What the Dead Can Do

Fourteen degrees Fahrenheit at daybreak.
The stairwell smells of dirty
diapers and stale cigarette smoke.

A man dressed several levels
below stylish picks through
the garbage bin behind a business.

Three blocks away at three
o’clock this morning, a man
was shot to death on the street.
The subjective impression
of his last moments are as
all of our such moments are,
forever lost. His blood froze
in spots on the concrete sidewalk.

The man at the garbage bin
pulls out a jacket discarded
there, says to no one walking by,
“Let the dead bury their dead.”

Two-Four Time

The clouds relax,
the snow shakes loose.
Icy dandruff coats
the shoulders of the roads.

The sky is gray,
the lake is green and still.
Gulls threaten each other for scraps.
A man stands on the breakwater,
shouts at the lake, “Jah! Allah!
Motherfucker Santa!”

A commercial truck
backs up on the street,
its beeper beeping warning beeps.
The man on the breakwater
throws his head back,
dances to the rhythm,
two-four time.

The Bell

The joggers and joggettes of Evanston
gather in packs on grizzly November days
and run south into Oniontown.
At their head is the crier who clangs
his bell and calls, “Stand aside! Stand aside!”

The joggers and joggettes are young
and slender and beautiful, their faces
unlined, brows unfurrowed, their clothing
new and unfrayed, well-styled and of
perfect fit. Their conversation is of matters
pertinent. You may overhear snatches
of it as they trot past. The bell clangs.

The joggers and joggettes trot along
the sidewalks. They will nudge you
in the most polite manner possible
if you have not paid attention to the cries
of the crier and the clangings of the bell.

What You Know and When You Know It

When you are young
and you move to a new place,
you know you are
going there to live.
Everything there is fresh
and very important.

When you are older, past
the mid-point of your life,
and you move to a new place,
you know you are going there
to die, and you know
it doesn’t matter,
you are now free.

Where the Danger Lies

Nine out of ten doctors
will tell you that the crazy guy
who gathers sopping newspapers off
the sidewalk in the rain while talking
to no one you can see about all
the reading he now has to do
is a crazy guy.

He stops talking when people
draw near, he’s not that crazy.
He knows where the danger lies.

Ten out of ten doctors
will tell you what they would have
done for or to or about
the crazy guy. Ten out of ten
of them will be wrong
and so will you.

Counting the Hours

Hell in a very small place
is directly beneath my feet.

Las Hermanas de Las Dolorosas
live if you want to call it living
in the apartment below my soles.

Their bickering ends only
when one or both of them
lose or loses consciousness.
O to sleep
and not to scream.

They are up and at each other
at nine o’clock
ten o’clock
one forty-four
and five-thirty the following
morning. Sometimes I expect

to hear gunshots and hope
they don’t accidentally aim
at their ceiling. More likely
I think their impasse could
resolve with crashings of furniture
and smashings of glass and
wailings followed by
silence,
sirens,
and the news trucks showing
up outside on the street.

Most likely, though, it will
go on and on, the muffled
whine, the occasional shout,
no end in sight, two people
locked together forever
in their love and hate.

Certificate

A woman sat in a canvas folding
chair by the lake. The day
was still and water calm. Mist
in the sky blurred the horizon.

She held her wallet in her lap. She
opened it and pulled out a folded
sheet of paper, unfolded it,
looked at it, a copy of her birth
certificate. She folded it, returned
it to her wallet, fingered her
drivers license there, closed her
wallet and looked out over the lake.

A few minutes later she opened her
wallet again, pulled her drivers
license out, looked at it, put it
back in her wallet, pulled her
birth certificate out again,
unfolded it and looked at it again.
She lightly ran her fingertips over
the names of her father and her mother,
folded the certificate, returned it to
her wallet and looked at the lake.

Yesterday she ran away from her
husband, literally, running down
the sidewalk in a light drizzle
on a street a few blocks from
the apartment where her father
died when she was seventeen. Two
pedestrians turned and watched as
she ran by. Further up the street,
her husband stood on the sidewalk
and he watched her go.

Hardwood

The downstairs neighbors are having
a bad day. Last night they had
a bad night. Yesterday, at least
during those parts of the day
when I was at home, they were
having a bad day. The night before
last, etc.

I try not to listen. (I want
to listen!) I try not to press
my ear against the floor and I
am almost always successful.

It hardly matters. This old
building is built like a honeycomb,
sound traveling well up and down
the cells. (They’re shouting now
below me—I want to listen!)

Even without pressing my ear
against the hardwood floor,
I can hear “Fuck!” and “I
told you!” and “Don’t” and
“Help me, you never help me,
I have to do all the fucking”
and then it trails off and
then the dogs bark. Yes, they
have dogs, two of them. They
bark. Sometimes they even howl.

“Fuck” is the word easiest
to hear in this honeycomb. It’s
like the punch of a fist.

Behind Closed Doors

Memo in the inbox at
opening time today. From
Divisional Headquarters, Department
of Intimate Affairs: There will
no longer be any
fucking between the husband
and the wife. Forms have been
submitted, a closed-door
hearing has been held (to preserve
the privacy of all involved),
and the decision has been
reached. What little has been
leaked and may be said with
any degree of certainty is
inconsistent and controversial.
The wife waved her arm and said,
“Look at him—those wrinkles,
those teeth—and he smells of
cheese.” The husband clutched
his hat and said, “It’s true that
I am flatulent and sniffle
and often scratch myself—
frankly, I wouldn’t want to
be mounted by such a one as me,
either.” The husband had a way
with words. The gavel sounded
and the matter was considered
settled. Coffee-flavored kisses
were still to be exchanged
on an ad hoc basis.

Spit

High over the lake
on autumn afternoons
gulls flutter
flutter?
They fly in lackadaisical
manner, not in any
formations or groups

The angels this afternoon
have been having a party
and threw confetti

Gulls flutter and soar
and glide above the lake
sidelighted by the afternoon
sun, lifted by the breeze

What do angels eat
at their gatherings?
What do they barbecue?
What do they roast
on a spit?

The City Has Flocks

The city has flocks
of big
fat
finches

A factory on the far South Side
that turns out Scottie-dogs

dog after dog after dog

The forges blaze
through the night

Fresh-cast dogs clatter
onto the factory floor

Released into the parks
by vested City workers
the Scottie-dogs chase
finches pecking in the grass

The big fat finches fly away
The Scottie-dogs prance about
they howl and yelp

Controlled Access

The police
knocked on my door last night.

I was pleased
they weren’t looking for me.

The doorbell rang and I got up
and looked through the peephole.
I told my wife, It’s the cops.

I opened the door and they
identified themselves. Hello, we’re
Chicago Police. They wore uniforms,
badges, guns, and bulletproof vests.
They had radios and batons and other
gadgets. Yes, I can tell, I said.
How can I help you?

They told me how. They asked
me what I knew about
the neighbor who lives below.
I told them what I knew,
which was nothing and a little more.

They asked me about
the neighbors next door.
I told them what I knew,
which was nothing and a little more.

They asked me about
the neighbors upstairs.
I told them what I knew,
which was nothing and a little more.

They thanked me for
my time and left. I watched
them out the window as they
walked away from the building.
I forgot to ask them, Hey, guys,
this building is controlled access—
how’d you get in here?
My wife said she thought
they may have had a passkey.
Maybe all the cops have
a passkey to all the buildings,
she said. Makes it easier.

Intruder

Things happened at night and
I don’t remember which of them
was real and was happening
outside my head. Someone was
trying to break in through
the back windows or the front
door. I got up in the dark
and went to my closet and pulled
my rifle out and walked down
the hallway in the dark and hoped
I didn’t shoot someone I wasn’t
supposed to shoot. I woke up with
my wife pounding her fists
against my chest and saying, No,
I won’t! No! And I grabbed
her wrists and she woke up.

Fire Sale

You don’t have
what they want to buy.

You’re reading Thomas Aquinas
on the corporeality
of angels, spiritual substance
made manifest through form,
and not even you
will buy that.

It goes in the back room,
with the boxes of used
quill pens, and the jars
of cold and hardened
phlogiston.

Crowded back there.
Arson might be
the answer, followed by
a fire sale.

Hot embers for
a quarter, bowls
of ashes at
a dime a pound.

The Church of Edmund

Edmund sat on the corner in front of the Fourth
Presbyterian Church. He rattled a battered
McDonald’s cup at passersby, Excuse me, could you
help me get a shower? Sir? Lady?

His eyes were tired, very tired. No one
stopped, no one dropped anything into
his cup. Someone had earlier,
I looked into the cup and there were
a few pennies, at least one nickel, and maybe
a dime. No quarters had been given that I saw.

I passed by him twice. I had other
business at the church. During
a break, I took a walk around
the block and saw Edmund a second time. I sat
down next to him and introduced
myself. It was a warm September
evening and the sun was still up,
though low and soon to set. I
asked him his name, he told me he
was Edmund. I shook his hand.

Before I go any further with
this—what is this? What do I
think I’m doing here? What did I
think I was doing when I sat down
on the curbing next to Edmund on
the corner in front of the Fourth
Presbyterian Church?

He told me he was homeless. He said
he’d been hit on the head with
a baseball bat, Here, he said, and he
showed me the place on the back
of his head. He said he’d been
a dealer, cocaine and heroin, and he’d
done time. I asked him if he was
clean and he said, Yes, I never used,
man, you can’t use it and sell it.
He said, I flat-lined for ninety-six
seconds, now I’m homeless and need a shower
and a place to sleep for the night.

I don’t know what I was
doing, I don’t know why I sat beside
him and talked with him, I’m no
saint, I’m not saving any part
of this world. I don’t know why
I’m writing this except writing stuff like
this is part of what I do. I gave Edmund
a twenty-dollar bill and told him, God
bless, and shook his hand again,
and don’t want you for a moment
to think I’m a good person for it,
I’m sitting here in this church at
a meeting of well-housed, well-fed people,
one of whom is me, and as far as I know,
Edmund is still sitting on the corner shaking
his McDonald’s cup, and even if he’s not and
that twenty helped him off the street tonight,
he’s almost certain to be back on the corner,
some corner, come tomorrow and the days after that.

Her Tells

When she stops talk
ing in the mid
dle of a sentence or even
of a
word
and looks at her plate
or the table
top or her glass or
a fork or who can
tell—
it means she remembers what was said.

When she sits with
her hand in her
lap and picks at
her cuticles—
it means she prefers to be the first to draw
the blood through fresh cuts, thank you.

When she holds her hands
lightly clasped together in front
of her chest as if
in prayer or supplication—
it means she remembers begging for it to stop.

When her fingers
curl into claws—
it means they remember trying to defend her.

When she sits and stares
at the wall or out
the window or out to sea at
the farthest point of nothing—
it means everything she sees is inside.

When she screams it means it’s
here again.

Shower Curtain

Lunch is a plastic cup of instant noodles.
Pour boiling water in the cup and let it
sit for three minutes. Be careful serving
it to children, it is hot. You can
eat it straight out of the cup.

I am not a child. The cup of instant
noodles is beef flavor and tastes
of salt. Its aroma is that of the vinyl
shower curtain that hangs in my
bathroom. The curtain came with
the apartment and is clean and white.

The cup of instant noodles was
purchased with other such cups as
part of a store of emergency
supplies in event of fire, flood,
earthquake, hurricane, insurrection,
coup d’etat, bridge collapse, shipwreck,
bankruptcy, injury, or disease.

The job is over and the money
is gone. The emergency is now.
The ship that was expected to arrive
in port today is gone, the news
just in of its loss, run aground
and broken on a distant reef.
The cargo was uninsured.

Chicken Noodle Soup

She knew
right away. He saw
it in the look on her
face. He never knew
how she knew. He rolled
away and said, Sorry.

I can’t
I can’t do this, she said. I can’t
—it will be six weeks before
graduation and I can’t. He told her
whatever she wanted to do,
he would be with her.
They saved their money.

There was no conversation
in the waiting room. He was
the only man. He went out
to the hall and lay
down on the thin carpet, out
of the way. He tried
to get some sleep.
It had been a long night.

She held a piece
of paper in her
hand, said, We need
to get this filled. Outside
the building, she held
a hand out to the wall
and steadied herself and bent
over and threw up. The sky
was overcast, the day warm.

He opened a can
of chicken noodle soup, diluted
it in the pan, heated
and stirred and ladled it into
a bowl. She sat at their
kitchen table and slowly
ate the soup. She said,
Thank you. He said, You’re
welcome. They never spoke
about it again.

The Storm of the Street

There are matters of sidewalk
etiquette that now should be
addressed. Whom to say hello
to and whom not, and principles
of eye contact and gaze aversion.

The skinny old retired grey-haired
Professor of Avuncular Studies,
with his kind and gentle
smile and his friendly good
morning, to him you not only
can return the greeting, you
must. There are few ports
in the storm of the street.

Anyone else who says good
morning or hello, of course you
should return the greeting. If your
intuition tells you to initiate a
greeting, follow it; however, do not
speak to joggers unless spoken
to. They often are winded and are
concentrating on their own selves.

Do not speak to women unless
they address you first. Do not
make eye contact or attempt
to make eye contact unless they
address you first. Do not furtively
glance at their breasts as
they approach. That is a bad
habit and it must stop.

Make way for the cyclists
even when they are cycling down
the sidewalk under the sign
that clearly tells them they are
not to do that and can be
arrested, jailed, fined, and have
their bikes confiscated. They
are young and some of them carry
guns and they will shoot you down.

Mopping Up

Wounded people, injured, sick, they sit
out front of the Rehab Shoppe on stone
benches and in wheelchairs. People
with no legs and with tumors and one guy
who’s lost his hands in one of the wars.

They smoke their cigarettes, cigars,
and pipes and say, What does it matter?
That we smoke, what we smoke, what
difference can it make? The guy who’s
lost his hands, others hold his cigarette
for him. They hold his glass when it’s
time to drink, and they raise voice in song.

Here’s to vodka, here’s to rum, we’ll drink them
up till kingdom come. Here’s to wine
and here’s to beer, sauce us now we’ve
gathered here. Here’s to whiskey, makes
us frisky, Irish, rye, or malted Scotch.
Here’s to gin and here’s to sin, and here’s
to one last bloody crotch. Last one
dry gets to mop up the mess.

Supermarket

There was only one cashier on
duty and she wasn’t
there. The manager was pissed
off and pushed the restocking
cart into one of the customers,
careful to avoid eye contact.
The automatic change dispenser
didn’t dispense any change.
The cashier arrived and told
the manager, You put it on
backwards. She unlocked her
register, rang up the customer’s
purchases, made change from
her own purse—Have a good day.

Clubs

Foggy morning along a beach populated
by shadows. Two in the shallows,
man and woman, she giggles, No, it’s
not…. His voice low rumbling, she says,
Because, it’s because, that’s all….

Atop each breakwater a solo
shadow, one taking morning
exercise in front of a small
jumble of bikes, two others sitting,
legs dangling over the sand while they
face the beach and wait for
what they’re waiting for. In the park
behind them, three workers
in yellow vests shovel something
from the bed of a city truck.

Back up on the streets, parents
escort their children down designated
safe routes to the stops where
yellow buses wait to carry
them to their hot and crowded
schools. A childless young
couple open the trunk of their
sedan, load it with a blue
picnic cooler, her easel and paints,
his two sets of golf clubs.
The sun is rising and the fog
will burn off long before lunch.

Backswing

Out back of the main building
in the hard-packed khaki dirt
there’s a long and narrow tin awning
supported on slender steel poles
painted a nubby industrial beige.

Young people wearing jeans or
cargo pants and white t-shirts
and protective helemts swing
baseball bats at each other, not
attempting to make contact and do
each other any harm. The supervisor
tells the visitor, It’s just a game
to develop their martial-arts
skills, see how they smile?

The visitor sees how they swing
their bats and sweat and dance
about in the dust, hears their
calls and shouts, notices a skinny
girls whose pointy breasts poke
against her shirt.  He tells
the supervisor, This is bogus.
They should be making contact,
breaking bones and cracking
open skulls, develop some
real-life skills. Give me
a bat and I’ll show you how.

The visitor is given a bat
(the skinny girl’s?) and directed
to a place at the far end
of the awning. This is where
we do that, the supervisor says.
The visitor is shown how he
is to whale away at the fender
of an old red car, scratched
and dented and the metal showing through.

This is how we make our art,
The supervisor tells the visitor,
who begins hitting the fender
with the bat as hard as
he can. Damn, this feels good!,
he grins and checks his backswing
so he doesn’t accidentally hit
any of the t-shirted participants
who have gathered round to watch
and cheer him on. Look at him go!

Beyond the fender, shaded under a tree,
there’s a pond with tiny fish.
When any piece of gravel
or splinter of wood or flake
of paint falls into the pond,
the tiny fish dart to it and
gather round it for a moment,
their noses all pointing to it
and their bodies stretched
so together they look like
a momentarily undulating asterisk.
A moment later and they dart away.

The Teens

Families gather in the small lakeside park
every evening. The parents and aunts and uncles
sit in folding chairs and talk. Someone grills
meats on a portable grill. Children play on the beach
and in the shallows. They squeal and scream
and laugh and shout and run around and dig
holes in the sand with toy shovels and their hands.

The children range in age from tiny
toddlers up to young teens. Missing are
the older teens. Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen,
nineteen, into their lower twenties, they don’t
come to the lakeside park to be with families.
They do other things, rites of power and sex
and death. A seventeen-year-old boy was
shot last night just after midnight,
his body laid out in the street,
covered with a sheet by police.

The Cost of Living

Eight dollars is the cost of admission to Greenwood Beach.
Seven dollars and a quarter is the federal minimum wage
for hourly workers under certain circumstances.  The state’s
minimum is eight and a quarter.  These are the wages
beneath which it is considered no worker could be justly paid,
unless that worker is a tipped employee dependent upon
the largesse of drinkers and diners sated with food
and beverage.  Or unless the worker is an intern—
interns can be had for free—or a migrant farm worker,
shuffled from field to field, sleeping in a shack, drinking
tepid water from a rusty bucket—or an illegal immigrant
shoehorned two dozen to an apartment, never let out except
to be taken to the job, working sixteen hours a day
for room and board, exhausted sleep filled with American dreams.

Canute the Ninja

A slender boy of about twelve
wears a black t-shirt
and black exercise pants with a silver stripe
up each leg like a cavalry trooper’s pants.
He has a stick about as long and curved
as a cutlass.  He stands lakeside
at the water’s edge.  Waves that reach
to his knees and sometimes up his thighs,
he slashes at them with his cutlass stick
as they come in, wave after wave after
wave after wave, they don’t stop,
he can’t defeat them, can’t drive
them back.  With each slash he
gives a high-pitched yelp, but even
these cries don’t stop the lake.