Thursday, December 31, 2009


Back to Crusoe's for an impromptu prompt: before oracle cheese, there was tattoo trust. So be it.

You have to trust

the sticky fingers

the burning ribs

the salt-licking

equestrian vibe

delicious prairievilles

in the sack and lie

cool rivers running

through you hair

a taste of orange blossom decay

gallivanting splendor in

your p's and q's

ribald estuaries

vigorously denied, while

peasantry implodes

dancing the fives

cherishing the live doppler

varicosing the vain

wish to see yourself

atop the Empire

you'll be true to your

school, I'll be

be true to you,

we'll all be fashion-bunnies

down the line.


Going Tarantino on ya...

[The first pages of the "Bitterroot" story I've been splicing here.]

The note from Melanie was tacked to his door, when Ben Olson got back from his last round of errands for the trip: Ray’s running late. Something about the hitch. Unsigned, nothing about the kids. He’d seen Vanessa over at the library, while checking out his books, but she was behind her boss’ glass window, her back to Ben, slouched as usual and being fed another earful by the sour face across the desk. Not a good time to pop in, even if a last chance to say goodbye before Christmas was riding on the interruption. Jessica LaMotte’s dour teen betrothal to Jesus Christ had soured the lives of most of her classmates at Brandon High School twenty-five years ago, Ben’s more than others—as next door neighbor, he was doomed to weekly proselytizing. From the look of gloom behind glass, JC was still AWOL from his child bride.

Ray Barnes’ hitch had nothing to do with equipment, and it meant it would be damn near midnight by the time he pulled up to Ben’s door. Hitch also meant that he’d stopped off in Montgomery, after swearing not to, and caught Traci Augmon at Friday change of shift, when she’d be primed for her own half case of Schlitz at City Park, while Ray indulged his particular bent for nurse flesh in white skirts. Mercy Hospital was a throwback institution—all the way back to the tri-cornered hat. Contrary to their name, the Sisters of Mercy brooked no deviation from their uniform code. Wages were docked for stocking runs; the wiser skirts kept backups in their lockers.

Feminists and Ray were both inflamed by such rules—differently inflamed, of course. Ray Barnes had lost his appendix and a strawberry mole at the heated age of fourteen in Waco, Texas, amidst a non-Roman coven of Baptist nurses who were similarly inclined to the white-clad business of healing. Newly absorbed in the rising and falling Dow Jones excursions of his adolescent penis, Ray could not see why all the tending nurse registry was not equally as absorbed as he. Feigning sleep, he would lie in his bed unclad by sheet and gown; two summers’ worth of General Hospital episodes had convinced him that a hospital, any hospital, was just one match-flame shy of igniting a full-fledged orgy, starring him at its center. The deaconesses of Wayland Baptist Hospital were not amused by such recuperative behavior, at least not until Traci Augmon came on with her body paints from 11 to 7.

Traci was two months out of nursing school at the time of Ray’s rampant post-operative tumescence. She’d passed her nursing exam with an able assist from Callie McDonough. At a price of two hundred dollars, it was not a hard sell; Callie was a genius and a sociopath to boot. She was not, incidentally, a nursing student; two hundred dollars would just as soon get a muddled but aspiring law student an LSAT ticket to a career of billable hours.

Ray had just about given up on his shark bait dick, when Traci came back on duty from a week’s worth of sick leave. The trip to Vegas had eased her migraines, but they were back with a vengeance once she hit the ghostly seventh floor of the WB. Alma Nelson, better known as the General, even better known as Nurse Rommel, took Traci to task for her tardiness (she was a minute and a half late) and her ivory—not white—sheer stockings. Incident report filled out for the latter offense, medications counted, and orders passed on at warp speed, the German field marshal huffed out into the night, leaving Traci and Sleepy Joe Givens to divvy up watch over the floor’s seven patients. As Joe was one tick shy of his first narcoleptic fit of the night, Traci volunteered to make first rounds. Before reaching Ray’s door at the end of the hall, she took six sets of vitals, turned off five blaring televisions, and picked up two sets of dental plates that had just missed their cups at bedside.

Though still unclad, Ray was in fact fully asleep when Traci made the acquaintance of his charged third eye, radar-alert to the tiniest of air current shifts in its vicinity. Was it following her movements about the room, as she picked up an avalanche of comic books on the floor, refilled the water pitcher, and—gag—flushed her engorged patient’s latest bowel movement in the toilet? A decade’s worth of back seat demurrals ranging from polite to withering had left her numb to the fulsome supplications of bellwether cocks, unless, of course, said cocks were the very basal thermometers Nurse Traci had ordered. On the other hand, even through her tightening migraine, Traci did note that Patient Barnes, Ray’s member was positively the first intact foreskinned specimen she had ever seen in her clinical and pre-clinical experience. She had heard tell of them, obviously, but had begun to wonder if they manufactured them anymore.

Curiosity, however, can be fed in a manner of seconds; its subject needn’t remain on continuous display. While Traci might not be given to the snuffs and snorts of an outraged Nurse Rommel, or conversely to the embarrassed titterings of pastoral interns and candy-striped teens, she still felt that a bit of penile education was due the likes of “Patient Barnes, Ray.” Her first night’s ploy was simple. The bedside Styrofoam cup of iced root beer, advertently spilled amidships, brought hopeful Ray to immediate attention at one end, while diminishing his less conscious attentions at the other.

Traci’s feigned apology of “oh, I’m so sorry” was entirely unnecessary. Or, more to the point, was merely inconsequential. One look at his white clad angel, framed by the blackest of Waco’s typically black nights, and “Patient Barnes, Ray” was positively smitten, detumescence be damned.

Love cured the lad of promiscuous exposure. Nurse Rommel and all the others were henceforth denied access to Ray’s love train; the final derailment was entirely up to the conductor, and Traci was more than qualified. One coat of neon chartreuse body paint—which did not, mind, completely wash off for a good ten days,—was enough to send the ardent bullet train scuttling.

Public fervor was cured, but not the love it bore.


Okay, it's end of year, gotta go out with a Bang...

Who betta:

Sista and the bruthas gonna burn it all down:



Different Shades of Regina Carter

Thanks to an Anonymous tip:


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I'll try not to get carried away...


Afternoon with Joni...

Afternoon of slumming: speed-reading through Michelle Mercer's Will You Take Me As I Am, conversations with / meditations on Joni Mitchell. From the chapter entitled "Stuff Joni Likes or Even Loves":

"There were three trumpet players at Herbie Hancock's tribute for the Monk Institute [2007]. I was in the back and I heard the first one and nothing was happening. I heard the second one, nothing happening, we talked all the way through it. When the third one came on, I shushed everyone up in the room and listened to this guy. He was so fresh. His tone, everything was like a total original, which is hard on any instrument at this point to have an identity. So, I'm out in the wings afterwards and this kid came up to me. His head was bigger than his body like he'd had poor nutrition as a child or something. He introduced himself and I said, 'Are you in one of the bands?' and he said, 'No, I'm one of the trumpet players,' and I said, 'Oh, which one are you?' and he went 'The third one,' and I went, 'Oh, my God,' and it's so hard for me to pay an effusive compliment, it's almost embarrassing to me, and I went, 'Aahhh, you a killer! Your tone is so original, your choice of notes...' So I went, 'Where do you dribble off of? You're not like Dizzy and you're not like Miles, you're so...' And do you know what he said? He said, '' "

[Note that, true Scorp-queen that she is, nobody gets
shushed until she says so...]

Nice chops all-round here, though it stops in the middle of a very fine piano solo...

Queen Bee's favorite Miles:

She-self, one of my favorites:


Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Photograph of Marcia Paschal

I come down out of Willstown, Alabama in 1955, couple of years after you was born, wasn’t nothing much out this here Austin Highway, unless you count the constrictor over in Beitel Creek, Moses we used to call him, since every one of us who seen him swore that damned serpent parted the waters. Not that there was ever much water to speak of.

Hell, I wasn’t even out to these parts myself until ’65, when they built my house. Poured the slabs and brought the houses pre-fab in on trucks. Those ten houses and the Stop and Rob we lost in the ’98 flood were a heap better than the shit they put up to replace them, though not putting the Stop and Rob back in business was the best thing ever happened to this neighborhood. Folks wander down out of the apartments up the road, bringing nothing but mischief, well, where the hell they got to go now, Men’s Palace sure ain’t gonna let their scruffy selves in there, they ain’t got the cover charge to boot.

Folks hear I’m out of the north Alabama sticks figure me for a dyed in the wool racist, first class Klansman, they can think whatever the hell they want, I don’t take much to people’s opinions anyway. It don’t take a goddamned rocket scientist from Huntsville to see there’s plenty of Cherokee in my blood, so what the hell do I want to do with hatin’ on the coloreds, got plenty of colored in me. You know anything, you know that Willstown was a Cherokee name, before Van Buren sent in his bastard assassins in ’38. Man by the name of John Payne commanded the troops what built the fort there, Willstown itself gets relocated to the back of my head and anybody else who’s got reason to call DeKalb County home before it stank with the smell of white folks in a hurry to cut down some of the most beautiful stands of virgin trees your heart can imagine. I ain’t calling it Eden, but damn near.

You look on that there Wikipedia, you’ll see a picture of a Cherokee girl name of Marcia Paschal, looks a lot like that Salma Hayek, though even prettier, if you ask me. I just stumbled across the picture myself one day, snooping like I do. It hit me hard, I’d never seen her, but I’d heard about her plenty, great great aunt, notorious for her beauty, slayed many a man, red, black, and white. Slayed me when I seen her, I felt like somethin’ come out of me that wanted cryin’, wanted desire, wanted the rest of who I’ve buried to come on out and live again.

I waited, but I ain’t no Lazarus. What’s dead of me is dead for good. Years I’ve talked of going back, find my forty acres and let it all go back to nature, but I’ll never make it back there now. Twice a week at the physical therapist over on Pat Booker, I might as well be dead as it is. Old Tom gone down the street, Betty Ann, Grace, Bill, and just look across the room there at Rose and see she can’t wait to clean up after I’m gone. Call her hateful all you want, but they’s plenty I’ve done to sour the mix, it ain’t never one and not the other.

I miss old Tom. Sure, I complained like bat shit about his daily visits for coffee and hitting on Rose, but you don’t know what a thing means to you until it’s gone. Never forget the day his own damn Mercury backed over him and those two old boys from the apartments rescued his sorry ass from under it. Very boys he bitched about daily for speeding down his street. Did he see them any different after they saved his sorry ass, hell no, went right on back to bitching every time they drove by going 40 and waved.

Hated Clinton—god, did he hate the man. I could give a shit about any of them, but I bought Willie’s book, just to have it out on the kitchen table when Tom rolled in for his coffee and pinch of Rose. Took one look at the book and stormed out of the house, swore he’d never darken the door again with a bunch of communists. Hell, he was back in thirty minutes. Rose is a mighty dark drink to pass up, I tell you that. Times I used to know it myself.

What do I do with myself these days? The hell else is there to do but yell at Wolf on CNN and steal peeks at Rose in her panties? Oh, and give hell to those three bulldogs across the alley, no Jack, they ain’t pitbulls, they’s bulldogs. Mean as pits, but no pitbull with any self respect would slobber on like those three. Bitch owner of theirs has been put on notice by everyone up and down the alley, though truth be told, most of us would probably just go ahead and take her out than her three asinine canines. So, when she ain’t looking, and hell sometimes even when she is, I sit out in the back and spray ‘em down with the hose. Hose shuts ‘em up better than anything else I ever tried, and the truth of it is, I could never put down a dog, even if it was one deserves it. They’s plenty, Rose counted, who’d probably like to see me down. Those three hounds and I are more alike than not.

I still dream, though, and they’s always in green, always back up in those trees I never seen, sleeping like a baby in a big old cathedral of ‘em, cooing like a baby to my heart’s content.


Monday, December 28, 2009

one word short: circuit

the mississippi lines

down your back

past the depot of your


the riverways



bells in the ringing

the everything
that we tell ourselves

in the backways

the playways

the telling that goes

no further

than the mornings

whispers cannot fly

visions dare not try

taste is in the next room

will we go there

will we

will we




Sunday, December 27, 2009

oracle cheese

The prompt is "oracle cheese," borrowed from the last two prompts responded to at Crusoe's site.

oracle sheets,

cheesy bliss,

cornucopia of shoddy


the daily maid,

the donut pivots,

the plasticine trampoline

organic, symptomatic -


in the numbers

8 & 9,

quivering backtalk,

alkaline positivity,

ionic bathtub

equivocations -

constant is the rain
the gradual fix,

the slope of your line,

your intercepting


if you wonder,

wonder no more,

forgive the april pieces

& can the rest,

all the peaches

east and west,

all the pheromones

that fuel your quest.


Sunday Scribblings #195: Delicious

Image: Bumrungrad Hospital, Bangkok
"Medical Tourism" Mecca

& one word wonders: blinds

the fog squishes

the animals blink

your figure-8s be

timely, variably,



if tasting

the taste is blind

calculated beyond


"got me dreaming"

down the alice


taste this, mija

by the statues

of regret

the red one in the window

past the cavalcades

the diadems

the master blasters

rounding the bay


setting down

in calcutta

dreaming of even farther


hospice pleasure

empty yourself

ask yourself

the last question

impregnate it with

your final answer.


is it any wonder...


Saturday, December 26, 2009

From Mrs. Baby

My love is in you,
stretches into the

thoughts & crinkles

of you,

bending into and around

in a refraction

most complete,

where shadows dare

not enter.

Tina Karagulian, Christmas 2009


Friday, December 25, 2009

For Mrs. Baby

Blessed Candy
for Tina: Christmas 2009

pristine designs, follow
the leader, the Michaels,

the Raphaels, the Saucelito slims—

Mary, Maya, Liz—

digression is your splendor,

the splendor of derivation,


anticipation, Jesus calls,

brother man, dreamholder,

all the casual fluff

a life can bring, rippling

down the ribcage

through the heart’s

expressways, kisses listed,

joys enumerated,

this dream you hold

holds you, this hold it has,

you have, this river

that flows, flows you

dreamland asks for

nothing less than

that you dream its

trees, its paschalian

bacchanal, its

times within time

oy to be
oy to be near you
vagrant munchkins

could do no less than bless

this candy

your heart’s hands

will do nothing less

than bring your plenty.


stocking stuffers

Gotta love the man...


More Attic Tapes, iii: Rooting

Last installment from my story “Bitterroot.” Part of this was excerpted last December, but I couldn’t leave Teresa thinking that I was scrooging out.

The lot was duly stripped, with Ray’s little camper left as its one lone squatter. Leaning against the Optimist press box motel was a handful of unsold trees for the inevitable midnight converts, those last minute repentant curmudgeons or perhaps, more sadly, those who finally broke down and decided that, what the hell, a tree in the front room was worth a few extra days of eggs for suppers. Often enough, a sock full of loose change was raided to make the purchase. Clay’s insistence that even these stragglers pay full retail was the one blight on an otherwise jolly old soul. It was Ben’s fervent Christmas Eve prayer that no straggler ever show, at least not while he and Clay sat around the oil drum fire and reminisced. On his own, he had no problem scooting the stragglers out for pocket change and, as with Dan Hildebrand, making up the difference, but when present, Clay insisted on handling the straggler sales.

Ben never hesitated to upbraid Clay for his churlishness and suffer the consequences of the Yuletide litany of “that’s why I carry the wad of money and you work for me.” It was a point of honor for Clay that he outwait the bargain hunters right down to the tenth centimeter of Mary’s labor and delivery. And, in truth, it was more entrepreneurial hoodoo than even honor. Assembling his empire of arbors had required an exacting business attitude that he did not come by easily; he feared that too much generosity with his customers would be his undoing. It was Ben’s own compassion for this particular Clay-quirk that led him always to make up for any acts of charity out of his own CDM coffee can—this year the one right next to William’s.

No stragglers interrupted the brandy flask passed back and forth around the fire. The already cold temperature dropped another fifteen degrees while the two old boys sat on. Ben insisted that Clay have the last swig. He did, and then he leaned forward and looked intently into the glass, as if he were scrying some message for the two of them.

“What’s it been, Ben,” said Clay, “nine, ten years since you been doing this gig?’

“Eleven,” said Ben.

“Damn, man. I am not one to be nosy, and I sure as hell am not complaining, but how in hell have you done it? I get two years, two consecutive years, out of a tree lot manager, and I’m feeling blessed. What’s that make us—married?”

Ben laughed and smiled. He was feeling content enough, and warm enough, to sit back and say nothing.

Clay continued. He looked as if he were trying really hard to drag something up from the heart—and doing it on someone else’s orders. Ben guessed Rose’s.

“When things were bad between you and Traci, I could see it. Little Christmas adventure in old San Antone, better than sitting around Jackson drinking bad beer and watching the umpteenth rerun of Bing and Danny Kaye on the telly. But, what about the good years with Melanie—”

“Easy, Clay. You’re waxing a little too poetic there.”

“Fine. Fair enough. But, you’ve got those three babies, and I know there’s no Patty Loveless alive could drag you away from them. I know you and Mel are split up, but from what I can tell, you’ve got plenty of access to the kids. As much to your stepkids as your own flesh and blood. Good God, man, what I’m trying to say is this—a man like you’s got to be with his kids this time of year. I don’t care how good you are to me.”

Ben smiled again. “Brooke get your phone number this year, Clay?”

Too much bluster in the denial. Ben put his bets back on Rose.

Funny thing, as inevitable as Ben had always known this conversation to be, he had never let himself think beyond the question to any semblance of an answer. Not for Melanie or Brooke or Clay or any of the others who might have put the question to him. So, it was a blank slate he stared into. He had no clue where the words would come from once he started talking.

“You’re right, I suppose,” he said, “about the beginning. Why not come here? What the hell else did I have going for me? The first year with Melanie, I think on some level I’d convinced myself that I still owed it to you to be here—you’d been so good to help me out of a big jam. A bit too much ego, too, I guess—that I’d be too hard to replace.”

“Well, you’re damn right about that. But, I’ve got no right to hold onto you, not to the detriment of your family.”

“Take it easy on yourself, Clay—you’ve had a willing accomplice. God knows I love my kids—Van and the girls—but from very early on, things were miserable between Melanie and me. Pull us apart, each of us is fine with the kids alone. Together, we’re a firestorm. Those babies deserved better for Christmas than two adults tearing the house down around their heads. Melanie certainly wasn’t going to go anywhere, and I already had this as a built-in excuse.”

“Still, that’s cold, Ben. Didn’t those babies miss you?”

Ben found himself choking back tears. He couldn’t even get the simple word “yes” out.

Clay tossed the empty brandy pint into the fire.

“Goddamn, Ben. I’m sorry for this mess I helped you make.”

“Clay. Listen. You’re not on the hook here, unless you’re going to take responsibility for the troubles of all your crews.”

“Eleven years, Ben.”

“Clay. The truth is, the scary truth is, that I just like being here. I like the simplicity of the day, and the nights—I love the nights. Smell of the wood fire on the cold nights. Walking down to San Pedro at midnight, shooting the shit with Alex at the corner store, raising a two o’clock in the morning ruckus with the graveyarders at Mr. Burger. Watching the neighborhood drift off to sleep at night and watching it wake up in the morning. Reading on the slack times, reading late into the night, or listening to your infernal Ms. Loveless tapes and all the ones Brooke sends my way. Goddamn, it’s all so purely selfish. And even under all those excuses, there’s this feeling I’ve always had that there’s something waiting for me right here at this corner. I know—it’s insane. What the hell is going to find me at this corner—and what would I want with it, if it did?”

Clay unscrewed another brandy pint, took a drink. “That’s the trouble with these damn trees, Ben. Too much damn religion. It’s contagious.” He growled John Lee Hooker’s, “Serve me right to suffer.”

Ben leaned over and took the pint out of Clay’s hand, screwed the cap back on and set it down beside his chair.

“Clay, you’re a fool,” he said. “You love these trees—and all this crazy religion. You eat it up every year. Except for your crazy vendetta against bargain hunters, there’s never been a bigger Santa.”

A champagne Lexus pulled up to the trailer. Rose got out of the driver’s door and said, “Merry Christmas, Ben.” She walked over and hugged him, and handed him a big platter of food covered with tin foil. “You be safe on the way back.” To Clay, she said, “Big boy, you’re not paying this good man to freeze his ass off and watch you get all George Bailey on him. You coming over to my hot tub or not?”

Clay stood and pulled Ben to his feet, hugged him off the ground as he did all those who warmed his heart, which was just about everybody. He stuffed another five hundred dollars into the pocket of Ben’s down vest. Slurred a bit and said, “Rude not to invite you in out of the cold. Hot tub, my ass—damn swimming pool, more like. You wanna soak, too?”

“No thanks,” said Ben. “I’m fine. You go.” He helped them into the car and waved them off.

Ten minutes later, a band of stragglers arrived—three kids in shirtsleeves, mother and infant, and grandmother. The two women were hard-bitten, and the same look was shaping the two older children, who looked to be about eleven and thirteen. They all sagged, as did the old Pontiac they pulled up in. All except the little boy, who looked like he was a couple of years older than Van, seven maybe. Ben felt skewered as he watched them walk up to the few trees leaning against the Optimist wall. The baby started wailing in the cold night wind, while the mother just walked absently around—no bottle, no breast, seemingly tuned out to the tiny rage at her shoulder. The grandmother turned a folding chair around backwards and sat down on it, her head slumped over its back. The two older kids were bickering about something, while the younger boy carefully examined each of the trees, stroking the limbs. He’d picked out a fine-looking Noble fir by the time Ben walked over to him.

The boy was a beauty—blonde hair shaved close to his head, skin brown as a peanut, big gorgeous eyes full of light. He was dressed in a pair of baggy white running shorts, a green short sleeved t-shirt, and a pair of blue shower shoes. When Ben walked up, the boy was crouched down in front of the tree, looking up through its branches. Clearly in love.

The boy opened his mouth to speak and out came a twisted garble—the boy’s palate was cleft. Ben stifled a sob and felt himself skewered again.

“He wants to know how much is it,” said the sister. After the translation, she walked over and clobbered the other brother again.

Ben knelt down beside the boy. “She’s a beauty,” he said.

The boy nodded and kept looking at the tree. Out came the same garble.

“You know,” said Ben, “Old Santa stopped by here just minutes before you all drove up. He described a boy who’d be coming up to the lot soon, and did he ever describe you to a T. He told me he wanted you to have whatever tree you picked out.”

The boy looked at him, looked him right in the eye. The boy’s face was on the verge of heartbreak. “Eah, buh ow muh?”

Ben gently ruffled the boy’s head. “It’s free, little man. Free. It’s yours and it’s free.”

The mother walked up and said, “Boy, I told you we weren’t havin’ no fancy tree. Goddamn if you don’t have your father’s hearing, and his impracticality. This is the fanciest damn tree left standing. Go pick yourself out—”

“Ma’am,” said Ben. “I’d like you all to have this tree.”

“And I’d like a brand new Cadillac and my body from twenty years ago. We can’t afford this damn tree. We can’t afford any of your damn trees, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to listen to this one howling tonight with his godawful racket.”

“Ma’am, please. This tree is free. Let me tie it up for you and—”

“Just what the hell do you want from me?” said the woman.

“Not a thing. Just your permission to load the tree up for you.”

“Because I sure as hell haven’t got a thing for you.”

“Ma’am, it’s very simple. It’s Christmas Eve, almost Christmas. This tree needs—”

“Not a damn person in this world gives something away for free. What the hell’s wrong with that tree, anyway?”

Ben hefted the tree and walked to the car. “Not a thing. The tree’s—”

“Because I sure as hell don’t want no diseased tree in my house.”

Ben hoisted the tree atop the car and said, “Ma’am, I’ll need for all of you to get in the car, so I can tie the tree through the windows.”

The two older kids piled into the back seat with the young boy and continued their bickering. Grandmother huffed into the first seat and took the still screaming baby as the mother climbed in behind the wheel. Ben roped them in good and tight, and then handed the woman an old pocketknife. “Just cut the rope when you get home, and slip on out,” he said.

“I ain’t payin’ you for no goddamn knife.”

“Forget about it. The knife is free. It’s yours.”

The windows of the car were all rolled down. Ben reached in the back seat and lifted the young boy out. “I almost forgot,” he said, “there’s a few more things I need to send with you all.”

“Goddamn, put that baby down!” screamed the woman. There was too much of her to come through the window. She reached for Ben but missed. He held the boy and said calmly, “Relax. We’ll be right back.”

“You’re goddamned right. You hurt my boy and I will have your hide, you son of a bitch.” To the boy, she said, “Sam, if that man so much as lays a finger on you, so help me God—”

Ben walked with the boy over to the camper. He picked up one of the remaining tree stands and then took down the lights Traci had strung and wrapped them around his hand. Before he put the lights in the hole of the stand, he took the five hundred dollar bonus and stuffed the cash in the bottom of the hole. He knelt down next to the boy.

“Santa wanted you to have a few more things, Sam,” he said. “Give the money to your mom when you get home. Not any sooner, okay?”

Sam grabbed Ben around the neck, held on for all he was worth, and then stepped back. The garble that followed sounded like, “What’s your name?”

“Ben, Sam. My name is Ben.”

“Bleah oo, Beah.”

Ben looked back at that beautiful face. It was the first time he could swear to have seen a face more beautiful than his own baby’s. He hugged the boy to him and said, “Bless you, too, little man. Bless you, too.”

The mother honked the horn, long and loud. Ben carried Sam back to the car, slipped him into the back seat and then handed the stand and lights in to him.

“Charlotte, let’s get the hell out of here,” said the grandmother.

Charlotte backed furiously away from Ben and then screeched off into the night.

Forty-five minutes later, Ben was nursing a mug full of brandy and listening to another Brooke tape when someone pounded mightily on the door of the camper. Charlotte stood beside Sam under the awning, holding out the fistful of money in her hand.

“My boy steal this from you? I told him I would tear his hide if he did,” she said.

“No, ma’am, he did not. That money is for all of you. I just asked Sam to pass it on.”

“Because I’ll be damned if I’m gonna raise a thief under my roof, I can tell you that right now.”

“No, there’s no thieving here. Please. Take the money and enjoy it. As a matter of fact—” He turned back to William’s coffee can and took out the tip money—“take this, too.” He handed all the bills over to Charlotte, who counted the bills and then stuffed them along with the first wad into her jeans pocket. It was a hard, hard, hard face that looked back at him.

“Alright,” she said, and walked off.

It wasn’t the last time. Three o’clock in the morning, a softer knock on the door of the camper. Ben dragged himself out of sleep. Charlotte alone, a brown paper bag in her hand.

“Don’t pity me, mister,” she said.

“Not mister. Ben.”

“I don’t care who you are. Don’t pity me.”

Ben scratched his head, shivered in his sock feet and shirt sleeves. “I do not pity you. Believe me. I might feel a lot of things about you, Charlotte, before I’d ever get around to pity.”

“I seen you with my boy. I seen all that in your eyes.”

Ben stepped back from the door, motioned for her to come in. “It’s too damn cold for existentialism in the doorway, Charlotte. You want to debate my motives, get your ass in here.”

She stepped in as Ben switched on a small lamp. Yellow light buttered the small room. He offered her his reading chair and sat back on his cot. Charlotte eyed his stacks of books, sniffed back at his tiny galley kitchen.

“Coffee suit you?” said Ben.

She held out the paper bag. “Or this.”

He slid the wine bottle out of the bag. Screw top.

“Merry Christmas. I spent five bucks of your money on that.”

“Your money.” He grabbed a couple of mugs and poured the wine.

“Good God, that’s nasty,” said Charlotte.

“Imagine what the three dollar bottle tastes like,” said Ben. He raised his mug. “Cheers.”

She tapped his mug.

“Ben what’s your name, you just dropped more money on me than I’ve seen in the last six months. You sure you weren’t angling for a good fuck?”

“No, I was not. But thank you.”

“You think I was offering?”

“I do not know. But, thank you if you were?”

“Ain’t that supposed to be, ‘thank you if you was?’”

“Probably,” said Ben. He winced through another sip of wine.

“Well, I wasn’t. But thank you anyway.”

“For what?”

The hard-bitten fell away, and a smile struggled through years of exile to spread across her face.

She said, “Ain’t nobody ever thanked me before, if I was or if I wasn’t.”

“Well, you’re welcome.”

The smile grew bolder. It was lighting out for the territory. She had gorgeous teeth.

“Good God, those are gorgeous teeth,” said Ben.

“They are, ain’t they?” She shined them on him some more. “About all I got left from the glory days. You wouldn’t know it to see me, but I was one hot Edison Bear.”

“And that would be—”

“That would be your high school a couple of miles west of here. Under this two hundred and twenty pounds lies the remains of a head cheerleader.”

“Go Bears.”

“Head quarterback bear fucked me up good my senior year. Asshole might as well have stoned me. Party boy gets a four year scholarship to Baylor and I end up with a six month scholarship to Annunciation Home for Unwed Mothers over in New Orleans.”

“Pardon my math, but your babies don’t look old enough for that adventure.”

“Oh, that one’s long gone. And not the only one either. There’s three mini-me’s running around with crater-sized holes in their hearts. Never known a momma home not to put the screws to you to give ‘em up.”

“I’m sorry,” said Ben.

“Hell, I’d have been a lousy mother. Still am.”

There was no suggestion in her tone that she was fishing for words to the contrary—Ben gave her that. Which is why he followed with, “Have to agree on that, Charlotte.”

“You’d be a fool not to. I’d have to think less of you if you didn’t.”

“I thought I was already as low as I can get.”

“You keep drinking your nasty wine—there might be hope for you yet.”

Ben poured again and they clunked.

“You takin’ my little boy home with you? You certainly won his heart. Course after the way you doted on him, my two olders hate your guts. Delilah’s offended you didn’t take to her, and Billy’s pissed you didn’t slip him the money. Says he’d have kept it to himself. Which he would have.”

“That Sam’s a sweetheart.”

“That baby’s the only one I carried sober. Lotta good that did—God fucked him up royally. Smashed his mouth up good and then moved in with a buzz saw. It’s not for lack of money that I steer clear of these damn tree lots. If I was the whore of Big Bill Gates, I wouldn’t want to spend a dime on all this hooey. Give a fuckin’ hoot for the baby of the one that fucked my baby over? Like I give a shit.”

“So, why come—even after hours?”

“The one of my babies who ought to be on my side screaming to high heaven is a fuckin’ sap. I have to listen to that damn land mine of a mouth of his ooh and ah from Halloween on. Mary this, Jesus that. Jesus loves the little children, my ass.”

“He was smitten. I’ve never seem my own babies that lit up.”

“Fuckin’ sap, he is. How many you got?”

“Three. One of my own, and two that might as well be.”

“I seen you living out here for the last few weeks—you got ‘em stashed in the closet?”

“Back in Mississippi. With their mother.”

“Hell Ben, I know Mississippi is sucking hind tit, but this the best you can do for work—play Santa for the almost dead of Olmos Park?” She slung her arm left and spilled wine on the floor. “Goddamnit, I—”

“Let it go,” said Ben. “Let it go.”

She slipped to the floor, started wiping the wine with the sleeve of her jacket.

“Charlotte, please. Let it go.”

When she looked back up at him, the hard had bitten again. Clamped down tight.

“Fuck you, Ben. I can clean up my own goddamn…No…wait. Wait.” She turned around and set the mug on the counter behind her, then picked up a dishcloth and very carefully wiped up the spill. With equal care, she found the cap to the wine and screwed it back down.

“Told myself I wouldn’t do this.”

“Do what,” said Ben, gently.

“Go off on you.” She started to cry. “Told momma I didn’t want to go off on you.”

“Hell, Charlotte, plenty have and plenty deserved the privilege.”

“You lit my baby up—over and above his confounded rambunctious mother. Nobody gives my babies nuthin’—least of all that son of a bitch we’re celebrating today.”

Softly, Ben said, “Charlotte, I just can’t do this right now. My head hurts. You’re absolutely right—there’s no way but that you and your baby weren’t absolutely royally fucked over. But, I just cannot go there right now. I can’t. I’ve spent the last six weeks of my life sucking on the big mother tit of good cheer, and I’m sorry, it’s got under my skin. I don’t even really want it to, but it does—turns me into an unimaginable sap. I tear up at damn Karen Carpenter, Andy Williams, Perry Como, Ella singing “Sleigh Ride,” and don’t even get me started on George Bailey and Scrooge and Danny Kaye and all that mess. It’s ridiculous—it flies in the face of everything that runs around in my black heart the whole rest of the year. Every year in mid-November, I come flying down the Palestine Highway, and way deep inside of me I can feel this little boy just burning to cut loose, a boy every bit as beautiful as your beautiful Sam, positively lit up inside with candy lights. Call me in two weeks and we can go completely off on that little son of a bitch in his manger, but right now, I’m sorry, I just can’t. I just can’t.”

Tears streaked from the corners of her eyes. She said, “I just want to lie down.”

“By all means,” said Ben. He started to clear off the other cot. “By all means.”

“No,” she said, putting a hand on his. Roughhewn, but beautiful, too, in its own way. He liked the feel of it on his skin.

“With you,” she said. “Just to lie down. Just to hold you.”

He felt a huge weight lifting off his chest, a weight he had not known was there. Who’s weight—hers or his?

He pulled back the covers of his cot and lay up against the wall. Charlotte slipped off her shoes and jacket and lay down beside him, as close as she could press into his body. Her hair smelled sour, her clothes smelled of fried food, but beneath it, around it, within it, the smell of roses. The more he smelled it, the more the rancidity faded.

“Nice perfume,” he whispered.


“Your perfume.”

“I don’t wear any,” she said, and started to cry. He pulled her closer, gently stroked her hair.

“I smell roses. I swear I smell roses,” said Ben. “And it’s on you.”

“She always does this to me, no matter how angry and crazy I get. Always.”

“She who?”

“Mary. She’s the roses. Mary. Good night, Ben.”

Light was just peeking in the windows when Charlotte woke, smell of coffee in the camper. Ben leaned up against the galley counter, looking pretty spruced up. He’d been out to the mudroom in the Optimist motel and taken a sponge bath, complete with shampooing his head in the sink. He handed a mug of coffee to Charlotte as she sat up. “Merry Christmas,” he said.

“Mmm, coffee,” she replied. “Thanks.” She held the mug under her nose and breathed deeply.

Ben said, “You didn’t get much sleep, but I figure those babies are already chomping at the bit for Christmas day.”

“They are now. Thanks to you. At least I don’t have to be a complete asshole and on the defensive all day.”

“You ever see an old black man pushing a stuffed shopping cart or gardening on some godforsaken stretch of sidewalk, that’s your Santa. Those were his tips in the coffee can. He refused to take them.”

“This CDM coffee we’re drinking now?”

“Oh, yeah.”

Charlotte took a sip of the drink and then looked off through the window for a good minute. When she looked back at Ben, a lone tear rolled from the corner of her left eye.

She said, “When you pulled the money out of the can last night, I noticed that there was another.”

“This time of year, you can never have enough coffee.”

Charlotte wiped the tear with the back of her hand. Had a hard time getting it out, but said, “I figured it might just be another little bank.”

Ben smiled. “You did, did you?”

He watched her face and felt the struggle within her. He took another drink of coffee to stifle the impulse to help her out of her own mess.

Tears fell from the corners of both eyes now.

She said, “Thank God for Mary, otherwise I’d have had my hand in that other one. That was my plan, anyway.”

Ben set his coffee on the counter. He said, “Charlotte, I don’t think Mary had anything to do with keeping your hand out of anything. I suspect she came to you once you made the right choice.”

“I’m a long way from giving myself that kind of credit.”

“Well, I’d say today’s a good time to start.”

She let a few years’ pain roll out of her as she wept on the cot. Ben handed her a clean dish towel to wipe her tears. She drained her mug and stood to go. Before he could open the door for her, she pulled him close—she still smelled like a bower of roses. Into his ear, she said, “You’re a good man, Ben.”

“On some days,” he said, “yes, I am.”

She squeezed him once more, kissed his neck, and then headed for her car. A chill in the air, but a bright blue sky.

“Hey,” Ben said. “Your coat.”

He walked it out to her, watched her climb in the car and drive off.

The Packers beat the Bears and the Lakers beat the Heat, and Charlotte was headed out the door for more beer Christmas evening before she found the money from the other can in her coat pocket. She flew down San Pedro and Basse for the lot, but by the time she got there, the camper was gone and Ben and Ray were crossing back into Louisiana.

“You netted how much?” said Ray, when they first pulled onto I-35 out of San Antonio. He handed Ben a fist-sized box.

“Couple of hundred, give or take,” said Ben.

“Sounds like somebody took plenty. You just sell the trees, boy. It’s not like you’re expected to be Santa, too.”

Ben unwrapped the box and pulled out a Scooby Doo mug. Then pulled out the two thousand dollars rolled up inside the mug.

“Nor you, my brother. Nor you.”

“Christ Jesus, Ben, that ain’t nuthin’. I sneeze that much money on a slow day. Hell, in Atlanta, I believe even you could sell real estate. Just think of it as selling trees with houses thrown in.”

They made Jackson just before midnight. Ray drove down St. Ann and dropped Ben off in front of the blue duplex. Brooke was sitting on the front steps reading, a miner’s light strapped to her head.

“Too damn cold to be out here,” said Ben. “What you got?”

She showed him the book. “Padgett Powell. Aliens of Affection. It said from Santa, but I figured it was from you. You slip Mom the money for it or what?”

“Not me.”

Brooke switched off the headlight. “I think I’d like to date Padgett Powell.”

“Yeah, well, he’d probably like to date you, too. You know what this means, don’t you?”

“No, what?”

“I’m not the only parent corrupting you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Looks to me like Ms. Melanie’s been holding out on us.”

“No. Hurricane Mel?”

“The very one,” said Ben. He looked back over his shoulder. “Anyone else up?”

“Not a one. You wore Mom and Van out with the remote-controlled dinosaur. Nessa and I took a contract out on your life for that racket.”

Ben stood to go. It was a long walk back to Brandon. He handed the rewrapped mug box to Brooke and said, “Give this to your mom, when she wakes up.”

Brooke shook it. “What’s in it?” she said.

“Retirement funds.”

Melanie knocked on his door the next afternoon. He opened the screen door and she held out the mug with the money rolled up inside.

“I can’t take this,” she said.

“Find a good charity, then,” said Ben. “It ain’t mine.”

“Brooke said something about retirement funds.”

“Yeah, well, something like that.”

“You going somewhere?”

“As a matter of fact, I’ve got my eye on a place.”

“Do tell.”

“Yours. Ours.”

“That’s insane. We’d kill each other.”

“That’s if we’re trying to be something that we’re not—like lovers. I say, let’s live as what we are to those babies—their devoted parents. I’m not saying that I’m not open to seeing if there’s still room for something else, but not now, definitely not now. I’m not asking for the other side of your bed either—you can put me out in the back yard, for all I care. If another man comes along for you, just say I’m the nanny.”

Another man did come along eventually—two more, in fact, and both of them got on famously with the nanny. Only, in due time, and after a Christmas with the nanny present and not on his annual Texas bail-out, the woman of the house finally had to fess up to something other than animosity every time she got home and saw the nanny playing with the Dino-boy, or cooking with Vanessa in the kitchen, or tending—with Brooke—the roses they had planted back in spring.

Ray milked the Atlanta market for all it was worth, cashed in, and then bought a farm up in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Built himself a state of the art recording studio and set about recording Duff Durrough and the Revelators. Old Jacksonian Cassandra Fowkes Wilson found out what was up and she just had to have some of the mix herself. She wasn’t keen on Ray’s catering, but she loved what he could do on the console box.

When two pre-Thanksgivings passed with no Schlitz, no Ray, Traci got to thinking that just maybe “Twine Time” had finally turned to “Unwind the Twine” time. She’d always loved those old Alvin Cash tunes, obscure skittering little soundtracks to her tangled life. She shed her white hose and moved to Pensacola, where she made a point of walking barefoot into the homes of her home health patients, and hightailing it out to the emerald gulf every chance she got.

Five years past nanny time, Ben and Melanie piled themselves and the kids into the new Honda and drove to San Antonio on a Christmas whim. They rolled up to the Basse corner on Christmas Eve, just in time for the finishing touches before Rose’s party. Ben walked up to Clay and handed him a check for $200.

“The hell is this?” said Clay, lifting his old buddy into a big hug.

Said Ben: “My last night here. One Noble fir—$175, with a little interest.”

“Oh, that. What, you think you’re the only one around can get religion? Maybe you didn’t notice the signs when you drove up? Hell, have a t-shirt. He reached over a counter and pulled out an assortment of t-shirts in different colors and sizes, handed them to Melanie and the kids. Picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe in front of a looming fir tree. Captioned with Mary’s Trees.

A tall boy about Van’s age walked over to Clay and said, “I think we’re about done, Clay. Anything else you want me to do before I go?”

“Hand me a pen, if you would,” said Clay. He took the pen and wrote something on the back of the check Ben had given him. He then handed the check to the boy and said, “Bonus for you from Santa.”

The boy’s eyes lit up, dark blazing eyes. Big beautiful smile spread across his face.

“Gee, thanks, Clay. Wow.”

“Oh, I ain’t your secret Santa, son. That would be this fool,” Clay said, nodding toward Ben.

The boy beamed his smile at Ben and said, “What did I ever do to deserve—”

“Sam,” said Clay. “You might want to bike on home now. Tell Charlotte we’ve got company coming.”


For Teresa, the Christmas Elf not named Charlotte


Thursday, December 24, 2009

More Attic Tapes, ii

More from my story "Bitterroot," followed by a Patty Loveless soundtrack. Call this one for the Duchess and my Lovelesslorn brother AVD...

They stopped off in Taylor at the Whore and Crackhouse Bar-B-Q for ribs. Not the name of the place, mind you, but so dubbed years ago by Traci, in honor of the two-legged rodents that frequented the place. Big Depot, said the sign on the rat-trap across the alley from the old train station. Traci swore the house sauce was good enough to cure the STD’s she was sure were on the counter seats they sat on.

“God and Mary couldn’t make a better sauce,” said Traci, her chin dripping with the essential oil.

“Hell, God and Mary are in the sauce,” said Ray. In his zest for slobbering up the sauce and bones, his Monte hit the floor.

“And there it will stay,” said the den mother.

Ben, as sanctified by the holy meat as his partners, just ate. And swiped white bread across his and their plates.

“Cleanest these will ever get,” said Ray, admiring Ben’s technique.

They made San Antonio by late afternoon, wrangled through the loop traffic, and then drove down McCullough to the corner of Basse, right next to the Optimist Club baseball diamond. Clay Jenkins never disclosed just how he managed to commandeer such a fine piece of real estate for the season. The chain link fencing was up, as were the first round of trees standing in military formation, remnants of Clay’s twenty years as an army warrant officer. That was about all that was left—the rest had turned to gray ponytail, ear stud, and an unadorned passion for Patty Loveless. He scorched the earth in pursuit of Patty concerts like a one man horde of Deadheads. Several tree lots across central Texas kept Clay flush for the rest of the year, and in hot pursuit of his fleshly grail.

Clay was talking to a pair of men as Ben maneuvered the truck up onto the curb and backed the trailer into position beside the trees. Clay walked over to the truck and leaned up against the driver side door.

He smiled big, flashed his gold tooth, with the PL inlay. “Queen and her court. How you doin’, Miz Traci?”

“I’ll be better, soon as you give me a big hug,” she said.

They all climbed out of the truck, and six foot four Clay bear-hugged Traci off the ground.

“Mmm, patchouli,” said Traci. “Nice spice.”

“The one time I found myself in the elevator at Austin City Limits with Ms. Patty, I could have sworn she was wearing it. I hope to God it wasn’t her bass player. Hadn’t been for him, I’d have been on my knees swearing fealty.”

“Surprised that stopped you,” said Ben.

“Me, too,” said Clay. “How you doin’, BenBoy?”

“Been better. Trees smell nice.”

Clay nodded over to his truck. “Have a beer. Cure what ails you.”

“I’ll pass,” said Ben. “The trees’ll fix me up.”

“It’s a nice crop. I slept on a pile of them last night. SAPD tried to run me off, until I saw the palms out for greasing. Lemme introduce you to your crew.”

Jacinto was an honor student and fullback over at Edison High School, son of a drinking buddy of Clay’s. They’d both finished up their twenty years together at Fort Sam, the local army base. Victor was about fifty-five, stout as an ox, and like Ben, a yearly victim of seasonal downsizing by a local landscaper.

Ben and Ray and the two crewmen got the trailer all hooked up and ready, while Clay and Traci browsed the trees and then sat on his tailgate with a couple of Lone Star longnecks. Patty’s Mountain Soul was playing on the truck’s CD player, sending just the right poignant touch into the dimming light. She wore him like a lock and chain /Only in dreams she spoke his name. The traffic lights and brake lights kept it all from turning thoroughly maudlin, though things never got maudlin around Clay Jenkins. When the trailer work was finished, Clay joined the other men and piled a cord of wood next to the trailer. Nothing like an outdoor fire in a fifty gallon barrel when the nights turned bitter.

Prep work done, Clay treated everyone to dinner over at Café de la Rosa, where Rose the owner was second only to Patty on Clay’s list of beauties he would die for. He’d nearly died for his country in Nam, and swore he would never nearly die for anything that foolish ever again. Rose Hinojosa was a dark beauty in her early fifties, who could certainly give the younger Patty a run for her money. Clay joked that he was glad Rose had a lousy singing voice or he’d be in big trouble.

The cheese enchiladas were just right, onions cooked inside the drippy tubes, just the way they should be. Woodsmoke in the refried beans, wet rice, and guacamole that Ray wanted to smear on his face, it was so good. Ben ventured past the usual cheese enchiladas and ordered the chicken enchiladas con mole. Halfway through the dish, he asked Rose to forget about Clay and marry him instead. Margaritas—no ice—and then coffee with chicory to go with the flan and tres leches. They stumbled around the corner to Paco’s for bluegrass and conjunto, a combustible combination. An Irish accordionist stepped on stage during the last set and unleashed glorious and downright apocalyptic mayhem. It was three in the morning before Clay dropped the three travelers back off at the tree lot. Ray climbed into the Ram cab to sleep, leaving Ben and Traci to the two cots in the trailer. Traci, barely able to stand straight, started digging into a pile of boxes at the back of the trailer.

“What the hell?” said Ben, whose world was spinning.

Traci, who would have preferred an autistic silence at the moment, slurred out, “I’m trying to … I’m … try … ing … to … to … find that … god … god … damned … goddamned box!”

Ben thought he answered, “What box?” but he didn’t. Not out loud, anyway.

The goddamned box was a shoe box with two strands of colored Christmas lights inside. In the obsessive way of all drunks teetering on the abyss, there was no way in hell Traci could go to sleep until the lights were up. She slipped outside into the cold night and started unraveling the lights. The trees kept her company, as did a couple of cars that slowly cruised through the intersection. An odd little crossroads Clay Jenkins had nicked for his seasonal business. On the southwest corner, past the baseball diamonds was a sleepy little neighborhood of duplex bungalows. Northwest was an open field of shaggy grass and mesquite trees. Northeast, across from that, an old doddering golf course, and on the southeast corner a handful of soccer fields. Train tracks were just beyond the fields and cutting through the golf course—a squeal of wheels came rolling through just as Traci started hanging the lights from the corners of the trailer, nothing fancy, just a single wraparound. She sat on the tiny stoop and looked up at the big Optimist Club logo painted on the two story building behind home plate. A door on the first floor was open just a crack: mudroom and toilet, a sink good enough for spit baths. Cold water only, so quick spit was about all you wanted.

Three words circled the Optimist Club logo: Character. Courage. Loyalty. Traci marveled, as only a four o’clock in the morning inebriate can, at the clarity of such optimism, and wondered what three words might encircle a Traci Augmon logo, should her name ever be splashed on the side of a baseball diamond storage building and press box. Treacherous. Foolhardy. Lost. Not exactly words to inspire you to sacrifice bunt or slide into home base. How, she wondered, do you find the courage or foolishness inside to slap the moniker of optimist on your forehead or pin its logo to your lapel? Father Al Durbin, who roamed the halls of Mercy back in Montgomery as its chaplain—now there was a relentless optimist, constitutionally incapable of complaint or despair or seeing anything but a silver lining in whatever threadbare trailer trash life story came his way. Hospice wing, perinatal ICU, fifth floor locked ward head cases, the leper colony of mothers who’d lost their babies in Labor and Delivery—it did not matter what site of human misery he wandered into, even the staff lounge on a bad knife and shotgun night in Emergency, the man’s big moon face shone brightly, words of blithe encouragement spilling from his lips, a stat injection of mirth into the bleakest gloom. Traci had first thought him an abject lunatic and, for the first six months she’d known him, had wanted to take him outside to the dumpsters and beat the shit out of him with a two by four. Dedicated roving insomniac that he was, he managed to ruin far too many of her night shifts with his hapless porridge of Kahlil Gibran, Rod McKuen, and come to Jesus drivel. Then that first Christmas Eve night on a floating shift down with the leper mothers, she’d watched him coax a woman back to life who had eluded all the efforts of a phalanx of goons from the Psychiatry and Social Work departments, bow-tied tweedmongers and sailor-suited matrons who after two weeks of failure even to get to first base with their Elizabeth Kübler Ross death and dying song and dance, had decided why not a little electro-shock cocktail, the default position of every tweedy-bird constitutionally incapable of shutting up and sitting still in the presence of a grief that knows no bounds and doesn’t cooperate with a hefty splash of Prozac and a five day authorization of benefits. The thirty-six year old woman was sitting in the day room by herself in front of a snowy TV screen full of singing Mormons. Her hair was a greasy mess, her naked ass peeking out from the back of her patient gown. The first time Traci saw her, she’d thought of Van Gogh’s painting “Sorrow.” Even the leper colony’s own Nurse Rommel clone had given up on trying to get the woman to bed and simply left her in her chair in front of the TV. A week before Christmas, after six years of treatment with Montgomery Infertility’s finest, the woman gave birth to three stillborn babies. From the nursing station, Traci had cringed when she saw Al Durbin plant his fat ass in the chair beside Sorrow and begin to croak along with the singing Mormons at the top of his lungs. Fifteen minutes later, Traci looked up from her charts to see Sorrow standing in front of her with the sweetest smile on her face. “I hate to badmouth the good father, Nurse,” she said, “but isn’t that the godawfulest noise you’ve ever heard? Could you please offer him my apologies and tell him I just had to get some sleep?” Winked as she walked off. Traci was ever so happy to shut down the padre’s concert, and add to her list of things that irritated her about him, missing entirely the miracle of the woman sashaying off to her bedroom with a wink. The next evening she heard laughter from down the hall in the woman’s room and a gorgeous tenor voice singing it’s the most wonderful time of the year. A few minutes later, Al Durbin walked out of the room and wished Traci a very merry Christmas. And winked as he walked off. Never again did she mistake optimism as a neurological variation on mindlessness. She took to making extra pimento sandwiches to share with Al and was frankly moved by his assurances that he was praying for her, despite what she presumed were the ineffectual results.

Traci liked the glow of the Christmas lights on her hands, and was tempted to light a fire in the barrel and stay out longer in the shivering cold. In the end, she simply walked once through the artificial forest of spruce and fir and pine and then climbed into the trailer where Ben was half on, half off his cot. There was as much icy air in as out of the trailer. She climbed into her cot fully clothed and pulled on a couple of extra Mexican blankets—toasty enough, except for her face. She felt like she was lying in Candyland, the Christmas lights sugarcoating the otherwise dismal little camper. Train wheels squealed again a quarter of a mile off, a car stopped at the intersection, Brubeck’s “Take Five” piping into the night from its speakers. Windows open in that wind?, thought Traci, trailing off with Desmond’s solo. Had to be—a voice from the car says, “Dig that cat!” Traci dug him, too, and like a light was out.

Sunday morning, Jacinto and Victor were on the job bright and early, tending to a few stray customers, but mostly putting last minute touches on the lot. The travelers were dead to the world until Clay rolled in on his Harley, bumped Ben out of bed and onto the back of the hawg for a business meeting at Rose’s. Bloody Mary with pickled okra and a stout jalapeño started the resuscitation, followed by an incendiary plate of huevos rancheros and refrieds, flour tortillas hot off Rose’s comal for sopping up the fiery mess. Half an hour into the meeting, Ben had a nice sweat going and could just begin to stand the light outside. Ben and Clay had been through this last minute drill enough times that it was really just one more chance to visit before Clay took off for his circuit of half a dozen other tree lots up in the hill country. Ben’s lot was not the plum, not by a long shot, but it suited him just fine.

Traci had coffee and hot milk going in the trailer’s little galley kitchen when Ben and Clay got back to the lot; Bob Marley CD on the boombox. Clay declined the coffee, but gave her a big squeeze. It was clear that Jacinto was the latest adolescent to fall for Ms. Augmon. He tried to keep his mind on the work at hand, but kept coming around to see if he could lend Traci a hand, blushing like a merry elf. Victor was not smitten, but he’d completely given up on working for the moment. He rigged up an awning for the trailer, laid out a large square of Astroturf, and sat in a rusty folding chair beside a card table, playing Spit with the tag team of Traci, Jacinto (who blushed even more when their hands accidentally touched), and a still beleaguered Ray.

Clay harleyed off, Ben made rounds of the lot, greeted a pair of customers. He told Victor and Jacinto to take it easy for a while longer, since they’d carried the load through most of the weekend. Pulled on a pair of rawhide gloves—his customers were interested in Scotch pine. “Porcupine trees,” said the young daughter of one of them. She had the wide open look that Brooke had at that age, before life—pitiful schools and boys and Ben’s own melancholy—slammed into her. Under Gothic makeup and a shambling wardrobe, it was hard for most to see that seven-year-old Brooke anymore, but Ben could, which was one of the reasons she still came around his apartment to visit. Usually about two in the morning, rousting him out of bed, mercilessly teasing him about his pajamas, introducing him to her latest partner in gloom, invariably another girl in Dracula garb, drinking up all the packets of Swiss Miss he saved for just such occasions, while gabbing on about poets and authors and folk singers that Ben knew she would only know about from the years she spent snooping in his books from the library and in his CDs out in his old Honda before it finally died and rendered him footloose. Melanie was not a reader, nor oddly enough was librarian-in-training Vanessa who, smart as she was, had the mind of a savvy file clerk. Ben had the pleasure of meeting their father Brad in between his stays at Parchman. Clearly a brilliant man to have twice almost pulled off the ambitious robberies he planned, but no evidence that he was ever moved by the likes of Kerouac or Hardy or Li-Young Lee. Or Greg Brown, for that matter. The two o’clock visits, Ben realized, were a bit of show and tell for Brooke, never one to deny her impenitent father, but still proud to show off her quirky and bookish stepdad, his social ineptitude notwithstanding.

Ben sold and loaded the two porcupine trees with only minor cuts and accepted a hefty tip from the little Brooke-alike, which he promptly put in the communal tip jar. He could see that a brew-renewed Ray was itching to hit the road, while all the while Traci was dragging her feet. They’d finished Spit and she’d pulled out the dominoes, sure fire revenge on Victor’s domination of the tag team.

“Let me put this communist in his place, Mr. Barnes,” said Traci, winking at Victor and nudging Jacinto at her side. “You might want to do something about that hair, Ray—and change out of those nasty clothes. Nothing against last night’s fun—I had a great time myself—but, I’d rather not smell it all over again on the way back to Alabama.”

Ben sat down for another cup of coffee on the other side of Traci and watched her hands on the tiles. Nothing fifty about those hands, there had always been something downright girlish about them, smooth, unwrinkled, clean simple nails. She was rightfully vain about them, bragged that she’d never bothered with nail polish, always quick with the refrain of “why bother with perfection?” In the middle of the back of her right hand there was a tan birthmark about the size of a silver dollar; this, too, she was proud of—swore it mesmerized her domino foes, not to mention the likes of not a few of the many who’d fallen for her through the years. It looked more like a miniature painting than a blemish. An Indian mehndi artist in Houston once complimented her for the mark, mistaking it initially as a lovely bit of hand painting. “Who did this for you?” the woman asked, fearful of a competitor in her midst. Traci laughed and said, “God,” and showed the woman her mistake. The artist touched her clasped hands to her forehead, bowed and replied, “Indeed, the ultimate painter.”

About four in the afternoon, Ray finally pried Traci loose from the table. She kissed the hand Victor extended to shake, and kissed a swooning Jacinto smack on the lips. Ray and Ben completed their ritual bear hug and back slap, and then Ray climbed behind the wheel of the truck. No one had told Jacinto or Victor of any of the history or politics of the three travelers, but both of them sensed that Ben and Traci were in need of a little privacy for their farewell. A pair of customers drove up just in time to occupy them.

Traci looked for the boy, saw that he was safely hidden, not even peeking. She reached to hug Ben with one arm around his neck, but he pulled her close with both arms around her and held on. Tears filled her eyes; she couldn’t see the tears in his, but she could feel the little jump in his chest that always signaled he was trying to hold them in.

“You just let them go, baby,” she whispered into his ear, and put her other arm around him.

Ben was afraid that if he let go of her he would break apart. Normally impatient Ray refrained from tapping on the horn, knowing full well Traci would have his head if he did. She stroked her ex-husband’s back up and down his spine, felt his struggle to keep everything in, and saw, oddly enough, a flash of the image of him and Cindy in her bed—saw it as God might have seen it in His own living room, beer in hand, big body leaning back into His lazyboy recliner, blip of a summer rerun on His old twenty inch Magnavox, haven’t I seen this before?, mildest of curiosity, reach for the remote, surfing away.

The shuddering finally eased; Ben patted her back his trademark three times and stepped back. She put a hand behind his head, pulled him to her and kissed his cheek.

“Merry Christmas, Bennie,” she said, and walked to the truck. He watched their taillights head down Basse, cross the tracks, and curve off to the freeway around the bend. To give himself something to do, he walked back to the card table, put the dominoes back in their box and drank off the dregs of Traci’s coffee cup.


For Dee

Dee supplied the prompt: plastic plant days.

Rivers Wanting

Babies in concert

concert babies

in love

in time

in tuna fish casseroling


plastic plants

casual trailer bliss

the knowing knows

the pastimes passed

we gather &

Detroit glistens

in the days &

nights of days

teena sangs

only you & I were there

the fitting


the bells ring

casting joy down

the lanes

the racetracks of memory

grey matter retrieved

final capitulations

in the history

that regresses &

is not known

baby you would know

in the kneeling

the blessings regale

all the legs

of our leggy days

trailing blooms

across the rivers

signaling want

in our zany druthers

asking nothing

of our future dooms.