In winter’s spider-eyed light strung through steam grates, the tunnels turn feral. This is the other city, the dark one of hidden passages, runaways and orphaned days and like me it sleeps in broken buildings and smells of a sad suicide from the fifteenth century, and like me it has smoked three things on the mold-furred walls which are the only altars of those who’ve dropped through holes in the sidewalk to descend to these steam tunnels rung by slick rung. This city shambles room to room. Drawn to the easy sound of sleep, it knows the pattern night pens on tender skin, knows your darkest secrets and tells no one except the sycamore which rips from its skin with shame. It wants absolution, taps your sins on water pipes to shudder out of faucets, ties them to the tail feathers of soot-mottled birds who beat up from the concrete-lipped curb, falter over cars, stutter then catch an oily gust and wheel into the scalded sky. It claims to be blind though it might have a thousand eyes, screams obscenities from 13th and University and pisses in alleys. Sometimes it drinks too much. Sometimes it begs for more. It hides tents among trees in the park by the sluggish river this red-eyed thing blinking from storm grates. It is a window breaking. Other people’s blood in its veins, skin on fire, smack, crack, meth, strychnine and scouring powder sold as speed, some drug or another telling it die, you must die. But it doesn’t die. Step around it on your way to the theater. It crawls through your bedroom window, a warm bed and in the morning the smell of coffee and bacon spitting in grease. That’s all it wants. Aching hands in underwear drawers, snagged silks. You are its worst nightmare. Coiled cable, blood and razor-wire, shredded muscle and blue bone, cold nights, the city under the city is where you’ll find me. Though not now. Now it is heat-hazed summer and sunset and I whisper the four-syllable name of the stranger I should have become and disappear through the back door of the Villa Inn where the cook paces the few feet between the makeline and the ovens muttering Chimbukee Chimbukee Chimbukee It’s been nine years since he’s known the burned light of his own country or a woman’s name churned in sea foam, nine years since he’s clung to flesh which smells of rosemary and dried tomatoes. He checks his billfold, thick with this week’s pay. Let’s go he says to me, pointing toward his apartment across the alley. Let’s go Super Ju. Party. Party, he says then reaches his swollen hands deep into his pants past the flour-grubbed belt line and with a hard twist adjusts his truss. We call him Chris though that’s not his name and I think to myself, Homer, Odysseus, the blood-blue sea, the sun in its relentless veracity be damned to hell and back. Sweating pizza drivers, me sleeping in my truck or if it’s winter in empty buildings and the steam tunnels, and every weekend the parking lot filling up with dope dealers with their out-of-state plates and hookers dropped off by their pimps and the homeless who stumble from the boarded buildings and doorways to this oiled kaleidoscope under the warehouses’ dark windows— the broken, fish-line-strung and eye-level hooked— this grease-barrel and sour dumpster-stinking, trash-can-blaze, busted bottles, pissed on pissed off fuck you fuck you kill strong-armed ambulance scream, parking lot and Chris saying Chimbukee Chimbukee Chimbukee cussing us, Scata. Malaka American. Sto dyavolo malaka, Pizza malaka. Deliver,Chris yells but slow night no orders, no tips so we yell back, You malaka. Give us pizzas. To krima sto lemo sou,Chris says Greek which to us means nothing. and just outside the fish-net stockinged, stiletto-heeled Star, Joy, Princess. Joy, I think, and am too tired to think anything else when she tells me she swings, asks if I have something, anything, coke, smack, speed, rock. At least some pot. Come on. Hook me up, she says. Then the teams. Salt & Sugar. Salt & Pepper. Nilla & Chocolate with their matching tattoos, Comedy & Tragedy. Happy one day, Dead the next. Angel, Love Boat, Crystal. I got first degree I got MG Blue ludes, 8-Balls, rocks, the dealers yell. Quiver & Shiver Come get my stash I got the stuff Tongo & Cash Lot of Candy Man & Sweet Stuff. Slick the Stick, a pimp caught up in his own rhyme. Lover Boy & Philly Boy. Wanna-be’s and gonna-be’s:
Help Me to Salt, Help Me to Sorrow
In the moon-fade and the sun’s puppy breath, in the crow’s plummeting cry, in my broken foot and arthritic joints, memory calls me to the earth’s opening, the graves dug, again, and again I, always I am left to turn away into a bat’s wing-brush of air. That never changes . . . not this morning, not here where I’ve just found in the back of my truck, under the rubber mat, in a teacup’s worth of dirt, where it seems no seed could possibly be a corn kernel split to pale leaves and string-roots. It’s a strange leap but I make it and bend to these small harvests because somewhere in North Carolina there was a house and in it, my room and my bed, bare boards and the blood stains of a man that in each slant rain’s worried whispers puddles to the cries of a slave, murdered in 1863 trying to escape. Somewhere there was a child who slept on the living room’s red-vinyl couch who still matters especially now that I can’t remember when the creek that bounded our family farm led to an ocean or when a boxcar’s weather-wasted letters spelling Illinois meant somewhere there was an Illinois. It’s still 1976-- the day after I’ve been seen playing tennis with a black boy, and it seems I will always be held at gunpoint and beaten as if the right punch would chunk out his name. -------- No, it’s 1969-- The year my mother becomes a wax paste, or so she looks to the child I was, and she drips into the pink satin and I learned the funereal smell of carnations. That year the moon was still made of green cheese. That year men first bagged and labeled that moon. There are no years, only the past and I still don’t know why Odell Horne pulled a shotgun on my brother or how the body contains so much blood. I still don’t know why Donna Hill went to Myrtle Beach and three days later came back dead. For ten years I lived with Louise Stegall, the lover of my father, one of her four men, all buried-- suicide, murder, drink, again murder. It was after the second one that she sat stock still and silent, four years in the asylum. Now she walks the road all day, picking up Cracker Jack trinkets to give to children brave enough to approach her. When I was nine, the starling pecked outside her window a whole week. Somebody’s gonna die, she said and made me hug Uncle Robert’s neck as if I couldn’t know he’d be gone in two hours, as if I hadn’t learned anything about people and their vanishing. The last time I saw her she wouldn’t look at me, jerked her sweatshirt’s hood across her face and stepped into the ditch, as though there are some things even she won’t tell, as though I’ve never known it’s dirt and dust after all-- the earth’s sink and the worms’ castings. -------- With the wet leaves thick on my steps, the evening sky bruised dull gray to black, when I’ve spilt salt and as the saying goes the sorrow and tears, and the stove is cold so salt won’t burn, tell me my pocket of charms can counter any spell. Tell me again the reason for my grandfather’s fingers afloat in the Mason jar on the fireplace mantel between the snuff tin and the bowl of circus peanuts. What about the teeth in the dresser bureau, the sliver of back bone I wear around my neck? Again the washed-out photo in the family album, Pacific wind lifting the small waves onto Coral Beach, clicking the palm trees’ fronds. Again my father’s rakish grin, his bayonet catching a scratch of sun, his left foot propped on the stripped and bloodied body. Behind him, a stack of Japanese. -------- Let me believe in anything. Doesn’t the grizzled chicken dig up hoodoo hands? Won’t the blue door frame, the basket of acorns protect me; what about the knife in a pail of water? When giving me the dead’s slippered feet room to room, why not also synchronicity’s proof, a wish and the tilted ears of angels? I want to believe in the power of rosemary knuckled along the fence even as the stars order themselves to an unalterable and essential law. I want the wind-whipped leaves to settle and the flattened scrub to right itself, want the loose tin in the neighbor’s shed to finish its message. When this season in its scoured exactitude shifts closer, give me Devil’s Blue Boletus through the piled leaves, the slender green of Earth Tongue, phosphorescent Honey Tuft dispatched by the dead. Their voices coming nearer, almost deciphered. Whatever lies you have there in that nail-clipping of time, give them to me.