Backfire in the ’90s
Backfire in the ’90s: a minute of mag-
nolia, bobbing, nearly gave away its
militant singers: technical blabber-
mouths leaked an awkward preface,
spooked the Secretary of Defense:
it suits better not to reveal the army,
not to allow it to cross the bounds
of the constitutional: liaisons of im-
mersion are very important: nowadays,
everyone’s fallen a little behind:
our internets need to be credible,
whether they bully or steer us through
siege: the army determines the new
situation and dominates it.
This Unusual Divinity
Perhaps this unusual divinity can be
measured with engines. No matter
how much you try to explain popular
support for the various cankers,
such texts are beset by two maladjustments
entirely unprecedented in the escapades
of modern privation (and closely
linked to many beliefs and prejudices,
to almost all popular superstition—
witchcraft, spirits, etc.). First, the party’s
leadership spends its last three dollars
on a manic nest of cubicles. Second,
this disfigurement is historically unusual
and I worry every other tyrant will be worse.
Under a Cellophane Awning
Under a cellophane awning, spreadsheets
seed workstations. Horoscopes vouch
for us, and open secrets slouch the backwater.
“Life’s too short, this town’s too small,”
says the rare apple in the relic. The voyager
does anything he wants. He is a partisan,
a man of powerful passions, an active politician.
He neither creates from nothing nor does he
move in the turbid void of desire and dream.
The pastel scoutmaster distances himself,
from the mallard in the canoe. From sluice, blubber
and burnt orange cantata. His monologues shed
fresh facts and huge integers. He doesn’t
have to be a hardcore, fiscal conspirator.
The Orgy Film
I’d never seen the inside of an adult theater
and the orgy film was like nothing I’d seen.
I was sixteen, had just received my driver’s license,
and tonight, finally, was my chance to be lurid.
I found a seat close enough to the exit so I could
flee if needed, halfway down the row for the best
view of the screen. Looking up as I sat,
my first glimpse, an eyeful, a blur of flesh
and genitals and mouths. So many bodies shot
from above, impossible to see them all at once.
I moved my head back and forth, up and down,
a cat following a flashlight beam, and still
couldn’t take in the full picture. At my feet,
soda can tabs, cigarette butts stuck to the floor,
like flypaper. Who would feel so imperious,
open his pants and stroke himself in public?
I pretended I was a spy surveilling the desperate
mating rituals of East Germans on the arid,
sexless side of the Wall. Who were these
men who came all over the floor?
Were they beaten with sticks as children?
Did their mothers, like mine, ask them to zip
their cocktail dresses before date nights?
Or was this a secret, crooked road I simply
missed until tonight? Every time I moved
my feet, I had to tug the soles of my sneakers
from the irradiated ooze that coated the floor.
Hardly anyone there, just a few men scattered
in the seats around me. Three rows down
to my right, a silhouette seemed to shiver.
What a thrill to cut my moorings altogether,
to be unhinged like him, jerk off in public
beneath the glow of a gigantic movie screen.
The orgy spooling above us, I was scared,
knowing I could do it and nobody would notice.
I waited for a sign he was finished. If only
my parents could see me now. My father doing
the crossword at the kitchen table, eating cheese
curls, a repurposed can of Del Monte Peas
in front of him—it was a pen-and-pencil holder
now, masking tape wrapped around the sharp
rim to protect the grandkids. My mother across
from him, fretting over the checkbook. Her long
defeated sighs, a lick of her pointer finger
every time she flipped a page in the check register.
Their youngest son pressing three fingers
against the crotch of his jeans, surrounded
by other men in the dark who, like him,
weren’t home tonight with their families.
I had to be more than just flesh, bone, fluids.
Not just another hunched body, a hostage
to it, caught in the glare, the massive
motion study looping above me—the giant,
skin-colored peony of all those other bodies
blooming, time-lapsed, on the screen.
The man stopped. He just sat there, staring
straight ahead, not at the movie. He was done.
Autumn of the Duck-Walk Killer
Waves fuss over the pier, flood the bicycle path where it curves around the basketball court.
The sand soggy. The sky bullied into longer stretches of dark.
We’re haunted by surveillance footage. Ski mask and bow-legged gait, hunting.
His spindly getaway, bolt upright, hands in windbreaker pockets, jogging through an alley after shooting Douglass Watts point blank in the head while he walked his dogs four blocks from the Great Lake on a Sunday morning.
Next night, Eliyahu Moscowitz, looking at his phone and playing Pokémon Go on the lakeshore, Loyola Park. A bullet in back of his head.
You won’t be robbed. It can come at any time.
The legs of passersby, my neighbors, how they turn outward, causing the hips to sway. Or sometimes they pull the torso upward until it hovers on high-alert above the waist.
Every neighbor, the posture of a murderer.
It could be anyone. We flash suspicious glances at each other along the lakefront path.
I’m more conscious than ever of my own splayed legs. My walk, its ungainly pitch and yaw.
As a child, I was told by the doctor to sit on a chair and roll the bottoms of my feet on empty coke bottles. Five minutes a day to straighten my gait.
I ignored him. I was a chubby kid, and once, in his office, he plucked my baby-fat breasts and said if I didn’t lose weight, my parents would have to buy me a brassiere.
At the end of my block, the Great Lake held back by rock levees, a fungal tang rising from its surface.
Rogers Park, a neighborhood where sixty languages are spoken and we’re all trying to talk with the dead.
The damp air glows lavender at twilight. Soon it will snow for months.
Not Because I’m Hungry
We all sit down for lunch. Amy coughs into her sleeve.
Salad with three different dressing choices, olives and cheese,
a bowl of avocados, an oblong sourdough loaf with crust
tough as armadillo hide. She assures us it’s just a cold.
We go on eating. Three months from now, we could be
foraging in the woods, sheltered in thatched leaf shanties
with clothesline rope strung through empty soda cans
and tied to trees to form a perimeter, a primitive tin can
security system, telling each other stories about
the first time someone coughed and said it’s just a cold.
We’re living in the woods, rain seeping into leaf tents,
remembering firm handshakes, that some of us were huggers.
Someone brings up the government. Someone always does.
“There is no such thing as the State / And no one exists alone,”
Auden wrote, gospel truth until, crouching in the dark, my ears
cocked for the rattle of soda cans at the edge of my encampment,
I’ll remember the State eliminated its global pandemic office
two years before the virus struck. I’ll be huddled in a leaky
hovel, too wet to feel the rain anymore. I can’t think this way.
Lunch, this last weekend before quarantine, the arugula
fresher than I get in Chicago, and I’m peeling my first avocado
of the spring. I’ve come such a long way from the welfare milk
and cheese of childhood. Daylight Savings began this morning.
I’ve been dying for more light. Another glass of wine, thanks.
And bread. Later tonight, I’ll break a filling on that crust,
a cheese and tomato sandwich before bed not because I’m hungry,
but I wanted comfort, a late-night snack. I’ll recall that sandwich
in my soggy shelter in the rain, my tooth throbbing by then
and my dentist (“my sandwich,” “my avocado,” “my wine”)
surviving somewhere in her own improvised camp. Far away,
the president said, “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
It’s coming and we’re on our own. Today, Chicago on lockdown,
alone in my apartment, I remember James, the gravedigger
from group therapy whose father would punch him in the face
if he cried—harder if he ducked. His handshake flinched
when you greeted him. Where is he now? Is he surviving this?
Most of the time, the world feels awful. But we could lose it.
Purple crocus buds are nudging out of the ground. It’s March
and I can smell the soil again, a waterlogged, treacly
caramel, after a long winter. Lake Michigan exhales a tangy
fungus, a sign the ice is melting. “What’s done is yet to come,”
I read in Roethke. It’s coming for us. Oblivious, spring’s first
starlings jabber at each other. A few sirens, a car alarm. Repeated
beep of a garbage truck backing up in the alley. Someone laughs
hard and loud. My downstairs neighbor practices opera scales,
robust, delicate trills, pouring herself into it today like I’ve
never heard before. Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell returned
to Earth after nine hours bouncing in the Moon’s silent vacuum
and fell in love with noise—the roaring traffic, blaring car horns,
barking dogs, wailing children that once annoyed him.
Now, locked down, I understand. I’ve been thinking about the end
ever since childhood, when I saw my first Air Raid Shelter sign
and my parents explained the Bomb to me. I never thought
I’d be cooped up in my apartment if it happened.
At 3:00, the Governor Speaks
We’re all about to learn the difference between solitude
and loneliness. When you’re not alone by choice, time passes
in one slow, interminable slab, anxiously ongoing.
My bandmate Luc texts to warn me the governor is speaking
at 3:00 to announce a statewide lockdown order. He adds
a video his friend shot on her phone: a railway flatcar carrying
a fleet of desert-camouflaged military Humvees into Chicago.
What needs to fall apart before they roll down Sheridan Road?
It’s 1:30 and I’m not sure how much of the city is going dark
or how long this will last. Time enough to walk to the liquor store
before we’re ordered to quarantine. Just one other person
on the sidewalk, a man coming out of CVS with toilet paper.
Time enough for a pandemic detour—they’ve been sold out
the past two weeks. I buy a package of twelve, two rolls of paper towels,
a bottle of dish detergent. The shelves for Clorox spray and Lysol
wipes are empty, as I expected. (Had to check anyway.) I’m wearing
winter gloves I’ll wash when I return home. I can’t possibly
carry all this, plus alcohol and snacks, so I skip the liquor store.
Embarrassed walking home, a toilet paper twelve-pack under
my arm, way too big for my bag. Cities are built for congregation.
Chicago is shutting down. My friends used to correct me when I said
“plague” instead of “pandemic.” Now we all say “self-isolation,”
as if we control any of it. Rikers Island—its infection rate eight times
higher than New York, the country’s current plague epicenter—
is offering convicts six dollars per hour to dig mass graves. Average
U.S. prison wage: barely a dollar an hour. The day 1,300 Americans
tested positive, the president who called it a hoax said, “Just stay calm. It
will go away.” Six thousand new cases today alone, a week and a half
later. Supermarket panic-buying is already a habit—how quickly we
adapt. The first time I saw bare grocery shelves, I was twenty, working
a sleep-deprived third shift at Giant Eagle. Shrill, fluorescent
Muzak—a theater of abundance every morning when my shift was
over and I’d stocked the store again with cans and packages of food. My
parents, first-generation immigrants, prepared me for an off-script,
improvised deus ex machina that could arise anytime, make it all vanish.
My father didn’t see a flush toilet until he was drafted into World War
II. I never really believed him. We’ll know more at 3:00. Every time I
hear someone say, “lockdown,” I wince. Our streets already are
nearly vacant; the pavement scorched without people walking on it.
We’re learning it’s possible to run out of anything.
fades to black.
“The best way
out is through,”
I’m staying home.
Wedged my tiny
Versa into the only
open spot on the last
block before Argyle
into the lake.
Later, past midnight,
a $50 ticket held in place
by one of my wipers.
I walked into a German
beer fest outside
so many people
Two poets, our walking
sticks, a yapping dog—
what will our moon
shadows look like tonight
on this dirt road
a mile and a half up
I can’t see clouds.
on a rock levee,
the great lake,
of my new block.
a Three-card Monte
in a celery stalk sky.
Just like that, nightfall.
The air goes soft,
an ice blue tint.
I walk into the new
Target trying to recall
how to live alone.
Long walk down
Broadway, the sky
appears out of nowhere,
the wrong ghost
summoned by moonrise.
Into the teeth of it,
reds and pinks.
Episode 752: April 28, 2020
—from Book 4, The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood)
Nineteenth-century physical-distancing failures: Beth Chavez descends the Great House grand staircase, sliding her right palm down the bannister, then she brings her hand to her mouth, muffling a scream when she sees Quentin unconscious on the floor, after which she bends and pats his right cheek with her left hand, waking him, while the hand that slid along the germ-infested bannister braces the back of his torn shirt, then his bare shoulder, as she lifts him to his feet, walking him to his bedroom, where she opens the door with her left hand on the doorknob, the same hand that, a few seconds later, touches the bare skin of his right arm (exposed by his ripped sleeve) as she eases him into a chair; returning downstairs, Beth opens the double doors of the Great House drawing room,
hands on both knobs, to greet Judith Collins (wearing a steel-blue, silk gown topped with a gigantic collar in the shape of a three-layer, inverted triangle), and later, back in Quentin’s bedroom, Beth grabs his left sleeve with both hands, still fresh from the viral cocktail absorbed when she wrapped her hands around the Great House drawing room’s doorknobs; she picks up a bundle of tattered, blood-stained clothes Quentin wore the previous night (his first as a werewolf) and hides them under a chair seconds before Collins family lawyer Evan Hanley bursts into Quentin’s room, still clutching the doorknob with his left hand
and in a variation of the soap trope Liz taught me 464 episodes ago, Hanley talks to the back of Quentin’s neck, his hand on Quentin’s shoulder, causing him to spin around and grab Hanley by each arm; Hanley twists away, then picks up Quentin’s bloody clothes with the same hand that turned the virus-spattered bedroom knob: “Desperation makes you generous, Quentin,” he says, the two of them less than a foot from each other, their noses almost touching (no six feet of physical distancing on a Dark Shadows soundstage so small that camera operators occasionally bumped into each other), whereupon Judith enters the room, having turned with her left hand the same doorknob that Beth and Hanley recently touched; in the following scene, Magda hears a knock at the Old House door, interrupting her tarot reading, and she opens it, turning the knob with her left hand, coming face-to-face with Evan Hanley
who—fresh from touching a doorknob, Quentin’s neck and shoulders, and a pile of blood-stained clothes—strolls over to Magda’s fortune- telling table and picks up the Death card with his left hand; he sidles up to Magda, his nose but a few inches from hers, as if they’re about to kiss, and says, “You are trying to trick me into believing that you are only a poor, ignorant gypsy armed with nothing more than hollow threats and curses that won’t work,” and after speaking at such a close distance to her face, bombarding Magda with millions of potentially lethal coronavirus particles, Hanley returns to Quentin’s bedroom, where Beth is touching the back of her non-consensual, non-monogamous lover’s shoulder, a pause that
gives Hanley an opportunity to draw a pentagram in chalk on Quentin’s carpet, a werewolf protection ritual that requires him to grab the two candlesticks on Quentin’s dresser with his contaminated hands, but before Hanley can light the candles and complete the ritual, Quentin destroys the pentagram
kicking chalk dust everywhere—a cloud of lung irritant polluting the air during a deadly respiratory virus—at which point Hanley rushes out, turning the doorknob with his right hand, his departure prompting Quentin to shout at Beth, the two of them only inches from each other, spraying her with plague microbes as she clutches his frock coat lapels with both hands; he turns from her but it’s too late, the contagion has invaded the Great House, and right before the credits roll on a day when 24,458 Americans test positive for COVID-19 and 2,198 die from the virus, Beth grabs the candlesticks with both hands in the exact locations where Hanley held them—a sure bet the virus particles that transferred from his hands to the candlesticks are now soaked into Beth’s palms—then, as Quentin growls off camera, she drops the candlesticks on his dresser and touches her face.