The State Worker Chronicles

—for Jack

I am the Jean Valjean of this big, round building.
Only instead of a loaf of bread, I need a roll of quarters, and
I am willing to barter a crisp ten dollar bill.

At the change machine, in the front lobby, I insert my bill,
over and over again, flip it around, try it again, it is spit back
at me, nearly a dozen times. I can hear the din of fourth graders
through the glass wall, just behind me. I can see my co-worker, Jack,
standing at the cash register, holding a handful of nickels. Bewildered.

I have half a mind to run out the front door, ten dollar bill in hand,
across third street, second street, front street, three blocks to the river,
where I could simply hand the bill to a bum and toss myself in.
It seems as logical as anything. With only the sound of water,
rushing to fill my ears.

Instead, I make my way, down the hallway, around the curve of the building,
dodging swarms of children, each one faceless, but for the shriek
of an open mouth, scan my badge, and slip through the doors, into the belly
of the beast. It’s so quiet here, so empty, so calm, I pretend for a minute
that I have just exited one of Bradbury’s rocket ships, landed cleanly
on an uninhabited planet.

I turn left, and search for Martians. Perhaps, they have some quarters?

I find state workers, instead. Holed up quietly, in their educational offices,
and they are like Martians to me. Sitting at desks, oily haired and fat, with
wardrobes that haven’t been in style since the 1980’s. I can’t help but wonder,
if they have been here the entirety of those three decades, like rodents, sewer rats,       never seeing daylight.

Do they even know the building is round, or do they assume it is squat and square,
like them?

I ask for Diane, the friendliest of these Martians. The one not aghast at the presence
of one of my kind, walking about freely on their planet. Everyone stares, they seem nervous, as if there is a threat of my having carried a disease into their fluorescent lit
environment, a plague spread, solely, through the breath of contract workers.

“She isn’t here. What do you want?” one of them asks.

“I need quarters, please” I respond, trying to appear friendly and non threatening.
Diane fills the change machine, I know there is a drawer full of quarters, tucked away somewhere on this planet.

“We don’t do that,” the brave one says sharply.

“I’m really desperate,” I respond.

“We don’t do that,” she repeats, even more sharply. I can almost taste
the edge in her voice.

I turn and scamper out the door. I am not fluent in their language, unschooled
in their grammar. My pronunciation, my accent, are all wrong. I am made immediately aware, of my error.  I am poor, surviving on contract worker wages, unable to afford
private tutors, or even a second hand language cd, I have tried to get by with a
tattered copy of “State Workers for Dummies” bought from the Salvation army store,
on half priced Wednesday, and missing a few pages.

The joke is on me, is me. I must be missing the lesson page that so clearly explains,
the similarities of the words “Quarter” and “Kidney” and the nearly identical pronunciations, with a nuance, only a native speaker can detect.

Did I really just demand all of their kidneys for ten dollars?

I can hear a shuffling behind me, as I hurry around the corner, back to
the safety of my rocket ship. But these rounded passageways all lead
to one another, into one another, through one another, I pick up my pace, identification tag, clipped visibly to my scarf, in the event
that I am stopped. Footsteps echo on the cement floor behind me,
bouncing over me, circling me, I search for the wooden doors, the portal that
holds my escape. I catch a glimpse of it, just ahead, at a full run, I land against it,
and am propelled from Mars, from the artificial climate of that stale smelling
planet, teeming with disgruntled workers of the state.

In the climate controlled hallway, my boots pounding on tiles, I realize that
I have taken the wrong the door, yet again. I find myself, against a stone wall,
in 17 century France, with a baguette, inexplicably, tucked under my arm.
A tall figure, donning an inspector’s hat, points in my direction, his mouth agape,
booming with a thick accent,

“Jean Valjean! Get her, she stole our kidneys!”

I stumble through the nearest opening, across a dark room, and through the secret passageway that leads to our ship.

Panting and limp, I can barely speak the words,
“Jack. Run. I’ve angered them.”

And they are upon us…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ballad of Freeloader

This is complete nonsense, and we both know it, even you, in your polka dot dress and pink hair, with boot heels clicking, back and forth, back and forth, across the wood laminate flooring of my front room, pacing in front of me, as I drink tea on the sofa, from my favorite cat mug, curled under a blanket, the dog in my lap, finger tucked into my book, to save my place, not giving a damn about the monologue, you refuse to abandon. You take my silence for weakness, for acquiesce. In truth, I have little to say, on the subject of your conscience.

I think up words, instead. Single word summaries of your argument. Balderdash. Hoodwink. Tedious.

Your chopped logic is puzzling, at best. Skidding across the coffee table, it lands in my lap, with little more weight than a loosened feather. You quarrel and quibble, all on your own, leaving me to decipher that I, somehow, owe you something. A burying of a hatchet, a clean slate, a get out of jail free card.  I smirk. You puff and preen like a peacock, blathering out your fingle-fangled tale of my reactions to you, being our largest hurdle, our worst dilemma, an issue that only I, can overcome. I thank you for the diagnosis, you call me cold. I don’t react, because reactions are wrong, inaction is preferred. Meekness our goal, here.

I think up words, instead. Single word summaries to describe your personality. Opportunist. Trickster. Changeling.

I tell you what I learned years ago, that I don’t anyone a thing, not my time nor a home, not a reaction, nor non-reaction, as seems to be the desired outcome of this little interaction, one in which I am cast to play emotional, toss aside my favorite cat mug and pacify the temper tantrum, on display before me. I don’t owe you a clear conscience, or even a fresh pair of rose colored eyeglasses through which to view yourself, or to flatter yourself. Your vanity is not my necessity.

I think up words, instead. Single word summaries to describe my mental state. Disillusioned. Unresponsive. Stiff.

Opening my book, across my knees, I trace the lines with a finger, each word, a light at the end of this tunnel, each sentence an end to this story of us, I go back to what I know, always, back to the pages that explain this feeling, this release, an honesty that I cannot put into speech. A way to tell you what it is I am thinking, what it is to connect, then disconnect. To walk softly, into the next phase, without urgency, but purpose. You emit a muffled shriek, one screeching sentence, “the answer is not in a book!” Then, the door slams behind you, just as I put my finger on the correct passage. “But, it is,” I say to the empty room, ” it is…”

 

“The bonds between ourselves and another person exists only in our minds. Memory as it grows fainter loosens them, and not withstanding the illusion by which we want to be duped and which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we dupe other people, we exist alone. Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows other people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.” Marcel Proust

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Because I hate weather poetry

Because I hate weather poetry, I am awake before the dawn
shuffling my mindless body through this winter house,
suffocating thoughts about blizzards, and wind, icicles and

the lengthening of daylight.

Because I don’t wish to write about snow, now littered
in dirty patches on my front walk, melting alongside the house,
where it seeps through the brick, to puddle itself, musty

upon my basement floor.

Because I have this wild adversity to weather synopsis,
parading about as verse, with feathers on display, proud
as the peacock, that nipped my heels, every chance it got,

in an uncle’s garden, one childhood summer.

Because it is almost February, dreaded month,
the shortest month, that takes a lifetime, it seems,
to survive, watching for signs of life, ignoring the obvious,

that all groundhogs are con artists.

Because the Christmas flowers stand dead in their vases,
throughout these rooms, crispy brown heads, displayed
precariously on rotted stems, staring resentfully at my back,

as if it was me, that cut their pretty, green lives short.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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winter poem

Depression makes for an odd bedfellow.

It’s waking up, happy and looking forward to the hours to be filled, only to find yourself in the late afternoon, having accomplished nothing to mark this day in your life.
A morning spent, trying to sort out just what it is you wish to accomplish , only to   come up empty handed.
If you cannot come up with a list of things to do, how are you actually supposed to accomplish anything?

It’s feeling like these shorter days are the longest of the year.

It’s waking up at 4am because the words are flowing through your head, chanting and pounding, begging to be written, only to look entirely different on the page, mocking your inability to make them stand in a line and behave coherently.

It’s realizing that January has passed, with February right on it’s heels, and all you’ve done is write one decent poem and kept up with the laundry.

It’s rearranging all of the books in your house, because you don’t have the attention span to read them, and believe any interaction with them is good, even if that means merely carrying them back and forth across the room to different shelves.
Worrying over feuds that predate your life. Should you place Capote
alongside McCullers, once friends, before a falling out, left them
with a distaste for one another, that followed them into death.

Would you want to spend these grey days next to a onetime friend,
that broke your trust and never apologized?

It’s not finding a reason to leave the house for days, and when you finally do, only feeling let down by any outside encounters. The world having changed so much during your seclusion, that you have become a stranger, to even yourself.

It’s staring out the kitchen window, at your ugly, snow filled, winterized garden,
and worrying over the fate of your hyacinth patch, that had just gotten up the nerve,
to poke their tiny green heads out of the thawing earth, before the last snowfall
buried them in certain frozen death.
thinking if only you could go outside and play in the dirt, perhaps this feeling to,          would pass.

It’s having a love/hate relationship with winter. The snow, the coziness of a fireplace, and the cocoon of hibernation.

Yet hating the malaise and melancholy that is February.
When every year, you plan to handle it better, to be productive during this shortest (but feels like the longest) month.

And every year, you fail.

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For my mother in law, at the holidays

My womb is not barren, to spite you.
However, it is a perk, of which there are so few,
in being your childless daughter in law.

Though, I cannot deny the satisfaction

with which I stunt
your yearning to spread your DNA,
no matter how diluted,
that bloodline would run,
before it dropped from my uterus,

and into your greedy hands.

My womb does not sit empty, as an
affront to your delusions. Your desires.
Your need for the children,

you can no longer bear, yourself.

It is not me, that brings that cross to
every holiday meal, upon which you climb,
and stare sadly across the dinner table,

at my vacant womb. As if each day that I let pass
without a fertilized egg, was just another nail

hammered through your palm.

I did not choose you,
anymore than you chose me.

Nor did I choose the path of the daughter in law,
that came before me,
carved from deception,
a pavement laid in lies, abandoned at your son’s feet,

with a child he was no willing participant in creating.

Perhaps, if I had, I would have been welcomed,
into your family, over my nearly twenty years
of marriage?

Would I have at least once, been sent
a goddamned birthday card?

No, my womb is not barren, to spite you.

Spite, would have been to intentionally fill that womb,
mix together a petri dish of cells, that
would incubate into your grandchild, the future
of your precious lineage, your perfect family,

and abort it.

 

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Memory is nothing more than a scent, that haunts the air

I dreamt of you, this sweating August morning, the sun on my face, and surrounded by cats.It was a pleasant dream, full of the past, before this not so pleasant present,

even took place. A moment, in the beginning of us, at a time, when I had little idea of where we would end up.

Nothing looks the same in fresh daylight. The glare of morning, with its’ bright chatter, brings a detachment to life, a separation of being, and living.

That makes one long for a home, that doesn’t exist. A world that doesn’t spin, but rocks gently, instead.

So, I dreamt of us. And there we sat, face to face, in the back room of your old house,

straddling your husband’s weight bench. A half empty bottle of Captain Morgan, on that bench, between us.

We had run out of mixers, hours before, and were passing the bottle, back and forth. Neither of us could shut up about poetry, it was three am, and we were alive with ideas. Young, and excited, about the things we had not yet written.

But, time is a shape shifter, a remembrance in an old book. Time has her way, of shooting holes in one’s pet illusions. Taunting and teasing, before running off into the shadows, to shout.

To call out, “Marco. Polo. “

A children’s game. One in which, no one remembers the rules.

I was twenty-six, that night, in your old house. I was twenty-six, and I thought going mad was the most poetic thing one could do, with one’s time. Madness, was a romance language, I could never master.

Its conjugations, its sentence structure, eluded me. Yet, I tried my damnedest, and at times, felt downright poetic.

I was forty, when I, finally, went mad. I was forty, and I didn’t know I was mad. Nothing was poetic. It was desperate and silent. Reckless. I became a clenched fist, balled up of destruction. I moved in slow circles, carrying a bed pillow, with which to smother, anything, or anyone, that moved to swiftly.

I went madder than I had anticipated. I was ill-prepared. The game continued on without me, I kept missing my turn, kept losing my place. A year passed. Then, two.

Time became nothing more than a deep sleep. Dreamless, and hollow. The past, eavesdropping on the present. Listening, at that paper thin wall, with a glass pressed to her ear.

My madness left me, as suddenly as she had appeared. Abandoned me, one night, while I slept, twisted in the sheets, curled up with the cats. I wasn’t sorry to see her go.

I was certain, that madness had merely deafened me, certain that you had been shouting in my direction, calling out from the shadows, I listened, for days, months, a year. The silence was nearly, too much for me.

The shadows came up empty.

Time had crept her way in.

Still, I called out softly, just once, “Marco. Polo?”

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The purple glass door knob.

This is the story of a friendship, not the mushy kind full of declarations of what a friendship means or how they have shaped your life or stood beside you throughout adversity or any of that other nonsense. This isn’t emotional, it’s factual. It isn’t chock full of hugging and kissing. No one says,” I love you” or some other such drivel.  Frankly, I’ve had enough of that. This friend is not my “best friend” nor is he a “sometimes” friend. He is simply, my friend. And this is just a day, a moment, in our friendship. That being said, here goes nothing.

My friend Carter and I are standing in the third floor kitchenette of a rather large, abandoned house neither of us owns. There is a smell lingering that we haven’t yet identified, but will shortly make itself known as rotting cheese in the sink where we once brushed our teeth before bed. Below us, on the second floor, we can hear my husband, Kevyn, and two other friends, Kate and Dawn, rummaging through several rooms in search of items, to be scrutinized by us, before they are loaded into our limited car space to be whisked away for safe keeping. Neither of us has been in this house in over four years, Carter having once lived here for a time and myself a regular weekend visitor from my home two hours away. The house belongs to his ex-boyfriend, a good friend of mine that introduced us some ten years prior. It has been seven years since that sunny day we moved him into this house. It surprises us that we are not surprised over the state of the place. Not much has changed. Our friend, we will call him R, is having some troubles and he will not be coming back here, thank god. The family of R has already been here and filled a truck with furniture and most of whatever else was salvageable. There was a flood in January and the place has been boarded up since late February. Today is July 5th and we will be the last people to go through the house before the bank forecloses. Carter, as the ex, is not supposed to be here, but I needed him with me and we both knew it, although it was never spoken. When I told him that I was going to the house, per request of R’s family to see if anything important was missed, I didn’t ask him to come along, nor did he insist. He simply said, “I am coming with you.” So, here we stand.

The third floor is our focus, R’s family ran out room in their truck before they made it up here. It consists of three rooms and a bathroom, the kitchenette sits in the middle, with the bathroom behind it, a storage room on the back side and an artist’s studio to the front. As long as we have known this house, it has never been what one would call liveable. There is no real kitchen with working appliances, no fully working bathroom (even though there are three, all together), and no living room to relax in. This little kitchenette, in what was once a third floor apartment, was the only refuge. At one time, it had been scrubbed clean. A table and a few chairs sat in front of the window that gets the morning sun. A coffee pot, microwave and electric tea kettle sat atop an old desk against one wall, there was a mini fridge beneath the desk. We had spent many a Sunday morning here, drinking coffee at the table, listening to The Beatles and making plans for the day. It wasn’t perfect, but it was comfortable, and in an odd way, homey. Today, the floor is littered with boxes of crackers that raccoons have ripped open, the coffee pot has rusted and the sink is filthy.

In the storage area, we get to work on the task at hand, sorting through boxes that we had packed all those years ago, searching for a purple glass door knob. Every door in the house has already been checked for said door knob, we both remember it being attached to a bedroom door on the second floor, but it is nowhere to be found. There is a story behind the purple glass door knob. A story only the two of us know and we are determined to locate it. I leave Carter to his excavation of the back room and tackle the studio up front. There are half finished paintings leaning against a wall, boxes of odds and ends for projects and an old table with spilled paint, now dry, splattered across the top. I am digging my way through the place, setting items aside, when I hear Carter calling me from the other room. Thinking he has found the door knob, I make my way over to him. I find him standing knee deep in boxes and crumpled newspaper. He looks tired and a little overwhelmed. Together, we stack boxes at the top of the stairs to be carried down later. I can no longer stomach the stench emanating from the sink of rotting cheese and make my way downstairs. I pass Kate, on the staircase, she is volunteering to help finish the third floor and I thank her. I can hear Kevyn and Dawn in the foyer discussing the logistics of packing the three vehicles. While Carter and Kate finish upstairs, I work my way through the second and first floors. Two hours later I am exhausted and frustrated beyond belief.

I take a tour of the house by myself. From top to bottom, front to back, I wander the rooms. It really is a beautiful house, architecturally, that is, in reality the place is a dump, and has been since I first stepped foot inside of it all those years ago. The walls are falling down, covered in ripped, ancient wallpaper. The floors are disgusting and damaged beyond repair. However, the rooms are spacious with large windows facing the morning sun. The bannister on the staircase is crooked with chipped paint, but winds up through the house in a rather lovely path. I stand at the bottom and look all the way up to the third floor. I have always loved this staircase. I place my palms behind me on the bannister and lean back for a better view. As Carter and Kate make their way downstairs, I feel a splinter slide deep into my left hand. Ignoring it, I watch their entire descent. They are talking and laughing. I remind myself to thank Kate again later. She joins Kevyn and Dawn in packing the cars, leaving Carter and myself at the foot of the staircase. We stare up through the house for a minute before he turns to me and says, “You and I should check each room to see if we missed anything. Let’s start on the third floor.” I nod and follow him upstairs one last time. We both know that what we are actually doing is saying goodbye, there’s no need for discussion. We have been here for three hours and it is time to finish.

This house is full of ghosts, both good and bad. I can hear a distant echo of both laughter and despair. Snippets of conversation and shadows of another time fill each cluttered room. You could be dramatic and say R descended into madness in this house, descended into madness because of this house, and you wouldn’t be far from the truth. But, this story is not dramatic, in fact, it is the opposite. And it is just a house, like any other house. Nor is this story littered with the boring details of where two people meet and how friendship comes about and all that other junk no one cares about. It is about today, July 5th, 2014.

I promised you a story of friendship. So, here goes…

***

My friend Carter and I are standing in the third floor kitchenette of a rather large, abandoned house neither of us owns. There is a smell lingering that we have identified as rotting cheese in the sink where we once brushed our teeth before bed. Once more, we start in the storage room and work our way out, we converse very little, instead, we move about in amicable silence. On the second floor, we start in the back room that Carter had once set up with a futon and a small television. Kevyn and I would sleep here when we visited. It had a desk and some shelves. A small electric fireplace sat next to the television. I can see Carter and I sitting on the futon my last night in this house. There was a heavy snowstorm, and we had taken a bus to downtown Philadelphia to entertain ourselves at a bookstore, while Kevyn was at the movies and R was at work. Carter hadn’t wanted to drive because of the weather. I hadn’t wanted to take the bus for the same reason.  As we left the bookstore, the storm picked up and mixed a cold wind in with the snow. The bus was late, I was not wearing proper snow shoes, and I was soaking wet and a little irritated with him by the time we arrived home. I changed into my pajamas and Carter hung my jeans in front of the electric fireplace to dry. We sat and watched the fake fire, waiting for the others to get home so we could go to dinner. We both knew that his breakup with R was inevitable, yet neither of us spoke about it. That was a horrible weekend, all around. The house was cold and damp and everyone was in a foul mood. It culminated in a collapsed shelving unit in this very room, that sent everyone over the edge. There were arguments and accusations. The next day, I couldn’t wait to go home. I didn’t know, at the time, it would be my last visit to this house for years.

Today, the room is cluttered with junk. Random papers cover the floor and boxes are stacked in the corner. There’s a broken, boarded up window. There isn’t much to salvage and we move on to the bedroom. It’s littered with magazines and old bedding. There are houseplants dying on the windowsill. Outside the door, I grab R’s favorite, old coat from the bannister and hang it over my shoulder. Carter nods at me and says he’s glad that I’m taking it. We stop briefly in the front room, meant to someday be a library, it’s filled with more dying houseplants, some with broken pots. Soil is everywhere. I mention taking the plants, but they are big, almost tree-like and there just isn’t room. We fumble around with a few boxes and shuffle things with our feet, but we are just wasting time, pretending not to stew in the past. The two of us tried to fix what was broken here. We failed. Sure, Carter made some much needed improvements to the house to make it habitable, but that is not my point. We tried to fix what the house, itself, seemed to have broken in R. A boyfriend and a best friend, we were the only two confidants R had in life. And we failed. The house won. And we are too hard on ourselves about it.

Back in the foyer, we encounter Kevyn, who is sweating over the last boxes being loaded into the cars. I squeeze his arm as we make our way past him. Carter leads me into the back of the house. We stop at the back door in a little mud room, there is a bathroom to our left and a mishmash of old furniture crammed haphazardly together in the middle of the room. We search around for the purple glass door knob. This tiny room has the nicest floor in the house, an IKEA floor that Carter installed years ago. I had forgotten that it is the same floor Kevyn and I picked out for our front room. I am startled by it’s presence here. Carter mentions the floor and we exchange a tired smile. He delivered my flooring to Harrisburg all those years ago to save me from paying for shipping. It was also the weekend he broke up with R. We had sat for hours on a sofa in my new house, bins and furniture stacked around us, with the bright, new flooring piled in boxes in front of us. He told me his relationship was over. He look haggard and unhealthy from living in this house. He’d put on weight, dark circles hung under his eyes. I was worried for him, and for R. That was four and a half years ago. Yet, time seems to have stood still here. Tomorrow, we will have coffee on Carter’s front porch and he will tell me about that time standing still thing, he will tell me about how his work gloves and tools were still on the windowsill in the third floor storage room, exactly as he had left them. But, that’s tomorrow, today we just head for the front door and freedom, where time keeps moving, at a steady, reliable pace.

On the sidewalk out front I pick up a black, metal number five that has fallen from a pillar on the porch. Only half of an address remains. I toss the number into the empty box I am carrying and ask my husband, “Where is Carter?”

“He’s still inside,” is the response.

I step back into the foyer and find Carter standing in the middle of the room. His head is down and he is diligently checking through the drawers in an old dresser.

“What are you doing?” I ask him.

He looks around the room and then directly at me. He rubs a hand, back and forth, over the top of his head.I know what he is about to say, but let him say it anyway.

“Baby, it’s time that someone tells me that it’s time to go.”

That someone is me.

“It’s time to go,” I tell him and he follows me outside.

The last item on our checklist is the back garden. I pick up the empty box and follow Carter along the side of the house. R is a talented gardener. His garden fills the entirety of the vacant lot next door and spills into the small space behind the house. It’s wild and full of weeds, but blooming and beautiful at the same time. We gather up his garden ornaments and deposit them into the box. Carter tosses in a few antique ceramic tiles from a bucket full of them next to the house. We wander around for a few minutes, then stop. It’s a nice day outside, not hot, like we had worried about over the telephone earlier in the week. There’s a slight breeze rustling the plants and some birds are singing.

“I always liked it back here,” Carter says,”It was always peaceful, unlike the inside of the house.”

I agree. He picks up the box of ornaments and follows me out of the garden. My husband and our friends are waiting for us. Life is waiting for us. I whisper goodbye, to the house, as I get into the car. I want to tell it to burn in Hell, but I don’t. It’s noon, a Saturday in early July, and we are free of this place. All of us. Finally.

We never did find the purple glass door knob. And we are not going back.

That goddamn house can have it.

 

 

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