Bats at Twilight

The bats are out tonight,
I said. She looked up and there
they were, silhouetted against the dying light
to the west. Over our shoulders
to the east it was dark, but from where

bats2

we sat, we had an intimate view of the two,
engaged in some sort of courtship ritual
I surmised after a while; the urge to do
as lovers everywhere do. They dipped
and soared; I assumed it was very traditional.

“If we had more bats we’d have fewer bugs,”
I said. She shrank back into her sweater,
and gave me a look, then a shrug.
“I don’t care,” she said. “I don’t like bats.”
I knew, no matter how I tried, I’d never get her

bats1

to agree to let me put up bat houses.
It was a little thing, nothing I cared about much,
just at the corners of our lot. One’s spouse holds
the veto vote on such matters, over
all the earth and every creeping thing and such.

Abide by this rule, or find her colder
once under the covers you have slipped:
As to animals other than dogs and cats,
forswear them all, and love her.

The Men on the Moon

It was the summer of ’69, and men were preparing
to land on the moon, at the same time that
an event of far greater consequence was
about to occur; a declaration of troth
between two star-crossed lovers here on earth.

The girl was unknown, disreputable; the boy,
from a family that mattered, trying to catch
up with her. His parents had asked where
he would watch the historic event, and he had
replied, to their consternation, that he had a date.

It was a gesture on their part, an act with meaning;
they didn’t care about country or science; their love
was their art, their art was their love. They cared no
more about the men on the moon and all it meant
than—they laughed—the man in the moon.

They walked out in nature; it was summer-hot, and it
wasn’t clear where they were going, but they knew why.
The field was buggy, though, and so after a while
they went back to the car to consummate the
collision of their worlds in air-conditioned comfort.

He had chosen words he’d heard, he wasn’t sure where,
“When you cry, I will taste salt.” That’s how close he
promised to be to her as she straddled his lap in the front
seat. She laughed, thinking he was striking a pose. He wasn’t
hurt; these misunderstandings would happen, no big deal.

He took her home, after pizza and a Coke; he wasn’t
old enough to buy beer, and didn’t have any pot to smoke.
Her mom wasn’t even home; he could have spent the
night except that his parents would have raised holy hell;
he was going to college two months later, in the fall.

He never went back to that little town, but years later,
looking out the window of a women’s apartment onto
a parking lot below, he listened to Louis Armstrong sing
“I could cry salty tears,” and thought back to that solemn
promise that was misconstrued, and laughed at his innocence.

The Unfinished House

There was, on the street where we lived, an unfinished house–
incomplete in ways you didn’t notice at first;
no stairs up the porch to the front door,
no walkway to the porch. The type of details
that were left undone let a person know that
tradesmen, visitors and strangers were not welcome.

Inside lived an old woman, or at least old to us kids.
We’d see her sometimes through the windows, which
had no curtains, or maybe in her car before she drove
into her garage, which opened into her house. You saw
about as much of her as somebody’s gin rummy hand held
close to the breast; in plain sight, but her back was turned.

Such a provocation to a gang of young boys, and yet
none of us had the guts or the callousness to
bother her enough to react to us. She had a chain-link
fence around her yard, all the way out to the property line
There was no gate, so none of us ever got any
closer to trick or treat, or to chase a ball.

The story our parents told us was that she’d figured
out a way to save money on her property taxes.
Until her house was finished, it was undeveloped
even though she slept there every night, and kept
a fire going in one fireplace all winter long.
She was shrewd, crazy like a fox, my mom said.

I don’t know who told me the other version of her life,
and which was true; that she had been engaged to be
married to a man more dashing and handsome than
she expected. That she had built the house with money
she’d inherited from her family, and that the money,
and not love, was the reason he was attracted to her.

The banns had been published, and they would move in
when they got back from their honeymoon, the
house would be finished by then. But something happened;
the man discovered he couldn’t live for money alone,
or maybe he found another woman just as rich
but prettier. Either way, he was gone.

And so the house stood there, unfinished, like the heart
she had built for him. She saved on taxes, yes,
but also on expenditures of emotion. She needed
nobody, and nobody needed her. She grew used to it
and, like an unused chimney that’s bricked over to
conserve heat, she was as cold and indifferent as stone.

The Snake and the Robin’s Eggs

There was a snake on the stoop this morning,
my wife said, I nearly died. That had never
happened before, and we surmised it was
the robin’s nest in the holly bush out front.

robins

We’d watched the mother build her nest,
then left her alone once she laid her eggs;
we knew she’d leave them if we touched
the muddy sticks she’d stuck together for a home.

The snakes come out of hibernation in the
spring, when birds lay eggs, and climb up
trees to get them. By spending time
in back perhaps we emboldened

snake

the reptile to take a chance; no one in
the rocking chairs to snap his spine.
The next day the wide-eyed young were gone,
it had been the two weeks we’d read it

would take for the mother to push them
out and lead them away, on the ground
at first and then, if they ran faster
than that snake could crawl, on the wing.

The Circumcised Heart

 

“. . . if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled . . .”

Leviticus 26:41

For long years, there was no way in
to that four-chambered house
through which, we are told
(but don’t know) all emotions go.

It took something more than looks–
your wit, or carriage, or the things
you held to be true
for me to open up to you,
as you did for me,
as you never had before.

Maybe the time was right, I don’t know.
I do know this; we pierced each other
without wounding, and common tides
between two seas now flow.

The swimming’s no good when the tide is low;
let us take our chance at the flood,
and when we are done, your head will
rest against my chest, a mound of flesh
through which blood flows, through which
you shall hear, against your ear,
the beating of a circumcised heart.

Sonny Rollins at Paul’s Mall

When he is announced he is heard (but unseen)
not from the stage but the back of the room;
he enters from the entrance, unaccompanied
for the first number, his notes tilting like
a gyroscope, whirring and yet in control.
Every now and then he plays with one hand free
in a sort of look-ma-no-hands daring.
Some know some things about him, others know
others; I know him from Valse Hot with
Clifford Brown. Several years later I

Brownroach

realized most people in the room know
him for his Williamsburg Bridge period
after I saw him in a commercial on TV,
and learned how, driven Christ-like into
self-imposed exile for two years he would
walk the span, 1,600 feet across, a very public
wood-shedding, until he was satisfied with
his sound and re-emerged from hiding in plain sight.
Why the bridge? he was asked when he returned.
He didn’t want to disturb his neighbors, he said,

rollins

one a pregnant woman. He didn’t know what
effect his experimenting, breaking down
his old sound and building something new,
15, 16 hours at a time, would have on the fetus.
The baby turned out fine, beautiful, happy, he said
after he’d returned, first to the Jazz Gallery
in New York. That night in Boston he had
a young tenor player with him; dashiki clad (it
was the early 70s), he brought him up between
numbers, introduced him, said he was going to

Paul'small

play a few numbers with the group. They started
something uptempo and, after Rollins took his turn
he handed it over to the guest—who promptly proceeded
to crap out. He looked sheepishly at the master, began
again, and finally, embarrassed, receded into playing
mere accompanist. He learned that night that jazz is
a sacrament; an outward and visible sign of an inward
and spiritual grace. It takes more than an article of
clothing, a well-combed Afro and an attitude to
achieve something approaching enlightenment.

My Old Man, Across a Hotel Pool, In the Bahamas

It took my dad eight years to pay off the note he signed
to buy the little store, grandiosely sub-titled
“Mid-Missouri’s Finest Specialty Shop.”
To celebrate, he took the family on a real vacation,
to the Bahamas; white beaches, conch shells,
calypso music and all that, three guys playing
“Cocoanut water, rum and gin” on steel drums,
guitar and trap set outside on the deck by the pool.

Up in my room, I had to memorize 200 lines of poetry,
punishment for some mortal offense imposed
on my junior English class, by the time we got back.
I can’t remember what we did or didn’t do, and
whether I was as guilty as the rest, but I wanted to be
out in the sun, on the beach. I wanted to see a
barracuda, a manta ray, all the creatures of the deep
I’d read about back when I wanted to be a Navy frogman.

Instead I lay on my bed and read about the rude bridge that
arched the flood, and ours is not to reason why, ours is
but to do or die. It’s a wonder I can stand to read a poem
these days, much less write one. I came down for a break
one day and saw him, sitting in a lounge chair across the
pool, staring off into the middle distance, as if saying to
himself, “So this is what it comes down to, my only son,
sitting sullen, alone in his room, reading poetry?”

Tal Farlow at Howard Johnson’s

He ambles to the stage, self-effacing;
when he speaks it’s with a Southern drawl,
putting all the Yankees in
the room, in a Ho-Jo’s with a view of
Kenmore Square grandiosely re-born as
“The Starlight Lounge,” on notice of the contrast
between themselves, wired
for achievement, and him.

Tal

He wasn’t a prodigy, didn’t pick up a
guitar until he was twenty-one, but
within a year he was a pro, his
long fingers attracting the name
“The Octopus,” which stuck.
After a decade of playing he put his guitar
down and became—a sign painter.
He’d had enough of the road,

Tal2

the modest degree of fame that a jazzman
at the top of his game could achieve.
He began to play in local clubs
before smallish crowds, many of whom
must have wondered “Who is this guy?”
The jazz authorities didn’t always know where
he’d escaped to; one claimed he was in New
England, another said it was New Jersey.

tal3

After seven years of hiding, as it were, in
a country churchyard, he emerged to
make a few albums, play the big cities
again. Then he slipped off and, like the
will of the wisp over the Great Swamp, disappeared
into the night air, like one of his long runs
of light notes, a ghost of the fretboard.

Freddie Keppard’s Handkerchief

He would play with a handkerchief over his fingers
and everybody thought it was to hide his style.
But Sidney Bechet figured out Freddie Keppard
was fooling, making people think he had
some secret technique to conceal,
when it was only misdirection—
you learn by hearing, not looking.

keppard

He could have made the first jazz record but he
didn’t, and people thought he was afraid
the competition would steal his ideas on
the cornet, but again, Bechet sussed it out;
“There was only one real reason:
Freddie just didn’t care to—that was all.”

“A man, he’s got all kinds of things in him,”
Bechet said, “and the music wants to talk
to all of him.” It was just the pleasure for
Freddie; he was playing the music from the
inside, not really caring about the business.
He was proud enough, sending clippings home

keppard2

from New York, what all the newspapers was
writing about him and his music and his band.
“He was a real musicianer,” Sidney said. Seven years
older, Freddie had his own band that came to
Sidney’s house to play for his big brother’s birthday
party, and it turned into Sidney’s first gig.

He sneaked away to a dark room and sat
himself down in his brother’s dentist’s chair.
Little Sidney in short pants sat there and
played along with a band he could hear
but not see. He played the clarinet so that
no one could see him, but everybody could hear him.

Her Stars

Doretta taught eighth-grade English, and lived alone, a block
from the school. She was “Miss” Hay to everyone, and
even though the boys never thought twice about it, the
girls in her classes knew that meant she was an Old Maid,
a figure on a card in a game that you didn’t want to end up
holding in your hand. And so they knew she was something
they didn’t want to end up being, not if they could help it.

She would walk home each night to her little apartment,
grade papers for awhile, then make dinner for one or
maybe have another teacher over, either a spinster like herself
or a woman whose husband was out of town or who took
pity on her; an evening not unlike that of nearly every other
household in town, with or without a family, until night fell.
As others turned on their TVs, Doretta turned out the lights

and looked out her window at the stars—her stars!—which
had provided the human race with peaceful and sublime
entertainment for eons, since the Greeks and before. She
couldn’t understand why people would spend good,
hard-earned money on a television when they could look
up at the sky every night—for free!—and trace the images
that had inspired poets, that had transfixed astronomers

and physicists. The stars—that gave man a sense of how
insignificant he was, and yet how there was a grand design
to the universe. She counted herself fulfilled if, out of each
year’s eighth-graders, she could awaken a sense of wonder
at the heavens, if she could cause just one idle or errant
young boy to step outside at night and look up at the skies
and lose himself, as she did, in the infinity he beheld there.

When winter arrived she told her students to look for Orion,
the hunter, with his tri-starred belt and his sword and club.
With his two dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, behind him,
and Taurus the bull advancing towards him, and Lepus the hare
escaping detection at his feet–that, she always hoped,
would interest the boys, who would sometimes come to class
sleepy-eyed from a night of coon hunting with their fathers.

And yet she was lucky to catch the fancy of even one of them.
The girls would dutifully hand in their reports, with neat drawings
of the constellations, but the boys were a different story.
Some would nod off in the late afternoon, others
would stare out the window, thinking of football or basketball practice—or girls.
Some would hand in nothing, others just a half-hearted stab at
the assignment—incomplete, illegible, incomprehensible.

One day walking home from school she noticed a bulldozer and
a truck on the lot next door to her building, where a small
home sat, fallen into disrepair. What, she wondered, was in store?
Each day as she passed she saw progress in the form of demolition,
then the lot cleared, then a concrete foundation, then a garish
hamburger restaurant—little more than a metal shack–rising
from the dust, its walls bright white and glass and shiny metal.

Then the lot was paved, and lines painted, and an enormous sign
erected. Well, she thought, it might be nice to drop in there at
night some time and pick up dinner instead of cooking.
Sometimes she was tired, and just wanted to close her
eyes at the end of the day before she turned them towards the
heavens. And so she waited for the grand opening, and decided
to treat herself to a hamburger and some French fries and a

milkshake the first night. She took the food up to her apartment
and ate them at her table and thought it wasn’t bad—
not something she’d do every night, but a nice break when
she didn’t want to cook. She finished and cleaned up
and, as usual, turned off the lights and took
her place at her window to look at the stars and saw—nothing.
The lights from drive-in and the sign had turned the sky above to a
milky white instead of a deep blue, and the stars—her stars—were gone.

From “Town Folk & Country People.”

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