DEAR ERASMUS, DIE

Today we welcome the rain, hope
that the wheaty winter lawn will
show some other color under its care.

The birds ignore the clouds,
accept the rain, care little how
our lawn looks, their next meal
of always greater importance.

I am losing the vision in one eye,
know I may soon be king
of the country of the blind,
and sadly curse Erasmus
for his gift of proverb, one
that slipped off the tongue
when my eye could still see it.

We will welcome the sun tomorrow
or the day after, for too much
rain or sun demands change
and nothing is really ever
wholly within our control.

HUP TWO, MY ASS

WARNING: A SHORT STORY, SO A LONGER READ THAN USUAL. BUT WORTH IT HOPEFULLY

He wondered why he allowed himself to be in this position. He
knew that he didn’t actually allow it, he courted it. But you could
claim allowance when you chose the lesser, by far, of two evils.
As a child, his mother always told him he was fragile, that he
should avoid overly strenuous activities and drafts. With the
Vietnam “conflict” waging, that was one time he thought his
mother right, one draft to definitely avoid. So he enlisted in the
Air Force. “Choose the devil you want to dance with, if you have
to dance with the devil,” a friend said. He didn’t think it would be
all that bad. Sure, he’d heard stories, but who didn’t tell stories,
other than him. He would learn. Lesson one was the large sign on
the gate, “Welcome to Lackland Air Force Base, Gateway to the
Air Force.” Gateway to limbo was more like it, though it seemed
a bit like hell.

They had been in line for what seemed like hours. In San Antonio
in April, when the humidity is up, minutes seem like hours. They
looked reasonably absurd, hair of all lengths and colors, a motley
of pants, and all in the sickly yellow t-shirt with U.S. AIR
FORCE across the chest. They entered the building in single file,
emerged moments later as motley as ever but each and every one
skin headed, courtesy of Lackland’s finest barbers (though he
doubted they had taken a single class in cosmetology). And they
looked none the better for effort.

The one thing you could trust was that if you felt the least bit
insulted by the Air Force, the injury that had to accompany it was
just around the next corner. At least they knew he was coming,
had the correct names on his uniforms. And the sort of fit. Save
the combat boots. “We’ll fix those tomorrow,” Sgt. Leal bellowed,
“just put the damn things on!” Then it was time for the ID Photo,
and a string of “stop smiling, moron, just look at the camera.”
And magically, moments later, he had grown four inches. When
he told Sgt. Leal he needed a new ID, Leal scowled, “No, dipshit,
you need to grow four inches. Get on with it!”

He’d always been a night person. Uncle Sam cured him of that in
about two days. 9 to 5 was once a working day he assumed. The
Air Force taught him that it was a sleeping night. And the alarm
wasn’t a trumpet call like in the Boy Scouts. It was the bellowing
of Sergeant Leal. Fifteen minutes later, they were showered,
dressed in the uniform of the day, always the OD’s, and in
formation outside the dorm. Yes, dorm, although the same
building across town at Fort Sam Houston was an old WWII era
barracks. A short march later and they were at the chow hall, it
was only amess in the Army and Marines, and with his daily dose
of SOS (shit on a shingle) and a silent prayer for the pig so cruelly
disposed of, then it was finally time to play soldier.

He remembered what it was like parading around in the Texas
sun. You didn’t use sunscreen, the asinine pith helmet was
supposed to protect you. It simply made you look stupid, you
thought, but one in a sea of stupid so you never felt out of place.
The uniforms were that olive that seemed to cry out “witness the
fool unable to avoid this drab outfit.” They gathered sweat as
would a sponge, but dried quickly enough since you would wear
them again in two days, and they wouldn’t be washed for a week.
You looked forward to night, when a hint of coolness arrived,
hopefully with sleep before the Drill Sergeant bellowed to greet
another day in the Air Force’s version of hell.

Far and away the worst duty in boot camp was kitchen work in
the Visiting Officers Dining Rooms. KP was never fun, but
usually it was dish out the slop that too often passed for meals,
scrape plates and load the industrial dishwasher, avoid the mess
sergeant or keep him happy and hide when you could. But the
VODR was a whole different world. You had officers from
countless countries who expected to be treated as invited guests
who wanted what they wanted when the wanted it how they
wanted it. And they dripped arrogance on a good day. It was
never a good day in the Visiting Officers Dining Room.

He was still four inches short of his goal when he made the short
hop from Lackland to Kelly, for his police training. He had be
told that since he would be trained for the Security Forces, they
would have to reissue his ID card. And this time there was an
even chance they would get it right. He held out hope. His hope
was misplaced, and when he was injured in a bar in downtown
San Antonio while still in training, we accepted a transfer into the
Air Force Reserves, with the stipulation that they wouldn’t expect
him to grow the missing four inches.

Be thankful you didn’t join the army, was his sergeant’s most
common refrain. Sarge was a lifer, or at least trying to hang on
until he could quit and never really work again. Wouldn’t know
how to do a real job, he said, and wouldn’t want to have to learn.
Nobody with half a mind joined the Army if they could get out of
it. He saw that at his physical with all the probable draftees
feigning this or that to duck service. Thing is, only real money
bought your way out, and he wouldn’t know that until years later,
once the war was no more than a faint memory to most.

Things went as badly in Security training as he expected. On his
first call, riding shotgun with two Security Forces officers, they
responded to a bar fight downtown where a half dozen Air Force
trainees decided to take on two Army Rangers. It wasn’t pretty,
less so when the last Airman standing decided to miss the Ranger
with the padded chair he was swinging and struck him. He knew
instantly his Security days were over. The Air Force agreed five
weeks later, transferring him to the Reserves. “And with a bum
wrist, we’ve got to change your assignment. You are now a Clerk-
Typist.”

That was the brilliance of the Air Force Personnel specialists. If
you have a bad wrist, they make you a typist. As one why and
he’s likely to say, “But your index fingers still work, right?” They
did, but the base doctor still said he wasn’t fit to type, so it would
be another day shuttling between the NCO club and the BX, with
a stop for lunch down the road at the Pig and Whistle. Even there,
the hot dogs had pork, but there was no shingle, so it was a major
improvement over his nightmares of Lackland.

Once in the Reserves, the rest of his service became a game: he
versus the Air Force. The Base doctor made it clear that he was
not fit for typing, the wrist continuing to be a problem. So his job
was to sit around and stay out of the way. But for most jobs in the
Air Force you could train by reading and passing basic test of
knowledge, not demonstrating any real skill. In short order this
clerk typist who couldn’t type (ironically though he could but for
the injury) became a qualified Medical Clerk, Legal Clerk,
Chaplains Assistant (a particularly useful AFSC on a base with no
Chaplain, and a Loadmaster Apprentice. Any job you could learn
from the books he did. He wouldn’t dare do any of them. That was
how the military always got into the messes it seemed to relish.
But it kept his NCO and commanding officer happy, and if they
were happy, well, you get the picture. But the wrist was no better,
and eventually the base doctor, a pediatrician by training, decided
it was time to get him help or get him out.

Then the fun really began. The wrist was still acting up so he
went to the V.A. Hospital. And that began the next chapter in the
Government That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (although it could shoot
itself in its foot with surprising accuracy). He filled out the
paperwork. He waited. It was like he was back in the Air Force,
the waiting, but no uniforms this time. Finally the letter. The
Army has no record of your service. A phone call, a patient clerk,
a “well that would explain it. I’ll put it right through. I can get you
an appointment Thursday in the Orthopedic Clinic. Don’t tell
anyone we fit you in.” No one would believe it anyway. And two
weeks after the clinic appointment, on his scheduled weekend
duty, the base doctor called him in to his office. The Captain of
his unit was there as well. He knew and smiled as he saw them.
“The VA says you need surgery and they have a doc who can do
it. Problem is they can operate on those still in the Air Force, so
you are being discharged. Honorably, of course. We’ll have the
paperwork ready by Sunday, so hit the Base Exchange (such as it
is) one last time, you will be a Veteran by Monday.”

First published in Green Silk Journal, Spring 2020
https://www.thegsj.com/spring-2020-.html

ANGLE OF INCIDENCE

Dusk reflects dawn much as
dawn reflects dusk, and it is
our fear of night and deep need
for direction that sets them apart.

Imagine a photograph of the sun
hovering just over the horizon,
compass-less we do not know
what preceded, what will follow.

We prefer day and dawn, for
it is then we feel in control,
our thoughts leashed, our fears
locked away from sight and touch.

Dusk promises only night,
the darkness where our fears
find corners in which to hide,
only to spring out unwanted.

So we turn away from the sky,
unsinged by its flaming beauty,
hide ourselves from and in fear
as nature laughs at our foolishness.

QUESTION POSED, AWAITING A RESPONSE

I stooped and spoke
to a stone, asking the question.
I was here before you arrived
and I will be her long after you leave.
I held the sand in my hand
warm from the sun, asking the question.
I came after your arrived
and I will leave long before you are gone.
I held the winter wind on the tip
of a finger, asking the question.
I am not here now
and I have never been here.
I touched the waters
to my lips, asking the question.
I was above you when you came
and I will be below you when you go.
I saw the flames dance
before me, asking the question.
You were ashes once
and you shall be ashes again.
I stood mired in the clay
clinging to my legs, asking the question.
It is of me you were formed
and it is to me you will return.
I sat at the foot of God
blinding light, asking the question.
You cried to me at birth
and you will cry to me at death.

First Published in The Poet: Faith Vol. 1, Spring 2021
https://www.thepoetmagazine.org/spring-2021—faith

BENEATH THE WAVES

She says she has always wanted
to swim like a dolphin, and she laughs
when others tell her that she can,
in the Florida Keys and in Hawaii.

She tells them that anyone, at least
anyone with money can swim
with the dolphins, but she wants
to swim like a dolphin as well.

She wants to see the sky appear
through the veil of water as she
breaches for a breath, the surface
a boundary easily stretched.

She wants to hear the songs
of whales, the conversations of her
peers, and the deep silence nature
occasionally affords in the world aquatic.

She sits on the shore, the waves
lapping at her feet, the sun
emblazoning the water, sees a fin
appear in the shallows and dreams.

NO BIALYS TODAY

No one looked up when the Buddha
walked into the deli and took a seat
at the counter, “Pastrami on rye, and
lean, with mustard on the side, and two
slices of full dill and a side of slaw.”

As he sipped the Dr. Brown’s Cream
Soda, the waitress smiled at him,
asked, “Are those robes comfortable,
winter isn’t all that far off, you know.”

Buddha smiled, and with a serene calm
said, “It all depends on what you wear
beneath, I prefer a silk-cotton blend,
but some I know want only organics.”

As he finished, a younger, swarthy
man entered, his robes bleached white
from the sun, his dark hair long,
sandals worn down, and came
over to Buddha, sat down with
a nod to the waitress, and instantly
a corned beef on pumpernickel
appeared, at which point Buddha
muttered “Christ, how do you do that?”

First published in Bengaluru Review: Spring, 2021
https://bengalurureview.com/bengaluru-review-spring-2021

THE POND

Along the shore
of the pond wishing
it was a lake,
the anhinga proudly
shows off the small fish
that will be his
mid-morning snack.

The egret finds
this show of ostentation
abhorrent and returns
to her search
for bugs on the reeds
fringing the shore.

The alligator swims
lazily off shore
hoping we will
soon pass, and
considers whether
he wants only to sun,
or if an anhinga would
make a good meal.

MEMORY

We were told the average background color of the universe was turquoise.  She said “that’s because a coyote ripped it from the mountains outside Cerrillos.  But now they say it’s actually a shade of dark beige, drying mud colored.”  It was a glitch in the software, the astronomers said.  The coyote was unmoved.

She sits on the floor sorting coupons and roughly clipped articles on herbs and natural remedies.  Occasionally she looks down at the hollow of her chest, at the still reddened slash left by the scalpel.  “I’ve got no veins left.  I hate those damn needles. If they want to poison me, I’ll drink it gladly.  Socrates had nothing on me.”

I rub her feet as she slides into the MRI tube, and pull on her toes.  “I can pull you out at any time.”  I look at my wrist but there is no time in this room, checked at the door.  Just the metronomic magnet.  As she emerges she grabs my hand, presses it against my chest.  I cradle her head and trace the scar across her scalp, trying to touch the missing brain matter, the tumor it nestled, pushing aside the brittle hair.  “Lightly toasted,” she whispers with a weak smile.  She hates white coats and stethoscopes.  “They’re the new morticians.”  They take her in small sections.  She is a slide collection in the back of my closet, on the pathologists shelf.  I want to gather them all and reassemble her.  I want her to be a young girl of fifteen again.

Coyotes wander down from the Sandia hills.  They gather outside the Santo Domingo Pueblo, sensing the slow seepage of heat from the sun baked adobe.  There is no moon.  They know each star.  They stare into the darkened sky.  They see only turquoise.

Reprised from March 31 2016

IN CHORUS

Deep in a small forest,
a murmuring brook reflects
the shards of sun sliding
through the crown of pines,
its whispered wisdom
infinitely more clear
than the babbling of men
holding the reins firmly
in distant cities of power.

The birds know this well,
sing of it in chorus, nature’s
music, jazz scatting that
the graying clouds absorb,
an always willing audience,
and the wind rushing by
cries through the trees
in the voice of long dead 
poets whose words offer
a truth to which cloistered
talking heads have grown deaf.

First published in Pages Penned in Pandemic , 2021