The poetry and fiction of Kara Carlson, based in New Orleans, has been published in Travel Magazine, Blood Lotus, Denver Syntax and various other venues.
My girlfriend had one of those smiles you wanted to pray to. She went to the museum for an early evening event. The last thing I wanted to do was talk to people I didn’t know about things I didn’t care about in a museum I couldn’t name. I caught the MUNI to the cemetery. I walked among the graves of those fine and faceless people who had gone before me. I smoked a joint under the trees and walked on the bodies. All that mattered was that I was alone.
The girlfriend was the artsy type, and that frightened me. But we had sex and we smoked and we drank and we breathed, running high in our artificial perfection of life.
I lived with Larissa and two of her friends on the corner of Geary and Masonic above a restaurant bar and below crack-dealing brothers. Our trash accumulated outside the front door like bad breath and rats the size of pigs lived under our staircase, the wood of which seemed something less than functional. The kitchen floor sloped and our black, spiked front gate gleaned with spit and blood. San Francisco was the kind of city where you forgot that something was wrong with you but you remembered that you didn’t know what it was.
When I had money, I drank Jack Daniels. When I didn’t have money, I drank Old Milwaukee and paid with dirty change. This was one of those times when breakfast was a half pint. I had a job because Larissa told me it would make me happy. I worked at some organic green grocery joint that the girlfriend referred to as a specialty retail grocery store. We used my employee discount to buy twenty-two-dollar cases of wine. The name was Trader Dan’s, maybe Tom’s, something like that. My friend Catfish called it Trader Slaves.
I was just coming down from an all-night bender and had been stocking lettuce longer than forever. I went out back into the alleyway with the dumpsters, swallowed some pills, and lit up a cigarette. The black door banged open and banged shut and Catfish was next to me asking for a smoke. I handed one over as if it didn’t belong entirely in my mouth.
“Let’s leave,” he said.
It was September, the sun looked like it had been cooked by God, and the beer I drank tasted like bottles of heat. The bar was the type with wet walls, scary seats, and a beer menu with imports from places like Germany and Belgium. Catfish pulled his rubber band out of his hair and some pills out of his pocket.
“I forgot I had these,” he exclaimed. “It’s like Christmas when I was twelve.”
Catfish’s mouth was too long, his eyes were too small, and his whiskers hung off his face in strings. I believe I trusted him. The beer removed everything ravaging us, and the pills ferried us to the kind of glory that felt like a lifeline. Nowadays, all those afternoons and all those nights and all those pints fold together in erroneous versions of happiness. But who knows what true happiness is, anyway? Beautiful women with their big, flawless lips and brilliant breasts? Men that I glance at and can’t help feeling inferior to? (It’s like if I were to talk to them, the words would disintegrate in my mouth and eat my imperfect tongue.) Those people are more messed up than I am.
An hour or a minute later we were on 6th Street with the earth fogging at the edges. As we walked through the crosswalk, an extraordinary mass of a person marched toward us pushing a baby stroller. The person had to have weighed 300, 350 pounds. It had a triple chin with some stubble, one earring, massive breasts, and shoulder length hair, the bottom two-thirds of which had been dipped in burnt orange paint. It wore a Giants shirt 10,000 times too small. The baby in the stroller was truly the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It looked like a celestial being, radiating with the majesty of innocence. It sat, satisfied and sucking its thumb. I wanted to be that baby.
“Oh wow oh man oh Jesus, is that a she-man? And how does it have a baby?” Catfish asked.
I couldn’t tell if he was whispering or screaming. Without saying a thing, the person swung back a fist that might as well have been a hammer and hit Catfish right in the middle of his face. Blood rained down on the sidewalk and Catfish collapsed with his eyes open and a smile like the echo of grace solidified on his face. I kept expecting the baby to turn around and stretch out its little fingers to heal the hurt. I wanted it to come back. I wanted it to repair me.
Catfish’s arms were above his head and his shirt halfway above his stomach. Hot red sticky blood dripped all over his life. It was one of those moments that stand alone and stand still. Catfish broke a nose and cracked some teeth. He didn’t die, but at that moment he was a crucifix in a street, martyred for the thoughts of the plain and ordinary. That night, when Larissa and I made love, I exhaled her name but thought of the baby and the blood and the inconsistency of life.
Years later, when I barely recalled Larissa’s name but definitely recalled her smile, I woke up with my face right in the dirt. I was in the cemetery, and a homeless man two steps away had woken me up. I just looked at the guy.
“You’re alive,” he said.
It wasn’t a question.
King lives and writes in Nashville, Tenn.
Last night I dreamed that I was back in Germany, but this time I was stationed near a massive city, instead of in the midst of the charming and quaint town of Landstuhl I loved so much. Landstuhl always was something of a comforting reminder me of home in a strange, unfamiliar universe.
In fact, for this tour of duty, I truly had no conception of where I was stationed, and didn’t really care. I had been stationed on the post for weeks completely indifferent to my surroundings, and one day during work when everything was slow, the entire unit piled into an enormous camouflage van and headed for the mystery metropolis. We were all in uniform, and technically still on duty, so there was to be no drinking, of course. And also of course, I was demoralized.
But the moment we arrived, I felt that total sobriety would be preferable. I mean, who could get a beer down in a place like this, where the noise and the swirl of disorder was so crippling it choked the soul and made the throat close up, purposely denying itself oxygen as to head for the grave, away from the madness? I was seated next to Van Heusen, an actual old roommate of mine, and I had to scream into the side of his face to ascertain where we were.
“Say, what is this hell-hole we’re in?”
“WHAT IS THIS HELL-HOLE WE’RE IN?!”
“Oh, it’s called Bad Hamburg. You didn’t know? What rock have you been stationed under?”
I didn’t offer him any explanation, because frankly I didn’t feel like talking, much less roaring like a grizzly bear to get across a single sentence. I just sat back and watched, weeping internally.
There was the sharp, metallic sheen of modernity everywhere; of glass and steel and diamond-like glinting rushing from everywhere at once, unlike at a lake when the sun is dropping, and the glinting tends to stroll across the surface of the water as to be savored, or at the least pinpointed. In fact, Bad Hamburg, its name’s introduction fitting, hardly resembled Germany at all; it was more like Tokyo had been surgically implanted and, as a kind yet futile gesture, a cathedral or two and a few small buildings of timeless European descent were preserved to cower among the skyscrapers and the rip-off outlets. The entire community (could it be called that?) was comprised of imitation jewelry, ten-dollar Nikes and tax-breaking corporate manufacturing outposts. Christ, there were even neon Coors and Budweiser signs in the windows of the bars, in the middle of Germany!
Finally the van was parked, and I stepped off, disoriented and nauseated and with a splitting headache. We snaked through the narrow corridors off the main strip, dodging thousands of people, as the vendors at the stands shook five-dollar watches and necklaces in our faces while belting their haggles, and I ducked into a bar with a girl from our unit. I’d been dead wrong; complete sobriety could never be endured in a place like this. So I ordered a beer, a fucking Miller Lite; the Army could send me home if they wanted for having a watered-down beer; be my salvation, I beg of you.
Once again I could hardly hear myself fart or think, but at scattered intervals, when the techno stopped, I talked to the girl I once knew from my second duty station, but whose name I couldn’t place. She had short black hair and generous eyes, was kind and outgoing — that’s all I knew. You see, my brain and all its memory had been made molten by Bad New York or Hong Kong Hamburg, whatever the place was called.
But I remembered Landstuhl all too well, and I re-created it for the girl.
“I miss everything about Landstuhl,” I told her.
“We could walk from the barracks and get anywhere we wanted — no voyages needed in green, tank-like vehicles, and the train station was open-air. I mean, you could still see trees and grass and hills in the distance as the trains cruised by; the trains weren’t crammed into crowded, subterranean tunnels.
“Speaking of tunnels, there was one small tunnel leading to the train station in Landstuhl, passing under some streets; it also led to a couple of nightclubs on the outskirts of the town. The stones of the tunnel, like gems in a ring, were set in the perfection of ancient masonry, and weathered to that poetic dark-gray only time can execute. Between each stone was some kind of moss; it was green and bright, like landscapes in Ireland at sunrise.
“Once, my friend Adam and I ran into a couple of skinheads in that tunnel on the way to a disco. They pulled switchblades on us and started shouting in German, an unspeakable act for Landstuhl. But what’s funny is this — they didn’t have the gall to get too close to us. They were actually trying to rob us or tell us to go back to America from 30 yards away, so Adam and I picked up a couple of chunks of rather large rubble, jarred loose from a walkway platform, and assumed NFL quarterback passing positions. The skinheads de-switched their blades, pocketed them, turned and moved along at a deliberate pace, and shut their mouths, too, before letting loose one or two cursory final outbursts as if to appease their pride. That was the only incident remotely even close to a crime we ever encountered and/or heard of in the town of Landstuhl.
“The bar Adam and I usually went to was called the Kasade, and the owner was Rhiner. He had a couple of rotting front teeth, but it didn’t detract from his friendly nature. He used to bring us ‘meters’ of cola-beer; they were long, handmade wooden boxes, with the smaller glasses of beer on the outside, leading up to two large beers in the middle. The idea was to drink the smaller beers first, working your way to the center, where the last two big beers served as the toast, a kind of icing applied to the finished meter. On the meter boxes and the wooden tables were people’s names, carved in countless languages; each patron of The Kasade for the last 300 years, it seemed. I carved my own name into one of the tables after finishing the final meter of my life, possibly, the night before I left Landstuhl for my next duty station.
“By the spiraling stairwell leading down into the perfect half-darkness of The Kasade was a large, petrified tree, rising up through a flawlessly-crafted hole cut into the floor. There was a ring of bright red bricks decorating the circumference of the hole, encircling the roots. The tree was the color of snow or a birch, and names through the ages were carved into the tree, too.”
I finished my beer; that last bitter drop of watered-down dog piss, as the girl and I stepped out into the locust-like bellowing of the big city traffic and I yearned for a cola-weissen from one of Rhiner’s meters or a small-town fest on a Sunday afternoon.
She took one glance at the chaos and her usual jovial smile transformed to instant sadness and that distant sting of alienation, and so did mine.
1) Russell sat in the driver’s seat after saying goodbye to his father for the last time. The idling engine sputtered out curls of exhaust fumes that wafted like ghosts through the tunnels of the hospital parking structure. He punched the steering wheel four times and feared a fifth might cause the airbag to deploy, which would probably break his nose, definitely his glasses. He waited until all the other cars were gone before he cried.
2) Demolition of The Berlin Wall started this morning and best friends Ben and Kristi decide to celebrate. Tonight, Ben parks his car on Lakeshore Drive, overlooking Lake Michigan, just north of Navy Pier. The beige car is nearly hidden in the hairy spine of sand dunes and fireweed. They listen to coverage of the destruction on the radio. Ben pulls a flask from his coat pocket, raises it as high the car’s roof will allow and toasts, “To the death of communism.” He takes a quick drink, winces tightly, then passes the flask to Kristi. She drinks without making a toast. The radio continues: crowds shouting We want out! and the thunderous boom of brick turning to dust. Kristi looks out at the ships rising and falling on the water. Like shooting stars, the lights bloom then disappear into the darkness. She thinks about all the families and estranged lovers of East and West Germany reuniting in one another’s arms. She looks at Ben and smiles. She thinks there is hope.
3) You’re alone in your car, speeding out of your neighborhood. Your mother is having him over again, and walking downstairs to that used piece of bubblegum wrapping his doughy arms around her is about the last thing you need right now. You wonder if you should drive to your dad’s house, but immediately you decide not to. It’s already dark and the drive from Waukegan to Cicero is almost two hours. Nearly crying, you pull up to a stoplight and rummage through your backpack for your cigarettes. You think you get your hands around the pack and pull them out, only to find it’s not your cigarettes. It’s a cassette-tape case. Jules, play me. ♥ James. You open the case and put the tape into the car’s player, still mildly concerned that you are unaware of the contents of your own backpack. “Julia” by The Beatles begins to whisper through the speakers. You push the seat back and close your eyes, pretending John Lennon is stroking your hair and singing you to sleep. The light turns green and cars start honking behind you. But you won’t move, not until the mixed tape winds to an end.
4) “Christ, Evelyn, the whole world is changing without us,” Carl grumbled as he threw this morning’s copy of the Tribune down on the coffee table. Evelyn saw the headline and mouthed words Chicago’s – Oldest – Drive-In – Closed – Permanently. “It’s like I told you. First they change the Sears Tower to the ‘Willis Tower.’ Then they close our drive-in. Next they’ll be wanting to change the name Chicago to ‘Idiotsville.’
“I’d like to go there, Carl.”
“The River-Walk,” Evelyn said, looking at her husband with sad eyes. Carl nodded silently, as if out of respect, and they left.
Their Corolla rolled to a stop in front of the large white wall of the River-Walk Drive-In. Only days after its final showing and already the cracked grey asphalt had given way to invading knotweed and peppergrass. There were still buckets of half-eaten popcorn strewn about the parking lot with a few lucky pigeons getting their fill.
“It’s a damn shame.” Carl tugged on the hair below his bottom lip, making a suction sound like sticky feet from a hardwood floor.
“Do you remember our first date?” Evelyn asked with a smile.
“You bet little lady. It’ll be 40 years this summer, God smiled down on this lucky sailor and gave him a trip to the drive-in with a gal prettier than Sophia Loren.” They both laughed.
With the sun going down and the world slowly becoming a sad mystery, Evelyn laid her head on her husband’s shoulder and they both stared at the wall in front of them, as if it were show time.
Francis lives and writes in Nashville, Tenn., but may be destined for Hamburg, as it were.
Except for when you are here.
No longer will I resemble a dead
asterisk viewed from outer space
or that vagrant sprawled out naked
in the middle of the town commons
resting my head on Justice’s scale.
There may be differences between
your side, my view –
but we are alive and beating, and
these figments of our imagination
are far from dead. Tonight the sunlight may be
deafening, tomorrow it’s stuck in your throat.
I order another watered down whiskey,
toss down my last 10 bucks and throw it back,
some piss on the rocks.
We head down to the water.
Polluted beach, swimming
prohibited, so we take a walk,
the fanfares of dusk, sirens –
it all floats away into something. Whatever.
Back to Mission Hill,
back down Guerrero to 24th.
Now that I’ve seen you bookended
between Alcatraz and Golden Gate
I don’t feel so sick anymore.
But I’m still a bit queasy. Even now, the next day.
It’s just a little different. I search my coat pocket
for my boarding pass as I head toward the gate.
The writing’s on the wall:
A fool, who writes more than
he reads. A fool, who thinks
more than he loves.
Many people throughout history
have fallen victim to the concept
of perfection. I start counting and
soon I get bored and want to do
something else. Eat a cannoli
for example. I am tired of my
small empire and want to expand.
I decide to set up a drum kit
to drive out the neighbors, but
quickly realize this probably
won’t lead to the desired
effect. Instead I lie in bed,
roll up in my blanket and smile,
say Cannoli. For a second, even,
I am laughing.