Steakhouse

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My first warning that Crockett’s was a little rundown was the grimy kitchen odor that permeated the place: grease-soaked concrete, pressure washed, steamed broccoli, yeast. It triggered a powerful memory of running around in the kitchen of Mister J's, an ill-fated business venture in which my dad tried his hand at managing a family steakhouse.

There is an appetizer menu pinched between the Heinz Ketchup and the A1 bottles on the table. It’s a generic offering of fried cheese, fried broccoli and cheese, and some other fat bombs, no doubt frozen and bagged, sold as a package to the owner of Crockett’s with this attractive presentation menu, imprinted with Your Restaurant Name Here. Surely, they must’ve thought, now we can compete with the big guys.

Her name is Kari and she’ll be our server this evening. She takes our order briskly, without making eye contact and then vanishes.

A thick, bleach blond manager is distinguished from the teenage waitresses by her short sleeved denim shirt and tie. The girls all wear purple Crockett’s T-shirts (for sale at the hostess stand, $14.95 each). Manager roams the dining room settling disputes. That job will give you a stroke.

An oversized boy, maybe 12 years old, has slid down in the booth next to us so that is head is level with the table. “If our food don’t come, we should just leave,” he’s whining in his whiniest voice. “Can’t we just leave?” This kid seems awful young to be doing the customer service moan. “It’ll be here in a minute,” says his mother, pleading.

The steamed broccoli is a happy green, but drenched in butter or something. It slips around the plate when I cut it with the side of a fork. The fork has one inner tine slightly bent and it scrapes my lips with each bite. 

We start piling our trash in the bowl of peanut shells. The red onions from our salad. The lonely squares of kale that decorated the steak. A slab of blubber from the prime rib. The wrapper from a lemon scented Fold-a-Fresh. The bowl is now the prettiest thing on the table.

The oversized boy and his two even bigger brothers and their mother are eating now. All four are bent over their plates, eating wordlessly. One reaches for a drink. Mom has her head resting in one hand, turned away from the dining room as she feeds herself.

In the men’s room the floor the old brick red with black grout. Then there’s another section where the floor is a grimy terrazzo that looks like it belonged to another room. A guy in one stall appears to be vomiting and smoking at the same time.

Later I peed and it smelled like Baby Back Ribs. I image my dinner was drenched in liquid smoke, frozen in some far off processing plant, thawed and microwaved at the Roadhouse, and slathered with sugary BBQ sauce. The smoky flavoring survived my digestive system with minor alterations.


Fear in French

France

The four of us in Conversational French
that Spring were: Denise, a math major, 
Nooshin, the Persian debutante,
Agnes, the imported instructor,
a round-faced, lollipop francaise,
And me, preoccupied with love.

We spent a weary hour each day
trying to fit opinions through
our flimsy French vocabulaire,
like funnelling Kool Aid through a straw.

Je pense que… Nooshin studied
her manicure. A mon avis…
Denise sunk down behind her books.
I swiveled in my swivel chair,
and watched the clock behind the poor
girl sent from France to be our friend.

We spilled out into madeup words,
into English or just silence.
Agnes would steer us onward to
new topics: la musique popularie,
la politique, le mariage.
But talk was still a sack of bricks
passed around the conference table.

The afternoon when Agnes asked,
De quoi avez vous peur? our blank
stares were misunderstood.
She tried again. What do you fear?
What worries you? Still no one spoke.

Rien? There must be quelque chose.
To the doodler she offered, Le chômage?
To the princess, La guerre?
And to me, L’avenir? I just shrugged.

Outside the window azaleas burst
In tacky, unrepentant pinks.
Maybe I lacked the words in French,
But I think there was a moment when
I wasn’t afraid of anything.


Soundtrack

You stop me underneath the neon sign.
Hear that? You ask, and I am not the kind
of person, yet, who hears these things and smiles.
The hum, you say, plus there’s an orange fuzz
around the street lamps, where muggy air
is changing into mist. Now listen to the hum
and watch the bugs colliding in the light.
You’re making videos these days and this
must be the soundtrack to the Plaza Drug
on Highland Ave. You don’t make any sense
when talking about art but you make eye contact
and that’s enough. Hold my hand. Pretend
you don’t know where the sound is coming from.
It’s like the movie version of our life
where everyone’s the walking dead except
the two of us because we hear the soundtrack
all along and we’re invincible.
I wish I had a camera for every time
you turned the radio up on the interstate
and from that windy wasteland, springs bluegrass
and a t-shirt sleeve flapping from the trunk
of a beat up Honda, to beat the banjo,
at 70 miles per hour. See that? You ask.
But this is not an act, a tragedy
or comedy. We hear the soundtrack swell in
the produce aisle where chrome carts stutter to
Vivaldi or the Marshall Tucker Band.
You record the dogs as they dream and whine
while the percolator twitches on the countertop,
a tractor trailer guzzling to a halt as
an old man clears his throat, conjunto from
the neighbor’s yard while outside our window,
nandinas dance by the air compressor,
a twelve year old doing cartwheels in a leotard
with AC/DC from a background boombox,
and raindrops play piano on the asphalt.
You offer me these clippings like roses
from the yard, one at a time, before they burst.
But this not a gift. Just a soundtrack
at a given time, whether I am there or not.


Baby’s First Cell Phone

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That first August of the new millennium,
the sidewalks teemed with toddlers learning
to walk and talk at the same time,
while poking at their bright toy phones.
There were stories of accidents.

We crawled up out of the subway,
blinking, as if waking from our naps.
We peered around for two comforts:
the towers that nailed down Manhattan,
and the bars on our cell phones.

My boss sent me to the Flat Iron Building
to find a walkie talkie of my own.
The store was like a tall glass ship
cruising due north on Broadway
with its chirping cargo laid out in rows.

Like magic, it could locate Mom and Dad,
in faraway lands. My friends back home,
a list of names, became imaginary.
Their voices conjured in a stairwell,
or elevator, a rooftop dinner party.

You’ll never guess where I am. I thought
myself one of the crazies, receiving
through hot plastic, and glittering guts
a broadcast of so and so’s baby shower,
who married who from high school.

My cellie shivered in its thin green light.
At 2 am, I heard it from the kitchen counter
from across time zones, to be nuzzled
and nursed. Taking on names of men.
I couldn’t keep them straight.

That summer I was stumbling too
along with the flock across avenues,
towards diversion, towards shade-
a training for that sudden moment when
we’d be lifted up, connected, grown.


Swimmer’s Ear

Its been an hour since I floated
on my back– the sky a blindfold,
lungs a raft. My fingers scanned
the teabrown cool, and yanked the cords
of lily pads. We choked the surface,
scooping breath in oily rounds¬–
a dialogue that drowns the sound
of helicopters overhead.
(You float like this to get rescued.)

Impromptu yoga, bend and tilt
the waterway,  entice the tiny
farewell dribble, earlobe lick.


Almost Dying Doesn't Count

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1.
Trapping crawdads in the creek out back
the stormwater snagged him, tore off his shorts,
when freed from the branches and runoff debris,
he slogged home to the table unable to eat.

2.
Landing hard on his handlebars,
voices behind a red curtain,
told him to shake it off, while
his seeping spleen urged him to sleep.

3.
Dazed and limping away from the wreck,
front doors locked as he knocked,
can you please call my mom? The cops
scolded him for leaving the scene.

4.
This was before she passed, so when
faces changed to plastic, his heart
like a fish, he said, I can’t go on like this,
it sounded like a teenage phase.

5.
As the sting grew stiff and hot, doctors
swarmed at his bedside for days
marveling at the pus and fuss from
one yellow jacket under the swing.

6.
Clawing his way into a lobby
he slid his wallet to the security guard,
said, call my wife, tell her on a scale
of one to ten this is a ten.


Run Away From Home

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(another Hannah)

I saw a show with a runaway girl who kept
her long hair coiled up in a newsboy’s cap.
Surviving in the wilderness, she saved
A friendly wolf who left a rabbit by her campfire.
Skinning it was gross, but she had to eat.

One morning over Quaker oats I said,
I think I’m going to run away from home.
My Dad and I discussed the plan. I’d leave
at suppertime, provided with a sack
to hold two shirts, my favorites, some apples,
and Granny’s number. My sister bawled.

I’d stoweaway in Southlake Mall and live
off pretzels, Icees, movies rated R,
Take baths in the fountain after hours,
snatch handfuls of pennies. I’d sleep curled up
in display beds in Home, breathing in those
festive florals, a new set each night.

Maybe I could get kidnapped by some crooks
That weren’t so bad once you got to know them, who
lived in their van or, better yet, a shantytown!
My portrait on cartons of milk and t.v. sets:
Missing Child. Heart of Gold. Large Reward.

That night I walked off Barnett Road, on past
the trailer park and crossed Old Dixie Highway
by myself. I took these things to a desert isle,
hitchhiked out west, jumped on a boxcar. I joined
a tribe of orphans turned loose in a dark museum,
with no bedtime, just like you read about.


Extraordinary Man

There was this guy who had super powers for real.
When he looked at a cashier, he could see
straight through her frothy orange hair
to her scalp. And not just that, he could make out,
just by the creases in her shoes, if she was
rich or poor, aching or numb.

He could see her at age 19,
but he could predict the future too.
Mostly bad news: the sky was always
reporting car wrecks, Alzheimer’s.
The warm asphalt said, “gunshot wounds.”
Pigeons in flight, “hookers.”

He could hear messages in the radio,
codes littered in tabloids and lotto slips.
He heard the words people meant
when they were saying something else.
He heard the secret suffocating
that made them all ordinary and mean.

This was no ordinary guy
who scurried across the parking lot
tallying the price of a gallon of 2 percent,
and the length of the Express Line
and the minutes left in halftime.
He was Extraordinary Man.

But the job was too much.
The ants cried out from the pavement,
the outrageous angle of the sunset,
the falling sap of cigar smoke,
the brokedown Cutlass with the kids inside
moving faster than the speed of light.

He had to wear little foam earplugs
and even they were swelling in his sleep,
in his bruised ear canals,
murmuring in Chinese,
begging to be found.


Picnic

After we eat, Beth’s telling us
about the bags, how the remains
were raked up from the roadside and
shipped home to Stockbridge on a jet.

“A charter jet," she says, “The military
goes all out.” (This praise
from one who’s seen some fancy stuff
at her Daddy’s funeral home.)

Jamie, Beth and I agree,
“It’s the least they can do.” I see
the ants have found their way up from
the playground mulch into our cups.

Our husbands are on swing patrol,
keeping the small ones in motion with just
their fingertips. They fling their
stubby limbs up to the pines.

“The eulogy was weird. The guy
went on and on about Buddha,”
she laughs and straps a velcro
harness to her youngest boy.

And he orbits her in tiny steps,
unearths a dull plastic barrette,
and chicken bone. He hasn’t touched
the ham and cheese that bears his name.

"Daddy was chatting with the guy,
Like, what a shame it is, so young.
The escort looked ahead and goes,
‘This is war. Somebody’s got to die.’”

Yes, he said that, and he told her,
and she’s telling us. (Just like when we
were girls, she claimed they let her play
dress up with the bodies.)