In Your Off-White Dream
“I let you close once and what happens?
The floor’s all cut up in this one corner
and something in the ceiling is redolent of Death!
You forgot to put out more cans of air!
The curlicue-and-shrink-wrap shipment
continues to be unopened! And funny—
we sold no folderol last night
but now somehow we’re out?
What is this, your personal treehouse?
When I get back with my large triple
chocolate chunk caramel skim latte,
I’d better see some evidence
I’m not dreaming!” But he is. He’s been
assistant manager too long
or humble not long enough
or the trees have shriveled in the record heat
or a million other possible tropes.
You, you’re no trope. You open the doors.
In marches a skeleton holding a handbag,
demanding a refund. You handle it.
The skeleton blows you a kiss
and comes close to skipping.
In a minute which feels like an hour
you take back a beaten guitar,
scuffed sneakers, driftwood, Christmas trees,
someone’s great-grandmother’s butter knives.
Dust rag in one hand, Sharpie in the other,
you mark everything down
to two-seventy-nine. A phone keeps ringing
that idiotic song about redemption,
you know the one, you’ve heard it,
bubbly undercurrent of a bazillion TV ads.
You poke your head outside
expecting the curb. You get the inside
of another store: off-white walls,
empty shelves practically begging
to be populated. One foot follows
the other across the threshold.
Windows without flyers—endcaps
without mice, batteries, or candy bars—
register swaddled in plastic—
counter pristine as the dash of a Cadillac.
A store with nothing to sell—
your breath the only air.
Two orderlies muscle in, strap you into
a gurney, push you through a portal
to a clearing, an urgent meeting
of guidance counselors. Campfire flames
threaten to lick the branches.
In the dancing shadows they sign rapidly
and with much agitation. In their shoulders
hunches an indeterminate fear,
which is what you hear
when you wake to the sports talk station rant
and slam the snooze button.
Your forehead glistens.
Once you were pretty good at stopping
your dreams on a dime.
My brother in a hospital bed
with the chicken pox,
three years old, barely
old enough to know real illness
but enough to know
we have deviated from the plan
and don’t have much call
to be in Crawfordsville, Indiana
tonight or any night,
yet at the moment a sort of peace
creeps: soft yellow light
from a goose-necked lamp,
a sheaf of papers in its beam,
somewhere a clock
announcing 9:30, the night inside
slowly drawing the sheets over itself,
drifting off. The cord
running from me to this memory
is crimped, not up to code.
Where are my parents? I hear
strained whispers, questions asked
of whom I presume is the man
in charge, words like when
and penicillin. At this remove
I can’t tell anymore
if tomorrow calls for cold or rain
or more of the same,
can’t help anyone here
get to where they’re going
even though some part of me
knows we’re driving to Fresno.
Road trip without a moral,
tableau in amber—
save my brother
on his back, hooked up to fluids,
probably still awake and dying
to scratch holy hell out of his body,
he who has speech
and no say in the matter.
State park campsite.
Rain, noninsistent, omnipresent,
tapping since yesterday the wings
of our pop-up camper,
a haze to complement
the greater haze surrounding us,
preventing my supine
flu-ridden self from seeing
the other family we’re camping with:
the dad who works with my dad,
the mysterious mom,
the snooty daughter
I sort of know from school.
The afternoon is a lukewarm bath.
All weekend this indecisive light,
my stomach suspended
between full and ravenous,
little TV illuminating
the hollows of Dad’s cheeks
with tires, power tools, light beer,
knives so sharp they could cut
silence. My head is hot. Mom slides
the cold thermometer under my tongue.
Ninety-nine and holding.
It’s sick how no one is talking.
Pop tab hiss, cola cracking ice.
I sit up and look through
the half-unzipped window
at the canopy. A dove coos,
seems to be feeling me out.
I know I will probably get better,
go on to falter
and recover a million times over
from more life-threatening things.
Household chores, girls, mean old world.
In the thin wet mesh
between me and the elements,
I trace my name:
first and last, all caps.
Farther down the beach,
kids are chasing each other, screaming with delight.
A kite puffed up by the wind. Twilight,
high tide, hyperactive sea.
We ease Mom into the unfolded folding chair,
help her button her sweater. She grins
through the pain. No walker,
no cane, no wheelchair, not yet.
She’s from a line who says it does no good to complain,
and tonight, I must agree.
I’m tired, resolve-free.
In the surf, a heron is sneaking up on dinner.
My wife and I wade in ankle-deep.
I wish I had handy a shovel
to dig a bed and dream
the even-keeled dreams of the dead.
There is much to be said about this beach
that can never be said,
or if so, by someone with a mind like sand,
someone here year-round.
Farther down, the kids are fighting
to keep a fire going. They fan, they blow.
Mom looks on from a body which has betrayed her
and in a low, flat voice—
what she really wants, we’ll never know—
says she could sure go for some lobster,
claws and all, the real stuff, the kind you have to want
to work for.