Postcard from the Bum House
Ferret Street 57: Postcard from the Bum House
New Orleans. I watched your fist—I knew it was coming, and then your hand opened. I didn't hear thunder; I saw lightning. I won't do that again, you said, looking at your hand, the same blue hand. I'll kill myself before I do that again. Decked out in white suspenders and your chest shining like a street wet red with rain and car lights flickering, I wanted all of you to touch me, not just your fist. Raised on a broken mountain, all flowering dogwood, spruce, and lean-tos, I grew up between dead parents and living aunts, their bodies heaped and round. Like graves. You named me Blue Dove, but you were the tail feather I watched for, the color blue that had birthed the stones and the waterfalls, the blue parrots and blue hummingbirds. You teased that the first man was shat whole from a goat, that first woman sprang from cow dung and it was blue corn eaten by her that gave her a belly. All the bloods mingled within you—the African, (Jamaican) the European (French) and the Mongoloid (Cherokee). You laughed calling yourself a Heinz 57 American. You had coiled hair shaved close and pretty girl eyelashes. You'd wear white dress shirts and obsidian-black tuxedo slacks rummaged from New Orleans' garbage cans. I was 13 the summer you first visited us. You were the bird I followed, the way you swallowed air. I studied you in my sleep; you in the blue ferns, in the tangled grapevines and okra and mimosa. I thought you sprang from the earth. I liked you bitter and sweet, your hair against mine and how we ran together, and our eyes, all dark milk streaming down our faces. You lifted my buttocks and they sat one cheek on each palm. You told me I was smooth as roux, as the boiling starch that smelled of cedar sprigs.
You brought me to New Orleans. Here make yourself happy. A red bum house with a stone step, a flood house. Inside the walls festered with fist holes and weeping glass and ripped-up car seats and bones. On blood-spattered altars lay rotting mangos and chicken heads and talons. I found my head thinking about the kind of future I wanted. You brought me to Lafayette Square and the tourist section. Your half-sisters, (you claimed) Kissidity and Mountain Witch, fine-boned and small for their ages, taught me how to pickpocket. They wore dresses decorated with feathers and didn't walk on the earth but floated above it when most of the locals had big bones, wide hips, and were shaped like refrigerators. I'd smile up at a man all twisted into his camera and visitor's brochures, and say in a whisper of a voice, "Mister, which way to Cuckoo Street?" I'd hold his attention while Mountain Witch plucked his wallet, and it didn't matter if the wallet sat in the back trouser pocket or the inside jacket. The man had no chance. A white-eyed thrush and a sad flycatcher might have flapped their wings and made his money evaporate. A few years later a jealous man caught up to you in an alley. He cut off your nose last, nothing of you left unbloodied. Maybe it was for the best, Mountain Witch said, you were marked for Angola penitentiary, a death sentence. On the Saints' Days I talk to you, and Saint Jude delivers my words. Have you heard New Orleans is booming and the refineries and shipyards hiring? A quarter of a century later and I don't clean rooms on Magazine Street and eat from hotdog carts. I own a five-star seafood restaurant. On Saints Days' I sometimes wish I was still your Blue Dove. Are you listening?
Port Arthur: Postcard from the Goalposts
Port Arthur, Texas. They're on a pilgrimage, Janis and her misfit buddies. Her brain's just a tinny radio playing, her skin barnacled with the late night glaze. The moon's the color of French fries, the same raw white as the paste she used to spread between scraps of paper. She steps on the gas and rockets them over the state line into Lead Belly, Louisiana. A parade of cloudless sulfur moths keep killing themselves on the Mercury's windshield until they stop at a roadhouse. Her friends force her onto the stage to belt out some tunes. Before "Summertime" she bad mouths her hometown—the most humid city in the Northern Hemisphere—92 percent humidity most mornings. The current of applause grabs her throat as she tastes the next tune. Here's a big fat toast to Port Arthur, birthplace of Janis Joplin, ugly duckling they laughed in her face. The town's a midwife to the refineries birthing their brood of holding tanks, spheroids and cooling towers. Fumes spout into the oil-colored sky like whiskey shooters, like Janis' six-feet-tall idol Bessie Smith. Janis, who'll someday buy the Empress her headstone, grew up alongside a chain link fence, past the low-slung project apartments, past the flaring and smoking and sky darkening catalyst crackers.
Emulating the women-loving lower ranges before reel-to-reels and synthesizers, before ear buds, Janis' lips salivate against the microphone. Her singing—a gravel pit, a railroad car outfitted with ostrich feathers and apricot rum. Janis taunted out of Port Arthur by football players and goalposts. Dog. Freak. Creep. Her town's a floating megapolis raining warning signs: Light Hydrocarbon pipeline. Heavy gas. Her low growl holds him by the back of the neck and leaning over him, slips her tongue between his full lips and into his small ears. She howls and whimpers. Three stalls in the Ladies Room and a forest of overflowing garbage. The show's over and soon she'll go home alone. She tears apart chocolate bars with her teeth, wolfs down the Kit Kat in seconds flat, then starts chomping on M&M's. The sugar hitting her blood stream feels like the snow starting. A blue silk. A hot pink comforter made of silkworms. A branch cracking in a fresh gust of wind. She cups her hands at the stopped-up sink, rinses her mouth with Southern Comfort, spits. This is how it feels when you bring an audience to its feet and then to its knees.
Postcard from the Kmart Parking Lot
Hackettstown. When we first took up with each other, after we'd met in the glass-table writing workshop, I was 43 and he 27. We liked each other's writing first. I was impressed by his poetry, his amazing images and metaphor-making ability. Workshops were held in Tribeca on Friday nights, and on Saturday mornings I would sit in my reading chair and drink morning coffee, reading over the poetry from the night before. His poem entitled "Marriage on the Last Day of the World," with lines like "Tonight I'll sleep inside you, feral, almost human, a stone age boa fallen from Andromeda's mountains" and "We'll share what's left of the missionary season, the coffee spiders dripping down your legs, the last heat of Ecuador settling into your snaketrap lingerie," gave me goosebumps. So good, I felt jealous. And yet that word feral would return. One weekend while visiting his parents in New Jersey's Warren County, the two of us took a ride in the family car to nearby Hackettstown. He drove to the back of a Kmart parking lot overcast with wire shopping carts; the car glided into a mirror image of underwater trees. The lot had a left-behind feel to it. I took in the shimmering orange of autumn, the season shrinking, almost not there at all. He unzipped. His sex, large, in fact he told me he made women bleed with it. Those were the women he'd met from telephone chat lines. I did not judge him. "Go on lick your lips." I should have left this for the brutally young. I should have stayed home with my reading and popcorn eating. Not frazzling my body with the high-voltage caffeine of parking lot blow jobs. "Hey," he said, pushing my hair away from my face. "I have to look at it." It was more obscene that way. "I like seeing your pretty face struggling with it." I felt the trees burn; the green darkening. I thought of old Chesterfields smoked decades ago, apricot-whiskey bottles left behind by hobos. The leaves curled; the 20th century staled in my mouth. Next year the 21st century would begin. If I'd had a child at 15, it might have been him. A throwback, primitive. Was his a healthy appetite or overweening greed?
I feared how his mother and father would react to a typist, who was sixteen years older than their son. And yet the first time I met his parents they made me feel welcome in their living room of braided rugs and sheer blue curtains, three cats asleep on the back of the couch, two more in the recliner. I felt even more welcome in their kitchen where his mother served stuffed mushrooms, garlic bread, and lasagna, the noodles baked into a river of melted mozzarella and ricotta. Rob had devoured two helpings in minutes and dashed off from the table to closet himself in his room and attend to sorting through his poetry submission replies, either acceptances or rejections. His parents seemed not to notice his absence and we talked for hours before Rob returned stricken by two rejections. We went outside onto the deck and I tried to comfort him. There was the smell of childhood in the trees. Later his parents told Rob they liked me; I seemed very intelligent. I did not yet realize how his mother and father knowing that darkness surrounded them and all living matter, that darkness inhabited all of us, had repressed the knowing. They saw their son but could not see him. He did not take after them or anyone, perhaps he had been an animal-boy who'd climbed up from the gully of a prehistoric age. His delicate features, more pretty than handsome, yet you could imagine him wearing the raggedy pelt of a brown bear and swinging a club.
was raised on an Iowa farm, lived in New Orleans, and now has washed up in New York City. Her MFA is from the University of Oregon, and in NYC she studied with the late William Packard, and still considers him a marvel and inspiration. Her work appears in Hotel Amerika, Mudfish, Weber Studies, Fjords, Water-Stone Review, Gargoyle, Rhino, Stone Canoe, Westerly
and New Stories from the South
, among others. "Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg" is available from New Michigan Press