Playing Doctor

He strokes her hair
As she strokes him
Suckles his cock
A grown girl
At mama’s breast
Reaches inside
For what he tastes like
What he’s made of
For the sweet milk
Double-timing
In iambic
Pentameter
A hungry lick
Doesn’t let go
This lover man
Now her woman
Comes crying out
Loud his birth pang
A surprise ending
She drinks the rose
Thistle and hemlock
She gets it.

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The Amazonian

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Ballad of the Homeless Woman

She lived behind the cyclone fence a few blocks from the freeway going down to Silicon Valley, hers an intertidal zone with big box stores like Home Depot and a 24-Hour Fitness where cars skidded past platoons of day-workers in hoodies who waited for the call. Glad she didn’t have to stand there. Near her tent was a Shell Gas station that charged fifteen cents more than the High Street Gas & Food on the other side of the overpass selling burritos for $3.95. No car of her own. She walked or took the bus, knew how to turn a five-dollar bill into several meals at the Dollar Store on International Boulevard where she used a microwave near the bathroom to heat up containers of Top Ramen and got herself a free cup of coffee even though the manager said he was sick of her smelling up the place. She washed at the Mexican restaurant on the corner whenever Tatiana was behind the grill and smiled okay with her chin. Anyway, she was a paying customer, recycled aluminum cans and newspapers at the yard near Hegenberger, slept with her shopping cart zipped inside her tent so no one would steal it. At night she heard the AmTrak on its way to Sacramento, looked over the fence to see cloudy faces, wondered at airplanes taking off from the Oakland Airport, betted with herself where they were flying. But on this particular day she came up short, a bulldozer as big as an elephant, remembered when her aunt brought her to the zoo after her mother had left because she could not take care of the twins, but that’s not what her aunt had told her, said she was looking for work and would send for them as soon as she found something good. An elephant that had reached into her hand and vacuumed a peanut from her fingers. Inside the fence, the bulldozer knocked down everything; a man with a blank face told her to leave. Alone what could she do? She took off like an airplane on a run-way going home.

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UltraMicrotome Chekhov

I was arguing in the car with my husband about his best friend. His wife had cried to me over the phone. “Can you believe it? He said that making love to me is like caviar, but sometimes he wants herring.”

What a stupid fuck. Taking the side of a friend who’s been sleeping around is generally not a good idea, especially ill-advised if your wife is pregnant and getting an ultrasound. He laughed, “He complimented her. What’s wrong with tasting like caviar?”

I unbuttoned my jacket and rubbed my stomach. I’d already had two miscarriages. “That’s not the point, Wallace.” The doctor wanted to check on the baby’s development. “How can you laugh about what he’s doing? How d’you think you would feel if I were sleeping around?”

For the last fifteen minutes we’d been searching for a parking spot. I don’t remember why Wallace didn’t park in the hospital lot. Maybe we were running late. “That’s a joke! Not in your condition.” So annoying. He laughed again.

“As far as I’m concerned, she’s got more going for her in her little pinky finger than he does in his dick head.” Marta looked like a Russian Orthodox icon even if I couldn’t stand her unwavering devotion to designer brands. She also was a kick-ass accountant.

He spotted a parking spot across the street from the hospital and moved to grab it. “You’re wrong. That’s what Russian guys do. It’s a cultural thing.”

“You mean she should enjoy being treated like shit because it’s a cultural thing?”

“Things are never simple between couples. You never know what’s happening.” He was about to pull into the spot when a silver Lincoln cut in front. Wallace was pissed. He double-parked and got out of the car. He was an imposing man, over six feet. I saw him bend down to the driver’s window and then walk back quickly.

“What’s up?”

“He pulled out a gun.”

“You’re shitting me!” I turned around and gave the man the finger, grabbed a pen from the glove compartment and scribbled his license plate number on my palm. “I’m going to report him.”

Everything that day felt urgent. We found another spot and finally got to the hospital where the doctor rubbed warm gel on my abdomen and asked if I had drunk four glasses of water that morning; still shaking from the gun episode, a question to which I answered, “Yes.” I lay on a white sheet and watched the monitor over my right shoulder, a little fish attached to my umbilical cord, bumping up and down to the rhythm of my heart. Stumpy arms and legs. The doctor called them buds. Amazing how an embryo can breathe under water.

“Your baby looks healthy,” said the doctor. We’d already knew it was a girl. “No abnormality.” But I didn’t feel that way, wondering if I was wrong staying with Wallace even if I were pregnant, even though I knew I didn’t love him.

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Transcendentalists

Being that it was sandal weather and time for her feet to reveal themselves to prospective dating partners, Bernice wondered what color to paint her toenails. There were so many choices: reds and pinks were her favorites. Forget those navy blues and blacks those young girls liked; those dark colors were too dense to ride upon the insignificant weight of a nail. She thought a person should reserve black for funerals, that it was totally unsuitable to make appearances on a young girl’s hands, just like Vaneeta’s in her Sophomore English class, and certainly unsuitable for a white woman like herself in her forties.

During the school year, Bernice only wore clear. She didn’t want to distract her students from their discussion of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Emily Dickinson. Transcendentalists like Bernice took their colors seriously. She knew about a great aunt in the family who had healed people through the laying on of color, an art that had been lost in the handing down. Even so, Bernice was a believer, had taken months to figure out the right swatches for her living room. After much deliberation, she had decided to paint her walls light browns and deep purples, but as for her nails; they were apple red.

Bernice congratulated herself on her sense of color coordination. Looking out on the patio, she felt like she was in the mountains, not in a town house facing a major highway with a dozen or so more units being built behind her. She’d even begun dating and was about to meet Jeffrey at the Starbucks close to the university in two hours. This was their first date. They had been corresponding for months. Neither of them had seen photos. She didn’t want her ex to know she was going out, even though he’d never know, let alone care.

She swung her bag over her shoulder and drove to the coffee shop, five minutes early, fiddled in her car listening to music. She wondered what she was going to say, but remembered how easy it’d been exchanging messages with him about almost everything. Jeffrey played the piano and worked at the local radio station. He said he’d be wearing a Diamondbacks cap. Bernice told him to be on the look-out for her nails.

She walked into the store and saw a man sitting to her right near the windows; recognized the cap. He was African-American, the color of warm coffee.

She almost knocked over the napkin dispenser with her purse, hated herself for it. “Hi, I’m Bernice.” She felt people looking at them.

“Jeffrey,” and he pulled out her chair. She sat. “What can I get you?” He smiled, but looked puzzled, caught her eye like a fish he was going to throw back in the water.

“Small coffee,” she said. “Cream and sugar.” Nothing else. A large coffee would be out of the question.

“Be right back.” But before he left, he looked down at her hands and said, “Nice nails.”

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Eddie Palmieri in the Bronx

First-timers expect to see Arthur Murray standing in a striped bow-tie, but all they see is me in my 501s and a black turtleneck, and a lot shorter than Mr. Murray, which is why I started to teach dance in the first place. I didn’t have much going for me except a strong center of balance.

salsa dancers

Baile!


I washed dishes, waited on tables, made calls for some loser trying to sell his jalopies to the rent-a-car business, while I dreamed about taking classes at the Hunts Point Palace, weekends danced to the music of Eddie Palmieri, who hooked up his truck around Third Avenue and Southern Boulevard and let the salsa roll before anyone knew it was salsa. At that moment, it was just a bunch of musicians who stood on the back of a flatbed, speakers wired to the railings with cords that looked like they’d been borrowed from someone’s brother-in-law that morning, sweat beading off their foreheads, people dancing around in a cloud of cigarette smoke; hips, feet, and arms, causing such a ruckus, you could see the truck bouncing up and down in the soft black summer tar of the street. A Red Sea of people opened up as I danced toward the truck, leaping over garbage cans and police barricades in time to the music.

Eddie invited me onto the flatbed where I danced under the lampposts past midnight—mother-in-laws with son-in-laws, husbands with wives, and everyone else not caring who stood opposite them as long as they were looking good and moving to the beat, and may my mother forgive me, forget about Christmas; it was a miracle that night. Everything had funneled into sound and came out laughing. Later, Eddie gave me a quote to print on my business card surrounded by red hot peppers.

The dance business didn’t pick up and I kept working dive jobs, but I had this cousin who kept his eyes trained on everyone’s business. “Alberto,” he said to me one afternoon. “You ain’t looking too good, brother. Don’t see your two feet dancing.”

My feet were too busy at La Isla Cuchifrito where crowds piled in every night for take-out. I’d moved up from waiter to being the host where I handed out menus and passed orders back to the kitchen.

“There’s a storefront,” he said to me, looking around to make sure that no one could overhear his big tip.

Claro.” They’re all boarded up.”

No, your oportunidad,” he said. My cousin was taller than I and had accidentally sprayed my hair with saliva. “You can rent the place. Build your own studio.”

Turned out that my cousin owned the storefront. I paid rent during the first two years until I could buy him out, installed hardwood over the vinyl flooring of what had been an old shoe store; once I tore down the shelving, the back room became the place for lessons, rented out the front for parties, anniversaries, birthdays, even a small wedding where the bride was expecting.

Over the years, those parties built my business.

These days people come to Alberto’s Dance Studio because they’ve heard about Eddie Palmieri and his boys smoking their hot stuff here on the dance floor before leaving for their first national tour. The studio is like a Bronx landmark.

All those high and stacked heels, oxfords, flats from McCann’s, and super-clean white sneakers.

They come to learn how to dance, but while they’re holding on tight to each other, they find something else.

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Drug Money Down Payment

by Sinthop Katawanij

A drug dealer gave us the down payment for our house. I was in the first trimester of pregnancy and we were renting a space that could’ve been listed as a closet, one staircase above a pizza parlor. Everything was expensive and we had no money. My husband thought of asking the only rich guy he knew, someone he’d grown up with in the post World War II track homes of Redwood City.

Marvin’s dad was MIA or at least he never showed his face. His mom hailed from a family of lace-curtain Irish, had spent most of her life signing in and out of mental institutions, but nevertheless, between visits found enough time to school her son.

She taught him things that only women know: ingratiating himself to people without groveling–handing out birthday cards to the town’s elite as a way of distinguishing himself from the riff-raff and doing whatever else it took to cultivate favor, a rule he used in reaching out to my husband, who played the lead in every high school drama production, but was dimly viewed by the administration for his refusal to pledge allegiance during the Vietnam War, which brought him to Marvin’s attention.

“Man, you get all the girls.” I’d heard this story many times before.

“Guilty as accused,” my future husband said. He’d already been impressed by Marvin’s clothing and white Camaro that he parked outside the school. My darling inquired, “Hear you work at the golf course? Guys standing around and hitting cow turds all day.” Marvin was making hay while the sun shined on his millionaire project, cultivating friendships with men who could afford the price of membership.

“Every weekend. Say, d’you know Mrs. Romano from drama?” Sneaky, like he didn’t know.

Mrs. Romano, the music teacher, had originally moved to Redwood City from the East Coast after a long and successful piano concert career and had connections with local officials. Her husband played golf at the club. My husband took voice lessons with her. Shortly afterward, Marvin began mowing her lawn and was offered a small scholarship to college.

For a kid with Marvin’s home-based education, dealing drugs was a natural.

He started out with the usual stuff, building a clientele at the edge of football fields: uppers, downers, red pills, blue pills, pills from his mother’s cabinet, no one too sure what they did, except they all had an equal opportunity to find out. A contact from the golf club recognized Marvin’s promise and tipped him off to bigger things: LSD, heroin, coke, and by the time I was introduced to his Lordship of the Peninsula, he asked me where I bought my underwear. Just to be a smart ass, I told him Walmart, but fortunately he didn’t hold that against me, particularly after my husband asked for the big favor. I saw a leather suitcase filled with bills. It was crazy, but I didn’t say no.

Sometimes he called our house at two in the morning.

My lovey guy asked, “What’s up man?” Marvin was convinced the mob was after him. “Crazy. Bug off. Get some sleep.” He became an insomniac and kept calling. As the years rolled along, Marvin’s mother died from an overdose and he had a brain aneurysm.

When we divorced, my husband told me that he owned the house.

“How do you figure?” I’d been paying all the bills for years, including child care.

“Marvin gave me the down payment. You had nothing to do with it.”

I handed him the leather suitcase that had originally contained Marvin’s drug money. “Fuck you,” I said.

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The Big Bang

followed by the Raptor
Jurrasic Park
the snarky Apocalypse
Yeats’ Second Coming
rides again
two panoramic
percentage points
almost makes a killing
Elijah opens a door
wants a cold beer
no chairs
nothing to speak of
what’s long gone John
stays in Vegas
Jimmy the Geek
has two hard drives
beneath his belt buckle
rams fight it out
on the Plains
of Infinity Drive
a big bang
heard around the world
a sneak preview
the Apocalypse
Conrad’s signature
Marlon B.
never read the novel
won’t be the first
apprentice
to go cold turkey
inside of Mobile
the falcon surfs
the blues again
doesn’t giving a shit
the falconer
flies to El Norte
without a Green Card
shot down with a big bang
poor peregrine flutters
Elijah sails
the seven seas
on the HMS Pinafore
past the wall
with a thousand other
refugees.
Attention
all big game hunters:
the Big Bang
was a Revolution.

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Online Dating Redux: 2

Neil did the wash and took out the garbage. Those were his self-assigned chores. I did everything else. For him, cooking meant popping popcorn and boiling his signature artichokes with red peppercorns hidden at the core. On Thanksgiving, he coated the turkey with freshly pressed garlic, hands slick with olive oil, massaging the bird inside and out from sternum to neck. The last step was to rain down an assortment of salt, pepper, and poultry seasoning before opening the oven to a three-hour wait.

Like many men, he’d appointed himself Chief Barbecuer; one year he boiled the ribs and spent hours dripping his homemade sauce over the grill, sucking the meat from the bone in long threads.  I remember how he enjoyed going grocery shopping and the security of a full larder after growing up with Cheerios for dinner. Once we’d pulled into the driveway of our East Oakland home, he opened the door. I was the one who emptied the trunk and carried the bags into the kitchen.

By that time, he was too sick from congestive heart failure and diabetes to do anything physical. Doing things together meant eating out. He was not adventurous about new foods, but preferred returning to the same restaurant until the quality fell off. Emerald Garden in Alameda was a favorite, a Thai restaurant that steamed vegetables and cooked slices of chicken at the table. Later, we patronized a Cambodian restaurant at the edge of Chinatown where he enjoyed the fried fish and cabbage salad, sparkling with vinegar. I could say it was a good marriage, but it wasn’t. His sarcasm curdled the heart and made it bitter.

After he died I walked along a fire trail and talked to a bay laurel tree.

Gym time I’m bombarded by three screens, one with news of Trump, a Michael S. coming to the Bay Area for a Special Somebody visit, columns of football scores. Who’s winning? Loud music dressed in a special costume. A long line-up of ear buds. Shopping at Fruitvale Farmer Joe’s. A woman sells newspapers living in a hotel with her children and tells me that her husband’s in jail. I believe for every drop of rain that falls. A man in the parking lot with a cardboard sign sees my newspaper and nods. A white-haired woman with a shopping cart reaches into the coin slot of a parking meter and comes up empty. Another woman in a wheelchair navigating the street with her Chihuahua, moving over the white traffic lines with pushes of her feet. Paint from the street mural next to the Wells Fargo is flaking off. Get me out of here.

She always wanted to smoke and so once did inside the cafeterias of corn bread and red beans, a borough away from the paperweights of blue jellyfish. There in the vacant lots of mica schist and chicory, took up residency inside an empty box. Her mother called over the clotheslines, “Come home!” After awhile, everything changed. She had tasted the freedom of stray dogs living between apartment buildings, went forth expecting no less, always in a bittersweet half-life, wheeled on a gurney and waking up inside recovery rooms. Around the same period, she took up knitting.

Growing green or falling to the ground. Another leaf. My father’s arch support store near Bellevue Hospital changed into a fortune telling storefront with an orange cat in the window. The vacant lot I used to play in as a kid, now two-story units. Public school buildings go charter. A shoe store on the corner of Lake Merritt, turned into successive reiterations of an Egghead Software, gym equipment, Sprint telephones. The steps of a dance studio now leads to a Korean church. A kosher bakery dispenses Hot Wings. A political movement reconvened inside a motherboard. An anti-war movement marches parallel to another anti-war movement. A highway overpass serves as the roof for a tent city.

PROMPT: I smell tobacco on my index finger but I haven’t smoked for years.

She always wanted to smoke and so once did inside the cafeterias of corn bread and red beans, a borough away from the paperweights of blue jellyfish. There in the vacant lots of mica schist and chicory, took up residency inside an empty box. Her mother called over the clotheslines, “Come home!” After awhile, everything changed. She had tasted the freedom of stray dogs living between apartment buildings, went forth expecting no less, always in a bittersweet half-life, wheeled on a gurney and waking up inside recovery rooms. Around the same time, she took up knitting.

Smoking came later; a sweet smell of clove. But from whenceforth came this eau de Krakatoa? She really knew not, except it might have been a paramedical thing, but to be a member of a group, a girl whose knees broadcasted from ripped jeans. Not an object property belonging to a neighborhood, a city, a state, a country as defined by Google property and inheritance, wanting to form her own relationships without any givens.

Into the annals and nasty innards of dusty library books she studied until she came up with a plan to travel outside of herself and timed it just right– a solar eclipse of the sun whereupon everything was lined up perfectly. That evening, sparrows gathered on telephone wires as though they were waiting for a signal, a pass from the backcourt, and in one sliver of an instance, covered the sky with the small blackness of wings. Into the sky’s lining she burrowed.

Blue velvet smoke drew upon her like a curtain and then dissolved into a orgy of statues that stood around a fountain fucking each other, water spewed from nipples and dicks with a constant orgasm of water flowing between a wood nymph’s thighs. She pushed the falling hair from her face, took a long drink, and sighed. Love was in the air.

“Where am I?” she asked. A group of women and men paddled out to greet her.

(Always Continued)

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Upcoming Readings:

Saturday, April 22, 1pm Book Passage, Sausalito, 100 Bay Street with Charles Burack and Kendra Tanacea to celebrate National Poetry Month.

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Online Dating Redux

There’s a recurring theme in the online dating world that involves a man who’s a construction engineer building roads, culverts, pipe pedestals, or may be closing a deal in Dubai. He’ll be back stateside in approximately three weeks. Invariably, he seems to have been born overseas in another country and speaks at least one other language. Italy seems to be a popular location although I’ve also met guys who’ve claimed to be from Russia or Ireland. The profile also includes the following: he has lost his wife in a tragic car accident where she was immediately killed and he took five years to get over the shock, but now is ready to move on with his life. Or there’s a variation in the theme where a child was killed in a car accident and the marriage failed beneath the sturm and drang of loss. Or how she slept with his best friend. His best friend!

All this elicits my sympathy. He is a father and frequently claims to have two college-age children who are attending school in Europe. They are studying software engineering, or sometimes languages. He wants to know what I want from a relationship and I respond with sincere, heartfelt emails. He’s a good communicator and in touch with his emotions. I go through my day with a quiet song that permeates my stubborn belief that I will never again find a significant relationship; I remind myself to refocus on work, family, and friends, and that sleeping alone has its benefits like being able to occupy either left or right side or, if I choose, to entirely fill up a bed with my arms akimbo, feet askew, unencumbered by someone who snores.

But the picture dissolves. I find no such person on the Internet who fits his description. His company is non-existent. He assures me that his website is being upgraded and promises that I will discover all manner of wonderful thing about him and his company once his designer recovers from a bad slide down the ski slope. I hear a small voice telling me that my Mr. Right is my Mr. Wrong. I have a fatal flaw: Despite this Age of Trump, I  believe the best in people. I blame it on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals that I grew up with, a surrey with a fringe on top and clam bakes everywhere.

Still, I can’t get past my fascination that men can be such horrible emotional manipulators, hired assassins, belonging to a group that fabricates a backstory for the purpose of deceit. The problem is, it’s the same story, and while repetition is good in most cases, in this one, it’s a liability, a fellowship of poseurs, each one carrying a similar calling card. I wonder if they are working for the same agency or are they a network of individual contractors? Online sites do try to catch these cads and strip them of membership, preventing them from preying upon the bankbooks of vulnerable women. But when were words ever a true representation of reality, itself a philosophical argument taking up print in books for the last several hundred years?

Words are stand-ins; whatever meaning they’re imbued with depends on who’s talking, which is what I’ve been reduced to in the face of online dating, sitting on a couch cushion and thinking about words in the Student Lounge of San Francisco State University waiting for an evening class to begin and watching a mostly silent parade: an older man with a leather briefcase and a matching brown leather cap in flip-flops, a young woman with hoop earrings as big as wagon wheels that roll her away to the cafeteria, bags of walking gold fish and barbecue chips, white ear buds and a collar of headphones, a bouquet of voice messages clutched in every hand; students appear holding small cardboard pizza boxes and then I hear the laughter that comes before backpacks.

(Always Continued…)

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White Label

A ghost arrives in my mailbox

on the outside of a catalog 

name printed           a white label 

                  inside a Castro convertible sofa

an opening         
                  to another time

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Upcoming Readings:

Saturday, April 15, 6pm, Rolling Writers Let’s Jew It! with Susan Cohen, Diane Frank, Richard May, Colleen McKee, and Bejamin Wachs, 1722 Taraval between 27th and 28th Avenues, San Francisco—at the L stop.

Tuesday, April 17, VelRo, 7-9 PM in HUM 512, San Francisco State University Poetry Center.

Saturday, April 22, 1pm Book Passage, Sausalito, 100 Bay Street with Charles Burack and Kendra Tanacea to celebrate National Poetry Month.

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