CALLING HIM BACK FROM LAYOFF
By Bob Hicock
I called a man today. After he said
hello and I said hello came a pause
during which it would have been
confusing to say hello again so I said
how are you doing and guess what, he said
fine and wondered aloud how I was
and it turns out I’m OK. He
was on the couch watching cars
painted with ads for Budweiser follow cars
painted with ads for Tide around an oval
that’s a metaphor for life because
most of us run out of gas and settle
for getting drunk in the stands
and shouting at someone in a t-shirt
we want kraut on our dog. I said
he could have his job back and during
the pause that followed his whiskers
scrubbed the mouthpiece clean
and his breath passed in and out
in the tidal fashion popular
with mammals until he broke through
with the words how soon thank you
ohmyGod which crossed his lips and drove
through the wires on the backs of ions
as one long word as one hard prayer
of relief meant to be heard
by the sky. When he began to cry I tried
with the shape of my silence to say
I understood but each confession
of fear and poverty was more awkward
than what you learn in the shower.
After he hung up I went outside and sat
with one hand in the bower of the other
and thought if I turn my head to the left
it changes the song of the oriole
and if I give a job to one stomach other
forks are naked and if tonight a steak
sizzles in his kitchen do the seven
other people staring at their phones
PASSING THROUGH ALBUQUERQUE
By John Balaban
At dusk, by the irrigation ditch
gurgling past backyards near the highway,
locusts raise a maze of calls in cottonwoods.
A Spanish girl in a white party dress
strolls the levee by the muddy water
where her small sister plunks in stones.
Beyond a low adobe wall and a wrecked car
men are pitching horseshoes in a dusty lot.
Someone shouts as he clangs in a ringer.
Big winds buffet in ahead of a storm,
rocking the immense trees and whipping up
clouds of dust, wild leaves, and cottonwool.
In the moment when the locusts pause and the girl
presses her up-fluttering dress to her bony knees
you can hear a banjo, guitar, and fiddle
playing “The Mississippi Sawyer” inside a shack.
Moments like that, you can love this country.
By Joe Bolton
Tonight, because they’re not in jail, our downstairs neighbors
Are having a party. Deep Purple
Seeps up through the floor, and if there were chandeliers,
They’d tremble like flowers in water.
In the white noise between songs, I can hear Ricardo Planas,
Our fellow resident from El Salvador,
Cursing beautifully in Spanish. The guys downstairs,
So far as we can tell, do nothing
Except get themselves arrested every week or so. I think
They’re dangerous, and you think
They just need to get laid. And, by god, they’re trying.
They hoot and whistle, trying to seduce
Coeds off the street, but the coeds aren’t going for it,
No matter how resourcefully their backsides
Are described. It’s dusk, and it’s soggy hot in here,
So I decide to give up the literary life
For a gin and tonic and a view from the window.
Over the building across the street
That used to be a grocery store that used to be
A TV repair shop that used to be
A pet cemetery and which a young couple and their huge dog
Have been trying to make into a home
For the past month, the sky is vaguely Turneresque
Through a new green fleece of the willows.
The intensity of almost-summer is pulsing through the city
Like heroin through the addict’s veins,
The dog is sleeping to forget the weight of his chain,
And the couple are enjoying their Cablevision.
Or maybe they’re not. The woman stands in the doorway
Contemplating the party downstairs, then,
Without explanation or goodbye to the man, comes striding
Across the street to join it.
She is sadly pretty in her earth shoes and cut-offs
And shirt that says she’s a Pepper,
Her hair looking blown as if by some imaginary breeze.
She can’t be more than seventeen,
And the man, who can’t be much more than that,
Stands open-mouthed at the doorway.
“Victoria!” he screams, loud enough for me
To hear it over the music.
“Where in the hell do you think you’re going?”
No answer I can make out.
“What in the hell are you doing to me, Victoria?”
She’s disappeared below the window.
“Goddamnit, Victoria! We’re not talking about a relationship,
We’re talking about marriage!”
I’m embarrassed for him, and a little uneasy, and you
Want to know what’s going on.
“Do you love me, Victoria? Do you love me?”
Apparently, she doesn’t. He shakes
His fist as us or at the gods, then skulks back inside.
I’m having visions of his returning
With a shotgun to blow away the guys downstairs,
And perhaps me, too, and perhaps even
Ricardo Planas, who doesn’t speak English well enough
To debauch anybody’s wife.
I glance at you and you arch my eyebrows to suggest one last
Sweaty quickie before I’m killed.
But when the guy comes back outside, he’s still
Barefoot, and armed only with a bottle
Of Jack Daniel’s. He takes a long swig of bourbon,
Then sits down on the sidewalk
And starts to cry, his bony chest heaving.
I turn away. You’ve gone back
To the wild casserole you’re concocting, and we
Say nothing of what we’ve seen or heard
When I come back into the kitchen to pour myself another.
I wander into the bedroom,
Light a cigarette, and lie down on the bare floor.
The music throbs through me
Like an infection; the amber streetlights make
Impossible maps on the walls.
A siren whines nearer and nearer, then fades away.
The party will go on for hours,
Long past the time when sleep will seem our luxury.
Maybe the young couple across the street
Will piece things back together; maybe Victoria
Will ride west on a stolen motorcycle
With one of the guys downstairs and never be
Heard from again; maybe her husband
Will hang himself to show her just how much
He loves her. Maybe Ricardo Planas
Is thinking, this evening, of the beautiful woman
He loved who was shot to death
For no reason on an otherwise quiet street in San Salvador.
I don’t know what any of it means or matters.
In the morning, sure as sunrise, we’ll all dress our bodies
And walk out hungover into America.