the finest bit of literary artistry ever to be captured. 

It seems to me that you can stare at the same thing the rest of your life; maybe even convince yourself that there is nothing else in the ocean below and the stars above; and yet fail to see it for what it really is.

I stare down at my empty glass. I know intellectually that I have downed a whole mimosa in the past thirty seconds or so; but I have not a clue as to how it tasted in my nose or felt inside my mouth. It is as if it had never been before and will never be afterwards. 

And so that must be the rub: the flip side of eternal everything is eternal nothing, and which side faces upward is as much a product of fate as the ocean wave that traverses the globe a thousand times only to be a noodle up your ass.

But I am having none of that. I toss the empty glass at the manservant.

It seems to me that I have been staring at you, and yet I never fail to see you as the happy clappy coon who fetches the cocktails and mops up the vomit, I snap back at him from the bottom of a bristling fire pit somewhere.

The Negro manservant laughs. He helps me to my feet. 

How would you like some ice cream, Master Delbert?

I mumble something or other that may be interpreted either which way.

Well, that’s good, Master Delbert. Gertie has instructed me to drive you and Evelyn to the ice cream shop. And she says you two can have double scoops if you promise to eat your supper tonight. 

Thence Shall Judgment Be Awarded

So the decision has been made. I am going to stay the night. 

And my Aunty Gertie is not inclined to take no for an answer.

I stagger back up the hill. The lady in the large basket full of rose petals has left with the rest of the odd coterie of characters from Alice’s Wonderland, so that there is nothing really but a staleness in a breeze somewhere off to the side that suggests a time long since abandoned. There is nothing altogether sad in how time has donned his hat and walking stick; bid his adieus; acknowledged his reliance on the help; and wandered down the lane toward some other home along the shoreline that will be seasoning the night in dance and in song. There is at most a kind of polite tranquility about the grounds; a decadent laziness on the heels of a soft evening that is one of the best indications of old money ever to be devised; and a pervading sense that nothing at all need be said nor done.

Even Old Lady Charles is gone. Perhaps she learned just a moment after the foie gras and apple soufflé that indeed she would be permitted to rest with her kin in the Happy Prairie Lands Episcopal Cemetery. Perhaps she is right now one of the shades dulling the bright colors behind the sunburst door, a guest no longer to be shown the door, a lady in attendance precisely as she is not there.

I shuffle by the back door, while the Negro manservant fetches Evelyn.

Wipe your nose and tuck your shirt, Aunty Maude snaps from nowhere.

I stumble about for a while before I catch her strolling the grounds. 

Aunty Maude is still adorned as an African Queen. She is dragging regally on a cigarette holder and dangling the stem of a bubbling flute. She seems well intent on something or other, perhaps inspecting the perimeter to make certain that not one of her subjects is dusting a patio chair or pulling a weed with dirty fingernails, so that it is clear that her verbal slap is no longer focused on me so much as at the wooly and wondrous world of sniffling boys and disheveled men.

Nevertheless, I am careful to brush off the rest of the seaweed, wipe my nose on the sleeve of my jacket, and tuck in my wrinkled shirt. I am a mess still and cannot be otherwise until I shower, but at least I am polite before evening. 

I turn back to the door in time to catch Evelyn leaping into my arms.

She is a cheery cheeked giggle in a pink crop-top and a pair of high waist denim elephant bells. She is too cartoonish to be sexy; too much bright makeup on the face and the lips to be in sync with the natural look that prevails on wall length posters in the bedrooms of adolescent boys; and it occurs to me that the garish color and frisky charm is her last gasp effort to turn back the advance of an impending womanhood. She would be rather hated for being a bad girl, than loved for being a fair woman, since the former is oblivious to the dark currents.

And yet there is just a touch of sadness. She senses that one day; maybe not in the next month or so, but certainly before she watches Dick Clark ringing in the New Year from Times Square; she is going to stare long and hard into her dressing mirror and decide not to add the color to her face. She will mumble to herself that she is only going natural for one day; just to try it out; or simply to be like all of the other girls in her senior class for a few hours. But that one day will expand into a week; that week into a month; and the dresser drawer in her bedroom that contains all of her little girl makeup will remain shut off from the vanity light until it is too late to return. 

And so she is in that beautifully vulnerable twilight; that soft gray that is remembering the day still but anticipating the night more and more; where she is neither innocent nor lost. She is in the crib; but the bars are falling away one by one, and the devil doll is chuckling anew at each and every one of her tears.

I want to keep her right here; captured in my strong arms; her left cheek melting into my timeless heart, and led into the sways and steps that only I can nurture out from her on this secret little dance floor of ours. And ours shall not be a dance to a rhythm; or a movement to a beat; but a slow and steady act of suicide in response to that one unbroken note that is haunting all of the others.

But the Negro manservant interrupts us. 

And so we follow him hand in hand around the mansion. 

And we wait in silence by the front gate, as he drives out that 1953 Rolls Royce Silver Dawn that has been scrubbed and polished no doubt for our trip to the ice cream shop in town. 

The Silver Dawn backs out from the white steeple garage and turns down the narrow lane towards the front gate as if a Bygone Era on wheels. Its vintage headlights and front wheel arches had been reminiscent of the Sunday Drives of a past generation even when it had been driven off of the assembly line. By the standard of our own day, it is anachronistic, like my Whip Inflation Now button, a desire to keep a past that never had been and to disown a future that will be.

But nostalgia is fleeting; and so by the time we settle into the backseat, I note that the manservant has outfitted the dashboard with a super eight-track cassette. And there is a pair of dice dangling stupidly from the rearview mirror.

The manservant pops in a cassette. It is the Patti Smith Group combining punk rock and spoken poetry; sort of like the William Shatner album if heard by someone on an acid trip; and the very first line slaps my red cheeks really hard:

Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.

The manservant is laughing. It is a low belly laugh; so primordial that the laugh seems to be gurgling up from beneath the dry earth and carrying snippets of the howls of hell with it; and yet at the same time as charming and childlike as the Old Man Bone voiced by Scatman Crothers in “Coonskin.” It is impossible to tell if his is the laugh of a slave or a man, and that is what is disconcerting in his happy clappy grins. It is what I fear the most in the reach of the ocean blue.

Evelyn leans into my left arm; and, for a moment, I feel as if all is right.

But then I feel that she is grooving or something to that goddamned punk piss sputtering out from the cassette. I am of a mind to smack her face crimson red, but I settle instead for a paternal pat on her knee that tells her to behave.

She leans her cheek into my broad shoulder and purrs deliciously into my ear. There is just enough goofy abandon in the gesture to offset any thought of stumbling into an illicit backseat kiss with a girl who is half my age.

She is a tease; perhaps even a temptress; but she occupies her mind in a harmless trifle, a query of whether it should be ribbons or lace, or of which boy is the fairest of them all. And so she just manages to retain her real innocence.

And yes, that is what is real. It is her innocence. 

Everything else about her is a crazed nightmare.

And that is what I am thinking, when we stroll into the ice cream shop in town, and she bends her round butt over the thick marble slab in front of me to pick out her two scoops. 

That round butt is a nightmare, I mumble under my breath.

But I guess it is not far enough beneath my breath, because Evelyn twirls around at once and searches my eyes. She is as startled as she is hopeful, a girl on the cusp, and a mad passion not to lose the specialness of this point in time.

I cast my eyes to the floor.

The Negro manservant laughs. He pats me on my shoulders, as if a coach caring for a hapless third string that has been smashed all over the pigskin field and sent to the sidelines to catch a sniffle or two of his former wits.

You have to watch out when you look at your own reflection, ‘cause it is just as likely to look back at you, he reasons.

But I am not the girl in this dance, I snap back. 

The Negro manservant laughs. Evelyn blushes.

And I step over to the thick marble slab to feign interest in the flavors of ice cream. I am fortunate that there are so many from which to choose, as I am inclined right then to disregard the other two at least until the Second Coming.

By the time I join them at the table, Evelyn has completed hers, and the Negro manservant is licking still at his vanilla cone like there is nothing sweeter under the falling sun. 

I want you to drive us to my alma mater, I blurt out. 

Gertie wants you two for supper, Master Delbert.

I imagine Evelyn and I hogtied and served on two silver platters from out of the kitchen. Both of our skins are hot and crispy. Aunty Maude is ready to do the honors, while Aunty Gertie dips into her martini and slurs her supper grace.

We have time, I reason. We all know that supper will not be served until well after dark. I want to show Evelyn here what it means to dance with a man.

The Negro manservant laughs. Evelyn takes my hand.

When the Judge His Seat Attaineth

She is breastfeeding her baby on the sofa. 

And I am in the kitchen shaking the Polaroid.

I am not sure. I just know that there is something adrift.

And I cannot shake away the photograph from earlier the same day when she is looking out into a solitary point in the sea and her baby follows her stare.

God knows that I have been trying. 

I have been shaking the still against my starched trousers; looking down, every now and then, to see if the image has disappeared back into the gray fog from which it came in the first place; hoping beyond reason that I am clutching in between my right thumb and index finger the prototype of what will be later referred to as a Reverse Polaroid. 

She does not seem to care.

She sees something in the closed eyes and suckling lips.

Whatever she sees sure must be really really important. 

And even when I offer to pour a drink, she declines.

It is not good for the milk, she says without abandoning her faked smiles.

And so I smash a bottle of bourbon against the kitchen wall.

It just seems like the right thing to do at that moment.

I finally give up on the prospect of a Reverse Polaroid.

I affix it onto the glue on the next page of the photo album. 

That also seems like the right thing to do at that moment.

And so I stumble out into the darkness. I am as smashed as if I have been on a binge, even though from what I can tell I have been as much of a failure in pouring a stiff one for myself as I have been in coaxing her to share it with me.

I hear the waves crashing up against the shoreline. 

Mark my words, my father scolds me on the afternoon that we move into our beach front home, one of these days a wave is going to knock your precious whorehouse off of its foundation of sand and smut and snap that Irish brogue of yours back to the old paddy wagon from which she crawled out on her birthday.

It is not a whorehouse, I remind him. We are married.

And if you do not watch out, he continues, you are going to be caught up into the rip tide with her. And I am not going to fish you out of the sink; no last bit of charity may you so expect from me; not when I have warned you so many times what befalls a man who hoists his own sails into the pink of the morning.

And now, as I am stumbling about the darkness, I have to admit that that cursed old man has been right. He has been right all along. Every single time he has affixed his stare into one of those blue hairs at coffee hour, and has shoved his right index finger into her flat chest, he has been right. Every single time he has nudged me into the woodshed, and has confessed that this is really going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt him, he has been right.

And, indeed, the waves have been getting closer; snaking up the beach a bit more with every passing season; and, ever since the hour she returned from the maternity ward with her baby shaded in her heart, even tapping against our master bedroom window at inappropriate times. 

I rattle the front gate and call out for my Aunty Gertie.

She is always game to share a cocktail, or two, or three.

She is indisposed this fair evening, Master Delbert, the Negro manservant responds to me from the doorway without ever wrinkling that wide smile of his.

So what about Aunty Maude? Is she available?

But he closes the door without another word.

I hail a cab. I really do not have any destination in mind. I am just happy to see any pair of headlights on the black remnant of highway snaking alongside the waves so far and wide from the last light of day.

You’re right, the cabby responds. No one travels these parts any more on account of the interstate extension they built in town. But I make the rounds in case one of the old biddies is wandering about a limey stupor. I regal them with blood tales; just a something to get their pulses moving again; how my pappy in one shot took down a branch and licked himself three officers; though naturally I fail to mention that he was with the Boers. I game the knit ninnies so well and fine that every last one of them presumes my pappy to have been Mr. Churchill himself, or at least one of his gentleman sharpshooters. And, really, there is no remaining purpose for a road like this one, but to tell blood tales to old biddies and to pocket a bit of extra charity for the song and dance.

He must presume that I have an extra shilling to share, as no sooner does he admit that the whole tale is a ruse than he proceeds to tell me of the daring exploits of his dearly beloved pappy in chivalric service to the Empress of India.

At about the time that his pappy is bedding a Zulu Princess, I notice that we are going by my alma mater. It seems the last refuge from a tale of bedlam. 

I pay the fare and snap back into the darkness. 

I climb the fence and stagger across the grounds to the gymnasium. From what I can see in the thick darkness, it is much the same as I remember, except that there is a painting of some sort on the outer concrete wall facing the area where the abandoned bleachers used to be. 

I cannot quite make out the image, except to realize that it is something far out and groovy, man. I press my face up against the image, as if I am a very learned archeologist in khaki shorts and work boots reading hieroglyphics off of the wall of a cave, but that makes it all even harder to view. 

All you need is love, a young male voice calls out from behind my back. 

I turn on my heels and groan in the glare from a flashlight. It takes me a while, before I am able to make out the handsome mustache in a work uniform approaching me from inside a black mist.

I can see that we are likely the same age; and yet, even without knowing anything about him beyond his appearance, I sense that he is a lot younger. He strolls toward me with a certain boyish earnestness. He is wide eyed; not in the manner of a confident and mature man assessing the situation before his strong flashlight to be harmless, and then relaxing his fine eyes accordingly; but in the manner of a nubile girl who has yet to learn that the snake slithering inside the grass can be dangerous. He is happy enough to believe whatever clichés may be spoon-fed to him at any given moment, or so I interpret in the sheer laziness of his gestures and unthinking affability in his smile. Even his handsome mustache does not age him, or give him any gravitas, so that it is abundantly clear to me anyway that he is one of those paper thin souls who is destined either to be the high school night watchman for the rest of his life; a pleasant neer-do-well who has a thing for flashlights and pliers whenever he is knocking up pretty teachers and prickly senior girls in the fast crowd; or the President of the United States.

I am speechless; maybe a little bit in love; though I am careful enough to tell myself that the stiff drink in my trousers has nothing to do with a perverted sexual attraction, and everything to do with the preternatural lusts of an aging man for an ageless boy. I do not want to make love to him, so much as to chew off every last bit of his flesh and to make his eternal life substitute for my own.

The night watchman is oblivious to all of this. He is just happy enough to shine his flashlight across the wall and to nudge me into taking a second look at the image. He acts as if he has a sure pride of ownership in the groovy wall art.

It is a rainbow arching over a bathtub full of soap bubbles.

And the Planet Earth is bobbing about the middle of the bathtub.

And the Fab Four are holding hands on the Planet Earth. 

And the whole image, including the rainbow, is inside of a soap bubble in outer space. And around the circumference of the soap bubble, printed in large psychedelic letters, and painted in a color that looks a lot like bubble gum pink in the disorienting flames of the flashlight, is the message: All you need is love.

If only it is that simple, I mumble. 

What are you doing here? The night watchman asks me. He never breaks his affable smile, and there is not a hint of concern or suspicion in his voice, so that he sounds as if a boy asking me if I want to play stickball with him tonight.

I am not sure, I answer. I went to school here. 

I did too. Well, I still do, in a way. I guess I always will. 

How strange. Now, granted, I cannot see you very well; but I am certain; well, about as certain as a man can be of anything really; that we are the same age and that we have never seen one another before this time. 

The night watchman shrugs. He moves the light against the outer wall in a circle-eight and seems to be well enough entertained by the repeated motion to remain at that spot for the rest of his life. 

So do you want to go inside? He asks me after a while.

You are a different kind of night watchman, I observe. 

It just seems that you are here for a reason, he offers.

I follow him to the front of the gymnasium. I watch from a safe distance, as he bends over to search for the right key in the bundle hanging from his tiny, womanish waist. I cannot put my finger on it, but I fear that something is going to happen when finally he manages to unlock the door and to turn on the light.

But nothing happens; or at least nothing that I can tell, as I stumble back to my own past with the night watchman as my affable guide.

Except that it is not the past that I had expected. They must have added a new coat of paint to the walls, or brightened the bulbs hanging from the high rafters. Regardless, it is much too white, translucent white; geometrical shapes bracketing barren landscapes; sterile modernity captured inside the tomb of an ancient pharaoh and unleashed into time after all these millennia as something eternal, yes, but eternal in its very deadness.

It is not the same, I observe.

Maybe it never is, he shrugs. I have opened this door for other old timers like yourself; a housewife who claims to be from the class of ’53; a geezer bank clerk from the class of ’35; well, maybe some others; but they all turned to me and said the same thing. It is just not the same. It is just not right. And I sort of feel sorry for them, except that for me every day is the one and only day in the history books. All you need is love, and everything else is just a toke of groovy.

I walk the perimeter. Every one of my haggard steps is an echo wailing in my head; a wretched scream from out of nowhere in particular just before they close the padded door to the coffin; an aggrieved injustice in the very fact that the wage to be born by standing still the hands of time is death; not the morbid ghost rattling his chains in the shadows; not even the flesh decaying back into a dust bowl; but the stiff drink of a white and rouge corpse that has been stuffed into his oyster white suit and has had his fingers folded over his starched waist.

I am drinking in this journey to nowhere; this fit of feet stumbling about the edges of a mausoleum, where the last traces of an adoring smile crinkling a pair of bubble gum cheeks go to be laid to rest beside wilted roses and maudlin faces forevermore and a day; and this spasm of fists beating up against trousers and shaking out the last bits of memory from a Reverse Polaroid. I need only to dangle my tongue now and then, like a snake that is too fat and lazy to snap its forked tongue back into its slimy mouth, and I am a court jester in a pointy hat dancing to the hiss and the spit from my own silver bells. And in those moments of eternity; those glimpses of time waxed and waned; I am no more than a two-step and a twirl away from looking into the face of death herself, caressing her cheekbone beside my heart, and relishing her finger bones folded into my back.

The night watchman lights something or other, and the next thing I know there is a mist of smoke swirling up into the rafters and back down to the shiny floor. It is a pungent smoke, not at all like the old ghosts that lumber out from the end of a cigarette holder at a swanky soiree, but rather like the adolescent ghosts that just jump right back up from what remains of their smashed cars on the side of the road or their opened wrists in a bathtub. They are cajoling for a stiff bong; angling to unsnap a loose brassiere; and fiddling off what remains of their new lives in eternity. And I am caught up into it, like a drunk off his gourd mate who stumbles over the slippery deck and into the syrupy soup of a rip tide beneath him. And as I breath in the pungent seaweed and soot, I sense in a soft twilight somewhere that there is just as much timelessness to be squandered in the ocean blues beyond the horizon as there is time in which to be tumbled and tossed right here. And so what else can a mate do then but step into his dance? 

The night watchman switches on the turntable. 

The melody reverberates off of the walls. It is the same tell tale heart as before; and as I two-step and twirl onto the dance floor, and lead the quivering bones that cannot but stumble into a pile of ashes but for the grace in my arms and back, I sense that there is only one captured smile; only one adorable look; only one eternity; only one death. It matters not what may prevail as the flavor in this time; whether groovy or square; whether tuning in or dropping out; it is all the same, so long as it is captured in my beautiful soul; prostrate before my golden winged throne; and drowning in the love sea with which I overwhelm it.

And so I hear the Fab Four playfully singing that all you need is love, and every now and then I catch a glimpse of the night watchman leaning against his favorite spot along the wall and smiling affably at my routine before the palace throne; but I also sense the seamless transition into the sound of a solitary rose at the very cusp of her bloom. There is a soft vibrato here; the intimation of an endless note caught in a silly quiver and an innocent blush; but, in its own way, it is just as playful as a floating soap bubble painted upon a bare concrete wall.

In the magic of moonlight,

When I sigh, “Hold me close, dear,”

Chances are you believe the stars

That fill the skies are in my eyes.

And so I turn her cheek away from my chest; and stare longingly into her eyes; and search, and search, and search again; not to rejoin the living, until in my own mind I am convinced that I have seen what is timelessly enduring in the way that she is beholding me and what must remain dead to the snares of time.

But there is something wrong.

She is fading in and out of me.

And Evelyn is simply not right.

This is a pretty song, Evelyn remarks casually.

I move her cheek back into my heart. I do not want to hear what remains to be said, no matter if it is a far deeper truth than what I have been dreaming in my eye. I do not want to hear anything at all that will deflower our moment.

Holding her close is as much to smother, as it is to protect her.

And loving her is as much to kill her, as it is to sire a new life in her. 

And so if there is moral equivalency, then I choose to love her dead.

I trace my hands up her spine and caress the back of her neck.

But you must admit, it is pretty old fashioned, she continues.

I wrap my fingers about her neck and press my thumbs into her larynx. 

She swoons crimson red, and again I drop my death grip to my sides.

Maybe we can find a record that is a bit more contemporary, she chides, resurrecting her bad girl voice. You know, something a little more naughty than nice, like The Patti Smith Group or The Ramones, or maybe even the Bee Gees. 

There is a deep belly laugh from his favorite spot along the wall. 

I cannot imagine the night watchman turning against me like that. 

Ever since that first night, I have been able to break into the gymnasium on my own; carry back a handful of records from the music department; and be the dashing suitor of the mausoleum queen. Usually, I do not even need to pick the lock. It is as if the door opens before me, and the ghosts in the high rafters float down from their shadows to turn on the bright lights and to prepare me to shine for the charming corpse of the ball. 

But even so, I still glimpse the handsome mustache and the affable smile along the wall. He is always the same; observant but nonjudgmental; relaxed in his own eternal present, but happy to assist me as necessary. And if he is not at his post, then I know that he is back in that black mist of his; maybe patrolling; maybe flashing another circle-eight on the concrete wall; but never so far as to abandon his wanderlusts to the exigency of a time well spent.

But this time it is different.

This time it is the Negro manservant. 

And that goddamn belly laugh of his has broken a spell.

I snap away from Evelyn and charge for the Negro. 

But when I arrive at the wall, he simply grabs my wrists and twists me to the hard floor. He drops his knee into my stomach to keep me on my back, and then he lowers his broad smile into my anguished breaths.

Maybe you should stick with the ice cream and cocktails, Master Delbert, the Negro manservant remarks with genuine affection. Maybe your should avoid the temptation to follow in the footsteps of your father. He was a proper bigot; he had only the best opinions; but he never knew what he was up against; and, no matter how much he tried, he could not figure out what his girl had brought back from the sea. He could not see what she had seen. And so he carried all of his dreams into the coffin he built for himself. And he thinks he has something.   

And Each Hidden Deed Arraigneth

The best thing about a slave is that he knows he has nothing; nothing the better man cannot take away from him; not even his own dark flesh and blood, the Negro manservant reflects, while assisting me up from the gymnasium floor and dabbing a bit of cold sweat off of my brow with his handkerchief. He is the Happy Negro; going about his duties; cleaning up someone else’s mess; and just happy go lucky fine that even though the times are a changing, the rip tide still is going to pull him out to sea. Now, the man who thinks he has something; just a glimpse of eternity that he is able to capture in his mind; why, he is a fool, so long as he is deluding himself; but the moment he believes his sick dreams give him a kind of moral license to strangle the blush out from someone else, he is a Mad Nigger. And there is no cure for him in the end, but a trip to the woodshed with one shot in his pistol. And so you better believe that I am going to laugh at you, boy, ‘cause it is a whole lot better than shedding a tear when I need to lay you in the earth beside your father. It is a whole lot better to snap you out of it now, than to shove you into your oyster white suit and penny loafers then. I am your last friend in the world. Even your aunty cannot look at you straight in the eyes anymore. Even your brother cannot crawl out from his own oversized head long enough to throw you a line. And even your father cannot stop scolding you from his grave. I may be no more than the Shuffling Negro; the darkie in a dark suit serving a mimosa off of a silver platter; but I see and I hear as much as the old spooks observing the world from within their shadows. But unlike the whole bunch of them, I actually care. I think that it really matters to reach out to the boy who has been swept out to the sea with me and to hold his head high, even if we are both doomed to succumb to a wave that just snaps our necks from out of nowhere. I do not know why it matters; and, frankly, I do not care to know. I am happy enough just to do my duty. And there is nothing more real; nothing in the world that is more timeless, than the chores to be done from dawn to dusk. So snap out of that damned head of yours. Embrace the chore to which you are called, no matter if yours is to be the savior or the pallbearer for the little girl.

There is nothing for me here, Evelyn comments.

She is folding her bare arms in front of her pink crop-top and shivering as uncontrollably as if she has been captured and held within the frozen mists of a meat locker. She is the blossoming rose falling back into itself; the bad girl who cannot offer anything other than a persistent whine that is more reminiscent of a terrible two than a sweet sixteen.

Maybe we should all return home for supper, the Negro manservant says, staring straight into my eyes. I think the two-stepping and the twirling are done for the night, Master Delbert. But what do I know? I am only the House Negro in a burrowed tuxedo and hand me down shoes. 

I listen for the song. It is reverberating off of the walls still, but creating a disagreeable racket that is suggesting a party of chuckling ghosts. The vibrato is now an ethereal quiver, the lingering note a wind howl in a morbid cemetery after hours, the romantic whisper a wretched wail of old resentments revisited.

This is not sanitized death. This is not the eternal stillness.

And while I cannot put a finger on it, there is something wrong with her.

And so I avoid her tired eyes and slouch toward the gymnasium door.

I look back for the night watchman. I do not see him. Maybe he is making the rounds with a flashlight in his hand and a Beatles song on his lips. Maybe he will stroll in before the next dawn and casually switch off the mausoleum lights and the turntable. Or perhaps one of the ghosts in the rafters will do it instead.

No, that is not very likely. Now, a ghost in the rafters may be able to fall effortlessly through the light; hovering as a sheet of dust inches above the floor for a while; but it will have a hard time contorting into the shape of a hand and congealing enough to be the kind of fleshy matter that can flip a switch. Maybe it is inevitable that an eternal death should be as envious of a life lived out in a mad fit of time as vice versa. Maybe there is a futility on both sides of the wall.

I am entertaining similar such thoughts, when finally we three vagabonds stumble into the foyer and turn our attentions to the prospects of a late supper with a pair of debauched and defrocked African Queens. 

But instead I find my Aunty Maude alone with an open bottle of bourbon.

She is wiggling her butt on the cushion on her side of the tiki rattan love seat in the sitting room; tapping the point end of her unlit cigarette holder into the porcelain shaft of the well endowed lamp behind her; and seeming upon an initial glance to be trapped in that twilight between a woman dancing to a beat in her own fertile mind and a prepubescent girl enduring an epileptic fit. Either way, there is just too much energy to suggest the staid melancholy of a woman well into her seventh decade. Hers is not so much time set aside with the other frilly ribbons as time perverted, the past and the future parenting a mad beast, and an untamed shrew adorned in a flapper gown and skull cap just hanging on.

As soon as I stumble onto the cushion beside her, I see that she has been able to find and to toss aside the source of her primordial chicken god dance. It is an inflamed Lucky Strike that somehow had slid into the tight space between derriere and cushion. It is a miracle of sorts that the tiki rattan is not right now a hunk a hunk of burning love and that the sitting room is not a solemn offering of myrrh and frankincense to the gods hovering about the sea. 

Aunty Maude turns to me and takes a drag from her cigarette holder; but since the lit Lucky Strike is now burning a stain in the floor, she is not ingesting anything but whatever ghosts may be occupying her at the moment. Still, she is notably relaxed by the gesture and soon the very expression of leisurely charm.

I hate Miss Maple, Aunty Maude snarls. I hate that sentimental pap smear of womanhood that she represents. She is always sneaking into the dark places; detecting whatever she determines to be the indignant excesses of a character; and then insisting that the fair ladies do something about it; and not just a silly censure, mind you, but something constructive; something that undeniably sets the tone and makes a statement. Now, I am not adverse in making a statement about this or that. After all, a tyranny of one is no more than a self-indulgence, a trifle that can excite a blush at a cocktail party or a bit of nervous laughter in the ladies’ bridge. And a tyranny of two is an exaggerated affair, a stare that is a bit too long or an embrace that is a bit too close for polite company, and as a result there may be a blush here or a downcast eye over there. But a tyranny of a blue ribbon morals committee; especially one comprised of a dozen sore blue hairs in identical red, white, and blue gowns; well, that cannot but add a nasty wrinkle or two to the best laid plans of a free and independent soul. A freedom without consequences is much to be preferred to a freedom with consequences in my most humble opinion. And so you cannot know the full extent of the rage that I felt when called to answer for the poster that I had painted for our Spirit of ’76 Sunset Soiree. We are not inclined to pry, the Morals Mistress intones. As the Daughters of the American Revolution, we are committed to artistic liberty in all her guises. But Miss Maple has brought to our attention what a fair woman cannot but interpret as an indelicacy in the details. The eleven other blue hairs cast their eyes to the floor and shuffle their sensible shoes. So what do you say? The Morals Mistress inquires. God forbid that I should glory, I reply, crossing my arms and sitting back in my chair. And so I remain silent, as Miss Maple takes to the stage and dramatically unveils my latest contribution to the arts. No doubt, you have seen my watercolor of a red, white, and blue sun rising from behind a distant horizon. And smack in the middle of the sun is a stylized 76, like in that orange ball logo for the Union 76. And in the foreground is a collection of polite and proper people standing upon the shoreline and staring into the bicentennial sun. There are married couples; children holding hands; even a cat snuggling up close to a dog. Miss Maple does not object to the bicentennial sun, nor does she object to the people and pets. Indeed, she acknowledges that there is what she calls “a Norman Rockwell sincerity” to these depictions. No, her problem is the ocean in between the people and the rising sun. In particular, she leads the eye to the crests of two waves beating into one another. Stare at the two waves, as if they are the only images in the whole of the universe, she urges. One by one, the ladies of the blue ribbon morals committee shuffle over to that poster. Miss Maple hands them each a magnifying glass. And what do you see? She asks them solemnly, when they have returned to their seats of judgment. I notice that the Morals Mistress is smirking, but the others simply shrug their shoulders and cast a confused glance at one another. Beside herself, Miss Maple taps the image on the poster and inquires: Can you not see that they form the outline of a pair of “new women” sharing an indelicate kiss? This perks their interests. One by one, the ladies of the blue ribbon morals committee shuffle back to that poster for a second look. And this time they return to their seats of judgment truly knowing that they have unveiled out from the two waves some sort of hidden message. I hold my silver tongue. They have seen what they have dreamt; really what they have offered onto the receding sea and then have imagined is an insight coming from beyond the horizon to rest in the foam beneath their feet; and therefore I shall see what I shall dream. And so I dream that Miss Maple is riddled in a rare venereal disease picked up from a pygmy chimpanzee and has lost her soft butt cream. And that is the truth that I see, no matter the fact that Miss Maple is an old maid cradled and graved in the Hampshire Heavens who has never so much as licked the hide of a Bucking Negro. And I am not going to say a word. But if I believe long and hard enough in my truth, and insist that there is really nothing else under the sun, then that truth will be able to take on a life of its own. The other ladies will intuit that there is something wrong with Miss Maple. They will not be able to put their fingers on it, except to know deep down inside that she is missing some sort of virtue or wholesomeness that the remainder of us retain in spades. She will shudder from our cold shoulders; bleat inconsolably into our deafened ears; and finally shed her own blood upon an altar that is no longer in favor with God. And the aspersion that she has cast upon me will be leveled on her a thousand fold, so that in comparison the blue ribbon morals committee is going to look upon me as a saint. It is all in what we see and choose to believe.

Aunty Maude cackles like a witch who has dunked everything but the last few strands of the blue hair of her nemesis into a cauldron. She flings her arms behind her head and smashes the open bottle of bourbon against a wall of stark lines and confused shadows. 

This outburst inspires my aunty into another round of mad laughter. 

In between her smoky coughs, she mimes lighting another Lucky Strike at the end of her cigarette holder. The make believe smoke snakes out from every one of her dried pores; wraps snugly around the porcelain shaft; and slings back to form a serpentine noose about her soft and pretty neck. 

I know that this is all in the mind. 

And yet I sense that this hissing smoke is much more of a poison than all of the unfiltered tobacco indulged by my aunty since she first laid her innocent eyes on a flapper waif in front of a Harlem nightclub. It is not the remains of an old and worn out cigarette puffing out its last bits of exhaust. It is what she has caged in her heart; the captured fangs slithering about the overgrown meadows and heavy banana leaves; and every now and then she opens the cage door just enough for the snake to snap out as many snakes and to complete the chores of the night. Indeed, hers is an eternity realized in the chores from dusk to dawn.

And so it occurs to me that Aunty Maude is not particularly playful, when she slaps the derriere of the Negro manservant or tosses a caustic word into his smiling black face. She must hate him as assuredly as she would her own mirror reflection; fearing in the back of her mind that that is all she will see when she manages to glimpse eternity passing out of view; and sensing, however vaguely, but a bit more with each passing day, that notwithstanding the blushes and the downcast eyes, she and her “new women” sisters have not been trailblazers, so much as every one else has been dead from birth. 

There is not much to be said in washing over a shoreline full of sun-dried corpses. There is not enough there to inspire a smoke and a cocktail after dusk.

It is all so very futile, I mumble. 

Yes, it is, she reflects. But it is something. Sure, that old rascal devil can torment the likes of Miss Maple in his everlasting hellfire. He knows no limits in the kind and the number of tortures that he can inflict. And he can inspire a lot more than just a nervous twitter at a cocktail party. But even if the scandalous innuendo that I stir in my cold stares and subtle nods is no more than a pinprick in comparison, it is still what I have wrought. And so I really do see what I have been willing to dream. And no one can take that away from me; not even when the last wave has receded from the shore; and time has stumbled out the front gate and bid his last adieu to our charming soiree. Such will suffice as my share of eternity; as my cigarette that never bends to its ashes; and so I am in peace.

And this is all that Evelyn wants, she continues. And who are you to deny her a vision of the Jealous God? And who are you not to capture her innocence?

Nothing Unavenged Remaineth

Aunty Maude steps out of the sitting room, and, for a brief moment, I am left alone with the hissing shades spiraling from the lamp to the ceiling and the porcelain penis by my side. There is a dead stillness about the room; a dark and brooding intimation of impotency that is suffusing everything beyond the reach of the lamplight; and yet I sense that I am caught up in something; a force that transcends the suffocating grasps of real morality and the preening pretense of false decency; and that wrests the heart from her soft amusements in eternity.

I reach once more for my side. I want to rub away the soreness; just peel it from out of my ribcage and discard it with the smoldering cigarette upon the floor; and to stagger away from the vague apprehension that I am about to give birth to something horrible, or perhaps have done so already. I want so much to capture without spoiling; to behold without altering; to know that when I am in the presence of God, even of the God who has passed around the bend and left nothing behind but a dying spark in the still air, that I am not in fact perverting the affair into an expression of my wanton lust, that I am not in fact projecting myself into what would be otherwise a sublime theophany, and that, therefore, even as the predestined wave pushes my head down into the grave beneath the sea, I am able to covet something that is not just a mirror to my own madness.

But this cannot be, I mumble, defeated and alone. There is a price to be born in capturing eternity; a cost in beholding timeless innocence; and that is a certain nagging awareness that when I manage to look into the face of God and to know that He is as much a prisoner in my mind as I am a free man in His, so I am glimpsing the eyes of a mad woman and confusing her jealousy for peace. In the end, it is all spitfire; Irish stubbornness; a blood cry from the old country; a love that cannot but be illicit; and a child that cannot but be a curse; and a sad ghost wailing in the ocean wind and spreading about time as ashes from an urn.

You never really had a choice, Aunty Maude reflects, while floating back into the sitting room and handing me the keys to the Silver Dawn. I urge you to imagine this not as a curse so much as an opportunity. Hellfire hath no fury but the sin tossed into the pit. And so it is yours to wallow; your self-indulgence, as much as punishment from on high; your creative license to craft horns on scales and white, hot embers on the ends of a pitchfork, as much as the design of hell so envisioned in the eternal mind of God. So go out into this dark night; make a scene; spoil an innocent youth; and return at dawn to indulge in another melon and mimosa with we fair ghosts and fashionable witches. 

Certainly, it is well after visiting hours, I offer as a meek protest.

My Stew is the head nurse there; the guardian of the damned; and I have a keen faith that she will oblige now as much as in the past, Aunty Maude snaps haughtily, while resuming her imaginary smoke beside the porcelain penis. 

For the first time, I feel a little sorry for Madelyn. She has been jailed as much as freed, molested as much as protected, by that stuttering she-man with the cleft chin. I sense that she has been as haunted by that ogre of a face as by that impenetrable blackness that she had encountered beneath the ocean blue.

But the moment passes, and I loathe her once more. 

Except now I loathe her, not so much because she has hurt her daughter, but because she has beaten me to the punch. There is no great moment for the wretched man when he scrapes off a chastity belt and finds his hymen torn off; nothing especially sublime; just a sense that it has been all for naught after all.

I walk heavily up the stairs and knock three times on the bedroom door.

Evelyn is a cranky girl in bunny pajamas. She has no more strength inside of her than to open the door and to smother her baby tears into my hard heart. She has no more wisdom than to know that I am her big brother, protecting her from the fits of a mad world, and delivering unto her the rest of eternal peace.

And so I take her hand into mine and drive her to the hospital. 

I only need to ask for Stew at the front desk. I am the lowly tool inside a back room somewhere; flipping a switch at an appointed time on his clock; and otherwise remaining oblivious to the gnashing of teeth in the oven on the other side of the wall. But that small gesture is enough to be snared into the currents and pushed beyond the horizon to the wide and open sea beneath a glaring sun.

I hug Evelyn, when she returns from the cell, and I wipe away her tears.

What Shall I, Frail Man, Be Pleading?

And the sea lashes her tears into the beaten heart of the shoreline just a few inches beyond our secret cove. She quivers into the raw skin; tearing apart the last sinews of veil between the salted swirls of air above and the old wound lumbering beneath; and bleeding into the crusted fissures just enough to poison the last spits of life out from the molten bloodstream. Whatever remains of the spent life of ages past; the cold and tired soil that had entombed its menagerie of dead seashells or its strand of wilted seaweed; gurgles senselessly in the soft silhouette left over from a waning moon and then hisses back into the ghosts of foam and mist from which it had been born.

And then it is all too clear; a tell tale to be read out from a stooped and graying shadow; a silent scream to be heard in the final call of a moon that had been so lush and balmy in its morose cries the past twelve hours; that life is no more than the intimation of recycled death, the fury of death wrested out from the grave and sent round the globe in the pursuit of some other nameless bit of sand and rock, and then padded back into the earth for another wave to ravish.

And so the receding wave cannot but be the wail of a defeated ghost. All that had been held together; lodged into a crack in a rock somewhere along an endless beach, or pasted into an indiscriminate bed of sand by untold centuries of salted foam; cannot but tumble back into the same old times of a yesteryear well spent. It is a nostalgic record repeated so often on the turntable as to be a bit of noise only; a melody that has lost its flavor; a beat that has no life left in it but to grind a fair wanderlust into something tepid and then altogether dead.

I cannot even shed a tear of my own anymore. I cannot really do much of anything but to burrow the back of my head into my soft arms and to count out the last few twinkles still clinging onto the heavens. 

Perhaps she is there even now; the winged Aquila soaring listlessly about the clouds until her Ganymede should condescend to take his golden cup and to queue up for the procession; no more than a flutter against the soft blush in my bubble gum cheeks playfully caressing me back into my once and future dream.

Yes, she may be the Tarazed bracing a beaten bow and pointing a way in between a pair of treacherous waves; or she may be the Altair grasping the fine and steady helm. But no matter the sheer tenacity of her service; the stubborn willfulness that is the very life of her beloved stewardship of lord and liege; as on earth so it is in the heavens that she must fade before the glare of a singular sun and fail in the pursuit of a love once intimated in a much ravished smile. In the life and the fury even on high there cannot but remain the hint of old ashes not yet absorbed into the dawn and the lingering scent of a death unrepentant.

Chances are you believe the stars

That fill the skies are in my eyes

Are in my eyes

Are in my eyes

The needle of the portable record player beside me is stuck again. 

It seems as if it has been stuck at that very spot since before time.

I roll onto my side and turn off the player. It is high time for yet another melon and mimosa with whichever queens my aunties may be impersonating on this fine and fashionable morning. It is time to chirp pleasantly and to flick silly pinkies into the bubbled air as the preferred manner of fetching my Negro from his favored haunt beside the old pantry door and the stack of floral tablecloths.

So last night had been the seventh, I comment to a gust of wind just now swooping into our secret cove. And so God rests on His soft hammock above the clouds without setting straight the crooked affair. 

I had told Evelyn about our secret cove, while driving her home from the hospital and observing the very first touches of dawn along the interstate. I had told her how to find it in the darkness of night and had assured her that I would be there waiting for her. And I would love her even unto our last step together; love the pink blush as I am wrapping my fingers about her neck; love the splash of spitfire red as I am squeezing her throat; love her purple blue set out to sea.

But seven nights have passed. And she is as if she has never been before.

Who For Me Be Interceding

Give me a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby, she snaps morosely into a mist that is swinging up from below the cliff and swatting her rouge cheeks. 

And for a brief moment she could be Greta Garbo; or if her advancement in age is etched much too clearly in the lines of her face and the tired hunch in her shoulders, then she could be the Ghost of Greta Garbo after several wasted decades haunting the locked closets and unpublished papers of the volatile Miss De Acosta; as she is sagging her high cheek into her left fist and veiling the rest of her liquid sorrows beneath a cloche hat, thick scarf, and tailored men’s coat jacket. She is so hidden inside her wardrobe as to be an intangible shade at the breakfast table beside the croquet lawn, but for the ghostly translucence in her cheeks that appears to be fading in and out of the mist as if unformed stardust.

And then there is the unlit cigarette holder dangling from her right hand. This prop ages her considerably; mostly due to that senile manner by which she moves the stem in and out of her pouty lips; and there is a troubling sense that that affectation long ago ceased to suggest the airs of sophistication and is now just another example of the muddled cluelessness of an old lady fading into her ghostly life. Long forgotten is the charm of a smoke; the scent of floral tobacco sifting in and out of a woolen scarf; the sound of a girly laugh hoarsening at the end into the barest trace of a sultry growl; now, there is nothing more than the mindless habit; the recurring gesture; and lonely eyes hallowed by lost dreams.

I sit down beside her. I light a match and hold it in front of her face, and I cannot help but dream that I am a debonair gentleman in an oyster white suit courting the last bit of life out from the dull stare of a tired and tarnished lady.

Except that for this little dream to work, she needs to charm me with an awakening smile; tip her cigarette into the light; and blow smoke into my face, or down into her own chest, or somewhere else that is much too delicious to be acknowledged near the tingled ears and colored eyelashes of a mixed company.

Instead, she does nothing; and a kiss from the mist blows out the light.

Ah, Miss Anna Christie, forever lamenting the past, I comment playfully.

But the old woman will have none of it. She stoops even more awkwardly over the breakfast table and mimes that she swigs a glass of speakeasy whiskey and wipes her snotty nose on her sleeve. She finishes her routine with a drag on her unlit cigarette holder that is at once melodramatically pitiful and hilarious.

I have not seen Evelyn in a week, I comment, hoping to close the curtain on a bit of play acting that is frankly too maudlin even for my dark sensibilities.

This seems to work, at least for a moment. The old woman sputters from her hell just enough to answer me in the strong voice and unapologetic manner that I have known all of my life. The familiarity of her sharp tongue is a kind of home for me so that, even if not intended, it softens the blow of her comment.

Evelyn is gone, Aunty Maude says. Gertie has enrolled her into the Happy Hollow School for Girls in the Hampshire Heavens. She will learn to smile for all the best families and, no doubt, indulge the fine tastes of her dorm room sister before heading off to flirt with Radical Marxism at Wellesley. But I do not worry for her. She is a manipulative bitch. She will be a Good Republican when finally she condescends to the bended knee and the diamond ring of a handsome smile with a trust fund. And, mark me, she will never allow herself to be so educated as to lose her charms. She knows all too well that the good girl never swims too far from shore and, even more so, never dips below the wave of a grasping sea.

Oh, the old proverbial pot and kettle, I chide.

I am not a hypocrite, Aunty Maude snaps back at me, after indulging one more long drag on her unlit cigarette holder. I have never been a good girl, and I suffer even now for scoffing the steady paths in favor of the twisted byways in the bush. I have no intercession; neither grace from which to climb up from my madness, nor sin from which to experience the keen joy of forgiveness; nothing really, nothing at all, but every bit of the life that I have chosen as it is playing out in my daydream; nothing but a mime; nothing but a shade swept into a sea.

Where is Aunty Gertie? I ask, while pushing myself up from the table.

But the sad jealousy returns with a vengeance, and the old woman swigs another grimy glass of speakeasy whiskey and wipes off the snot from her nose.

Who the Just are Mercy Needing?

And so I leave the old woman in the mist. 

I cross the croquet lawn and knock on the back door.

I wait for the Negro manservant to receive me with his shuffling feet just managing in time to catch up with his broad smile, but there is no flutter in the shadows that would indicate that I am about to be invited into whatever bits of a romanticized past have been captured in this fashionable mansion by the sea.

There is nothing at all, really, but a morose stillness in the air that I feel is sifting out from behind the back door and pressing down on my sandy loafers.

It is as if I am being pushed into the earth; not with the kind of dramatic and heavy-handed force that could not but be sniffled and frowned upon as the impolitic bombasts of a bore; but with the leisurely touch of a kind hostess who is happy enough to indulge me with a smile and a nod long after all of the other guests have staggered into their coats and stumbled onto the road, but who has no doubt in her own mind at least that mine will be the same fate as the others in wrinkled oyster white suits and disheveled bowties. 

I shuffle my tired feet and look back at the old woman.

I want to be alone, she pouts. I just want to be alone.

There is not enough of her in the shade and the mist for me to hold onto anything more, so that I am at once snared into the thought that she is no more to this side of the sea than an omen for me. But like all such oracles, no matter if intimated on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, or if gathered up from the spent confetti of a cocktail party that has been burped and buried, the message is as indecipherable as hieroglyphics read in the course of an acid trip. This is not to say that there is no meaning; no hearts cockled; no chests heaved a bit prouder in the anticipation of a battle to be won; but that sneaking suspicion cannot be cast aside altogether that the meaning imparted has much to do with the hopes and the biases offered. And so it is best to acknowledge the sign at the gates to hell; to grant it all the respect that it is due; and then to shrug it off with a gay skip and a bubbly sneer as no more really than a trifle along the primrose path.

I dispense with the pleasantry of an invitation and wander into the black and sordid shadows that have been awaiting me inside the mansion. I barely am able to breath in the mix of pompous stuffiness and bristling death; the very air of an innuendo that has grown so gray and stale in its repetition as to be all but useless in raising an eyebrow or blushing a cheek; that is a permanent fixture in the perfumed scent imparted by the fashionable and the fair. And yet the ghost residue feels like home to me, a semblance of eternity tingling my nose, and an apparition caught in the mind that cannot but be carried down to the old tomb.

With that dream in mind, I ascend the spiral staircase; and I knock three times upon the door to the master bedroom. It is a thick vault of a door; really, more like an impenetrable wall; and so I am surprised to be able to hear all too well the persistent rustle of silk bed sheets occasioned by a beastly belly laugh.

I knock three times again. I hear what seems like a moan in the heavens.

I knock three times again. I hear what seems like a hiss in the high grass.

Finally, the door unlatches; and I am reminded instantly of a verse that I had had to learn in Sunday school: For nothing is secret that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid that shall not be known and come abroad.

Aunty Gertie pokes out her head. Her eyes are all aflutter beneath a skin tight skull cap; and for a brief moment, I cannot decide if she is a pickled swan climbing out just now from a makeshift pool inside of her master bedroom (not so ludicrous a thought, given the extent to which the fashionably feathered will bend the rule of good taste in architecture to torture out from their abundance in walls and spaces a testament to their quirky charms), or a flapper awakening to the insight that everyone else is at least a day or two beyond Black Tuesday.

Regardless, there is a certain timelessness to her whimsical abandon just now; a way about her that is eternally infectious; and that bubble gum blush in which she is abiding nearly kicks me out from my tormented mind. I am in a fog no doubt; but I could fall in love with her, if only I could wring her sallow neck.

But then she darts her eyes away from mine.

And once more I hear that earthy belly laugh. 

And I know that Evelyn is gone forevermore. 

I push the door open; and, in the process, the door latch snags the sheen floral nightgown that has been fluttering loosely from the bony shoulders of my Aunty Gertie and tears the leisured fabric from her butterball and cream waist. It is as if I am removing a tarp at a freak show to reveal a disproportioned mess of a lady and the only right response in the eager crowd is an embarrassed sigh.

Except that I do not hear a sigh. I hear another one of those earthy belly laughs, and this time the affectation is a bit too bellicose in its tones to be cast aside as the mindless amusement of a beast. There is sentience behind the long and deep chortle; a telling mind that is rendering a judgment; and the accused cannot but be latched into a dock and slapped silly by a sequined, velvet glove.

I stop at the foot of the bed and stare at my accuser. 

He is the Negro manservant; wearing nothing, but that broad smile of his and an oyster white shirt and Mulberry plaid bowtie no doubt once swindled off of the back of a gentleman; and fondling a political button on his sweaty, black chest that reads: Keep Betty in the White House. His horse legs slither out from inside his wrinkled shirt and soil the lily white silk sheets beneath them, so that the regal bed seems as if an innocent slate that has been beaten and muddied, a scene of a crime, a dying scent from the Old Eden just a second after the act.

I snap over the foot of the bed and go for his neck. 

And for a brief spell, I can feel his erect horse penis in between my legs.

But he knocks me on the side of my head and into a porcelain penis that passes for a lamp on a bed stand. The sprouting mushroom smashes against the corner, and hot shards projecting back from the corner sprinkle into my mouth.

I stumble for his feet, but he horse kicks me into the wall.

I reach for the portion of the silk sheets that touches the floor; but he is quick to stomp his hooves onto them, so that I cannot yank them off of the bed and scamper away with them, tucked in between my legs, to God knows where and why. I am reduced to tugging a bit of silk that is just never going to budge.

Now, children, behave yourselves indoors, Aunty Gertie scolds. 

In response, the Negro manservant opens his eyes wide, like Little Black Sambo caught in a cookie jar, and compliantly raises his hooves from the top of the sheets. He crawls off of the bed and walks over to her as if he is a punished boy with an erection in hand that seems to grow heaver the more he is scolded.

I tug again at the sheets; and without the hairy hooves restraining them, they flail over me like a sudden wave. I am swept into the open sea of finer silk sheets and Valentine heart pillows splashing off of the bed and onto the carpet.

I manage to take a breath in time to see the punished boy with the crazy ass horse lips and slobbery grin strike a match against his own leather hand and light the Lucky Strike that my Aunty Gertie is dangling playfully before his face. I cannot do anything more than to tread no where in particular and to watch in sullen silence, as she responds to his service by caressing a dab of spit off of his manhood and blowing a ghost fog over the unchristened void beneath her gaze.

And yet, as if staring for the first time into a crack in eternity, I can now see her more clearly inside of the fog than otherwise. She is as if a transfigured impression in my own mind, a snapshot captured into my own time, and a spirit that cannot be snagged into the waves and carried out beyond the last horizon.

Solomon, I gasp. Your manservant is the Solomon you captured along the Haitian shoreline and shanghaied into service on The Tigress Blue.

Solomon belly laughs. He is a dancing coon floating in and out of the fog.

Aunty Gertie wraps her free hand about his erect penis, like she is about to restrain it with a collar and a spiked leash and to force it to heel at her side.  

It is just as accurate to say that he captured me, Aunty Gertie cackles.

I feel an old pain throbbing again in my ribcage. It is the same nuisance; the irascible squirm; that has been there, since before I stumbled out from bed and dared one last time to rekindle the light that had been stolen out from me.

But do not worry your little heart, Aunty Gertie comments after a while, as she brightens the room with as much innocence in her smile as the first time she had danced in her debutante ball. There is no scandal in this affair, as I am careful to pass him off as no more than the help.

But Aunty Maude knows, I mutter. And she is no more than a living ghost; haunted by what she cannot contain; aggrieved that the scandal is not her own.

The eye that stares into a sun cannot but be blind, Aunty Gertie reflects.

King of Majesty Tremendous

There is no sea inside of Mexico; nothing really that would suggest to the discerning traveler the strangely serene tumult, the cauldron restrained just on the edges enough not to spill over the shoreline, that had been carved over and through the nubile earth by a rapturous ocean. Indeed, notwithstanding a quite common impression among the Gringos that the whole of Mexico is nothing, but an extended shoreline of palapas and piña coladas, that discerning traveler can tell at once that there is nothing at all on either side of the corrupted sediment that deserves to be designated as an ocean. No matter the miles of tequila and taco stands; nor the half baked Gringos splattered senselessly across rickety old beach chairs, staring out at the distant waves, or counting the salt pebbles that drip down from the rim of their plastic margarita glasses; the indigo blue ink of salt and lime that slobbers on and then off the shoreline is more like one of the crying drunks at the all night beach party, a bit of background noise that is lost in the mix when the extra shot kicks in and the band picks up its tempo, than a primordial force of nature, or an expression of the inevitable triumph of a time not wholly captured into a black and white still. Oh sure, there are a number of sleepy sombrero beaches tickled now and then by a Caribbean cruise off course or by a sandy haired yachtsman from the Vineyard who has been lost for a time in a gale and has been offered no other refuge but his own devices, but there is not enough of a sting to the foam sloshing over the milky sand, nor enough fear and trepidation inspired by the crash of the waves against the corral reef, to be anything like a real ocean. The Gringo tucked into his hammock, and robbed of all the greenbacks stuffed inside of his leather wallet by the chica he picked up at one of the palapas, will not be tugged out from his wet dreams, nor blended and stirred into an odd concoction of a nightmare, no matter even the wax and the wane of the tide a few paces beyond his sleep. There is not enough of what he will call a consequence; nothing really that cannot be totally bribed or salsa danced out of the Book of the Dead; not enough there there to inspire anything more than another shot and a yawn; and so the discerning traveler strolling the narrow path away from the beach and into a grove of banana plants senses that there will be starry eyed moments ahead of him, each and every one as brief as the full span of his lifetime, and that in these soft escapes time can and will be stood still, snapped at the silly throat, and cast aside as a spent margarita glass somewhere beneath the languid gaze of the white bearded Father God on high.

And, anyway, San Miguel de Allende is several days and nights on a burro inland; or, since the discerning traveler is in a less romantic time, an overnight and a bribe of a grinning customs agent from the ramshackle docks at Veracruz; nestled inside the cobblestone paths and terracotta archways of the abandoned silver mine of the conquistadores and their Indian slaves; lost somewhere in the slopes of the Sierra Madres; and seemingly impervious to the encroachments of time altogether, but for the slow and steady caresses from a wind erosion that, if anything, tend to augment the very timelessness of this soft landing place for the troubled mind. There is no hustle and bustle; neither push nor pull; nothing at all really, except the occasional pickled Mexican and his burro, or the Gringo hiding out from the IRS in some sort of a makeshift art colony. For the Mexicans selling their flowers and tortillas along the side, there is only the past; a breath of memories never exhaled far enough from the lines in the face and the sweat in the brow; and for the Gringos painting their canvases in emulation of a Diego Rivera on a sick acid trip, there is no past, or at least no past that has not been recast into something altogether different by a preference for local weed and a frothy imagination; a breath of memories indeed exhaled far and wide from the loopy grins in the face and the long naps beneath the stars. Whether trapped in the past, or freed from it altogether, there is a kind of soft timelessness that is being indulged; a silly perversion of chronological time; a step and a twirl in an intoxicated brain cell somewhere that insists that the past is all there is or that the past has never been depending upon the dance music at any given moment.

And Delbert likes it this way. 

Actually, he is enough of a king in mind and in attire to insist with a fine and petulant smirk in tow that there is no alternative to this frail timelessness; no resolution but the soft dream; and no remembrance of that ghost in the sea.

He is awakened on his hammock by the soft slap of a morning breeze.

There is a lazy paternalism in the slap; no doubt similar to the gesture of authority that is imposed by a Roman Catholic Bishop onto the bare cheek of an adolescent confirmand; and a fitting reminder that the king is at once a servant of the time over which he reigns; as decadent or as devout as the mores of that time; as consequential in this case as will be proper to a time without measure.

And so with no where to go, and nothing to do, he is happy enough to be naked and still; an innocent in his birthday suit; allowing the occasional gust to sway his rooftop hammock one way or another; and entertaining only those soft and partial thoughts that may stagger across the stage in his mind with no more impetus than a kick from the breeze or a musical note or two from the Mariachi bands already tickling their instruments for the generous Gringos in the Jardín.

The thoughts are not particularly profound; nor even mildly interesting if truth be told; but there is a relaxed ease in each and every one of them; a hint of the final limbo that awaits the soul that is nurtured in her own timelessness; that allows them to go as inconspicuously as they have arrived. 

And so Delbert knows that he must water the roses later today; and he is just as aware that it will not matter really if he forsakes this quaint ritual, until some other day, or until the day after that one, or until the roses are so clearly dead as to be replaced by the homely squaw who makes the rounds every week with bouquets nestled beneath her milky breasts. 

And so Delbert knows that there may be a Christmas card waiting for him at the post office in town; and he is just as aware that if the United States Post Office delivers “snail mail,” then the Mexican Post Office delivers “drunk on his ass from tequila snail mail.” The yearly cardboard cutout of Jolly Old Saint Nick snapping his whip upon the backs of the harried reindeer; and the happy season of good tidings offered by Aunties Gertie and Maude; is as likely to be on a back of a runaway burro in the desert dune between Laredo and Monterrey as it is to be in his mailbox. He will venture for it some other day, or maybe never at all.

Ah, but this day is not like the rest, Delbert thinks. For today, I am to be visited by Margie Tallulah. She will expect me to boil a pot of Agua de Jamaica.

Delbert stumbles off of his hammock and wanders senselessly around the circumference of his rooftop. He is leasing the remains of a stand alone castle tower; an homage to the old country that had been built, and later abandoned, by one of the saggy lipped, bratwurst bellied, sweaty shingled Bavarian farmers who had scooped up haciendas that were even back then already in decay. The purchases had been near steals, since the blackguard Spaniards selling them on the market had had no time to flee the sharpened knives and the snapping jaws of the wild eyed Insurgentes. And while the Bumbling Bratwursts in lederhosens had been beefy country bumpkins, the haciendas had been a bit too rustic even by their standards; and so up went the castle towers, the battlements, and the draw bridges, even if only as facades, as testaments to a civilization soiled and squandered somewhere in the money lending rooms hidden beneath the charms of the Munich beer halls. But, of course, the veneer is never quite thick enough in the steady glare of the sun; and so the cow belled Krauts, vagabonds forever just a step and a twirl beyond their loan shark creditors back home, emerged in time as insufferably boorish as their Spanish predecessors; no, even worse from the view of the locals, since the Spaniards at least had had the fey pretenses of a romantic culture; the barest insinuation of Mediterranean charm in their style and demeanor; while the Krauts spit out their words, and perceived the fork to be no more than an instrument of war. Some of the Krauts ate their own-spiced pudding in time; but most of them married into the entrenched, local oligarchy and gradually whitened the skins of the pampered. They remade themselves in no more than a generation or two into the beguiling gentlemen cattle ranchers, and toreador patrons, as the best people before them; as much a fixture in the Mexican landscape as the Mariachi; so that, indeed, their pasts had been killed, and cast by the wayside, as if worms to be snatched by the talons of the eagle.

Delbert wanders over to his typewriter. It is the one item that he carried out from his beachfront home, when he made the decision to hoist his own sails for San Miguel de Allende on that fateful morning more than three months ago. 

It is the reason why he had had to bribe the grinning customs agent back at the ramshackle docks at Veracruz, as the other Gringos snuck past the gates.

And it is the icon of his new identity; his decision to wipe the slate clean in a land of vagabonds and dream travelers; his expression of the time captured and contained, if for no other purpose than to fashion more gentility in his life.

Delbert stares down at his typewriter, while holding his erect penis in his right hand. He is only a few lazy steps away from his hammock; protected from the Mexican sun by a makeshift canopy; and vaguely aware that in fact there is no other world beyond this little patch of his rooftop; nothing out there but the cardboard backdrop for that lily fantasy that he has chosen in which to indulge.

There is a sheet of white paper rolled into the carriage. That same sheet has been staring blankly at him, ever since he first flicked a centavo over at an Indian boy who would be willing in return to haul his treasure up to the rooftop and to assemble it in accordance with his punctilious instructions.

No matter. The inspiration will come soon enough, Delbert thinks. In the meantime, there is an identity to be mastered, a smile to be captured and then cast about as if it alone is the darling hors d’oeuvre at the fancy cocktail party. 

And then he hears tires on gravel.

It is a strange sound. There are so few automobiles in town, and virtually none of them has the horsepower to putter all the way up the steep hill beyond where Calle Correo merges into an unmarked trail of loose gravel and potholes.

The aristocratic Gringos who have been building their mansions upon the hill in the past few years are either not in residence, since they are of the mind to be with their children and grandchildren back in the States during the winter holidays, or are too enfeebled by their maturity to be seated behind the wheel.

Once in a while, one of the rich geezers will send down his Indian boy to fetch a green taxicab parked along the perimeter of the Jardín. The driver will oblige, of course, but take his sweet time to putter up Calle Correo to the trail and then to kick and to scream over the mudflats, spitting back golf balls of old and worn out gravel, and rattling the nerves of the blue hairs and stray dogs by the path. He will descend much more impressively: releasing the brakes around midway and sliding through a cloud of terracotta soot back down to the streets.

And then there is the one and only 1969 Volkswagen Bug in town. 

There are so many hippie retreads skulking about the nooks and crannies in town; trying their hands at street painting; dealing in dope; or just mumbling an undoubtedly profound observation in response to the silly lullabies repeated ad nauseam by the Ghost of Alan Ginsberg, who is renting out a flat somewhere within the dull gray matter just behind their ponytails; that it is a bit surprising frankly that there is only one 1969 Volkswagen Bug to be found. There is an old hippie van painted in so many psychedelic swirls as to inspire epileptic fits; and every now and then there is a caravan of Hare Krishnas from God knows where, which resembles a travelling circus show mired inside a groovy fog of some sort and sparkled by the sound of spirited tambourines. But there is only one Bug on the loose, and it is so often everywhere at once as to be a fine mascot of sorts.

The owner of the 1969 Volkswagen Bug is a Mr. Dickinson. 

Delbert has never met this Mr. Dickinson; but he longs to do so, since Mr. Dickinson is reputed to be the First Gringo of San Miguel de Allende; a legend in the hearts of the Mexicans; and an unofficial mediator between the aristocratic Gringos fortifying their battlements atop the hill and the surly bureaucrats who every now and then presume to enforce a building permit requirement or to set a fine for a code violation. Mr. Dickinson is the favorite friend; the consigliere; the man about town; the lifelong bachelor; and the keeper of the old and dying secrets of a timeless town. He put San Miguel de Allende on the map by helping the two major art schools qualify for tuition assistance under the G.I. Bill, thus inspiring a wave of beatnik veterans to try their hand at fine art on the dime of the American taxpayers. The hippies and the communists followed, kicking new life out from the abandoned graveyard, and haunting the ancient alleyways and ghostly gray cantinas with their variant cries for liberation and revolution. And, notwithstanding the efforts of far better men, Mr. Dickinson remains to this day a small and enigmatic figure writ large on the landscape; a man with a thickly fogged past and a retreating presence, who is nevertheless the archivist of what had been lost and the catalyst for what may be still; and a man above the others in the esteem of his adopted countrymen. And all this from behind a Bug that has no more horsepower than to trot into town and to whine into its stalls.

But the 1969 Volkswagen Bug almost never stutters this far up the hill. It is rather parked every night in a lush alcove of banana plants and bougainvillea nestled at the base of the hill not too far up from where Calle Correo ends; and at this time of the morning, it is to be heard coughing downward toward one of the art schools. Its owner is in the enviable position of not having to pay undue homage to the white gods further up the hill. If they need his intercession, or a word of two of his local wisdom, then they go to him, much like the warriors of old docking ship and travelling into Delphi to hear the oracle intended for them from before all time. And no one ever exits his lush alcove without seeming the better for it, so that there is no break in the stream of visitors brown or white.

Delbert senses that he is the only man in town not to be acquainted with Mr. Dickinson. But that is quite fine with him. Frankly, he does not want to visit with the First Gringo as the others have done; knees bent forward; Panama hat removed to reveal a bit of cold sweat on the brow and a head weighed down by its pressing concerns into a pathetic nod; and invited by nothing more formal in print or in spoken word than the general consensus that the man is open always to whomever may be the next supplicant or well wisher. 

Delbert, after all, is an important man of letters, or so he had decided in the amount of time that it had taken him to stagger out of the master bedroom and to return to his beachfront home with his dreams tucked between his legs.

And after splashing another Old Fashioned into a bowl of Cheerios beside the typewriter on his dining table, and staring blankly the rest of the day at the e.e. cummings poem swimming about his tears, he had decided that he is really not so much a Delbert as a Dexter McCall. And he is not from where he is. He is instead a celebrated man of letters from nowhere in particular; or if pressed at a cocktail party, then he is from a rustic cabin just a charming whisper north of the Golden Gate and is related by a vague but discerning scandal to either Jack London or Upton Sinclair. And he had been charmed at the Sorbonne and is just now returning from his latest whirlwind on the RMS Queen Elizabeth II where he had had a run in with a Mongol (borrowed that one from Auntie Gertie) and had managed to smuggle into the States a box of Cubans that he stores inside a safe in his private chateau hidden behind one of the walls of Hearst Castle. And, oh, did he forget to mention that he is a friend of Patti Hearst and is contributing a happy sum each and every month in support of the Free Patti Hearst Campaign?

And so when he had visited with his Auntie Maude the very next morning over melons and mimosas; or maybe he had visited instead with that despairing Ghost of Greta Garbo, he could not be sure which one at any given moment; he had asked her to retain his anonymity while making arrangements for him to be a tenant somewhere fashionable in that timeless patch of Eden of which Auntie Gertie had spoken so many moons ago. And of course Auntie Maude had agreed, if only so as to do her part in pulling the scratchy wool over the eyes of a sweet and demure blush south of the border. And she even had blown him a tired kiss as he had left the table just before his Auntie Gertie should happen to step out the back door and to see him there.

It is the one and only kiss that lingers still; captured as it is in the curved lines of his pompous sneer; or in his dreamy eye just after casting over the roof his ravished bottles of vino tinto and slurring a lullaby to the starry eyed ceiling canopied from one horizon to another and centered over his swaying hammock. 

The kiss seems to grow in its intensity; pressing into his morning lips and lathering the bristles of his nose with a strong and urgent fragrance, the kind of smack that cannot but inspire an immediate resolve to the situation at hand, or a rise to the contemplation of soft pillows and soiled bed sheets; as the restless grind of tires on gravel ascends into a fevered squeal. It is the moment when an enchanted man knows that he has but a diminishing window of opportunity now to whisk his enchantress away from the glares in the crowd and into a bedroom somewhere off stage. It is the time of action, where moral qualms are set aside only to be belabored by the befuddled in the soft whispers of the confessional. 

And so with his erect penis still in his right hand, Delbert very deftly uses his left hand to unlatch a trapdoor a few paces away from his typewriter and to descend a narrow staircase into a dark and cold dressing room. 

He does not drop his manhood, until he is forced to scramble about for a match in his tangle and to light a monastic candlestick melting into his dresser.

A ghostly pall sifts out from the dim flame and crawls into every scrap of clutter and mayhem spread about the circular room, so that the chamber is not so much lit as it is otherworldly and timeless. The effect is a kind of sedateness that snuffs out whatever bohemian life had been insinuated in a confused mess of white cloth trousers, rainbow serapes, ornamented sombreros, silver buckles in sun aged piel, black boots, and spitfire red handled bullwhips piled up to the ceiling. There is a dour grayness bleeding out from the white mannequin placed in front of the dressing mirror that, when reflected back from the old and dusty mirror, encases the chamber into the kind of grainy black and white pallor that is reminiscent of a fading photograph tucked away in an album.

Delbert is as much at home in this space as he is sleeping away the hours on his hammock or staring blankly at the typewriter. He does not need to think of what to do next, let alone remember what he had done the day prior, as the clutter will remain the same no matter how it is rearranged. He really has done more than his fair share if he fumbles his way into a pair of white cloth trousers and a white guayabera shirt. He goes an extra mile if he slips on his huaraches.

The death squeal sputters into a final cough of exhaust. There is a creak from a driver side door that frankly needs a lot more coaxing than will be found in a bottle of WD-40, and then the irate snaps of fat feet crunching loose rocks.

Delbert perfumes his hair and then ascends as Dexter McCall. 

He stands majestically at the top of the staircase that spirals around the outside of the castle tower. He is the king awaiting a greeting from his subject, and he is the courteous servant only so happy to provide those grand touches of hospitality that cannot but recall a visitor to the proprieties in the old country.

Margie Tallulah steps into view, though even if she does not it is virtually impossible to miss her. She is a heaving mess of a pear shaped womanhood that is only partially veiled by the locks of blond streaming down to her nonexistent waist from the fat folds in her scalp. She is the proverbial fat lady who must be the owner of a fine pair of Viking horns and a piercing pitch that, if ever totally unleashed, would shatter every light bulb in town. And yet there is an innocent sweetness to her cherubic face and broad smile that seems to lighten the load.

She stretches a pink crop-top and a pair of denim elephant bells flapping in the soft morning breezes over a pair of lipstick red boots. She is not so much the impending blossom as the matured rose trying to snug her open petals back into the receptacle. And yet, even while on the other side of the infinitesimally small point in time, so that she is not pressing forward into the feared spring of a womanhood predestined to be wilted, but rather pulling herself back into the relaxed autumn of a girlhood remembered to be gay, she rekindles in the white clothed king before her those despised memories of Evelyn that he had tried to bury once and for all time in the routines of his reign atop a dead castle tower.

Delbert manages to retain his assured grin, notwithstanding the inchoate images from the past bobbing about the waves in his own mind and threatening to splash into his new plans and future possibilities. 

Good morning, Mr. McCall, Margie sings, as she hoists her two flabby arm folds up and forward for a squish of a bear hug. Or as the happy campers like to say: Buenos Días. And may the Aztec sun never set on your bruised buns.

Good morning, Miss Tallulah, Delbert charms, as he is stooping his tussle of unwashed hair and pissy shoulder blades into her jolly wallop of an embrace.

Oh, your cheekbones are looking so red and juicy, Margie observes, while blushing crimson. You are doing yourself well to be hanging out in the open air.

Delbert regally sways his arm over the rooftop and steps back in order to allow his guest to join him there. 

I would not be here at all, but for your sharp shooting skills in an archaic Mexican Standoff, Delbert praises. I had figured that the landlord would oblige, since there are few takers for abandoned castle towers without electricity; but I had not figured on the mordidas to be exacted by that city planner cucaracha.

Oh, I am no more than a Gringa Real Estate Agent, she comments.

But with a kissable smile, and a knack for knowing just when to twist the sharpened knife blade, he teases. There are no more necessary skills in Mexico.

There is an uncomfortable pause, so that what remains to be said will be left unspoken. The king and his fat subject use this opportunity to shuffle about the rooftop, avoiding the eyes of the other, and cleansing the mind of its blush.

Margie squeezes the skin flabs about her thighs into an embrasure that is in between two chipped and cracked merlons. She gleams in her pleasant smile but cannot be comfortable in so tight a space. 

Delbert steps over to the makeshift kitchen that he has been building bit by bit along a portion of the circumference. He starts up the gas stove with one of the matches that had been scattered across the roof beneath his typewriter.

It turns out that he has a deft touch in mixing loose tealeaves with white miel in boiling water to stew a neither sweet nor sour Agua de Jamaica. Such is a skill lost to most Gringos, who typically err in one extreme or another and, as a result, over time give up on the nutritional tea in favor of the seductive Siren song of vino tinto inside one of the cantinas in town. 

Delbert can mix his wine and tequila as if a seasoned campesino who has tied up his burro to the post outside the cantina and is happy to drink away the rest of the afternoon sun; but, with the affable Margie Tallulah packed into one of his embrasures and quivering the folds in her chin, he is happy to offer a fine respite in the local tea. He is not sure how or why, but it is as if he would have crossed the line, and done something odious, if he uncorked one of the vinos he has stashed beneath his large pile of clothes and bullwhips in his dressing room.

You know, this is going to sound strange, but ever since I met you at the bus terminal, I have had this strange feeling that I have known you before; like, I don’t know, everything we have done together is a kind of déjà vu played out over and over again. Or maybe it is a bit more like a broken record that repeats the same note from a silly love song, Margie reflects, as she squirms her thighs.

Well, I am a celebrated writer, Delbert offers lazily. It is not uncommon, really, for a sweet girl to remember the black and whites that she has observed on the backs of international best sellers. She may catch the learned smile only once; but, like ships passing in the night, the kiss lingers in that salted fog long after the ships have docked at their separate shorelines.

Oh, how sweet, Margie swoons. But I am not much of a reader.

You could have browsed one of my books in one of the better bookstores in the States or just heard my acclaimed name whispered by the best company.

I don’t know, Margie ponders. I am not really much of a browser either.

Do not fret, Delbert offers in his best approximation of a soothing voice.

Really? She brightens, while licking her glossy lips, and wiggling in place.

Sure, Delbert responds, while turning abruptly from his stove to face his guest, and then staring through her fatty folds into the horizon behind her. This happens to me all the time. It is inescapable, since my little people love me so.

I guess that makes me an honorary little person, Margie blushes, as she is again trying to wiggle some bit of relief out from the rigid merlons on her sides.

There is nothing little about you, Delbert comments with his regal smile.

He returns to his concoction of loose tealeaves and sugars, but he cannot stop himself from wondering if indeed they may have met in his prior life. A lot of strange characters have tramped in and out of the splendid soirees hosted by his Aunty Gertie. She could have been any one of the ghosts that had been lost, and then found, and then invariably lost again, in the billows of smoke crawling out from the cigarette holders and coagulating into curtains or lampshades. She could have been one of those peculiar “new women” who did errands for Aunty Maude; a Stew with folds, instead of a cleft chin; or maybe a misfit daughter of one of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which Aunty Maude had been so gracious as to take under her broomstick. Certainly, Aunty Maude knows her, since she knew instantly to whom to place a call when making arrangements on behalf of her favorite Del. So perhaps their paths had crossed in that prior life.

Margie remains silent for a while. She senses that the acclaimed writer is lost in thought. And who is she to deny an artist whatever may inspire his work?

But when she sees that he is about ready to pour the tea, she cannot but burst out with a bit of news, like a blush sharing her secrets at a slumber party.

Yesterday, I closed escrow on La Case del Cielo. The new owner is a New York Jew; a retired moneychanger named Katz who claims to have been taught how to manipulate the floor by a Mr. Weinberg; someone of some importance it turns out; but, regardless, Katz is hosting a housewarming party; and he will be uncorking his best vintage; and I can bring a truly acclaimed writer as my date.

Delbert nods regally and condescends to give her a cup of simmered tea.

Who Dost Free Salvation Send Us

Even though it sits at the very top of the hill, and overlooks therefore all of the colonial terracotta that spreads out unevenly in every direction from the Neo-Gothic birthday cake of a cathedral known as La Parroquia, the edifice of a Toltec-Chichimec pyramidal observatory that had traced the preordained paths of the Morning Star and that had been transfigured by centuries of dry ambition and monsoon erosion into a crumbling outer wall of a mad maze of greenhouses and bird sanctuaries is all but impervious to the casual observer. The old sprawl is veiled behind so much jacaranda and interlacing bougainvillea as to be mired in a perpetual darkness; cut off by the confusion from any warm temptations in the sun; and deafened to the whispered song of the star with which it had been once the male half of a rarefied and courtly dance. It is a dead place; and, as a result, it lives on only in whatever the imagination may offer unto its surface of chipped and cracked mud bricks, not unlike the beautifully painted clay pots of simmered blood and entrails once left on the same bricks as a kind of ambrosia for the gods on high, and not unlike the Mayan hieroglyph graffiti that someone from in town spray paints onto the stucco every now and then in the erroneous, but understandable, belief that such had been plastered by the mathematicians behind the calendar. It is too crude to be Mayan; even when it had been in step with the love goddess playfully sifting in and out of its arms, it had been a poor cousin on the dance floor in comparison to the preternatural pyramids standing too handsomely and tall in the swamp marshes further south in Mesoamerica to be observed as altogether real; so that its dreamy textures and strange airs are to be attributed not so much to its architectural feats, or its historical acclaim, as to the joyfully devious minds of those who attend it. And so the same widow who had spent her share of the fortunes stolen out from the ashen hands of the Jews in building the greenhouses and bird sanctuaries over the eroding remains of esplanades and reflecting pools, and who had dedicated the final decades of her long life in trying to balance the scales by restoring a dried flower or a sick bird for every dirty shylock that her grim and ulcerous husband stuffed into the sterilized ovens, could as easily have christened her confused atonement at the top of the hill as La Casa del Ensueño as La Casa del Cielo. A passion for heaven if unrestrained by a piety cannot but inspire the lumpy gravy in the gray matter that is prone to foggy headed illusions and eschatological prophesies; really any and all manner of bringing heaven down to our low plane and of imagining that, in the here and now, we can and do see what is transcendent and timeless; and so it is rather fitting, in a way, that the eccentric Bavarian Bat should finish her years by converting what had been the holy of holies of the pyramid, that black and lonely chamber at the very center of the sprawl reserved for the cutting of throats and the burning of blood and entrails in honor of the gods, into a white, stark, and unforgiving homage to early twentieth century Bauhaus; a shivering, gasping serenade to the sterile cleanliness just before Kristallnacht; a dream of heaven restored to its imagined coldness, wrapped inside of a tomb of ravenous flowers and wild eyed birds, so that the very semblance of an eternal life found and captured may be sensed in the sheer incongruity and madness of it all. And so there cannot but be a touch of insincere banality in the nimble steps and the hushed tones of those Gringos and Mexicans alike who walk the lantern lit paths through the overgrown foliage; a vague sense that the Munich Munch, who gave her ghost back to Heidi Land when she flagellated herself just a bit too German like on the eve of her hundred and first year, had bestowed onto the rest of us, not so much a restored observatory of the heavens, as a perverted addition to a Disneyland that we each store and visit from time to time inside of our own fits of fancy; and a crazed humor that veils the horror that cannot but be slithering about a spot that is dedicated to the proposition that every man is his own god.

But Delbert is just foppish enough in his regal whites and huaraches, and is focused sufficiently on how the ghost light floating down from the lit lanterns reflects off of the clear gloss on his fingernails, as to be able to discard all such vague and discomforting insinuations off to the side. In his dapper grin, there is nothing but the conceit that the ancient funhouse into which he is strolling is in truth as it purports to be; a special place for special men like himself; and a bit of timelessness to be savored in a genteel repartee and a salted hors d’oeuvre.

Of all the possible brick and mortar pathways through the bristling waves of jacaranda and bougainvillea; each lit by the same funerary lanterns creaking languidly on a shriveled witch of a tree limb in the intermittent winter gusts off of the Sierra Madre peaks in the distance; and each seeming to wind so sloppily off course as to instill in the stooped and silent pilgrim a fear that he will never make it into the housewarming party before the stuffed goose has been served; Delbert had chosen the most treacherous and sloped. He did not seem to mind, and perhaps he had wanted the bruises on his shins and the shimmering bead of sweat atop his forehead to remind him of the very reality of what he was about to encounter. Certainly, the momentary hardships; and the resplendent ease by which he endured them; reinforced his new life as a swashbuckling man of finer appetites who could pen an international best seller while riding an elephant in the Congo and searching the horizon for his next kill. And so he made a point of quickening his steps, wherever the bricks had loosened and cracked into jagged cobblestones or the slopes had curved from a passable hill to the side of a cliff.

Margie is remarkably balanced and fast; but she heaves a stinking puddle of sweat into the front of her bubble gum pink blouse; and by the time they are making the last turn that will lead them up to the edifice, she is falling two big steps behind for every step that Delbert skips toward the finish line. She is very careful never to lose her broad smile, but her cheeks cannot but blush crimson.

Do not fail me, my chambermaid, Delbert teases.

I shall not fall, my lord and liege, Margie guffaws.

They had been wisecracking as lord and chambermaid ever since she had picked him up in front of his castle tower in her red velvet Thunderbird; once a fair and graceful bird that had absorbed just enough sweat and cigarette smoke into its velvet (no matter how much she tried, Margie could not completely kick the habit) as to descend from the clouds and to bob about the old cobblestones as a monstrous boat on wheels; and he had observed in his pinch of a smile that he felt like Agesilaus embarking under his royal crest to hear his fate at Delphi.

And who was Agesilaus? Margie had asked, while panting into her cracked windshield and wiping away a circle of mildew with the fat flab over her elbow.

The first Spartan King to lose to the Thebans, Delbert had answered. I do not know why I thought of him just now. Perhaps it is because his is the oracle I had memorized once, and it is still rattling about like a stone inside of a golden crown, unable to be dislodged without baring the regal scalp for all men to see.

Oh, how sweet, Margie had swooned, while turning the ignition.

Not so sweet for Agesilaus, Delbert had countered. 

I want to hear it, Margie had insisted nevertheless.

Oh, it has nothing to do with me. I am debauched and debonair; a nobler man more prone to be a dandy than a dramatic; a citizen of the world, without those allegiances to a banner and a song that all too often results in shed blood on dry soil; a free spirit without a conscience that is scrubbed or soiled in time.

I still want to hear it. I probably shall not understand it, but that is okay.

Sure though thy feet, proud Sparta, have a care,

A lame king’s reign may see thee trip, so beware.

Troubles unlooked for long shall vex thy shore,

And rolling time his tide of carnage pour.

I do not understand it, Margie had said after a while.

And what else is possible, but a blank set of eyes in a pig face, when the nobler man condescends to cast his pearls before swine? Something would have been amiss if you had understood, Delbert had concluded with his smirk in tow.

Margie had laughed so hard that she nearly had swerved off of the gravel and mud and into a ditch off to the side. 

And ever since then, the king and his chambermaid had been performing their roles well enough to make the long trek up the rest of the hill seem to fly by unnoticed and later to lighten the sting of the loosed bricks upon their shins.

Really, do not fail me, my chambermaid, Delbert repeats.

I am a faithful servant, even unto the end, Margie laughs.

Delbert lifts his chin, and rests his hands on his hips, until Margie heaves and hiccups up to his side. He takes her warm hand into his the rest of the way. 

Even when they reach the edifice, it takes a while for them to discover a sliver of a door. It is more like a crack in between two columns of eroded bricks and loosened mortar that had been inflicted by the snap of a whip from on high centuries ago, than yet another rectangle chiseled by the hands of men. It is so inconspicuous as to be altogether unnoticed; leaving the host forever unvisited; but for a sign above the crack that the widow must have commissioned prior to her last date with her cat o’ nine tails. It is in Heidi Land script and reads here:

Ist das Tor klein und Enge ist die Weise.

Can you translate it? Margie asks, while wiping away her stink bomb of a sweat pond and coughing up something that looks like a dead fat cat in phlegm.

It is Matthew 7:14, Delbert replies.

Oh, you are so smart, Margie says.

And you are so large, Delbert says.

Margie waddles over to the crack, but cannot even poke her head into it.

She reaches in with her right arm, but only manages to tear her blouse.

I guess you are a bit too big for salvation, Delbert teases.

Ah, there is always a way around that, a gravelly voice says above them.

A small, bald, elderly man in an immaculate Armani double-breasted suit jacket, bombastic Ferragamo tie, and black and white goomba shoes is standing six feet above them on the narrow top of the edifice. He is not at all handsome with his squished face, squinty eyes, and hooked nose; a caricature crawling on his hands and knees out from the weathered pages of Der Stürmer, and donning the silk and the suede of a Mafioso to finish off his transfiguration into a smarty pants Wall Street Wise Guy; but there is a snappy twinkle in his wink that is the rage at any soiree; the soft and slippery rough and tumble of a good time in the company of a beguiling knave; and that alone makes him the kind of gentleman to whom no man minds losing his wallet, and no woman minds losing her pussy, so long as the Borscht Belt puns are fast and furious in the meantime.

Oh, Mr. Katz, it is so good to see you, Margie gushes.

And I cannot help but see you, Katz snaps back with a twinkle. 

Margie giggles. She is a pre-pubescent girl with a crimson blush.

Delbert smiles. He is a gentleman who already hates this Jew. 

Stand up here, Katz charms, while holding out his arms.

I could never manage to get up there, Margie responds.

But you must, Katz snaps. I need a full moon for my guests tonight.

Hardy Har Har, Delbert chuckles himself into the conversation.

I am not talking to you, Katz growls. 

Well, Uncle Milty, I thought that you were reading my mind enough to be stealing my jokes, Delbert snaps with his even broader grin pasted over his lips.

No, Katz responds. I am just sniffing the old leather before tossing it into the cloakroom with the other purses. I love the smell of mildew in the evening.

Snap. Crackle. Pop. Delbert spits, while concealing barely his hostility.

You should not talk about your sex life in mixed company, Katz snaps.

Oh, you boys are so delicious, Margie gushes. I could eat you both.

Seems like you already have, Katz beats Delbert to the punch line.

An Indian boy clenching a sharpened knife in his teeth, and a long Crow’s Nest stare in his one good eye, walks gingerly along the top of the edifice to his master and unfurls a rope ladder over the side. He measures up Margie with the subtle wink in his eye, and he ties down the ladder enough to sustain every last one of her flabby folds. He nods wide eyed at his old captain, when he is ready.

I told you, Katz says to Margie. We Borscht Belt Buccaneers always find a way around those SEC starched shirts. We just drown their pastrami in mustard, and call it a gift from the old country. Every man truly loves his own taste best.

I do not understand, Margie laughs.

We call it serving up white bread on rye, Katz explains. 

Delbert stews. He remembers his Know Nothing verse from his childhood and actually wishes that his father could be here to go straight for the Old Jew, like a pit bull unleashed from inside its own tomb. 

Your shiksa friend does not know how to keep her frown right side down, Katz says to Margie, while gesturing offensively at the smile that Delbert keeps.

Oh, Mr. Katz, you do not understand, Margie blushes crimson.

Oh, please, help me to understand, Katz teases.

Well, this time my date is a man, Margie offers.

Delbert does a double take at the fat goldilocks snuggling into his chest.

Not from where I stand, Katz laughs so hard he nearly falls off his ledge.

And he is an international man of letters, Margie continues.

Oh, sure, there is nothing Victorian and prissy about that, Katz snickers.

You seem to have a knack for words yourself, Delbert snaps.

Katz thinks for a moment, before glaring down at his foppish enemy with the kind of snarl that can pierce through soft veils and mangle beautiful hearts.

I have a knack for chewing fairies and spitting them out into the sad mud pots that they have dug for themselves, Katz snaps. Words are only accessories.

How dare you suggest that I am any less of a man, Delbert hisses prissily.

I learned long ago that it is best to judge a book by its cover, Katz offers with just a tinge of reminiscence in his otherwise gruff and gravelly voice. I did not make my millions by digging into the pages of every man that I happened to see scurrying about the floor below me. And in your attire and gestures; all the delicate cares with which you have attended to your appearance; I see a simple limp wrist that pens silly love letters; tears to be shed, and handkerchiefs to be sodden, when your “words of art,” as no doubt you prefer them to be so called, are read out loud by the soft lights of a Victorian funeral hall. Yours is womanly nonsense indulged behind black veils and wallowed in creaky old confessionals. 

Young man, I would listen to Mr. Katz, a tipsy granny voice remarks.

Delbert swings around to behold a bubbled grand dame draped in an old flower dress and buried beneath a sloppy sombrero. She is fondling the stem of an empty martini glass that has yet to be baptized in a libation; but apparently she does not need to sip any fallen spirit to be intoxicated by her own excess in charm. She could have been any one of the ghosts floating in and out of the fog of smoke at home; a guest with a scandalous past and a song still to sing who is hovering all night beside the toxic punch bowl; and it is that déjà vu that, more than anything else, momentarily slaps his winsome smile into a confused frown.

Mr. Katz had been a protégé of Sidney Winklemeyer, Granny continues.

Do you mean the late father of our Oscar Winklemeyer? Margie blushes.

Sidney Weinberg, Katz corrects them, as if the Voice of God Incarnate.

Granny hobbles around and looks up at her friend, Katz. She blows him a wayward geyser of a kiss; an arthritic gesture ending in a silly laugh that almost stumbles her brittle bones back to the earth from which they came; and he has enough salt in him still to catch her kiss in midair and to cherish it by his heart.

Mr. Katz met with Mr. Adams personally, Margie whispers to Delbert. The story goes that he persuaded Mr. Adams to accept the vicuña overcoat and then hand delivered a note of thanks to Mr. Goldfine in the rear of an unmarked car.

Delbert turns away from Margie and observes Granny hobble through the crack in the edifice. Apparently, Granny is a card-carrying member of the elect and in good standing with the heavenly host on high.

Delbert looks through the crack. There is so much cigarette smoke inside the esplanade that the guests already assembled in there resemble ghosts of an idyllic past; soft flutters of fabric and tilted chins; polite whispers floating here or there, harmlessly enough, until congealed into a bird chirp of a laugh; ladies in long pearls and cloche hats lost, dabbled and ditzy, but for the fine forearms on which they hang for dear life. It is all a comfortable confusion; highlighted a step and a twirl by the greenhouses and bird cages; the floral vines snaking into the buffet lines through the many cracks in the greenhouse windows; the bright plumes on artificial tree limbs or miniature swings singing agitatedly in reaction to the disruption of their nocturnal sleep; so that taken as a whole it is as if the ocean blue trapped inside of four walls and beheld by the eye of a jealous god.

I have seen your face before this moment, Katz observes.

I said the same thing, Margie gushes.

I am a prolific author, Delbert offers.

How could I not have observed your face? Katz asks rhetorically with that wicked spark rekindling in his eye. Yours is as common as a showroom in Levitz.

And on that note Delbert spins on his huaraches and storms down the hill to the car. He observes Margie waddle up the rope ladder from a safe distance.

Fount of Pity, Then Befriend Us

I assure you that the soiree just fizzled without you there, Margie insists.

Delbert looks up from his hammock. He is caressing the slender neck of a dead vino tinto with one hand, as he is trying to find a cock or something inside of his unzipped pajama bottoms with his other hand. He is a snarl of a man just waiting for a wrong word to smash his bottle against the old brick beneath him.

Are you sure? Delbert manages to ask through the pouty drool on his lips.

No one could pop a bubble the entire night, Margie continues drunkenly.

Not even pop a bubble, Delbert repeats and stares blankly into the stars.

Pop. Pop. Pop a bubble, Margie sings and collapses into a fit of laughter.

Well, it seems that you managed to uncork a bubble, Delbert comments.

Margie loses her balance. She leans back against one of the merlons.

I mean, what’s there to drink? Delbert asks. What’s going to prickle your tongue, when the international best seller of our time is sitting back in the car, and no one who remains could pen a snappy sonnet, or even a half assed haiku?

Even the Mariachi could not carry a tune, Margie offers between hiccups.

Not even carry a goddamn tune; Delbert laments into a blur of long dead stars still twinkling in the midnight sky.

And there were chunks in the foie gras enchiladas, Margie offers with her fat slob whinny of a chuckle that climaxes into an upchucking of slithering snot.

Delbert moans. He gives up on finding a cock or something, and lends his free hand to the task of caressing the last kink out from the rigor mortis bottle.

I bet you that cursed Jew managed to enjoy himself; Delbert sniffles.

Margie slides down the side of the merlon and lands on her flab derriere.

She is confused for a while, but then recalls a tasty tidbit from the fog.

Oh, Mr. Katz insisted again that he knew you, Margie prattles. And I said; you would have been really proud of me; I said: Of course, his face has been on the backs of international best sellers at every airport check stand between the unmarked strips in the Ozarks and the unpaved trails in Old Kathmandu. And he squinted into my better eye and asked: How can you be so sure? Can you name just one book that he has written? I had to admit that I could not. And he took me aside and asked: How are you so sure that he is not a two-bit slicker in a pair of stolen huaraches who is dining out on a song and a dance? And I said in a huff: Why that’s the kettle calling the pot black, or the pot calling the kettle white, or something of the sort. But Mr. Katz would not relent. He insisted with a snarl and a dose of bad breath that he could tell always who was hiding cards and who was playing fair. And he could trust the guys who are hiding cards; but the guys who are playing fair always turn out to be trouble. That smiling friend of yours is no author, Mr. Katz said. I would bet my beautiful tomb here that he has never penned so much as a Hallmark card. But he is as fair in his silly game as a nigger in a white suit is in his; too obvious to be much of a cheat; standing out a bit too much in the crowd to be anything other than what he really is. His is the kind of limp wrist that cannot but flap so broadly in the soft breeze as to land on every blushing cheek before the night is done. Every girl can see him in the distance, but not a one of them can manage to avoid the snaps of his palm. I could trust him; perhaps even like him, in a way; if he remained hidden in the smoke, like every other guest who is careful about when to withhold his tongue and when to chuckle at a punch line; but your friend insists on standing astride, keeping the waves of smoke at bay, and capturing the rest of us from within his dead and timeless eyes. I spent my career standing over the floor and watching the hustlers play their games. I resent any one else trying to join me up there. I cannot understand all that you are saying, I said at last. But I agree that his is a familiar face. Too familiar, he repeated; and, indeed, that was the final breath I heard from his lips until he nodded his abrupt goodbyes to each and every one of us at the very end. But I could not shake what he had said: Too familiar. And then it hit me; as soon as I saw your eyes wide open in the front seat of my car.

Margie crawls over to the hammock. She rests her left cheek on his chest and, because of the sway of the hammock, slides into a dance beside his heart.

Delbert caresses the bottle beside her head. He could smash the glass on the fat scalp hidden beneath her goldilocks jungle, but the mess of stinky blood and brain parts would be much too unseemly for his little corner of civilization.

As much as Margie is in love with the very softness of this moment, she is enough of a prepubescent schoolgirl that she simply cannot contain her insights until the last dip in the dance. She lifts her head up from his chest and blushes.

I have known you before this time; Margie swoons.

Like I said, I am an international best seller….

No, Margie interrupts. You are not. Your actual name is Delbert; Delbert, Delbert Something or Other; I must confess that I do not know you all that well; but Maude is a dear friend of mine; she tapped on just the right doors for me to become a Real Estate Agent; and she invited me to view her extended relations as if they are my very own. And so over the years I made a point of learning the names with the faces; assembling the puzzle pieces in my mind; and developing a family lore in place of the sad and inchoate memories from my real childhood pains. And so for many years I thought of you as a distant cousin or brother; the familial bond forever there in a formal sense; but the intimacy not yet there on account of our age difference and the fact that we had never shared more than a polite nod at one or two of her soirees. I do not understand why you desire to be Dexter McCall. Maybe you are indulging a silly game to pass this time. Maybe you are replacing your own set of sad and inchoate memories with a brand new photo album of your own choosing. But ever since it hit me earlier tonight, I do not have any choice but to know you; and, I must say it, to love you; as Delbert Something or Other; my beloved Delbert Something or Other; and my phantasm cousin or brother at once and forevermore in the flesh. Oh, you need not worry if you want to be Dexter McCall to every one else. I am not going to deny a man his fantasies. But, please, I beg of you now, be Delbert to me, if to no one else. 

Delbert wraps a death grip about the neck of his bottle. He resembles an incensed boa constrictor; squeezing the last bits of life out from the weak point in the glass; and reacting more from fear than from any passion for retribution. As a result, he is not so much inflicting violence as he is releasing whatever life may be dug out from beneath his leathery pores; contorting his polite face into something like a snake leveled by a tire; and rattling his teeth into a death cry.

Margie recoils from the horror. She has no mind but to cry out like a girl.

Spare me, Delbert hisses. Spare me from the water’s edge.

Margie crawls back to that merlon from which she had slid.

Delbert smashes the bottle against the brick beneath his hammock. 

Margie snaps out of her girl cry and flees down the spiral staircase.

And the rest passes by as if the entire world; or at least this little corner of visceral despair overlooking the prolonged snore of high, gothic churches and ramshackle terracotta; has been snagged into a nightmare. There is time; or at least a hurried chronology of events that suggests a passage from an inchoately anxious present into a brooding ink pond of stifled hopes and drowned promises that in another time might have been more optimistically called a future; but it is a time so departed from our normal frame of reference as to be no more real or quantifiable than a maturing sense of dread. There are guttural feelings; the unthinking, primordial life of act and reaction; but there is no longer that hope that might give a life a clear purpose, or at the very least unleash that capacity in the mind to see a certain reassuring predictability in human behaviors and in natural phenomena; so that there is nothing, but madness exposed at the edges to the wild screams and rattling chuckles of an unearthly discontent. There are only star cast shadows; lusters bereft of their power to instill romantic illusions behind crimson blushes; and so nothing but the darkness of the universe totally and forever entombed in the prattling heart of the fat lady waddling to her car.

It is a darkness that feels like the skeletal remains of a hand wrapping its phalanges about the heart and squeezing the blood and the tissue into the hard and unforgiving grip of its metacarpals. It is a pain to make the fat lady scream viciously, if only she had the breaths to do so. But as she cannot so indulge that pain, there is no release from its mind numbing intensity and enveloping terror.

By the time the fat lady stumbles into her car, and releases the break, it is the skeletal remains of a hand attached to a wrist joint. And as she stabs the key into the ignition, it is a wrist joint attached to a radius and an ulna. And as she starts to go down the hill, it is a skeletal arm and hand pushing out through her chest and wrapping its phalanges about her fatty throat and phlegm vomits.

And then she is unskinned bone in a Thunderbird upside down in a ditch.

Think, Kind Jesus, My Salvation

There is a scar in every room; a strange and discomforting blemish in the wall paint that is hidden behind a framed painting; or a crack through a marble floor tile that is veiled beneath an heirloom rug from the old country; or maybe a fixture that disrupts the feng shui just enough to sour a cocktail or to mumble the punch line of a well crafted joke. Regardless, it is the memory of what that scar rekindles, instead of the odd dimensions of the scar itself, that more often than not bristles the upturned nose or blushes the pouty cheek. There may be a memory of an overpaid general contractor cutting corners; or of a sullied brawl in the seventh year itch; or of a guest making such an ass of himself as to knock over something that chips something else. It is the slip and the fall that lives on as a snicker in the inner ear; a chide that cannot but remind us that we are not really able to bury the past, no matter the thickness of an Oriental spread over a marble crack, nor the tautness of the nails holding up a framed painting; and, try as we may to focus on what is beautiful and serene about the room, an ugly gasp of air at the end of the chide that insinuates that there is something living still inside the closed casket; a past not yet willing to release its claws from our present; a scar that will be there, when someday the Oriental is rolled up to be sold at an estate sale, or an earthquake loosens the nails behind the framed art work. The scar will be there, as if it has been there in all times and thus cannot be otherwise; a corpse in an open casket, where for whatever reason the top of the casket cannot be lowered, so that the waxen fellow in his smoking jacket is a permanent eyesore in our present now and in our presents yet to be indulged.

But no matter the futility of covering a scar, we try nonetheless with the lace and the strings that we have at hand; so much hope directed towards what is so soft and frail, as if by the sheer tenacity of our will the razor thin fabric or foamy fluff that is hiding the scar can manage to do so forevermore; and as the lace and the strings in time fail to oblige, so much anger directed towards what is so soft and frail, as if by the sheer tenacity of our cry the razor thin fabric or foamy fluff that no longer hides the scar may be imagined to have been worthy of our trust with which to begin. Misplaced hope; bloated anger: each providing a wistful tonic to a mind that is otherwise unable to avoid those damnable, old scars all about us, and each finally as futile as the lace and the strings to which those emotions had been directed; so that when we are forced to stare straight into the scar unveiled; sometime just beyond the dip in the horizon, when hope and anger are no longer able to be conjured out from the compressed sand and smashed seashells at the bottom of the sea; we shall realize that we have been nothing, but fools; happy clappy coons in stolen oyster white suits and Mulberry plaid bowties; when we have considered that our past is as dead as it is buried.

But that is a dreadful thought, Delbert mumbles, as he watches the little Indian boy fill his dressing room to its ceiling with the thrift market clothes and accessories that he has been buying in town ever since his first hours in Mexico.

And so when the boy is done stacking the treasures, Delbert reaches into his pocket and flips him another fifty centavo to shove the huge dressing mirror over a trapdoor that he had shut and padlocked as soon as he had signed a year lease on the castle tower but that had remained an eyesore for him ever since.

The trapdoor is not cut irregularly into the brick floor. Its square surface has not been stained, and its iron handle has been neither dented nor rusted by the ravages to be expected in the passage of a few centuries. In fact, if given a chance to look down upon it, an impartial observer would be likely to view it as the only handsome feature in a circular room that is otherwise craggy and gray.

But that impartial observer would have no inkling of the sordid memories buried beneath the trapdoor. He would have no idea that, if he were to unlatch the lock, and to bear the skin tingling creak of the hinges, and then to stoop his shoulders onto the damp and rat infested staircase that spirals downward along the inner tower wall (and that runs opposite the path of that spiral staircase on the outer tower wall, so that if ever the tower walls were to disappear the two staircases together would be as if a double helix slithering out from a blood red earth beneath a soupy foundation of cracked and chipped stones), he would not have any choice but to descend into that murky dungeon that rests upon a dark and odious pool of ink and to glimpse the sad boy that skulks about down there. 

And when that impartial observer had glimpsed the sad boy, he would be inclined to think that he had seen a ghost; a shadow from the past sifting in the ink soot that drapes over everything inside the dungeon like a greasy blanket; a strange form imagined or caught; the mind cannot tell which; in the sprinkle of ink soot that floats in the yellow vomit of sunlight that sneaks into the dungeon through a vent; and certainly not a living and a breathing eight year old clad in no more than a nightshirt and a pair of slippers. Or if for a moment he did think that the boy might be alive, then he would be certain to disabuse himself of all of the spine tingling fears; all of the discomforting moral questions; that would go along with such a horrid thought by shrugging it off as an illusion clawed out from the darkness or the dampness that swamps over everything in what can be described only as the guttural refuse of the castle tower. He would tell himself that certain mysteries are best unchallenged; permitted to linger in that corner of the mind that indulges in ugly fairy tales and moonlit superstitions; accorded no more acknowledgment than is necessary for those mysteries to feed on fears unmentionable and to percolate every now and then in an inexplicable break of sweat or a sudden palpitation in the heart; so that at best they are a vague and unsettled background for that despair that creeps onto the shore like a stalking wave whenever a cuckoo clock tick tocks too repetitiously in the dead of night.

And so sanguine enough in the conclusion that what he has glimpsed just cannot be; and that the world cannot be as bad a place as our fear may cry out on such occasions as these; that impartial observer will turn on his heels and go back up the spiral staircase. He will tell himself that he is a fine man indeed to remain so smug in his reason, in spite of the fear that continues to tingle out of the pores in his skin and the sweat in his brow. And if his conscience whispers a bit too loudly in his ear still, then he will insist that he did not witness an exact replica of a master bedroom (not being that much familiar with his host, he has no way of knowing that it is not an exact replica of any master bedroom, but of the master bedroom in the beachfront home at that gray hour that she gave up her ghost). And he will erase the sad eyes pleading back at him from the grave.

By the time that impartial observer returns to the dressing room, he will not remember much at all about his short trip to the nether world, except for a vague sense that it is a step off of the primrose path not worth repeating really when there is so much more charm elsewhere beneath the Aztec Sun. Maybe he will acknowledge it as a notch on his belt; an experience that is not retained by the memory but that has added some sort of deeper wisdom to his step; but he will be much more likely to urge his host to clean out the black refuse someday soon; as if crouching into a love affair with a suppository that clears the bowels of old discontents and undigested fish; so that there can be even more space to entertain the best people and to pen fair verses in praise of the meddling stars.

But no matter the drink shared afterwards; the rumors peddled in return for no more than an arched eyebrow or a winsome smile; the fear will linger on the edges just enough to eye the watch and to refuse the second cocktail. All is lovely, but there is that other party to attend, or that errand to be run in town before too late; and so it is timely really to offer an adieu with a tip of the hat.

The problem with fear is that it is a fog on the high seas. It robs the ship that is passing through of her colors; and even of much of her formidable shape and size; so that the partially veiled is no more to the eye than a dead and gray thing that creaks over the waves and lumbers along in the direction of no other dock than its final grave somewhere; an intimation of ghosts, she is; or a subtle shift in the mind that loses as soon as it has captured. Fear shrouds whatever it happens to snare into an odd and then downright creepy unreality; a wind wisp of disparate forms and vague premonitions that is pieced together by that mind that has been divorced from reason and given free reign to court once more all of the dark and sordid fantasies of youth. And in the cold sweat and salty tears; the blanket pulled up over the eyes; the prayers mumbled over dry lips; what is born in the phantasm takes on a much more visceral life than the soft flesh and the warm blood that predominate the sunlight hours. And like the fog spreading over the high seas, there is no limit in space or in time beyond which this brand new life can no more tread. It is there; down there; in the dungeon drowning in ink soot; no matter the distance and the time removed from the sad little eyes.

And so the boy in the dungeon is real. He cannot be otherwise, when the king resplendent in his regal whiteness is so tortured by the haunting scar; that which tingles the skin and deepens the breath, until there is an annoying itch in the bowels somewhere that cannot be subdued by fingers and cream; he is very conscious of how he must pay the Indian boy to cover it with his dressing mirror and dip into those sauces that will snatch his sordid memories of it and squeeze them out with the rest of the refuse tinkled into a bush. He cannot but be real, when the king is a slave to those measures intended to fog him out of all times.

There are no toys for the boy in the dungeon; no diversions carved out of wood or centered on wheels and pulled by a string with which he can lose scant traces of time here or there; nothing, really, but a magical clock of sorts in the sick light that snakes through the vent in ten hour spurts, recoils before a black veil of ink soot and nightmares, and returns at the ballsy crow of a red rooster.

And he has her satin sheets. They are the very same sheets into which he had snuggled beside her strained corpse, when Father O’Byrne had been paid in an icy cold handshake at the front door and sent off to do what had to be done.

And he has her urn on the bed stand. He had been told once that there is a little bit of her still inside; an ash hill not carried with the sea gusts back to a shire stout in the old country; a loyal remnant not unlike the ink soot that skips about the black lung air in the dungeon; a few dust particles ordained by a rich flame and a lifetime of unshed tears into something that is not quite dead; that intimation of what may be a resurrection contained in the cracks and the ridges of the carved wood; so that she is as alive as she had been when he had slurred out from his sleep just long enough to follow her gaze out to sea; as alive really as she ever could be; in dead fire sprinkles staining the tabernacle in the black.

But while such may sprinkle fertile seed to the imagination, they provide no sustenance to the pangs in the stomach. The boy in the dungeon is meant to die, after all, and so there is nothing in his reach to salivate his lips or to caress his tongue; no respite for the dull pain; no release from the certainty of a bloat in the bowels that will sink into a tired spit of gas and a stumble to the silence.

No salvation, but in the hand of the Indian boy poking through the vent.

And neither food nor water, but whatever that little scrappy hand shoves through the vent just as that red rooster is lifting its wattle into the purple hint of day to chide a beaten sun into crawling up from its dark and lonesome tomb.

To be sure, there is a relief from hunger and thirst; a visceral drive to be alive that is satiated for another twenty-four hours; but that feeling alone does not account for the unfettered joy in which the boy wallows; the expressions of an unearthly love that cannot be understood, but which are so compelling as to be a living entity in their own right; the only force that can tug the satin sheets down from the bleary eyes and lift the warm head up from the pillow. No, even as joy is sensed, its origins are not sensual. It is far too satisfying a gift; far too suggestive of some sort of higher goodness; to be lumped into the same red box of goodies as the finer tastes of refried beans wrapped in tortillas in a clay pot.

One night, when the boy had been squirming in his aching hunger so long that he had lost the strength and the will to crawl out from his satin sheets and to pee into the barren flower pot beside the vent, he had rolled onto his side in order to face in the direction of where he knew the urn to be. He could not see her. He could not even see the urn through the splotches of ink soot dripping in and out of surreal shapes on the razor thin surface of a make believe window in front of his bloodshot eyes. But he just knewthat she was there; forever beside him; cradling him in her arms by the sea; and looking back at him with that soft and innocent smile that says: Yes, time is able to be stopped, and the monsters from across the reach held at bay, and the stars forever rendered into harmless trifles; lights in the sky casting no more shadows, and tugging no more waves in and out from timeless shorelines. And all of this from just a smile captured in a black and white; a bit of bubble gum that tears asunder even the impenetrable blackness in an aqua blue; and a prepubescent flight of fancy willed to be true.

Of course, he does not know what any of this means. He is no more than eight years old in the sun; and maybe four and a half in the nightmares that are the rage after dark; but he has been swimming in these wanderlusts since even before he had been conceived and is by now well versed in the song and dance.

He just knows that such echoes from the past mean that she is near him.

And that is all that matters to a boy who is frightened and alone.

And so there is someone to whom he may pray for food and water.

The next morning, he is startled out from his nightmares by a red rooster crow and a chicken scratch kind of sound. He looks down from his bed to see an odd hand; so malnourished as to be skeletal bone veiled thinly by an indigenous caramel skin tone; and yet so lithe in its movements as to suggest a boy not far removed from his lily age; shoving a clay pot of tortillas and a cup of hot water through the vent. The hand does not linger, and he is too raptured in a moment of answered prayer to cry out to whomever is on the other end of the hand; but even at that tender age he knows that words fail joy and are often best unsaid.

And so what is joy, but simply to be heard?

And so what is love, but simply to be near?

But, in the end, the moment does not last. It fades like a Polaroid that is exposed to the sun too long, so that by the time he is done devouring the beans and tortillas, and drowning in the cup of hot water, there is no more felt inside the bowels than an immediate satiation of hunger; a respite in between endless campaigns over a no man’s land nowhere that will matter; and a vague sense in the back of his tired mind; indulged as he is licking the remnants off of the clay pot; that there is no choice but to crawl into his satin sheets and to despair the curse that has consigned him to the gloom on the other banks of the River Styx.

Despair is the flip side of joy. 

And each intensifies the other.

And so there is nothing but time measured; the snake light giving way to the nightmares, and then returning with the half crazed cockle doodle doo; the joy of an answered prayer switching with no more at play than a fairy sleight of mind into the despair of an abandonment. This time is so much repeated; as far as the rest of the world that stretches somewhere beyond the torn vent screen; and as near as the ink soot splotches masquerading as sad boys and devil horns; that this inexplicable marriage of opposites kindles a death grip in the thin and sallow throat; a fear expressed as a Victorian melodrama, or in snapping a bead of sweat, one bit drop at a time, from the shimmering brow to the satin sheets. 

The impartial observer very well may glimpse this fear in the sad eyes in the dungeon; and that observation may be the immediate motivation for him to turn on his heels and to start the lifelong task of trying to convince himself that what he had experienced down there is no more real; and has no greater moral implications; than the illusions in a fun house. But what he cannot see, because he is much too self-absorbed to consider any possibility except in how such may affect him, is that the sad eyes are not so much imparting as reflecting the fear that is everywhere. It is its own life; incarnate in whatever happens to be dying or dead beneath the blanket of ink soot; awakened in the nightmares; napping, but never in a deep sleep, in the spurt of joy that occasions the gift of the food and the water; even tracing the wan face of that impartial observer, so that his scared shitless grin and frantic eyes will live on in the pitch black shadows; like features standing out on the face of a coal miner slowly crawling out from what will be in time his everlasting tomb; and be as much a torment to the boy as his sad eyes had been to that impartial observer. It is what is timeless in a place of time so much repeated; in a twilight between light and dark; in a gray that has no more sting of clammy coldness in it than to intimate death, but never empty the bowels completely, nor wrest the heart from its palpitation to its final rest.

And this fear is more than timeless. 

It is personal. It has the boy in mind.

And its jaws snap. And its bones rattle.

And it sings to him from inside the urn:

Ezekiel cried, Dem Dry Bones!

Ezekiel cried, Dem Dry Bones!

Ezekiel cried, Dem Dry Bones!

Oh, hear the word of the Lord.

And so there is no choice for him, but to hide under his satin sheets, and to tremble. And there is no one to whom to pray, as no one is spared that verse from inside the urn. There is only a raw fear that has been stripped to its bone.

Caused Thy Wondrous Incarnation

Fear incarnate ends in the kind of mind numbing terror that is suggestive of death; or at least of what we not yet retired souls are much inclined to think of death; a blanket veiling everything into an absolute existential darkness that is tied down by iced chains; a burning coldness that seeps through the fabric to sear the skin and to deaden the nerves; so that the old pain is indistinguishable from the new release from pain; the struggle to breath from the collapse of the lungs; the sensation of the void from the fantasy of eternal peace. And so when the two sides of the coin; God and Caesar; life and death; come together in the last conscious moment, the dying man is left with no other awareness; not even a synapse somewhere in the old gray matter; but that his last second in the sea is much the same as his first. He has not been losing his life. He has been dead, outfitted in an oyster white suit and a Mulberry plaid bowtie, and warmed over by a cocktail or two, fancying that he is alive. And so the last shall be first, and the first shall be last; buried together at the bottom of the seas; and collapsing into the same green scum from which the plankton feed in the primordial pond.

And so that is fear incarnate: an ironic chuckle from out of the hard jaws of a decomposed skeleton face; an acerbic comment from a spine that has long since lost its larynx; a downcast cheekbone that can no longer blush; and a play for wry forgiveness by a dame in a dress who is beyond the reach of absolution.

And so if that is how fear incarnate ends, then should we be surprised if it begins in a song; a playful verse meant to bring a smile to the face of a child; and a simple enough tune that cannot but dull the child to the fate before him?

The red rooster cries. The Indian boy shoves in the food and the water.

But this time the boy awakens to the little girl voice inside the urn.

The toe bone connected to the heel bone,

The heel bone connected to the foot bone,

The foot bone connected to the leg bone,

The leg bone connected to the knee bone,

The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,

The thigh bone connected to the back bone,

The back bone connected to the neck bone,

The neck bone connected to the head bone,

Oh, hear the word of the Lord.

The boy smiles broadly. He is accustomed to awakening into joy; and so, as if a trained monkey in a zoo cage, he responds as he has been conditioned to experience anything that happens at the break of dawn. This is his one moment of joy; his prayer answered; and so the song cannot but be part of that rapture.

Except that there is something strangely menacing about that voice.

It is a little girl voice. But it is a little girl who has been weathered; even beaten down to the bone; by so many years of wicked excess as to be the witch in every nightmare; an innocence flayed of its charms, so that what is left is an antsy petulance; a whine declining into a wail; and a pout glaring into violence.

There is the sound of knuckles cracking.

There is the sound of fingers collapsing like falling dominoes.

And there is the chicken scratch like in the first meal.

Except that now the scratches are mad claws into the dungeon floor.

And the mad claws are followed immediately by a sliding sound.

The boy rolls onto his side. His broad smile has collapsed into the kind of tense frown that will be etched into his own skull if not alleviated by whatever happens next. And he is swimming in the icy cold sweat that is bleeding in long and erratic streaks down from his twisted brow; a hyperventilating panic stroke more than the smooth gesture that normally propels the body through the seas; so that as that sweat drips over the tip of the nose and into the flaring nostrils, he is caught into that suffocation fear that is always the precursor of drowning.

He stares into the gray light that is no more at this morning hour than an inebriated garden snake sliding nowhere in particular; a lazy insinuation of day, not sufficiently removed from the clutches of night to quicken the heart and to stir the head from its beaten pillow, but just enough to throw an unforeseeable curve ball into an otherwise totally predictable nightmare; perhaps in the form of a skeleton jester dancing on the side of a primrose path; perhaps in the form of a whistling field of roses transfiguring into eerily silent stem and bulb shaped bones captured in a black and white negative; or perhaps in the form of a dead and decayed bone hand jostling about the ends of a radius and an ulna, but yet firm enough in the metacarpals to allow for the phalanges to grip a clay pot full of refried bean tortillas and to slide it back into the vent from which it came. 

And it takes no more than a subtle shift in the garden snake light for one more discombobulating image to be tossed into the waking nightmare: a second bone hand, jostling at the ends of another radius and another ulna, and clawing like fingernails on a chalkboard over the dungeon floor, until it finds the cup of hot water and slides it toward the vent. The shaky bone hand splashes over half of the scalding water onto its own radius and ulna; but since there are no nerve tissues to be inflamed, the bone arm never wavers in pulling back the treasure.

The vent screen flaps back into the wall.

There is the sound of grinding metal from the other side; or perhaps it is a pair of bones chattering; but, regardless, the sound culminates into the raspy and deranged chuckle of some sort of a bone rattling witch in the lost shadows; a cackle from the damned; and a chide that cannot but snatch the throat spine of the sad little boy who hears it and snap in two his power to scream holy hell.

And then there is silence.

And the boy is consumed by his own hunger.

The hunger is an animal; a prickly and bony beast bobbing about the acid in his bowels, and stabbing the lining of his stomach and intestines; brandishing its flayed jaws to rupture a spray of blood out from whatever arteries and veins it happens into which to bump, so that it may suck out the last vestiges of color from the skin of the boy and leave nothing, but a clammy, albino white wrap in between the ink soot air and the bleeding tissues and shrinking muscles; and, in every bit of acid reflux, clawing into the esophageal lining, so that it may climb up the throat as the final act of its reign of carnage, and rattle off of the dried, blue lips in the last discharge of vomit. 

The boy is a shriveled remain on his bed; clutching his stomach; stabbing and scratching the lining of his clamped eyelids with his bulging pupils; and the pain notwithstanding, devoting what little is left of his conscious mind to a half crazed prayer; a non-verbalized plea that that monster may be ripped out from his own innards and discarded somewhere else; and a pathetic cry that she love him from inside the cracks and the ridges of the old urn beside his satin sheets.

And then there is the distant sound of tires crunching gravel, and an ugly exhaust pipe wheezing out its sad fumes, approaching from the base of the hill.

This snaps the boy from his terror; and he rolls off of his bed, and crawls over to the vent screen, in order to watch whatever passes by his creepy home.

But this time the automobile parks on the other side of his vent. 

He has a clear shot of the exhaust pipe; and, when he strains his eyes up and over, and coughs away that sick fart floating in from that rusted anus, he is just able to make out the rear emblem. It is a red velvet Thunderbird with skin bare tires, and its owner is a woman who waddles about on fat and stinky feet.

He has smelled those feet before. They belong to a fatso who leaves her calling card for the man upstairs; the man whose regal voice seldom penetrates the dungeon, but whose past thoughts fill every shadow of the master bedroom and the boy hidden away in this ink soot nightmare of a pit; and the man whose unacknowledged fear is setting a trap for any one who may get too near to him.

Perhaps it is a disorienting glare from the morning sun warming his face; or perhaps it is a projection from that sordid dream life that is forever bubbling through his pores and catching his breath; but, regardless, this time the waddle is different. It is not the normal syrupy slog over the earth, the languid airs of a wholly undisciplined slob, so much as a precarious teeter on a pair of bone thin stilts. It is as if the tibia and the fibula are sucking the blood and fat away from the sausage meat that is encasing them, and the famished tarsals are munching so rapaciously on the feet flabs as to disrobe the metatarsals and the phalanges of the gunk that had made them seem more substantial than brittle spider legs.

And so the fear is feasting off of the fatso. 

And his hunger will be satiated in her flesh.

Leave Me Not to Reprobation

The boy cups his good ear against the wall. He listens for bony footsteps; stilted skeleton feet waddling up the spiral staircase; and ossified chips, mixing into the loose rock on the steps, and crackling into the morning breezes. But he only hears his own heart beating restlessly; a mad thump, thump, thump within his inner ear; ascending in its intensity with every passing second, like an alarm clock from hell that does not ring, but rather shakes the entire master bedroom into a bleary eyed shambles, until it is acknowledged by the vomit of a scream.

He steps over to the door that had been chiseled some centuries ago into the circular wall of the dungeon. He is very careful not to open it, even though the padlock on the outside handle had rusted into a few tattered shreds of iron long ago, and an occasional gust streaming through the vent screen will creak it open and shut. He has glimpsed an ascending staircase; but he has felt a terror; a visceral passion to claw away his skin and to snap his bones; that is more real than the narrow steps spiraling up to the crazed squeals of wet rats in shadows.

And so he cups his good ear and listens for the man upstairs and his fatso friend. He manages to pick out a muffled something or other; bits and pieces of her prattle, but almost nothing of his fine voice; amidst the rat screams and an ominous ghost wail of a wind snaking through the pores and down the staircase.

Returning to the vent screen after a while, he waits for her to waddle on her cracked and chipped stilts back to her bloated wings on wheels. He dreams that the exhaust pipe is able to suck in every bit of flesh that gets too near and that the muffler is able to stifle the blood screams of every new victim, so that no one else knows that the stolen flesh is transfigured into the very best Union 76 sludge this side of the Rio Grande. There is nothing left behind but splatters of crushed skeletons; brittle bone strings that look a lot like mozzarella cheese; and snowflake chips that are billowed by icy gusts, like pebbles in tumbleweed.

He snaps out of his dream, when he hears a bone crackle onto the gravel and leave behind ossified chips in the earth. It is not so much the grind of bone into gravel that snags his ear, as the sound of bone falling away with each step.

The fatso is waddling back to her red velvet Thunderbird. 

She pauses for a moment before that skin bare rear tire that is closest to the vent; maybe jiggling for her car keys in one of the pockets of her skin tight, denim elephant bells; or maybe wiggling in a bone chilling gust that slides from out of nowhere all of a sudden. He cannot tell and really does not care to know what is stopping her right there, as he is fixated on the flesh eating bones; loud bone shivers, as the very last traces of the sallow skins that had been stretched around her calves and feet are being sucked into the marrow; and refuse blood and tissue fanning away from the skeletal woman as if crinkled specks of feces.

Or so he imagines from out of that portion of his mind that blends terror with fascination; that rubbernecks when passing a particularly gruesome scene, and then scrawls an unwholesome grin of thanksgiving to the lips of those living on to eye another setting sun; really, the creepy residue from the horrible bout for survival in a primordial pond scum, as a plankton somehow comes to realize that its life will be prolonged because the dried up fecal matter beside it is not ever again going to be in a position to feed off of the very same algae. This is a base portion of the mind; an unsympathetic bent that glowers through the vent from behind a pair of dead animal eyes; but it is the only wellspring of the kind of craven and devious imagination that is viscerally real for a boy in a dungeon.

If the fear is eating her flesh, then it is not eating his.

And so he is left with nothing more than a dull hunger.

And even that dies, as she is crumbling back into dust.

The boy does not move from his spot near the vent. He is transfixed by a strange bit of eternity of his own devise; a place where the sun is neither rising nor setting, but imprisoned at a high noon that is as dark and foreboding to the mind as the blackest midnight; a shadow behind which a boy in a nightshirt and a pair of slippers may lay on his stomach, and wait for fear to feast on her own.

And so he watches in silence, when the red velvet Thunderbird returns in a time of its own to pick up the man upstairs. And he never stirs as paper-thin chicken bones help the man upstairs stumble out from her car and return to his roof. And he never sighs as ossified dust settles in a car upside down in a ditch.

Faint and Weary, Thou Hast Sought Me

Delbert massages the wet bristles above his lip.

He sighs; a soft and womanly exhale that seems to bubble in and out of a cranky morning dew caressing his face; an inaudibly faint pout that is caught up by a veiled kiss of a breeze; so that he feels at once charmed by a new day and yet afflicted in his sour misgivings of what is before him. Charmed, but sour: an admittedly strange brew in the hearts of those men for whom there is a kind of Pavlov’s Dog emotional reaction to a particular stimulus; a predictability in the heart that is defiant of the capacity of the mind to entertain contradictions, so that what stimulates joy in fact is joyful, and what stimulates a creeping horror in fact is horrible, and never the two will dance together; but, of course, there is no such divide in the heart of an artist, or at least of an artist par excellence who is as untroubled by his own troublesomeness as the fashionable Mr. McCall.

And so he follows his waifish sigh with a more melodramatic huff; a loud and intemperate tsk-tsk; and a twitch of his nose that appears to say that there is as much in this brief moment to inspire a beautiful ode to arms, or a snarling relish in a prissy pout of a love verse, as there is in the belabored thoughts, and tired head scratches, of a more meager talent. His is really an overflowing gush of flair and fop; a mad water spring of abilities unfathomed; when the capacity of every other man who may don the breastplate of a writer, let alone a Man of Letters, is at most a tinkle in the weeds; a mark soon enough to evaporate into the next prevailing wind of fashion; lost, finally, as is the fate of every fad; and remembered as even less than the little that it had been to the world. Yes, it is true, his is really too much for any one man; but then what is the final task of a great man, but to endure in his greatness, to wallow in his tragic conceits, and to withhold his fey tears from those lesser men for whom even his most fleeting of sorrows cannot but be a pearl cast before swine? And why must the beautiful man be sullied, or even sniffled by his own bristles, when his is the life of men?

Delbert reaches for a hand held vanity mirror beneath his hammock.

His mustache is not yet a Hemingway.

It is more like a baby faced Fitzgerald after a three day bender in a soap and bubble bath with Zelda during which he has not been very much inclined to lift a sharpened razor blade to his lip. It is a prickle blackened by a spit of dew.

Delbert rests the mirror on his chest. He flutters his eyelashes and knows what it must feel like to be Blanche Dubois; so misunderstood; and so much the charming belle who will not keep herself alone, not even for a pretty romance.

He squirms on his hammock and knocks over a dead or a dying vino tinto with which he had been in the throes of love the past night. It does not explode into trillions of glass stars. It does not even crack or chip. At most, it rolls lazily over to the one of the merlons and leaks a trace of pussy red on the damp brick floor, so that it is not a leveled spirit, so much as a soon forgotten miscarriage.

He is of a mind to return to his old dream; something along the lines of a silky and nude e.e. cummings in a lotus position, contained within a blossoming calla lily, and resplendent in the joy of a guttural Om that is as disjointed in its ethereal tones as one of his confused vomits of a verse; and to let the cold dew clean up the silly baby stain that is seeping out from the limp ghost of a bottle.

But, then, he hears a motor coughing its way up the hill, and a set of old tires squealing in labor beneath a suffocating shawl of gravelly ooze on the hill; a collection of sounds and stirrings in the air with which he has been unfamiliar this close to his castle tower, since that black hour that Margie abandoned him, and soon discovered that she had no more purpose than to be a flayed fatso for whatever ugly critters may be found scampering about the bottom of the ditch.

Curiosity may kill the cat, but not before it totally charms the triple coat off of the pampered pussy and springs the lazy dew off of its groomed whiskers.

And so, leaving the dream at bay, Delbert leaves his hammock; stretches his arms and his chest beside his dormant typewriter; and stumbles over to one of his merlons. He leans over the edge just enough to observe a green taxi from in town, kicking mud back at a burro along the side of the road, and continuing on a path that cannot but pass beside his castle tower. It is probably on its way to fetch one of the sickly blue hairs holed up in her mansion further up the hill.

Except that it is not. It stops at his staircase and releases a pretty chica.

Delbert steps into the embrasure to his right. His is a nimble move; more reminiscent of a ballet dancer stepping forward to take the point that has been reserved for him at the center of the stage; flaring his chest to dare the cranky gusts that are swirling pebbles up from the mud path along the hill; and curling the tips of his fingers upon the merlon on each side in the manner of a demure, but bold, swan beating back gravity to ascend into its brief skip over the water.

He looks down upon his guest to see that she has covered her mouth and has darted her eyes away from his. He can make out the barest hints of a blush upon her cheeks; a crimson hue to her caramel skin that lightens her beauty, so that for a tender moment she is a withering rose from a grassy knoll beyond the horizon; the kind of soft and delicate vulnerability that is as foreign to the bold colors and the sacrificed hearts that bubble up from beneath the surface of the Sleepy Sombrero and his Devil Smile of an Indian Sidekick as he is; the fair soul, lost in her own timelessness, as he is in his, and forced by circumstance to bear the sights and the smells of the occasional heathen: the ape face that is hidden behind the tinted windshield of the green taxi; the mustached pumpkin head in a sweaty sombrero drooping beside his burro further down the hill; the stooped and veiled wrinkle of a lady even further down the hill counting the bean beads on her rosary, but nodding her head into the stream of rhythms that cannot but be a holdover from a series of beast screams in a pagan fire dance. And, graced soul that she is, she bears the indignities with that civilized humility, even to a point of donning the caramel skin and the charcoal monkey hair in the womb of her mother so as not to offend the local sensibilities, so that she may delight in her own eternity as inconspicuously as possible; never showing off the contrasts from which the locals cannot but be reminded that they are ugly to the eye and lost to the past; and yet keeping close to her own heart the beauty that is hers; pondering in an innocent blush and a downcast eye how her meadow awaits the rain from on high to cradle a prince sired in the spirit rush; and reserving a look and an upturned hand for her fair king, and a swoon to reign happily ever after.

And all of this is in a resurrecting of a cock that had been left for dead.

Delbert looks down at his smiling mushroom and stumbles for a fig leaf.

There are no plants yet in his paradise, so stooping behind the merlon to his right, and beating back with a slap the sudden onset of a blush, will suffice for a long and awkward pause that cannot but arise from the ashes of decorum.

Hello, Mr. McCall, the chica manages to call out from behind her crimson caramel embarrassment. I have been looking forward to seeing you for a while.

She clasps her mouth once more and looks away. 

She is an educated chica; probably from one of the good families, toiling away their leisure still in one of the very few haciendas not to be debauched by time and sold to a Nazi Widow or a Jew Banker, and in between their very kind, but subdued, soirees in their Spanish courtyards remembering to pack their fine daughters and sons off to the Ivy League or to the Sorbonne for debutante balls and finishing schools; her command of English, and even more so the blush that is bleeding through her fingers over her mouth, attesting to this finer pedigree.

There is a hint of an accent; but it is so soft and demure; no more than a lilt in the voice and a flutter in the eyelashes by a swan, which is so beautifully fair in deportment as to be incapable of a tan at a spring picnic; that it is really not proper to imagine that it is of local origin. The sweaty mustaches lumbering out from beneath old and battered sombreros; the veiled abuelas mumbling old incantations into their prayers, while clutching feverishly to their rosary beads; did not sire an accent so kind to the civilized ear. Surely, it is foreign, but what matters is that it is from someplace else; an old country floating about a smoky soft shadow at a polite soiree back home; a fleeting gesture; even the innocent smile captured once and forever in the secret cove; that is as lost and as lonely in this last gasp of timelessness south of the border as a kinder tongue must be.

Delbert pokes his head up from behind the merlon. 

You are forgiven the indecency of the hour, he imparts unto her, as if his episcopal blessing from on high. But I require a bit more than a crosier in hand, before we may presume to enjoy a fine pot of Agua de Jamaica in lieu of a hard boiled egg. A white cope will do. Oh, and a pleasant smile of which thankfully I am blessed with plenty in store for just the very occasion of an uninvited guest.

I am not uninvited, the chica protests. But, of course, I can return later.

Bury the thought, Delbert responds magnanimously. I am of a mind to sit for my morning tea, and I can think of no lovelier company with whom to pass a singing bird or two than yours. I beg only a moment to be delightful or discrete.

Really, I am not wanting in leisure. I can return later.

But your driver has left you, Delbert pleads, as he eyes the green taxi on its way back down the hill. And I would hate to imagine you walking all the way back into town with no more burly friends in hand than your womanly thoughts.

She folds her fingers before her waist; shifts on her heels; and looks at a pebble between her big toes. She resembles a novice standing in shame in front of her Mother Superior; offering no word, but a retreating tear; and communing in no more grace than is necessary for a meek acceptance of the sins cloistered beneath her family crest and her charms. If anything, then this adds to her soft allure, since it suggests the vulnerability of a ghost, sifting in and out of a wind and harboring no more hope than to be buried inside the eyes of her Confessor.

Delbert takes advantage of her awkward silence to urge her up his spiral staircase with an even more appealing tone. He even manages the trace of that smile that he had promised; a childish twitch at the ends of his lips; a frivolous escape from his pomp and pretense born out from a vague sense that she is his; there before him, finally, like an incarnation from a wistful dream that had not been entertained consciously for a long time, but that had been persisting ever since as a dull tug in the heart, or as a discomforting rush in his sitting breaths, a feeling that could never be read until she should happen to stand before him.

And so with no further thoughts of adieu, Delbert steps away from his fig leaf and stumbles down to his dressing room. His is a girly giddiness barely held in check and, thankfully, unnoticed by the dream fairy ascending the staircase.

He climbs back onto the roof in his normal attire of white cloth trousers, white guayabera shirt, and huaraches, except that this time he weighs down his thin shoulders with an oyster white cope stolen out from a closet in the sacristy of an abandoned church on the hill. He looks like a skinny Elvis awakening from a bender and yet bearing just enough of his saucy swaggers to remain The King.

She sees him from the top of the spiral staircase and bursts into a laugh.

His smile tenses momentarily, but he knocks his displeasures aside with a broad wave of his right hand and an exaggerated bow. He is the king of his own lair, or so he reminds himself, and able to afford that sublime indifference to a careless and unintended slight that is the indelible sign of his invisible coronet, the herald of his majesty, and the unspoken humility that makes this man more fair in his countenance and dear to an eye than even his whiteness can suggest.

You said that I had invited you? Delbert asks, after finishing his fine bow.

The chica is reminded of the unexpectedness of her arrival, and her silly laughter seamlessly transitions into the nervous twitches of a bubbly schoolgirl.

Yes, well, in a manner of speaking, she responds haltingly.

And in what manner then am I so honored? Delbert smiles.

I want to try my hand at the arts; she explains from that cold gust inside of her soul that is most vulnerable; most likely to be frozen solid, if her private disconsolation in prayer, her plea for a sun that is not expected ever to be seen again arising from beneath the earth, is not somehow, miraculously, soon heard from on high and answered; and most likely to open her heart to the convincing promises and compelling charades of a chicken thin Elvis grinning in his whites.

She pauses to invite Delbert to speak, but he simply continues to smile.

Actually, I have been sculpting since I could crawl, she continues in a sad and teary-eyed rush. Well, not really sculpting, at least nothing recognizable to any one else; more like the frantic wood carving and chipping that buys an hour in return for a few minutes; a reason to latch a bedroom door; or to steal away to the basement, when there is a much bigger project in mind. But, ever since; or well in the last year; I have not had the freedom so much as to toil on a stick of firewood. And so I have been finding reasons to go into town; and even to be spending a few minutes longer than I should staring at the bulletin board within the post office. And that is where I found your unique advertisement; so totally different in how it is worded, that I had to read it twice to make sure that I did not misread it; and so, for me anyway, more like an invitation than a classified.

Delbert had forgotten the advertisement that he had typed out in one of his stupors. It is the only actual manuscript that he has finished up to this hour. 

He had not intended to write it. He had been preoccupied in the work of a literary genius: drowning his pathos in endless cases of vino tinto and, as that elusive temptress of a Muse might so water his bloodshot eyes and bloat his red cherry cheekbones, smashing his beaten nose into this or that letter, or even at times into the cold space bar, on his typewriter keyboard. He had even slurred a few drunken ballads in a far corner of his mind; sad sniffles about a flabby fat fish baited and tossed to the slimy sole of a boat only to realize in its little fish brain that the boat on which it is about to die is itself floating aimlessly over an endless sea; and had imagined that the letters and spaces spread unevenly over the white sheet in his carriage translated the ballads in a manner as artistically innovative as they are unreadable. And he even had heard a rapturous applause somewhere, especially as a breeze might whistle through cracked wind bottles.

But then one morning he had taken leave to steal a handful of eggs from a chicken coop closer to the bottom of the hill; a ramshackle of wood and wires operated by Mr. Dickinson for the feeding of the poor in town; and had been all but lost in a deliciously delightful ditty whistling through his wine red lips when suddenly he cocked his head to one side and caught a glimpse of that ditch into which his fat friend had eaten her last tortillas. Even if he had strolled casually over to the edge, and had leaned over to take a look without disrupting his fine little tune, he would not have been able to observe the red velvet Thunderbird in the rat squealing shadows veiled by a waterfall of hanging bougainvillea. The death trap would have remained as much a menacing shift along the borders of his nightmares from bright pinks to lukewarm grays, as a tangible incident in an exact place and time not yet able to be towed away by the silly frito bomberos in town. Nothing would have shifted in his mind enough to wipe away his smirk.

Or so he had thought, as he had continued to stroll down the hill.

But the conscience is a creepy stalker; a misfit of a boy with a bad comb over and an unwashed stench that cannot but guarantee that his affections will remain unrequited; that when ignored, or intentionally discarded, has a kind of free reign to sneak back up to the surface at the least expected moment. It is a slip up, or a twist, that causes a willful man to stumble away from his treasure.

And so by the time he had started back up the hill with a number of eggs cupped in his hands, and with chicken feathers swimming in his damp hair from all of the beaked beasts that he had had to kick into the wires so as to grab the booty, he had determined to lay aside his canvas of letters and to pen instead a plea to a cold and callous universe not known for its empathy for a broken soul.

Hard boiling one of the eggs, and finishing it off with a steamy cup of his favorite Agua de Jamaica, Delbert had slumped before his typewriter; set aside his literary madness for a moment; and typed out a verse worthy of a Hallmark:

When you wish upon a star, so far, so very, very far

And all you can see is a bar, or maybe a smoke with no tar

Then try something new, like a Matzo Ball in an old stew

Take a piece of wood, and chisel away the half assed dew

Till you have a mermaid swimming in a sea of aqua blue

I have a rooftop art studio, a set of tools, and a hard wood

You are a young girl ready to free herself from her hood

And I shall type my international best sellers beside you

As you chisel and chip away whatever obstructs your view

And our hours in silence shall suggest what is timeless

Till we no longer heed whatever may be rhyme-less

He had forgotten to type his name, address, and driving directions, so he had had to scribble that information with a dripping pen below his verse before he had thumbtacked it to the bulletin board. He had stared at the ink smears a while, before sensing that they had added artistic novelty to his advertisement.

And by the time he had returned to his lair, and had finished off another vino tinto, he had lost whatever starry eyed sensibilities had inspired the verse.

All of this floods back into his mind in the twinkle of his insipid grin; and he is left with no other recourse than to see her as a ghost; really, to squint his eye in such a manner as to see through her polite pedigree and foreign bearings and even unto that horizon behind her; and to love what he can capture in her.

On the Cross of Suffering Bought Me

There is a swoon weeping and whining into discontents; rattling off from a starving limb those last few withered leaves that had managed to remain as if corpses swaying from nooses and overseeing the winter march from behind long unblinking bulges; and showering onto a cold and unforgiving earth those twigs, damp and diseased from months of breaths spiraling out from the ghosts hidden in the bark and the bramble, that do not puncture whatever on which they fall, so much as splat and foam; a black pus oozing away from where the death rains are sprinkling down from the limb, and then hardening into those wood pebbles that season the gusts slithering along the gravelly mud. It is the swoon of a bird lamenting its own hungers; romancing the last of the grains to fall out from the shrieks by which they are bundled and into its pleading beak and snapping eyes before too long; and then, when there is no life bumbling in and out of the sour chill that is whispering its funerary hymn into what little consciousness exists in a stooped and shriveled tree limb, imagining the textures of a grain sliding into its giblets and coughing up just enough life to sustain its old swoon cry into one more gray morning. But, really, it is not the swoon of a bird, so much as the cry of pain from a tree that is being chipped and chiseled into a late winter sludge, and that is revealing no form, no image as graceful to an eye as a mermaid in a drop from an ocean spray, but rather a vague impression from an old nightmare that had been buried beneath the bark of a tree once presumed to be timeless.

And so even the wrists nailed to the cross; writhing enough to snap away the sinews of flesh between bone and skin, and then at once slumping into that eternal, gray pall; are chipped and chiseled back to the bone by an unrelenting time; a company of grizzled centurions in bloodied plume marching in lock step from the horrors of a past engagement to the vague unease of a future peace, and each soldier chipping away at the bits of the gray meat that are clinging to the wrists with a tired thrust from the tip of his spear; so that even on the once and for all time cross, the corpse cannot but stumble forward, smashing what is left of its skin about its skeletal face into the rocks at the base, if there cannot be sensed even a trace of the pity that compels the living to bury the dead and to shut off the cave of a rich man from which memories of the dead may slither out just before the third dawn to linger with the living. But even there; deep in the tomb; where the corpse is left in the stillness of the one death incapable of resurrection; the death that is being forgotten; time passes still; an unrelenting series of chips and chisels, until even the brittle bone is lost bit by bit into mud primordial and ink soot flakes in the unmoved air. And then even that cave falls from the ravages of time into itself; its last wall stumbling to the earth with no more push needed than that creepy howl that sneaks into an otherwise tranquil breeze every now and then; so that the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice as it is once given for all time is a solitary bone chip, twinkling in the sunlight that passes over the hill of sand and rock into which it will be lodged until the sun is red and bloated enough to swallow up what may remain of an Old Planet Earth.

And all that time is captured in the song of a bird; the disconsolate notes wailing out from an emaciated beak; sore riddled slabs of keratin, that seem as if hardened grains of mildew snapping stupidly into the wind; the lonesome, old pangs of hunger barely able to be concealed in the wretched beauty of the bird song melodies; so that there is nothing but raw pain; bone rattling aches, when the last of the soft feathers have been plucked and then the skin beneath them dried and stripped; and a chirpy charm that reminds each of us that we too will share the same fate when all is said and done, no matter the oyster white cope draping over thin shoulders, nor the pompous peel of a grin curling into cheeks.

And so Delbert steps over to the merlon that is facing the tree beside his castle tower. He wraps his right fingers about a rock; as if he is choking the life out from a throat sired by brittle granite; and searches the bony limbs that are rattling and snapping in the cranky gusts for the source of the grating old chirp.

He catches the upturned beak; the dead eyes bulging out from behind an offensive mask of feathers that arches over the bird head like a beaten tiara on a loony old hag; and tosses his rock with a showy gesture that momentarily lifts his oyster white cope and suggests that he is about to stumble over that merlon that is the one and only obstruction between his sad face and the gravelly mud.

His unexpected guest screams; a blood-curdling wail not unlike the notes from the singing bird; and even when she clamps her fingers over her deep hole of a mouth, the higher tones continue to bleed through like those prattling bird chirps of a girl so starved of affection as to be skittish in the face of impending loss. Hers is the sound of flailing weakness; a sick gurgle in the act of drowning before an impenetrably black wall in the sea beyond the horizon; rather than a cry of urgency that, of its nature, suggests that there is still a chance to escape the clutches of the moment falling in on each and every one of us. There is not even the pretense of hope in her scream; not even the insinuation that the high and menacing tones may be eventually transitioned in something more pleasant to the ears; so that she has unleashed a plaintive cry that will be echoing off of canyon walls, and skipping along the ocean waves, long after the molten plains of a drooling earth are bereft of men, and highways, and even discarded books.

The rock snags the wrong limb; but there is enough of a timid tree quake to jolt the bird into flapping what is left of its water logged wings, taking flight for a few fevered heartbeats, and swooping into a dead bougainvillea. If indeed there is any mercy left within the universe, then the bird will be a dead clog of beak and feathers by the time it dives into the placid remains of a vine very far and wide from its bloom. But as the eyes that have seen the impenetrable wall know that there is no such thing; that mercy is a fairy tale imparted in the kind of sing song intonations proper to a Kindergarten classroom, or insinuated in an angry sneer plastered on the face of a habited wormwood in Sunday school this time not resulting in knuckles kissed by a ruler; the bird in time will stagger out from the vine and once more try to romance a grain out from the howling wind. 

Delbert does not turn back to face his guest until he has restored his grin and coiffed his loosened hairs. He checks over his clothes, and pats the sides of his thick cope, so as to be certain that there is no observable crease or wrinkle.

I cannot blame you for being awestruck, Delbert remarks, after sizing up his guest once more, and nodding so cordially as almost to erase his near fall of a moment ago. Surely, it is not common for a girl to know an acclaimed author.

She breaks out into another fit of laughter and steps back into a merlon.

But this time there is an underlying nervousness in her fun; a subtle, but still discernible, tightening of her throat and discomforting twitch in one of her eyes; so that far from feeling a tension behind his broad smiles, or a murderous quiver in his fingers, Delbert is at ease to join into the frivolity.

He even moves forward; silent and deft, like a ghost vanishing from near the dead tree and reappearing no more than an inch or two in front of the little girl leaning against a merlon; takes her hands into his; studies her eyes for that longing that cannot but blossom in a soul so very close to her light; and plants a chaste kiss upon the enchanted royal ring that he imagines upon her right hand.

And then she is nothing, but her quivering blush, and her downcast eyes.

And so what is your name? Delbert whispers, as if a debonair gentleman.

Reina, she mumbles, turning away to hide her tears. My name is Reina.

Delbert grins. He is not sure if he is hearing her, or if hers is a voice from inside of his own sad and lonely mind; that part of his imagination that realizes that a man is a king to the extent that he has captured his queen and jailed her in his old high tower; keeping her there, chained and gagged long after she is a skeleton losing wilted strands of auburn hair whenever a gust spirals up through the open window and rattles the bones, as a testament to a spot in time that is cornered and slayed; but he is desirous just the same to know that somehow he is seeing her in this exotic charm of a girl blushing in his hands; that one bit ash particle has been able to find him in this far away land and to land as a demure sparkle in the eyes of this little one; and that he has it in his beautiful hands to murder what had been stolen from him and, in so doing, to love her in his guilt.

Redemption is fleeting; touched in a confessional; then lost as we leave.

But guilt is timeless; caressed raw in a dirty mind; then retained in Hell.

And for a moment, Delbert hears his Aunty Maude hissing in her smokes.

So you are Reina, he remarks after a while, turning her face to his queer smile, and brushing her loose hairs away from her eyes. You have been a lonely princess locked away in your own tower; a foreigner in your own home; and, by seizing the opportunity of escape, you seek to be a beloved queen locked away in mine, a deaconess of a king, and a lady crucified by the chisel and the beam.

Shall Such Grace Be Vainly Brought Me?

And the night is the devil; cold and foreign; black mist wrapped about an heirloom in sixteenth century masonry brooding imperiously, pompous in fading bricks and chipped mortar, over a lazy slum of terracotta menacing up the mud slope in the slow, but persistent, way of the caracol; a black mist congealing at the third hour by the seductive prodding from a velvet glove into a kind of ooze gurgling through the holes in the mortar and bleeding down interior walls as old and stooped shadows, or if there is even the hint of a breeze fluttering the tree limbs in the humblest whiffs from a candlelight, as morose ghosts chattering all the way out from their graves behind the interior walls in a silent language that is known only to themselves. And yet this blanketing ooze is an affectation of a thief; a gloved charm caressing to steal, when the mind is most at ease by what passes in sight as an impenetrable god of a kind of sad, but benign, tranquility; a crime masked in indifference; a robbery of innocence lost in that tepid limbo of an eye turning away from the rancid meat breaths and the soiled underpants to a darkened bit of nothingness stained into the blanket; so that its coarsened weave sucks out what warmth may have been left from an afternoon long since lost, muddled in with the rest of the ancients of days, and perverted from what it had been by a memory rearranging puzzle pieces to advance her own agenda.

And so sleep is a grace; a denial of the rape as no more than a fog sifting in and out from past and future nightmares; a comfort when the pains would be most raw; and, therefore, an indication that we are not yet mired in Hell, even as we are insistent upon lugging its hand basket around with us everywhere and even cradling it in our chests under our satin sheets at night. Because without a few hours lost to sleep, ours would be a mind sufficiently bored by the shadowy brood, the frozen stillness of a corpse transfixed at that moment just before its color fades from blue to purple and its meat sours, as to entertain questions far and wide better relegated to the unvisited graves of ancestors too distant to be family. And so sleep lies; subverting our mind to those firework blasts in a trifle of a dream that suggest a kind of life unto themselves, when in fact we are lost in the very same death that moves the satin sheets imperceptibly in the shroud of darkness or that flutters unthinkingly in the shadows cast on walls by old and diseased trees; and whispering the sweet nothings that seem to unshackle rusty chains and to lift bleeding chests up to a tunnel of light, and happy ghosts at an enchanted picnic on a grassy knoll, and long lost pets wagging tails and running over to us from within the rainbow in an airy fairy dew. And so sleep is the mad rush of devils masquerading as snails slugging across an open leaf; the chuckling conspiracy born from the meeting of spear tips beside hot cauldrons of weeping and gnashing of teeth, but sold and purchased as the sleep in the rest of peace; the illusion of eternal life in a loss of hours, when in fact the cuckoo clock ticks on the wall and the little smile in a sombrero pops out at the top of every hour.

But Reina does not sleep. She catches a nap every now and then, when a sick wave of exhaustion; similar in feel to a physical hunger that has been given free reign by a bored stomach to shout with an acid tongue and to knock over a priceless vase or two unless and until the help serves the barbecue brisket; just suddenly bubbles up from her bowels and stirs her drowsy nausea into a quarter of an hour of unreserved death. She manages to stumble into her restless bouts of something or other; not quite sleep, but a kind of morose gray made out of a dark shadow against her bedroom wall in which her sculptures, the tools of her craft, and even her shavings swept up and retained in the urn that has been set aside for her own ashes, come to life and sing silly ditties in the Old German of her long dead ancestors; but it is always after the witching hour; after that hag huntress Diana, hooded by that omen in the night canvas that is barren of stars and spilling into the bedroom as a graying light chastened of any attachment to what it is shining out from the blackness; has roused her from beneath her tear stained sheets to bath in what is foretold by the movement of a tired moonlight against her womb and then to cower in a corner shadow with no more mind but to chisel out a few more shaves of wood flesh from the dead bone awaiting her.

And in this sense, these few hours before dawn are no different than the others. She is shivering in her nightgown in a corner; eyeing the witch light that caresses everything in its path out from the blackness and into a sad and lonely twilight; and cutting away at something that has yet to suggest any form that is discernible apart from her own imagination. 

She hears his gurgling snore in the room next door; interrupted breathing that reminds her of her one and only experience in the aqua blue to the east of Veracruz, when she very nearly drowned in the foam dripping down from a mad scowl of a wave; and she knows that soon the tequila will lift its ghostly fingers from his neck just long enough for him to turn his sweaty lips from that slobber that is seeping into his down pillow, and to bellow at her to cook his breakfast.

Except that this morning truly is different. It is not different in the curse that is being scrawled over everything that that hag huntress callously pulls out from inside a hole or a bush. It is not different in the wood carving that she has to hide beneath the loosened wood beam, when she hears the first traces of an obscene word vomiting through the snores. It is not different in the sharp tools; instruments of art or of murder, depending upon a step and a twirl in the mind; that she needs to hide in a shoebox and to stuff behind sick soles in her closet.

It is different, because this is the third morning since she first indulged a steamy cup of Agua de Jamaica with a would be Elvis who writes dreadfully bad poetry in a special invitation thumbtacked onto a post office bulletin board and meant for her eyes only. This is the morning by which he will have procured the slab of lime wood from an artisan in town; and stolen the required cutting tools from a construction site further up the hill on which he lives; so that finally she may take her place by his feet; and every now and then look up from her art to stare adoringly into his wise and noble eyes, and to share with him that time to be lost in untold hours of silent brooding and in brief spurts of creative rapture.

She unfolds her invitation with utmost care, as if unrolling a stiff papyrus that could shatter into trillions of pebbles at the slightest provocations; holds it in the ominous moonlight; and mouths the clunky verses that would be rejected even for a Hallmark card. She laughs at the amateurish turns of phrase; the bad rhymes that even limp behind puns in inspiring a mind to new and lofty heights; and the childish assumption that indeed time may be stood still, and the beasts in the closet held at bay, if only two sad souls join together to pass their hours.

She laughs so brashly that she has to smother her mouth not to be heard.

But hers is not a contemptuous chuckle; nor is it the least condescending and haughty, even as she is certain somewhere in the back of her mind that she could pen a better poem; no, hers is an undiluted cheer that has been springing forth from her reserve of hope; a reserve of hope on which she had soured, and had all but forgotten, in the sad tumults of the past year; ever since she read a plea on a bulletin board for two lonely amateurs to share their lack of talent in the arts, their failure to be noted by a world of note takers, and their dream of a time stood still and captured in a shoebox as a result of their silent moments.

Hers is the joy of knowing that he is as damned as she is; that behind the pompous grin and the ridiculous attire, he is as contemptible to the eyes of the people who count in this world; and that behind the charades of grand acclaim, he is as invisible to that one, special soul whose love is encompassed in a smile.

She hears his gurgling snore ascend into a scream. The bastard is running away from something or other in his nightmare. It is always the same: he has to run; keep running; but then whatever it is leaps out from a shadow and catches his erect cock in its yellow teeth and bleeding gums. And by the time his snores ascend into a scream, his erect cock is no more than an open soar peeing a kind of sweet smelling pus. And then he has to order breakfast; perhaps an assertion of masculine authority that reattaches his cock before he is forced by the break of dawn to tramp into town for another long day of picking up wasted señoritas in cheap and sordid cantinas; and then she has to skip to it, and plaster a blank smile on her face, if she wants to go into town later that same morning without having to wear a pair of black sunglasses over purple bruises beneath her eyes.

And so she hides her contraband.

But this time she lingers a moment at her window; bathing in the graying moonlight; and finding that hill in the distance, where her friend and redeemer lives in a dream of his own making. She cannot quite make out his castle tower; it is still much too dark; but she is there already in her mind, kneeling before a slab of lime wood, chiseling away at wood flesh, and catching his winsome grin.

No, his name is not Mr. McCall; but no matter; she will dream his dream.

Righteous Judge for Sin Pollution

There is madness in his one good eye.

There is a pirate patch over the other.

And so the bastard scowls into the remnants of tequila dreams: the leaky pus faucets; the whiteness bleeding through high cheekbones and caramel skin; and the dead eyes; always teary; initially cast to the rotten floorboards of dank and gray cantinas in the barrios, and then swept up again by toothless señoritas (the best mouths for blowing his Mexican Horn) in Frida Kahlo rebozos; the wail at the moon images that he gathers up from his pillow, stuffs into his nasty, old brain burlap, and carries with him the rest of the day as a kind of substitute for what may be seen in the real world. And even though these are the images that he takes with him; the many pieces of a patchwork quilt that he had torn apart and then stolen from that sewing room hidden behind his rapid eye movements and just beyond the earshot of his own horrid screams; he scowls at them all of the day, as if a black beard burdened by his own booty; no, much more so, as if a black beard embarrassed by the realization that the bullion bursting the seam of his burlap is not gold after all, but rather the quilt patches proper to a goopy gaggle of seamstresses. He feels like a pirate who had tossed aside his “X marks the spot” maps, and bypassed the treasure chests buried beneath the wet sand by Norse Dragon Slayers and Mongol Sultans, in order to kick open the unlocked door of a sewing room and to strangle the chicken throats of snoring blue hairs.

But the mind twists shame into shit faced belligerence; the suffering ego veiled by the antics of a bully; and when the violence loses its shock value, the same mind, though by this time well pickled and primed, twists the shame even more so until it is a self-absorbed madness; a spitfire hiss drooling from the dry lower lip of a man awakening from a binge, sprinkling as an insipid mist into all of the cracks along the creaking floorboards, and oozing out from the cracks to be slick drool ponds over which the sour pickle slips and slides, while stumbling from his compressed pillow to his bedroom door. And so the bully evolves to be his own greatest tormentor; a man wallowing in his own grievances; a deranged black beard cursing his hook for a hand, kicking the jagged stump of his peg leg into the wall, and thrusting his patched eye into dark and lonely shadows, even blacker than his blindness, that seep through the linings of his patch and sludge down his capillaries to an old heart charcoaled already by years of craven rage.

The bastard has neither a hook for a hand, nor a peg leg; indeed, except for the patch over his eye, his is an outward form graced by a supple menagerie of jet black locks hooding a handsomely chiseled face and falling in lazy ripples to a model thin waist held in check by a girdle of washboard abs; but no matter that the señoritas swoon to their scabby knees before his silver polished buckle with no more effort on his part than a slow nod and a wink; and no matter that the caballeros defer to his swaggers in and out of the cantina swivel doors; and no matter even that the first shot is always on the house; he cannot see his fair form reflected by his dressing mirror through the wailing dream ghosts bleeding out from his tired brain in the cold and clammy shivers of his eternal hangover.

Blind to the world outside of himself; and confused by the rush of surreal dream snippets vomited out from his brain in the darkness just before the dawn and paraded before his one good eye against a backdrop of a pulsing white light in a gathering fog; he has learned to rely on his other senses more so; his acute hearing; his sense of smell; like a batty old cur heaving deep breaths beneath a coat of flea infested fur that nevertheless snaps to attention well before all the two legged creatures who rely principally on their vision can catch the predator approaching from the distance. His is a madness then not so much tempered by what is left of his rational mind; a reason at this point that is seldom able to be detected bobbing about the wild and wanton tequila waves; as by a heightened instinct in deep currents; a sixth sense as to when to hoist his black beard sails, and when to drop his chiseled anchor, and when to toss his latest whore bait to the sharks swimming beside his leaky hull. His is a madness smoldering then; an awkward twitch strapped beneath a coat of comely skin and tied in the back by the suave manner in which he leans at a bar or slides in the direction of a blush on a nearby stool; until he feels the wind and the stars to the snow white sands and divines the best time to undo the salted straps over his black bearded fury.

But then he goes for the sewing room; the easiest catch in the uncharted island; and returns with nothing to show for his spitfire, but that which is going to weigh down his ship with shame and deliver him to his ocean tomb in a chain of quilt patches tied together in lace and string. His is the curse of feeling ever more cuckolded every time he lays yet another in the long line of silly señoritas in frilly rebozos; ever more cheated back into his bedroom when the last of the cantinas has bolted its swivel doors for the night and forced to lurch in shadows and nightmares; and forced to scowl inside the tightened collar of that invisible leash that yanks him from his bed and pulls him to a crack in his bedroom door.

And so he is already eyeing the hall space between his bedroom door and hers; and wrapping his crinkled lips around an imaginary whalebone pipe that is puffing a make believe plume into his flared nostrils; when her door opens with the kind of skin tingling creak proper to a place so haunted by its tortured past.

In the haze of moonlight pouncing out from behind the opposite door, he can make out the hints of a hopeful smile; not the twitching anxiety with which normally she is scarred, as she creaks the hallway floorboards over to the spiral staircase, halts at the snarling gargoyle head that substitutes for the newel cap at the top of the regal descent, and finally steps one heart pounding creak at a time into the kitchen below the shadows; but an adolescent puppy love, a most unabashed glee with which he has been unfamiliar since she first stared into his one good eye, and an unleashed memory that snaps across the soft illumination in the hallway, burns through his bedroom door, and sears his waxed pectorals.

She turns into the hallway, and is lost; a Salacia on her way to sprinkle a dead salt into his bowl of cooked avena and tequila; a vicious plot veiled by the shadow waves crashing silently over the hallway, down the spiral staircase, and through the kitchen door; the same waves into which she has vanished just now and, he suspects, from which she had been sired less than twenty years before; born out from the discontent of a noble crest bereft of much of its past fortune for no other purpose than to be a consort to that lost soul that has been seared by its close approach to the sun, and is now barreling out beyond even the path of Pluto; born to be the Suffering Queen to the King of Underwater Graveyards.

He observes the moonlight skipping down the hallway; and, in a tortured blink of his one good eye, he thinks that he sees it lapping at her heels, like the trained seal that is willing to follow its mistress even unto the depth of the sea.

And so she is not totally vanished after all, but rather fades in and out of his waking nightmare; a ghost briefly captured in a puppy love smile here, or in an illuminated pair of heels over there, and lost yet again in the shadow waves.

And what is a ghost, but a dead woman refusing to be buried, a wail that hovers in living silhouettes, so that the mad observer can have no recourse, but his own despair and the return of those odd memories that will keep him there?

Odd memories, like the eyes of a bony señorita rolling about her sockets, no more substantial than chipped marble balls in a skull, when she is puckering her lips to the mouthpiece of his Mexican Horn; like the smelly campesino in his tattered sombrero flailing about the dirt in front of the old cantina swivel doors and trying laughably to shove his exposed scapula back into what little is left of his shoulder; like the time he goes for his treasure chest of fine tequila bottles, but instead opens a chest full of quilt patches, catches his breaths, knocks over everything in the bedroom, and almost tears the silly skin off of her frilly flesh.

Almost; almost; always almost; not quite man enough for the real booty; instead, he raids the old sewing room, and returns with a burlap bursting at the seam with quilt patches, and laces, and sugar and spice and everything so nice; and she remains the living ghost in the bedroom opposite his; just alive enough, a bit of breath quivering still in her lungs, to be the salt in the bloodied wound. 

He observes the moonlight following her heels down the spiral staircase.

And he listens to the subtle creaks from her bare feet on rotting steps; a silly outburst from every stressed beam that is so soft as to be all but inaudible to the ear; but a bloated fart in his imagination; a conspicuously blunt series of crunches and screeches that suggests a haughty disdain for propriety so early in the hours; and a heavy manner that suggests a comfort inside of her own home.

And a comfort inside of her own skin; a skin as caramel as his own; but a Bavarian bloodline from over a century ago that has retained its heralded pride and pomp, in spite of a darkened hue born from past excesses with Mayan girls.

Or so he imagines, whenever he senses too much comfort in her walk, or too much ease in how her smile curls into her soft cheeks; not that he observes as such very often; he seldom observes her any longer or more extensively than is necessary to dot her eyes and to cross her tees; perhaps flick a donkey punch for good measure; and to laugh at how her forehead bobs into her lap when she is packed in a corner and bitch bawling, as if that Uppity Fresa, proud daughter she is of several generations of Chilango Huns, is tooting her own Mexican Horn and spitting out some kind of Munich March along with her loose blood and spit.

But she seems awfully happy this hour, does she not?

The scowling pirate may never raid anything more pleasing to his senses, nor singing to his ego, than a sewing room filled to its ceiling with quilt patches and manned by a few breezy blue hairs draped in floral nightgowns. His will not be burlaps full of gold bullions, priceless heirlooms, and white powder; more to the measure of soft lace, loose strings, and squeezed tubes of Ben-Gay; but, no matter the booty shanghaied, when he wraps his buccaneer bruisers about their chicken throats, and feels their wattles tickling his sweaty palms, he still steals the very same fear out from their eyes; that blank awareness of no more future than a naked girl sees as she is sliding head first into a brick wall; that quiver in a dilated pupil that is the same at the end, no matter the market value of what is going to be hoisted onto the hull after all of the bodies have been charcoaled and fed to the sea breezes. And the fears stolen; wrapped about the pirate soul as the scalped treasures of insolent war; cannot but weigh down the lurid scowl in his lower lip; and arch his hump a little more up and over his shoulder blades and into the back of his neck; so that he is all that much more hideous in form, even to his fellow buccaneers, and frightful in his frothing mouth madness; and in the end, so reduced from a human form, and heightened in fear, as to be the mad howl in an ocean storm wailing a song of defiance to a break in the clouds.

But that assumes that he rows to the shore; lurches in the shade of a full moon; and breaks through that unlocked door when the early morning hours are most consumed in their silence; not that he remains holed up in his black beard cabin, counting tequila bottles in his sleep, and brooding his pains when awake.

And so when he sees that her skin has cleared; that there is no longer an ungainly grape blustering about the scales in between the cheeks and the eyes; no imperative to wear sunglasses in the dark, nor to shuffle about with the face to the floor and the silly tears stifled in a sniff that is passed off as a persistent pisser of a cold; he knows that he has been hiding away in his cabin; his curtain drawn and his candles seared to their waxen stubs; much too long for his pride; much too long for his reputation; and much too long for the terrors eating away at what is left of his cock and claiming another pound of flesh for its bare jaws.

The bastard counts off the belabored seconds; stewing in his scowl in the tortured silence of a beast man already trapped in a hell of his own devise; and waiting for the last of the creaks from the spiral staircase to be lost in memory.

And then he lurches out from his bedroom and steals into hers.

Everything is a glow in a waning moonlight that has been given one more stab at life by the very first hint of a purple dawn; a kind of electrical charge in the lunar calm from the prospect of a break in the blackness; so that he senses, momentarily but also eternally, that he is not so much walking into a bedroom, as floating ghost-like about a timeless chamber buried at the bottom of the sea and sensing, however vaguely, that there is a single sun ray slithering down the untold leagues of saltwater and sand to add a tease of sunlight to his old haunt.

And so he is teased; even here, where he used to punch her button after returning from the cantinas in the wee hours of the morning, and where he had indulged her princess dreams, even blowing smoke circles into the moonlight as she clung to his sweaty bicep and caressed his wife beater, until the beast with the yellow teeth and the bleeding gums started to catch up with his erect cock.

And the beast had started to scratch off its own skins; naked down to its snarling patchwork of living bones; so that he could see what had been torn off from his manhood decomposing into a kind of sugary pus in between the jagged crisscross of bones that had been lining its gurgling stomach. And the beast had started to look back at him, and to smile, and to make out like it was licking its lips, even though there was nothing there now but hard bone against hard bone in the semblance of a mouth. And he had had to bury his last tears even to yell.

And he had kept every one of those tears buried in a damp spot; a secret cove not unlike the dark place where little boys will go when they are ashamed to be wetting their pajamas before the break of dawn; an unmarked grave with no flowers that is somewhere far beneath the burlap in the brain that is forever bursting at the seam with his stolen quilt patches and other blue hair treasures.

In order to keep the princess away from his damp spot; like a pirate who is keeping his whore away from his booty hidden with the fat rats and the dead niggers in the slave quarters; he had had to start slapping her around a bit; just enough to break the skin and to shed a terrified tear or two; and when that had not been enough, he had had “to squeeze the Charmin” an inch or so below her chin; and when she had continued to glimpse now and then into his nightmarish eye with her terrified ones, and to read his mind like a pirate whore that is way too comfortable roaming in and out of the captain’s nest, he had had to plaster the inside of her womb with his seed; leaving behind a sticky paste that moved up through her capillaries and hardened and cracked her princess blush; and, in a blackening rage that he recalls only in this or that snippet in a vomit inducing nightmare, he had had to strike out from their bed and into the guest bedroom, as a vagabond on the run from the law, and a beast enslaved to its lurid scowls. 

And so they have learned to hide from each other, like two ghost ships in an ocean fog that sound their respective horns whenever they pass one another so as to prevent a collision; revealing nothing but a spread of shrapnel on a hull that is escaping back into the fog as soon as it is noticeable, or a sail falling off of the mast in shreds, or a gangplank hanging from a threadbare rope along the side and snapping erratically with the gusts howling out from that impenetrable fog; but they have not mastered the specific art of hiding out from themselves; and, as a result, they know that what they most fear, however vague in the sad and lonely dreams that predominate in the witching hours before dawn, is truly and irrevocably incarnate in the other person; a curse taking shape from out of this mutual, though unspoken, awareness that the long term survival of the one will require the death of the other. And not a quiet snuffing out, as in the slow and steady decline of a broken heart, but a shredding of the skin, and a ripping away of bloodied organs and intestinal linings, to reveal nothing but bones; raw and rattling; smashed underfoot to fashion a mixture of ink soot and bone dust; or cracked and chipped, if the bone is too large for the steel boot heel; so that in the end there is nothing remaining of the enemy but its terrified skull; a last grimace, and a pair of wide open eye sockets, chiseled in eternity into a recipe of collagen, calcium, and other fine vitamins and minerals, so that it may be an exotic paper weight sold at an estate sale, or a realistic prop in a science class.

The dramas of today are the oddities of tomorrow; and, notwithstanding his transfiguration into a pus-bleeding scowl, the bastard dabbles in reason just enough to know that this is the case. But knowing that the dramas are pointless in a way, and that the very worst wounds inflicted in time will become the very same ash and soot that collects in the rough cracks of every casket or urn, does not diminish the orgiastic quiver in the violence of a moment, or the poignancy of vengeance planned and realized, or the mad delight in being that hell that is consuming the enemy enough to chasten him or her from the possibility of love.

The bastard licks his lips and rubs his hands together; a devil haunting an underwater chamber, as he is haunted by the growing tease of sunlight from an unfathomable water surface; and aims to detect just enough mischief to justify a combination jab and upper cut, or maybe a knee to the stomach, or whatever it takes finally to disrobe the princess of her apparent comfort and good cheer.

He kneels at the loosened wood beam. He snickers, because the princess is so contemptuous of indigenous blood; the same blood in which she too has to bathe on account of her Kraut ancestors hopping the fence at the Siren call of a tribe of bare breasted Mayan girls; that she cannot fancy her indiscretion being discovered by the likes of the bastard in the guest bedroom. And if he finds the sculpture in wood actually resembles something, then he returns it to its hiding place, and he kicks the mischief out of her without her knowing why he is mad.

But this time he finds some sort of advertisement beneath the sculpture, and that arches his brow, even though he cannot make sense of the silly words.

That is no matter. He knows a vendor in town who can translate English.

And so he will ponder this in his madness and set crooked her innocence.

Grant Thy Gift of Absolution

No matter what may be typed by the officious and bespectacled clerks in the office of the coroner, and forever remain as the second most relevant word or phrase on the yellowing sheets packed side by side under the great industrial lights of an ever-expanding warehouse of file cabinets (the first being the name of the crunchy worm food guided by the hands of dimpled angels into the white light and demure elevator music at the end of the tunnel), the unacknowledged cause of every death is the terminal cancer with which we are each afflicted at our first gasp of air in the world. Perhaps there are undetected microbes in the air; little buggers with snarling mouths beneath scaly foreheads and devil horns that straddle their pitchforks, like witches on brooms, and that dive into flaring and frightened baby nostrils; each one firmly attaching itself to the stucco wall of a cell with the aid of a suction cup under every one of its eight webbed feet; and each one chipping away at the surface with its pitchfork, until there is just enough of a glory hole for that little bugger to snap its forked tongue inside the plasma membrane and to eject its yellow green phlegm. And perhaps the crazy old coot, bowlegged and brow beaten by the leaky faucet slithering somewhere inside of his soiled and shredded Spider Man underwear, is right when he insists that the only cure is “in the waters” and involves “two salt shakes over a lemon twist.” But even if so, there never seems to be enough water on hand, nor does the salt blend in sexy enough with the lemon twist, to knock the firm industrial grade suction cups off of the stucco and to send the little buggers flailing into a cauldron of stomach acid. At most, this cure stings their scales, and just maybe burns off one of their two prickled devil horns; providing them a reason to snarl even more so; and inspiring an even wilder abandon with their sharp pitchforks, that hastens the moment that they can eject their poison and call it a lifetime. 

And so we are dying as soon as we are born; riddled by the gravediggers, each too small to be noted, but together manifest as a growing number of cells to be branded as impotent, or confused, or altogether deranged; swimming in a body of tears, pimples, wrinkles, and scars; each condition an expression of the cells debased; until there is nothing left but a stooped and scowling assortment of fears hobbling into the grave for which it had been born. We live to be dying and then finally dead; dust insubstantial; dreams vanquished; and nothing to be imparted but the sons of the wasted gravediggers, straddling pitchforks of their own devise, and lifting up from our graves and urns to fly about the wintry chill in search of the startled breath. We live to be flesh shredding off from bones; a sick organ coughed up; a dried intestinal lining, so brittle as to explode from an unexpected jolt in the night, or an unwelcomed hand from a stranger, and then in so many small pieces as to sprinkle through the pores into the open air; until each and every one of us is in Auschwitz, dried skin draping bones, and roaming about the grounds in search of that incinerator that burns away our last sorrow.

Delbert had forgotten this cancer; or at least had lost trace of that warm copper taste that is imparted upon his heavy tongue whenever a singing bird or a falling tree limb somewhere reminds him that time marches even where it is timeless; ever since by his request Reina had started to chisel a mermaid; or an odd shaped something or other that he hopes will resemble a mermaid when all of the excess wood has been cut away from the form; only a few paces from his typewriter. He had carried a few cases of vino tinto from his dressing room and had stacked them within arm length of his desk, so that he could remain seated before the blank sheet of paper rolled into his carriage all morning and observe the back of her head stooping intently over the lime wood. He had been careful enough to maintain his detached composure; offering few pleasantries by word, and even fewer by way of kind eyes and soft smiles; but had been anxious in his hope of capturing just one moment of timelessness in the hours spent in silence together on his rooftop oasis; just one moment of that eternity of which his Old Aunty Gertie had spoken; just one moment to cut out any malignancies in time.

And he had captured it; or he had captured something; as the bare hints of a newborn sun deflowering an overcast pall of a morning; a rambunctious cry of purple light piercing through the disconsolate chill of a late winter dawn; for the first time had revealed Reina to be no more substantial than her sorrow; an innocent blush folding her fingers into a strong back; a girl trapped in a twilight that is neither past nor future, but a sad and lonely present that cannot survive but in the dream of a fine and noble savage, a gentleman beast charmed by his own mask and alone able to lead her in a step and a twirl to her sunken breath.

It had been the dawn of the third day, since she first had sprinted up the spiral staircase with no more to offer than an anxious smile and a downcast eye in return for his brief instructions and deer in a headlight stares. She had taken her time in climbing the spiral staircase; so much time in shuffling over the wet gravel that he had stepped away from his typewriter and had spied her stooped shoulders and heavy sniffles from behind a merlon, as she had made her way up a purgatory mountain masked as his castle tower; and, as a result, he had been so much more awkward in his regal bow as to knock over an open bottle of vino tinto with his bony thin derriere. He had been mopping up his bloody red mess, and stifling his own spit of colorful curses, as she had landed a heavy step onto the rooftop. And he had been sweeping away the shattered glass, and stifling a second spit of colorful curses, as she had leaned her head and shoulders against the same corroded merlon behind which he had been spying her doleful ascent.

It had taken a while, but finally he had looked up from his shame to view the purple haze ascending from the back of her head and settling over her wild hair as a kind of halo; a twilight born as much from his own imagination as from the soft tickle of light breaking through the maudlin clouds; and a pallid cast to her skin by which she seemed at once vaguely ghost-like and yet viscerally real.

It had taken a while longer; no doubt a semblance of eternity; but finally he had looked through the haze enveloping this angel of sorrows long enough to make out a pair of dark sunglasses over her eyes and a swollen grape on her lip.

And in her terrible shame; indeed, in everything about her that had been exposed as stupid and weak; she had had no more in her than to smile longingly at him and to shed a bubble gum tear over a quivering cheek; as a bruised rose, trampled underfoot and left to be baked back into the dust from which it came in primordial time, and yet consumed by its passion to blossom before its King; so that there is nothing left, but everything in a moment stored away in a mind and lusted by a telltale heart to no other end but the eternity that never fades.

In that moment, he had thought that he had seen her.

And so he had broken into a sweat; although thankfully a dripping faucet that he could pass off as a bit of dew retreating before the ascending sun; and, in a mad scramble that nearly knocked over two other bottles, had settled back into his seat at the typewriter. He had made a point of nodding to her, as if she had been leaning against the corroded merlon for no other reason than to await his permission to take up her rusted tools and to return to her surreally chipped and chiseled slab of lime wood. And he had observed her in a detached silence; hiding his inflamed emotions behind the loving glare in his eyes; and assuming a mask that would justify in his own mind anyway why he did not reach for a new bottle by his side and turn his attention to the froth of letters in his typewriter.

He had donned the mask of a much feared and loathed art critic; a prissy and pompous Mister Peepers staring through his pair of obscenely unfashionable eyeglasses at a living and breathing sculpture; beholding a first of its kind work that had been crafted out from the mad genius of the Man of Sorrows, not so as to take in the sheer splendor of such a new creation, but to discern in the sorry stoop and the plaintive sniffles even a minor infraction from the arcane rules of artistic decency that he had chiseled into his own mind tablet when he had had to come to terms with the fact that he would never be an acclaimed artist. And he had very nearly cast aside his critical eye, and had allowed himself simply to bask in the glow of an eternity captured and cowered, when he had found some problem with how she chiseled at the wood; something out of place, though he could not remember what as soon as he had found it; maybe in how the back of her head bobbed, or in how her knees curled into her chest, or in how she used her palm instead of the back of her hand to wipe away a crusting spider web of snot; and had had to note that she is not there chiseling a mermaid from wood.

He had given himself a certain license to tighten his nose and to drop his eyes into something much more condescending; even completing the act with a haughty huff that insinuated that indeed there had never been any grace in the illusion; and he had managed to force his frigid fingers back onto the keyboard.

But, in that moment, he had thought that he had seen her.

And no matter his will, at that point in time he had been forced by a sad ghost hand to type out a verse that could not but chisel out the wormwood that lay between his composed demeanor and his telltale heart; spitting out the wet and warm shavings through his pores; and leaving behind a beating organ of old pains, a raw and inconsolable muscle spreading its red poison through his veins.

I thought I thought but the thought I thought; well, assuming then that I am forced by the tug of a big ass nasty tidal wave to think upon it; was not the thought I thought. And so I think; again I think; and now for the pat resolution that resolves nothing but ends it all in rhyme: I’ll write it down in pen and ink.

And then he had pounded his desk. 

Reina had almost stumbled back to her feet in reaction to the sound; her awkward reflex resembling that of a beaten dog; but she had been very careful not to turn her head back and to face head on the unexpected rage; really, not to do anything that might erase the invitation that had been thumbtacked onto a bulletin board just for her and that that same hour had inspired a snap from a leather belt to her face; so that by no other womanly grace than her sheer will, she had been able to resume her timeless toil as if nothing had been unsettled.

But he had not noticed her reaction. 

And if he had, then he would not have cared.

Because in that moment, he had thought that he had seen her.

So who says: the thought I thought was not the thought I thought?

It was the thought I thought. It is the thought I thought.

He had lost her; that was all; like a sand pebble washed out to the ocean and pulled by the high and mighty currents to every shoreline; but if he waited, and stared long enough, then he could be there to take it back when finally the waves hurled it back onto his own shoreline. And then he would have it forever in his hand; shielded from the elements behind an impenetrable glass; and held in service to the dream that will not fade even with the last descent of the sun.

And so he had decided to do nothing, but to sit there and to watch her.

He had observed her in silence; propping his elbows on both sides of the typewriter, folding his hands together beneath his chin, and squinting his lonely and tired eyes to take in the smallest details; so intent as to remain motionless long after she had left for the day at noon; and so lost in his determination that the first intimation of a spring warmth had not fazed him from his death watch, even though their time together had increased from three days to three weeks, and the decline of the wintry chill in that period would have been noted by any other man sitting on the roof of a castle tower and wearing a solid, white cope.

He had ignored the rise in temperature; even to the point of allowing his sweat to smear the letters on the sheet rolled into his carriage; because, in the same time period, his mind had been hardening into an ice sculpture; a barren, cratered rock, not unlike a planet dislodged from its orbit and sent out into the unforgiving coldness of deep space; so as not to see how she had been declining more and more each day from that longing smile and that bubble gum tear that had been captured and then lost on that third morning; how she had been more black and blue; more stooped; more inclined to a shivering hand, and a spitting up of blood; as if being eaten away by a horrendous cancer and shriveling what little remains of her bruised skin and shredded tissue into her poor excuse for a mermaid; with every passing hour forcing her closer and closer to a new spring.

He had not wanted to acknowledge this cancer before his squinting eyes; this inescapable insinuation of time marching forward to the opened grave; this gross reminder that even black and whites in photo albums yellow with age and are lost altogether well before the boiling waves wash out the last of the white sand dunes beneath a crimson sun; and so he had remained impervious to warm breezes and blue skies, and had discovered that there is a certain timelessness, a kind of eternity, in a mind that denies in its silence what is so plainly in view.

Or so he had intended to remain impervious.

And he had tried to deny what is before him.

But by the first day of spring Reina had declined so much; no longer able to shuffle, nor even to crawl, she had begun to float her thinly draped bones in the manner of a winter ghost; he had to intervene to save what was left of her.

And so Delbert folds his hands in his lap, inhales pompously, and arises in the stately manner of a fair king stepping away from his throne to be of service to one of his subjects. He scrunches his face, so as to suggest pious learnedness in substitution for common sentimentality; but the steel eyes, wrinkled cheeks, and puckered lips accomplish no more than to make him look as if he has eaten a whole basket full of rotten eggs. His stiff walk and sweaty brow also suggest a sickness of sorts; a queasy bug for which the only antibiotic is a regimen of high octane martinis; and an occasion for gossip when the bug man is out of earshot.

He stops behind her stooped frame; reaching down to take her hand into his; and nudging her bruised shoulders with his legs, so that she realizes that he is lending his pencil thin legs as a stick pillow for the back of her head. He is so careful never to look down at her; and, as a result of his stoic resolve to look at nothing other than the horizon before him, he is as if a bronze statue in a cope.

And, indeed, in the light of a spring sun, his white bread skin takes on an otherworldly hue; a bronze resurrected from out of the earth in order to be the brilliant, but also ominous, expression of that warm breath that is released into the fresh air when the gray shackles of winter have been loosened; and yet also a bronze reflected off of a snow white slate, so that he resembles a wax doll in the collection of Madame Tussaud that is on loan for no other reason than to be a pillow for a despondent girl. His skin then is as substantial as it is unreal; that which is noted when it is first perceived, but does not remain in the mind when the special effect has been set aside; so that he too is as vaguely ghost-like and as viscerally real as Reina had been when she had arrived initially in sunglasses.

Delbert refuses to believe that he is anything at all like the silly sad sack leaning against his legs and wiping away her tears; and so, as soon as there is a warm breeze blowing back his white cope and disheveling his hairs, he imagines that he is Christ Jesus sharing a special moment with Mary. And when the same warm breeze rattles the teakettle in that makeshift kitchen behind his back, he imagines that that is Martha back there. This daydream eases his mind, since of course there can be nothing as one hundred percent alive as the Incarnate God.

He even assumes the haughty high English of a Downton Abbey Nazarene.

My Daughter, you seem a bit under the weather of late, he whispers with the breathless piety of a prelate suffocating from the superabundance of starch in his white collar and pressed purple shirt, so that at once he sounds much too refined to be the King of Kings and Holy of Holies on the way to His Crucifixion.

He clears his throat and imagines that there is more life in his skin; a life or at least a semblance of life; so that he may inspire the subtle reaction out of her for which he has been tolling out his seconds ever since that third morning.

Reina wipes crusted sniffle off of her nose but otherwise does not move.

Why not step away from your burden for a while and rest in my arms? He asks with the strong, but soothing, voice of a Made for Television King of Kings, while casually brushing his free hand through her thinning strands of dried hair.

She cries in the timid manner of an animal that has been belted so often that it is afraid to be heard. She curls her chin into her bony knees and, for the span of several tense seconds, is an inert ball of grief unable to inhale new life.

Reaching back to his Sunday school years, he dregs up a verse from Holy Writ that he regards as so silly that he nearly stumbles out of his character, but that he uses anyway in the expectation that it will lighten the load in a silly girl and perhaps even inspire a lift to her sad eyes and a crimson hue to her cheeks.

Come with me, he whispers, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

But as she remains unmoved by his divine charms, he tucks his free hand inside of her right armpit and lifts her dead weight all the way up to her bullied and bloodless feet. He smothers her tears in his chest and rolls his hanging eyes towards the pearly gates in the manner of a tonsured saint raptured in soft and womanly prayers and awaiting the dove that will swoop down from on high and prick stigmata out from his extra clean and cling free palms. He is so caught by his own sublime moment that he imagines his white skin transfigured in a living and breathing light; a splendor so kind to the eye and winsome to the heart the silly girl at his chest fades into nothingness in comparison; and he knows that in every fiber of his life he is resplendent in the queer joy of an eternity captured and buried, a time reshaped as timelessness, a life as still as old dried up bone.

Reina lets out a terrible cry, and the dream is lost to the ravage of time.

Delbert looks down from the pearly gates; now no more than an odd and vaguely menacing configuration of clouds in the blue sky; and allows his eyes to settle on the mermaid that Reina has been carving out of the lime wood for the past three weeks. He lets out an audible sigh, as the mermaid looks much more like the blob that had terrorized a teenaged Steve McQueen. He has to fight off his impulse to push Reina aside and to kick her miscarriage in wood and in tears over the side of his roof and into the dried mud at the base of his castle tower.

Instead, he funnels his passion into walking her over to his hammock and forcing her sad and heavy head onto his feather down. He lifts her dead feet to the hammock; fighting back the heaves when he snags a mouthful of the stench from her black and blue toes; and kneels down beside her face. He imagines he is the King of Kings awakening a nubile girl from the dead and realizing that her bruised skin and labored breaths indicate that the miracle of miracles has been anything but successful; that at best she is a zombie wallowing mindlessly in all of the pains that she has been carrying about her soul since her first gulp of air; and that he has bestowed unto her no more life than that which writhes in hell.

He removes her sunglasses. They seem to weigh a lot more than a typical pair of eyeglasses, and he attributes this to the absolute darkness of the shades themselves, as if there is nothing denser than that impenetrable blackness with which we veil our faces and against which we play out the logic of our passions.  

He stares into her eyes. There is nothing there, but a blank terror that is declining into despair; a mad scream of color bleeding out from the pupils, first in a tinkle, then in a widening stream, and now in a raging river, leaving behind a dead pastel that would be altogether terrifying but for the semblance of calm and reserve that prevails in anything that has been drained of its prior life; and he has to cup his lips about his fist to restrain himself from screaming in horror, and to insist that what he is observing is a trick of light crafted by a spring sun.

And then he blinks his own eyes and sees that hers are nothing at all, but reflections of his own; and so he forces himself to look away from her weakness and shame and instead to focus on a dead tree limb rustling in the far distance.

She awakens from her emotional coma and nudges his face back to hers.

And, for a moment, she is the most beautiful of creatures trapped inside his private little patch of Eden; a silly girl much too lost in her own bubble gum blush to do anything more than to return his intermittent looks and to offer her bruised neck for his trembling fingers to caress into her final submission; and in every one of her pained breaths there is offered unto him the promise of a bliss just intimated in his dreams and actually experienced once in a captured smile.

But before he can even raise his fingers to the hammock, he blinks again and realizes that her whole body; indeed, the fullness of her silly girl soul; is an undeniable reflection of his own; a sullied blanket of flesh draping a dark living room full of prissy and Victorian bones; a thin veil for a sad assortment of ghost men in oyster white suits and Mulberry plaid bowties who really can do no more than to haunt that same living room with the sound of a rattling ribcage; a gray flesh of sorrows swept ever more into the sea in successions of receding waves.

And so he hears that sea; even now; even after moving so far inland, and renting a castle tower in a foreign land noted for its impermeable timelessness.

And he is consumed in a panic; the kind that cannot be restrained simply by cupping a pair of lips over a fist or by focusing on a dead tree limb off in the distance; indeed, the kind for which even death is not a cure, in that its sting is felt that much more intimately in the tight confines of a hell of our own devise.

He hears his Aunty Maude cackling in the wind. 

He sees his Aunty Gertie fading into her smoke.

And he has no strength in him, but what is required to lower his hands to his sides, to drop his chin to his chest, and to absolve her with a forked tongue.

My Daughter, you are forgiven, he laments. You have endured the vicious but righteous cost to be borne, the bruises from a leather belt, the lesions from a flaming tong, because you have insisted upon looking where the eyes of a girl must not tread. I wrote a novel about a girl; no more than a blush; who had the spitfire mind to turn away from the man who loved her and instead to look at a point along the sea. And the waves swallowed her insolence and pulled it down to a seamen’s grave. I created another girl; nearer your age; who had the same spitfire mind to eye madness. She has her reward. But you will be spared yours.

Ere the Day of Retribution

But you will be spared yours.

The words seem to float up from her eyes; much like an ancient talisman unearthed from a treasure chest that had been buried beneath the sands of the most remote and lonely of shorelines; as she awakens into a moonlight crawling over her sheets that in every previous morning for the past year or so had been so ominous as to propel her away from her bed and into the safety of a shadow.

But this morning is different.

The moonlight is repeating its same path over the sullied and threadbare bed sheets; a path that very soon will force the moonlight to drape the wooden bench at the foot of her bed, to drop suddenly to the floor, and then to skulk in and out of every wretched chip and crack between the bed and the closet; but, for a reason which is not altogether comprehended at first, it has lost its ability to drag the secrets out from the blackness. It is as brilliant as ever; indeed, the spring moon is even brighter than its sad winter antecedent; but it is a pathetic bluster; a laughably ineffectual bombast of gray in an otherwise dead darkness; that is as capable of snapping back the bed sheets and of fondling away the last moment of innocence as the tepid hand of a ghost pedophile up to his old trick.

At most, it is the backdrop against which she can read the words in front of her eyes; a weak luminescence that allows for the words to stand out from a bedroom of vague images sifting in and out of unreal shadows; and an impotent thrust of light that allows for the words to be that much more alive in contrast.

But you will be spared yours.

The words fade back into the dream from which they had emerged; now, in an inexplicable, but undeniable, manner more real than when they had been floating in the moonlight between the bed and the window; but not before they inspire so much joy in the bruised and battered Reina that she unleashes a grin; no more than an awkward twitch that curls painfully into the purple grape upon each one of her cheeks, but in such contrast to the deep sorrow with which she has been chained for so long as to be tantamount to a bedlam of crazed laughs.

Reina comprehends at once what had been intimated ever since she first had heard those words. Hers is an awareness that washes over her soul, like she is floating below the Hoover Dam as the lake finally spits through the thick slab of concrete and smashes as a freefalling boulder onto whatever is in the chasm.

The moonlight can no longer unearth her secret; that hag huntress Diana can no longer cast its spells into the black and blue scattered about her skin; in virtue of her freedom from retribution; a freedom offered unto her by her King of Kings as much as she has carved it out from the thin slab of lime wood within her dream; and a liberty to be maintained beyond the molesting grasps of time.

She moves just enough to look out the window from her pillow.

And then she sees something; perhaps no more than a subtle trick upon a waking eye in the first intimations of dawn; a shift in how the moonlight breaks through the dead tree limbs just outside of her window; or a tear in the eternal blackness itself; the void against which the hag huntress Diana roams about her barren coldness in search of a living blood spurt to prey; that allows for graying purple to twinkle through unseen cracks and to blend in with the moonlight in a manner as much unsettling as beautiful; time marching forward to leave behind the stillness of night and to reduce the terrors of the past several hours, and as the mind permits of the past year or so, into no more than quaint memories the likes of which seem at once irreconcilable with the charms of an ascending sun.

In that singular moment of new life bleeding through death, she sees the spring moon reverse its path; rustling that impenetrably black hood that drapes about the circumference of its wrinkled face; tightening that invisible bow that hangs just beneath its lunar chin, in order to fend off the mighty wind of a time that, if not for the sheer temerity and the tomboyish athleticism of that baleful ode to virginity, will keep the moonlight on its steady course from east to west; so that it pulls the cold lunar eye from the foot of her bed and up to her heart, and holds it there to be a dead plaything for her blossoming fits of imagination.

And then she breaks into a laugh; smothered by her own hands, so as not to awaken the bastard; but real enough to induce the spirit from out of her skin and to cast it into that moonlight that is smiling lustfully beneath her own chin.

And the spirit cast is the heart skipping charm of unfaithfulness.

And the spirit cast is love, because love unchained is unfaithful.

For what is the thrill in love, but the stolen moments: the latching of the bedroom door, the closing of the curtain, and the dimming of the lamp to what is necessary to cast long shadows and monstrous silhouettes? And what is a step and a twirl most remembered, but the dance on the dark side of the moon; the conversation dance resplendent in its silly giggles and tingling goose bumps; the anticipation of impropriety, when the judging eyes and the cutting rumors from within the cold and lifeless lunar shadows have been cast aside for the blushing kiss that sings the final note? Lovers are awash in their secrets; bathed in those perfumed bubbles of knowing glances; the scent lingering in the third parties as no more than passing oddities, perhaps inspiring arched eyebrows or quizzically inquiring looks; but the fullness of what has been recalled; shared once more in the sharing of the memory; as resplendent in its dark and immoral joys for the silly lovers entangled as when first indulged behind the cloak and in the chains. Lovers redeem their lusts; reclaiming creativity, even joie de vivre, from those old and cantankerous sins; and determining to be right between them what the rest of the world consigns to the burning graveyard set aside for sick and sordid taboos. Lovers relish their discreet liaisons; no matter if they are new partners in an aged old scandal, or old spouses in an aged old propriety; as they share in their silence together that portion of a life that is known but unsaid; cherished, even in a manner deified, with one another, but distorted to the point of being rendered harmless with regard to all others; and loved to the extent that it is a glorified sin, as if every act of love is of the love that dares not speak its name.

And so what is the cuckold, but moral rectitude in a tract home, and the happy housewife in lipstick and pearls, and the happy husband smoking his pipe while watching Uncle Walter Cronkite, and one point eight boys in knickers and Cubs baseball caps, and a Radio Flyer Wagon parked beside an Oldsmobile upon a well scrubbed driveway, as a freckled boy delivers the Post with the new sun?

For what is the thrill in love, but that the good and the wholesome lower the shades and transform into naughty nymphs adorned in nothing but shadows?

But you will be spared yours.

Reina hears the hungry wail. It is the same old cry of dereliction that has been haunting her for the past year or so; the same old same old, and the same yet to come; and for that reason it is so much more dreadful than anything that the bastard could ever inflict upon her body and mind. It is the hunger that will never be satiated; and the cry that will never change in its sound and intensity; and the incarnate memory of an innocence lost in the sour tequila breaths, and the screaming shadows, and the cold fingers wringing the air out from a throat. 

And then Reina no longer hears the hungry wail. 

What remains of that cry cannot long endure, as the voice of that King of Kings; that Elvis without a Pelvis; wells up from somewhere inside of her loving soul to ring the mantra with just the right accent. It is as if the words are alive; a license to love unfaithfully; a marriage of longing to lust; that is now so much more real than the skin that fades to purple and the flesh that declines to dust.

Reina hurries from her bed. The bastard will be awakening soon enough.

But you will be spared yours.

Reina packs her remaining treasures into burlap. She hoists the sack over her bruised right shoulder, as if a small, but determined, buccaneer on the run.

But you will be spared yours.

Reina ponders sneaking into the guest bedroom to retrieve the invitation that the bastard now keeps on his bed stand. She thinks that it is too risky, and she is comforted by the idea that the invitation has been seared into her heart.

But you will be spared yours.

Reina sneaks out of her bedroom and down the staircase. She is a whore; a woman freed to be unfaithful; and a silly, little girl blossoming to a first love.

And the year old infant in the crib in the attic continues to wail, even as he is mesmerized by a light bulb above his forehead that is switching on and off in rapid succession. He wants the warm milk from his nursemaid and will not be quiet, even as the infinitesimally small skeleton hands reach out from inside his nostrils and squeeze his nose shut. He squirms; and he craves the warm milk on his lips; and he vomits chunky pus; and he really craves the warm milk on his….

Guilty, Now I Pour My Moaning

And then he turns the corner; breathless and alone; forced by the aching shiver in his legs to lean against the wall (or whatever the hard, but snake-like, vertical plane within the disorienting shadows may happen to be) and to clutch frustratingly at his heart; and driven by an unearthly anger, a beast rage that is all teeth and spittle in a body of mangled fur, to scamper further down the hall to the next corner; and then to the next one after that one; and on and on and on, even if it turns out that all of these corners are connected to form a loop in the void that is becoming smaller and smaller with every turn around the bend.

And then he turns another corner and stumbles into a girl; an innocence; a naked innocence; a naked innocence that is seducing him; a naked innocence that is seducing him for no other end than something that will turn out to be all vicious, all vicious and evil, downright evil; and it is in the crimson blush that is bleeding into her cheeks, and the way she is quivering her eyelashes and flaring her nostrils, and the way she is fondling her little girl pussy hairs in a moonlight that serves to remind him that she is a princess from the Old German bloodline. 

She is swimming in the waves of moonlight. She is there. She is there. No other princess is there but her; just her; only her; not he and her, but just her.

He snaps his lizard tongue out and upward; and he lathers saliva over his own bulging eyes (because he is a beast, and a beast cannot blink his own eyes, or at least he cannot blink his own eyes when he is transfixed before that virgin whore, that spitfire Irish or that Old German princess cunt, that thing, that sick ooze on the sheets that is whining no, no, no, but is really saying yes, yes, yes); and she is not swimming in the waves of moonlight. She is not there, or at least she is not there for him. She is so not there for him, not for him, never for him.

No, instead Reina is there. And Reina has lifted her hands from her pussy hairs, because she no longer has any pussy hairs. She no longer has any skin and muscles there either; actually, nothing below her waist, but rattling chopsticks of bones and clouds of osseous dust that sprinkle momentarily in the moonlight, before gathering into soot piles beside her skeleton feet; so that she resembles a little girl riding a beast; sort of like something that did not quite make it into the family friendly version of the Book of Revelation; and after another snap of the lizard tongue against the bulging eyes, like a little girl being consumed by a beast, a beast of living dead bones, and of those things that chatter in the dark hours, and of that nightmare that never ends within a bolted and buried coffin.

He snaps out from his standing coma and takes a step toward her, really, a slight forward shuffle with his feet that is all but imperceptible, but even this small gesture in her direction is enough to drain the blush out from her cheeks.

Without ever removing her eyes from him, Reina grabs for the bottom of her skin near what used to be her waistline and starts to rip it away in bleeding shreds. She is an orange peeling off her own rind; squishing out a pulp of organs and tissues that seem to be lathered in sticky honeycombs of blood; splattering this mess into puddles of fleshy jam; and yet never removing that terrified gaze of hers, until she manages to rip off the skin above her nose and then leans her face forward just enough for her loose eyes to roll out of their sockets. She rips off the skin from her arms and hands at the very end, as if she is a stripper who had decided to reverse her tease by removing her long gloves at the conclusion.

For a moment, they just stare at each other; and he wonders if he is not staring into a mirror, a moonlit mirror that had been lowered before his path so as to remind him that he is eternally naked, cowered, ridiculed behind his back even by the likes of slutty old señoritas who chew way more than they swallow.

As if a skeleton hand reaching out from inside of a mirror, she then snaps for what little is left of his cock; really, no more than a few shreds of dried skin scratching away at his inner thighs; and appears to curl her skeleton mouth into the kind of devilish smile that is reminiscent of a sauced up leprechaun in heat, or maybe a Kraut adorned in heavy jowls standing before a seasoned bratwurst, or maybe something altogether unearthly, haughty, and raw to the bone scary, so terrifying surely as to defy even a nightmare and to inspire maddening cries.

He cannot move. He is much too startled in his madness.

And so he just watches, as she snaps away at his skin shreds.

And the pus tinkles down the sides of his legs and into the void.

He hears her scream reverberating off of the walls; a blood curdling yelp that echoes back into itself from every direction, so that it builds quickly into a pack of rabid street dogs whose paws are being mangled all at once by an equal number of steel-jaw leghold traps; not her scream; but the scream of a woman nonetheless; a submissive woman with shuffling feet and downcast eyes, who is as ashamed to be making a scene beyond her low caste in life as she is startled; a simple Mayan woman who is employed to lend her pap to the care of a crying crib wetter bundled up in the attic and kept out of the sight of his sick parents.

And then he snaps open his bloodshot eye (the other remaining as buried as always behind its pirate patch), lifts his wobbly face up from the dried vomit that had been splattered across the pillow at around the third hour, and senses that his weary ears have not been rattled by her scream, but rather by his own.

But that had been her scream. 

Three mornings ago, he had been awakened from his usual nightmare by the very same blood curdling yelp, except then it had been belted into the lazy morning air by the quivering throat of the Mayan nursemaid, and had staggered down the creaky attic ladder and into the hallway a few paces beyond his guest bedroom, and had slithered under his door to ring the mad devil out of his ears.

He had stumbled out from his bed; had knocked over one of his beautiful señoritas, a silly whisperer of old Mexican ballads adorned in the shape and the texture of a half finished bottle of tequila; and had cursed the Holy Family, the Holy Apostles, and even the most fierce swashbuckler of them all, Pancho Villa. 

He had opened his bedroom door just enough to poke his good eye into a sea of trembling shadows. He had expected the princess at any moment to dash out from her royal chamber; adorned in her silly girl nightgown; perhaps for the melodramatic touch, while carrying a lit candle in her one hand, and brushing a smoky ash out of her raccoon eyes with her other; but when the old door across the hallway did not open, he had turned his attention to the attic ladder just in time to see the Mayan nursemaid taking a bundled lump down the creaky steps.

She had knocked on the opposite door; a long series of tepid bumps on a hollow door, while cradling the bundled lump against her right shoulder; and as soon as it had been made clear even to a retard that no one was there, she had turned to face the scowling buccaneer still poking his good eye through the tiny space between his door and his doorway. She had offered up the lump to him in the manner of a priest at the offertory, and he had responded to the gesture by slamming the door in her bulging eyes and launching another spasm of epithets.

But the little pap witch just would not leave him to his tequila sunshine, no matter how many times he told her to bug off and to take her bundled lump of prissy princess morning sickness with her, and so after a while he had roused himself from his doldrums enough to instruct her from behind his closed door to leave the thing in the hallway and to return without further word to her squalid home in the campo. And when she protested, he had assured her in his clammy whisper, an obviously insincere attempt at a kind voice, that he would call over Padre Pancho, or Pio, or whatever his name is, and arrange for the proper rites to be read and fees to be paid. And when she did not quite believe him, he had unearthed some crocodile tears and had slammed his fists into his vomit pillow.

He had passed out in the course of his clumsy act; and when he revived a few hours later, he tripped over the thing bundled right in front of his door and slammed his right knee against the opposite wall. He skipped around on his left foot, while holding his right knee and cursing the damned shadow cobwebs into which he was flailing. And in the midst of the confusion, he caught a glimpse of the thing that had been knocked to its side; and its eyelids clenched firmly into its waxy skin; and its blue lips still opened into its last gasp of sooty air; and its purple tongue a stiffened rattle that is poking out from infant mannequin flesh.

Screaming like a nine year old señorita who is still too small to enjoy the little game that he likes to call “Peaks in Valleys,” he stumbled into the sloped back of the attic ladder that that loopy Mayan nursemaid had forgotten to push back into the ceiling. He fell onto his butt, crinkled his sweaty shoulders blades into a corner, and looked back at the wax doll, the wax doll that is so petulant, so much like its princess mother, that it is sticking its tongue out at him forever and a day, and taunting him to do something about it, something bad, and then laughing at him in her princess voice when he just sits there and holds his head.

He had stayed in that corner the rest of that day; sleeping intermittently and restlessly; draining his bloated bowels right there in the hallway, whenever he succumbed to the urge, and grinning mischievously as the foamy piss stream washed up against the wax doll and splashed a golden mist into its open mouth.

He had imagined a Mexican standoff: the Frito Bandito Pirate readying to fire his six shooters against the Defiant Tongue Baby. And, indeed, as the hours had pulled away the traces of sunlight that had been slithering into the hallway from beneath the master bedroom door and through cracks in the exterior wall, he stopped seeing the dead body; the hardened purple skin; the clenched eyes; the collapsed nostrils; even the lips that had been transfixed by stress into that unnaturally oval shape indicative of the eternal hell scream; and started seeing the defiant tongue, as if it stood alone from anything else; a muscle fixed in his view; forever in his present; that chided: Chinga tu madre, mexicano bastardo.

At first, he had laughed hysterically, when he had heard that chide; and, in a lucid moment, he had thought about picking himself up from his sour urine and tramping into town to force a sickle-celled señorita to gag on his stiff cock.

But then, as quickly as he had started to laugh, he convulsed into morbid tears; an hysterical fit that was altogether prissy and Victorian; and he slapped himself silly to keep his mind from imagining that he is a limp wristed mortician with a taste for embalmed boyfriends who is scurrying about shadows to veil his own shame; and then when he imagined that anyway, he reminded himself that that cursed princess had imposed that sad fate upon him; that in reminding him every day of his inferior bloodline, and in passing on her Old German privileges, indeed her very surname, to that baby of hers, she had forced him into his mad excess; his drinking; his confusion; his beastly screams upon the break of dawn.

And he would have cried himself into his grave; then and there; if he had not realized how funny it would be for that cursed princess to return home and to stumble upon the wax doll beneath her sheets. No doubt, she would scream; and fall back against her closet; and know that she could never scrub the death smell out of her satin sheets, no matter the fantasy castle tower where she has the utter gall to play princess every morning, and no matter the wood figurines that she is carving in the shadows, and no matter even her privileged bloodline. The death smell will not be kicked up by a unicorn and swept away by a fantasy breeze, but rather will linger in her fears, long after decomposition has robbed everything from the wax doll but its infant bones, and eat away at her creative and artistic pretense; her sense of herself that she is somehow special; more so than he can beat it out of her with his cured leather straps and his foul tongue. 

And so he had picked up the wax doll; imagining that for him it has been stripped already of everything else but its Defiant Tongue, but that for her it is a foul smelling corpse that is only beginning to decompose into the Old German dust from which it first came; and had placed its head gently on her pillow; and had pulled her sheets up to its chin; and had sung a beautiful goodnight lullaby.

He had waited by his bedroom door all night, but she never returned.

And by the morning of the second day, he had started to hear something shuffling, or rustling, or perhaps even breathing from inside the royal chamber.

And by the evening of the second day, he had started to hear the cursed princess voice from inside the royal chamber. It chuckled at him. It chided him. It repeated over and over, like a mantra: Chinga tu madre, mexicano bastardo.

And so now is the morning of the third day.

He is screaming like the Mayan nursemaid; reaching for what little is left of his cock; and cursing the princess voice that is bleeding out from every wall, collapsing onto itself, and beating him down to that grave from which he came.

He covers his ears, but the chide is even stronger inside of his mind than it is as the shrill verse that is increasingly defining every mad inch of her home.

And it will get even stronger, and finally kill him, so long as she remains.

He swings his bedroom door open with such beastly viciousness as nearly to knock it off of its hinges. He snarls and claws at the opposite door; pounding the frame at one point like a mad rabbit humping an unseen chip or crack in an otherwise solid surface; and using his shoulders to knock off the unlocked door.

The Defiant Tongue Baby is sitting up in its bed. It is a pure skeleton way too soon; except for that stiff tongue poking out from inside its mouth; and it is creaking its oversized baby skull to the side so as to stick out its tongue at him.

All My Shame with Anguish Owning

Delbert awakens from the warm kiss of a spring breeze.

He wipes droplets off of his forehead and chest; and, feeling the clammy coat of wet heat about his bare skin, he wonders if he is suffering from a fever.

After all, it is the late spring; the cusp of June, he vaguely recalls from a calendar that he had seen a few days ago on the post office bulletin board; and the summer monsoon is just starting to nip at the tired spring air with its strong hints of torrential rains to come; downpours unleashed by the Snarling Ghost of Montezuma; and blustery furnace winds dropping all sorts of creepy native bugs on Mestizos and Gringos alike. But of course the darker their skin, the more the locals are immune to these fanged and furry frights that crawl about a stomach and insert poison into intestinal linings. For them, the bugs are inconveniences; nuisances to be drowned under waves of tequila and expunged in smelly burrito farts; but for the Gringos, the bugs are perilous reminders that there truly is no other legacy for a Son of Cortes living in Mexico than a periodic bout of clammy and confused pain; a wretched oink of time spent bundled inside of wet sheets, slumped over a cracked toilet bowl, or splayed across a floor praying for death.

He sits upward and winces from a throbbing pain in his lower back. He is dimly aware that a backache is another indication of a fever, but of course that sharpened dagger poking in and out of his muscle may be attributed to the fact that he passed out on the rooftop surface, while taking a swig from a vino tinto with his right hand and fumbling a Polaroid 335 Land Camera with his left hand.

He is too dizzy to stumble back to his feet, so he crawls to a merlon, and leans against the jagged stone. He scrubs stardust out from his droopy eyes and wipes away a stream of sticky sweat that is slogging down from his tussled hair; a useless gesture, to be sure, since soon enough there will be another stream in the same crevices upon his vino tinto aged skin; and glares over his regal court.

It is a shambles; tossed and smashed bottles; food chunks, webbed into a splattered pool of peanut butter or honey, and attracting a kind of monsoon fly that is louder and fiercer than its cousin north of the Rio Grande; and, as if the remnant of a snow drift, the silver white backs of hundreds of Polaroid pictures scattered indiscriminately across the rooftop surface, squeezed like white roses in a tight bouquet inside the typewriter carriage, waterlogged within a cold pot of Agua de Jamaica, and spread on top of the hammock as a makeshift blanket.

He looks over at the Polaroid 335 Land Camera. He had bought it in town when Reina had moved in with him. He had treasured it as much as his Polaroid back at home; perhaps even more so, since it is such a rare commodity within a town of terracotta walls and burros tied to hitching posts; and now it is busted; no more than scrap parts that will rust in the monsoon rains next month; debris from when a naked photographer passes out before his ingénue and drops all of his wares and quite a bit of his pride onto the stony floor beneath his limp feet.

It is just as well, he reasons. She is not the same. She means well, and is always so happy to pose for him, but what he had glimpsed on that third day is just no longer there. Perhaps it never had been. Perhaps he has been imagining all along what he had seen in that sudden transfiguration from time to eternity.

He picks up a Polaroid picture by his side. It is the very same pose as the others: Reina is inside the sandbox; the sandbox that he had crafted from wood beams and white sand pebbles stolen out from Mr. Dickinson’s chicken coup the day after Reina had moved in with him; kneeling on sand clumps, while wearing a floral bathing suit; folding her fingers in her lap; and looking back at him with a pleasing giggle, a twitch in her lips meant to suggest she is transitioning there and then from one thought to another, and a surreal curl at the ends of her lips meant to suggest she is lifting her soft bubble gum cheeks into a crimson blush.

Of course, the floral bathing suit is not the same. He still cannot find the exact replica in any of the tiendas de ropa in town, even though he has been as dogged as any Mexican housewife in swimming daily through the grand stacks of ladies’ lingerie and bathing suits that are in discreet back rooms alongside dirty magazines and pawned Tupperware. He is disappointed, but not surprised, at a slim selection, since he and his fellow housewives are so far from the shoreline.

But the problem is not the floral bathing suit anyway.

The problem is her giggle is so excessively pleasing.

Even in her innocence, hers had been tinged with that Irish spitfire; that soft, but lurid, devil may care abandon; and he had known at that very moment that whatever he had captured had been as living as untamable; a fey mermaid never to be submerged beneath the waves; never to be carried off by that rank passion for death that cannot but harden the heart of the suitor in a white suit; and yet jailed eternally within the soft dreams of the warden with the one key.

But there is nothing so alive in Reina; nothing so untamable; so that he is inclined to think of her as a ghost and to ponder how she manages each time to be captured on film. And yet with every shutter of the lens, there is less of her captured; and so it is only a matter of time before the shots come up as blanks.

He sets the Polaroid picture aside and again scans the rooftop. He has no idea why. It is all much the same; the only change is when a warm breeze picks up some of the Polaroid pictures and discards them somewhere else; and, when finally he eyes Reina, she will be much the same as she had been the prior day.

He eyes the latest of her wood masterpieces. It is the third or the fourth attempt at a mermaid; and, like its predecessors, it does not really look like an Untamed Siren of the Sea, so much as a blob lounging in front of the boob tube and, depending upon the angle of perception, perhaps even downing a daiquiri.

He sighs, looks away from the blob that has no other destiny reserved for it than to be kindling next winter, and then sees her awakening in the sandbox.

It takes her a while to get up to her knees. He has taught her to be a sad and wretched drunk (not the happy clappy kind that is a mainstay at the lovely soirees hosted by his Aunty Gertie), but he has not taught her how to beat back a nasty hangover; probably because he is not nearly so wise in that department himself; and so she is left to fend for herself on a pair of wobbly knees on sand.

Still, she manages to fold her fingers in her lap (not an easy task for her, when she is witnessing ten ghost fingers on each of her four hands), to turn her face towards his, and to giggle irreverently. Except the giggle seems pained, as if an anxious set of twitches in response to a pistol being pointed at the back of her head; and the bloodshot circle in each of her cheeks spreads like a crimson cancer and soon colors the rest of her face in the beet red of a drunken shame.

Delbert mimes a camera with his thumbs and index fingers. 

You blush fairly well for a half nigger; he snickers playfully.

Reina twirls her index finger in the sand. She seems to be lost in a dream all her own, or maybe is only waiting for the waves of nausea to gurgle up from her sad bowels and to spray out onto the White Sands of Dover. Regardless, she seems not to have heeded his wisecrack and to be impervious to life in general.

Delbert wanders over to the kitchen. He acts aimless enough, and at one point he looks as if he is going to fall in between two merlons and splat his bare skin and bones on the gravel below. He seems altogether dangerous, like one of those silent loners who might just decide to pick up a pistol and shot your eyes.

But, in fact, he has a purpose in mind. He wants to crack some eggs for a scramble and wine breakfast; a meal that he will be happy to share with Reina, if she can poke her mind back into real life for a moment or two; and, when his eyes stumble upon the empty egg basket, he has enough sense in him to decide that it is high time to steal some more from Mr. Dickinson, the very same Super Gringo who has not seen fit still to send him a personal and engraved invitation to dine, or even to share a cocktail, even though he has had ample opportunity in the past few months to learn of his esteemed reputation as a Man of Letters.

Of course, walking down the hill requires putting on a robe, even in such a backwater country as his present home; and he is not in any such mood. He is not in any particular mood, actually, except the one that allows him to be nude and hung over. And he is hung over. He had not been so sure at first, but he has enough of an ache screwing out from his temples that he can finger the culprit.

And so he knocks the Polaroid pictures off of his chair, sits down in front of his typewriter, and senses that now is as good a time as any to stare down at his lily cock. And he may have kept on staring forever, if Reina had not spoken.

I do not know what to say, Reina says with her heart stuck in her throat.

Sometimes it is best to say nothing, Delbert answers flippantly.

Except to say that I really love…

Enough of that, Delbert cuts her off. 

But I know it. I really love…

Listen, Delbert snaps, turning in his chair to face her. You are a good girl right now; right now at this very moment; and that means that you do not know a goddamn thing about love. You want to know something? When someone says, I love you, and looks adoringly into your pretty eyes, that person may not sense it then, but she has stepped down from her innocence and has started that long and steep descent to the water’s edge, where the old bones are gathered along the seashore, and where the waves pull out memories from the sand and sweep them out beyond the horizon, like seashells that are glistening in the sun in the span of a heartbeat, and then are dulled by the sea foam and lost to the ravage of time. So, you see, a girl who says, I love you, is a dead girl. She is the one in the urn; tossed out to the sea gusts; and freed to be the ash smothered by a fat ass on a bar stool. But the girl who is still ashamed of love; too afraid to talk of it, lest her slumber party sisters snicker, or even worse pass on her fairy tale to her puppy love crush; well, she is the very best of all girls; a simple flower that is on the cusp, but never quite blossoms, that remains a timid life in the safety of a shadow, rather than reaching out to a sunlight that can burn the petals, as much as it can nurture the stalk. She does not love; she dreams of love; fancies it as another plaything in her mind; and sings sweet nothings into its ear. She is not going to sacrifice for a husband, or a child, bearing the weight of years that brings her that much closer to the tomb. She is going to fold her fingers about a sturdy back, and be led to the center of the dance floor, and be transfigured in a kiss into the kind of silly sweet pudding that can be molded by her gentleman and kept in the back of the closet somewhere. Hers is the wish to be a Reverse Pinocchio: as a doll carved out from wood wishes to become a real boy, so then a real girl wishes to become a figurine in Geppetto’s workshop. And if you are a good girl; as I know you to be right now; then you will hold fast to the mindless and carefree innocence; the thoughtless giggle when first sipping from a bottle of vino tinto; because the alternative is to look out into the sea, and to hear an ancient song on the waves, the Siren call of madness and despair that awaits an old soul sailing into the last port of call, and to heed that song as the fairest to the ear. And so what do we gain in time, but a wisdom taken to the grave? And what avails the Crusader who hoists his sails, but a Jerusalem still occupied and controlled by the moneychangers? And do the ghosts of war care a whit about a banner or a trumpet call, where theirs is the restful peace of a time stood still, and of a Resurrection unheeded, and of the lovely smile of the fair and fulsome wife back home just fluttering in the breezes above the stench of dead soldiers and the ashes of spent mortars? Know nothing of love, and yours is eternal life.

He kicks back his chair and bends down in front of Reina, so that his eyes are no more than an inch from hers. He looks over every pore on her drunk as a skunk face, and finally he returns to the quiver in her eyes; really, the jewel of her features, because it is the last remaining indication of her sad vulnerability and hopeless puppy love; the quiver left over from a brutal beating at the hand of a beast being the same one that inaugurates a make out in the bleachers; so that it is transfixed in that eternal twilight between knowing the horrors of life and maturing into responsible womanhood; the petal crisped by an overripe sun but not yet blossomed; the fragility of a scarred youth that is nevertheless able to believe still the old and sanguine fairy tales. The bruises have vanished from her skin; the sunglasses set aside some weeks ago; and yet the quiver remains a talisman of a rose shivering in breezes, but not yet blossoming to the Siren Sun.

He once more mimes a camera with his thumbs and index fingers, zooms into the quiver in her eyes, and snaps a picture. He even pretends to pull it out from the film ejection slit, to shake it in the sunlight, and to look at the image.

But, even then, it is not quite right, not what he had been hoping to see.

Well, sweet nothing, it seems that we do not have any eggs this morning for our stomachs, but we have plenty of red wine for our souls, he offers with a wry shrug, while tossing aside the imaginary picture, and returning to his chair.

Reina studies him in silence. She senses that if she steps out of the small sandbox, he will kick back his chair and wring her neck; literally press his glossy fingertips into her larynx; and, therefore, she feels more truly loved than ever.

I am one of the best girls, Reina observes after a while. I have tossed my shit to the wind; what came out of me; what had been hanging about my throat so long, because I know that you will lead me in this soft dance of ours forever.

Spare, O God, Thy Suppliant Groaning

Delbert is not sure what he does with the rest of the day. 

He tries to repair the Polaroid 335 Land Camera, crouching over it, like a nude caveman attempting to figure out how to transform a pile of sticks into an open fire. And at one point he seems to get the shutter clicking again. But once it is clear that the magic has been spent, he tosses it into that gangly confusion of limbs and branches that passes for the tree beside his castle tower. The mad voice in his head hopes that it will smash into a trillion pieces and shower down onto the varicose roots spreading out from the tired stump. But instead it rests; precariously at first, but after remaining where it is in spite of a gust breathing up from the gravel, in such a manner as to make it clear that it will be there on that same limb long after the castle tower has fallen back to the earth; its lens pointing back at the rooftop, as if a single eye watching everything that occurs, and disaffirming what it sees with the camera mind imbedded in its roll of film.

He also pinches at his flaccid cock; and rubs it up against a merlon every now and then; perhaps hoping that it will just fall off in a series of white paper shreds, like all that confetti thrown out from open windows on New Years’ Eve, and be lost among the Polaroid pictures; or perhaps for no other reason than to brood on what may befall him now that that camera is dead and staring at him.

Because something is going to happen…

And no one who swims past the horizon can avoid the impenetrable wall.

And Reina has done just that; in her profession of love; in how she stares at him the rest of the day, even as she is toying with the sand pebbles inside of her sandbox; and he fears that she is going to pull him out to the wall with her.

Late in the afternoon, when Delbert finally puts on his robe, and departs to fill his egg basket, he expects her to be kneeling still in the sandbox, looking at him lovingly with a pair of wide eyes that are transfiguring into two sparkling nickels, and crunching on invisible sunflower seeds lodged in between her teeth and her lips. He wonders if she will be there forever; staring; crunching; maybe even breathing now and then; his living work of art displayed on a white beach.

But when he returns just after dusk, she is asleep in the sandbox. 

Her knees are bent still; but rather than burrowing into the sand so as to hold up her frame, they are laying in a fetal position, as if the death of the sun has revealed her to be no more substantial than a cardboard cutout kneeling at that spot all day in order to be knocked into the sand by the first lonely howl of a night wind. Her lips are crunching still on invisible sunflower seeds, though on the whole more slowly, like a fat cow chewing on her cud before the slaughter.

Even the eyes are staring still. The eyelids are closed; but the nickels on the other side seem to be as intent as ever in capturing every detail of the very real love just starting to blossom out from the heart. There is nothing charming or innocent in these closed eyelids. They are not dreamy, so much as daring, as if the manifestation of a girl who has stepped deliberately across the last white picket fence and is now a dying woman relishing in the poppy fields before her.

He stares at her for what seems an eternity; hating her; desiring nothing else whatsoever but the moral conviction to press his foot down onto her throat until the spasms end, and the eyes start to bulge out from their sockets, and all of the wanderlusts of a maturing girl are laid to rest somewhere out of his soul.

But, of course, he does not do that. He prepares scrambled eggs instead.

And then he lights a torch at each of the four corners of his happy home.

And then he sweeps up all of the Polaroid pictures and bundles them in a garbage bag. He tosses the garbage bag over the side, as if a buccaneer getting rid of the contraband on his ship just moments before it is going to be boarded.

And finally he dresses in his whites and even polishes his fine fingernails.

Because something is going to happen…

He is sitting at his typewriter; dropping his nose every now and then into the keyboard to strike another letter into the incomprehensible poem that is on its way to the trash bin; and reaching down to the floor to scrounge for a bottle of vino tinto that has not been drunk yet by his liver; when something happens.

At first, he is not sure that anything has happened.

The orange blue haze reverberating in to and out from crackling torches has been casting mirages all night, and he shrugs this off as just another image.

It looks like a devil mask suspended about six feet above the floor only a few steps in from where the spiral staircase ascends into the rooftop. It is not a typical devil mask, but rather a surreally deformed one, as if the craftsmanship of a mischievous mask maker who thought that it would be charmingly queer to stylize it with an abnormally large and bloated forehead; much like the head of an embryo pressed up against the inner womb; a pair of impenetrably dark eyes that are overly large and round; a collapsed nose; and a mouth figured into the unnaturally oval scream of a cartoon clown or maybe of Olive Oyl from Popeye.

And then it is the face of a Cherub; beet red and scaled, because it is so close to the flaming divinity for which it is a born servant; its eyes wide open in its perception of His Mysteries; its mouth shaped into the perfection of His Will.

And finally it is the skull of a baby; orange blue haze flickering off of the dull bone; and a gaggle of little bones dangling below its chin like wind chimes.

Delbert is soon tired of the mirage. He is about to return to his keyboard when the light trick berates him in a screech that will frighten any drunk sober.

Chinga tu madre, mexicano bastardo; the light trick repeats three times and then transitions into a mad chuckle that cannot but stand the hairs on end.

Delbert braces his desk and snaps his head back. 

And then from out of the orange blue haze, there appears a man holding the baby skeleton in front of his own face; an emaciated man draped in a white pirate shirt and denim cutoffs; his bare feet bruised from a long slog over rocks and fallen branches, so that he resembles a buccaneer bum who once had been tossed from the deck of black flagged ship and since time immemorial has been wandering the dead sands of a deserted island, snarling at an occasional seagull flying overhead, and cursing the ribald surf that slaps seashells against his feet.

The man lowers the baby skeleton to his chest, and then Delbert gasps.

His is the face of a scowling beast; skin twisted and cracked from horrors unimaginable; a patch over his left eye that is even darker than the starless sky hanging over the depths of winter; and, for a moment, Delbert thinks that he is seeing Chester prowl his rooftop, like a pirate besieging a ship on the high seas.

And he is clutching in his yellowed teeth what looks like a folded gully.

Chinga tu madre, mexicano bastardo; the man muffles through the gully in his spit, while rattling his wind chimes so hard that a femur falls to the floor.

Delbert wraps his right hand about the neck of an empty bottle. He does not look at his weapon, lest he remove his stare from the madman twitching all over his rooftop and rattling his skeletal doppelganger before his heaving chest.

 ¿Dónde está la princesa? Quiero que vea la lengua pegada a ella.

So this is the bastard of whom Reina has spoken, Delbert thinks.

But what is this cryptic demand of his that she view a tongue sticking out at her? So far as Delbert can see, the bastard cannot stick out his rancid tongue on account of the gully in his spit, and his lowered mask is a collection of bones that is bit by bit disassembling into bone shards on the floor and osseous clouds in the torch haze. So the reference must be an illusion born out of his madness.

The bastard approaches Delbert; rattling his own head and limbs into the primordial dance of a beast man worshipping the bone god in his hands; his one good eye lost in madness; his patch hiding the untold secret of the void outside of all spatial dimensions and measurable time, the ominous mystery of how the eternal present is best captured in physical and moral blindness, that blackness that is the sad truth of whatever is veiled in light and love and crimson blushes.

And then Delbert sees something. He sees her. He sees the tongue.

It is a stiffened tongue sticking out of the baby skull mouth. It is sticking out at him. It is chuckling at him; and she is chuckling at him; that Irish spitfire of a laugh; the kind that invites a wave to arise from the deep and to swallow a ghost man clutching feverishly at his broken heart and longing for his shoreline.

Delbert leaps out from his chair and smashes his bottle against the skull; eviscerating what remains of the rattling skeleton into flying bone daggers; and knocking the bastard out cold. He lands on the chest of the bastard, so that the two hearts are beating into one another, and he grabs for that beast man neck, that throbbing madness just beneath the chin, that life rattle in a living corpse.

Delbert spares him. He does not know why. He just rolls off of the beast.

And later that night, as Delbert is sleeping, Reina awakens from her final dream, sees the bastard beside her, and follows him back to their life together.

Through the Sinful Woman Shriven

And that is the way the world ends…

Not with a bang, but a wave receding…

Receding in silence with that beast of nature; the pulls and the shoves of gravity unrestrained and allowed to fall into itself; from which it had arched its foamed crest, ripped its path across the aqua blue, and mangled white beaches near and far from its birth in a primordial scream and unto its very last retreat.  

And then there is nothing left but fear; fear alone; raw coldness, rattling blue through tissue and skin, and leaving behind a solitary skeleton boy hanging from its own hook in a world reduced to a meat locker; so that there is nothing but senseless jaw chattering; a kind of chuckle that will pass for a conversation with despair; a cocktail flirt with madness; while the Blacksmith’s Son hooks all the more into the temporal bone from a point of entry just behind the jaw, and dangles the solitary skeleton boy in the right place for two other Sons; together with the first a kind of Trinity of Hooks emanating from the perverted dream of the Blacksmith; to hook the wrists; the snap and the crackle of bone fragments in the wrists bristling into an ice shower that falls to the meat locker floor; and to lift the humerus, radius, and ulna on each side to an invisible transom that is no more high than the back of the skull and yet is so far removed from the gaze of the cloaked women and the Zebedee as to relegate the solitary skeleton boy to a death without mourners; a wail bereft of shared misery; and a closing wish for none other than to know the embrace and the tear of a kin about to be lost. 

And so the end of fear is loneliness; even more so, abandonment; a dark, cold place, where nothing is heard but the receding wave swirling back into the earthen crack from which it came, and fading footsteps over a stretch of gravel and mud in the cover of the third hour, and a last tear setting into the sad lines of a chattering skull. And then there is nothing remaining in the bone chill, but an ice swirl crinkling up from the floor of the meat locker and shimmering bone flakes into its cauldron; downcast eye sockets; collapsed ribcage; such features cast in thin bone as is peculiar to the last boy left in an orphanage after sunset.

Once upon a time, the ice swirl rattles the cracked and chipped bones in such a manner as to form words; a screeching metal voice; a cry taken up by an angry wind howl, so that it is impossible to tell if the words are real, or are the surreal excess of a dreamscape that has gone silly mad somewhere in the night.

And those rattling bones sing: I am touching you; shaking you; whispering into that part of your skull where your right ear used to be; so know now and in all times that you are not alone. I am your kin; your tribe; your father and your bride; and I am here to take you away from the orphanage; off those hooks and out of this iced meat locker; and you will be mine, and I shall be yours, forever and ever, world without end, even after the fat lady has sung, amen and amen.

They are cruel ghosts those words; a voice of a past hope now given over to despair; dripping in madness and culminating in a shattered ice chuckle; and so the solitary skeleton boy is dangling from its hooks still; and the last boy left in the orphanage finds no respite from his silent tears shed beneath threadbare sheets. Cruel words; the bait and the switch, followed by a laugh muttered in a wind chime; until the last bit of hope has been vanquished and that death mind that inhabits hanging skeletons and weeping orphans turns to the utter void for which it had been crafted and is lost in the impenetrably black wall somewhere beyond the horizon. And then there are no cruel ghosts anymore; no bone chills whispering and chuckling; but just the black; the timeless black waiting for the sojourner at the end of the tunnel and absorbing his last tenuous grasp of love.  

The boy awakens into a nightmare of bony fingers scratching at the floor near his bed; a sound that reminds him of feverish rats clawing at cheese in the shadows; and he furrows his cold forehead and hollowed eyes into the traces of morning light just now starting to break through the vent and into the dungeon.

A tired rooster crows in the distance; really, no more than a sick waddle of a cockle-doodle-doo coughed out from a feeble chicken neck that is resigned to its fate to be fleeced and fried; the wake up call of a dreary winter morning; and two skeleton hands clutch unevenly at the clay pot of refried bean tortillas and the cup of hot water that that Indian boy had shoved through the vent and into the dungeon just several minutes earlier so as to save him from his hunger.

But the boy is not terrified, so much as morose. He slinks the back of his head into the pillow; even as the two skeleton hands clutching the clay pot and the cup retreat so far that the vent flaps back into place, and the metal crunch chuckle rattles back through the same vent and meanders into the ink soot as a new addition to the menacing ghosts that float about in there; but he cares not a whit for his impending starvation, nor for the living bones that are once more slinking in and out of the shadows, so much as he is consumed in sadness at the realization that the tinny voice inside the urn had not sung out to him just prior to the two skeleton hands thrusting through the vent and into his private parts.

He scoots his head over to the other side of the pillow, wipes a tear that is too hardened in the sheer loneliness of the moment to fall from his trembling right eye, and searches for the urn that is veiled in a dark and brooding shadow and that no longer whispers out to him with the lure of a past love lost to time.

As the first tease of sunlight slithering through the vent brightens from a dark purple to a yellowish gray; a sick color that is suggestive of a vomit puddle that had been abandoned off the side of the road; he makes out an unreal shift in the shadow that really could be as much a figment of his imagination as what is emerging in front of his ghost haunted eyes. It is as if the ghosts of a new day are the make believe kin of a former one; one trick of the silly mind giving way to another in an imperceptible passage of time; and that the only recourse that is left for a boy in a dungeon is to doubt the flesh wrapped about his own bones as no more than the plaything of a mind unable to accept that it is its very own fantasy; no doubt, its best dream; but, like all dreams, destined to fade into an impenetrable blackness when the final bits of innocence succumb to the waves.

And then he makes out the urn; but in the disorienting vomit light that is now streaming through the vent and reverberating off of the eroding walls, it is as if a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out floating in the water filled cabin of a sunken pirate ship; a treasure not valued enough to be salvaged, as the snarling old coot of a sea reclaimed its own and laid to waste the dreams of a sad boy in threadbare sheets; a discard that cannot be heard crinkling back into the ashes from which it came owing to the deafening water pressures so deep in the void.

But why should nature tear down what is not real?

And why should the living dead bury their ghosts?

The boy returns to the center of his pillow. He stares up at the ceiling; a blank slate that is impermeable even to the vomit light that is splashing around the rest of the dungeon; and he decides inside the span of a defeated breath of ink soot air that it is best to lay aside all such probing questions. He remembers from Sunday school how Job reached a similar ceiling; bumped his big head into a heavenly vault and fell back into the hard seat of a confessional that strongly resembled a black coffin set up on its side; and, finally, just had to accept that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, and as the loose woman intones the song of wisdom, so does the just man babble from a throat filled with sand.

But try as he may, he cannot turn off his mind; anyway, not as if flipping a switch lodged somewhere in his gray matter; and so he continues his struggle, his kick against the pricks, his insistence that something meaningful come from his breakdown of the grand illusion in which he is mired, his faithfulness to that cruel joke that had been set up before the first waves crashed upon a beach by which a serious boy is shown to be no more substantial than a silly girl in braids and blushing cheeks. He can decide to lay aside probing questions all he wants, but they will not lay him aside. They will remain there; perhaps relegated to an odd and dreamlike corner of his mind, but nonetheless still there to take a hold of his right hand, to place it on the side of the urn, and to make certain that he feels just enough warmth bleeding out from inside the urn to resurrect his hope in a family meant for him; and, as a result, he will dabble the rest of the day in that twilight between madness and love. He will play the game; act out his role in the illusion; even as he knows that, when all is said and done and the temple veil has been pulled to the side, there will turn out to be nothing at all in there but the skeletal remains of some sad sack who had been wiping the golden seat just as a Babylonian horde had slithered inside to lay hands on the faded booty.

And so he dreams beyond the impermeable ceiling; even beyond what he imagines to be the dreary winter sky; and he thumbtacks an invitation on a fine bulletin board in a cloud; a cry for any kin; and a plea for someone to love him.

Through the Dying Thief Forgiven

For what seems an eternity there is no answer to that cry; nothing to stir the mind from its descent into a black ditch shrouded by hanging bougainvillea; but the intermittent return of the skeleton hands just before the break of dawn to rob the boy of his daily bread. For days at a time, he is left with nothing on which to feast but his impending madness; surreal nightmares bleeding through the dungeon walls and wrapping his skin even more tightly about his bones; the death rattle forecast in drawn eyes and gaunt cheeks quivering from streams of cold sweat; and always the penetrating silence of an urn that no longer sings to his ear but inspires the kind of slow and maudlin death notes in his brittle mind that would be proper to a piano played by a gnome in a Victorian funeral parlor that is crinkling a bit more into dust with every palsied strike of the piano keys. And then for days at a time, the skeleton hands do not chicken scratch his floor just before the break of dawn; and the wan boy is able to roll out from beneath his threadbare sheets and to elbow his wet noodle skin and creaking bones over to the cup of hot water; at first slurping the water into his nose and tongue like a sick dog; and then stirring from the fatigue and the stomach cramping nausea just enough to sit upright and to nibble at his refried bean tortillas as if a loopy eyed toddler in a wet bib trying out his front baby tooth for the very first time.

And so the skeleton hands are always there; rattling in the winter breeze that whistles through the vent; scratching and chipping at something inside of a shadow; ready to return the moment the boy is able to snap out of his bed with the barest twinkle in his eye and to step over to the clay pot and the cup in the confident mind that the God of the living does not Indian give manna and quail.

When invariably the hunger returns; knocking upon the taut linings of his stomach in the heavy handed manner of a mercurially jealous aunt who is quite insistent on her regal right to barge in as an unwanted guest for the dry season; the boy cannot but wonder if this give and take is indeed the answer to his plea for a family; if indeed love and loss is the cycle of kinship; and such remains his focus until the madness again creeps back out from the sick stabs of starvation.

In one of his nightmares, he is leaning his skeleton head against the calm and soothing chest hairs of the Man of Sorrows; the warm heartbeats massaging his occipital bone, while he is lazily ripping off what little skin remains dangling from his chin in the manner of a leathery Fu Manchu mustache; when he lowers his skull face; his loosened eyes rolling about his sockets as if sparkling marbles in a pair of kitchen mortar bowls; and catches the King of Kings clutching a bag of silver. He jolts his skull face upward, so as to see if indeed Jesus is Judas, or Judas is Jesus, but such startled movement knocks his eyes out from his sockets and back into his temporal bones. He cannot see anything now but the inside of his own skull; brittle bones crinkling into osseous dust particles and floating out from cavities in the vicious snaps from winter gust howls, so that over the span of several millennia his eyes roll back into his parietal bone; and he cannot tell if he is leaning against the redeemer or the traitor. And the great horror is that the two may be the one and the same; Judas nailed to the Cross; Jesus hanging himself in infamy; and a boy left to find a kind of solace in his unrequited pains and sorrows, until there is nothing against which to lean his skeleton head after a long and dreary day but his own mad thoughts and teeth chattering chuckles.

The boy awakens from this nightmare; but as he is no more substantial in his body and soul than would be indicated by a flat patch of dried skin and thin bones interlacing with the weave of a bed sheet, he rolls his left cheek into the pillow, exhales a hollow breath through his blue lips, and stares blankly at what he vaguely recalls is the door to his dungeon. He is too far down the path to his own grave; too accustomed to the gray earth and the overcast sky of a universe bending sharply at the black horizon and draining into a nondescript pine coffin somewhere beneath the last sunset; to feel the pangs of hunger in his stomach, or the headache and the nausea of a body still trying to despair the lures of the Grim Reaper. He is no more than the numbness of a tepid drool at the corner of the mouth; the defeated mind that in a man is washed out from a skull through sloshy waves of alcohol, but in a boy is eaten away bit by bit by the boogeyman skeleton who lurks in menacing shadows; and so he does not react at all, as the door creaks open suddenly to reveal two thieves in the shadows of a new dawn.

An Indian woman steps into the dungeon. She is a caramel skinned angel; straight black hair that sparkles in the first hints of sunlight beaming in through the vent and that hugs her back and waistline as the tailored hood and cape of a sorceress in a medieval fantasy book; completely naked, but in that innocent, tiptoeing through the tulips of Eden manner of a fairyland Pocahontas; her feet feminine but strong, like the huntress Diana; her legs long and breathless bones waxed elegantly in unblemished skin; her pubic hair no more than a few sparkly curls dancing lazily in a warm breeze; her stomach a flat board carved out from an ageless tree; her breasts two small bumps in a vertical plane ascending from a thin waistline and over a beautiful face of tight lips and high cheekbones; and her aqua blue eyes suggesting a mixed race bathed in enough royal blood to set her apart as unassailable, a virginal goddess among brutes who is as much a fun and a carefree spirit unleashing nubile dreams in the spring blooms of the black forests of old as she is an untouched nymph guarding her dark mysteries behind the barest hints of a blush, so that she is at once an unsettling conundrum even in the mind of an eight year old boy who has no eye for her peculiar, protesting too much chastity, but who just knows that there is a penchant for thievery not successfully veiled in her angelic countenance and that she is stepping out from the shadows in the manner of the unrepentant thief taken down from his cross; an impression confirmed as her blush bristles for no other reason, than the mad jealousy that is forever simmering beneath the innocence and that has no need of a cause, legitimate or otherwise, to bleed through the pores of her tight skin every now and then; and a dread that will become that much more apparent to an observer over time, as she goes on to harvest much more than she has sown. 

The boy looks down at what appears at first to be a dark hump along the side of her left leg. It is the embarrassment; the oversized mole that is shuffled from the side to the back of the leg, and then the ball and chain that is hanging heavily from the left wrist of the Indian woman; and the boy senses somewhere in his fog that she would cut off the left side of her own body if by doing so she could be rent finally from the leech that subsists off of the darkest of shadows.

And then it steps into the light and is revealed to be an Indian boy.

The Indian boy seems to be much the same age and height as his starved counterpart; a child of neglect withering into his own bones; a mute beast with nothing on which to chew except his own right thumb; a loving humanity hinted in his frightened eyes, scared not for his own plight but for what he observes in the white boy wasting away in front of him, and passionate in no other purpose than to be of immediate aid to the suffering souls trapped within old dungeons.

And this humanity is so resplendent in his caramel brown eyes that there is no other conclusion but that this Indian boy is the same person who has been shoving the clay pot of refried beans and the cup of hot water through the vent every morning. He is the noble savage then; beastly in how he lurks in shadows, but angelic in how he steps into the light in the aid of charity; and it is because of that underlying nobility; that simple peace caressing at his heart and stirring the mind to the possibility of salvation in a savage; that the Indian woman is as jealous as she is relieved, when he takes leave of her side in the silent darkness before dawn to be a Good Samaritan. His is the curse by which she is reminded; so often as to be a kind of nagging madness in the back of her mind; that she is forever outshined by the unassuming shadow following so guardedly behind her.

The boy senses this conflict; and yet he sees them as a pair; forever tied at the hip in virtue of a secret that is shared between them; and knows that his first assessment is indeed accurate: no matter the good intentions of the Indian boy, together they take more than they give; they love, but only as a precursor to the sorrow that lasts so much longer than the brief encounters with joy; and they scavenge from one another; and from anyone else with whom they may be able to form a love triangle; in the manner peculiar to the dark life of a family.

And so the boy relives a dream; or perhaps it is a memory; in which he is sitting at the head of the dining table at his beachfront home; his infant fingers resting on a typewriter keyboard; his little legs not able to touch the floor; and staring at herher heavy stoop and shriveled back; her head turning to the side so as to cough her blood away from the half finished mermaid beneath her final stare; and knowing that this is love; this is family; this is the time that does not progress, but just lingers as a late afternoon sun falling on life and death alike.

Thou to Me A Hope Hast Given

Flip the card; the Wheel of Fortune bleeding through shadows and mists; touching the hem of the Magician and imparting, Rota Taro Orat Tora Ator; and the late afternoon sun is the moon before dawn; spent and forgotten; a storied goddess once, but now an afterthought in a verse, tamed by leather bound dust on a bookshelf somewhere, and then lost forever in the sad yellowing of pages; the eyes below cast away from her path to favor what is just breaching the last of the horizons; the line between the outstretched fingers of God and of Man to which we turn only when the new is about to supplant the old; the icon of once more forgiven and forever dead; so that the moon has no more to offer than an ornery huff; the silly pretense of a grand dame left alone at a cocktail party for no other reason than that record skipping behind her tarnished crown; and then the tired slump of a wrinkled chicken neck into a buttered breast; that collapse out from time spent that is so languid as to stretch the last second of life into a lifetime of its own; that death that goes so unnoticed by the eyes turning up to the new as to be relegated to the shadows; or perhaps to the creepy folds in an old curtain before a lamp is switched on; or perhaps to the bits and pieces of a childhood nightmare senselessly bobbing about the mind of a man, and having no more black poison in them than that which inspires him to boil a pot of milk.

But savage is the conscious mind curving listlessly into the void; the lusts unhinged in a brain first sensing the pentobarbital swimming up veins, as if now and forever freed from the constraints of reason and respectability; freed to be indulgent in the beast holes, and tongues, and lips; all the tight butts and loose mouths that had been tossed to the shadows and hidden behind remote corners and flashing neon; so that at the very end there is only a writhing animal with a pair of silver dollar eyes and blue lips; a transfiguration veiled by that standard rest in the sleep of peace; the quiet look of the euthanized; but a cauldron just beneath the waxing skin; a death spitfire that does not end with the body, as a vanquished moon does not cease to exist somewhere, but that writhes and spits against its rusty ghost chains, or within red hell pits, or underneath nightmares.

Flip the card; the Moon raining yellow Yuds in stark contrast with a black and starless sky; the Yuds falling in pairs, and each pair designating that Adonai God of the old and fearless country, whimpering back to the earth as a dried up leaf, and leaving behind nothing, but that eternal night; the Moon still touching the hem of the Magician, but the old certainty that there is a universal order to be mastered, Rota Taro Orat Tora Ator, giving way to the randomness of a fiery beast snarl in an otherwise faceless void; the dog and the wolf frizzled in fright and howling at a moon in its very last stage of descent; the crayfish crawling on its appendages in between the rabid canines in the slow and meticulous fashion of a death march; its antennae fixed on the windy path ahead; a yellow road to nowhere, but silly hyena laughs in scorched bushes, and teeth crunches on road kill; so that beneath the stillness, the ornery huff of the grand dame collapsing at once into the last gasp and the slump in the chair, there is the wild abandon unto death; the sexual lusts of a virginal huntress; and the wretched indigenous beauty of a moon goddess alone in her death madness just beneath the horizon and beyond the care and the concern of the eyes still entranced by a rising sun.

And so the moon is the most dangerous of the witches; a Siren not in the beauty of her voice, but in her coldness, her blueness, her sedate fall from that midnight throne from which she briefly rules the fullness of the night sky; a lust born out from her remoteness; a self-image in impenetrable rock; a self-love in how she sees herself as intrinsically foreign from everything about her; Goddess of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, precisely because she is dead, and they are dead as well, and the communion of the saints is the communion of the dead; and so the most scintillating charm; the wanderlust of the heart; is the shadow calling out to an eight year old boy to leave his threadbare sheets behind and to join it in the death dance; a shadow cast by a dying moon and chiseled in the mind as an Indian woman adorned in nothing, but her heavenly blue eyes and tight lips.

And so flip the card one more time, and she is the Empress; the Queen in a starry crown, holding a scepter, and ruling over her Eden; the Eden not of the fullness of life, but of shadows, and ghosts, and creepy things in dried up grass; no longer touching the hem of the Magician, but forever alone among the fates.

Well, actually, not alone, as the shadow cast from a lapse in judgment is still there; brushing up against her left leg, even after she kicks it back into the darkness behind her; squeezing a sweaty palm into hers; scrunching on a thumb in a manner that sounds like chewing pink bubble gum; and forever whispering; even more so, haunting her mind; with its little boy muteness; words unvoiced, but expanding in her mind from a sniffle to a wind scream; words unformed, as before vowels breath life into dead consonants, but nevertheless able to snatch onto the others that have been unspoken earlier to create a kind of moral ruler lodged inside her skull; an instrument of torture snapping and grinding; reaping headaches in the glare of the rising sun, so that she must snake behind the dark corners and try to lure a boy to strangle the memory by her side; tempt with an alluring hiss, because the moon cannot not reflect the sunlight no matter when and where she hides, so that in the end salvation is found in the hands of other men; someone else to hammer nails through wrists; someone else to hoist wood beams up from the ground; someone else to gape upon the spectacle in front of him and to nod his head in judgment, as if a man standing in triumph before his beaten and slain dog; forever and a day chasing after the elusive someone else.

And so try as she may, the moon does not find pleasure in her barren and cold path from one horizon to the next; neither does she keep into eternity the haughty smile that had been etched into her face by lonely meteors tempted to dance for a season inside of her gravitational pull; but, rather, in the fashion of a girl, she toys and she taunts until cast in a surreal nightmare where the moon is dislodged from her path, is pulled into her earthen grave, and is freed finally from the sunlight; released from the memory skipping on the same scratch on a broken record; a memory repeated in monthly cycles in eternity; so as to be no more than dead dust in a dead earth freed from the shadow trailing beside her.

And who may dislodge the moon from her path; disrupt the natural laws; suspend the chronological progression of time; but the sure and steady hands of someone else; a god in the shape of a boy, discarded to an ink soot manger and left to wallow in the sins swept beneath a dresser and heeled into the cracks of a floor door; a divine strength evinced in the gaunt cheeks and the hollow belly that is there to be kept forever in the mind of a moon demanding her salvation; a god conquerable; a salvation on her own terms; and the stars restored to be a servant of a moon splattered into a trillion pieces and absorbed into earth lava?

There is a name for the moon, when she is lusting for someone else to be the hands clutched about her neck; when in the dark shadows on the other side of corners, or in the hazy light beneath neon signs, she nearly can make out the distorted heights and depths of a universe that is committed to her suicide; her one, holy, and sufficient sacrifice unto her own deepest passion for annihilation into seamless blackness; and that name is Maria; and not just any of the untold Marias changing beds or cooking tortillas, but a fair eyed Indian woman living in a hovel in the campo, lighting candles every night in memory of her father, and pulling the sweaty palm of a mistake whom she passes off to the downcast eyes and the flea infested mustaches as her mute brother; a fair eyed Indian woman forever reminded of the old country legacy that has been lost; squandered, it is said, in an inane gamble to strike it rich in mines already ravished clean of gold and silver by the conquistadores; forever reminded in the ball and chain beside her left leg that the generations are becoming darker; more frail; more beastly in appearance; more in sorry resemblance to the Indians beaten into the earth, who like Adam banished from Eden have had to scratch their sustenance from a chip or a crack in the dried dust, than to the Spaniards chiseled into their silver breastplates and breathed into life by the crispy snaps of banners before them; and forever enthralled in the dream of a life given over to death; of an undying shame given over to a one time infamy; and of a Siren given over to her lullaby.

Maria passes her lonely nights on the roof of her hovel; her caramel eyed shame curled up by her left leg, like an arthritic dog that is finally able to relax its aching bones just enough to fall into a light sleep; and searches the stars for a sign; for anything, really, that may lead her to that someone else; that owner of a pair of hands that is finally going to choke her out from the despairing path to which she has been fated because of her past sin and the sins of her fathers.

And on the first midnight of the spring moon, she reads the invitation set into the cold stars by a boy in a dungeon, and decides to fall upon him at dawn.

Worthless are My Prayers and Sighing

The shame has sucked his thumb raw and sterile over the last eight years of his living death; born in a singular moment of sin; an act of reckless abandon that is regretted as soon as it is consummated; and dying to this gray life to the extent necessary to live more fully as a black menace forever trailing any moral resolve; so that he is a squalid dwarf marring a living icon of womanly charm; a blemish added to an otherwise perfect painting, much like a Hindu deliberately adding a mistake to his finished canvas so as to remind the viewer that there is nothing in the universe that does not fall short of the glory of the gods; a moral necessity; a creature that keeps alive that last remnant of conscience; and thus the most despised of she who would presume to subvert that force in nature for which even chronological time is a slave; as hated as feared, because even that charming madness that is the moon falling glacially to the very last of the black horizons cannot disown completely the truth that is lurking in her dark shadow.

Like every inconvenient truth, he is always there; not seen for a while in contrast with what will be much more appealing to the mind and the senses, as in the manner of cocktail party guests politely ignoring a mark in the wallpaper near the punchbowl; but then acknowledged begrudgingly, as when the pickled finally set aside their thinning martinis, turn away from the sad ballads that are being mangled by the tired band, and thrust their bloodshot eyes into those sad and sordid marks that had been veiled in effervescent bubbles and punch lines.

And the mark in the wallpaper near the punchbowl is always an eye; and not just any eye, but the third eye; and as it observes the cocktail party from a place of brooding silence; an abandoned place no more removed from all of the frivolity than the width of the wallpaper; it alone cannot disregard how each of the oyster white fleurs-de-lis floating on a sea of aqua blue is transitioning into a crack in a dilapidated terracotta wall; how the big band sound first thins into a ghost wail, and then into the tinny horn and guitar of a Mariachi picked up on a scratchy AM frequency; and how the fair and the fashionable bubbling in their beauty beside a buffet darken into the very same caramel hue as the third eye.

And so he sees his Aunt Marta fussing about the kitchen; a faded red rose stitched into her soiled apron; a dead bougainvillea vine that had slithered into the kitchen through a crack in the window above the stove long before and that is now swaying in and out of a bowl of lukewarm chicken broth; always a broom by her side with which to sweep out a squealing rat or an occasional street dog; her face lined by years of worry; her high cheeks too hard already to be able to stiffen into a blush; so that she is a ticking time bomb just waiting for the tinny church bell in the campo to toll that maudlin third hour that had been set aside before time for the silent release of her tired ghost from her old spinster chest.

He sees his Aunt Marta lying dead on a green army cot; stretched tarp on pine legs that had been stolen from a trash bin beside the railroad depot on the far side of town and set up several paces to the right of the wood burning stove in the kitchen; her still body almost forty years of age; suspended at that young age for a brief moment; and then in a matter of weeks, hardening and crinkling back into the dried dust from which it had been formed in this world; the same dried dust that she had spent her years sweeping out the front door and that on occasion since then the wind howls sweep up to give form to her worried ghost.

Maria is much younger than her sister, Marta; really, she is no more than a girl when Marta sinks into her green army cot for the last time; but no matter her girly girl youth, she is even then able to read the mind of the third eye that is falling in step beside her left leg; a psychic talent that she has had to fashion in order to communicate with the annoying mute at her side; and is resentful in the manner of crimson red poison ivy when she catches him remembering Marta as his Aunt Marta, rather than as his Sister Marta, notwithstanding the cracking ice in her remote eyes when she berates him for reviving this scuttled memory, and his telepathic promise never to remember her except as his long lost sister.

And then that third eye sees through the locked door; really, a trapezoid cut and padlocked into an interior terracotta wall; and settles in on an old man in a wheelchair in the far corner; his bald head, gaunt cheeks, cauliflower ears, and horse chin all too menacing, as these worn out body parts materialize from out of the shadows one at a time to reveal a cross of a bulldog and a mortician.

The shadows are blood red on account of the sunlight sifting through the pink lipstick curtains that are hanging precariously over the unused sliding glass doors and blending in with the ink soot particles that are flying about like silent horseflies. They reflect off of the scowling mug in the wheelchair in such a way as to add a devilish intensity to an old man who would be otherwise written off as a morose sack of eighty-five year old skin and bones. The same shadows then reflect off of everything else within the pigsty master bedroom in such a way as to suggest a red painted stall in an old barn; a stall protecting horseflies rather than cattle; and a remote enough spot for conjuring the old family devil spirits.

No matter how often that third eye penetrates the locked door to slither about the blood red shadows, the image is always the same: the old man within the wheelchair; his eyes sparkling silver dollars, as they stare out into absolute nothingness; his name still El Señor, even though he is a far cry from the robust miner who had been able to capture and to spend much more of the virtue that is stored for safe keeping inside the colored panties of underage señoritas, than of the precious metals that could have restored the family name and fortune to at least a part of what it had been in the old country; and his last surviving and favorite daughter, Maria, standing buck naked behind the one remaining handle of the wheelchair, stooping forward just enough so that her firm breasts are his new earmuffs, lathering his bald head and monkey hair chest with the very best alabaster oil that she could buy in town, and washing it all away with her tears.

On one occasion, El Señor senses that that third eye is spying upon them; breaking through the locked door, blinking in and out of the blood red shadows, and even beginning to seep into the lines on their foreheads, so as to wallow in all of the muck that acts as a kind of fuel for their gray matters; and so he asks his daughter to fetch her Mute; always referring to him as the Mute, or perhaps as the Shame, rather than by his real name; and to sit him on the floor in front of his wobbly knees. And then when the Mute is there; his eyes blinking rapidly, and his nostrils flaring, in the manner of a scared dog; El Señor bends forward a bit; not an easy task given his debilitating arthritis; and stares into the sad eyes of the Mute with a look that is equally serene and mad. El Señor does not speak to the Mute then or at any other time. He does not need to do so. His look is all that is necessary to convey a lifetime of debauched secrets; of teeth chattering inside of closets; of little girl pelvises broken from one too many dagger thrusts inside of the pink glory holes; of bones rattling in clenched fists; of baby spines snapped like kindling in a campfire; all this fuss and fury so as to redeem a mad sin out from innocence and to retain it in the battle scarred mind as a life of its own, as if a man siring his own devil baby and living vicariously, and even more so eternally, through each and every one of the sins committed by his progeny.

The Mute feels all of this evil rushing over him like a ferocious wave; not a typical wave in the sea, though since he has never left the campo he really is not all that certain what a typical wave in the sea would be like, but rather the one in a trillion waves that actually has a sentient mind, and flares out its foam to resemble the grin of a living skull, and grinds the bones of the innocents and the predators without distinction. And in that moment, the Mute knows that all men, no matter how they live out their lives, end up in the same old graveyard dug out from the sands at the bottom of the sea; and all ghosts, no matter how they had lived their lives, end up crying the same old ghost ballads beneath the reach of the sun. And even though the Mute turns away; fleeing from that look, as his Sister Maria telepathically screams at him for leaving his fine father, and as the Mute then insists in his own mind that that old man is also his not so fine grandfather; he determines at that moment to be of aid to anyone who may be trapped inside one of those tombs; whether under the sea, or in the dungeon of a castle tower; whether an entombed be listed among the saints or the sinners.

El Señor is soon a photograph surrounded by spicy incense and candles; a dashing, blue eyed, mixed race man with a full head of hair and a twinkle in his eyes; a man in his mid-thirties still believing that the famed El Dorado indeed is just around the corner; and an icon to be loved to the extent that a preference for fantasy turns out to be more visceral than the actual memories of the devil.

And when the Mute leaves the side of his Sister Maria and carries out his mission of mercy, he is Lázaro; freed from his tomb, if only in the dark moment just before dawn; and earnest in silent prayer, even as in the end it is unheard.

Yet, Good Lord, In Grace Complying

The Indian woman practically floats to the side of the bed; two pompous steps that touch so lightly upon the floor as to suggest a fairy tale princess with a condescending grin who does not want to have her emerald slippers sullied by the same flakes of dirt upon which the groundlings had staggered; and rests the palm of her right hand on the forehead of the emaciated boy, as if determining if he has a fever, but in fact so as to revel in the cold sweats dribbling out from the pores in his forehead and slinking in unctuous lines down his hollow cheeks.

My name is Maria, she says telepathically.

Somehow, the boy already knows her name. He has known since she first crept out from the shadows on the other side of door. He also knows about that hour she wished for Marta to suffer a stroke in the kitchen and to be compelled to her green army cot for the last time, since Marta did not approve of how she doted upon El Señor; how the alabaster oil seems to be oozing into her caramel skin all the time that it is dribbling over the bald head and chest of her beloved El Señor, so that indeed she is absorbing more than she is giving; and how she is forever looking up at the moon at night, wishing the very same sudden death to snatch away her brother as had taken the chastity of her sister, and wailing out in anguish; her tight lips curling into a little girl pout; her serene demeanor in a passing sunlight giving way to rattling red bones in the cover of darkness; when night after night he is still there, clinging to her left leg, chewing on his thumb, and choosing to skip out just before dawn to do the chore of a Good Samaritan.

And, somehow, he knows that she is speaking telepathically into his slow but waking mind; as if a voice not so much heard as felt in that eternal twilight that snakes in and out of the thin curtain between dreams and reality; in an old and foreign language with which he is unfamiliar; not the clumsy Spanish of the unwashed campesinos, tottering by his vent now and then, and serenading their dead tequila bottles with the tearful ballads of a bedside wake; but the kind of grunts and guttural screams that had been born out from the molten cracks and geysers of an earth still in the pains of her labor; a primordial tongue that gives voice to the existential dread that the waters of the deep had endured when in a moment of divine will the spirit had moved across the surface and carved out the very first waves from a stainless steel blue; the precursor of the indigenous mad monkey cries that the conquistadores had heard, when they sailed into the virgin shorelines of the New World; the language despised by its own speaker as an indication of the primitiveness in her own mixed blood and yet so integral as to be unavoidable whenever she gives mental voice to the lamentation that has been vexing her telltale heart since shame snaked into her life eight years ago; and the language that cannot but spread that same primitiveness to any person who happens to hear it gurgling out from the cracks and geysers in his own gray matter, as if it is a flu bug that passes through the dreams that people share on the toll of the third hour, or an idea that is so common to the human race as to be inescapable no matter the salvation that is imagined when fair men conspire to refine their education and bearing so as to build a tower to the hidden gods.

But the voice echoes in his mind in the American English with which he is familiar; even accented with the class pretentions of the easy lives lived on the banks of the Hudson River; a class in which he is not on the membership rolls in any actual sense, but for which he has the enduring desires of a would be suitor who is allowed to wait by the front door and to search for that charitable smile and nod that invites him to be the red caboose in the buffet line. And so it is in his mind a translated voice; a voice peculiar to his own life in the dungeon; and thus he cannot be sure if he is receiving anything at all from that Indian woman by his bedside, or if he is imagining this scene as a kind of prelude to his death, an intimation of family to help ease him into the blackness that is at the end of the tunnel, as if life itself is no more than a dream that makes death palatable.

I read your invitation by the light of the spring moon, she gushes, and all at once she is neither a fairy tale princess, nor even a mad witch from the dark side of the moon, but a pair of blushing cheeks just on the cusp of womanhood; and not a normal womanhood of crying babies and cheating husbands in a tract home somewhere, but a surreal dream of fancy balls in restored haciendas near town and of suitors still wearing their golden bands even as curtains are drawn.

But the boy in the dungeon cannot imagine fancy balls and golden bands, so that even as the images flash telepathically on the movie screen inside of his head, he discards them easily enough as visual gibberish, and he feels that dark contempt towards her that he imagines is like a brother tiring of his little sister to such an extent as to wrap duct wrap about her free eye and squawking beak.

Maria reads his contempt; a dawning intemperance that is so apparent in how the boy squints his bloodshot eyes at her pretty smile that there is no mind reading necessary to see the wall emerging between them; and she stares even deeper into the mad eyes to observe how the wall is not concrete poured into a mold all at once, but rather one solid brick plastered onto another over the last eight years; the first brick set into the dried mud, like a single red tooth poking out from earthen gums, when the baby boy first rolls his weepy eyes toward his sad sister staring back at him from the other side of the crib; so that indeed his is that long nurtured distaste peculiar to the hidden life of a family; a penchant for rivalry that is normally expressed in a good natured tease, or maybe a shove in the backseat of a station wagon, but that can erupt into a brutal animal lust, clawing nails and flared nostrils in the cover of moon shadows, when the fading Lucifer Star now and then flares out from its slumber, and the loony wind howls snapping against the bedroom window recite those stories that will never make it into the official family lore; and a witchy desire to stir just enough crass hate into the mix of sibling love as to toy with old monsters bearing the family crest.

She swoons, because this boy in the dungeon really is her brother, not an annoying, snot nosed shame that she tries to pass off as her brother, but rather a kindred soul; a devil in his weakness as she is in her beauty; a child who bares the memories of a sick man, as she had cradled the bald head of her beloved El Señor when finally he had coughed up his tormented ghost; and thus she is able to read into his eyes like kissing herself in a dressing mirror and to sense that in time he will be as driven as herself to conspire for his own salvation in the mad suicide of his soul; a suicide unheeded, because it is as lacking in drama as it is crazed in intent, like a few trillion pinprick dagger thrusts that finally puncture the heart; but before the blood starts to drip out from the thin chest, a suicide most useful, because a boy driven to his own annihilation cannot but desire the self-loathing that arises from having done a dirty deed for a manipulative Siren.

She cradles her fingers about his neck; a slow and steady massage of his larynx that is like a cat kneading a threadbare blanket; smiles in that offsetting manner that cannot be placed anywhere else but in the unsure lips and anxious tongue of a chaste seductress; and after the span of a few seconds that feels as if it is going to stretch on into its eternity, slides the back of her hand down his torso and rests it in the wet spit in the bed sheets in between his knotty thighs.

You intended the invitation for me, she says telepathically, while sinking her lips so close to his as to hint that they are going to kiss on the silver screen.

The boy hates her the way a caged beast will hate its jailor, though he is too enfeebled to express that cactus spike up his ass as anything other than the surly rattles in his uneven breaths. He hates her so much he will not remove his eyes from hers; a hate enchanted in the manner of new love; a separation brick wall that now ascends from the dried mud to the noon sun, but that is so out of context with anything else but sibling contempt as to be a reminder that in fact brother and sister share the special bond of waging a war just unto themselves.

And so this is what it means to have a family; the boy thinks so clearly as to forget all about the Indian boy still shadowing the left leg of his Sister Maria and to imagine that there is nothing else at all in the whole of the universe but the rapturous death kiss that is going to be implanted on his eight year old lips.

Maria reads this thought. She breaks out into a grin that is so unreserved as to reveal her teeth, and for a moment she appears as if an eight year old girl scampering barefoot about the campo and laughing at her reflection in a pond.

And in that moment, the boy decides that he will do anything for her, no matter what, as only siblings can inspire such conflict out of loving themselves. 

And then she is gone; like Christ Jesus leaving the disciples after walking with them all day on the Road to Emmaus; taking her mute shame with her; but also intimating in that distinct sound of female footsteps ascending the exterior spiral staircase and meeting with the man upstairs that he will be well fed over the spring season; fattened even; so that he will be strong enough to serve her.

Rescue Me from Fires Undying

Every dawn over the next few weeks, just as a cock is crowing in that far and wide expanse beyond the dungeon walls, the door creaks open and several rats squeal and scamper away from the door frame to reveal the kind of brutal beast face that may be more proper to a nightmare but that seems to be aglow from its own illumination; even a halo seeming to inflame the ink soot particles about the uncomely head; and then a timid half step into the darkness to await an inviting nod from the boy squirming in his sweat beneath threadbare sheets.

The nod is given; no more than a chin falling into a neck in the fashion of a rat gnawed drawer at once collapsing onto the rancid drawer beneath it; and only then does the Indian boy walk over to the bedside; floating, really, as if an indigenous and diminutive Florence Nightingale trying not to disturb a sick runt in her care any more so than necessary; and balancing on the one hand the clay pot of refried bean tortillas and on the other the cup of hot water. He is like an acolyte bringing the offertory from the railing to the priest; soft and submissive gestures implying not only his concern for the patient in his charge, but his real fear that the lamb in the bed in front of him is being fattened for its slaughter; and yet comforted by the dawning awareness that there is as much grace in the aid to the executioner as in the acolyte to the priest, so long as he performs his part of the rite with the utmost compassion and love for the designated victim.

And so until the boy is able to sit up in his bed, he lifts his heavy head to the cup of hot water; and when the last of the water is sliding down the throat, he breaks up the refried bean tortillas into morsels and places each one on that limp tongue that seems to have a life of its own apart from the face to which it is connected. He takes his time; never removing his loving eyes from the hollow and ashen face of his patient; searching continually for any sign that new colors are pulsing up from beneath the pores and spreading across the skin like a pond rippling out from a crack; at first, no more than a darker shade of the same sad gray that had bubbled up from the soul and had deadened so much of the body; but then, prickly reds that chip and crack back into a healthy tan of white skin.

By the time his color returns, the boy is able to sit upright and to eat the refried bean tortillas on his own. He devours them in the rapacious manner of a starving dog, while the Indian boy observes him without expression at the same spot each morning beside the bed. He looks up at the Indian boy every now and then; but, for the most part, he tries to ignore his so kind, but detached, stare, imagining that the Indian boy is an automaton who is there for no other reasons than to provide his food and water and then to remove the dirtied pot and cup.

For a few weeks after achieving that feat, the boy tries to walk from the bed to the vent, while the Indian boy traces every enfeebled step with his eyes but otherwise remains as motionless as ever. The boy suffers with every step; a buckling of the knees, an onset of vertigo, and then a slow motion collapse to a grimy floor; invariably ending up in a dark corner and bracing the walls with his outstretched fingertips until the spinning has stopped or the refried beans have been vomited as projectiles onto the slimy rats that are scurrying over his feet.

The boy senses that he can communicate with his nurse telepathically; a miscreant wiseass devil wearing oversized earphones while manning an invisible switchboard in the fairy dust between telepathic minds no doubt translating his American English into the primitive Ooba Oobas that make sense to the caramel skinned; but he never asks him for help, when he is stranded in the dark corner and waiting for his ship in the sea storm to limp back to the sleepy tide at port.

He is as little inclined to forge a personal relationship with his observant nurse; even in the perfunctory manner of being thankful for the food and water delivered on time each morning; as the nurse is to smile back at him. There is a real compassion on display here; at least on the part of the Indian boy; a gentle love that is obscured by the formality of their interaction and, even more so, in the brooding shadows that predominate inside the dungeon, in spite of a spring dawn filtering through the vent whenever they are together; but there is also a preordained rite to be performed; each of them forced by a Divine Dramatist to step on his mark on cue; and an emerging sense that the end of the play cannot be favorable for either one of them; an abiding dread that the fates are smiling in victory; and a sense that each will be the bludgeon of the fates on the other.

And so as soon as the boy is strong enough to stroll about the dungeon on his own two feet without collapsing into puddles of sweat and vomit; a triumph of the will that just happens all of a sudden within the balmy heat of a morning in late spring; the Indian boy resumes his prior practice of anonymously shoving the clay pot and the cup through the vent; and the boy in the dungeon resumes his prior practice of leaving the dirties by the vent for a pick-up that is so silent and careful as to be unnoticed apart from a soft flutter in the gloomy shadows.

Even as his antenna had never received any message from the Indian boy in all the hours that they were together; not even so much as the birth name of the beast boy that the boy in the dungeon names Ooba Ooba; he senses that his renewed strength and the advance of summer portend a final resolution of loud and baleful cries in the blackness; an unforgiving sunlight, now unchained from the obscuring mists of winter and early spring, bleaching out the false colors on veiled faces, and in the dead heat of a cloudless blue, inspiring the ascendancy of plumed banners and soaring bugle calls from which old wounds are reopened to seed a waxen earth. Much of this clarity, of course, cannot be observed from within the dungeon; the shadows remaining untouched by any season; hardened in the manner of Pharaoh’s Heart, so that they exhibit all the responsiveness of forms chiseled out from timeless desert rocks and are impervious to the charms of sleet and sand alike; but it can be imagined; indeed, in a mind freed from an anguished spin on the dance floor with bone rattling starvation, imagined to be more clear than even the actual sunlight may allow; and an imagination backed by an indomitable will; the perversion of the logos in the bosom of a man fallen to the stature of a boy in a dungeon; cannot but create what is beautifully true and visceral in a moment of time, but also tragically short lived and, in the eye of eternity, hopelessly banal. And so the blood must be let, and the family love and strife captured in the one moment so allotted by the fates for that sublime act of mayhem, and then all that has been captured must be lost to an eternity that knows no measure in the will of a boy or the wiles of his Indian Temptress.

And the blossoming of the will; the will to be an instrument of the fates; inspires a warm pride in the unbuckled heart of a boy who had been heretofore untouched by that spirit; a pride that lifts his chin from his neck and twists the corners of his mouth into a devil grin; and a pride that heeds no moral call, but a hot blood cry of a family; the lore of the tribe; the vicious history reborn in a long standing sibling rivalry that has been tipped by blood red eyes and snarling lips into that civil war that cannot but restore the paint on the old family crest. 

So something is coming to a head; a wretched sore that had been hidden on the other side of a closed door at the end of a dark hallway, or cast into the rat infested blackness beneath a dressing mirror, or obscured in all of the pomp and pretense of a brand new face on a dilapidated stage, all of that ache in the depth of the soul is about to be catapulted into view, like a buccaneer crashing a party on the deck of a ship and rattling baby bones into the ashen face of the host; and while the boy in the dungeon cannot be sure how it will all pan out in the end, or even if he will be alive to wallow in a summer sunlight filtering into his space through the vent and spreading out in every direction at once like the many open arms of a pulsing light beast, he knows that there will be a long lost cry heard and then muffled; a story repeated and then vanquished; and a laugh that tears at the pride of a boy and inspires the kind of viciousness; the beastly jaws grappling the last submission out from a loony chicken throat; that seeds a grown man out from the silly putty flesh and soiled ass and thighs of a silly boy.

And is he not silly; so sad and morose in his everlasting incarceration and intermittent bouts of starvation as to be downright laughable; so pathetic in all manners of life as to be deserving of the sad lips that twitch into a teasing grin?

But is not love even sillier; so loyal as to be peculiar in a universe that is governed by treachery; so steadfast as to be out of place in a party of transient guests and weekend lovers; so sacrificial as to be downright impolite in a lonely dream that says that there is nothing but the self for which blood may be shed?

And is not the essence of family life; the sister served; the wife captured and contained far from the lure of the sea; the slow and steady strangling of all the slow and steady loves; the sweeping aside of shame; the substituting of the gradual suicide that we call “routine” or “family norms,” in place of that spark in life that every now and then unsettles old prides and releases a moral voice?

So then time is fate; marching over any obstruction that may be lowered onto its path as if it is not even there; a Roman company unmoved by the fallen tree or the decomposing Goth in the way of its plodding boots; neither allowing itself to be sidetracked from its next call, nor corralled into staying there much longer than is necessary to complete its bloody business; so that it offers unto a moment no higher resolve than it does to any of the other moments; and so the grand odes that say that this point in time is poignant, and that point in time is scandalous, are but the flowery expressions of a sick illusion, a mind taken with the diseased thought that this time or that time can be captured and contained somewhere, and a heart resplendent in a wellspring that had dried up long ago.

And so what is there to do, but to wait for time to catch up, and then to act as if there is no other point in time that is so poignant or scandalous as this one, and then to grow a bit melancholy, perhaps even altogether cantankerous, when time marches onward with neither fanfare nor fuss over that storied past?

The boy in the dungeon waits; biding his time; imagining breathing shifts of color in the unmoved shadows that drape about the walls; and then dropping his eyelids into a steady glare, sitting up in his bed, turning his face toward the door, and curling his fingers around a chicken neck that he imagines is writhing out from between his legs and sliding up his torso to wring his own dead throat.

There is no more hardship than the dead fighting off the dead; a ghost in the thralls of his own eternal dreamscape trying to wrestle his shapeless fingers about the invisible neck of an interloping ghost; scowls unheard; snarls unseen; contempt not even able to sway the course of a solitary leaf caught in a listless breeze; and nothing substantial but the crackle of a hell fire pit somewhere off to the side at first, but then just a bit closer with every failed attempt to press dead fingers about a dead neck and to stamp any life out from an invisible pall.

The boy in the dungeon looks over at the vent. He can see the crackle of an orange blue haze descending into the stew of soft moonlight just outside his vent and bubbling into his space to form the perimeter of a light dream. He is a two-dimensional still trapped inside of a Polaroid; a ghost figure snagged inside of a fevered imagination; a vague aura intimated in a wave; and then a woman.

And not just any woman; but her, always her, forever her, eternally her; the her scattered into the ocean wind; the her mingling with ink soot to fashion a gray stain at the base of the urn; the her swimming about as ash flakes within osseous dust; the her still alive when stick bones rattle back to life and chuckle in defiance of the pious blather that the dead are at rest in the sleep of peace, forever and ever, world without end, and in the Names of the Holy Trinity God.

The crackling hell fire pit is so close now that the flames are shooting up from the perimeter lines that had been formed when the mix of an orange blue haze and a soft moonlight had bubbled into the dungeon; that orange blue haze streaming up into the flames to wrap the entire space in a surreal glow, so that the boy senses that the man upstairs has lit torches about the circumference of his rooftop paradise and that the boy is mired inside one of those brilliant fires; and the maelstrom of flames and of lights washes over him, so that he is in the grip of a drowning fear; a reflexive gasp for the last breath; and a slow descent into that impenetrable water wall that is just beneath the sea surface, but that is spreading out from an underwater horizon line to fill the entire abyss with its dark and brooding despair; a fire and sea cauldron then that is everywhere, and all at once and in eternity, so that the mind is closed off from escape and living only for that cancerous illusion, for her, always her, forever her, eternally her.

And so the boy is that cancer; the red puss in the bowels that is ignored; shrugged off as chronic indigestion, then as a kind of dyspeptic migraine within the intestines, or maybe in the ovaries, and finally as a plastic teeth chattering toy and a baleen baby rattle that had been ingested before time and that all at once are going berserk; quivering flesh chunks onto the floor, like a desecrated Christmas tree that is shedding its tinsel everywhere; and folding pimpled skins into the linings of brittle bones; so that there is no more future for the boy, but to be crushed by the pressures at the bottom and to be held there by the fervid mind of a mad god adorned in his oyster white cope and living in his own death. 

No more future for the boy than what is behind the door; the door veiled in the imagination; hidden behind a wall of flames and lights; and now creaking open to release a horde of rats that squeal and scamper into the dungeon; hard red rat eyes bulging out of mangled fur; long tails snapping; the hot and sweaty odor of rat terror spreading as an invisible poison cloud and sticking to the skin as a kind of warm and unctuous slime; so that the boy realizes that the rats are imagining the same maelstrom that is playing out in his own mind; indeed, that the whole of creation groans for that impending doom; demands a last shriek of terror; the madness unleashed in the breaking of seals; the last indications that there had been enough life there all along for something to be lost to the queer ravages of a death set loose; the final glory of a soldier decomposing forever in the contorted limbs and the wringed throat of his last moment under a red sun.

The boy in the dungeon blinks, and then he is alone in the blackness as a solitary candlelight emerges inside the doorway; an orange blue kiss that is just floating beyond the reach of redemption; and as if held up by an arthritic hand; the reach of a lumbering ghost; a flicker trapped in a dead mind somewhere for which there is no other possible destination but to be held in the air beside the bed and to illuminate the cold gaze and the smart grin of an Indian woman in a charcoal black hood and a witching robe marked by a crescent moon on the left breast; a flicker that seems to be bleeding out from the heart at first, but then is held up by the Indian boy hidden in a shadow beside the left leg of the witch.

The boy in the dungeon gasps. He loses his resolve in the cold sweat that starts to pour down from his forehead and the heart skipping out from his chest and prattling in the midair beside the flame. He has no more thought then than to cower his head into his pillow and to clench his eyes from this beautiful evil.

Why do you fear, my brother? The Indian woman intones telepathically.

The boy cannot respond to the ghost whisper in his own mind, except by trembling those same fingers that a moment before had been trying to wring an unheard cluck out from an invisible chicken neck and by flaring his nostrils with the same intensity as a furry beast sensing a predator just outside its dark hole.

The Indian woman is bemused. She wonders if she had misread the stars.

Are you not your sister’s keeper? She asks with more actual alarm than is typical of her coolness, and she has to make an effort to remain her witch bitch self in spite of her emerging awareness that the boy may not be up to the task.

She searches the shadows in the soft glare slithering out from her candle and finally makes out an urn on a bed stand. It is a cold and lifeless thing; more a black fog in the shadows than a substantial addition to the maudlin curiosities that pass for interior design inside a dungeon; but she understands at once how important it is to the boy who has nothing else but the lonely void as his friend.

She reaches over the bed and snatches the urn; cradling it in her chest in the manner of a mother with her newborn; and reveling in its deathly coldness.

The boy reaches for the urn, but the Indian woman rattles it just beyond his reach; cackling telepathically as a wrinkled stoop of a witch; and grasping it so closely to her own face that for a moment it looks as if the urn indeed is the mask out of which the real nature of her beautiful evil is manifest to the world.

Do you not realize that God created Eden for no other purpose under the sun than to dangle the flaming sword of the Cherubim in front of Adam and Eve and their wretched legacy? Do you not see that the moral life with which we all ensnare ourselves; the ball and chain dragging behind our left leg; the sound of a thumb sucked smooth and raw; is no more than death whispering its verses in our ears; the Siren veiled Gorgon seducing us into our graves; so that we can do no more than await that last laugh from on high that we call the Resurrection?

The boy leaps for the urn, but once more the Indian woman pulls it away from his grasp and fills his mind with the throaty rasps of her old witch cackles.

And so what choice do we have but to try to hold onto that which we are not able to contain, to cradle the present into the future as if a dead thing that is kept alive by no other force than will, to beat back the wave intended for us, and to douse the hell fire that we have kindled for ourselves? Oh, yes, we want to sow, but we do not want to reap, and the very impossibility of not being fed of our own harvest is the cruel joke with which God slaps our conscience. It is a better man who bolts his coffin shut from the call of the trumpets and finds his life in the extent to which he murders his old soul in defiance of the living God.

For a moment, her face bleeds through the urn as if the face of a smiling skeleton; a black hooded skull; and the boy has nothing left in him but to grasp at the throat of the Indian boy; knocking over the candle; and snarling in black. 

With Thy Sheep A Place Provide Me

Somewhere in the wind there is a trumpet blaring; crisp notes pumped in rapid succession; an orgasmic flourish; ta ta da tot tot; and then that confused mesh of musical instruments that is the Son Jaliscience pulling back the curtain of dawn and showing the tussled earth to be as satisfied as spent from the love spat of the previous night; the girl no more than a grin after so many long hours of wind gusts blown from a horn and pulsing raindrops pinched off the strings of a fat guitarrón; a lazy exhale of sound, and then the last hiccup bubbling out of the red lips of a ravished plateau to reveal a señorita muy caliente; her painted eyelashes fluttered from the mad wail of a monsoon wind; her high cheekbones flushed in the hot smacks of the callused hand hidden in the night shadows; her bull nostrils flared by the pinpricks of a wet mustache nudging over her lips and depositing dirty showers into her breathy holes; so that there is not even a pore on her skin that has not been ripped open and violated by the grasping hands of a storm that had torn the chaste earth with all the fury of a romantic embrace.

The newborn sun is a white ghost ball veiled in rumbling clouds; an angel of death voiced in the discontent of a spring calm retreating before the hoisted banners and blaring bugle calls of a summer monsoon; a reckoning unavoidable, no matter the last minute cries for mercy, as the somber light crystalizes into a succession of raindrops; a dirty shower transporting the dead back to the earth; a dark reversal of the rapture prophesied; and prickles the brow of a white king who is just now awakening into his final death on the rooftop of a castle tower.

Delbert is lost in a gray dream; a menacing blur of torches that had been snuffed out by the raindrops long ago and that are no more than the charcoaled bones of a defeated life twisting and cracking in the howling gusts; a perimeter of merlons resembling chipped tombstones; a sandbox beaten down by a deluge so that the sand particles could be carried away as if ashes released to the high seas; and all wrapped in that descending gloom that manifests the hopes on the cusp of the crimson blush to have been all along no more than the stuff of fairy tale sprinkles and other girly amusements best buried in the tomb of time past.

Except that he will not bury the past; no matter his condescending smile and affected speech; nor even the extent to which he will go to breath life into the devil dare legend of a Dexter McCall; mystery man of letters; he who offers no more to the world than his sullen glare distorted by the murky glass of a half finished bottle of vino tinto; because the past is what is washed out to an open sea and lost somewhere just beyond the horizon; maybe glimpsed for a moment but then lost forevermore in that impenetrable wall through which even a keen imagination cannot travel; so that the past is time uncontained; released to be that incomprehensible blind spot in a soul from which a vague feeling of unease every now and then gurgles up a frigid spine and inspires an inexplicable terror.

But a past unburied; captured in a Polaroid; preserved in the routines of a man preening at his typewriter, while his wife is writhing in her bones; is just death in the here and now. It is the present focused on nothing other than gray gloom; a moment in time that is stopped in a shadow and allowed to fester just beyond the senses into something that is hideous; a scowling creature; a creepy crib death baby; but also sufficiently alive to be a girly girl led about the dance floor by the firm back and subtle hands of a superior will; a semblance of a life no doubt, but just enough so that a king may fancy how he is standing aside the last of the waves and seeing without remorse the final descent of a beaten sun.

And so Delbert is not disconsolate, even as he observes how the ravenous storm of the previous night had knocked over his hammock and had smashed an untold number of corked bottles of vino tinto into the merlons; vomiting a pond of fermented grape blood across the rooftop in the process; shivering raindrops out from an angelic bowel to dilute this blood into a sloshy punchbowl of spiked Kool-Aid; and now dribbling what looks like pink bubble gum spit through every one of the embrasures and down the exterior wall of the castle tower; splatting spit onto the steps of the spiral staircase; and settling as foam inside the cracks in the steps; so that the castle tower seems like the chiseled sculpture of a fool at a cocktail party who has just upchucked the last of his pickled innards out of his gaping hole of a mouth and down his beaten torso, while coiling his one arm about his own body like a spiral staircase and holding tightly to his living death.

He remembers vaguely the pirate rattling the baby bones in front of him; like every other strange image projected unto the screen inside his forehead as much a dream as a memory; and so he crawls through the Kool-Aid puddles that have yet to dribble through the embrasures and down the exterior wall, picking up whatever sparkles in the gray, and deciding after a while that there is really no point in trying to distinguish baby bone fragments from glass shards; the one death as final as the other; the same fate in a molten stream beneath the crust of the earth awaiting the bones and the glass when surely the sun sets no more.

While sloshing through one of the puddles, he sees the knife that the sad pirate had been clenching in his beastly teeth; an instrument of war reduced to the status of debris listlessly bobbing about an unctuous Kool-Aid puddle; and it takes no more than a subtle shift in his own gray matter for him to see that it is not really a knife. It is paper that had been folded in such a manner as to seem like a knife; and when it is unfolded, it is the invitation that he had posted on a bulletin board in a post office and that had lured the mad gods into his shadow.

The invitation is so drenched in diluted wine that the typed words are all but unreadable; more akin to letters bobbing about the surface of an ocean red or blending into an e e cummings poem; so that he senses that it is what he has been typing since he first sat behind his father’s typewriter at the large desk in the forbidden room; his Buster Browns unable to touch the red rug pressed into the hardwood floor by the morgue cold weight of that granite topped table; his tiny boy fingers trembling in the late afternoon grayness that is seeping through the window blinds behind his head; his mind inflamed by the thought that his is a vocation in letters, but his heart too close to the grave for him to muster that courage in resolve that even then he knows he will need to impart real life into ink soot pressed into white paper, so that when the sickly gray finally gives way to black, he leaves nothing behind in the carriage but random letters and tears, smeared onto white paper, and fading into yellow blue with the march of time.

Delbert tears the invitation into shreds; transforming a buccaneer dagger into wine drenched spaghetti noodles cupped in the palm of his right hand; and then eats them one by one with the delight of a boy chewing on gummy worms.

He hears the crunch of boots, stamping wet gravel, and plodding forward in the haggard manner of a stooped, old man; shoulders twisted in the monsoon wind; head slumped into chest as a result of the persistent beat of raindrops on the back of the neck; torso thinning into rattled bones and wobbling over a pair of sticks that passes as legs; and yet mechanically driven by the temperamental will found in keen minds trapped in old bodies to continue up the hill no matter the change in the season and finally to grasp with an old man snarl the singular objective for which his arthritic knees and swollen feet are tempting their fate.

Delbert crawls to one of his embrasures and looks down the hill; blinking wildly into the pebbles that are being blown up from the crumbling foundations of the castle tower; and clutching a stomach that apparently is not all that well disposed to the prospect of digesting wine drenched paper; until he manages to tear out from the gray the sad image of a hooded ghost, lumbering in oversized boots up his own private purgatory, leaning on a gnarled staff, and yanking on a leash that is attached to the twisted neck of a dead piglet, its tiny snout having been stomped into pus, what is left of its mouth still gaping into a death squeal that will be heard forevermore as the startled high pitch in the monsoon winds.

Notwithstanding the dead piglet trailing the scuffed heels of the stooped ghost; or perhaps because it is a dead piglet, rather than some other beast that is less conspicuously and oxymoronically clean and unclean; snatched in a fit of rabid violence out from its litter, even before it has had a chance to contort its pretty pig face into the unctuous snort of a well fed hog; and yet from the start a creature condemned to the greased charcoals of a hell fire barbecue; Delbert senses that the old man is a kind of shepherd; or, even more so, a Pied Piper in a foreign land; seducing a soul not to be as she should be, but to remain just as she is; spoiled in her beautiful conceit; rotten in her charming excess; honeyed and seasoned enough to paste over the rancid gray slithering out from the pork.

The stooped ghost stops near the base of the castle tower; pulls back his hood; a painfully slow act on account of the gangly arthritis rattling his old man joints into the howling wind; and reveals his face to be that of a very handsome gentleman withered by drink and time but capable still of his affable devil grin.

From the Goats Afar Divide Me

Oh, my Sharon Rose, I have snagged you with my lilting eye, the old man intones in the lyrical voice of a leprechaun. I had presumed that only a ghost in chains could be the haunt of so much erosion in mortar and stone, but I had not envisioned a chain as taxing to the mind as a little bugger kicking to be born. In your labors I can offer no respite, but a charmed grin and a dalliance in a drink.

Delbert is transfixed in a kind of joyous horror; his mouth agape; his soft hands caressing his own nipples behind the veil of a crumbling merlon; no sense in his mind, but the vague intimation that the wine drenched paper spaghetti is slithering up and down his throat and, when finally vomited, will be a newborn splat dripping down his legs and hardening inside the cracks of his castle tower, where it will remain in a perpetual present, impervious to the ebb and the flow of the monsoon rains, and bone cold even to the intermittent kiss from the sun.

The old man drops his eyes to the base of the castle tower; focusing on a chip in the stonework that opens in his mind just enough for him to glimpse the boy in the dungeon; and snarling with the cantankerous disdain of a man who is far too old for his age to be measured in years; so that his handsomeness is lost in a fit of pouty lips and glaring eyes that seems to shrink his facial skin into his skull and to leave behind nothing but the gray bone chatters in monsoon winds.

Your little bugger will not be born, until you have cleaned out the rancid muck in your birth canal, the old man observes after a while. Forever scrubbing clean; a king reduced to the stature of his Mexican maid; but then I gather that your preferred cross is a mop and a broom and that you desire the middling folk to shake their heads and to snarl: He trusted in himself to sweep away the time unconquered; to stamp out what is inconvenient to the fantasy of a moment; to wring the last quiver from an eye that looks upon what he cannot see; and so in all his temerity, let him deliver himself from his mop and his broom and be that sage of comfortable letters for which we groundlings indulge our watered wine.

The old man grins, and he is once more handsome in his queer affability.

Or words to that effect, he chuckles, while returning his gaze to Delbert.

Delbert glimpses his father in the old man; a moment in time too minute to be measureable; not in any one of his features, so much as in the firecracker spark in his spitfire eye; the same mad twinkle he had observed in the good eye of his father, whenever the old man had seen fit to corner a blue hair at coffee hour who had the audacity to don a JFK button inside the whitewashed walls of the Church Defiant; the Irish blood pulse that can be traced even in the blink of an indefatigable limey who has no eye but for the muted gray of his own coffin.

Sensing that the ghost in chains atop the castle tower sees someone else in him, the old man smiles even more broadly and steps over to the first step of the spiral staircase; balancing himself precariously on a staff that resembles an uprooted tree; and tugging at the leash that is fastened to the contorted piglet corpse in the ornery manner of a man condemned to stay up close and personal with the even measure of sin and of grace battling each other to claim his soul.

I suppose that we are destined to be ghosts for one another, the old man reflects. Such is the lot of any man who presumes to stop time and to indulge a moment into eternity. After all, without a future, what is there then to strain a brow or to excite a breath but a temptress from the past; a memory living in its flayed bones; extended beyond the span normally allotted to a memory; even a memory of some perceived importance; so that the man is groped at every turn not by the resurrection of the blessed and the damned; the seals cracked open; the trumpets blared; but by the resurrection of the old time ghouls that frankly he had presumed were locked away with the other boogeymen and wet dreams that had marred his childhood. The curse of a man god; the praise of a fair king ruling with a gloved fist over his own here and now; is a heavenly choir of living ghosts; Hallelujahs chattered by cold skulls; incense wafting upward from what is left of a past mildewed; and the mad fancy that there is life still in the dead.

The old man is lumbering up the spiral staircase; stopping every now and then to lean on his staff; and yet never relenting in his hold on the dead piglet; no matter the stoop in his shoulders and the pulse in his forehead whenever he drags the carcass over a step; so that his tenacity makes him seem more robust than his years may allow and more handsome than his wrinkled skin may attest.

Delbert cannot see his visitor, as the old man hobbles up that part of the dilapidated spiral staircase that is on the other side of the castle tower, but he can hear every one of his scratchy steps and withered breaths so well that he is certain that the disembodied noise is an ominous trumpet in his dreams; a huge sound in the crystalline air; but when diluted by the lengths to which he will go to hold down from the inside the creaky hinged door to his own coffin, no more than a muffled shriek and blow; a horn crying before the lips have puckered; so that the end of time is not a resolution, but rather an incongruity; the barefoot and bearded King of Kings descending from on high as a skeleton in his witching robe; his return heralded by the sad hiss of trumpet snakes blown by the nubile dead in varying degrees of decomposition; and the King of Kings proclaiming for all of those who have ears to hear that as He is the God Man of the Present; the Incarnation of the Most Sublime Moment to be captured in a Polaroid; so is He a guest still of Joseph of Arimathea; the rock before the cavernous tomb never to be pushed aside; the woman never to be frightened on the third morning; and a dark and quiet hopelessness never to be unsettled by the joyous march of time.

Ashamed that he is not prepared to be a proper host, Delbert brushes his hair out of his eyes; twinkles his nose; and crawls over to the makeshift kitchen to start a kettle of Agua de Jamaica. He arches his scrawny butt into the air, so that his knees barely touch the vino tinto puddles splattered about the rooftop.

He is struggling still to light the burner, when the old man finally plods a water heavy boot onto his royal court and, in a cantankerous thrust of defiance against the gravitational pull of time, heaves the rest of his torso and limbs in a manner that is more or less able to reunite his pickled piss body with that boot.

Good morning, my name is Kent; the old man offers pleasantly in a voice that is not at all like the ominous noise that had been snaking up from the void.

Delbert startles to his feet; knocking over the kettle; and brandishing an unctuously crooked grin that is as much a manifestation of his soul as it is a lie; so that, for a split second, he is in his shame what he has desired forever to be.

Kent Oglesby, if I may be so bold, the old man says as he offers his hand.

Delbert senses his cock hardening, and he broadens his smile even more.

King of Kings, Delbert responds affably enough, though that pitter-patter in his warm chest is much too rambunctious for him to be able to take the hand offered, let alone to grace the moment with any other indication of hospitality.

The old man is unfazed. He continues to offer his hand and even extends the length and the breadth of his friendliness by widening his eyes into a boyish smile, so that at once he seems like Pinocchio offering gratitude to his Creator.

Your surname…Oglesby…It means ‘King of Kings,’ Delbert explains with a sheepish, little smile that is well on its way to becoming altogether love struck.

The old man gives up on receiving a handshake. He instead squeezes the left shoulder of his host in that jocular manner that is more appropriate among toweled men in a locker room; and, for a split second, he is that lanky butt boy who has just given the sign that the coast is clear for a bend over rover inside a shower stall; a dance in the shadows; and a defiant howl at the Huntress Moon.

If I am a king, then it is only for a season, the old man responds amiably. I am renting the Katz residence at the top of the hill, while the Old Jew is back in the States, counting his shekels and balancing his books before the bloodshot eyes of the taxman. I suppose that we are all pretenders to the throne; just the latest among an infinitude of seat warmers; regal enough in our pretensions, or even more so in our charity, until we are snatched off of the high chair by a pin striped auditor. But until then, ours is the right; indeed, the high duty; to make merry and to toast the same gods who will judge us to be no good scoundrels in loafers and lace and who will serve our heads to one another on silver platters.

Carpe diem, Delbert offers, as he realizes that the old man is not attired in a robe, but rather in a hooded rain slicker, and that the weight at the end of the leash is not a dead and decrepit piglet, but rather a fluff muffin Shih Tzu in the vigor of its charmed life and with no higher purpose to its soul than to love.

Seize the day. Seize eternity. And let nothing creep inside the walls that may mar the beauty of sentimental affections, the old man sings as a rhapsody.

Like a JFK button inside the walls of the Church Defiant, Delbert smiles.

The old man laughs; and Delbert suspects that they are sharing the exact same memory, like lovers of the same mind adrift together in their private sea.

To Thy Right Hand Do Thou Guide Me

I shall have whatever you are preparing, the old man comments with the amiable, but direct, manner that suggests that he is used to taking command of whatever space he inhabits at any given moment. Mine is a credo fit for a beast that slithers on its scales: A life must never be wanting in its pleasures; and if a nubile girl swimming in her silky strands of prepubescent hair, while eyeing the glistening coat of the one fruit forbidden the caress of her pouty lips, must first shriek in response to the hissy intonations of a snake escaped from its dark hole in the fresh and fragrant marsh, so then must the silly cry of the wide eyed and the bushy tailed be coaxed first into a weary sniffle, then into a lukewarm sigh, and finally into an inviting swoon; her buckled knees relaxed; her awkward high cheekbones collapsed; her dreamy eyes bereft of scales; so that she is laying in a cauldron of mud and dew, opening her supple legs, and baring no more than a hint of the grin that will incite the villainy of Paris and the heroics of Odysseus; because it is in the very act of temptation; the subtle lie released amidst truths and opinions and given free reign to disrobe the little girls who are heeding just a bit too long the moonlit serenades; that a heart long since dead and decayed; no more than ash seeping out from beneath a brittle rib cage; finds a reason to pump ghost blood back into bones that had been stiffened by their eternal rest.

Delbert senses his hard cock throbbing; his shaft nuzzling the damp air in front of his thighs to the rhythm of a miniature heart lodged in the very core of his scrotum; and yet he is no more embarrassed by his excess than if he were in front of his dressing mirror stroking his putty, while whistling The Blue Danube.

The old man gestures toward the kettle that is being pushed by a howl of a monsoon wind in the direction of one of the embrasures, and this is sufficient to stir Delbert out from his boyish grin and to inspire him to grab the kettle just before it tumbles off of the rooftop of the castle tower and onto the wet rocks, smashing into trillions of sparkling kettle pebbles, and floating into the wind as if ashes released to the high seas and absorbed into the wail of a surly tempest.

Delbert slinks with his kettle to his makeshift kitchen and dons an apron.

The old man stoops over to the chair at the typewriter; yanking viciously at a twelve pound Shih Tzu that is offering no more resistance to his commands than is necessary for its long, blond skirt to mop up much of the wine blood and the bone and glass fragments in its path; and muttering yet another of his many cantankerous spitfires that ages his folded skin back into the cracks of his skull.

He drops into the seat and curls his bony fingers over the keyboard, as if he is the acclaimed man of letters setting out to author a scene that may begin as typescript but that invariably matures into a life of its own played out to the boos and the catcalls of the monsoon winds; melodramatic pathos fished out of an unctuous lagoon of sentimental schmaltz; self-important prose bogged down by a moralism that stifles the life out of the occasional catchy phrase or snappy refrain, so that everything is a shade of gray; but then he chuckles a something or other that makes sense only in his own mind and drops his hands to his sides.

Now, I have not been slithering about San Miguel de Allende even a span of a yawn, the old man smiles knowingly in the direction of his host. And yet no doubt we have met. Indeed, I would say that we are well acquainted; intimates in a manner; star-crossed to heed the same Siren and to crash into one another on the same jagged rock just a stone’s throw away from the white virgin shore.

Delbert is silent, but he blushes as a schoolgirl adrift in her sea of roses.

We can see the Church Defiant; standing so proudly on her bed of salted and limed sand; glistening so clearly in the sun of an eternal noon; so that even if a fog should happen to tumble over the rocks, the fine lines and bold paint of our happy home; our sanctuary from the march of time; should stand out in the mind, even if no longer in the eye, and call us forward to take our favored pew among the living dead and to heed a sermon from a skeleton in a black cassock.

The old man considers a moment, and then he is so repulsed by an image in his mind that he twitches his face into a snarl that resembles an asp writhing out from its squishy black hole and hissing inconsolably into a monsoon scream; a mad expression that is at once terrifying and intoxicating to the blushing host at the makeshift kitchen; and a ghost that will linger when the old man is gone.

But, of course, we are stranded on that jagged rock, the old man scowls.

The old man breaks away from his image just enough to turn his sad eyes back in the direction of his host; searching for something along his skinny limbs and demure torso that might be a pleasant distraction; and then relenting to an anguish that is so visceral as to be a dome descending upon the eroding rooftop and snuffing the last cries of life out from the two ghosts forever abiding there.

Forever a stone’s throw away, he wails. Just close enough to contain in a Polaroid that then yellows over time, but never close enough to make out what is stealing the eye of a woman who had been so charmed by the likes of us. It is so very maddening to be ensnared in our fate; lumped among the middling folk; caught somewhere between the Kingdom of the Jealous God; our singing voices never on key enough to be included among the angels and the saints at the foot of the golden winged throne; and the Kingdom of the Dumb Beasts; our passion for song never satisfied in the occasional howl at the moon or terrified shriek in the clutch of a predator. Ours is the fate to be tempted to live among the gods on that white virgin shore and then to be disemboweled on that jagged rock off to the side somewhere; our cries gurgled; our desires drowned by foamy waves.

Delbert reaches for his cock beneath his apron. He has turned his back to the old man, but he does not care a whit if he notices how he is stroking a hard shaft no more than inches from a kettle on an open flame. He blushes beat red, as he imagines that the old man behind him is grinning smartly at his bony butt.

The old man catches how his host is turning himself into a blind boy, but he responds not so much with a smart grin as with a devilish chuckle; a gravelly spit of sound that pushes back the descending dome for a while; and in the end a spittle of phlegm that he flings off of his chin with the back of his hand in the cavalier manner of a burly king who has imbibed one too many in his mead hall.

Perhaps we have met at one of Mr. Dickinson’s soirees, the old man says.

Delbert feels his cock deflate like a pricked balloon in his hand. He slinks his neck into his chest, and shuffles about the makeshift kitchen, acting as if he had decided on his own not to finish it off, and sniffing back one corrosive tear.

I have become a regular already, the old man continues. So much so that the host always sets up a fine chair for me beside the roses and the punchbowl, no matter if I bother to RSVP. Of course, I am not under any illusion. He adores my Shih Tzu and tolerates me. He spikes the punchbowl with his very best rum; an old standard named La Negrita that he stashes beneath his living room couch and indulges straight more than you would know; and in turn I don the manners of a Stepin Fetchit chaperone of a world champion Shih Tzu in a polka dot bow.

The old man remembers something especially naughty, and he chuckles.

Shelly here is not a world champion, the old man confesses through what is left of his hoarse chuckle, while yanking a yelp out from his ball and chain. It is not even a show dog. I bought it from a show dog breeder; a batty biddy with a farm in Upstate New York who claimed to know the esteemed Lady Brownrigg but whom I suspect had as much of the kike in her as the Old Jew Katz who had the fortune to be able to place her bets on Wall Street. We exchanged the finer social pleasantries; properly substituting a handshake for a written contract; so you must share in my utter surprise when, as soon as I carried it into my home, its tail should drop as if an Oriental cock dangling about the smoke of an opium den; no more than a tiny puff of flaccid fur dragging along my kitchen linoleum and picking up dirt for me to clean. It looked up at me with that silly munchkin smile in its eyes, and I sensed at once that it did not adore me. It chided me. It taunted me. But it did not adore me. And do you know why? Because it realized that it had purchased me from that old bat in Upstate New York. And so it is fit that I should don the manners of a Stepin Fetchit; playing up my Massa as a real show dog champion, the best Massa this side of the Mason Dixon, and smiling all cheek to cheek as Mr. Dickinson and his artsy-fartsy friends swoon over the dust mop at my feet. It is an act, but it is my act. And in turn for donning the stage I can wallow my sins in spiked punch and share a glib comment or two with those other silly souls in dapper pin stripes who have found themselves for one reason or another lost south of the border. It is not eternal life; but it is a lease on life that passes for the moment; a kind of Lazarus life; knowing what death really is and that it will come again at the end of it all as assuredly as it had in that first breath of life; a kind of play that is neither real, nor altogether fake, either; so that in the masks we don and the lies we tell we may live on in our dead bones.

While the Wicked are Confounded

Delbert remembers nothing more from his first morning with the old man who is shriveled and stooped in front of his typewriter, except that as he smiles away the last traces of his tear, and turns to his guest with a whistling kettle in one hand and a Sleepy Sombrero tea cup in the other, an arching wave of warm monsoon rain slaps over the merlons and drowns the rooftop in a deluge of mud and gravel that had been kicked up from the corroded base of the castle tower; swamping everything in a howling chuckle that is the madness lurching beneath the crust of the earth, and above the clouds in the heavens, until it is revealed to be everywhere all at once in the air that men breath and the space that men occupy; displacing what is sensed into inchoate fragments; images that are not seen, but heard; sounds that are not heard, but seen; and everything felt as an angry asp hiss of terror that is incongruously twisting the stomach into a knot of acid drenched flesh that is sinking into the gurgling bowels, and pulling the skin by invisible hooks attached into each and every one of its pores away from that carcass shell that passes for a body in fear; so that in this wicked stew, that old man is at once a ghost seeping into the typewriter, his father scolding him with his back to the crashing waves, and finally himself alone in his life once shared.

He stumbles up from his dream; unable to reattach the image fragments; the puzzle pieces of a delicate scene splattered apart from one another in a big bang explosion, until each piece is as distant from one another as the infinitude of the void; and yet very aware that with every one of his rabbit punch breaths into the wet and suffocating blackness all around him, he is exhaling a bit more of his dream into the murky fear; a dream to be lost as soon as he lifts his head from the scraggly pile of white shirts that passes for a pillow inside the dressing room; but a ghost to be preserved in how the monsoon winds outside rattle the ceiling door and unleash old man creaks and moans from within the dead stone.

He reaches for the candlestick on the dresser; remembering vaguely how a sad scream within the cauldron of a monsoon night had lifted the ceiling door just enough for a gust to toss cloth everywhere and to snuff out the blue flame; and snapping an epithet into his teeth when every one of the matches near the candlestick is too soggy to inspire a new lease on life in the droopy candle wax.

He sits in a stink of white shirts; his bare butt rubbing shit stains into his favorites; and holds his head until the throbbing headache dissipates as if syrup gurgling down a drain into the kind of numb mindlessness that passes for active thought south of the border; a sleepy sombrero soup sloshing about the interior of his skull; and a copper taste on his tongue that he knows will not leave, until he downs another bottle of vino tinto that he scrounges out from a clothes pile.

And so he has all the time in eternity to imagine that he is the esteemed gentleman with a Shih Tzu for which Mr. Dickinson, El Primer Gringo, sets up an especially beautiful chair; a Louis XV arm chair carried out from his living room by a strapping Mayan boy with long, black hair that reaches all the way down to his bubble butt, in his fantasy version of this routine occurrence; and spikes the punchbowl to his side with the La Negrita hidden in a silver flask; taking care to maintain the appropriate ratio of punch to rum; and yet never removing his sad but adoring eyes from the guest for whom all is offered and nothing is spared; a charming fantasy, to be sure; but one lacking in very important details, such as how Mr. Dickinson appears apart from his adoring eyes, or how he stoops to add yet another dab of rum to the punch, or how he wiggles every limb down to his tippy toes when he laughs uproariously at something that the great guest offers in passing; details that cannot be supplied, except from the loon shed tucked in a shadow of his overactive imagination, since naturally El Primer Gringo has not seen fit actually to invite the esteemed writer of our time to any of his soirees. 

Delbert actually appreciates the resentment that slithers up his throat as a kind of bile. It breaks the headache; not all at once, but a bit more each time his esophagus quivers and then heaves from the acidic bowel movement looking to escape from his mouth; and focuses the mind on finding another bottle of his vino tinto stash, which he is sure much be somewhere beneath his soiled pile of shirts and blouses and blood red whips and sugar and spice and everything nice.

But every bottle in reach is empty; and somewhere along the way he hits his head; and so when the gusts rattle the ceiling door again, he is a pissy pout.

Get dressed, you sniveling sap suck, the wind screams in the grating tone of a ceiling door that is creaking open and slamming shut, as if the chapped lips of a spoiled snot crying out for its next round at a plump pap. Have you downed so many bottles of vino tinto that you no longer have enough of the gray matter within your skull to recall your two martinis lunch date today with the old man?

It takes a while for Delbert to decipher the wind words; especially as the vowels are elongated into black cat wails and the consonants are coughed from the sharp sound of wood thumping into stone; and so the wind just laughs at his slowness and slaps at his bloody cheeks with the cloth tumbling about the dark.

He pretty much has everything figured out; vowels and consonants taken from here and there to frame simple words on a faded blackboard; except what is compelling enough to kick his thin butt into something that resembles an act.

And then he sees two martini glasses clinking on the silver screen behind his eyes, and he has just enough of a purpose in mind to find a match along the floor that is not wet and to dress before a mirror that is swimming in that same dark blue candlelight that reflects the ghosts chained to their tombs in the sea.

He crawls out from his hole as a caped queen in beet red huaraches; just dabbing his lips with a final touch of gloss before facing the torment waiting for his soft skin and delicate limbs; and a mad gust rips the door off of its creaking hinges, tosses it over the edge of the castle tower, and smashes it on the rocks.

The wind and the rain now will have free reign with his treasures, but he has no more mind at that moment than to slither over to the nearest merlon on his right and to hold onto the gravestone until the hefty gust has blown its wad.

He glances at his office: a typewriter sinking into a cracked desk, like an ageless rock descending so slowly into the earth as to appear unmoved by times past and yet to come; and a chair dancing awkwardly on its hind legs; so that in unison the typewriter, desk, and chair seem to be caught in a two step planted to the repeated note of a broken record; a hard boy and his winsome girl smack dab in the middle of a dance floor; surrounded on all sides by the love melodies of a bygone time that, when reverberating into one another, sound like a storm of adolescent heartbeats and muffled sighs; and alive in their own wanderlusts.

He stumbles down the spiral staircase; not bothering to retrieve the torn hammock that had been blown into one of the gnarled limbs of the tree next to the castle tower; drops his chin into his neck; folds his fingers in the manner of a monk at prayer in front of his wet noodle of a cock; and soldiers his returning headache and his retreating limbs towards the ghost lines of a temple obscured in the mad rain that he nonetheless knows is the Katz lair at the top of the hill.

He chooses one of the many brick and mortar pathways that snake about the jacaranda and the bougainvillea on the steep slope before the outer edifice of the temple; but since he keeps his bleary eyes fastened on his huaraches, he does not notice how the witchy trees are no more than the unkempt graveyard of peeled bark and chipped wood spikes of a beauty long dead. Even the quaint funerary lanterns that had guided his approach so many months ago are gone; a testament to indifference; and an absence that calls attention to the extent to which this graying graveyard has been stripped of the maudlin affectations that otherwise would set it apart from the rest of the world; so that, in a way, all of creation is mired in the very same pall that is predominant in this twisted path.

He sees the Heidi Land script above the jagged crack in the outer edifice of the temple. It is an omen that cannot penetrate his headache, except as the emerging sense of doom that has been stooping his spine every step of the way.

Ist das Tor klein und Enge ist die Weise.

He lifts his heavy chin to the sky. The sun is a ghost white ball wafting in and out of black storm clouds; but it is just brilliant enough at the high point in the sky for him to deduce that it is noon; the time of reckoning; the moment in which it is most proper to toss a second olive in the frothy mix of a gay martini.

He stares through the jagged crack; hoping to catch a sign of his old man host; but instead confronting the blessed after the fall; cracked greenhouses on mud pools that are now the crypts of dead flowers; broken bird cages rolling as tumbleweed in the wail and releasing wing bones and beaks back into the dust.

And in the midst is a starving Shih Tzu, fallen on its side, crying for food.

Doomed to Flames of Woe Unbounded

Delbert cannot remove his eyes from the dying Shih Tzu; wet clumps and corkscrews of blond fur that are blown upward by the monsoon gusts every now and then to reveal a quivering ribcage; chewed paws digging into the earth in a repetitious manner that indicates a dog scampering away from a beast inside of a dream; not one of the run of the mill predators that are featured often inside of canine nightmares, but the muzzle drooling hunger beast that rattles its thin and jagged bones out of the shadows just before starvation submits to the lures of death; and a long tongue heaving in and out of a short muzzle in the manner of a deviant sexual act, so that the constant yelping resembles the pained cries of a girl who has opened her weak knees to the allure of love for the first time.

He discovers that his contemplation of the Shih Tzu is taking him outside of his own mind; even leaving his headache somewhere beneath him; so that he is observing the brittle bones stretching mildewed skin as if hovering three feet or so above the matted crown of his head, or reigning in the gray light of a late afternoon, while watching how her stooped and shriveled bones cough up runny phlegm and carve out the last life of a mermaid from a thick slab of lime wood.

He does not like being outside of his own mind; the funhouse mirror with which he is most comfortable just tossed aside with the rest of the junk from a circus on the move; and wonders if the cost of an eternal present captured and contained is the loss of each and every illusion, so that even an oncoming wave loses its capacity to inspire fear in the boy who has been abandoned to the sea.

And if so, then what is so wrong with that fate? Is there not a semblance of godliness in a soul that is stretched the everlasting length and breadth of her private limbo? Do we not know the mind of God Himself, when we abandon love and fear to the ash heap of marching time and shout our own praise in eternity?

But the praise should be beautiful; a soothing lilt to the fine ear; and yet there are no lazy charms in a persistent dog yelp that is not muffled so much as augmented by the howls and the creaks of a monsoon arising from its sad tomb.

He notices a hooded ghost skeleton standing at the head of the Shih Tzu.

It catches his eyes and then smiles in the cheeky manner of an imbecile; a retarded gnome; stooped and slowed by its own life in sin; and yet expressive in the hopeful way of a child first intimating a sun behind gray rumbling clouds.

It approaches the other side of the jagged crack in the outer edifice; one plodding step after another in a pair of oversized boots; a gnarled branch, used as a walking stick, tracing mad wiggles into the mud; and forever a broad smile beneath clueless silver dollar eyes that seem to be floating out of their sockets.

Delbert gasps, when he recognizes that this hooded ghost skeleton is not an apparition sifting in and out of the monsoon, neither a shade lurking in some dark corner of his own imagination, but the esteemed Kent Oglesby; the smiling gentleman with a Shih Tzu who is a regular beside the roses and the punchbowl at the Dickinson soirees; the stooped gnome in a slicker and a pair of rain boots who is nonetheless in good company with the Old Jew in black and white spats; the sin and the grace blended together into something strangely beautiful in its living deadness; its past foggy and dreamlike; its present stripped of any future path that might tip the scales one way or another; so that there is nothing, but the heart beating madness, and teeth grinding chuckles, that curve skull smiles into cheekbones and pull eye sockets into the semblance of Lone Ranger masks.

The old man responds with a quizzical look, but then relaxes again into a childish smile that says: I do not know who you are, but do you want to jump in a puddle with me, or perhaps play a game of Kick the Shih Tzu when it is down?

Delbert wants to say: Remember me? I am Dexter McCall, internationally acclaimed man of letters, the sophist with the soft touch, the man who put the lit in literati, and I am here to conjure a scandal and a song out from a martini, or two, or more, whatever it takes to wash out the flames in our broken hearts?

But he does not say anything. He never says anything to the old man. His chin just falls into his neck, and his eyes search in vain for a pebble in the mud.

And then there is a knowing twinkle in the old man’s good eye, and so he leans into the jagged crack, as if to whisper something through the sliding door inside of a dark and forbidding confessional, and leers lustfully at his sad guest.

The clouds unleash mad thunder, and the monsoon collapses as a deluge.

Seems that we chose a lousy day to clink martini glasses and to share our ribald sensibilities, the old man grins. Though I suppose that every day at about this time offers the very same mix of opportunity and misfortune; something in between a sunrise and a sunset; seasoned with a bit of bad weather for a bit of good measure; and served in a martini glass that has been chilled all of the way down to its glass bones inside of a stifling meat locker larger than the universe.

The old man seems to be floating through the jagged crack and wrapping his arthritic fingers about the chicken throat of his guest on the other side; but in fact he remains squarely on his side of the impenetrable wall between desire and fulfillment; his heavy boots sinking into the mud of his Eden, while his gray guest is no more than a vanishing similitude in comparison just trying to catch a glimpse here and there of that eternal living death captured once in a Polaroid.

Seems to be futile; our loves; our enmities; when the sun as surely arises to its high throne as it descends to its unmarked tomb; a snarl broadened and a verse recited on a mark; swimming in place beneath stage lights; blinded in the moment to the sea of unconvinced eyes beyond the fourth wall; and yet all the comic pathos is but a fleeting beat in a show; a gesture offered up for no other reason than to entertain the gods sometime in between the high rolling suppers and the cheap pillows; and then lost as soon as the actor steps back into his sad and lonely shadow and waits for the next union stooge to perform the next line on the stage we call life, or universe, or names listed in the faded White Pages.

Delbert looks up from the mud just enough to see that he is a boy again; a timid creature standing on a sand dune at the back of the Church Defiant and waiting for the lecture to be condensed into a back handed slap against his soft cheek; attired not in a beanie and Buster Browns, but in an old lady bonnet and squeaky slippers, as he bares a JFK button that he had pinned to his left nipple.

And father is standing with his back to the ocean blue; attired in his gray suit; formidable fabric draped off of thinning bones; jowls speckled by the sand that is being carried every which way in the howling winds; eyes beady within a face of loose tallow, so that he seems to be melting just everywhere else but in those soulless pupils that do not see so much as condemn to an old hell fire pit.

So you want another trip to the woodshed, do you? Father inquires in the belaboring tone of a eulogist, while widening his dead eyes into a knowing grin, and bracing his firm back to withstand the wave that is about to crash into him.

And so the boy trembles, like in the Negro spiritual; the ends of his lips a loopy quiver in the expectation of a flat hand on his bared butt; his trepid mind already inside of that shadow where girly girl cries are muffled in favor of a big boy silence, and a pair of clenched eyes that see, and a heart that beats frozen water through the invisible veins of a snot nosed skeleton boy creaking his hard knees to the unforgiving floor and relearning how to crawl about the blackness; and all the while sensing that this gross fear is what it means to encounter joys unmentionable and that this life is an eternal death intimated in untold stories.

But that is where you are wrong, the old man comments, not reading the mind of his guest, so much as he is now and forever inhabiting every one of the many details that make up the fantastic image of father withstanding a jealous wave. We die in the stories we tell; the tales we make up to inspire a blush out of a girl; the yarns we embellish to be the center of a group at a cocktail party; the pasts we recreate to set up castle towers for ourselves in distant kingdoms, and to compel the likes of a Mr. Dickinson to plea in abeyance on bended knee. We die, because no matter the elaborations of a cunning mind the stories never quite do the trick. The girl casts her eye elsewhere; the group disperses one or two at a time to the buffet table; the castle tower erodes back into the mud in which it had been born; and the esteemed Mr. Dickinson is not so sure that that odd duck Dexter McCall is anything more than just a bit of queer bait in drag. It is our lot in life that the only sublime moment we can contain forevermore, the only indication of our godliness, is not the lie we peddle but the last breath we wring out from a throat within our grasp. We see sheer perfection; however we may define it; and we realize that the only way we may retain it within and for ourselves is to deny it a future; to refuse water to the wilting flowers and seed to the chirping birds; and to let the Great Shih Tzu shrivel inside of his ribcage.

The old man steps back. He returns cradling the Shih Tzu in his free arm.

Are you god enough? He asks as he shoves the dog into the jagged crack.

Call Me with Thy Saints Surrounded

Are you god enough? Delbert repeats the question in his mind until it is a mantra; the kind of soft and soothing gibberish that drains the blood out from a conscious mind and replaces it with something akin to spiritual embalming fluid and leaking bags of hot air; but also the kind of unanswerable question that has just enough poignancy in its simplicity to inspire the same feats as those heroes of old who had swaggered silver eyed and smitten out from the Oracle; so that, in that subdued manner that is peculiar to his personality, he is caught up with a desire to do something that is nevertheless too idealistic to be the motivating impulse behind any one act; the pathos of indecision; the tragedy in laziness; a resolve never to resolve lest the sparkle in a moment be squandered somehow, and shown to be no more than the banality of a bombast blanketed in a breeze.

Delbert hurries down the hill; cradling the Great Shih Tzu in his arms, as if a mother with her newborn son at her pap; and tucking his chin into his chest to avoid the mud and the rocks that are being snapped up by the howling gusts; a white caped figure in beet red huaraches who has plastered a mad snarl upon his face, but who nevertheless seems strangely peaceful in his madness, like an anguished refugee who is wearing the war all over his face, but who senses that the Allied prisoner of war camp is just around the bend; not at all sure what he will do when he gets to the gate; but sure that it will be better when the senile Krauts in their Pickelhauben are decaying in blood splattered snow behind him; the beast scowls and the terrified eyes at the moment the bayonets penetrated being etched even now into the sheets of ice wrapped about their blue corpses; and the Order of the Black Eagle presiding on gnarled tree limbs over the dead.

He skips up his wet spiral staircase with the light heart that beats in any man who is nearing his own salvation; a warm blood flow that paints a blush on his cheeks and almost curves his snarl into a smile; and a rush of sensations in a conscious mind that is still unable to comprehend enough to set upon a specific course of action, but that frees the worn soul to flirt with the possibility of joy.

And there is no higher joy than when the one is sacrificed for the many. 

And so the yelping dog is a cooing baby; her baby; her baby kidnapped in the blackest of the shadows and whisked away; her baby strangled on the same patch of white sand tucked away in their secret cove where once and only once she had smiled just for him; her baby wrapped snug as a dead bug inside of the Winnie the Pooh blanket that she had crocheted; her baby tossed into the foam of a nasty spitfire wave that will carry the corpse all the way back to the virgin shoreline of the old country; her baby forevermore lost to the receding tides of a time past, a moment unrecoverable, a sin unpardonable, a life lived in death, where the fish nibble away at the baby flesh, and the waves impart the restless manner of the sea to the baby bones bobbing about the void beneath the stars, and just the sorrow lingers as the gray pall wafting in and out of the moonlight.

You have been a bad boy, Delbert whispers to the unsuspecting infant in his arm, as he reaches his rooftop paradise. It is time for the woodshed for you.

Delbert walks over to his typewriter; still cradling the Great Shih Tzu, as if it is an infant; but now trembling his girly lips into something that might have been able to pass as a smile, if not for his demonic glare into a shadowed past; so that he is at once aware that the eternal present is not just an abandonment of a future, but is as much an inability to abandon the past in unmarked graves.

His conscious mind has grabbed a hold of something; something nasty on which to smack the lips; something hard and heavy into which a placid cock can spring to life and throb stupidly in search of a warm home; a specific act that is going to make a difference, and shed tears, and force smiles beneath downcast eyes, and open bony knees that have been hiding in a sanctuary of satin sheets and late afternoon suns and yet withering backwards into the diseased marrow.

You think I am going to be chicken; cry uncle; give up the ghost; perhaps just slap you around a little and then take you back to your crib, before she has any inkling that you are missing; Delbert chides, while he lays the baby dog boy on the waterlogged carriage of his typewriter and cracks his worn out knuckles.

Delbert sighs; sits on the chair before the typewriter; and leans upon his right fist in the manner of Auguste Rodin’s Thinker contemplating his last truth.

But you have got it wrong, Delbert chuckles so hard he spits up old wine.

Shelly looks back at its new master; lifting its button nosed muzzle from the carriage release lever just enough to give him a quizzical look; and wagging its tail as if to say: You are mad, but I suspect you will feed me dry kibble prior to the Second Coming, and for that reason alone, I am your new best friend, so much of a best friend that I am wagging my tail for you in spite of my delirium, and that must count for something, like some kibble, or perhaps a rotten scrap.

Delbert does not notice any of this affection, because an infant who is to be put down does not have a button nosed muzzle to lift or a bushy tail to wag.

You see…I am in a position to act, Delbert continues, after spitting up all the wine that had been lodging as sticky goo in the back of his throat. My lovely father has connections. He is in the business; the mortuary and church supplies business; and that means he knows people; the best people; his people, and my people, and very soon your people as well; men in gray suits who never smile in the sun, because that might chip and crack their jowls, or perhaps unsettle one of their hairs before the wake is done. And these are the men in gray suits who know how best to fill out death certificates, and write obituaries, and steer the eulogist, so that a few shakes of the magic wand and a strangulation performed in a secret cove is no longer a murder; not even a mild case of manslaughter on the cusp of midnight; not even a bit of jaywalking when the paddy cops are not at the scene. Oh, no. It is a lot more like a crib death. Yes, that’s right, a nasty case of the little hands slinking out from inside dark and cavernous nostrils and pinching a baby nose until it takes on a blue tinge, and seems to collapse into a horrified face, and is not particularly conspicuous anymore in between a gaping mouth and a pair of eyes that are never ever going to turn away from the black void. Oh, I know what you are thinking. The gray men will not be so persuasive, yes, that is the right word, persuasive, with the likes of her. But a magic wand, even the kind that turns murders into crib deaths, need not be used at all on an unfortunate soul locked up in a sanitarium for her own good. You know what an out of the way sanitarium is? It is where the Irish go on vacation; where the fire water is withheld just long enough for the forked tongue to dry out a wee bit; a restful stay without the burdens of usable telephones and local television news.

Thunder rumbles, and Delbert raises his eyes to the Irish spitfire heavens in the same manner as a high church priest elevating a host before the epiclesis prayer; his look at first hesitant, and then relaxing into an expression of solemn joy; a spirit rush manifested not in the exuberance of a moment, but in the sad pall that spreads inconspicuously across dry skin and chaps old sermonizing lips.

She never looked at me the same way again, Delbert continues. She said all the right things; the sanitarium will train a bronco at least that far; but that tremble in her eyes whenever she looked into me; that way her skin recoiled to her bones when we were together; well, let me just say that she could smell an awful mist sifting out from my pores; a guilt mist; a crying out for revenge from beneath the sea mist; the scent that lingers when the dead are not really dead, but are bones rattling in dreams, or sounding in wind chimes, or chattering out of the cracks in the walls along with the rat squeals and the wind howls. Noises everywhere; the undead calling attention to themselves; demanding redress for their grievances; holding court; pronouncing judgment; gesturing for the bailiff to take the sad sack convict to the cloaked executioner who is awaiting his soft chicken neck at the noose; even leering from their smooth satin picnic blankets and feather down pillows, which are stretched out in every direction across the manicured lawn before the death stage. Every gesture; every condemning look; has a grating sound; a kind of metallic grinding that culminates in a chuckle; an ugly laugh quivering out from a coffin that is not quite latched and attacking an unctuous heart, a blood muscle dripping into the bowels and out the other end, until there is nothing left; nothing, not even the void; nothing, but that eternal reality that is the God who is just in His mercy and offers the one for the other; the God who gives and who takes; the God who loves and who condemns to the hell fire pit; the waves ebbing and flowing, until the final remaining pebble has been washed out to a sea without a shoreline and pulled into a saltwater grave.

Delbert wraps his hands about the neck of the infant; blocking out waves from this eternal moment; closing his eyes to the sand pebbles that the howling sea breeze is depositing on the baby cheeks; feeling nothing, but warm silence; unbroken peace; and a mad orgasmic rush that is ageless life living in the dead.

Except that this is not quite right; not what it purports to be; not what it should be at this very nexus point of sin and grace; and he cannot explain in his own mind what is wrong, except to say that her baby does not have this button nosed muzzle smack in the middle of his face; nor puppy ears; not four paws all covered in dog hairs; nor strands that flow out from everywhere into a silly tail.

And the clump of sand in their secret cove neither looks nor feels like an old and waterlogged carriage of a weather worn typewriter; and the wind gusts are not quite like crashing waves; and a rainy day is not quite like a calm night.

Delbert looks down at Shelly. He does not know how to react to this dog; no more than an innocent fluff muffin; that is licking at his soft hands, wagging its bushy tail, and looking back at him as if to question: Now, will you feed me?

I cannot even choke the wind out of a dog, Delbert sighs audibly, as he is releasing his grip, and falling back into his chair with the loud thump of defeat.

Nor could you finish off her baby, his father scowls somewhere within his heavy heart; or maybe the old man in the rain slicker and thick boots scowls; or maybe he says to himself as he recoils in horror from a coffin he has unearthed.

What? Delbert mumbles. I remember clutching my hands about its neck…

You remember nothing; the scowling beast voice cuts him off. You did no more than carry your intentions in your heart; but even after she had been sent off to the sanitarium, you did nothing but stare down at her baby; returning his smiles with your own; even condescending to warm the bottle and to feed it on a regular basis; all the good deeds that would be expected of the good husband of a good wife. Sickening; and you knew it; and you knew as well that the foam waves just outside your bedroom window kept ebbing and flowing to the gentle tick tock of a clock over which you would never have any control whatsoever. It is a testament to the mercy of God that He picked up the grim scythe that your weak hand could not even grip properly and did what you should have done. No more than a twinkle of light work for Him, but for you an eternal lifetime to be harvested in that moment that you stepped into the bedroom and observed just what shade of purple blue is added to the skin of a baby found dead in his crib; an eternal lifetime that you have squandered; a life that you have lost to time. 

What could I have done? Delbert whines. The shit brat had died already.

Any man can take a life; the scowling beast voice answers. But only God; He who has His hand on the dial of the Heavenly Cuckoo Clock; He whose finger raised will inspire a fierce storm on the high seas, just as assuredly as His finger lowered will instill a dead calm over the same; can condemn a life either to His service beyond the Pearly Gates or to His service beyond the River Styx; a lame Stepin Fetchit shuffle on the part of the condemned in either one of the cursed fates; but the designation of sheep or of goat indicating that His in the final say in the life of a man and that, because He says it is so, the sheep has the better fate than the goat, no matter that the two are donning the same dumb grins on their faces when answering the front door and carrying minks to the coat room. And so how better to harvest the eternal lifetime offered unto you; the sublime opportunity at your fingertips; than to condemn the shit brat, not just inside of your heart, but with your own grasping hands? Is it not the prerogative of a god to condemn the body of the dead by flaying its skin, squirting its blood onto the Winnie the Pooh mattress in the crib, twisting off its purple blue head with one turn of the hands that ends in a snap, smashing the limbs piece by piece in your trash compactor, and dumping the head, torso, and entrails into the ocean blue just before the midnight chime? Is it not the prerogative of a god to tear a body so completely, and to toss the pieces in so many disparate places, as to make it impossible for His angels to reassemble the pieces in time for the joyous return of His Son from on high? Ah, the opportunity squandered; the moment passed in no more time than is necessary to let out a startled scream and to grab at a sad and broken heart; since of course you do not condemn the shit brat, so much as you condemn yourself in your single tear shed and your weak kneed concern for how this death may affect her. And so you sit there; weak and stupid; as Father O’Byrne slurs out his eulogy; and the well meaning offer their condolences; and the Gaelic cantor slobbers his final farewell at the graveside; the winds howling a refrain to every one of his saccharine verses, while you lower your heavy chin to your neck, and fold your hands at your waist, and contemplate how that shit brat will rise again to her outstretched arms, as you rot even still in your tomb.

But that is impossible, Delbert mumbles. I have attended my church only once since the cursed Papists bought it on the auction block, and that had been on the occasion of herher bon voyage…or maybe I should say…herherher….

You can bury your memory; the scowling beast voice interrupts. But, just as with a body, it will arise at the trumpet call, if it is not condemned once and for all time to the hell fire pit reserved for an unpardonable sin and beyond the reach of the Second Coming. It may linger in sad silence beneath the trap door; at the bottom of the spiral staircase; and inside of the dungeon darkened in ink soot and pressed inward by despair; but it will brave the rat squeals, and knock aside the loosened stone, and crawl into the dispersed light of a veiled sun; the wretched storm outside offering no more light than what used to sneak through the vent in the dungeon; but your memory freed nonetheless to skirt in and out of shadows, and to sift in the monsoon clouds, and to haunt those dreams every night that are not submerged beneath the crimson red waves of fine vino tinto.

Delbert looks down at Shelly and gasps. Instead of the button nosed Shih Tzu, he sees her dead face; restfully gray in the late afternoon sun; impervious to the waves crashing against the bedroom wall and heralding the purple dye of dusk; and oddly distant from the last breath that is lingering on in the shadows; her dead face on the body of a tail wagging Shih Tzu; her dead face laying back on a carriage release lever and speckled grossly by the rain drops from on high.

He cradles Shelly and places the Shih Tzu beneath his table; the matted, damp dog hairs feeling clammy to his touch, like the skin of a dead body that is transforming into a purple blue wax; the little dog weight limp and unforgiving; and the paws clinking on the floor, like a bag of bones dropped in a mausoleum long after the doors have been shut for the night and the watchmen have gone.

Thunder snaps; and Delbert braces his table, until the rumbling passes in a series of skin tingling electrified spurts into a wind howl that is everywhere at once and nowhere in particular, and nothing remains but the stale copper smell that he imagines lingers on in the death chamber after Old Sparky is turned off.

And then there is nothing at all; not even the monsoon temper tantrum; nothing, but a metallic click-click-click sound that he senses is a clock winding.

And it is not just any clock. It is the grandfather clock in his living room. It is also the sad cuckoo clock in the bedroom of Evelyn’s mother, Madelyn. It is also the metronome buried at the bottom of the sea that keeps the time of the tide and assures that whatever is swept out will be returned that moment after the earth has been cooled silent and still by the very last of the purple sunsets.

And it is metallic teeth chattering inside of a bare skull; a skull dangling from a spine that had been hunched by scoliosis; a spine wrapped by bones that are dancing precariously in the wind like the remains of a beaten piñata flailing about on loose strings; and all held up by a pair of stick bone legs and crackling bone feet that are wobbling in place like Olive Oyl in a wind storm; a chuckling skeleton in an old lady dress and bonnet; threadbare and shredded in a manner that is ghoulishly sexy; and a JFK button pinned sideways into the thin sternum.

The skeleton lady lumbers her rattling bones in odd fits and spasms from the top of the spiral staircase to the table; never releasing that dead stare that seems to be living somewhere inside of her black eye sockets; and crackling the ends of her stark jawline into the semblance of a gruesomely wide clown smile.

Delbert is dead in his fears; no more life in his veins than is necessary for a dog yelp and a tinkle of hot piss, when the skeleton lady clasps her right bone fingers around his throbbing chicken neck and pulls his snow face into her skull.

I am happy to serve you; the skeleton lady flirts telepathically in a voice that sounds inside of Delbert’s mad dreamscape like the love child of Mae West and Pee Wee Herman. But every now and then I need to do more than just flirt with death. After all, we girls have our needs, too. Know what I mean, sweetie?

Delbert finds his lost breath somewhere and pushes back from the table; snapping the skeleton lady’s right humerus from her articular cartilage; a break that does not lessen the grip about his neck, but seems to widen her kooky grin into a Humpty Dumpty zigzag sliced from one forehead temple to the other; an askew smile that makes her skull face look as if a cracked egg balanced on pins and ready to vomit egg yolk all over the madness of bones wobbling beneath it.

Delbert knocks his chair back and falls to the floor. He is so mesmerized; like floating out of his body; he forgets the bony hand clasped about his throat.

The skeleton lady climbs onto the rickety table; and, while balancing her knees on both sides of the typewriter, and thrusting her pelvis in and out of the murky water in the carriage, bends forward like a tigress readying to leap upon her prey in the marsh. She studies Delbert; nodding her skull methodically from side to side; and waves her remaining index finger in a comedic tsk-tsk gesture.

This breaks the spell, and Delbert tries to scream. Nothing coughs out of his throat but a hoarse cuck sound, and as a result he is aware again of how the bone fingers feel as if spider legs compressing his skin and massaging his larynx.

He crawls back on his elbows; swaying the skeleton hand that seems like an appendage stiffly protruding out from the front of his neck so as to keep the skeleton lady at bay; and thrusting his feet like a girl kicking back at her rapist.

None of this deters her. She climbs down the table and pursues him with the calm persistence of an enchantress who knows that she will win in the end, no matter the girly girl kicks and parries that every once in a while land a blow.

She relaxes her Humpty Dumpty zigzag into a wide clown smile that is in proper proportion with her skull face; and, in the manner of any woman who is conscious of her appearance, she takes a moment to straighten her JFK button, which had rotated upside down when she had stepped off of the high table top.

Delbert takes advantage of her moment of self-introspection to rotate to his knees; smashing the humerus at the elbow joint against the floor, so that no bone above the ulna is protruding out from the front of his neck; and stumbling up to his feet. He tries to run; but he is strangled back to the stone floor, when the bony fingers so tighten their grip about his neck that he sees flashing lights.

I am sorry, sweetie, the skeleton lady mocks concern too emphatically in her telepathic cartoon voice to be believed. I just hate it whenever a man pulls out prematurely. It is like shaking the bottle all day, but never pulling the cork.

The bony fingers relent just enough for Delbert to crawl over to a merlon and to gasp for air. He is leaning his face over the edge and dangling the brittle ulna into the wind gusts in the hope that it will fly off with the monsoon storm.

Is this how you thank me? The skeleton lady pouts. I flayed that fat fuck, when you asked me to deliver you from the water’s edge. I strangled the boy in the attic, when you wanted another stab at capturing her elusive smile. I never hesitated to be at your beck and call; your guardian angel eternally beside your heart; the living dead kept in an urn by your bedside and in love with your cries at the third hour. All I ask in return is a hard bump and grind for good measure.

And with her last comment still ringing in the mental bridge between the two of them, she rubs up against his back, lifts her ruffled skirt, and thrusts her pelvis back and forth into his butt; raising her skull smile to the veiled sun; and screeching a telepathic hurrah amidst the sound of bones rustling against flesh.

He grabs at the ulna dangling from his neck; and with the added strength that results from intense stress, he manages to pull the bony fingers away from his hoarse larynx; the fingers snapping like pissed off beast claws in front of his bulging eyes; his torn skin falling away from his neck like an unfurled flag; until a sad wind howl twists the ulna out from his hands and whisks it into the storm.

This snatches her attention, and she steps back from her bump and grind to watch the bottom half of her right arm clutching repeatedly at the twigs and leaves in the screaming air. She has as much of a quizzical look on her face as a bare skull may express, and so it is quite easy to imagine that she retains a pair of eyebrows and that one of them is arched considerably into her fair forehead.

Sensing his golden opportunity, he knocks her back and scrambles for the spiral staircase; never looking over his shoulder; and stumbling head over heels down the last third of the steps; so that by the time he is back on his feet, and wobbling away from his castle tower, he is shredded, red flesh in a white cape.

Are you a goddamn queer? She screams at him from the bottom step. All you had to do was shut your eyes; relax a bit; maybe smoke a joint and share a joke; and yours could have been the luckiest, itsy bitsy cock this side of the Rio Grande. And, you know, it is not every day that a man gets what he wants; and let’s face it, I am what you want: the eternal present; the living dead; a church rebel and a spitfire lass; a gal with a grin who will never set her eye on the sea.

Delbert cannot outrun her telepathic screech; and so he jumps head first into that ditch that had swallowed the Fat Fuck in the Thunderbird months ago; landing on the car hood; hearing rat squeals; and capturing the saints in a song.

Low I Kneel with Heart Submission

And when the fear has been spent; trillions of invisible snakes discharged out from excited pores and saliva glands in the course of a mad rush that tastes like coppery blood, and smells like anxious sweat; and feels like warm boy flesh dripping off of cold beast teeth; there is nothing left, but darkness everywhere and impenetrable; a square of four walls as tall and as wide as the whole of the universe closing in on a futile squirt of breath and a monstrous soul collapsed in a fit of spasms into undistinguished bones; the fury of the moment captured for all time in a pathetic moan; the passion a sick gasp of ink soot in dark shadows; and what is left behind too small and insignificant to warrant a forgiving nod of the white bearded face and a lasting squiggle in the book in which hope abides.

This is the boy in the dungeon; alone in his black silence; a face smeared in Indian blood; a gaping beast mouth still chewing into the floor by the side of the bed, as if a remaining morsel of boy flesh may be panned out from ink soot.

And there he would have remained; neither awakening, nor suffering the slash of a black scythe, but just chewing a hole into the stone six feet deep and his eight year old body size in length and in width; except that in that blackest second before the first ray of sunrise, a wind gust kicks in the vent and a cough of warm rain sprinkles the top of his head; a baptism in despair that coils a sad death life out from his heart; and a communion in blood with a famished ghost; the famished ghost; her famished ghost; she who is and ever will be in that one and only eternity that is silence, and darkness, and rain tears down a forehead.

The boy cannot wipe the rain tears from his eyes fast enough; and so his is the blurred vision that instills unmitigated terror in a boy drowning within an underwater cave; the walls coming alive as syrupy clumps bleeding into a black abyss; the purplish blue haze sinking into the pressurized void in quivery shreds as if creation itself falling back into that divine dream from which it springs; an unctuous ooze everywhere that absorbs sound, so that there is nothing left, but a heavy moan interrupted by an occasional explosion of air bubbles from within gunky shadows; a nightmare universe being compressed into its saltwater tomb.

He crawls toward the open vent; rainwater pelleting his face into an ugly snarl; sporadic wind gusts congealing the warm sprinkles into waves that splash off of his face and slap heavy water hands over his buttocks and legs; so that in his mind he is the drowning boy snatched by a rapid current and hurtled toward an impenetrable wall; an evil place lurking just out of view that is nevertheless revealing itself unto him in the form of underwater ink soot coughed out from a black hole; an edge beyond which an imagination ceases to be able to separate hope from despair, life from death, and even heaven from hell; and, therefore, a vague intimation that the world beyond is as the world inside: a gray coldness veiled in warm lights, and a thimble imagined to be as spacious as the universe, but in fact a dungeon as much under the wide blue sky as inside the dirty walls.

And so the boy is not surprised, when he reaches the open vent and sees that the muddy rain cauldron outside is the exact same as the ink soot cauldron inside; a clear vision of the world much like looking into a mirror; a subtle shift in the mind that allows the visionary to see that the whole of reality is no more than a reflection of himself pulsing outward and compressing inward as a wave; time never able to strap its plodding boots; eternal life as a kind of dead limbo.

The wind howls; a Siren with the soul of a Gorgon; a beautiful witch who has been freed from her ball and chain to haunt the elect and the damned alike from one far corner of the dungeon to the other; a warm breath upon his damp skin that inspires just enough resolve to crawl over to the urn, to retrieve it out from the graying shadows, and to return with the urn in hand to the open vent; kneeling as if a boy readying himself for a confession on the eve of communion, while knowing that in a universe of one boy there is no priest on the other side; no plea; no absolution; nothing, but an urn held tightly against a graying heart, so tightly that it is impossible to tell where the ashes cease and the boy begins.

The boy remains there; a damned penitent unmoved no matter the force of a rainwater wave striking against his face and chest every now and then; not stirring, even when he hears muffled speech in the wind, followed by plodding, old man steps up the spiral staircase; not awakening from the dreamscape that is the extension of his dungeon from one horizon to another in his own eternity. 

There is a voice bobbing about monsoon winds; sloshing over the crest of a howl as a tinny screech, then sinking heavily and landing with a sick plop into the unctuous bowels of the maelstrom; capturing the melody here or there, but for the most part stumbling forward as a series of off key shrieks and boasts; so that the listener has to salvage the song in his own mind from some reservoir of discarded ditties; an experience that, for the boy, conjures the unpleasant chill of déjà vu and the vague sense that he has wandered the thunderous landscape and fended the witching wind cries much longer than his eight years will attest.

Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish Ladies,

Farewell and adieu to you, Ladies of Spain;

For we’ve received orders for to sail for Old England,

But we hope in a short time to see you again.

The singer apparently cannot remember the rest, as he repeats the same stanza in the halting manner of a broken record; a saucy riptide of profanity let loose in between each recitation, no doubt in the hope that one of these verbal gargoyles will unlock the other verses from inside of his cramped mind closet; a taxing concentration that robs the effort of whatever joys may have been there once upon a time on a bar stool or on a back room mattress round the last bend and off to the left somewhere; a boast now a bray sinking down to the hell pits and congealing into that mud where hooves trample and snouts sniffle all night.

But notwithstanding the cat wailing pitch; a voice that at first seems lost in the surreal twists and turns of sound indicative of the temperamental spat of rain and wind tearing down the universe, but that later seems to be swimming, and diving, and at times just dead man floating in that bottle of sherry which is its only real home; the boy retains that rapt attention that may be expected of an insignificant speck of humanity in the presence of greatness, as if one of the faceless Sieg Heil salutes along the sidewalk as the motorcade rounds the bend.

He catches a black form descending from the top of the hill; a ghost man who had been ordained by the Valkyries; a black robed priest leaning on a staff that looks a lot like a burnt scythe; and finally just another in a long line of sick drunks who stumble down the hill from cocktail parties; invariably a bottle still clutched in the free hand; a handsomeness lost in bloodshot eyes and crispy red cheeks; and a bit of repartee or a song offered to the silly spirit of parties past.

Every other time the black forms have passed by the dungeon without so much as a slurred curse or a bitter snarl that indicates that they are aware of a boy staring out at them from behind a vent; but the boy senses that this time it is going to be different; this time the man in the black robe, leaning on a burnt scythe, and swaying his bottle of sherry at unseen demons, is going to take sure notice; this time the boy is going to emerge from his gray shadow and leap into a singular blackness that is everywhere and all at once and destructive of hope.

And so whether responsive to the fates, or expressive of the will of a boy kneeling in prayer before that portal that reveals God in nothingness, and living souls in dead bones, the black form stumbles near the vent and falls to his side; cracking his burnt scythe in two with a thunderous snap; and snatching the half empty bottle of sherry in between his thin knees, lest his spirit be as lost as his dignity, and his will to live really be swept up with everything else that is dead.

The boy observes; wide eyed and bated breath; as the black form settles in the mud just inches beyond the vent; so close, indeed, that the boy does not see anything now but a black sheet draping over a rotund body; a fleshy fatness in the shape of a pear; and a labored breath that pulls in and pushes out a huge silver crucifix necklace that is now hanging down the back of the black form, so that the Goya Man of Sorrows is poking in and out of the rectangular vent space and is seeming to invite the boy to scoot in a little closer and to heed whatever a Goya Man of Sorrows on a huge silver crucifix may whisper into the blackness.

But the boy stays where he is; close, but so hidden inside the shadows in his dungeon as to be as distant as an asymptotic line with respect to its axis; so that the Goya Man of Sorrows seems strangely unreal; a two-dimensional cutout in a three dimensional universe; a whisper lost somewhere in the infinite black.

And then the black form stirs; a lame moan followed by a hapless squirm beneath waterlogged cloth; and the boy is pulled into the Goya Man of Sorrows.

See, Like Ashes, My Contrition

The black form sits upright; a slow and tortured crack of bones that is so precarious the boy braces himself for the mud splash if and when the girth falls back down to the earth; and squirms his fat butt about an oozy puddle, until he has rotated his body a half circle and is squinting his sad eyes into the dungeon.

In the process, the bottle of sherry slips out from between his thin knees and rolls off to the side; sputtering out thick sherry in the manner of an old and tuneless cock forever falling short of the bull’s eye; and smashing into sparkling red pieces against the castle tower foundation; an explosion of what seems like trillions of crystalized blood grains; and then nothing but a few shreds in a mud and gravel stew and a soggy wine label that tumbles about mad monsoon gusts.

It takes the black robed man a while to figure out what has happened to his half finished bottle of sherry; but when he does, his sad eyes tighten into an ornery pout; a look that is all the more childish, when he draws his lower lip up and over his terse upper lip, and when he coils his fatty fingers into the fists of a terrible two year old who is unhappy in his high chair; and he glowers steadily into the vent, as if the dreary boy hiding in the shadows is to blame for his loss.

He sees his wide rimmed black hat dancing in the gusts to his side; snaps it onto his head; and pulls the huge silver crucifix necklace back over his chest; a task that he finishes with a loud sigh. He is the Quaker Oats Man with a scowl on his lips and a pair of bloodshot eyes that would be rolling everywhere, if not for his desire to make out the shadow boy who is the cause of this mess. And he is a Man of God as made clear by the suffocating, white collar beneath his loose jowls and the condescending manner by which he snickers out his queasy gasps.

I suppose you are not at all sorry; Quaker Oats sneers. Spying on a Father in Christ; belaboring his thoughts with your own; no doubt a devil smile curving on the ends of your lips, when you beheld the sacramental wine smash into just so many smithereens. Oh, the insolence of youth; the grace wasted on the poor of mind and the loose of spirit; and all because we suffer your sniffling noses so much more than is warranted a prisoner in his sin. Yours is the sour punch of an orphan; a dank smell that I have tasted in tussled hair; a bit of nastiness that is clinging still to your threadbare sheets, even after the good nuns have tumbled them in the wash; and so I shall thank the Good Lord that He saw fit to provide we men of the bleached cloth the likes of fat and frumpy old biddies dressed as sourpuss penguins to take the ruler to your derriere and to hasten you and your brethren off to bed. After all, mine is the vocation to pray, and to love, and to indulge what has been consecrated; and suffering the little children just gets in the way of a mind in contemplation and a heart in repose of such higher truths with which the scabby kneed and the sniffling nosed are not at all appreciative.

Quaker Oats removes a drenched handkerchief from his sleeve. He huffs; a bit of haughtiness suggestive of a grand dame who is disapproving of that low caliber that has been frequenting the cocktail party circuit of late; and then he pats his forehead with the shredded and threadbare cloth. It is a totally useless gesture, of course, in light of the wicked rain pour; but he seems to feel better about his lot when he stuffs what little is left of the white cloth into his sleeve.

Acknowledging how this ritual must look, he returns his attention to that dreary boy whom he presumes must be clothed in Buster Browns, blue knickers, and propeller topped beanie; an image that presupposes that the boy hidden in the black shadow is an American, since no other tribe produces boys who are so relentless in their mischief as to pull off the kind of stunt that this brat boy has done; and an image that reddens his cheeks and squirts out irritable flatulence.

I suppose you have the mind of a Protestant; miscreant boy that you are; Quaker Oats snarls Protestant, as if such is the worst swear word imaginable. It would not surprise me in the least, since little boys are so given to the fashions of the moment. One particularly nasty fad is the one that says that beauty is no more than the shell of the serpent’s egg; that there is no grace within the Rites and the Procedures; that, somehow, there is something more to love perfected than how a satin chasuble floats over the skin, or how a solemn nod is a cherry on top of a sugar sweet eulogy, or how a soft dab of the forehead really says all that needs to be said about a graduate degree in theology. But that is not so. In the end, love is as much smoke and mirrors as everything else under a gray sun.

Quaker Oats has an epiphany. He leans his face into the vent and smiles.

You have done something, have you not? He inquires of the ink soot now sapping the rosy red out of his cheeks and replacing it with the gray coloring of a corpse that has yet to be embalmed. I can smell the shed blood crying out for vengeance in your breath, the flesh chunks on your teeth, the Indian boy sweat on your white skin. But it is not good enough then that you have done whatever it is that you have done. Oh, no. You insist that it is poignant; something that is memorable; a truth that is deep and abiding enough to cleanse that blood taste in your beast mouth and to stamp it out of your mind as no more than a passing irrelevancy. Like every boy indulging his fantasies, you insist that there really is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; an event horizon beyond which there is an even greater reality than our own; but in fact there is no sacred mystery; no Transcending Truth revealing Himself in the smile that is captured forevermore or in the chicken neck snuffed out in a moment of violence; nothing, but a rain that is just rain; and a dead body that is just withering away in the tomb; and a sacramental wine that is just a bottle of sherry hidden away from the old nuns. And so who are you to deny the Good Father his sacramental grace, as he walks back from his pastoral calls? Who are you to insist that the blessing be smashed along with the usurious profits of the moneychangers? Who are you to insist the truth is anything other than what we see with our eyes; and hear with our ears; and taste with our tongues in the cover of night? Who are you to insist the truth may be separated out from the skullduggery that leads unto it, as if the careful slicing of veins in the Holy of Holies does anything more for the tribe than leave behind a bloody mess for the deacons to scrub out of the tiles? I am quite prone to charity. It is the peculiar weakness with which we Fathers in Christ are to be condemned to the cross; one at a time, like sheep lining up for the slaughter in obedience to the call of their shepherd; and silly in retrospect, since the act of charity never manages to add a dint of sunshine more to a universe mired in all manners of dreck and darkness, and yet it is occasioned always by that lump in the throat that says that we are doing something good and meaningful. But, be that as it may, I am charitable enough to seek your redemption; to reach in and to pull you out from your childish dreams; and to show you first hand that what we are able to know is all that there is; no eternal present to be captured; just one bottle of sherry after another, until the Reaper insists on that balance due.

The boy tugs the urn even closer to his heart. He can practically feel her ashes seeping through the wood and into the pores splattered about his nipples like little fish mouths gaping madly for whatever food will be tossed unto them.

Quaker Oats senses that fear of loss that is inspiring the boy to hold onto the urn with all of the strength left in him. He smiles more broadly; forgetting, if only for a moment, his charge against the boy; and relishing in how such fear deadens a lame boy into the kind of silly putty that he can remold in his image.

I cannot see what you are holding in your heart, Quaker Oats continues. I only know that you are keeping yourself ever so close to her. Whoever she may have been at one time or another; a mother, a wife, a mistress; she is the dirty penny that is forever hidden away in a pocket somewhere; there to be felt and, in those moments, to remind the poor schmuck of what he has lost. It is said of old: Frail is thy Woman’s Name. But, in fact, it is not the witch who is frail, but the boy fallen to her charms. Our memories of her; the lengths to which we are willing to go in order to keep her by our sides; such conjure those passions with which we are inclined to see that there is something more to this wide world of ours. After all, if she can inspire so much grief; so many trips to the wine cellar in the dead of night; so many love songs dappling sugar sweet the lips of a kind and fair-haired troubadour; then is there not some higher truth that just makes sense of what is now floundering and foolhardy? If every one of our senses; that soft perfume we smell; that swoon we hear; that brightness in the sunshine we see bleeding through a window that only a moment before had been a portal of gray shadows; indeed, if every one of our goose bumps tells us that shemust be on the other side of a door; just waiting inside there to take us into her bosom; then do we not insist in our own minds that she must be there; that our senses, so ravenous as to be life forms in their own right, in fact are sensing something as great as the heightened tension would suggest; that there really is the there there for which we have been treasuring so much joy and despair in our hearts?

Help Me in My Last Condition

Thunder rumbles; an electrical whip snap overhead that spreads out into a bass retching sound in all directions, as if the heavens are convulsing from all of the flesh chunks and goo ever torn off of bones and preparing to heave them back down onto the soiled lap of the earth; a guttural wail that is not releasing pressure, but rather is building up pressure and charging the air with a frightful portent; a burgeoning sense that doom is imminent; and a vague inference that whatever is vomited back down will be the recompense due the graying savage; a blending of life in death that will be accomplished in the twinkle of an eye by the tombs bubbling out from the earth, creaking open in the wind screams, and gulping the gunk that had not been buried and blessed before weeping women; the Resurrection reversed, so that the living descend from on high and embrace the eternal death earned for them in the cross abandoned and the ash set aside and forgotten; an eternity in unearthed tombs, creaking open and shut in winds unabated, and ravishing soft supple rolls of forest green beneath aqua blue sky.

And so everything is an omen; a foreboding sign; a once and future sin in the tumultuous air that is squinting all bloodshot eyes into black cat stares, and curling all upper lips into queer smiles, and trembling fingers on all bony knees.

Quaker Oats assumes this look, like everything else beneath the monsoon sun that is no more than a ghost white glow veiled in thundering sheets, and he seems to relish in his role as the black robed priest stroking fear out of the boy; dropping the seed that grows as just mild disapproval, but then flowers as gross contempt; a hatred matured and directed towards her and all of the love for an eternal present that sheinspires; and watering the sin life that is the mark of a time wound and allowed to spring forward with his own salted and limed saliva. 

No, I cannot see what you are holding in your heart, Quaker Oats goes on in the kind of calm voice that can seduce a prepubescent boy into soft shadows and can keep him quiet as the sweaty fingers straighten out the tussled strands of hair. But you need not fret. I am not going to take her. I am going to prepare you for the moment that you yourself discard her with all the rest of the debris that clutters minds and caresses hearts. Is it really molestation to refashion the sniveling boy into the great man he can barely make out in his silly boy dreams? Is there an offense in cracking eggs? I know better. I have seen the helpless eye looking up from paralyzing fear, begging for it all to stop, but also pleading for the very last condition of boyish innocence to be tossed to the salivating waves that are just then ebbing and flowing across the threadbare sheets. Oh, please, Father in Christ, make me a man like yourself, the helpless eye says. Let me be a promiscuous charm; a soft, pastoral smile that brings the pink rose back to an old lady’s cheek round the time of high tea; easy and comfortable with the silly tick-tock time that seems to be so offensive to just about everyone else; happy enough with what is without suffering for what may be and probably is not; just a harmless ghost whistle in the breeze for the span of four score or so, until the Reaper snatches the last bottle of sherry out from my hand in the dead of night and leads me into the gray. Oh, yes, I have seen the helpless eye. There is a sin in sweetness, and a sweetness in sin, which will not make any sense to you now but will mean everything to you once your head and your heart have been freed from their boyish attachments; once she is out of the picture; once she is ash in a wind gust going no where in particular and haunting no one when she falls out of the sky and settles into that no where. And then you will know that love is a pretty thing; a soft gesture; a warm smile; a kind utterance to a grieving widow when the eulogy is done; all the surface adornments of a man committed to no other cause than his own pleasure. Love is Hallmark Card poetry; so beautifully banal as to inspire no more measure in a man than perhaps a sigh; or perhaps a quick look at the sherry being delivered to the buffet table by the sweet Indian boys in waiter’s jackets and tight pants; or even better nothing at all, not even a flinch of an eye or a twinkle of a nose. So, you see, I am not going to hurt you at all. I am not going to hurt her, either. I am just going to love you. You know, like you learned in Sunday school about the Summary of the Law, we are simply going to be neighborly with one another; letting time pass over us without fuss; giving in to the daily routines without demanding that special something, when all is said and done, that mad men presume gives meaning to life. And someday you will just set aside whomever she is as if discarding a bit of trash in the gray bin, and that will be the anticlimactic end of her and her hold on your silly boy soul. That is the way of eternal death; the last star sniffling out gas, and then a universe of dark matter stretching out in all directions forevermore; and really, it is all the best that we start living now as if it is already the moment after the last moment, because there is neither sorrow nor joy there, nothing to distract the first taste of sherry in the morning, nothing to dissuade an affable repartee in favor of more pressing matters, nothing to steal the eyes, and to quicken the heart, in the deadness of an eternal night. Our Lord Himself says: ‘For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ And so who are we to suffer; to strife; to chide and to scorn; indeed, to judge love as offense, offense as love; when ours is an ancient cry; really, the first thought to enter the mind of an ape man balancing on two feet for the first time; and that is: What may be done to ease the strain of walking upon this earth? Is not the spirit of man inclined to what is effortless and free; the lazy profiting from the industrious; the opinion leaders giving out answers, while the truth seekers remain mired in debate; Mary remaining in His favor, while Martha is shunted off to the kitchen to finish with the wash? Do we not see that moral rigidity is hubris; that Adam and Eve had been banished, not so much from a transgression, but because they were insufferably moral; a pair of downers at the cocktail parties that God hosted every week in the Garden of Eden; no different, really, than homespun suffragettes screaming like banshees in heat for the vote, or menopausal temperance women taking the sharp axe to the barrel, or braless do-gooders demanding that white children sit side by side niggers in a classroom? Our Lord Himself says: ‘Turn the other cheek.’ And so it is our moral imperative to be like the respectable woman about to be raped; to lay back, to close our eyes, and to enjoy it; and not to suffer our minds with all of those harsh words and probing questions that showcase just how near we are to the absurd toil of a scandalous woman’s mind. In the end, we cannot change the yolk of the serpent’s egg; no manner of seasoning will make it edible to our soft tongues; and, indeed, it is a sin even to endeavor more than a pleasing hue to the shell. It is quite enough that we mask that taste with a sherry and a kiss.

Quaker Oats blows a kiss into the vent. He still cannot see anything more than a vague outline of a boy kneeling inside of an ink soot cloud; but he senses that his monologue has lulled the boy into a trance; a necessary precondition in the kind of conversion that he prefers to inspire in snot nosed boys like this one inside the dungeon; and a point in the faith talk that always quivers that spring of manhood in between his legs into something just a bit more transcendent for the heart to love than what he would acknowledge to be this worldly and good; a hypocrisy, to be sure; but no more so than all the others vanquished in sherry and buried beneath the dreams of a man quite certain of his steps in the world.

Indeed, the boy is lost in the moment; the calm and methodical voice as much an inspiration as a fear; an eternal present captured and then revealed in what is flowing out from the impenetrable black hole; and yet simultaneously a feeling of being pulled into his manhood; still hazy at this point, but alluring to that deep part of his soul that wants to be rid of a conscience and permitted to tear flesh from bones; first, the flesh of others; then, his own flesh; so that in the end, nothing is left, but tick-tock time, and bones scattered in a graveyard.

But then he remembers the prayer of Saint Augustine; yet another of the déjà vu experiences that suggest that he has been wallowing in his dungeon for more than eight years; and the words echo out from his heart as his silent wail:

Oh Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not yet

And so he holds onto the urn even more tightly. He almost cracks his thin ribcage, when he presses the ashen dead against his heaving torso and clenches his head and limbs into a ball. He is lost in a prayer that goes no further than a tear sliming into a crack on the urn and sacramentally mixing in with her ashes.

Nevertheless, he stirs just enough to observe a skeleton arm snap out of the black hole and grasp his right ankle; his body snagged into a fit of rage that seems to be as much from outside of himself as from inside himself; his pulsing forehead slamming into the wall, until he uncoils from his ball and lays flat out for the count; and his mind lost in dreams, as he and his urn are pulled outside.

Ah, That Day of Tears and Mourning

The boy awakens in painful spurts of consciousness; first, a quivering left eye that catches here or there an impossibly high and vast sea of gray clouds in the heavens; then, his head collapsing to the side, a gaping mouth drooling sick yoke out from an egg shelf that had been cracked somewhere behind his bloody forehead, and a tongue sliming over mud, and gravel, and the occasional weed, a hard and bitter delicatessen seeping out from a mildewed earth and snapping against the sores on his gums and at the back of his throat; his senses deadened from the vicious thumps against the dungeon wall; but at the same time, taking in everything at once, so that he is aware already that as vast and as real as his new world is it is still no more than an extension of the dungeon writ large; the sea above just another ceiling of living shadows that reaches down and removes his threadbare sheets now and then; the mud, and gravel, and weeds just more ink soot configured and hardened by the high pressure that mercilessly beats on everything in the universe; even the smell the same sick dankness that robs the breaths of their spirit and then sinks like a heavy weight into the grimy bowels.

He glimpses what he knows intuitively is the outer wall of his dungeon; a tape of crooked bricks mortared over a screaming mouth; vicious in what it has been able to press into abject silence for so long, and yet from this perspective just the worn veil of an old lady that is eroding a bit more with every new wind gust and rain splatter; chipped and cracked enough now to start to reveal gross teeth in a flayed skull where he knows his dungeon to be located; and while he cannot look up to observe the full height of the castle tower by his side, he just knows that it too is eroding as much as the dungeon wall, and that that snarling witch skull is bleeding out from beneath brick and mortar to live with the dead and to terrorize the possibility of love out from every sniveling, snot nosed boy.

He feels that he is moving down a conveyor belt; a rough surface on torn wheels that is halting and sputtering forward in the sad manner of a machine in its last stage of life; but then he sees that the black robed ogre is pulling him in this haphazard way by his right ankle and that awareness on his part condenses the entire world into something cramped and sticky, as if he is being dragged in his dungeon from a wall to its opposite and is only dreaming of the vast and the new outside those walls and beyond his grasp; his first adult insight into the life in which he is mired, and enough to inspire a run of girly girl tears onto his lips.

And he would have cried forever, except that he glimpses an emaciated, old man in a rain slicker and oversized boots; really, a stooped gnome in a robe worn by those shadow critters who play with black magic; yanking upon a leash and cursing the four legged, fluff muffin beast strolling at the other end of that leash; the beast walking with no more concern in its stride than if this is simply another walk in the park on a clear and sunny morning; a peace radiating out of the beast that contrasts with the toil of the gnome to such a degree as to make the latter seem cartoonish and, even more obtusely, sinking into the wet earth.

The gnome has stepped off of a spiral staircase and is starting to plod up the hill; his chin collapsed into his chest; his eyes scanning the mud for a pretty thing that he can stomp and grind with his oversized boots, so that he seems to be unaware that his ascending path is going to cross the descending path of the black robed ogre and that, if not interrupted, then fat and skinny will collide as assuredly as a man’s left hook and a woman’s chin; imminent violence seething in the air like an electrical charge merging two devils into their conjugal union, and setting aflame the fake line between sin and grace under the monsoon sun.

The boy braces himself as best he can; but he cannot dart his eyes away, no matter the horror that he anticipates. And so he sees that when the fat and the skinny merge; a union in eternity that lasts no more than the twinkle within his maturing eyes; the two cease to exist, except as the foggy circumference of a ghost bubble that contains a grinning skeleton woman in an old lady dress and a bonnet; a woman whose eyes have so wandered that there is nothing left, but bare eye sockets; a woman whose adoration has been disfigured into something gross, misshapen, like the gnarled limbs of a tree rattling menace to the winds; a woman whose love leads her bones to breath like the waves on the surface of the sea; a woman defiled in lusts unmentionable; a woman flayed to ashes, and living in bones; so that the boy is driven to mourn her as if his little dead heart.

From the Dust of Earth Returning

The black robed ogre steps down from the bubble as the gnome steps up from the same, though since that bubble does not vanish immediately back into the wind howls and rain splatters, the boy is dragged through the old lady ghost dress and sees her thinning pelvis above him, thrusting an invisible dildo into an invisible black hole, and alternatively creaking on rusted hinges in the sad wails that are coming out from every direction; a white bone swing that is expending a lot of energy, but that is going nowhere and accomplishing nothing; the living dead revealed in futility; the end of despair a cranky madness bleeding through an old lady ghost dress and imparting mild embarrassment in anyone who looks; anyone, that is, who has advanced beyond his innocence; but for this eight year old boy sliding in uneven jolts down a hill; a boy on the cusp of maturity, but in the manner in which he is grasping the urn against his mad heart still decidedly on the little boy side of that line between sleep and wisdom; a gross intimation of old lady sex; witchy and sterile; that boils his cheeks and catches his breath.

He rolls his eyes to the back of his head; glimpsing the heels of oversized boots pushing a stooped gnome up the hill, but focusing on the beast at the end of the leash; its long hairs swimming in the rain; its silly paws splashing through thick puddles in the manner of a happy boy in tussled hair, knickers, and Buster Browns; its very life a contrast to his own, even as they are both being dragged into their fates, so that he can muster no more passion towards that beast than the tired hatred that kills on the cheap and tosses aside without even bothering to tear flesh from bone; the spent animosity; the lukewarm shrug when corpses are so plentiful as to steal the sting from warm blood shed and eyes wide open.

He returns his gaze to the back of the black robed ogre; a sheet so damp as to be hugging a coffin like a form fitted suit; a white priest collar arising out from this sheet and stiffening the fatty folds in the back of the neck like a steel brace; a wide rimmed black hat that is not fluttering in the wind, but sinking in the intermittent deluges into the ears like black flaps covering over dead skins.

The arm dragging his ankle seems monstrously long; an outgrowth from a black hole that keeps the boy far enough behind that the boy is sliding down on his butt and back, rather than hanging in the gray air and skimming the back of his head against the earth; and then with a sudden twist in the observing mind; a spasm behind the eyelids that shatters one more fragment of the dreamscape and superimposes a reality that is even more harrowing; the long arm is a leash snaking out from stubby fingers and slithering in mud to the clamp on his ankle.

In a way, the boy feels even more trapped than if he had been that brow beaten wife in the cartoon that the caveman is dragging back to his trailer park cave; a sense that he is being pulled by something that cannot be responsive to his prayers; a sheer futility in writhing limbs and eyes seeking a light in heaven.

And so the boy does not fight back; not even when the mud and the rock pebbles give way to hard cobblestones on abandoned city streets; an occasional waterfall from a rooftop spout smashing his cheeks into his ears; a sad clip-clop off to the side that seems to be no more alive in its shriveling hooves than what he is able to kick up with his bruised heels; so that his is the life of yet another beast of burden on his way to the old slaughterhouse in the center of the town; a death chamber veiled in baroque spires that ascend like candles on a birthday cake and shrouded by a lit cross that stands in stark contrast to the gray clouds  that are ever higher than the reach of the God Sacrificed; an ominous splash of painted colors and intricate artifice that blinds the eye to the very reality of an altar beneath the beauty; a pretty and pleasant place for the slicing of veins on hard tables; a sacred stillness for the stifling of a blood scream round the bend.

The boy slides into the front driver side tire of the green taxi that is now parked in front of the Parroquia; the smoking cabbie taking no notice of what is obviously not going to be a fare; but the black robed ogre, nonetheless, smiling cheekily, tilting his hat, and helping the boy at the end of his leash stand up on the curve and look more or less presentable before that beautiful House of God on High; indeed, even patting the boy on his mud and rock hair for good effect.

And then he shields the boy in his left arm and leads him to the shadows, a dungeon at the back of the Parroquia; a rectory at the edge of the graveyard.

Man for Judgment Must Prepare Him

Actually, it is a rectory at the edge of what is left of the graveyard; once the dungeon of an elaborate colonial administrative building; a place where the King’s bureaucrats oversaw and, as necessary, tortured his slave gold and silver miners; more recently, a stand alone jail beside a sprawling graveyard of Indian and Mestizo criminals; no doubt to make sure that the dead do not stray too far from their wardens; and then more recently still, a rectory beside a manicured, floral replenished, and meticulously consecrated graveyard of Creoles in Italian silk lederhosens and Victorian petticoats buried over the stench that is peculiar to commoners; and finally, in the aftermath of the G.I. Bill and the tidal waves of American bohemian art students hoping to catch a glimpse of Diego Rivera in a lazy cantina, a guest rectory beside the three corroded tombstones that have not yet been buried beneath the quaint, cobblestone streets and the terracotta tourist traps that spread out in every direction from the Parroquia, as if locusts swarming out from a crack in the tabernacle door; the prominent surname that had been etched into the three corroded tombstones now unreadable; even the cherubic warrior face of San Miguel that had been chiseled once upon a time so prettily above the names and the dates now just a pair of fading eyes, as if San Miguel has found a cactus plant against which to lay his head and to sleep away whatever remains of the day; his daydreams no match for the devil let loose on the Merry Mariachis and the Smiling Shopkeepers who harvest what little gold is left nowadays out from the pockets of the Gullible Gringos; his spear strike into the cracked skull of the devil not even scratching the soft linen of a Frida Kahlo tote bag full of souvenirs; his bare foot stamped on the head of the serpent not even slowing down the trade in Mexican Mota that has kept the hippies in town, long after their counterparts North of the Rio Grande have discarded their worn granny dresses, beads, and Birkenstocks for bell bottoms and funky mama go-go boots; so that everywhere the dead are buried over the dead, and the waves of fate and fortune are given free reign to ebb and to flow the beaten bones back to life; a cackling skeleton witch every now and then kneeling and unzipping in the back room of a cantina, or lowering her mantilla in soulful prayer before an ornate side chapel, or just giggling in the breeze that ruffles dust out of stones.

And so it is not surprising; not even enough to inspire a slight gasp; when the black robed ogre shoulders open the front door to the secondary rectory, as if he is pushing himself into the existential darkness of a crypt; gestures for the boy to follow in his footsteps; and lights a scented candle on a makeshift shrine to his skeleton goddess; a dangling skull on a stooped spine; a claptrap of bones that seem to be defying the fates to knock them back into the unearthed coffin out of which they had crawled; a matronly bonnet and dress draping over death in a manner that scintillates more than obscures, as if the very heart of refined Victorian propriety is a debauched hip thrust from behind a petticoat skirt, and a gentlemanly cheek turned crimson red, while pressed hard against wallpaper; so that the eternal present is time perverted; a woman leading a man on a dark and lonely dance floor; love iced into an open death stare above aqua blue lips.

The boy stares at the skeleton goddess; a figurine no more than a foot in height; but a towering giantess grinning down from the heavens and urging him in her metallic, teeth chattering cackle to hand over the urn that has been hers since before the spirit ravished the void; and a tiny girl smiling up from the hell pits and pleading with him in her squeaky clean voice to hand over the urn that has been hers since the void performed a kinky turn around on the spirit; all of the grayness in old lady death kicking up red heels and taking a step and a twirl on a spotlighted stage before those who would presume to pass their hours into the same old bin that holds emptied sherry bottles and rat gnawed priest hosts.

She is beautiful, is she not? The black robed ogre smiles knowingly, as he turns to the boy, falls to his right knee, and looks for something minute, but all important, inside the boy’s wide open eyes. Her name is Catrina. She is the last judgment that has been already meted out to each and every one of us; what is unavoidable; what is not nailed to the cross, but is rather allowed to bob about the seas and to snatch innocence off of virgin shores; the Siren Song, when that rope that has been restraining the hero to his mast is so loosened that he jumps for the waves and heads for the rocks. And like every woman, she is also a fool.

Spare, O God, in Mercy Spare Him

She is a fool, the black robed ogre repeats with the halting tongue of the man who has not really convinced himself of his own assertion. Oh, the fool has just enough charm in her to flip the whole universe onto its head; cajoling us in her spirited steps and song, when every other character on stage is dead from a saber thrust or an asp bite; casting her final spell before the spotlight snaps off and the curtain falls; a real doozy veiled even at the very end by the loony grin on her lips, and the mad look in her eyes, and the kick of her silver belled heels into the dark shadows behind her; the Court Jester Charleston inspiring a bit of mindless mirth in the ghosts of the fourth wall, as she shimmies off flaky tinsels and red painted skins to reveal a happy-clappy skeleton woman awakened from her eternal beauty sleep; a theater whore willing to do whatever it takes on an old, cigar stained casting couch; a lush hostess of a charity ball escorting a man into her closet to squeeze an extra dollar out from his bourbon soaked balls; all the wiles of womanhood captured in a moment of bone rattles, a skull dangling from a stooped spine like Charlie Macarthy on a string when Mr. Bergen has had one too many in the green room, while we men of the cloth insist in our hushed tones that we are the movers and the shakers with all those sad lambs we hoist onto altars and all that sugar sweet blood we collect in buckets, as if ours must be the pathos that inspires the sun up from its tomb and scares the moon down to the same; a silly man’s game is history; a silly man’s game worthy of nothing but a mad cackle from a skull; a silly man’s game earning an accolade of a fool.

The boy turns his eyes from the skeleton woman figurine that appears to be dancing in the flicker of the candlelight. His attention has been snagged just now by an even more amazing reversal of nature: the incredible shrinking black robed ogre; a diminution not in physical girth; as, indeed, the man continues to tower over the boy, even while leering into him on bended knee; but in what is left of his moral stature; a hope deflating into despair and leaving behind a tiny bit of pink rubber on the foyer floor before the old hell pit of a gathering room; debris trampled underfoot by arriving heels, then swept into the breeze by that Happy Negro who mans the front door; a bit of fluff carried up by the sea winds and sometime later thrown to the devil waves as no more than an afterthought.

And so he is the black robed ogre no more; perhaps never had been such a monster, except in the overexcited imagination of a boy who had been pulled out from his dungeon like a baby from a womb; but is, at most, a fat priest in a black hat and robe who is now taking his hand and leading him into that hell pit that is three steps beyond the flickering candlelight and behind the green door.

The fat priest shoulders open the green door, and at once a wave of déjà vu splashes over the wide rimmed black hat of the man and smothers the boy in a sand and foam whirl of inchoate memories; or perhaps fantasies that seem so real as to be treated by the conscious mind as if long lost memories; an anguish regardless that feels like lungs filling with salt water and sinking as heavy sacks into bowels; and yet also incongruously a relief that this hell pit is just the past reeled up from the murky depths and compelled by a will stronger than time to squirm from the withdrawal of breathable air and then to be still in this eternal present; a past mounted on a wall; a past realized as the décor in a show room.

The boy follows the man into a living space of cramped, mahogany walls; a burgundy red carpet so thick as to be able to swallow the whimpering cries of a boy and to sponge the blood seeping out from old sores; the swanky spread of Danish Modern that suggests the swinging bachelor pads of the mid 1950s; those soft pastels faded into modern teak furnishings and splashed here or there with pink pillows shaped as Valentine hearts; the prickly chin and the bloodshot eyes of Pillow Talk transitioning into Playboy’s Penthouse; and finished with the fish bowl centerpiece on the coffee table that is filled to the rim with little, green, army men and that practically shouts out for the wide eyed boy to lay aside his inhibitions and to play war inside the rectory while all but one of the grown ups is still in the white steeple church snarling back and forth the Beatitudes in the guise of old chestnuts and worn out insinuations dabbed by a splash of bourbon.

There is that musk cologne; everywhere and at once the prickly chin and the bloodshot eyes pulling down the mud caked knickers; goo fingers, scrubbing sin out of boy skin, and leaving behind silly pee stains in a burgundy red carpet. 

The boy walks to the fish bowl centerpiece, clutching the urn closer, and yet dropping her from his conscious mind just long enough to recall that it is all important to find Bazooka Man in the mix; all important not just to find, but to keep Bazooka Man forevermore; keep him in that dark place over which the sun neither rises nor sets; keep him where the innocence is breathable; a flesh that is edible, even as it is the spirit breezing softly through tall grass just moments before dawn; a blood that has never dripped over the side of an altar; because, no matter the excuse, no matter the little boy eyes looking up and pleading for mercy, the boy who loses Bazooka Man is a bad boy; and bad boys deserve bare bottom spankings, and pinches, and dead teeth chatters behind the green door.

The fat priest observes the boy. He is holding himself up on the back of a sofa, while trying to grasp an elusive breath, and thinking about where he must have stashed the bottle opener before leaving for his pastoral trip to the top of the hill; and yet he is drawn to this boy by a singular passion that is much more visceral than the momentary concerns passing through the front of his mind; an anguished yearning in the heart that is not in keeping with his insistence that in this world at least there is nothing to designate one point in time as more grave or joyous or even intellectually poignant than any other; a desire not able to be restrained by his personal creed and, therefore, as unpardonable as delicious in its fullest realization; a final reminder that, notwithstanding his indifference to judgment, just before everything fades to black, there will be Beautiful Catrina rattling her bones, cackling out his eternal name, and gesturing with her creaky index fingers for him to join her in a slow dance on the other side of time; just a step and a twirl, but in its very timelessness a sway of the hips and a blush in the cheeks that cannot but be the incarnation in dance of every one of his sins, small and large, that he had been able to throw aside or to explain away in the mad stampede of chronological time; a point in time set aside with a shrug, but a point in eternity as unavoidable as the bone crushing weight of judgment on a black robed soul fattened in her excess and softened by her dereliction of duty.

And so the fat priest remembers; or perhaps indulges a fantasy that is as real to his mind as a memory of his past sins; but he can find no perverse joy in this moment; nothing to distract him from the skeleton woman in the flickering candlelight in the foyer; nothing to block out how her bones rattle, as she kicks up her heels and dangles her skull up and down in the light of the waxen flame.

The fat priest sighs; retreats to his office; changes out from his drenched clerics and into a threadbare and torn bathrobe that is emblazoned with his old high school football colors; and slumps his exhausted soul behind his huge desk.

Perhaps the hours retreat before the onslaught of days; impossible really to tell, since the monsoon rain beating against the outer wall never lets up long enough for the mind to be able to count one point in time from another; but no matter what may have been lost in the meantime, the boy finally steps into the office with the urn tucked beneath his right arm and a Bazooka Man clutched in his left fist; a sigh of relief not yet cracking into his tired face, as he awaits the judgment of the fat priest in a bathrobe who is slumping at his desk and turning the yellowed pages of a photo album with all the vim and the vigor of a corpse; but a hope, nonetheless, just beginning to form like a ghost out from a shadow.

The fat priest looks up from his photo album. He is a defeated man; born into the wretchedness from which he will die; and yet, even as the gesture robs him of the last of his strength, he is able to muster one more devious smile at a boy quivering at the other end of his desk; one more seduction of a boy to slide with him and all the others into that hell pit not covered over by the cross; and to toss the photo album over to the final pair of innocent eyes beneath the sun.

The boy notes the front cover. It reads: Be My Valentine. It also features pink Valentine hearts that bring to mind girls in braids who chew bubble gum at sleepovers and who blush crimson red while smiling at the boys in their dreams.

The boy flips the pages. They are all reprints of the very same black and white Polaroid; the eternal snapshot for which he had to pose because he could not find a Bazooka Man; the reality of himself: naked, looking back with a smile at the fat priest, and promising in his eyes never to wade too far into the wave.

And so he is alone with Father Valentine then, now, and after the last of the sunsets, a fate offering him no choice but to leave the urn and the Bazooka Man below the feet of Beautiful Catrina and to retire to his dungeon on the hill.

Lord, All Pitying, Jesus Blest

You could not even snap the throat of a goddamned dog, father chides in the teeth chattering cackle of a skeleton witch. Do not deny it. I see everything so much more clearly from inside my coffin; not the best one of my warehouse; not even a premium package with perfumed lining; not a trace of the mistletoe that is supposed to be affixed to the cushion above my eyes; though, I suppose, these discrepancies from my stated wishes should be laid squarely and surely at the feet of your little brother. I had trusted Chester; trusted him in my last day with everything that had ever really mattered to me; trusted him to make sure that those goddamned hacks at Stan’s Mortuary dressed my cancer riddled body in my custom made gray pinstripe suit, folded my Union Jack handkerchief into my breast pocket, handed Little Father Willow the eulogy that I had written for the occasion, and outfitted my eternity with the crème de la crème. Forgive an old corpse his lapse into the French tongue, but you understand my point. I had trusted your little brother, even though he is an insufferable lush, and I suspect one of the boys, because he at least had had the mind not to marry an Irish lass with poor table manners; he at least had had the moral bearings not to bury his fine, English manhood in a potato patch; and he at least had had the higher call not to lend his seed to the sprout of yet another Papist. Chester will never be a good man; not even halfway decent; but he has the proper opinions; really, the best opinions; and such is the mettle of salvation, let me tell you. I observe his behavior from inside my coffin as assuredly as I observe yours; and I may assure you that he never votes the Democrat ticket, never has a kind word for suspect old ladies, and never ever knows a Roman Catholic; well, that is not true, three times he has known a Roman Catholic, but in each instance he did not have the mind to inquire as to where they bent their knees. And so I can forgive Chester; even love him, in a way; notwithstanding his total ineptitude with regard to the details of my departure; but for you, Master Delbert, and that is your name, by the way, no matter what you may be trying to sell to those Gringos and Beaners down there in Burrito Land, for you I have no kindly resolve, no silly affections, nothing, but the ill temper of a corpse who is suffering from a case of the gout.

And with the word gout; not just an arthritic gout, but a flesh eating and a blood boiling gout; the kind that shakes and then burns the flesh off of bones, splattering blood pus along the way, and leaving behind crispy white bones that creak at the joints and sprinkle osseous dust into the air; with that connotation of gout reverberating in the echo chamber behind his eyes, Delbert stumbles to the dreamscape just before consciousness; a dark and foreboding earth belly of rat squeals and long strings of dead bougainvillea; a dungeon eerily reminiscent of the closet in which father meted out his moral tenets one paddle spank after another; the proverbial woodshed, except as cramped as a tomb and as huge as the universe expanded unto infinitude; a scream chamber; and a black shadow, as black as the skin on a smiling and shuffling old butler in a stolen suit, stifling screams into silent pains and clenched eyes and nightmares that live in eternity and then whatever is beyond that; nightmares seen as pinpricks of foam on the crests of retreating waves; nightmares that lure innocent girls away from silent and trembling hearts; nightmares that sing in the waves and call out to the sea.

The nightmare waves crash over him; one after another, like the forever punishments meted out in the proverbial woodshed; and Delbert staggers into a kind of consciousness; a soft twilight, really; the state of mind that he thinks of as being awake; clutches his raging bowels; and sits up on the smashed hood of the Thunderbird at the bottom of the ditch; a beaten platform that he senses is an altar in hell; a sanctuary where dreams are sacrificed, in return for the hard flesh that cracks and flakes off in time and the blood that sinks rancid and cold into the lifeless earth; a priesthood of ravenous rats; red eyes bulging out from mangled furs and zeroing in on the flesh to be torn into loose shreds; whip tails ripping gurgled blood cuts indiscriminately out from exposed skin as a precursor to the priest knives in their jaws and at the ends of their feet; squealed chants, a mad cacophony of praise to the Rat God at the core of the earth, as the flesh ravished and torn bleeds out from their gnawing chops to reveal a skeleton who has been cast in fear and is writhing even now with the remainder of the dead.

Delbert tries to retreat from the gnawing teeth; scooting across the hood and towards the shattered windshield; and flailing his arms against mad squeals that are as yet unseen in the thick blackness but that are seeping into his mind.

As he slides onto the dashboard, his eyes adjust just enough to the black for him to see a pair of skeleton hands still grasping the steering wheel; fingers curled about the rim; hands slanted unnaturally upwards, as if at the very coup de grace the driver had been steering the wheel from a seat on top of the roof; and ulnas projecting up from the wrists and cut off just below the elbow joints.

Delbert forgets the pain in his bowels. He slams his hands over his mouth just in time to stifle a piercing girl scream; a high pitch wail that, if released to the darkness would have shattered the several shards of glass that are attached still to the Thunderbird, but instead singes the cobwebs out from his own mind; and scoots back onto the hood in such a way as to face the rest of the skeleton.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knows that this is Margie; the fat slob realtor who had wanted to be too close for comfort; but the very forefront of his conscious mind; the part that projects dreamscapes onto the wide screen behind his eyes; the part that feeds him lies that are more real than the mushy platitudes that make up his moral conscience; tells him that this is her; what in truth she is when sheis captured and contained in the eternal present; what he creates in the timeless void, when his left hand holds still and silent the waves, and when his right hand slices an austere pontifical blessing into eternal death.

And so she is not ash scattered in the ocean breeze, nor ash fallen to the base of an urn, but rather bones rattling from the weight of fat rats using them as the rungs on a step ladder, and a spine swaying back and forth to the rhythm of the monsoon gusts snapping in and out from the ditch, and a skull slanted up and back on account of the weight of the queen rat that has dug out a cozy lair for her royal self and her rat fink lieutenants in the cavity of the parietal bone, so that she seems forever to be staring through the roof and up to the heavens.

Delbert wants so much to see what she sees; to see it for what it is; then to convince her that it is not worthy of her adoring eyes; to disabuse her of her willfulness, her Irish spitfire, her love for anything outside of his timeless mind.

And so he throws himself into the front seat; scoots up to her side; snaps off the fat rats that either are jumping into his lap or scampering over from her meatless bones to his chewable head, neck, and torso; and slides his left cheek against her right cheekbone; a move that in another context looks like a man in the passenger seat of a car getting up close and personal with a chick parked at a drive in; but in this context is too gruesome and slapdash to be anything but a mind unraveled into madness, and an eye that follows herlonging gaze into the heavens, but sees nothing other than a dent in the roof and a windshield shard.

He sits back in his seat and cries; no longer bothering to snap off the rats that are returning in droves to feast on his flesh; content to be eaten alive, and to join with her in the ebb and the flow of a dark sea that will never be at rest.

What makes you think you can keep up with the likes of her, cursed Irish whore she is now and forevermore? Father taunts him from inside his coffin. All the underbelly souls in the world are survivors; pests that are never flushed out from the bowels, no matter the horrid blends of stiff drinks and pills; pests that keep bobbing along the surface of the sea, even when the grand wave that sent Jonah to the whale comes out from nowhere and at once tries to sink them into their unmarked graves. But you could not even snap the throat of a goddamned dog; a frail fluff muffin handed over to you; a lamb readied for your death grip.

Delbert latches onto the phrase death grip; repeating it in his cavernous echo chamber until it is a mantra that has induced him into a kind of trance; an odd, but not unsettling, state of mind that he senses is akin to the pressurized, slow motion, death pall purple blue that prevails at the bottom of the sea; that world of restless tombs; that blackness that squeezes out the moral conscience and replaces it with that light headed, twilight mind that is living timelessness; eternity captured and contained in sea fingers wringing the air from her throat.

And so Delbert climbs out of the ditch; wades through the waves of wind and rain; ascends to his rooftop lair; descends into his dressing room; moves his huge dresser off of the trapdoor; stoops down the spiral staircase; nudges open the dungeon door; kneels beside the boy who has been waiting for him beneath his satin sheet; wraps his hands about his neck; and strangles him into eternity.

Grant Them Thine Eternal Rest

Dear Stirling,

Pardon my informality. We never met in person when I rented the castle tower just up the hill from you; and while I participated as chance permitted in the rumor mill that is so very important for we Americans endeavoring to reside in Mexico, and heard often of your esteemed reputation among the Gringos and Mexicans alike, I never knew you in that casual manner that would allow for me to address you as anything other than Mr. Dickinson; the kind friend of artists in the Instituto; the gracious owner of a score of egg laying hens; and the fair host of soirees (though, sadly, none for which I had the pleasure of an invitation, an error, no doubt, which may be attributed to the carelessness that is so endemic to bachelors of an advanced age and in which no black heart need be inferred).

I am addressing you by your Christian name, because I sense that I really know you; or at the very least I sense that you should really know me. My name after all is only slightly less hallowed than my reputation, and such is especially true among those proper men of letters who had been born in castles, schooled by tutors, and nurtured in the soft affairs and quiet leisure of inherited wealth. I am referring of course to those men who are of the same caliber as yourself in the matters of family and education; men who had the leisure to tramp around Mexico and South America in Ford Model A convertibles; men who had the drive to serve in the O.S.S.; men who had the dare in them to be conversant with the pinks and the reds; men who championed art schools; and men who mixed their rum and punch freely; men, in other words, who could not but be aware of me.

In order to save you the time and measure of having to scroll all the way down to my stylized signature, I shall tell you now my name: Mr. Dexter McCall.

Yes, indeed, I am that Dexter McCall who declined a formal invitation to be celebrated in The New Yorker. I presume that you have heard the story. It is making the rounds among the swelled and the swank even as I pen these words.

Well, forgive me if I am repeating a story with which you are already too familiar; but, in the minute chance that you have not heard it, here it is in full:

In the waning weeks of summer, as I prepared to return to the States, an Indian boy delivered a telegram to my castle tower. I tipped him a centavo and read the urgent message from the chief editor of The New Yorker. I must admit that at first I had been pickled to the pee to be asked to submit to an interview and to provide an excerpt from my next masterpiece. He offered me the entire December 1977 edition, which you will be receiving in your mailbox no doubt in the next few weeks, besides your Christmas cards and end of the year missives.

But when you receive your next issue of The New Yorker you will not see me in there; not even as an honorable mention; because I refused his invitation in a reply letter that no doubt he has framed in his large office and that will be remembered by a future generation as among the better examples of my prose.

In essence, I told him that I had been honored by his invitation but that I could not condescend to be published in a journal that had taken on such a low bourgeoisie sensibility in recent years. I told him that I had heard through a fair and trusted friend that he had a Jew on his editorial staff. I finished my missive with a poem that no doubt will be celebrated by English majors in future years:

Roses are Red. Violets are Blue.

America has sunk beneath the waves.

And, truth to be told, so have you.

I left San Miguel de Allende soon thereafter with my head held high; and while my manly bearing and strong heart could be attributed in part to the fine reply letter that I had just mailed off to the chief editor, I owed the bulk of my fair countenance to my single greatest achievement while living a year south of the border; an achievement which did not make the Hearst papers; but one not missed by those scribes beyond the pearly gates who edit the Book of the Dead.

And this is my single greatest achievement: In the first monsoon storm of the summer, I murdered the small boy in the dungeon with my own bare hands.

I strangled him. I squeezed so hard that I felt the spine in his neck. I had no mercy in my heart for his involuntary spasms; his eyes bulging out from their sockets; and, finally, his purple blue skin when his head fell limply down and to the side, like the gray dead head of Christ Jesus slumping forward on the cross; nothing in my heart but the absolute righteousness of that moment; a time that will stand still in my soul for all of eternity and be forced into the mind of God; an eternal present that flattens high waves and retires the spirit from the void.

Now, the local paper called it suicide. It reported that I had jumped into the ditch, scooted into the front seat of the Thunderbird, leaned beside the fat slob, and just sat there, staring up at the ceiling of the car, and letting the rats tear off my flesh in bloody shreds until there was nothing left but brittle bones.

Well, that is what the silly frito bomberos deduced, when finally the two or three of them not passed out on a tequila binge removed the Thunderbird on the very same day that I kicked the dust off my feet and returned to the States with no more luggage than the rusted, old typewriter I had kept on my rooftop.

Sometime later, the article in the local paper came to my attention; and I certainly could have written a letter to the editor to clarify that it had been a murder, not a suicide, that had ended the pain and provided peace in our time.

But really, when you think about it, is not suicide murder? Is it not a man defying the will of God so as to kill off his pain as much as his potential; to do a number on the past as much as on the future; and to suffer the spite of the Old Testament God, in return for the one glorious present when eternity is in hand?

Ah, you may be wondering right now: How could a dead man in a ditch in Mexico of all places receive and respond to the telegram from The New Yorker?

It is not such a feat, really. The New Yorker offers nothing but the dead prose of sycophantic hacks. Surely, we may presume many of their writers have been phoning in their silly missives from the pay phone beside the pearly gates.

Indeed, my life is not all that different now that I am dead. I have taken up permanent residence in Evelyn’s bedroom at the home of my Auntie Gertie; really, the nicest of the guest bedrooms, I must say; and not to be occupied by Evelyn until she returns from school to spend a happy summer with her Granny.

I do not suppose that I shall move out of her bedroom, when she returns. I occupy the daylight hours reclining outdoors at the breakfast table beside the croquet lawn, staring mindlessly at that sea that stretches out from the bottom of the hill and into eternity, and occasionally tapping a few keys on the rusted, old typewriter. And at night, I sleep squarely on one side of the bed, curling my legs into the fetal position, and sucking my right thumb like an ice cream cone.

Chester has inherited my beachfront home. He is trying to sell it, but the buyers out there are not especially interested in a home that is being slammed by waves every few seconds. He laments that that cursed money pit, as he now calls it, is going to drive him to drink; but if that is the case, then he must have been the caretaker of my beachfront home since before I actually purchased it.

I do not have an interest in visiting my former haunt, though I imagine it is easy enough for me to stroll down the quiet lane along the shoreline with the rest of the fading shadows at dusk. I have no memories there anyway. I brutally murdered them. And I already know that the grandfather clock is stuck at three and will remain that way even after the sun sets the last time over the horizon.

Instead, I occupy myself with lazy daylight hours and endless nights; and as the mood strikes, I don my oyster white suit and Mulberry plaid bowtie to be a faint apparition, or maybe a momentary chill, at a party hosted by my Auntie Gertie. I find that most of the attendees are fellow ghosts, or well on their way to the happy hollow hunting grounds; and so I feel quite at home, relaxing with a martini in hand in the sitting room, listening to my Auntie Maude regale all of us with a tale, and imagining that I am the smoke escaping from her cigarettes.

At one of these soirees, we held a wake for my old self; that Delbert left behind; and all the best came to hear Father Valentine read the eulogy. I admit that I could not persuade my father out from his coffin for the occasion, but he is close to my gray heart, regardless. The only live ones in attendance had been Aunties Gertie and Maude, but they are almost on my side of the fence anyway.

Well, time beckons, even among the dead. I just want to inform you that you will be joining us in twenty-one years; and when you stagger out from your van at the bottom of your ditch, I shall be sure to invite you to the next soiree.     

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Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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