Misled as to the nature of your overtures, still I ended up waking in your royal house on a bed of snow-colored leaves to the sound of sibilant birds. In that greasy spoon off Back-Rub Alley, I thought you meant something like Narrate my shadowy past when, in fact, you really meant nothing more than I’ve been ringside at the vocabulary wars. Perhaps it was the liquor I’d consumed or the cowboy-swing broadcast I was receiving in my recent dental work, but I misunderstood. What I thought was the unfurling of your sails was just you pulling some paper towels to clean up something dirty on your blouse. Mistakes like this get made. Maybe I make them more than others but that’s because I think too much about why I think too little. That is, most of the time I’m trying to shelve a few sentences in my head but my mouth is selling them fast at discount prices.
And this bothers me so I brood about it. And while I’m brooding someone might blow cool air across their steaming porridge, look up and fix me with expectant eyes and say Inhabit the flower and the insect it tempts, and I would hear instead A cabin and an hour of sex is for rent. You can see how trouble might spring from my preoccupation. My brain is a cheap radio with a bent antenna and a broken dial; the reception’s bad and one station’s always bleeding into another. Whatever I hear comes in bitten-off bits, shot through with static. No, you can’t blame me when I hear wrong what you said right. When you said you liked to drink for free, my badly tuned head made out that you were a dyke who would live for me. Right after you told me to shush so I wouldn’t spoil your sousing, I remember waking, those crisp leaves crackling against my skin, in that royal house. I found myself surrounded by the sound of diligent inquiry, the insect spiel of injected dialects. It was the flush of busy veins, the pissing roar of my own talk come back to work me over.
I heard wrong because you were bending my ear. The comical canal down which vocabulation spiraled. The sun was dodging behind windblown clouds. Not mucked enough for me. The gunners lodging in the beehive of a well-blown clown. You can almost see the gurgle in my EKG. What I’m thinking about is how you kiss, how you hiss. How you miss. I’m thinking you lay me down to sleep. How you lay me down in deep. How you lazily drown and weep.
The breathy, botched gist gets phoned into headquarters as rookies hitch up their predicate stunners. Time to shake down the crook-mouths who inhale sentences like torpedo sandwiches, crust snowing down the front of our slippery shirts. That’s my swirly world. Shivers the size of an all-day sucker. Allegations about the use of my abuse. You heard it all but still brought me into your coiled house. Still played me out and flayed me within an inch of disposability. I was housed in your worldly sleeves. My head in a slipcase of whispers. Mistakes got made and get made again. A gossamer of glottal stops and strums, of words spat back from funhouse mirrors. Speak through me, you say. Beat truly, I hear. I’m thinking fast as faster can. Cheap glue in me, my mind makes out. Speech chewing me, we seem to say.
The pharaohs were lost. Woebegone and intricately lost. They sipped diet soda and contemplated their situation. They had lived within the language of a sky-heavy land and now the blackboard was wiped clean. Nothing to say and no one who would understand them anyway. The Pharaohs kept a sparse place: a canvas sling chair, a pillow sofa, some milk crates for bookshelves, and a framed poster showing a train engine steaming out of a fireplace. There were some candles, and a Mexican bowl sat on the kitchen counter. Carved ibis birds, some reeds, and stacked sarcophagi could be found in the den. It was a neatly kept ranch house in a newer part of town. On the fridge, stuck under a plastic watermelon magnet, was a clay tablet with information about an orthodontia appointment for one of the kids. In the foyer hung a lacquered plaque which read, “God created me to do what he wished done, and my perfection is remembered by means of his temple.”
The big sadness, the one that went unmentioned, like a bad smell in a cabinet under the sink, was how once they’d been Lords of Egypt and now, well, they weren’t. Guests just ignored the fall from grace. Occasionally somebody might say something reminiscent of a forsaken past: Someone might say, “Social security is just another pyramid scheme.” Or, "Did you ever watch The $20,000 Pyramid? " Or, “Hey, Sphinx-face, get your fingers out of my burrito!” The Pharaohs did their best not to react. Maybe you would catch a downcast eye, a forlorn yet regal sigh, but otherwise they put up a good front. Most folks were only vaguely aware that they had been more than a few rungs up the ladder than the rest of us. That the desert sun once rose from their hearts and the Nile had flowed from their breasts. That the Kingdom of the Dead was their eternal domain. If the jewels that had been their eyes had long since been hacked out by blasphemous robbers, they never complained. With us they were happy to chat about school zoning and the dog that keeps overturning the recyclables containers. Never got snooty and dropped names like Osiris or Horns. The Pharaohs, shorn of their divine essence, dispossessed of their throne, and cast out among scabrous multitudes, were good neighbors. And they would let you borrow their carved ivory knives for dinner parties.
On summer nights we sometimes sit with them out on the patio and listen to their collection of old 78s on a vintage Victrola. They love the Mills Brothers and Billy Eckstine. When dark settles in and the kids are off chasing lightning bugs across the lawn, they might open up a bit. Their talk can turn wistful. Memories are unearthed from the humid air: Apis, the sacred bull of Memphis, Wadjet, the cobra goddess of Buto, or the royal tombs at Abydos. A gazelle’s hoof might be pulled from a fringed leather pouch. The lore of the long-dead given breath. So many good days now gone. Beer warms in our glasses and the moon sharpens the edges of great fists of clouds. “Cab driver once more round the block,” the Mills Brothers harmonize, the singing suddenly intruding on the conversation. Then the Pharaohs grow quiet, lost in thought, as an empire of bright dust settles in their eyes.
—Albert Mobilio is the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and the 1998 National Book Critics Circle award for reviewing. His books of poetry include Bendatile Siege, The Geographies, and Me with Animal Towering, forthcoming from Black Square Editions. He is the fiction editor at Bookforum and teaches writing at New York University.