Tuesday, December 20, 2011


I had trouble holding my lane on the highway this morning. The rain had come on during the night. It fell hard through dawn and by the time I drove to work, the lines on the road were awash. They faded entirely just this side of Liverpool. Then the road gave out beneath me. The car went next, fading slowly around me. My seat gently lifted me before disappearing and I was running through the rain. The path was no longer a road next to the most polluted lake in the state. It was a dirt trail, through thick woods, next to sacred water. My Iroquois brothers ran beside me. We were on the hunt. There was nothing noble about our desire. We found a small settlement of French fools and slaughtered them. Pure murder. I chopped the neck of a woman looking up to the heavens. She screamed a fountain of blood. The face of her God came to me. He spoke in my own voice. I closed my eyes. My hands passed over my face like wiper blades. Switching to and fro as I hurled down the parkway driving to work. I sped under the bridge, past the French Fort, toward the hot dog stand. Wondering how to keep myself on the road, out of the drowning waters. My brothers ran ghostlike beside the car. Their arms raised in fury, their fists stained in blood unwashed by the storm of rain.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Helping a Girl Drown

She called for help. Asked me to swim out to her. She thrashed in the deep water. I stripped naked and stepped in. The water was cold and restless. She called my name. Told me to hurry I waded out to my waist, breathed deep. I dove forward thinking of a man who dove into a rock and broke his spine. I surfaced. She called me names without enthusiasm. She was on the verge of giving up. I swam to her. She said she couldn’t do it. She was failing to drown. The water, she said, wouldn’t pull her down. She asked again for help. I was reluctant, of course. I have my own problems. But I told her to hold her breath. She nodded. Inhaled deeply. Sank just below the surface. I watch her face through the waves. I was so tired. When she was about to burst, her body demanding air, she blew out her lungs. I pushed her head down as the bubbles rose. I held her down and she breathed in the darkness. Struggled. But I was strong and her eyes were so grateful. And she was gone. I treaded water. We had drifted far out to sea. How long, I wondered, will I have to swim if I am ever to find land?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Campaign Song of the Parasite

I was lying on the couch listening to acoustic music when it became clear that I had an invasive parasite in my intestines. How I knew this is no subject for a poem (though it makes a good PBS documentary). I wanted to blame someone. Preferably one of the Republican candidates for president. But I couldn’t make the charge stick. Each had a prepared statement. A byte of sound. They made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows. Their denials were believable. Even to a man suffering from a gut ache. Democrats worked to heal me but their solutions were tangled. I couldn’t follow. Arguments ensued between Republicans and Democrats. Then a slim hand reached out of the radio speaker. A woman’s hand. It touched my cheek. Traced the curve of my ear. She whispered, listen. Republicans bowed their heads to pray. Democrats stood barefoot and still in the grass. She sang of tracks being erased, wood smoke, a snake, and disappearing. It was beautiful. But, truth to tell, it did nothing for my digestion. Soon enough, I excused myself to use the bathroom. In grand compromise, both parties looked askance at me as I shuffled quickly from the room hoping for relief.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


I collect notes in bottles. The notes are everywhere but I have to bring my own bottles. “For the love of God, I need tickets!” blew across the sidewalk yesterday. I put it in a ketchup bottle. Two days ago, a wish list in crayon outside a bathroom. It said please five times. Each a different color. I put it in a miniature Coca-Cola bottle. Directions to a house in Liverpool. A love letter that fell from a garbage truck. Half a gas receipt saying, “Mike, don’t forget to g-”. Inside a pickle jar, I’ve wedged a scrap of sheetrock that says, “I need a woman. And a fish sandwich.” I’m going on a road trip next week. Packing the bottles in boxes. I’ll throw some in rivers. One is meant for a creek outside Roanoke. Most I’ll sail on the ocean's receding tide. But I’ll place three specially. I wrote the notes myself. I haven’t signed them. One, in a flat plastic bottle, goes inside a cairn I’ll pass on Mount Washington when I’m fifteen. The second, inside an empty root beer can from the fish and chips shop, will sit at the base of a tree on Hill Island until I chop it down with Chris when we are twelve. Finally, a glass ink bottle, wedged under the porch steps of the house where my godfather and I will sit when I’m only two and he’s years from the grave. Just the cap of it will show, catching the sun. I’ll return from vacation a new man. By then, I hope the bottles will have all found their way back to me. Their notes preserved and clear. Their messages all received.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Way

I was raking leaves into the street. The city picks them up. I don’t know where they take them. The dog watched me work. He raised his head as a car pulled to a stop near me. A woman inside needed directions. My knowledge of the streets and avenues is encyclopedic. A cigarette dangled from her red lips. She spoke through it. Smoke rolled out the window. She asked, Do you know where God lives? I leaned on my rake to think about it. The dog walked up behind me. He growled. Dogs know. I imagined the streets. Unfolded a paper map inside my mind. The woman waited. She took the cigarette from her lips. It was stained with lipstick. I pointed down the street. Without understanding any of it, I explained the way. It sounded very nearby. She put the cigarette back in her mouth. Put the car in gear. She thanked me. I made a strange motion with my hand, saying, you can’t miss it. I’m sure I won’t, she said, and drove away. I stood in the street. Held the rake. A few more leaves fell at my feet. Her car disappeared around the corner. I stared after it for a long time. The dog whimpered. Or maybe that was me.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Funeral Director's Son

This may or may not have happened. Someone died. My father drove the black station wagon. I rode with him. Snow was falling. We arrived at the house of the survivors. Dad took up his red clipboard folio. He threw his cigarette out into the snow. It was already an inch deep. He told me to wait. He’d be out soon. He left the keys. It was cold. I knew how to run the heat. He said, okay. As though it was alright. As if to say, death is just a thing that happens, death is just a thing. He said, okay, and walked through the snow toward the house. His black coat, felt hat, and white hair disappeared. The flakes were huge. They drifted down side to side. Like feathers, they fell on the windshield. I imagined angels. Insubstantial figments. Their wings coming apart. Feathers falling down. Melting into nothing at all. I watched them fall. I wondered when Dad would come take me home. I felt myself grow cold. And imagined death. I figured it was about like this. Sitting in a car outside a house. Getting cold. The funeral director disappearing inside to help a family learn how to live without. Then snow covers everything. The white world goes dark and disappears.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Rain at Night

When I was young I knew. The rain at night, it can swallow you whole. A person goes out in the night rain at their own risk. My father went. Many a night. He was a funeral director. The phone on the wall rang. He answered, standing at the counter. He never stretched the cord. Yes, he said. Yes. Yes. Yes. He hung up, picked up the sheet on which he had written numbers, a name, the end of a story. I looked out the window into the dark. Heard the rain talk to the window. When I looked back, my father was pulling on his long coat. Settling his felt hat. His hair was so white. His keys jingled in his pocket as he walked out, slamming the back door. It shook the house, disturbed the dog. And I wondered if he would be swallowed by the rain that night. He never was. He brought back the dead. Old men. Older women. A young boy on Christmas Eve. The rain swallowed that kid’s parents whole. My father tried. But they were gone just as much as the boy. I knew it. When I was young.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Old Men Leaving Parties

It was clear when I left the party
That although I was over eighty I still had
A beautiful body.
                 --Mark Strand, “Old Man Leaves a Party”
Leaving the party, I crossed the graveyard and walked out onto the beach. Following behind me, another old man I recognized, vaguely, called out my name across the distance. I took off my shirt and dropped it by the lake shore. The wind pulled at my hair, which though it had turned white was still thick and luxurious. It was hair to pull your fingers through. Hair to dream of alone in bed at night. But it was the muscles of my back and the raw power of my legs which over-filled me with pride. They pushed me onward past the lake, the city, the burning countryside. Out past the old gravestones to where my hole was already dug. I stood beside it, breathing in the night air, looking down through the darkness at a party. From out the hole, climbed a man, over eighty years old, leaving that party. He stopped to marvel at his beautiful body, staring at me as though I were his mirror. He turned and began walking. I would have followed him anywhere. I called out to him but could only remember my own name and he was already so far away.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

From Out of the Attic

Going through the attic of your mind, you come across a box that used to be so dear. You looking at it and remember that time. You see that person you used to be. You try to smile, but instead turn your head and stare out the attic window. The sun is low in the sky. October has come to chase away the summers. A squirrel sits on a branch outside the window. You see what a horrible thing a squirrel is. A rat with a bushy tail. You’ve heard that before. Its bite as rabid and infected as a sewer drain. As dangerous as a box you’ve pushed to the back of your mind. You recoil and hit your head hard on the exposed beam. You curse and bend over in pain. Your closed eyes orbit stars. You open them against the pain. Your one hand rests on the box, the other holds tight to the bump forming on the back of your skull. You reach down. Pick up the box. And you walk down all the flights of stairs and out the door to the curb where you drop the box hard in the street. You turn back toward the house, looking up at the attic window. The squirrel is there. Doing no harm. You’ll be damned if you don’t think the thing is cute and wonder what it was you feared. The October air feels warm. This is your home. This is your time. This is who you are. Tonight while you sleep, the box will be taken away.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Making Coffee

It takes more ground beans than you think. Try four tablespoons for a good-sized mug. Use good coffee. Buy whole beans and have the coffee shop grind them. Use clean, cold water. Go ahead. Measure out the grounds. Pour the water. Hit the button. Now wait. Look out the window. Rub your eyes. And if you’re the type, maybe you light a cigarette. Me, I’ll inhale the morning. Dewy grass. Fallen leaves. Waiting pumpkins.I take it all in. Like you, inhaling your cigarette, I hold the world in, and then let it go. The coffee is ready. I pour. Wrap my hands around the mug. Breathe the steam. My first sip is warm, smooth, strong, and dark. The sun rises. The world becomes green. The sky a brilliant blue. And there is nothing but light and coffee and hope ahead of me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Night Time

Lying naked next to your body in the darkness. Our children and the dog are asleep down the hall. The mortgage is paid down to under $75,000. The Soviet Union has long since fallen. But when I brush my hand along your side, you feel to me as you did before Glasnost. And feeling that, I am again idealistic. Naive. I have no career into which I’m trapped. No work in the morning. Just morning classes, then lunch at a long table filled with talk and laughter, followed by a night out drinking beer from plastic cups and shouting over loud music. Then, after midnight, I will climb into bed beside you. I will brush my hand along your side and know that the Soviet Union will fall, the Internet and housing bubbles will burst, that we will slide into recession again and again. As I pull my fingers through your long curls you will quietly gasp and gently moan. The news will go on. The clock turns. There is the mortgage. There are kids and a dog. Tomorrow is another day of work. But under the comforter I touch your body. In the darkness time ceases to make even the slightest sense.

Friday, September 16, 2011


You’d like to think you know where the sun will rise this morning. You want to be the man who knows from which direction will come the first light. Over the garage? Beside the dying elm? But the truth is that you’ve failed to pay attention to the directions of the compass, the phases of the moon, the languages of the clouds. Admit is, you’re not up early to see the sunrise. It was just those damn boys across the street that woke you. They are out there still, drinking, smoking cigarettes, talking and laughing with beautiful blonde-haired girls. You are awake out of simple confusion and anger. It’s not some noble quest. You wonder, why didn’t you drink or smoke cigarettes in high school? How did you fail to learn how to talk with beautiful blonde-haired girls. You’re still thinking these things and rubbing your eyes when you feel sunshine on your back. By the time you turn, the sun has risen, the day is begun, the kids have moved on, you are unsure what to do. Besides, you’ve already forgotten from which direction the sun rises.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Red-Haired Girl

Across the soccer field on which little girls roam and soccer balls flurry, I watch four high-school boys play basketball in the cage. They shout and show off for all the girls we boys imagine are ready to sit in worship of us and our skills. The boy in the grey shirt busts a killer crossover and rises high to take the shot. It should be enough that the kid in the red hat is falling down, that his ankles are so totally broken, but the shooter is imagining a red-haired girl who smiles and blinks her eyes at him from the sidelines. He can see her and the crowd gathered to see him play. And the distraction is enough. His shot goes awry. The crowd groans. His buddies, even the one picking himself up from the deck, laugh and the game goes on. He sneaks a quick look for the red-haired girl. If she were there she’d already be looking elsewhere, smiling at something else. She probably wasn’t even looking at him in the first place. And he remembers now that she’s not even real. He looks across the soccer field, past the little girls now circled around their coach. Behind them he sees the man in a chair, writing in his notebook, about a red-haired girl he used to know, and the kid wonders how this guy looks so familiar.

Monday, September 12, 2011

With Neko Case at the Temple

I sit outside the temple with Neko Case and my dog. None of us are Jewish, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Neko smokes cigarettes, the only thing I don’t like about her, and the smoke drifts by us on God’s own breeze. The dog, who doesn’t smoke (there is nothing I don’t love about her), sits low. She sniffs for scents more mysterious than cigarette smoke. Neko asks the dog a question about death. And, I suppose, life. The dog lifts her head. Sniffs the air. Stares at Neko, then licks her lips and yawns. Neko watches, drags on her cigarette and hangs her head as she exhales. Smoke envelops her red hair. I can’t see her face. Sitting between them, outside the temple, before which the rabbi now stands, I understand none of it. I feel as though it is all mystery. I don’t know why petting a dog always comforts. How cigarette smoke sometimes entices. What the Torah is saying as the Rabbi reads. I don’t even know why Neko Case is here or why she curses, butts her cigarette on her shoe, and goes off saying that she needs a guitar. The dog gets up, stretches, and follows her across the parking lot. That, at least, makes perfect sense sitting outside the temple alone under the blue sky and clouds of heaven.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Reeling Them In

My oldest daughter,
nine years old,
is quietly running a race
with forty or fifty other kids.
She is mid-pack at mid-race
and then in a loping,
almost bouncing gait,
reels in one, two, three and more
of the other children.

Near the finish,
two boys ahead of her 
give up and fall to walking,
hands on hips, panting.
She lopes past them,
and though I am fifty yards away
across the field, she is my girl,
and so I hear her wondering,
why are they stopping?
she doesn’t know what else to do
but run and run.

I can hear her at the finish,
only two people ahead of her,
failing to care about winning,
not noticing what she has done,
happy for other reasons
I can no longer remember or fathom.

Across the field I sit watching,
having whispered to her,
throughout the whole race
you do it, you go, honey.
keep reeling them in,
there is nothing that can touch you.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rocket Fish

In the boat at dusk, alone. I lean out over the wooden side. Over the oarlock. I look down into grey-green water through which I can somehow see into the depths. The lake is calm, silent. When I lean out over the boat it doesn’t move. The water is undisturbed. Looking down I am horrified to see a giant fish swimming up at me. It lights the water. It’s mouth is a perfect circle. It swims upward in a straight line without moving its tail. This is a rocket blasting off from some underwater Cape Canaveral. My face is directly in its path. I am a target. It comes for me. I jump back and fall against the other side of the boat, my shoulders and head out over the edge. The boat is about to tip. I know that this is disaster. I cannot go into that water. The fish. The fish. Through my fish-eyes I see stars. Dusk has given way to darker night. I pray. I pray to the fish. The fish. My heart thunders. The boat rocks hard. My feet find purchase under the edge of the boat. I hold on. I hope. And the boat settles down. Splashes hard into the water. Without disturbing the still lake. I lie back against the side of the boat. Wondering. The fish. I’m afraid to look down. I look up, but there is only darkness.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Tiger

I watched Snickers, our twenty-year-old cat, pace the downstairs this morning and thought of a Bengal tiger pacing her cage at the zoo. I looked up and zoo-goers peering in through the dining room windows. A woman held a small girl up high and pointed toward the cat. The little girl stared wide-eyed at it, looked back at the woman, her mother, and made an O with her mouth. I picked up Snickers, who seemed much heavier, padded to the window and held her up. The little girl became our eldest, the mother became my wife, I became a father tiger, and we all stared at one another like strangers slowly recognizing one another. Then I set Snickers down, looked out the window at the empty street, the grey sky, the rain coming down. I looked up the empty stairwell to where I knew you were all sleeping. Snickers padded by again. She looked up at me, opened her mouth, and roared something that I wish to God I could have understood. Then I left the zoo locking the cage tight behind me.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Dogs of Memory

Here’s the things with memory: it dogs me. At this moment, I am being followed. By the ghost of my first-grade teacher whom I disappointed. By how I treated Allen Mawson, the things I said behind his back. Even by the award I won for a short story about a girl and a waiter in a restaurant crumbling into the Atlantic. I write memories down, but the pages stick to my elbow as I stand up and every step sticks more paper to the soles of my shoes. I tell my therapist about this stuff but my voice echoes and follows me out to my car which reminds me of the Volare I had long ago. The one I used to sometimes steer with my feet while my best friend laughed himself silly. The road was just something we drove across and left behind like some forgettable movie projected on the rearview mirror. Thinking carefully of that moment, my legs crossed one over the other as I sit in my therapist’s waiting room, I feel my toes grip the wheel and turn it this way and that. My friend’s laughter crowds out the dogs of memory barking in the distance as we drive away.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Waiting on Rain

The rain refused to come. The weatherman had predicted: Showers this morning. Heavy rains later in the afternoon. But morning stayed dry. And afternoon was windy but without precipitation. Early evening, the air smelled of rain. The temperature had fallen. Grey clouds were thick and unbroken. Outside, children and dogs played in yards. They hadn't watched morning news. Hadn't read the paper. They barely glanced at clocks and seemed content to talk to themselves and the dogs. Their eyes seldom glanced skyward. They didn't study the barometric pressure. Instead, they threw sticks for the dogs with little expectation that the dogs would retrieve them. No matter, they seemed to think, we'll get it and throw it again. I watched them from my chair, looking out my window. Wondering when it will be safe to go outside.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Choosing Our Own Adventures.

Feeling far from myself, I logged into Facebook and asked the world what we would do with our lives if we could choose anything at all. (As if there was some good reason we couldn't choose these things already.) One friend wrote that she would take photographs or refinish wood furniture. Another would bake granola. Right away another said she would own a yarn store, and another said she would teach and go to writing workshops around the world. One laughed at my idea that I would write about photographers, wood finishers, the sweet smell of baking granola, the girl looking out from the door of her yarn shop, and the teacher taking her own classes. I wrote, I'm not kidding, I'll do it right now! I meant it too. But the writing proved difficult and though I could post it on the web it wasn't the same as publishing and when it was done I felt the same as before. I logged back into Facebook wondering what to ask next. 

Taking My Daughter to Starbucks

I took my nine-year-old girl to Starbucks. Grande, decaf, black, I said. My girl ordered something much more interesting. Caramel Apple Spice with a cakey treat. I asked if we should sit or get in the car and drive. Let's sit. I don't want to spill this in the car. We can watch the cars. So she and I sat at the window. Two Verizon trucks went by. I think there's a place down that way, she pointed to our right, where the trucks live. What do you think that woman in the parking lot was doing before she came here, I ask. Oh, her, she was at the dentist's office. That's where she works. She sits behind the desk and says, it's your turn, honey. This my daughter says in a Brooklyn accent. We've never been to Brooklyn. There's a Starbucks there. I'm sure of it. And out the window of that Starbucks stare a girl and her mother. She asks her girl what the man in the brown jacket was doing before he stopped for coffee. Her daughter smiles putting on an accent her mother can't quite recognize: he’s an English teacher. He doesn't like his job. Wishes he was a poet. He's come a long way for a magical cup of coffee. An escape. Her mother smiles and asks where people talk like that. The man in the brown jacket smiles at them. It's a Syracuse accent, he says. Trust me. My daughter sounds like that almost all the time.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Second Half

We are at a girls basketball game in an arena. The state championship. Halftime. We go to a meeting between the girls and their coaches though we don’t belong. No one seems to mind and we play the part as if it were our own. The girls are deciding whether to play on or quit. They put it to a written vote, collect the slips of paper, and you and I are chosen to tally the votes while they disappear into a locker room and the others melt back into the arena. But the slips in my hand aren’t the votes. These are blank scraps and old ATM slips. I search for votes. They are gone. The girls return. They look at me for the results. I have to decide so many things. Tell that I’ve lost the votes? Set up a recount? It’s too late. There’s the buzzer. So I lie. It was almost unanimous, I say. Get out there and play.

They go and we are left in a house with frightening architecture. Rain begins to pour. We have no coats and can’t go out in it. I have to find a raincoat for you. I left one here years ago. Where is it? Upstairs, the doors are locked. I don’t live here anymore. Our things are gone as though they never were. And I can’t get out of the stairway. How did I get in? The walls are too close. There is no door. I call your name. But you have gone on. To the game, to somewhere else. I’m alone. Stuck. Sliding fast into panic trying to remember what hope feels like in dreams and in waking.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Checking the Weather

In January the world froze. Smoke refused to rise. Squirrels hung from branches. The sky cracked. From everywhere the sound of popping, cracking ice. I stood at my dining room window. A blanket around my shoulders. Fog rising from my breath. Watching my neighbors come out of their houses. Each one chisel through the ice. Breaking down their own doors. Climbing out any window. Jennifer made it three steps before her right leg cracked and shattered. Chris and Traci reaching for one another saw their hands cascade in broken shards. Sarah never made it out the driveway before her face chipped away and  from her head. I couldn’t imagine any fool braving that world. Still, James was working on his door with a blowtorch. Terry and his dog scratched at a basement window. Even old Mort and Muriel were ramming the car against the garage door. I alone was hiding inside the walls of my house. Believing it was enough to live alone. Trying to recall why I would ever go outside. Praying I would never have to brave the cold world.