I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
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A Prayer for Some of What was Lost
One hundred fourteen ballpoint pens, 97 pencils, 35 felt-tips, and at least six special pens, the expensive kind, sold as gifts from behind locked counters.
Twenty-three plain white buttons, 40 faux tortoise-shell buttons, and one small chrome-plated deer, leaping, which hung from the zipper of his coat in the seventh grade until he decided to carry it around like a charm, for good luck. He kept it in his pocket and liked to cup it in his hand while he walked. He held onto it for a day, or maybe two days, and then he lost it.
In Texas, in the summer, he lost one of his pet hermit crabs for two hours, on account of falling asleep. He found it under his dresser, behind an old game he and his brother found at a garage sale. The game had these small discs that they slid up one half of the board, angled off a couple of taut rubber bands, and ricocheted down the other side.
Later, the same pet crab would latch onto his hand. His parents had thrown a party, some kind of get-together that filled the living room like smoke. He cut his way through the gathering to get to the kitchen and pour himself a glass of limeade, then drifted back around the fringes, watching. He was trying to be unobtrusive when a man and woman noticed him and remarked on how big he had grown, how the last time they saw him he was this small. The woman was on the sofa, and her husband was sitting sideways, perched on the arm. The husband held his hands out in front of him, as if to squeeze a loaf of bread. That small, he said.
The woman said, My husband and I go way back with your parents, and when I say way back I mean way back. As she spoke, she leaned away from him, sinking deeper into the sofa, until her husband caught her by the hand and pulled her upright.
He told the man and woman that he had some things to do and went to his room. Not an hour later, he ran into the middle of the party, screaming and bawling and carrying on. The pet crab was attached to his hand. He was just holding it, he said, in his palm, and it was walking around, when all of a sudden it grabbed his finger and now it wouldn’t let go.
Someone suggested prying it free with a pair of pliers.
No, he said, don’t, please. Everyone waited around, staring at him and looking down at the crab. They let float a few other ideas. Could he slide it off, with kind of a shimmy? No, it was really on there, and jostling the crab only made it tighten its grip. What about cold water? Cold water had, it turned out, no effect. Never a dull moment, someone said. The crab eventually relaxed its claw, and he grabbed it up by the shell and took it back to its cage. His mother brought him a baggie full of ice and told him to lie down and stay out of trouble. His finger throbbed. Every now and then, he peeked underneath the ice. For several hours his skin retained the memory of being pinched.
It’s fashionable to say so-and-so lost his childhood, but that’s not how he feels. He once maintained that he lost the places where he lived, his memories of the character of the air, and an encyclopedic grasp of all the important street names, phone numbers, short cuts, and hang outs. But he’s not sure now what all that means. Did the places where he lived even have distinct types of air? He thinks not. Anyway, those places are in no way lost, not really. He remembers them well enough. Less and less, true, but still. They’re hardly gone, not completely.
He did lose the reasons for what he did. Why, for instance, did he hide from his father when he and a neighbor girl were tossing a tennis ball in the front yard? One minute she threw him the ball and he dove to catch it, then his father pulled into the driveway and he hid, just like that. He hid really ineffectively, too, leaping over a flowerbed and some scraggly bushes and then crouching behind a brick pillar hardly wider than his body.
The neighbor girl came over to his hiding spot. What is it? she said. What’s wrong?
Nothing, he said, I’m just hiding, you know?
Why? He didn’t have an explanation. It’s like a game, he said.
Years later, when the old parish priest asked if he wanted to light the candles during mass, why did he say no, right to the priest, with his parents there?
And why did he pull a knife on his brother and lunge at him, his bed in between them? His memories lack motive; it’s been washed out, or lost. He might as well be watching a mystery series about someone who resembles him.
Why did he steal a fishing bob from the five-and-dime? It was made of foam, or maybe cork, and painted iridescent orange and yellow. He’d never seen such a bob. The ones his family used were red and white and made of plastic. Later that day, he rode his bike to a part of the neighborhood where he’d never been. The grass was high there. The streets were paved and there were street signs and electrical boxes in the ground but no houses. Trees weren’t yet cleared. That was how the land looked before they came, minus the street signs, of course, and the electrical boxes. He chucked the fishing bob down a storm sewer and pedaled home fast.
In the fifth grade, when his family moved, he spent the three months before sitting out recess. He just stopped playing. He walked as far from the school as he could without being considered truant and sat against a chain-link fence. He doesn’t know why. He pulled a tall weed out of the ground and threw it like a spear. Then he pulled another. Even his best answers are inventions, though sometimes those inventions can be almost clever. Friends came to visit him, out by the fence, but he could hardly speak. He didn’t have words. He and his friends pulled more weeds, threw more spears.
Once he told a friend that he liked to play a game before waking. In the minutes before day, just after the first alarm rang, he kept his eyes shut and imagined all the bedrooms that were ever his. He pictured the light leaking through the windows. How did the light fall there? How was the furniture arranged? Which direction did he face? The thing is, he doesn’t remember playing that game. Most likely, it was another invention, a fancy, something that sounded poignant. Unless he remembered then and has forgotten now. It’s always so hard to say anything for sure.
A pocket knife, a fishing lure, a flashlight. A wheat penny, a bunch of stamps, a coffee cup: lost. He got the signatures of dozens of professional golfers on a souvenir program and then dropped it into the bottom of a port-a-john. As he stared down at it, flies hovered around the seat, circling. He came outside and told his father what had happened. It was an accident, he said. It was under his arm and then he dropped it. He hadn’t meant to.
Which port-a-john was it? his father asked.
He showed him, and his father looked inside. It’s ruined, he said. I’m sorry.
A wristwatch with a busted band that he insisted on wearing, dropped somewhere at Houston Intercontinental. He didn’t realize it was gone until a stranger approached him and asked for the time. He pawed at his wrist, bare, and then looked at the stranger. My watch, he said. For the first time he could picture the expression on his own face. His shock was reflected back as confusion cut with a bit of sympathy. He deserved to lose the watch; he should have repaired that band weeks before, maybe months.
Keys to padlocks, combinations to bike locks, passwords, and PIN codes.
How many footraces? How many relay races, three-legged races, potato-sack races, bear-crawl races, crab-walk races? How many contests, competitions, spelling bees, science fairs, and juried exhibitions all lost?
His eyesight, he’s still losing that, too.
Nickels, dimes, quarters, and pennies lost. Change dropped. Dollars stuck together. A five fixed to the backside of a one.
And what of the minutes which become hours and which then become the days and nights of squandered time, mislaid time, time spent in misadventures and asinine pursuits? This is in memory of that lost time.
Lists were lost, too, lists for groceries and errands, ambitious abbreviations of what was done and what remained still to do.
He lost his grandfathers and his grandmother, his mom’s mom, who swam in the mornings and did crossword puzzles, two stray details that hardly recreate her life. His grandmother brought a dictionary with her when she visited them and had an antenna on top of her house that you could make rotate with the turn of a dial downstairs. These are memory’s leftovers, mere fragments, a couple of thoughts that don’t follow. He lost his uncle, his father’s brother, whom he didn’t know well, not as an adult, at least. They saw Star Wars together, the original. He and his brother always wanted to caddy for him, because he could golf. He really knew how. He just smacked the ball. His wife’s grandfather, whom he didn’t get to know, because the man was losing his memory already and happiest to relive his college years. He came around too late, he always thought. And then his wife’s grandmother, who taught him to play bridge, who passed by knocking on the edge of the table three times and who bid aggressively for game, and who saw time in centuries and bold strokes, as if she had different eyes than the rest of them. A cousin of his died of a heart attack while in college. A friend’s father, as cool as a dad could be to high-school kids, because he played pick-up basketball and, my friend told me, got Pink Floyd albums as Christmas gifts. The father checked into a motel room and shot himself. He always imagined the motel on the outskirts of Houston, a gravel parking lot surrounded by overgrown fields, the kind flocks of migrating geese land in, but that’s just invention. He doesn’t know where the motel was. The woman next door to his family went suddenly. This was the woman married to the boor who talked about football constantly and once offered to get him a job operating the elevator at the Masonic Temple. Anyway, once, while her husband was away at a friend’s funeral, he helped the woman remove her surgical sock. When the husband came back, he was sitting at the kitchen table, making sure the woman was okay. She seemed short of breath. She gripped the table to steady the room. Her husband had put chocolates in his pants pocket before he left for the cemetery, in case he got hungry, and the candy had melted and made a mess. Oh dear, the woman said. You just had that suit cleaned, too. That wasn’t the last time he saw the woman, but his memory has started creeping in the direction of that tidier conclusion.
Imagine losing the same thing every day for the rest of your life. Now imagine that there’s nothing you can do about it.
Once he kept a garden, back when he had that sort of space. He grew two varieties of tomatoes, cherry and beefsteak, as well as radishes, Chinese onions, romaine lettuce, dill, carrots, and watermelon. The watermelon never took off. They looked like cucumbers and tasted mealy. He lived on a corner lot then, with low fences. Plenty of sun in other words, sun all day long. They live in a city now, he and his wife, in a townhouse with a small backyard dominated by a tree taller than their home—the tree may well be older than their home—and for 15 minutes a day, maybe 30, the plants get their sun, and then it too is gone.
Prayer for What Will be Revealed
He was supposed to be over playing with his friend, at his friend’s house, when they discovered the body of the dead coyote in the cotton field. Their subdivision was bordered on three sides by cotton fields and, on the fourth, by a fetid bayou with cattails and water as green as a pool table. His friend’s house was on the edge of the subdivision, on the outside of the outermost street, so his backyard opened into the fields and all they contained. This was in the 1970s, in Louisiana, in a city built on the banks of the Red River.
Mostly the fields contained not much of anything, which suited them fine. They climbed the fence and then chased each other between the rows of cotton plants. They played hide and seek and Marco Polo. The rows were so straight they sometimes ran with their eyes closed, holding their arms outstretched and letting their hands brush over the tops of the plants. They ran for what seemed miles, and their shoes sank in the dirt with every step. The ground was soft, loamy, just this side of mud.
They decided that day to ride a bike through the field. The only bike the friend could get over the fence was his sister’s, a small, pink number with long glittery tassels dangling from the ends of the handlebars. The friend got on first, but when he stood on the pedals, the bike sank partway up the wheels, so he hopped off and started running again. For a second he stayed behind and looked at the bike, motionless in the mud, like it was on display. Then he took off after his friend.
That was when they noticed the coyote. Its body was slit open from its neck to its tail, and its head was stuck on the end of a tall wooden pole driven into the ground. Thick waves of stink surrounded the body, and the friends were in the middle of the stench, right up by the carcass, before they knew quite what the thing was. From a distance it was merely something to run toward, a goal or a destination. When they reached it, they’d choose another. It had looked like a scarecrow. The farmer, whom nobody ever saw, had been known to put out scarecrows some years.
His friend bent over double and spit at the ground. He cupped his knees with his hands, then he dropped to all fours. I think I’m going to be sick, he said.
Cover your mouth, he told his friend. He pulled his T-shirt up over his neck and breathed through the material. The smell was still overpowering. When he was asked later what it smelled like, the only word that came to mind was memorable. It stuck in the mind like a thing with claws.
His friend crawled away, back toward his house, moaning and spitting as he went.
He stayed put though and studied the body. The smell didn’t affect him. It was a putrid smell, to be sure, but it didn’t make him retch. He stepped close to the carcass and circled around the pole. He could see now where the coyote had been slit opened, how the flesh was ragged at the edges and the muscles hung off in thick ropes. The intestines lay in a pile, like a white hose, at his feet, and the organs glistened like jewels. He reached out to touch one—he didn’t know what part. It was wet still.
His friend called out. What are you doing? He stood by then 50 feet away.
Just looking, he said.
Come on, his friend said. Let’s go.
What is it? he said.
What is it? his friend said. What do you mean? He couldn’t believe the question. What is it? He started to walk back toward the body, but stopped. It’s gross is what it is, he said. Now come on.
He looked up at the coyote’s head. The pole raised it up a good six feet in the air, and the head hung down.
His friend said he was going, like now. It sounded like a last chance. His ultimatum stretched out to blanket their entire friendship, their past and future both.
He looked at the coyote’s eyes then, really tried to look into them. There wasn’t anything inside, not that he could see. They were all pupil and cloudy around the edges.
His friend kicked at a cotton plant and then spit once more at the ground. He was doing it for show at this point, to be dramatic. Come on, he said. Let’s go already.
After a moment he went. When they got back to his friend’s house, they sat cross-legged in front of the TV and played Pong. They said not a word about what they’d seen. When they got bored, they went to his room. His friend picked up a pencil and drew a tic-tac-toe grid on the wall, made an X in the center, and handed him the pencil.
The first time they had drawn on the walls—it must have been two years before, at least—he had asked, You sure this is okay?
His friend shrugged and said, We’re renting.
That night he went home and asked his mother and father what renting meant.
It means they don’t give two shits, his father said.
They’ll paint the walls is all it means, his mother said. Before they move.
He made an O in the lower right-hand corner, which for some reason was where he always played, and then handed the pencil back.
The game ended in cat, as it always did. They started a new game then, this time on a ten-by-ten grid, and played for a little while until he said, I think I’ll go home. His friend walked him to the door and they said their see-yous.
That night, as he lay in bed and tried to sleep, he saw the body of the coyote. Whether he shut his eyes or left them open, it didn’t matter: the coyote looked down on him. Sometimes he could see himself standing before it, as if he were outside himself, standing to one side with a camera, recording their meeting for proof, or posterity. The thing he wondered was what it meant, the coyote. Or what it was for, first of all, and then what it meant. He was growing accustomed to the idea that everything had a meaning, sometimes two. Kids at school passed around these trading cards for the band Kiss, whose name everyone knew stood for Knights in Satan’s Service. AC/DC meant Against Christ Devil’s Children. And Adidas meant All Day I Dream about Sex. Kids repeated these secrets, passing them down to the younger generation like hard-won wisdom. The thing to do was just to act like he knew it all already, that he had heard it last summer or the grade before, whenever. Nobody knew what the coyote meant, he thought. Nobody could. Then he thought, Everyone will act as if it’s no big deal though. Dead coyote on a stick, right. He rolled over onto his back, laced his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling. Records meant one thing one way, played normally, and then another when spun in reverse. So what, he wondered, would it mean to reverse the body of the coyote? It was a puzzle, and he decided maybe the solution lay beyond him.
He got out of bed then and went to the window. He walked with his hands outstretched, partly hunched over, picking his way in the dark like an old blind man. He tugged on the bottom of the shade and let in the light. The moon was high and passed into and out of a thin layer of clouds. He undid the lock on his window and opened it, at first a crack and then wider, wide enough so that he could rest his face on the sill and breathe in the air from outside. He didn’t know what he was doing. If his mother or father walked in on him just then and asked, he could only answer that he didn’t know. He really didn’t know what he was doing.
The air was cool, cooler than he supposed it would be, and didn’t smell like anything he could put a name to, but he liked it just the same. It filled him up somehow, inflating him. He imagined drifting over the city, looking for someone else who was awake, looking for a small light on a bedside table, the blue glow of a TV set, a man in front of a toaster waiting for it to pop. He looked over at the house next door. All the windows were dark. Another friend of his once lived there, but then the family left town. It was abrupt. Nobody ever got the scoop on why they moved away. His mother told him he could write a letter to the old address, that the post office would forward it to his friend, and he did, he wrote a meandering letter about what was happening in school and what was on TV the night before and the night before that and how he caught a lizard climbing on their old house, but he never got back any response.
He shut the window and went back to bed. He left the shade up. He liked the moonlight, he decided. It was like sleeping under the stars, sort of. When he was finally too tired to do anything other than sleep, he dreamed that one hundred coyotes paced around outside. The whole world was full of coyotes. They were quiet, almost stealthy, but he could hear them. They rubbed their fur against the house as they brushed past in the night.
Paul Maliszewski’s stories have been published in the Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, and the Pushcart Prize anthologies, among other places. His collection of essays, Fakers, will be published in January 2009 by The New Press.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.