The fiddler stepped back from the microphone.
commanding the spotlight,
took possession of “Da Slockit Light,”
provoking remembered and imagined
visions of wakes, funerals, untended
The piper pumped his right arm gently
to add his solemn drone. Three sophomores
on Palmer Street crouched in unison
to peer through the window just as
the lights failed.
It was cheap Madeira but Connie loved the smell, the moldy
fruit fragrance of her father’s pipe tobacco, and it went well
with the cornbread her daughter bought at Whole Foods.
She slips her hearing aid
into her apron pocket
and shuts her eyes.
She hears the local freight whistle past Mile Post 88,
the dyspeptic theatre organ at the St. George belch
“Over the Rainbow,” the Globe whack the front door,
the teacups smash against the refrigerator.
Today’s calls had left her a tad desperate:
a raspy handicapped woman named Jayne
hawking light bulbs.
The Arbitron man
reminding her about the radio diary. She still hadn’t spent
those six sinfully crisp dollar bills he’d sent, but she only
put on NPR to help her sleep.
That recorded message
about Propositions 29 and 30. She did look forward
to voting at Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish Hall,
though sometimes she turned in her ballot unmarked
if she couldn’t find her specs. She always lit a couple
of votives in the church afterwards.
Her sister, goddam her
to everlasting Hell. It was Nick’s night
to stop by. She was hoping he’d bring
a case of that $2 champagne.
It would be
The Boston and Albany Gang ☊
Conlon the yardmaster smells like an old barbershop. Bay rum
generously splashed on his cheeks. Wildroot dabbed
on his blacktopped head, blended in with a wide-tooth rat-tail comb.
Talcum on his shaved neck.
He dusts the pages of the Daily Record with a powdered doughnut
while he waits for the switching crew to trudge up the stairs,
then gulps his coffee––cream, two sugars––as he rises to full height,
authority glinting in his unsmiling Irish eyes.
Are the savages ready? he asks Bengiovanni the conductor, who
ignores him as he laboriously sorts the switching lists and tugs
on his blistered nose.
Are the savages ready? in a deeper tone, moving closer, smoothing his
pompadour with both hands, the rest of the crew greasy and hovering and
ready for anything but work.
Bengiovanni smiles, showing very few teeth, brushes doughnut dust off
Conlon’s freshly ironed shirt and leads his crew back down the groaning
stairs. Savages ready! he calls back, his voice mockingly operatic
in the stairwell. Conlon is satisfied. He goes to the sink and scrubs newsprint
off his hands.
Jazzing the Accelerator
Snowy mornings were the worst, the old man
clomping in the hallway outside our bedrooms berating us
in unison with the neighborhood wind: Come on, boys,
snap it up. Movie stars, every last one of you.
Up all night, sleep all day. Our eyes
clamped shut, we could still see him, can still
see him now, doing his exasperated flatfooted dance
in his Stetson fedora and Robert Hall topcoat,
his cheap rubbers barely covering his wingtips.
While we were still screening our drool-drenched dreams
he had showered, shaved and moved his bowels:
The Clockwork Dad. You guys should
eat more fruit and follow suit. He'd smell
sharply of whatever scent we'd given him last
Father's Day or Christmas or Anniversary. If we
didn't look alive fast enough he'd prod the bottoms
of our feet with his car keys until our brains
pulsated with patricidal fantasies. Seven sons
united in filial impiety.
Incensed by our lethargy, he'd call each of us
Hey Joe, though none of us was so named:
Hey Joe, you’ve got somewhere to go. And
there were always four or five jalopies
to start up to get us wherever that was. Cursed by
driveway snow, most had, like us, succumbed
to the horror of the broken day. Our father,
under each hood with his few tools—pliers,
screwdriver, hammer, bloody handkerchief—would
bang his magic into carburetors and spark plugs and
alternators and radiators and batteries while we'd
sit sullen and frozen and underdressed
behind steering wheels turning keys
awaiting those totemic words: Jazz the accelerator
and let's get this tin can rolling!
So we'd give it the gas, trying to nap with our right feet
pumping away. The old lady, cleverly sedated by
The Up All Night Creature Feature, would be
snoring away like a movie star, soon to be
upstaged, we hoped, by multiple roaring engines.
Any Girl Looks Good in Summer
crooned the Quahog Bay Quartet
to the sidewalk sightseers, their segue
to “It’s Always June When You’re in Love”
utterly masterful, vocals slick as pomade
in Cape Hill’s last parade. Baton twirlers
kept the time right as Eagle scouts
rolled old vets past the War Memorial
into the dwindling shade of the Common.
Mayor Mawhinney, hunched by Capt. Danforth’s Cannon,
whispered his usual swell speech into the dead microphone.
Then it was lobster rolls and clam cakes and baked beans
and maple walnut ice cream cones
and sarsaparilla all around. Next evening
the front page of the Chronicle
looked like old sheet music.
Cassie limped a bit that last winter
at the shore house
ankles annoyingly swollen
the twins battling in her belly
Sanford stayed in the city
dictating his perpetually unfinished
biography of the mayor
to his research assistant’s
naked in the bathroom mirror
the cranky Atlantic reflected
over her shoulder
Cassie still looked radiant
the tattoos on her upper arms
undercutting her joy
the Saturday he stopped by
shuffling into the kitchen
in his preposterous galoshes
he asked if she’d mind
whipping up some pancakes
he was famished
he was about to add
when he saw her eyes
for the last time
and turned around
Katrina in Lake Cochituate
Just briefly a water sprite
she takes the brunt of the sunset
on her olive shoulders,
the light slithering from her
as she regains her footing
in the drifting canoe.
She imagines Natick Indians at prayer
in the darkening forest behind her
noiseless moccasins tracking her thoughts
through the dusk all the way to Salem,
where tomorrow she’ll pick up
a bunch of witchy books
at the Blessed Be Shop
to read on the bus back to Jersey.
Typewriters at yard sales squat in relief
against toasters and tireless bicycles, always
ready to tell you something.
Even gibberish delays the eyes, precipitates
a cursory search for meaning, a disgruntled
delight in mere literacy. One Royal veteran,
rusting with iron pride, clamps in its guts
a sheet of stationery from the defunct
New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company.
Someone–Years ago? Yesterday?–X’ed out the names of the trustees,
who were X’ed out themselves the previous century. The old machine
is simply too inexpensive to believe.
And much too cheap to buy, one more chunk
of the unnecessary. Literal junk. Typewriters
at yard sales.
always carried a bag
of red-dyed pistachios
to the Common
and gazed at Officer Burke
directing the stalled traffic
on Concord Street
till half-past one
Maurice Slocum–“Slow Moe”
to those who bothered
with his existence–
loved what the nuts did
to her nibbled fingertips
as she sat and stared and pried
on the bench
Andrea was Moe’s
his one gnawing obsession
and if it hadn’t been for that cop
he might have said hello
How Far to Being & Nothingness?
if I remember
is a point in space
moving at infinite speed
a kind of ubiquitous
more fathomable perhaps
in my grade school catechism
as the Ultimate Being Machine
who made all things
and makes damn sure
they stay made
a concept possibly
to that "matter can neither
be created nor destroyed"
business we were taught
in Chemistry class maybe
is not as tough
to keep track of
whether you're reading
Milton or watching
or just twisting twisting
slowly in your own
is a bit like
on the fringes of time
giving bad directions
The nephews and nieces
called him Uncle Space
and he moved placidly through
his allotted time
hobnobbing at the finest pizzerias
with unabated insouciance
stopping often for Bud Light
genuflecting before penne and meatballs
French dip sandwiches
side orders without end. Amen.
He hummed a bit at the start
of every sentence and seldom
spoke in paragraphs. He obeyed
his own rules, never eating
or day-old doughnuts.
Unlike the rest
of the liberal-arts-afflicted family
he could use a slide rule
with aplomb. He knew
what numbers meant
when we went
through his closet
we discovered he’d kept
all his old belts.
Anonymous Among the Gnomes
Befuddled by butterflies,
to full height by the white roses
to unkink her back. She lays
her straw bonnet on the sundial
and, stupid in the sunshine, catches
a glimpse of herself
in the garage window.
I look, startlingly, like--
retrieve the name
from the rubble: her ancient
widowed aunt, the large-breasted one
from Sudbury who loved
to dither in the garden, had no memory
to speak of, and cursed
like a fallen archangel. She can
recall her trying to swat hummingbirds
with a rusty hand hoe. No. That was
from some old novelty song
her uncle used to sing. Alicia?
Abigail? Adele? Agatha?
A Red-sided Garter
her Wellingtons. She attacks
with an obscenity-laden trowel.
The snake escapes unscathed.
Not so the hydrangeas.
Bing Guy ☊
My father was a Bing guy, crooning
“Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day,”
maybe on his way out the door, or “Please,
lend your little ear to my pleas,”
while he stood at the stove stirring
spaghetti sauce, a dishtowel tucked
into his waistband.
Yet, every so often:
“You had plenty of money
in 1922 . . .” Ancient financial history.
“But you let other women make a fool of you.”
Dad in a blue mood, echoing a dark lady’s lament.
“Why don’t you do right, like some other men do?”
Then he’d sing solemnly into the simmering sauce:
“Get out of here and get me some money too.”
I was a resourceful lad, had a bike and paper route money,
found the song at Balboni’s Drugs on a 99¢ RCA Camden
anthology: Lil Green on vocal, Big Bill Broonzy
on guitar. I saw the song was written by
Kansas Joe McCoy, Memphis Minnie’s ex-husband.
Not the old man’s musical neighborhood.
He was a Bing guy.
Years later I finally tuned in to the white lady
who taught Dad to Do Right: Peggy Lee,
Girl Singer and Goddess, holding her own at the mike
in front of Benny Goodman’s Orchestra. My father
was a Bing guy, but Peggy caught his ear and held on.
Peggy. Also my mother’s name: a perfect poetic
coincidence. Peggy, spinning Lil Green’s Bluebird 78
in neon hotel rooms on mean rainy Sundays. Something
out of Edward Hopper. Something out of Cornell
Woolrich. Something out of America the Beautiful
and the Cool. Could be he heard it on his sister Viola’s
Crosley or on Armed Forces Radio while I was lying
in my crib in that Concord Street apartment, my mother
reading True Confessions nearby. Peggy and Dad
and Lil: a magnificent, melodic ménage a trois.
Like Muddy Waters,
Lil Green made her way
from Clarksdale to Chicago,
where she died
on my 10th birthday,
bequeathing to us
the ultimate musical query.
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