Repeating the Alarm
…when he sings he has the most wonderful voice. —Hillary Cook, dentist
The neighbor’s house is an empire
and the empire is shut tight tonight.
And all the lights are off
in the empire and all the doors are locked
keeping everything imperial inside, where it
leans toward the window
The monkeys scream in the trees,
green vervet complete their circle of noise in the leaves.
Leaves shake down
and they stay in the trees.
The boy’s dark skin is worn
white at the knees.
The empire has him tied to a bed.
Teeth cracked from bark and bone,
tough love, the sinewed arms.
A light coat of fur covers his chest
and his back.
The boy cannot eat stew or any cooked food.
Yet he fingers fork tines, fingers a spoon.
The boy cannot stand upright
without the help of a chair or the stump in the yard
or the girl who talks soft
and knows not to look in his eyes.
When the boy removes clothing
and pisses in dirt
the dust rises
and the empire closes its arms.
Gives back the pants,
cooks the food.
The boy learns to straighten his legs,
let loose of the stump, the chair,
but never the girl.
Until their eyes meet.
Empire teaches him “pot,”
teaches him “pan.”
The monkeys scream in the trees.
Empire fixes teeth,
gives the boy voice,
and a guitar.
He goes on tour standing upright,
he goes on tour and he sings.
Let’s Make it Big Like Last Time
It starts with a ride in a beat-down K-car,
a few cigarettes.
You will sleep on an air mattress
in Friendship, PA with a popular boy;
he will name all twenty-nine girls he’s been with,
first and last names.
You will both ignore the fag huffing Gauloises in the papasan,
spilling French ash between the pages
of a borrowed copy of Harry Mathews’ Singular Pleasures.
You will take two hours to fall in love with the boy
and you will never date but the love will last long time.
You will fall in love with his ex-girlfriend and live with her for a while.
Once she has broken your heart you will take too strong to whiskey
and fall down your apartment’s spiral stairs.
Many, many times.
You will move to Atlanta, Georgia and be miserable for five years.
Then, when your father gets married you will go there, to southern California
with the popular boy for your date. He lives there now.
He is much older now, and so are you.
And you hate his girlfriend,
but after staying with them, you like her just a little bit.
Then you like her a lot.
The night before your father’s wedding you will smoke several joints with the boy
and talk about the people you know in common.
You will talk about the bets you used to make,
and how you won all but that last one.
You will get to the liquor store too late;
it is a small town.
You will buy Boone’s Farm and 99 Bananas at the AM/PM.
You will drink them in the PM, and then the AM.
You will get very messy with the boy in the car.
You will return to your father’s house stinking of booze;
he will be sitting upright on his couch at 3AM in his wedding suit—nerves.
He is a born again Christian, eight years sober, eight years celibate.
He will forget to say goodbye to you after the wedding.
On the way back to the boy’s house you will ask about his girlfriend.
You will think of three as a prime number.
Things will not go well,
as things sometimes don’t.
For a while you will speak to neither of them.
The boy will become famous and you will miss him,
but you will never admit to this weakness.
You will think about the girl every day for the next twelve years.
You will date other people, mostly girls.
One day you will marry. All while remembering
the blue eyes on both of them, her blonde hair,
and the way she taps her fingers on the closest surface
when she’s trying to remember something.
When you are passing through her town you will look her up.
She will answer her door and your heart will stop and you will look at her hands.
Her apartment will have paint- and ink-stained carpets
and smell like curry from the neighbors next door.
You will get tacos from the taco stand in the Von’s parking lot
and you will not talk about the boy.
You will never talk about the boy.
It is as if he is in the room and you are both ignoring him.
You will have three drinks apiece at the Reno Room; it is a Sunday night
and no one is there but the bartender, the bartender’s friend,
and two old men who stare at soccer on the TV.
In a back booth of sticky red leather
more than a decade condenses into a point of light
from a car commercial on TV,
reflected off the mirror
behind the bar, through your empty glass,
and onto the back of her hand.
Autologous and Caul
Gulls mob the pylons, drop styrofoam
bits and fishbones. And what’s left
of the storm paws open my coat.
It’s winter, but you wouldn’t know it.
Joggers jog sleeveless and boys in shorts
hunt for I don’t know what along docks,
faces staring down at the slats.
Sunslant reds ships’ sides,
and that damp curve of sand.
Brackish swell slaps wet trash against stone,
and the breakwater leeches thin slips of oil into the sea.
On the pier old men on upturned buckets
tap feet as transistor radios make a racket.
And each fishing line meets the deep
in a slackening C.
There were boys on the wrecked
bridge that day. On upturned buckets,
Rebar curled up from cracked asphalt.
I had nothing but worry and bad
cafeteria food in me,
grey potatoes and Salisbury steak.
Her room was so green,
pulsed with pale noise,
smelled of fake lavender and plastic wrap.
On the bridge one boy said gun in Spanish
and pointed. But it was only my camera.
Camera, I said, estoy tomando cuadros.
I blocked the sun with my hand.
The boy stood, palm on the knife
hooked to his belt, hip cocked sideways.
I took a picture of him,
made the clicking sound with my tongue,
hooked a few shots of blue through the holes
pocking pavement, turned back.
Steam plant churned the hospital
like it was on fire.
She died that night, mouth open,
blood never got right.
The boy is still
in my camera, sun bright on rubble, wind wild,
life still a matter of odds.
Elizabeth J. Colen is the author of poetry collections Money for Sunsets (Steel Toe Books, 2010) and Waiting Up for the End of the World (Jaded Ibis Press, 2012), flash fiction collection Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake (Rose Metal Press, 2011), and the long poem / lyric essay hybrid The Green Condition (Ricochet Editions, 2014). She lives in the Pacific Northwest and is editor for Jaded Ibis Press’s Bowerbird series.