Tomorrow / You will not die / But you will drop eggs / Down an iron well.
The lady in the tower
hurls oranges at the moon.
With fingers like shivs,
she peels black from night.
When will you open the door,
climb the spiral stairs,
and slip into your grace?
As you decide,
moths flutter on your eyelashes,
a glacial period
recedes from your feet.
When it snows, I’ll compact
a snowball and roll it into fire,
a curled orange peel
exposing its white underside.
Published in our July Issue
Did she sense
her work would fly
inside a screaming bird
above a broken city?
I spotted stacks of bricks
below. She feared bodies lay
heaped on brick piles
dusted with Chicago snow.
The piles contain no dead.
Here it never snows.
I will not be sad –
though birds still scream
and fevered rotors drum like kettles
sealed with taut and beaten hide.
He began masturbating after the baby was born, like clockwork, every morning at 4:26. He tries to be silent, but bubbles rising from the bathtub can never be contained by the parameters of his wife’s auditory threshold. It is during one of these trances of euphoric derangement that he realizes his son is sick.
At first the boy didn’t finish his birthday cake, claiming his stomach ached, but when he wouldn’t touch his scrambled eggs or bacon the next morning his mother knew something was out of the ordinary; so the boy said he was sick, though he had no fever. When he refused soup, nachos, and didn’t touch any solid foods for four days, she knew it was time to take him to the doctor.
She doesn’t need to drag him out of the race car bed either, because he is strong from the two cartons of Tropicana orange juice he swallows each day. The dried-up pulp sticks to his chin, the corners of his lips. The boy inches through the narrow opening between the rusty chicken fence and the shed where his father sits in his underpants. Testes itching, he rubs himself with a shriveled feather that landed on his head the day before the boy was born.
“It’s a robin’s feather,” the man says.
He’s told the boy this a thousand times and the boy’s first word was “feda” but the man wants the boy to hear it again. The kid is wearing clean underpants, his favorite pair: with the rocket ship and the pirate flag. The father wears Hanes with a huge hole in the middle which grows larger and more frayed every illness. The man never soils himself, but they have turned an awkward shade of yellow, and he refuses to wear any other pair or wash them, strangely becoming part of the cold cement which he sits upon sixteen hours a day.
The boy’s fingers are imprinted in the concrete and he places them over the memory now as he’s done a hundred times, but he’s always amazed at how small the engraving is, his hands getting wider, his fingers taller, the etchings disappear within him but he can feel the dent, knows it will be there long after the doctor has died and his bones swallow the fibers of undergarments Michael Jordan made famous with his trademark smile. The man looks more like Michael Jordan’s father.
¨I played golf with the greatest athletes ever, ¨ the doctor says.
He brags about it all the time. The signed scorecard is thumb-tacked in the corners, Michael Jordan’s signature centered perfectly as if by the electromagnetic gravity of the sun on a bulletin board beside a colored map of the world. The doctor always addresses the boy with this knowledge of his idol from Chicago glory days in the early nineties. The doctor even lived on 23 Toros Avenue, in an affluent suburban house with red shutters before the psychosis began to feed off the wisdom of hairy earlobes.
The man starts shaving his entire body while lying in the shadows late at night, talking to the demons in the porcelain streaks that the naked eye can never see, taunting his five o’clock shadow in the foggy mirror. The ghosts battle until the mumbles become loud enough for the woman to wake.
Again, he began masturbating after the baby was born, like clockwork, every morning at 4:26. He tries to be silent, but the bubbles rising from the orifices of all corners of his personality can’t be contained by the parameters of consciousness. The acoustics in that bathroom are fabulous, the echoes from the empty crevasses bounce off the vanity mirror and immaculate toilet like magic, a studio 54 secret room similar to the one where the man met his maker.
“Can we begin our session?”
The old man looks at his wrist where the watch used to be, struggling into a praying mantis yoga pose. The boy gets closer so he can rub the fresh scabs on his father’s legs where the man has cut himself with the rusty razor.
“Criss-cross applesauce,” the boy says.
It’s the first word the woman has heard about food from her son for days; she looks up as the room darkens and drizzle begins to pelt the tin roof, filling the interior of the doctor’s office with a fresh scent that reminds the woman of California summers.
¨Why aren’t you eating?¨
The boy has lost weight, the woman understands that if he does this for another couple weeks he could trigger irreversible organ damage. His heart needs the nutrients; the boy is still growing and sudden cardiac arrest is always a possibility in this family.
The man scratches his ear, looks at his finger, licks it, thinking about the hole in the ceiling that he never fixed; as always it begins leaking. The boy watches as the cardboard in worn-out spots begins to darken and bubbles form like greedy vultures. Duct tape icicles protrude, dripping cold water from their tips, growing larger by the minute.
The boy was born poor, but he notices the family photos of the early days, in the perfect gold frames with the inscriptions about love and hunger for eternity together. The woman always talks about the revolutions sweeping the Middle East, the need for change. Her Obama “Yes We Can” t-shirt has too many holes to count, so she only wears it on election nights in foreign countries. The photographs of Morocco, France, the Caribbean: she tells the boy all about those places, the strange fading photos of dark women with bananas on their heads, the man with the machete and the donkey that took the woman an hour or more to focus; but the boy only knows the 7.2 megapixel digital camera the man gave him for Christmas.
“Take the world with you always,” the man had said.
The boy gets a kick from the woman and then opens up to the doctor. He places his lips inside the secret compartment where he goes for confession, freshly showered arms and legs sucking up dust and grime on the floor. The old man moans and offers the boy the sacrament, the same knowledge flows through him every session.
“How much are you drinking?”
The woman explains the massive juice binge and the diarrhea, but the boy shakes back and forth, unsure of which personality to turn toward, which vortex to enter inside the doctor’s skull. He doesn’t want his parents to know the extent of his disease. The voices inside his mind console with those voices coming from his father’s mouth: the doctor and patient, the Hippocratic Oath enforced by a sling on the ground and a drop of blood on a feather.
The water begins to cover the floor and the boy’s mother gets down on her knees, cups her hands, and scoops it up. She begs her son to drink, does the math in her head and counts the broken eggshells on the hotplate in the corner where they tie the voices down on a soiled mattress and listen to the wind as the boy thrashes and the needle feeds him spoonfuls of eggs and baking soda beneath a fluorescent lighter.
“It hurts bad.”
“Bacon and pancreas and dirty Hanes and an old Dr. J basketball hoop in the corner.”
Michael Jordan makes his first appearance as the doctor is placing his hand against the boy’s face to wipe away the tears with the feather. Charles Barkley speaks in the background as a sun shower devours the backyard and the boy jumps for the hoop.
The moon rises higher as the kittens gather at the door and stick their tails beneath the weeping wood. The doctor writes another prescription and sends the boy home.
Published in our first issue, Fall 2011
It’s dusk in San Diego, the in-between time, the border between light and dark when the past haunts the soul with memory and loss. Sunset couples embrace more for comfort than for love. The lonely hide. The lights of the city flare to life, exorcising day from night, past from present. Some will remember these fragile moments when memories flash the final string of images.
In a studio overlooking Lindbergh Field, unfinished statues face the window. Some require a simple skin of fiberglass. Others are crude, sexless shapes requiring the Creator to bring form and meaning. There’s a scraping sound. Tiloi Lota, a Tongan wearing a blue sarong and an orchid-print shirt, shapes a white foam block using a steel file. The studio smells like a surfboard shop. The aroma takes Tiloi back to Nukuʻalofa, where he shaped boards for the big wave surfers. He glances at his model.
June Blavatski, a rouged blonde in her sixties, is camped under a galaxy of spotlights. She sits on a wicker throne framed by white columns reminiscent of ancient Greece. She wears a tiara, diamond earrings, and a sapphire gown. Her face is orange and triangular, the product of fad diets, tanning booths, and scalpels. The lights are getting hot—mascara melts off her eyebrows, creating dark circles above the eyes. June crosses her legs. “That looks larger than life, Tiloi.”
“That’s life-size, Mrs. Blavatski.”
“Please, Tiloi, call me June.” She squints as features emerge. “That visage is a bit on the big side. I’m not that big, am I?”
He files in cheekbones. “I could shrink it, but then we’ve got to reduce everything to keep you in perspective.”
“It seems rather large.”
“You don’t want me turning you into a stranger, do you, June?”
“No, I suppose not.” She shades her eyes with a hand.
The filing sound makes Tiloi feel productive. He’s glad he moved on from surfboards to busts; he’s giving people an exquisite rendering of themselves that can’t be achieved with either paintings or pictures. White powder snows over his forearms, falling onto the maple floor. He imagines himself a dark visitor from another planet with white hands and arms, a creature both hated and loved for showing two colors.
June drags a finger over a lid, smudging mascara to the laugh lines on the outer edge of her eye. “May I tell you a secret, Tiloi?” she asks.
“Sometimes I feel like a stranger to myself. Have you ever felt that way?”
“I suppose you’re curious why I hired you at all.”
“Never question a client’s intentions, that’s my golden rule.”
June studies the studio. There’s a tapa cloth print covering the east wall. She pretends it’s the hide of an extinct beast once indigenous to the South Pacific. Artifacts are mounted above the hide: a wooden figurine of a naked boy, a war club, a necklace of human hair, and a headdress made from shark’s teeth. She looks out the picture window on the west wall, fascinated by the planes descending on the city and the blue-lighted runway. She thinks of spirits landing in new bodies to resume quests for enlightenment. She’s overcome by an overwhelming urge to leave her mark on the world, some legacy bigger than her boutique hotels and clutch of charities. “I’ll place your piece in The Camelot Inn,” June blurts.
“In La Jolla?”
“Yes. I was a knight who died in battle.”
“Who said you died?”
“Tea leaf readers, a tarot master, and a clairvoyant. Even my spiritual counselor. I visited an Irish castle and something felt familiar when I walked the floors and held the sword and drank the mead.”
“Yes. But make them young.”
“Pretend I’m on the moon.”
Tiloi zigzags the upper torso into shape. He’s certain, once he gets through this initial shaping and begins refining, her attitude will improve.
“Show the face,” June says.
Tiloi steps aside. The bridge of the statue’s nose and cheekbones are crude yet discernible. The bump that will be breasts juts out like a tumor.
June adjusts her tiara. “Something’s off kilter, I fear.”
Tiloi strolls over to the wall and pulls off the war club. “This will help you remember your warrior past,” he says, handing it over.
She taps the club against the throne’s arm, then raises it above her head and swings it around. The swinging makes her feel good.
Tiloi grabs her jaw. “Power in this chin.”
“You really think so?” she asks, thrusting it up.
“Long neck, sexy as a swan.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
He places a hand on her shoulder. “Raise.”
June lifts. The strap from her gown slips, revealing the tan line on her shoulder. The gold cups of her brassiere glow.
“That’s it, June. A bit more. Inhale and hold.”
She inhales, cups rising.
Tiloi stands back, considering his model. “Lovely,” he says. Her breasts are small yet firm, like the early Tongan mangoes that fall before maturing. She reminds him of a horny divorcee arriving on island shore in a cruise ship. “Exhale, June.”
She exhales. “You’ve always been a sculptor?”
“Excuse my curiosity, but were you ever a dancer?”
“What makes you ask?”
June blushes. “You’ve certainly got the legs for it.”
“I was a fighter on 50th State Wrestling, in Honolulu. My stage name was The Tongan Terror.”
“Good guy or bad guy?”
“Bad guy. Way bad. I was the sworn enemy of The Missing Link and The Masked Executioner. Kids and grannies showered me with soda and pelted me with popcorn. It was like being tarred and feathered every night. One punk dropped his drawers and soaked my Tongan War Boots.”
June pulls up her strap and hooks it back on her shoulder. “Life’s one big lie,” she sighs.
“Oh, I shouldn’t say. It wouldn’t be right.”
“C’mon. I promise not to email The Huffington Post.”
“All right,” June laughs. “I suppose it’s no big deal.”
“I’m really a man.”
Tiloi rewinds her voice and listens again. He hears countertenor, a pitch that brings him back to a she-male on Hotel Street in Honolulu. He circles his work as if it is a fraud, a misrepresentation. “A man,” he says.
“I was born male,” she says, “and that’s what it says on my birth certificate. But something important was missing.”
June rests the club on her lap. “Balls,” she says. “A fat little pecker but no jewels. So, Mommy Dearest decides she wants a girl, but neglects to tell me I’m a sex change. So there I am, high and dry in junior high, feeling like a misfit. I prayed to the Virgin Mary for my first period until my knees bled.”
Tiloi shapes the cheeks. “They chopped it off?”
“A specialist from Stockholm inverted it.”
Tiloi drops his file. A familiar wave moves through him—it’s the old attack of inertia that arrests his vision and imprisons his Muse. His legs cramp. The last time this hit, he was shaping a bust for Sly Stallone. He picks up his file, spasms moving from his tailbone up along his spine.
“You know,” June says, “no balls isn’t such a rarity. Why, there are famous sex-change-at-birth people walking among us. It’s only a little less common than, say, being born a pinhead. And you know how many pinheads are out on the town.”
Tiloi does deep knee bends. The cramping and spasms subside. “Used to wrestle a pinhead,” he tells her. “Emperor Hongo, the Japanese Pinhead. He was really Korean but nobody knew. He’d ram his head into my kidneys and I’d pee blood for a week.”
“My only regret is I couldn’t have children.”
“Your husbands all knew?”
“The first was my high school sweetheart and he split the second I told him. The second knew but turned gay. The third, a Barcelona matador, died in the bullring before I confessed. I was on a world cruise with number four when I dropped my hormones overboard, and by the time we got back to port I’d developed the faintest of beards. I waxed obsessively but he decided he couldn’t live with me anymore because I reminded him of Bruce Jenner.”
“You don’t look like Bruce Jenner.”
“Well thank you, Tiloi.”
He works the chin. “Who are these other sex changes?”
“Barry Manilow’s a good example. And Laura Bush.”
Tiloi blinks dust out of his eye. “Come on. Laura Bush?”
“She has daughters.”
“Twins,” June says, “whisked out of Prague as babies. Don’t you think it’s funny how they look nothing alike?”
Tiloi files feverishly, applying the finishing touches to the face. He knows he’s working too fast. He knows fast work kills art. But he wants this bust skinned with fiberglass before the sky above Point Loma turns apricot with sunrise. Part of him is already paddling out through the oily kelp beds for that first set. He stands aside, making sure not to cast a shadow on the bust. “How’s that, June?”
“Flattering. I must say, I look a little like Aphrodite.”
“The Goddess of Love. She seduced Hermes?”
“Sure. They made Hermaphrodite.”
June crosses her legs. “My, Tiloi, I’m impressed.” The slit in her gown makes her legs appear longer, and she knows that takes off ten years. She likes showing them off. She imagines her sculptor as number five and exploring the outer reaches of the South Pacific with him at her side. Maybe they will discover rare artifacts on remote atolls, priceless stone relics and dolphin-tooth necklaces she can store in the lobbies of her hotels before willing them to a favorite museum. But what if Tiloi rejects her? He knows that, beyond the surgery and the make-up and the gown, she’s really a man.
Tiloi zigzags the torso. He gives the nipples an upward curve, with firm breasts defying gravity. He thinks about his man-root. He doesn’t feel his balls but knows they’re safe behind the sarong. He turns and sees guilt in June’s eyes, as if she suddenly realized any rendering of herself as a woman is a lie. He sees the guilt shift to sadness. She reminds him of a sad clown sitting there, packed with rouge and runaway mascara that give her sockets a hollow look. “You okay, June?”
Tiloi returns to his work. He finishes the neck and glances out the far window. A jet descends on the airport. The cramps and spasms return. But he doesn’t quit, his file shaping the first shoulder. He wishes June Blavatski was a stranger, someone fresh and unfamiliar, like one of the many tourists landing now at Lindbergh Field.
Oh, Goose. Is this what it comes down to? We watch the wind have its way (self-serving, petal fed), your forehead crumples to my cheek, the orange spank and curl of the tiger lily stirs, soft and dead. So much of us touched. How much does it matter that I count your nightgown as open—some strange crop? Like the never powdered face of Palaestra, goddess of wrestling, there is something bronze-bold in your kiss, smoke-spurred, unconquered by the male sex. Don’t call a taxi: let’s cement ourselves to this bench. Leave the sweat and sass to the men. Yes, let them feed themselves on the fight, while we stumble into Heaven. But it’s clear you’d rather play the impasto, pouring too much color, plotting to disarm. And what can I say but paint on; every goddess has their calling. Take Palaestra, pestered by peace, murmured one word, glisten, and men spun arm to arm, oil-veiled and stitch-stripped, inveigled to brawn by our patron lesbian. So I said you were a starling on a polka-stained night; we are what we are called you said, sprouting the corresponding wings and preening for flight. Box me out; dismiss this bloated anchor with its seaweed strap-on. One last kiss and I lift my face to yours (spring chicken sex versus saturnine glow), but before I can say the words, you say I know. Everything must come to this. First the climax, then the blow.