Jackpots and Gunshots

When we first met,
there were only flames.
There was heat and light,
and that lovely sunset
shade of yellow-orange—
but up close—up close
the world is just one fire.

One fire the train.
One fire the circus.
One fire the burning heart.
One fire.
We should have known.
We should’ve known that iron road.

Our small figures are blackened
coals glowing, fixed in their tracks
straight for the heart of the sun.

Is this what we’re supposed to be doing?

Breakfast was diesel fuel
and black tobacco, the cries
of virgins writhing
in our ears, and we’re still hungry
for sin. A drink to forget
does nothing for the hunger.

Our past tried to swear us to secrecy.
Let those years drift
in their weight of sorrows.
Let them forget
themselves, and
let us forget forgetting.

On that first night
there was a long table set
for us two little gnomes
and our many-hundred demons.
Each plate formed from the alluvium
of a century, storm-drifted in deep
under the foundations, and then shattered
to shape for each guest.

Here’s your fragment, your shard,
your mirror-edge, your warning.
Here’s your danger, your night service,
your thigh bruised purple.
Here’s your cold draft,
your warts, your swollen tongue,
your clumps of hair.
Here’s your plate—your history of plague.

A dirty band of men played a jazz fugue
as the servers emerged from a mirrored cabin.
A girl hauled her mattress
with a chain, while another collected
tears in a jar like tacks. A woman lay languid
and raw in a coffin overflowing with honey.

A nurse, falling out of her dress,
blood on her shins
from where she walked blind
into the thorns.
And our sister!
Somehow she escaped her prison,
chased by dog’s teeth across a yard of sticks
and bone, mud-soiled shoes,
jackpots and gunshots.

Each woman carried a smoking jug
of mezcal and a whip,
turning and cracking at the sirens
in the distance, a hog turning on the spit.

Finally one arrived and leaned
between us to make her offer.
In a hollow in her chest, carved
from the meat and circuitry,
the hydraulic hoses and close-fit tendons
left space for a side-scrolling sign.
Tiny white flowers fought at the edges,
and there in the corner was a key,
almost hidden by the sand.

and then she was singing

So fucking cute.

We stared at her tits,
thinking of what sick message
we could slip into her subconscious.
We kissed her neck and reached
to feel the weight of her flesh.
We saw her in black and white, stripped
and tied to a rail, high above the city.

Is this what we were supposed to be doing?

Wax pooled on the table
as the candles burnt down,
and then all the women were singing:

Dear sweet man of mine
I think you’ve got me wrong
When I said that it was love
What I meant was cigarettes and wine…

Now we’re breathing
together, and we leave the world
dreaming of dreaming, dreaming
of black coffee, dreaming
of bicycles—and then dreaming
of silence, dreaming of darkness,
and then,
only darkness.

I Wanted to be a Clam

I’m standing in a torn-up lot,
my toes hanging over
the edge of the earth.

The world behind me disappears,
and I am surrounded
by the music of sailboats
at anchor, the water-full
easing of wooden docks,
the winging of shorebirds.

Crystalline light extends to a far wall
of silent rust. In the center,
a ghost trapezoid,
a shaft of quiet exploding upwards,
a white ship.

I follow the lines between tides,
the unending curves of whirlpools,
surging over shallow reefs
to find all the coves unvisited,
and finally, a lion
with his old, cracked bell.
around my head. My eyes are full.

I touch my ear as I’m washing my hair
    I know you’re there behind me
I sink into the dark sand
    left in the coffee filter
I hand you the cup
I wait all day to curl in sleep
    around your body
I walk nowhere
I will not walk
    until I remember your name

There is an equation
that locates every place
in the blue of time—
the same equation
which proves that place needs time,
but time needs no place.
Time is.
Place was.

I’ve swallowed the wind,
and the cold has sunk
right to my core.
Uphill in the bright
winter sun, I shiver
the mystery of fall trees.

I wanted to be a clam,
steaming in the morning light,
my grey shell easing open.
What else can I do
to become myself?
I would need another lifetime.

I would have become a father long ago
    if I was not so afraid of being alone
I am in danger
    of being less than other men
What I choose can never be enough
I am short of breath
I will not breathe
    until I remember your name

Looking west
across a city built on sand,
my memories wrestle for air.
A machine
works away in the dark.
Ancient fire
explodes in the street.
Bricks climb mortar
climbs gold.

Here I threw a bunch of roses
from the window of my truck,
watching them
paint the crosswalk at 16th and Nightbirds.
I saw the same bright red at 2am
on a Tuesday as I made a left by the park.
From there, the avenues are drawn
straight down to the damp grey light.

I look to the horizon,
take bits of cloud in my hands
and place them in my open mouth,
feeding myself scraps of sky.
There are no words.
My eyes are full.

I can speak too many languages
I say yes too easily
What good would it do me to see you?
I had to borrow a heart
I will have no heart
    until I can remember your name

I draw cards and pull a banana-square,
a cup of tea,
a broken branch.
I stare and stare my eyes
to slits, staring into the space
between shells, the places
I would crawl through
when I was small,
the dark corners,
my hideouts.

I dig, when I can,
and when I cannot dig, I sleep.

Leaving California

Earlier this summer, a woman that I met in an elevator in Italy thirty years ago wrote to tell me of a dream. I read her message watching the stars whirl above the purple slopes of Mt Shasta at midnight. When we spoke some weeks later, I said it felt like a love letter, and she said that it was. After another short while she asked, “would you come?” And so I left California, heading east. 

I drove straight through the fires, not making my first stop until I pulled off in Reno on E. In California I left one very curious monk, one old friend newly with cancer, my mother and father, and a storage unit in San Rafael. I’ve tried to leave fifty times. I tried to leave North Beach in ’98 and I still get my hair cut there whenever I can. I left Potrero Hill in 2014 after crossing Market Street for what I thought was the last time. I left Sausalito just last year, and I still cry sweet memories every time I stop for coffee there. 

I love my native city, and yet I’m on the road at a moment’s notice, chasing a dream across three thousand miles of empty terrain. Trying to make up for lost time. Trying to fill in some missing part of my history, the old black and white family photo above the fireplace, corners turned and yellow, a dirty scrap leant up there with two candles and an old pocketknife. The photo that I don’t have, the photo that isn’t me, the photo that doesn’t exist of me, still happily married to a girlfriend from college. I still feel that I should’ve done better. I’ve felt this way forever. I know that it’s supposed be not my fault, but I find that very hard to digest. I still feel like I fucked up. 

I get some gas at the off-ramp and then stop to grab a sandwich from a friend. She says I’m doing the right thing. I take a last bite of turkey on two-day-old bread, anxious to get back on the road. She steps outside to water her garden of rocks and ash and I get back in the van and punch in directions for a two-lane through the Nevada backcountry. 

Twenty miles out, barely past Sparks, I feel a bump. The tire pressure sensor lights up and I watch in disbelief as it drops from 50 to 38 to 22 to 9. I roll to a stop on the shoulder, road hum replaced by the roar of passing chromeships making for Winnemucca, Elko, and Salt Lake. My rig sits lopsided in a spray of shredded rubber, piss jugs and dusty sage. I have a spare but I don’t trust it going into the desert at night, and now I’m laughing at the cards I pulled before leaving—the Destroyer and the Gem. I swing open the door and look back west towards Reno, a glowing smear across the wide Carson valley. I’ve barely left town, and the whole place has filled with smoke. The weak red sun is already close to the horizon. It stand there for a minute, thinking about what a dream might cost me, and then I step out and bend to change the tire.