Trimming the Tree (1989)

After I set the tree in its screw-eyed stand by the bay window, I have to re-train the dog. It makes him think he’s outside. And then I decorate with costume jewelry and lace nipped from bustier tops and bodices. That night, Sara calls from the desert.

“Problem?” I ask.

“You sent me the ornaments by mistake. Where are my clothes?”

I’m cutting white doves from her nightgown as we talk. Her neighbor is a weaver. He made her a blanket last week. I guess they talked for days, and ate pineapples.

My neighbor is a quality wood distributor. He gave me sawdust.

Later, I move our old bed beside the Christmas tree. The fir is whirling with secrets: brassieres snapped like Greek symbols for infinity, cranberries on G-strings, a shimmering pair of dancing shoes where David’s star should be.

The deerhound sleeping at my ankles stirs. Him, such a restless dreamer, digging-up, burying anew. He nudges part of Bambi’s hock to my chin, as if wanting to play a new round of give-away, and take-back.

I do.


Swim Club

Pool-Lanes-300x300I went back to the pool last night. It’s a saltwater pool so it doesn’t smell like chlorine. Most of the other people were doing butterfly strokes with lots of expressive limb gestures. Like they were urgently trying to say something and no one was listening.

I was just walking back and forth. I’d walk the 25 meters, tap the coping, and turn around and walk the other way. I’m sure some people must have thought I was pretty tall to do all that walking in deep water, but I was wearing a flotation belt no one could see.

Except when the other swimmers splashed me I didn’t even get my head wet. One guy was frog kicking. He popped his head out of the water to breathe and went under again. Kicking and breathing and disappearing.

The thing about water is that it makes me feel weightless. Like my body is finally free of itself. Dolphins must think about this all the time. If you’re always weightless, do you realize you’re weightless?

Walking the pool, I quickly ran out of things to think about so I read the warning posters. Obviously, no diving. But also, something about not hogging the jets when others were waiting. And this pool wasn’t very friendly to people with open wounds.

The hot whirlpool could hold up to fifteen persons, but bathing caps were strictly forbidden.

There was a sign inside the co-educational steam sauna that discouraged anyone with a disease, but how could anyone read it with all of that steam wafting around? I sat under the sign and began coughing.

In the locker room it took me twenty minutes to break into my locker. I’d used a combination lock and I’d been so worried about remembering the odd-number, even-even combination, that I’d locked my glasses inside.

After the work out, I tell you, I was starving. I confided to Julia I’d lost four pounds. “Really?” she said. She added the dinner napkins to the pile of laundry that included my bathing costume. “I didn’t know you were counting.”

But I wasn’t counting. Standing on the scale was just something to do while I waited for someone to walk into the locker room who could open my lock. Still, I wondered if she were curious about my new lithe swimmer’s physique and how tall it made me feel.

Failure Fridays

June is my big rejection month. I can usually count on a little rejection all the time but by the end of the semester editors and judges seem to want to wrap things up. There’s a boat to catch, or a Yankees home stand, not to mention all the summery commitments.

“Bookstock, in Vermont,” I can hear poet and judge Kim Addonizio grieving into her glass. “So that’s my July.”

Pass the whiskey. Electronic mail lets me tear into those rejection envelopes while sitting inside the comfort of my own petty horror. One friend once told me she dealt with rejection by immediately sending her rejected poems to five new places. I was never that brave, and I never knew that many magazines.

A few months ago, my stepdaughter and her boyfriend applied to a theater program. It was like a residency thing. Last month, he called her to say he got in. “Thanks for serving up my rejection,” she said. “If they contacted you already and not me then I know what I’m not doing this summer.”

They broke up, which was unfortunate, since she wasn’t able to call and tell him she got her own fellowship to Sewanee. Instead, she called me. “That’s great news,” I said. “I guess they didn’t take me. We could have gone together.” “Oh Bear,” she said. “I’m sure that white male confessional essay is really competitive.”

I think of Face Book as my desk manager. But one of the bothersome things about social media is that so many of my friends post their brags. It only reinforces my sense of failure. I mean, failure isn’t so bad. Sort of makes me feel like Icarus. But how many times can one person drown?

My cousin Eduardo C. Corral announced last week that he intended to post all of his failures and rejections. Although I’m not surprised by the presses who love him I was shocked by the ones who didn’t. This June, every Friday will be “Failure Friday.” I plan on posting all of my rejections accumulated for the week.

If I’d done this last month you would have learned that I wasn’t going to the Millay Colony, or the Vermont Studio Center, or Bread Loaf, or Sewanee. You would have discovered my disappointments at Agni, Iron Horse Review, Dogwood, Indiana Review, Boiler, and countless other magazines. There was even one time I rejected myself, pulling a piece that had been accepted for publication.

CoverV7-186x300It wasn’t all bad. The high water mark came when I received my contributor copies of Consequence Magazine. My poem “The Brig” was one of only a handful to be included which didn’t conform to the Persian theme. Another contributor was poet Tom Sleigh who ironically had rejected “The Brig” in at least three contests. “How sexy am I now?” I wanted to ask him, in my best Scarlett Johansson.

“What poem did you get published?” Julia asked, when I showed my wife the glossy copies. “The Brig,” I said. “You know, the one about the imaginary prison.”

“Oh that poem,” she said. “Actually, I never liked it all that much.”

Putting Some Buzz into Your Starch

StrykWhenever I’m ironing a shirt I have to keep running outside to make sure I didn’t leave my car running. It happened again last week, and since I was also feeling a little punk, it reminded me of Henry, my roommate at the hospital one year.

He was an OK kid, laughed a lot, and could fall asleep in three seconds. The main thing was that he’d never eaten rice before. His Asian parents had wanted to raise him as American as possible. One night, as the nurse lifted the hoods off our plates, he was delighted to find a scoop of ice cream in the middle of his creamed welsh rarebit.

“That’s not ice cream,” the nurse said. “It’s rice.”

I was standing outside in the cold, looking at my “silver” Toyota. Of course, it wasn’t running. The keys were in my pocket. Still, I pressed my hand in the hood to be sure. The odometer read 93,000 miles, so it had to have been doing something.

And maybe it was all the piles of snow but I couldn’t get ice cream out of my head. And I was thinking, boy, I could really use some coffee-flavored ice cream right now. But there wasn’t any ice cream in the freezer.

coffee riceI wondered, what if I made a pot of Basmati rice, and instead of adding water to cook it, I used coffee instead?

For this recipe, I used a dark roast. Starbucks tends to char their beans—their French and Italian roasts are usually just the over-cooked remnants of their lighter coffees—so you might want to use a better brand. Peets would be my choice.

I used 1 and ½ cups actual water, and ½ cup of coffee, and two or three rubs of salt. I kid you not, this made the best rice in the world…brown in color, not tasting of coffee at all, but carrying its sweet, nutty notes. Like brown rice, but without all the heaviness.

I ate two bowls of it, thinking about sweet Henry and wondering whatever became of that poor sick kid forty five years ago. Then I remembered the iron.

Here, Let Me Be Angry for You

Everyone is supposed to do the thing they’re good at doing, whether two-part harmony, or rage.

Let me be the angry one. I’m angry enough for the both of us. I’m good at it. I’ve been angry since I was born the month Jimmy Dean sang Big Bad John all the way to number one.

The kitchen floor—ours is made of maple barn siding—that is not how to break a jar of honey. Real anger is smashing it on the ceramic counter beside the sink where we washed your hair when your left arm was mangled somersaulting with your horse.

It never would have happened if you hadn’t named him Husband.

Hungry for love? Lots of bitter suck apples on this old tree. If you chew them slow enough the bruised ones turn to hard cider when you pout.

The secret to life is lettuce and propane. Why not make a salad and listen to Simon and Garfunkel while I go outside and fire up the anger?

Put down that gun, give me the knife. Your mother is dead. Your father is dead. Nothing to be done about that. But if you want the world to suffer as much as you then I’m your man. Just say the word and I’ll crash that truck into the boy who pissed you off when you were eleven.

johnny cashThat fucking jar of honey…You call that anger? My grandmother can rage better than that with one hand tied behind her back and sick, diabetic feet that bleed when you look at them. Grandma Betty is nearing a hundred—it’s hard to kill a prick, her words.

I know anger is your right, but so is making do. Life is a mess, but it’s a lovely one. The floor never tasted so good.

My Lover Suspects I Have a Wife

My Lover Suspects I Have a Wife
How else to explain my fascination
of late for brooks and runs and old rivers?
No errand seems complete without stopping
at some trouty stream, taking two hours
for twenty-minute trips for carry-out
Indian food. I return muddy, watered,
smelling of crayfish, tandoor chicken, nan.
Or is it in the way I show interest
in places you and I have never talked
about before?–In Chincoteague Island
where people on the beach wave at people
in the water who wave right back at them,
where small horses eat from the same hands
that hold her dearly when she finds your mail.

I’m sipping a finger of “Mango Merlot” while “Mrs. Warner” paces upstairs, anguished over the choice between flats and heels, basing her decision on metric sound effects. It’s still three hours before sunset—the witching hour—when my inner self-medicating doctor becomes an inner bartender.

Tonight’s fiasco is a rain-checked wedding reception for Julia’s friend Lisa. The theme is traditional and casual: a toast by the best man, a first dance, and utensils meant to be thrown away after using. If anyone knocks a plastic spoon against a plastic wine glass would Lisa and Wayne even hear the kissing cue? At their ages there wouldn’t be any blushing.

Lisa’s wedding party had some novelty. Most of our vow exchanges had involved men marrying men. This was only our second wedding reception—except our own—for a man and a woman. No one had come to ours since we tied our knot on the run, and Andrea’s wedding to Curdy involved carpooling with a racehorse trainer. Instead of chasing down garters on the wing we talked tricks for speed and stamina, getting the first jump and the last bob. There’s a lot to learn about gambling at an old time wedding.

Gifts are another matter. It’s one thing when the couple are in their twenties and don’t have a garage or anything. What do you buy someone who’s been buying shit for so long? Lisa and Wayne had at least 75 years of home-owner consumerism between them. It was time to start thinking about subtraction. I suggested a U-Haul rental for trips to the dump.

We settled on a cherry pie. The day before, Julia found the perfect pie tin. Instead of wrapping it, she’d bake a cherry pie in it from scratch and give it to them that way. We tossed in a bottle of dessert wine. But we realized too late we had the wrong cherries. We needed sour and all we had was sweet. Then Julia mistakenly opened the Mango Merlot, confusing its lip-colored contents with Cabernet. “Damn,” she said.

The two of us lose heart quickly. We have that much in common. “The last thing those people need is dessert,” I said. Weight was one of those tricky subjects between us. Julia is rail thin and counts her calories with decimal places. She can wear anything she wants, whereas me, well, I just dress in what I think I can get away with. Lisa was like me, an ectomorph.

Julia came downstairs like a herd of buffalo. “You decided on the heels,” I said.

“Jesus,” she said, “Are you drinking already?”

I waited outside the Hallmark store while Julia hustled in and back. She waved a card for me us to sign. “Shit,” she said. “It’s all in Spanish.”

“That’s OK,” I said. “It’s more exotic if they have to look up the meaning of what we’re trying to say.” I wrote a little note: May you always find true North, south of the border. Julia crossed it out and wrote her own little note. She drew a box around it shaped like a house. “I haven’t wasted half my life,” she said, stuffing the card into a bag filled with tissue paper. “But I have spent half my life with a pig.”

Right then I started to compose a sonnet. Sonnets were supposed to be an argument, right? Maybe some disagreed, but it seemed like the perfect form to talk about marriage, where everything always had to be so perfect just because it never was.

I composed it to myself like I always do, saying the words in my brain, repeating a phrase, turning it over. Not recommended while driving. “You want to get around this guy?” Julia said. I made a left and pulled onto Lisa’s street. Her house was dark. There weren’t any cars parked in front of it. “Maybe the party is at Wayne’s house,” I said.

My inner bartender—I’ll call him Scott—offered some critical advice. “Divorce,” he said. “That’s the whole reason I’m never getting married.”

Bottoming Up in Kalamazoo

I love small amounts of pleasant disorientation. Peering out the 1970s window at Herndon Intermediate School during geography lessons—some hammering out there, the shop class fussing with some molten something—I missed the point Mr. Harrison was making about Detroit being east of Chicago, and Michigan, north of Ohio.compass_rose

In my mind, Chicago was closer to Baltimore, and Detroit was somewhere near Minnesota, and the great lakes were in no particular order except that some froze and sometimes dogs were lost or cars disappeared and some fish never stopped eating no matter how cold it got.

It isn’t as if I don’t have a GPS system. It plugs into my cigarette lighter port. But I resent using it. I can’t stand being interrupted while my mind wanders, when I’m actively engaged in my own disorientation. To avoid having to pay attention to traffic I prefer to settle in behind a truck that seems to be going a lot further than I.

Unless is has chickens in it. Those strange snow flurries coming out of the wind gates…

On the road I’m always vegetarian. At home I’ll eat meat if I know the animal. A steer is ready for college at about 18 months. I prefer eating one that has a PhD in something. Nothing with eyes is a good rule to follow, but if it’s old enough to need reading glasses I’m in. As for animal products, well, honey is basically bee shit, and even if I were vegan I wouldn’t spit, I’d swallow.

JYoungMy friend Joe Young had just driven to Kalamazoo, taking four days to make the trip. Something about going to your home town makes you want to camp a lot before you arrive. I was flying, but I missed my plane at Thurgood Marshall Airport by two minutes. Through the viewing window I could see its tires crawling back into its Delta belly a few hundred feet off the ground.

Instead of a long layover in Detroit, wherever that was, I laid over in Baltimore. I was giddy, and already thinking about Joe’s piece of advice: a stop to Bell’s Brewery. He’d also let it slip—and there’s no way he could have known about my river fetish—that Kalamazoo had a river. I took the information as cool as possible in spite of my attraction to snake-shaped endlessness, mysterious splashes in dark green waters, and incredibly small bridges.

My flight to Detroit outlasted my connection to Kalamazoo. I would have to rent a car and drive to Minnesota. Terrible situation, I said to Julia, who was furious at me. Inside, I was radiant, but also confused. We were driving west to Chicago. Hadn’t we flown over it already? Instead of phoning ahead to say we’d be later than expected she called Bob, her Pittsburgh lawyer, a title meant to imply he was made of tougher parts.

“There’s a nice restaurant called Bell’s Brewery,” I said.


“Do they have chardonnay?” she said. The brewery was large, more like a refinery. We stood outside, looking at a menu placard. “You might enjoy the veggie burger; it’s made out of fungus.”

“Why can’t you call them mushrooms like everyone else?” I said.

A few blocks away there were three ladder companies and dozens of black and white patrol cars parked on Portage Street. Their lights whirled but the fire brigades were mostly standing around like they were making a disaster movie.

We went to the wine bar across the street and took a table outside to watch the crews. She ordered a “Migration,” known for its oak butter entrance and almond exit. I ordered a Bell’s Oberon, known for nothing. Each thought is a mile. I would need at least a hundred of them to put us in the same bed that night, a little west of the sounds of hammering, a little north of everything else.