Shingleknight

The last thing we buy with money is a box of assorted seeds, as if that’s supposed to be some grand metaphor or something. The house we pick to squat in is an old Craftsman, paint peeling, shutters falling over drunk. It’s a house for a grandpa to watch Wheel of Fortune in.

We rip the shingles off first thing, toss them in the front lawn as late-season cicadas laugh at our efforts. The shingles that don’t break we repurpose into a suit of armor. A knight who’s always on duty. We lay the dirt and seeds on the roof, and some of the seeds stick to your feet and in between your toes and on the backs of your thighs when you bend down to poke the seeds in with your pinkies and I spritz you so it looks like you’ve peed.

I make a raft out of an old armoire door and use it to navigate the flooded basement’s treacherous sea. I trawl the ocean floor with a rake, paddle with a shovel. Turns out there’s a plug in the ground. Like your average garden variety bathtub plug. You watch the drain slurp the water into a whirlpool, laugh and throw popcorn at me. I imagine the Wheel of Fortune grandpa plugging the drain, flooding the basement, and taking laps with floaties on. You say he must have a Speedo too. A glorious banana hammock. I add it in.

In time we claim our bounteous roof harvest, plant more seeds, and construct rooms our childhood selves would talk about as they poked holes into jar lids and prepared lightning bugs for their new homes. There is, for instance, an astronaut room. Just a shit ton of space stuff, really. A bedroom we convert into a rolling meadow with tiny trees and dewy, sloping hills, complete with papier-mâché shepherd tending his clay sheep. It is, as they say, something.

We don’t work, unless you consider building this home work, and we don’t.

A heckler arrives on our front lawn at the end of the month, insists our creation is an eyesore. There’s a sign and a slogan involved. The day after, we get a counter-heckler wearing a pretty sweet T-shirt with our shingleknight on it. Our guy live tweets the whole thing, draws a small crowd. Their guy recruits family, friends, and a sizeable chunk of the neighborhood’s octogenarians.

The police arrive next day. By now the protesters and counter-protesters number in the hundreds. They brandish signs and flags and effigies. Chants cancel each other out. Threats are made on shingleknight’s life. A circle of people link arms around him to offer protection. The other side stages a hunger strike and burns little shingleknight figurines that a vendor’s selling for two bucks each. The cops plant a troublemaker in the crowd, deploy rubber bullets and tasers once he does his thing. There’s a melee involved.

Shingleknight goes, and then the house does, and we watch it all burn from the backyard.

It is, as they say, something.

We leave when the fire burns out and everyone else decides to go home.

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Something High and Flying

Where we’ve pedaled to there’s salt leaving dried white trails on the canyons of the earth and of our skin. The night sky is a womb or a room, it’s hard to hear you over the ripping of the wind. It could be either. It could be both. One of my soles is split. It collects canyon dirt and my foot turns it into canyon mud. Our tinkering shadows look like mechanical bugs over the heap of our bicycles. There is dirt on my face and your face and we kiss over our open packs.

Life can be different things growing for different reasons. We snuff out one growth to support another. Your womb and your breast are my examples. So we pedal to places we’ve never seen before, do things we’ve never done.

I don’t want this to be a cancer story so much as a growth story.

You trace for me an 8 in the dust, but I want it to be something else, so I turn my head sideways. Questioning the artist’s intent. And all that. In the sky there is a shooting star or a satellite or a UFO. Something high and flying. You trace its trajectory in the dirt and I try to keep up with a line of my own but the wind blows it out and leaves yours.

I have magnesium for the fire but you say if our ancestors didn’t need magnesium then you don’t either. I can’t smile so I say you’re a pain in the ass and you get it. The blisters on your hands are pillows for tiny people. The fire makes the branches fall into each other like they’re drunk. I lift your shirt so the half-moon of your belly’s lit and you sketch the way your veins must look to our child, like lightning spun by a spider.

The marshmallows I’ve stuck become spacecraft burning up in reentry. I blow yours out before brown turns to black but mine I let burn for a while. Mine I let char. You tell me it’s ready, time to put it out, but I let it burn. You try to take my stick with your dirty hand but I grab it, kiss it till the canyon dirt sticks to my lips in spots you say look like negative stars. I let it burn till coagulated marshmallow goo spreads down the stick and hardens in the breeze.

When it’s time to sleep I ask if you want the fire out.

You’ll stay up, you say. You’ll put it out when it’s time.

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End of the Line

When the sun finally decides to come up, this moment in time will be taken from us. But for now it’s night, so everything is still ours.

We do not care. If we were to be asked how many fucks we give, the answer would always be zero. Social norms are like suggestions to us. Etc.

We’re here at the end of our seventeenth summer. The previous sixteen were test runs for this one. Your face in the fading light is minimalistic: the smoke of your eyes, the cherry of your lips. Slung around your neck by twine, over the blossoms printed on your dress, is a stop sign with the S scrubbed away so it just says top. I ask if it’s meant to be a postmodern self-referential thing or what and you roll your eyes at me, lace your hands and do a boy band heart pound. I do the move in unison with you and smile, but I’m leaving for college in the morning so the smile ends up being a sad smile.

We walk until you stop to balance an acorn on the laces of your red Converse. The top sign scrapes pavement and sends up sparks in a pattern we can’t identify: some jumbled up version of Morse code. You become one-legged. You hop. You balance the unborn tree on your shoe. You tell me I am to clap along, maybe do that one Russian dance, the one that involves crouching and kicking. I do these things. We sing a song for the tree fetus and when we’re done you kick it in the air. When we’re done you catch it in your mouth like a tossed popcorn. When we’re done you immediately regret your decision. I give you a wax bottle to wash the taste of dirt out. I hold your spun-gold hair back as you spit tiny grass blades onto someone’s lawn.

For a second there, everything becomes the last time we’ll do it together. This is the last time we’ll see who will say penis the loudest. Here’s the last rock we’ll sling at a McMansion’s bay window. Etc.

I laugh too loud at your next joke to cover up the choking sound in my throat and we make forcefield cars together. Forcefield cars are when you snatch a sprinkler and put it on a car’s roof. The forcefield’s only water, but it’s super effective: most people will chase us but never stop the sprinkler. It’ll go all night like that.

We find the Switzerland car (always neutral) and force it into conflict by rolling it into the middle of the street. We go through a drive-thru in an invisible car. We make Our Lady of Piety’s sign say that righteous men follow the word of dog. We cannot be stopped.

When you eye me with that look I know what you want to do before you say it. It. The grand finale. Our little pièce de teenage résistance. The masterpiece we’ve been planning all year.

We get there right on time, while the driver’s still scarfing down his burger across the street. We look at this idling bus, door open, and we remember to breathe. You get in the driver’s seat and pass me the driver’s jacket. I put it on, apply adhesive to my upper lip, and stick on the fake Luigi mustache I used last Halloween. With aviators on, I could be your supervisor. You bite your cheeks to stop smiling. Clear your throat to stop laughing.

I shield you from view when our first customer gets on; insist you’re doing fine in a voice I hope sounds adultish. Two more get on at the next stop. You’re doing fine. Good job. I’m okay. I mean you’re okay.

No one says anything when you go off course. They don’t speak up till the bus stops outside some concert in the park summer series, till my mustache tells them this is it, last stop, end of the line, everybody out. Some mutter, but this is Chicago, and the shades and mustache make me look like Coach Ditka. All Chicagoans respect Coach Ditka.

I funnel them out the rear door just in case. Some crowd the stop for the next bus. Others spill into the concert. Some just walk home. I watch your face pulse in the Morse code of streetlights as you drive away.

We park in the lot of a forest preserve; turn the lights off so we’re in stealth mode. We push the emergency hatch that opens onto the roof and I give you a boost. Climb up after you and ditch my Ditka disguise.

You lie on your back and I copy you. We look up into the splattered canvas of sky, white dripped on black, and listen to a faraway car alarm that just started up. We do a boy band heart pound in unison. We don’t plan it. It just happens.

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A Wake/Awake

I found my grandfather in the sepia-tone photos of him they kept on the mantle at the wake. He wasn’t old enough for them to be daguerreotypes like in cowboy times, but they kind of looked like it. Only this cowboy had a leather helmet and pads stuffed with straw for Chicago winter, eyes asquint like they’d always be, even when he was happy.

There existed in my mother’s family a whispered legend; not often spoken but well understood–Grampa was eternal, a force of nature like entropy or nuclear fission. This Irish Catholic wake was going to live up to its name. It didn’t matter that Grampa’s sickness turned him into a Peruvian shrunken head with a body to match. He’d be upright in the casket before long, stuffing his pipe and telling us to mind Father’s homily.

Grampa didn’t have names anymore, just initials. PGN. He lost his names in the war. Which war? Doesn’t matter. Tuck in your shirt. And shut the door while you’re at it. Were you raised in a barn?

This was a Special Family Occasion, which basically meant my dad didn’t have to hide his flask. This was the year 2007, after my dad lost his job but before he and my mom divorced. He’d transitioned from telling me about the various alien races that controlled every aspect of society to communing with them directly; telepathically. He kept telling everyone who’d listen that he didn’t kill PGN; it was a setup; they had to believe him. They all just shook their heads.

Mom had on her back brace and splint and foot cast and the trusty sling she’d bust out for SFOs. And the perfume. If you couldn’t hear her telling everyone about how she had scoliosis, and COPD, and kidney failure, and seizures every other Tuesday, then her perfume gave her away.

My big brother Drew was almost out of basic; they let him come home for the funeral. I eyed his crew cut over guzzled cups of coffee and wondered why he was calling me by my real name instead of “Chubs,” why he wasn’t using my shoulder to work on his jab. He told me in basic he saw a guy try to off himself with an M16. Drill sergeant came in as the guy was trying to pick his nose up off the floor, but he couldn’t do it because of how slippery the blood made everything. Told me some other guys were caught fucking each other, that they’d had their heads put through drywall by a different drill, been discharged on the spot. There was a window overlooking the parking lot in this coffee room. I rattled off every car brand in sight before Drew could quiz me on them.

PGN had a yellowed Charlie Chaplin poster hung on the wall at his old house, at the top of the stairs. Charlie looked demented in it. Drew told me he looked fine from his angle, but I wasn’t tall enough to see the difference. We used to collect mothballed pillows and race down the steps whenever Grampa had one of his coughing fits. Would joust with borrowed wheelchairs and stolen tree branches outside the hospital when PGN was first admitted. If he’d seen the silver dollar bruises we gave each other he’d flip his shit, but we hid them well.

Mom came in with her Polaroid to take disposables. We gave her a smiling one and Drew wanted one where we flipped off the camera. That’s the one I kept, one of the few of Drew left after they brought him back in a box and Mom laid up in bed for a month or more, crying for me to bring in more pictures. She wasn’t eating. I told her she needed food more than pictures and she called me a bastard and locked me out. I slept on the lawn that night and watched the stars.

But the wake. While we waited for PGN’s second coming I cornered one of his old war buddies. Tried not to stare at his crocodile skin. Wasn’t entirely successful. Told him my Grampa was a war hero, then tried to squeeze in a question mark at the end. He poured me a little of what he had flasked and told me to sit. I did. His eyes were a blind man’s gray, but I could tell he saw me.

Grampa was an engineer in the war. Built bridges. Worked on one that spanned a deep, otherwise impassable gorge out in the middle of nowhere. His crowning achievement. A beauty. Took months of hard labor, most of which he put in himself. Anyway, when they were about a week away from completion they spotted the enemy, on the other side of the gorge. Ten men for every corps man under PGN. Heavily outgunned. Not a chance in hell.

-So what did my Grampa do?

-What did he do?

-Yeah.

-He burned the bridge down.

-He was a good man.

The man’s crocodile hand was firm. I drank what he gave me, mostly so I’d have an excuse for the watery eyes.

PGN never did wake up. Or maybe he did but didn’t want to give it away. I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past him. Anyway, I didn’t go home with Mom and Dad. Neither did Drew. Instead we marched home together, kicking errant stones and surveying all the land that belonged to us, all the land that could never be ours.

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No Thing

I find you on the lawn, building a grassbridge across the sidewalk, one blade at a time, for the worms evicted from their homes by the late-season rain. You are wearing your camiseta bonita. English is our only language, but we have made an exception for this shirt. I smooth my hem, where a string waits to unravel me into my composite parts.

You are doing this thing on a sidewalk and a lawn that are not yours. The lawn once belonged to you, but the sidewalk never did. The city gets to keep all the sidewalks.

Your eyes are flecked with shadow and liner; your blonde roots are palimpsests on a strawberry page, the hair showing through again at the ends to stand in for seeds. You tell me you are cold, and this means I am to swaddle you in my shirt. I cross my arms against my bare chest and hope you don’t notice the unincorporated hairs you used to pluck; the stragglers. When your eyes come to mine I find the grassbridge very interesting. My shirt becomes a scarf and then a shawl and finally a shirt again. I don’t tell you you look like a child in my shirt because I don’t want to see the way your nose will scrunch up if I do.

I try to explain why I’ve come back but you tell me be shushed and you pat the sidewalk next to you and when you do loose gravel sticks to your palm like a fortune waiting to be told. It’s too bad you no longer have your gypsy shawl. We sip the silence together and you hand me one blade and then another. When I lay them down I try to graze your fingers like some cheesy movie but you are agile. You are nimble. I want to pour out what’s inside and sift through this floodwater, this standing stagnation, but you tell me be shushed and so I lay another blade down.

When you aren’t looking I put a dandelion in your hair and blow the seeds so they cling to you. This flower cannot reproduce here, but it will try.

I expect many things, but not a smile. Your teeth show for a second but you hide them behind your lips like you always do. You finger-paint grass stains onto my chest, shoulders, face. I am to be a warrior. When I ask you who I’m fighting you tell me be shushed.

A worm wiggles across the bridge we’ve made, displacing some blades and gluing others to the sidewalk with its residue. This worm has a family, but they hesitate to cross. They come from a long line of noble hesitators. You coax them with dandelion seeds and I ask where she is. Or he. They must be… (I fake mental mathematics) four years old by now. You take off my shirt and hand it to me. Your camiseta bonita comes next. Underneath there is skin that is untouched snow. You do not hide the snow. You guide my hands to the cold. You were given these mother tools but have not used them. I see this when you trace my finger down, over the scar like scorched earth challenging winter, incomplete Caesarean, and when we’re done the camiseta can stay right where it is.

The worm family starts to cross.

There are no things I can say, and I see that nothing is No Thing. You try to speak and I tell you be shushed. We speak with our fingers and make the alien like we used to, the one with ten fingers on each hand. Our song comes out and we hum the tune in the spots where the words won’t come, the places memory’s forgotten. But we remember some things. We remember the tune, and the hum, and the many-fingered alien, and the steps segueing from sidewalk to grass where our toes touch, and maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s all right.

The worm family makes it to the other side.

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