by Jennifer Maloney
Truth, Art and Government Walk into a Bar
Truth and Art ran into each other at the Poetry Bar and started drinking. Soon an argument ensued concerning which of them was more important to the form. “No one wants to hear from you, you ugly bastard!” shouted Art. “Without me, you mean NOTHING!” responded Truth, throwing his Virgin Mary into Art’s face, ruining Art’s silk ascot and poking his eye with a celery stick. The bartender, who’d heard it all before, picked up a baseball bat and pointed to the door. “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” she intoned. “Take it outside, fellas.”
In the parking lot, Truth and Art circled. “You fussy old queen, I’ll make you bleed,” growled Truth, sledgehammer fists curling. “Not before I’ve carved that pig face of yours into something more presentable!” giggled Art. A switchblade glinted in his hand.
Suddenly, a black Escalade screeched into the lot, spitting gravel. Startled, Truth and Art covered their faces.
“Hello, boys!” sneered Government, slamming out of the car. “Daddy’s got a present for you!” He pulled a snub-nose .45 from the pocket of his shiny suit and shot Truth in the head, killing him. Art stood above the body of what he’d believed was his enemy in confusion and horror. Government waved the gun. “You want some of this?” Art shook his head. “Drop the knife,” said Government. Art complied. “Now, c’mere,” said Government, unzipping his fly. “Do a good job, son, and I won’t have to hurt you.” Terrified, Art sank to his knees. The gun caressed his temple.
Peering through the blinds, the patrons of the Poetry Bar reeled, unsure what to do. Some understood what was happening immediately. They raced out the back, disappearing into the night. Most sat frozen. The bartender slipped through a prohibition-era trapdoor, locking it behind her.
Government banged through the door, dragging Art by the hair and shoving him onto a stool. He stepped behind the bar. Poured shots, lining them up next to a stack of forms. “Free drinks, assholes! I own this joint now. All my friends drink free.”
The dilemma of what to do seemed resolved. They all needed a drink. Like zombies, they shuffled forward.
Government slammed a meaty paw against the bartop.
“But who here is my friend? Artie–he’s a real pal!” Government guffawed. Art winced. Government slid him a shot. “Jesus, somebody give him a napkin, clean him up. Disgusting.” He set the gun carefully next to the stack of forms. “Not everybody has to be as, uh, close to me as Art,” he snickered. “There’s an easier way to prove friendship. Sign the forms,” Government smiled. “You don’t have to,” he shrugged. “Only if you wanna be friends.” One thick finger trailed the gun’s barrel.
Art lifted the glass, shaking. Truth’s body lay in the blood-stained gravel outside, already drawing flies. The patrons of the bar looked at each other, waiting for a sign. They were all very thirsty.
Mother is cleaning. When things are cleaned they lose their past. No memory. They are baptized, made new.
In the bathroom there is much to be done, but can’t all things be erased with soap, hot water and bleach? Tub, toilet and sink gleam, white as polished bone. Mother is old and bent but still vigorous. She can get down on her knees when required.
Counter tops, chrome, sudsed and rinsed. Shower curtain unhooked and sunk into a disinfectant bath. Then the floor, where all the evidence accumulates, the salty dust we leave behind. Mother scrubs the pattern from the linoleum, leaves no trace.
Father broods at the breakfast table. His mind follows the same worn path, circular, like a tightening noose. A series of questions remain unsatisfactorily answered. If This, then That—right? If Why, then X. When will the children come? He knows they would tell him. Clocks in the living room commemorate each second that they do not appear. Now. Now. Now, again.
Lastly, Mother leans into the mirror. She knows from experience this job is the most difficult. She lifts her clean, white cloth to its unforgiving face.
At the other end of the house Father begins his daily litany. Where are they? Margaret for purity, Tacey for silence. Rosemary…for remembrance. Why don’t they come? I need the answers. Answer the questions. Margaret, Tacy, and Rosemary…for…for…something…
Mother gazes, unseeing, into the mirror, pressing hard. She tries to focus on her task, to wipe away the spots and streaks, but Father’s call splinters her attention into before, after, then, now. Each plaintive query demarcates a line crossed. Every word a smear. Each name a stain.
She rubs and presses, presses and rubs. The dirt will not be purified. The mirror remembers, and will not be silent. The dirt refuses to obey.
When finally the mirror shatters, she is satisfied. Absence is a kind of cleanness. She sucks the blood from her knuckles, licks her lips.
She picks up her bucket and heads to the kitchen. As usual, Father has left a mess.
What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor?
Caspar was drunk. It was 1979, and he and his best friend George were partying at a Dead concert. Cas was 25 and felt like he’d been born too late. It was the age of Disco, but he hated it. He liked the Dead for Robert Hunter’s intellectual-yet-spacey lyrics, and for the sweet hippie girls often willing to give a big, handsome fellow like him a tumble, but he really liked them because George loved them, and Caspar loved George.
George was younger than Caspar and had just come home from a stint in the Navy. “Boy scouts for grown-ups,” he joked…still, he was changed. Sweet, kind-hearted, and kind of fragile, since coming home all he wanted to do was smoke pot and play guitar. These were both fine occupations, and certainly A-OK with Cas, but there was a disturbing lack of…something…in George’s new demeanor. He slept a lot but was nearly always tired. Smiled, but rarely laughed.
When the concert was announced, Caspar camped out overnight on the sidewalk and surprised George with tickets. “Dude,” said George. “Dude! Whoa!” and slapped Cas hard, a couple times, on the back. Sleeping in a lawn chair, pissing in a bottle all night had been worth it for that.
So here they were, at the very back of the venue, watching bare-chested jugglers, hippies dressed as Uncle Sam striding around on stilts, college boys playing hacky-sack, and the spinning skirts of helicoptering dancers. George played air guitar, eyes closed, smiling gently, head bobbing in time. Caspar considered his friend. Something important struck him.
He fixed a serious, slightly askew eye on George. “George,” said Cas. His friend didn’t respond, being deeply involved in the music, the moment, the vibe and the pharmaceuticals. Cas placed a firm hand on his shoulder and repeated himself. George looked up at his friend with a huge smile, the happiest he’d been in months. It broke Caspar’s heart. “Thissain’t right, George,” he slurred earnestly.
George looked at him in confusion and surprise. “Huh? Whatcha mean, Dude? Iss great!” he enthused, once again clapping Caspar’s back, this time with encouragement. “Didja see that girl over there, the one with the red hair?” He jerked his chin. “Man, she’s lookin’ atchu, Dude,” he grinned. “She is lookin’ atchu!” but Cas shook his head.
“No, Man. It ain’t right. You shouldn’t be back here! You’re a Dead Head! You’re prob’ly the Deadest Head in this joint!” he hollered, thinking maybe that wasn’t the most complimentary thing he could have said, deciding just as quickly that he didn’t care. It was true.
Without warning, Caspar grabbed George, somehow sort of scooping him up onto his broad shoulders. George’s point of view suddenly escalated to about nine feet in the air. “We’re goin’ up front,” announced Caspar, and began to move. “Whoa,” whispered George, in confused surrender. “Okay.”
Beneath George’s butt Caspar’s shoulders rolled and heaved. Muscle memory from four years at sea helped George move with the motion yet keep a strong hold. He gripped Caspar’s long blond locks like rigging and tightened his legs around his friend’s powerful neck. From his perch, a kind of crow’s nest, he watched in bemusement as Caspar plowed forward, slicing through the boiling surf of dancing girls and barefoot hippies, cresting waves of flowers, patchouli, and hair. George floated above, bobbing like a cork, while below his friend sailed forth, a Spanish galleon, his arms two mighty cannons, his broad chest an unstoppable prow. He left a trail of mildly annoyed and slightly bruised revelers in his wake. “Hey, man. Jeez,” they murmured. “Not cool.”
Caspar paid them no mind. In moments he’d sailed into safe harbor. Rocking gently, he docked at the shore of the stage.
Nine feet in the air, George beheld the gleaming island of The Dead. Phil’s back was to the crowd. Bobby’s eyes were downcast, closed in thoughtful harmony, while Brent stared, wild-eyed and booze-blind, fingers flying like sea-birds above the keyboard, diving, soaring, and practically independent of the body attached to them. Only Jerry, fuzzy mane haloing kind, sad, intelligent eyes, faced the crowd. It was later than I thought, when I first believed you…
Atop the prow of the good ship Caspar, George gazed upon the scene in near disbelief. All the things that had happened, years of loneliness and deep sadness in the service, coming home but still feeling at sea, the strangeness he felt with everyone, even his mom, even Caspar—all seemed to wash away. For the first time in years he felt a kind of belonging; part of the current, still able to swim. A bubble of joy rose inside him. As brine began to sting the corners of his eyes, Jerry looked up. Caught sight of the two strange sailors swaying like a palm tree on a tropical beach, and shot them an enormous grin, almost a laugh, and with that George’s heart broke like a wave against the rocks, spilling out over the ocean of people, the whole ship of fools, love pouring like a waterfall at the edge of the world.
Jennifer Maloney is a writer living and working in Rochester, NY. She is a past president of Just Poets, Inc., an 18-year-old poetry organization based in that city. Find Jennifer’s work in literary publications such as Aaduna.org, celebratechange.blog, MemoryHouse Magazine, Ghost City Press, Panoply Zine and several others. She has also been anthologized in A Flash of Dark, volumes 2 and 3 (The Writer’s Den, 2018 and 2019), ImageOutWrite, volumes 7 and 8 (2018 and 2019), and the Poets Speak…While We Still Can anthology series from Beatlick Press/Jules’ Poetry Playhouse, volumes Walls and Survival. Jennifer is co-editor of the anthology Moving Images: Poetry Inspired by Film (Before Your Quiet Eyes Publications Holograph Series, 2021). She is also a parent and a partner, and she is grateful. For all of it. Always.