The potato has its own eyes,
dry as a sermon.
It’s a cruel, hard, inviolate vegetable,
able to live in a burlap bag
with a hundred others of its kind.
As she peels its dull skin,
her fingers form a cold compromise
with the blade.
If the cut is slow and even,
it will leave her flesh alone.
And, if her eyes are to water,
they must do it on their own.
Her husband’s in the military.
In his world, potato peeling
She hasn’t seen enough of him lately
to appreciate the irony.
There’s no gruff sergeant standing over her
unless life itself is a gruff sergeant.
She looks up every now and then
but that’s not where the orders come from.
She much prefers onions.
They attack her eyes
from the first invasion of their skin.
Tears well up
and who’s to say where they’re coming from.
A potato is indifferent.
An onion sympathizes.
My neighbors were staring at two large black men from across the street. They were the ones carrying Helene’s body. Both were two of the biggest people I ever seen. They came down the stairs and looked no different than movers with a coffee table. As if it weren’t bad enough everybody was standing around to watch her get carted away, I also saw her hair fall out from the way it was tucked under that blanket. Those men didn’t stop. They continued on as her hair nearly swept the pavement.
I’d seen her hair only once before.
- Hollace M. Metzger and Rehan Qayoom
I remember the day that AM radio first called me to life. It was June 1968, and I was eleven years old. The song I remember best on that day was The Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain.” Birmingham’s WSGN must have played it three times that afternoon. It was an especially tough year to be living in Birmingham: I knew people who laughed when Dr. King was killed and who called Bobby Kennedy a “nigger-lover” even after Sirhan-Sirhan murdered him in a service area. The kids who laughed and rejoiced weren’t inherently ignorant, poor, or trashy. But they were hard on anyone who was shy or plain, anyone whose skin color was dark, anyone who didn’t fit into the crowd. It was difficult and usually impossible to buck these kids, that is, if you wanted to be part of the most popular group around.
On Facebook today, these no-longer kids are the ones “liking” the “Duck Dynasty” family. I can’t lie. What they say still matters to me.
But one of the great equalizers in our youthful era was the AM radio. In Birmingham, that meant WSGN, WVOK, and WAQY. These stations, contrary to other public institutions in Birmingham, knew no racial bias, at least not in their playlists. Neither did they discriminate among popular genres, playing healthy doses of Rock, Pop, Soul, R&B, and Country from Led Zeppelin to Marvin Gaye to Ray Price. Even the semi-classical theme from Love Story and Judy Collins’ version of “Amazing Grace” made it to mainstream Birmingham airwaves. And if no one in my crowd admitted to loving Judy or Marvin, or Lynn Anderson’s “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden,” then explain to me why these songs lingered in the Top Ten week after week?
Hardly a day goes by when I’m not reminded of this era. I pass a fast food drive-in or sit in some carpool line; sometimes I’m even walking through the Prague airport and hear a piece of music I subjected my parents to. Or I read something about my culture, as I did last night when I picked up the latest issue of The Oxford American and ran across a beautiful, insightful journey into the history and fandom of Country star Charlie Rich. While the article should be required reading for anyone who cares about the 60’s, or the South, or rawboned music, what hit me was the first page, the lyrics to Rich’s most beloved song: “Hey, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world?”
Why do song lyrics, or just those words on a page, make me travel to certain streets—to houses that I saw frequently but never entered? Why, when I hear Rich singing those words, do I remember a girl I barely knew from my high school days?
I watched them swaying. They’re terrified I thought;
or is it me who is so afraid to fall?
What’s it like to be the leaf, knowing you are as important as a penny in a millionaire’s hand?
What’s it like to be cautious with every breeze, your fingers frozen to the tips,
and Winter comes like an abusive Father,
down the stairs, your heart breaking with every step?
Or is the Leaf ready for anything? A lover of risk and fate’s cold stare?
There’s the skin I want to be in, when the time comes:
to be like that, and guard against nothing,
to ride the wind, and cradle the air, and fall, and fall, and fall.
Dec 10, 2013
i. Lax Dog Days
“The earth…had entered the phase when cars wear out
more quickly than the soles of shoes.”
— Italo Calvino, The Daughters Of The Moon
Traffic snarled front of a bus stop near LAX, I hear chuffing sounds
from a brooding Van Gogh sunburst vacancy whose pincered fingers pick
imagined bugs out of an absent left ear while euuing crowds hector
the young woman in some sort of high-pitched heat likely No comprender.
Off in the crabgrass, Messr. picks at hair lice, scratches brindled scalp scabs.
ii. Prostate Reveries
One of those smogged-in drizzly days missing the 405 interchange,
a fraught evening commute sours on the Harbor Freeway cloverleaf.
I panic because Sweetie forgot to pack my bladder medicines.
Everyone’s pissed when a hearse cuts us off at Cemetery exit.
iii.Mister Lonelyhearts By Way Of Nathanael West Et. Al.
“Driven by a desperate hunger to the arms of a neon light,
the heart is a lonely hunter when there’s no sign of love in sight!”
― Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Mini Cooper a crushed meringue just ahead of my steel blimp, I’m prey
to day-glo Sgt. Peppers deployed all over Hollywood’s on-ramp.
Caught behind the toy car, windows up to avoid street pagans’ buckets,
surrounding gawkers roll his/hers down to drop in cash contributions
no matter panhandlers’ apparent cause. Which makes me the smug alien
among lifeforms who can fall in love with everyone a little bit.
The chrome handle reminds the four-year-old boy of a glimmering star he saw through his bedroom window the night before. The handle is attached to the rear suicide door of his father’s blue ’49 Mercury sport sedan. The boy stares at the handle. It’s there for the jiggling, a shiny temptation not to be denied.
He fiddles with the handle as it reflects his face. He sticks out his tongue and laughs. He wrinkles his nose, which looks long and crooked in the handle’s mirror-like surface. Then he shakes his wavy brown hair. The reflection makes it look as if he has a sea creature’s tentacles jangling from his scalp.
Sitting with him in the back seat, big sister Samantha shakes her head and says, “stop fooling around J.J.” He jiggles the handle again, just because he can. He looks at his sister, hears her sigh heavily and turn away, and he smiles at her reaction.
He runs his finger across the top of the handle. Its arc reminds him of a swan’s neck. At the tip of the handle there are four grooves. He runs his fingernails between the grooves. He imagines small armies of space creatures in each of them. At the point where the handle is attached to the door, there is a circular fitting, etched with three rings, each ring of slightly greater diameter than the last, so that the fitting increases in size the closer it is to the door. It looks like the future to J.J., like something you see on a rocket ship built for intergalactic travel.
His father bought the Mercury just weeks before, used but in “like-new” condition, as all cars were in the gleaming, go-go 1950s. The salesman didn’t use the words “suicide doors”; he said “rear-hinged” instead. He said they offered easier exit and entry, especially convenient for the back passenger compartment, and they were stylish too. He didn’t mention that rear-hinged doors open much easier than front-hinged ones when the car reaches a certain speed. Never give the buyer more information than needed: that was the salesman’s motto.