AMERIKA RETROGRADE

 

Listen. Do you hear that?

the retrograde sound,

gears shank against one another

the bruxism’s icky grind-sound:

distant crashes in faraway night dreams:

These are the sounds

all forms of repression make:

when you try to forget all

the bad things that happen:

a sharp click barely heard

through all the sounds of the world.

(Ineradicable. Won’t leave the world of sound.)

Listen, through the birdsong, even

through the trees trying to bud:

an up-flutter of negative potential

of entropy made visible.

Radio Free Retrograde

is not on the air.

[a tableau]

Sunday morning oranges

and cat-stained coverlets:

The young pre-wife nestles

against her hubbie-to-be in three

they suck down a smoky dab or two.

Libertarians, they think they can

avoid the Big Heel somehow

they ain’t worried

Hey honey where

we goin’ for breakfast?

Is that noise the train?

O look at this…!

© 2017 Thomas N. Dennis

Babies in Bars

(for John Berryman)

1

In every tavern I enter

There is a baby at the bar

—watching “Wheel of Fortune

—sippie cup

2

In the Fuzzy Mule

There is a

Baby bartender

grousing the usual yuckage

3

At one a.m.,

In the expansive sushi bar downtown

a large baby is checking IDs

“I work too much” it gurgles

4

“Infants Drink Free”

“Half off Jaeger Shots”

*Toddler’s Night*

proof of age required

5

Two tall drunken infants

heads a-bobble

sit out back by the fire-barrel

near the Only Bar

 

©2017 Thomas N. Dennis

 

 

 

A Visit to the North [1994]

For a few seconds, just before the plane seemed to bobblingly depart from the asphalt runway surface of the earth, we were travelling at a speed exceeding 200 mph, both fearsome and a bit exciting simultaneously . . . was this (Nash wondered) how the astronauts felt leaving earth? They did not have the twin distractions of the verdant earth rolling away, under the plane and his son’s high-pitched chatter, composed mainly of a few disturbing words like crash, dead, fire, God, high, burn and fall. 

His neighboring passengers tried somewhat unvaliantly to smile at his son.

“Gah Daddy look how far up we are, look how far up! Hey Daddy, hey uh Daddy, what would happen if we crashed? Do you think we’re going to crash? I don’t think we are, do you?”

The plane then went into a slight turn — there’s a technical name Nash could not quite bring to mind — yaw? — as he explained that the driver of the plane, the pilot you see, was a good pilot and  . . .

“How do you know we won’t crash?” Blonde mischievous smile.

“It won’t because we’re on it. Planes only crash when other people are on them,” looking up at the grim visage of the man beside his son, who seemed to want to be interested in his Tom Clancy novel.

The air voyage, everyone’s first, was for the funeral of Raiza’s father, a good man named Charles, surprised by death not too long after his retirement from Westinghouse. He wondered how she would accept the news and could not help but be puzzled when she insisted on everyone getting travel haircuts. A sort of shock had overtaken her, clearer after her haircut, which took a bunch of those long curly locks away and left her face unframed, the blue Weimaraner eyes a bit staggered by loss and her strong high cheekbones a bit more Eeyore-ish than usual. Yet she did not talk about it or about him.

Neither did Nash.

She offered him an anti-anxiety pill for the flight but he demurred, wishing to experience it straight. As they were standing at the counter, in one of those blank moments, she said, apropos of everything: “Maybe,” blinking her sky-colored eyes, “when you die your soul flies around or feels like it is flying around for a short time after death…just to get your wings, hmm…?”

His ears popping, Nash glanced across the aisle. His daughter the young introvert was apparently enjoying the whole thing and smiled back at him. Raiza, paler than usual, might be getting ill, but he watched her close her eyes and take several long, slow breaths before opening them to look at him. Nod. Nod back. The funeral task ahead. How do you feel headed home, where you have only rarely visited – and they you – in 17 years, for this sudden death of your father? They would find a time to sit quietly and talk.

A calm arrived after the plane leveled off and the stewardesses brought bits of food, but only tiny bits, as though they were baby birds. Sooner than seemed possible, they were landing in Atlanta and, after yet another anguished outpour of scary words from the boy — variations on yikes! — they disembarked, rode rapid-transit, and caught the longer flight. Neither child seemed near sleep, though Raiza seemed to doze. Nash fretted about the fragile state of being she seemed to be embodying right now. Her mother and sister Sherrill loved her, sure, but they were Pennsylvanians.

As the airport van drove them the last miles, ascending the Allegheny plateau, he remembered — tried to bring to musical mind — an old primitive song called “Stomping Tonight on the Pennsylvania-Alabama Border.” A photograph was taken – and subsequently lost – of the two sleeping kids, their heads facing different directions on the van seat.

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Pittsburgh had been almost chilly in the early afternoon. “Yeah,” agreed their driver, Ralph. “Cool front come through yestiddy, doused off that heat we was getting.” How hot was it? “Eighty eight.” That’s not hot. No one spoke. The children looked thoughtfully at each parent, mutely asking Why don’t you talk?  In a downpour they pulled up to an ancient farmhouse that looked like it might have been the place the Hearst heiress was hidden before her capture back in the seventies.

Everyone got settled in, Raiza began talks with her mom and sister, and Nash was left to tell stories to the kids “if they have trouble sleeping.” Nash was deep into his story about Jimmy and Kimmy and Blackie the dog before he noticed the kids were already asleep. He eased away, found the adults in loud discussions in a back room where they were going through “Charley’s junk,” then found his own bed for a night of dreamless sleep.

The kids were just too unruly, too full of energy to be walking back and forth into and out of the church as Charley’s funeral service took place – though there didn’t seem to be much of any service going on, just the dude himself there in his coffin, dead as could be, obviously not alive, almost spotlighted in that unique morticianly way . . . Nash brought them outside the building to where he was sitting with an elderly Pirates fan, discussing baseball, and in lieu of having a real game, which is what they wanted, we had an imaginary game much like the one in Meet John Doe, do you recall, where Walter and Gary are cooped up in the hotel room awaiting news of the scandal.

Val, pretending to throw, fires one in.

“Strike.” Another. “Strike.” Then: “Ball…okay two-and-one count” holding fingers up.

“Sid Bream, yaknow, Atlanta’s great speedster hero, yeah, well – he was traded from Pittsburgh last spring ya know,” says this geezer as Nash pops the glove, catching the imaginary ball (“wide”) from Val. Ryan bats, holding a stick he found in the gutter near the street. Imaginary bases are run, imaginary most miraculous catches are imaginarily made.

The geezer has a pointed noise and a little decal on his lapel reading in bright Corsican colors, “Sons of Italy.”

Nash says, “Is that right? Yeah, Sid’s a real speedster…”

“Did you know Charley?”

“I’m his son-in-law.”

“Ahhhh.”

“Daddy! Watch the game.”

“Okay, okay…”

“Where’s the plate again?”

Nash was sent home early, flying through Cincinnati instead of Atlanta, because he had to be at work on Monday morning. He got the final story from his wife, who spoke, for once, with a bit of reverence. They had put Charley into his expensive mausoleum – or someone would soon – and the family entourage was preparing for another morning van-ride to the Pittsburgh airport. Before breakfast, Raiza said, “right out into the back yard there walks up this giant buck deer…huge…and it stands there for a while and then runs off into the cornfield . . .”

 

© 1994, 2016 Thomas N. Dennis

Schopenhauer’s Little Dogs

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Some decades ago, when a flailing ex-thespian was POTUS, I found myself in the dark wood of unemployment, shaken to learn what the phrase “at will” meant. It means this: in Alabama, one may be fired from one’s job for any reason, or no reason at all. I’d been there before, but now, with a small family to support, I couldn’t waste a lot of time drowning sorrows.

After typing up a new résumé, I sat down in a broken chair in my back yard one day, fired up a Kool and considered my 30-something career options. As I opened up my dank and chunky Birmingham Post-Herald, headed for the Help Wanted section, I saw a notice that their long-time “People and Things” columnist Clettus Atkinson was about to retire.

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Fortunately, I was one of those people who  had uncovered at an early age — without realizing it until much later, unfortunately — that writing was something I had to do. I went to college long enough to secure the student deferment that kept me out of the hands of the draft board, but then dropped out to continue living a quasi-bohemian life in skeevy urban areas. Ever since, I’d been trying to piece together bits of fiction into something bigger. Perhaps this employment lacuna was the ideal time for me to shift into non-fiction and leave behind any bong dreams of fiction-writing.

But there was that strong indictment of journalism by my old pal Schopenhauer –

Exaggeration of every kind is as essential to journalism as it is to the dramatic art; for the object of journalism is to make events go as far as possible. Thus it is that all journalists are, in the very nature of their calling, alarmists; and this is their way of giving interest to what they write. Herein they are like little dogs; if anything stirs, they immediately set up a shrill bark.

In my experience of local news provision, this seems as true now as it did in the Eighties (sorry, no idea what sparked the German philosopher’s ire back in the early 19th century). I do have my misgivings about this blanket canine condemnation. What kind of journalistic yapper (I must ask myself) was Dr. Hunter S. Thompson — our finest Old Yeller? And when I hear Seymour Hersh’s yapping, I pay attention; Hersh’s tone, as well as his content, is deeply different. It’s not the “if it bleeds, it leads” bark — no, this is a bark to which one must pay attention: My Lai. Abu Ghraib. National malversation needs to be barked at, and loudly.

I got all daring and dashed off a cordial introduction letter to the editorial page editor, including a few pieces to pique his interest, and basically asked him to hire me as Clettus’ replacement. I’d really rather not discuss the pieces I submitted, but let us just say they were . . .  drolleries, oddball idylls, though one did concern Halley’s timely comet. I should have known that there was no chance – zilch – that anything good would happen, but I have on occasion been known to take a wild chance.

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I got a letter politely inviting me to come down and visit the editor at the newspaper, even though there was no comment about my work. In short order, probably freshly trimmed and shaved, bedecked in my best straight-folks Eighties duds (I wish I could see me), I was standing in the elevator that took me up to the editor’s office. It may have been a carpeted elevator with one of those gilt mirrors above. I glimpsed one or two of the higher floors, where the owners of the newspaper had their offices: floors to which not just anyone might ascend.

The editor saw that I wasn’t too bad a fellow, as indeed I recall seeing that he wasn’t so bad a guy either to be the big boss at a downtown newspaper. Did I get some kind of tour? I think so. Presses bigger than elephants churning behind massive panes of glass. Bunches of people typing, working, riding in the elevators, driving forklifts.

Then I was taken to another room where the editor sat down and mentioned that he, too, had done some work at a truck line.

“So you know what the situation is like,” I said. I should have gone on: And why I’m here, trying to get a job with normal people, in a place where I can use my talents.

With tact and skill he told me the reason he couldn’t take a chance on a guy like me: their newspaper had only recently hired someone with a degree from the Columbia School of Journalism. “And those are the people we want.” I was given to understand that if I went back to college in the future, it might be worth my while to check back with them. Not a terribly negative interview, among the many of those weeks.

Also, the advertising firm down the street  — even I had heard of its name – Forney – was hiring people to write copy. Did I know that? Had I been down there?

No.

“That wouldn’t be a terrible place to start. Might want to head back to college, take some mass communication courses….” He shook my hand and handed me my envelope of sample stories. We were waiting at the elevators when I remembered to ask him what he thought of my writing, why it was so unpublishable. “I can’t publish something if I don’t understand it.” 

I took this as a compliment, but I often try seem to see benevolence where others find only, at best, the plainest apathy.

My wife says she remembers that I was mildly crushed about the failure in career direction change, but all I recall is that I soon went to back to work as a shipping clerk for a wonderfully-named boss, Beryl Duck. Within a few weeks of my son’s birth, I got an offer from another truck line desperate for rapid alpha-numeric typing skills, and there I would remain for almost two dozen years — night shift work.

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Some years later, I did manage to wander back to the University for that BA in English (the plan was to become a teacher). After plugging along with my unpublishable (yet not quite unwritable) fiction while working full-time, I eventually managed to self-publish a fictional autobiography (Beautiful Illusions), a collection of novellas and short fiction (Magic Sweat) as well as two other works later on, but I had learned my lesson. Aside from a comment on the war of 2003, I have never again approached a newspaper with any writing that I felt good about. Arched subjective viewpoints still seem to have no place in the Schopenhauerian Eine-Kleine Hund journalism screened by local and national news organs — day after day, the little dogs keep on barking.

On a somewhat related note: my next door neighbor used to have a small dog that barked every morning at 6:43 a.m. in the most horribly predictable way, like a robo-yapper, always waking my wife, who invariably mumbled, “kill that dog.”

Urine Luck

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A.J.’s friends were close good friends, they had happy fun times together when they were released from their various jobs each Friday evening — events of some sort were always happening, street fairs, mass sales, dog shows, cat shows, art exhibits in parks, all the places where scopophobes and scopophiles co-mingle. More and more often, the better they came to know A.J., friends began to wend their conversational way toward this question: “Could you see your way clear, y’think, to sell me your pee?”

For — as they all could surmise — his urine was pristine, unpolluted, and valuable.

They begged. They colluded amongst themselves. Once he caught a school-mate bent over the Kohler bowl with a plastic beer cup, trying to scoop out some of A.J.’s unflushed urine at a party — A.J. realizing with an acute sudden shock why the guy had been eyeballing him all evening without ever actually speaking or being friendly. He didn’t tell him that it wasn’t his pee, just closed the bathroom door.

What he really should have said was: You can’t afford it.

Yes, for A.J. was very surreptitiously selling his perfectly pure urine–both liquid and freeze-dried–all around the world. The process was easily reducible to a “same-ev’ry-time assembly line.” It took only a few weeks to set up a website and pay for a few ads in such magazines as High Times or Reefer Weekly — soon enough had a large backlog of packets stored in his freezer and some in the refrigerator, packaged for immediate shipment. Almost every day, there was a new order or an inquiry.

The amount of money he had amassed over the course of several months would not, however, have shocked his friends because they knew him: steady worker, apt friend, deft musician — anyone without a drug-of-choice automatically had more money to spend, right?

How did be become such a pharmaceutical rara avis? The story that came down about him was this: he saw his mother naked at the age of ten — granted, this woman was participating in a rally against the confirmation of the National Sexual Retirement Act — but (so it was said) the effect upon the boy’s gentle spirit became a quaint moving abreaction against the free-love countercultural tie-dyed tide. A.J. decided quite early on to do drugs of no sort, not even the ones prescribed for him (we know only of a few), nor did he drink alcohol. Your dad drinks too much, you may not drink at all. Water, always. Good water. The best water. Aqua vita.

His abstinence had no religious tie-in. He didn’t care if people got crunk. He had no ties to any sort of belief system. A.J.’s secret love was the status quo, which for him at this point in his life was working easy jobs (small soul-crushing jobs) while slowly, gradually and legally amassing a tiny fortune, which on occasion he converted into fifties and piled into Nike shoeboxes. And of course he spent many hours every day playing video games. Who did he know who didn’t?

His parents, not quite still alive at present, had been alcoholics of the most complicated variety — spouses trying to cure spouses, one dry and then the other dry and then one relapsing and then both relapsing — on and on it went. How did his tiny, bright-eyed bird-like mother manage to get so much training in substance abuse? They were no more radical than any other set of alcoholic parents: change was certainly not what his father wanted, except when he found out his son was not, after the terrible attainment of functioning gonads, quite sure he wanted to get married. He told his father he might try to take a major in music — aside from the ones he had already gotten in French and Spanish — and off came his father’s chained glasses and the argument that he had to have something to make money with . . . at which point the magic Hammer — Maxwell’s? — dinged A.J. a soft, sweet blow atop his head, on that topmost spot. Though long ago, he still remembered his father asking about the smile. “What’s funny, Bill? This is not funny.”

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And now, today, with this new thing happening, no, it was not funny. Texted Sara to come on by whenever. Got off work, came in from work as usual, fell asleep in his chair after eating about ten chocolate chip cookies and drinking a  big glass of milk — to awake a prisoner. Sara’s new boyfriend, a handsome hirsute dude, has quite securely tied him with two thick elastic rope-like bands–pulled over  his easy chair. He and Sara sit on the carpet next to his head — the chair is laid back almost flat — and speak in the most craycray normal tones, as though discussing cutting the lawn or cooking pasta.

“I’ll lose this job, A.J.!”

“I’m sorry….” The ceiling was not interesting. He felt his heart do a little base wiggle.

“Honey,” (when did she start calling him that?) “he will lose this, this, the best job he has ever had!”

Sara’s face-shape didn’t match her body. He tried to give her his most intense What The Fuck? eye-gape, but she seemed to see through it (or not to see it). He thought they were good friends — they had been good friends before tonight.

“Don’t you care? You don’t care about us. About me.” She named the amount of money the boyfriend made each week and the number hung in the air like some kind of algebraic melody before it dissipated into nothingness. “We can go on tour with the Constipated Primates in September! But he has to keep this job….”

“Ohh, it’s not that.” Why didn’t they think about this before now? Who made them pollute their bodies? “Who made me responsible for providing fluids for you, Frank?”

“Friends help friends.”

“Simple,” nodding her head, Sara pulled a lighter out of her boot and lit up a stick of sandalwood incense.

“Don’t light that,” said A.J.

“Why?”

“You know I hate that shit, Sara. What is wrong with you?”

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After conferring quietly near the bathroom, his two friends began to fill up glasses of water and bring them to the chair-side table. A.J. had a wacked out vision of — no, no they wouldn’t — but, yes, maybe they would. Feed him water until he had to pee, and steal his pee. Sara kept giving him warm glances, smiling her cutest smile. The cookies rumbled now in his stomach. He wanted to get out of these straps and change his clothes.

“Hey. Wait. Got an idea.”

They looked at him. A train whistle outside made a loud F-sharp blast. How dramatic! “Look up there on that shelf,” A.J. instructed. “The red shoebox. Yeah.”

They pulled it down, opened it as though it contained a rattlesnake, and pulled out a few dozen pieces of green paper with U.S. Grant on each one, looking catatonically drunk. Smiles all around.

“Untie me. You got money enough to buy pee now. What is wrong with you people?”

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The last we see of A.J. is him pulling two suitcases down the airport corridor toward the gate where, in only a few minutes, Southwestern Airlines flies direct to Denver.