‘A Life in Open Verse’ by Jerine P. Watson

soft cartel may 2018

Part I. The Maverick

Howdy. Yes, I know.
I talk funny, but I can’t help it.
I come from a place, an arid place,
Where people have to talk through their noses.
The dust is so thick there, you see,
And the heat, my God, the heat!
It bleaches the cactus and burns the mesquite.
A hot wind blows there, too,
As if from the foul mouth of a demon in Hell
And after a couple of weeks of frog-stranglin’ rain
Everything freezes, even the soft pasture grass,
Which stands stiff then, like it was encased in glass,
Each leaf of it
And it reflects the winter sun
Fields and fields of long skinny sharp diamonds,
Then wham, the north wind takes over that world there
And blows your bones colder’n a well digger’s balls
Makes your teeth hurt
Your nose crack
And your eyes don’t blink right.
Not even at night.

Yes, all the people there are born wrinkled
And most of ‘em stay that way forever,
Their skin pressured into convoluted submission
By that goddamned weather.
They scramble bare-handed on the stern land
In one way or another,
As if they were demented insects
Running around frantically
Choosing a place to exist until they die,
And then seeing how quickly they can go about it.

A fella I knew dropped dead one July afternoon
While sitting on his tractor
When he stopped at the end of a row for a fresh plug
Of tobacco.
He was fifty-two and looked sixty-eight
And if he could have
He’d have told his grievin’ family
To cut out the catter-waulin’
Cause he was plumb wore out
And glad to be restin’ for a change.

Once, when I was little
My grandaddy took me to a local abattoir
In his old Model A
The one with the horn that went “Ah-ooo-ga”,
And I remember only the blood
The steaming intestines
The flies
The moaning screams of the cattle hanging upside down
The smells
The wet-red aprons, arms, hands, knives,
And Papa’s false teeth
Clenched in a man-smile around his pipe stem.
If those folks aren’t dying, they are watching it,
Thinking about it, planning on it, countin’ on it.
That’s usually the only way out of that place,
But I didn’t want to wait.

My grandmother didn’t want to wait, either.
She copped out
And paid the Reaper in advance.
When Papa got home from the graveyard shift
At the Magnolia Refinery
(it wasn’t even mornin’ yet)
he found her, lying there on the floor,
on a neat pallet
made of one of her own handmade quilts
green, blue and yellow,
with little Dutch girls hiding beneath their bonnets
all over it.
He found her, lying there on the floor,
On her back,
One end of the jacquard hose
Clamped in her mouth
The other end hooked up to the gas jet
For all the world like she was smoking a peace pipe
(maybe that was it)
or like an umbilical cord
trapping her forever in the dark womb
of whatever her miseries were.
He found her, lying there on the floor,
Her skin matching the quilt,
Green, blue and yellow,
And everybody died a little bit after that.

The funeral scared the shit out of me.

Papa kept wailin’, “Everybody’s here but Mama”
And my own mother-mama
Jerked the white net off the open coffin
And tried to pull her dead mother back,
Back out of the soft, wasted elegance
Of quilted ivory satin,
Back into the here-and-now world
She’d gone to so much trouble to get out of.

For months after that,
My mother, an infant still,
Tried to die herself.
The only thing that stopped her
Was knowing she wouldn’t be there
For the Wake.
She’d miss all that conversation
And Aunt Ethel’s coconut cake.
So she decided to flat out have a nervous breakdown
Instead.
That was easier on her
And almost as dramatic.

Death was Mama’s main obsession,
But she did have other interests.

She was a firm believer in the hot soapy enema
And chased me with an enema bag
At the slightest hint of rebellion
Whether it took the form of chicken pox,
Measles, mumps
Or smart-ass back-talk.
If that didn’t work,
Here came the mustard plaster,
Steaming, blistering hot,
Oozing its yellow insides
Like a squashed caterpillar
Cooking all the Trouble
Out of my cough
And my courage.

Daddy was a firm believer in the belt,
But it wasn’t just an ordinary belt.
It was wider than my eyes
Black as my sins
And as long as forever.
When he wasn’t flailing me with it
Against the cold black and white tiles
Of the bathroom floor,
It hung in the hall closet
With the rest of his Shriner’s uniform.
He played the bass drum in the Shrine band,
A black man pulling the heavy huge thundering boom
Ahead of him
His red fez square on his head;
He whirled the be-ribboned drum mallets
In high, whistling circles
As he marched along, grinning,
But all I could see was the belt.

No, it wasn’t always unpleasant.
As long as I conformed and remembered Mama’s words,
“Pretty is as pretty does”
but inside I knew I wasn’t at all pretty
because inside I was a wild black horse
like Black Beauty
with my nostrils flaring
and my hooves pounding against the dryness.
I kept running as hard as I could
Bumping into the barbed-wire fence of my life there
Slashing myself
Retreating
Again and again
Back under the humid sun
Where the flies did the Spanish two-step
On my scabs.

One day, Mama draped me in ivory satin,
Just like the lining of my grandmother’s coffin,
And then she unlocked the gate
And pointed in the direction of Tomorrow,
Which was north of there,
And said
“Go that way. You can leave now.”
I couldn’t believe it.

I remember looking back at her once,
The enema bag slung over her arm
Like a resting shield of Heraldry,
The phallic nozzle dry and voracious,
Swinging in slow circles in the wind.

That war was over.

My horse on the inside whinnied once
Softly,
And I said, “Hush. Keep quiet. I’m not sure
Where we are.”

And then, Oh Lordy, and then
I found out.
I found another fence,
But this one was twenty-nine years tall
And hanging all over it
Like catfish heads drying in the sun
Were the staring skulls of other souls
Who had tried to jump
But hadn’t quite made it.

I backed off,
Hobbled my horse
And tied a muzzle around his tossing head.
I settled down into the business
Of not thinking different thoughts
Of not speaking different words
Of not feeling anything too deeply.

I did pretty good for a while.

I learned about those people there
And tried to be one of them
But they didn’t like it
When they found out I knew.
They were comfortable
And stayed friendly
If I played their games.
I learned to act impressed
When somebody talked about their spread,
Or their oil, or their taxes,
As if that was all that was worth living for.
I learned to laugh at nigger jokes,
To sneer at Jews
And to patronize Mexicans.

My horse on the inside began to snort
And pace restlessly
When I was told to take Valium, Stellazine, Librium,
Tranxene, Elavil and Phenobarb,
And when the Margarita became a ritual communion blood.
I learned to fawn before the fat priest
As he perspired there at the altar of God
In his white cassock;
I learned to look away from his glittering black eyes
Above his wobbly jowls
And to ignore the opportunities he offered me
In the dark of night
Under the guise
Of religious counseling.

Somehow, through all of it,
I retained my love of leaves,
My need for rain-washed rocks,
My longing for the sea,
My envy of the hawk
Gliding endlessly in the sunset.

One day the sublimated steed
Inside of me
Broke through his hobbles
Chewed through his muzzle
And charged, hell-bent for leather
For that fence
That goddamned fence
All around the edge of Never,
Just south of You Better Not,
And he ran, yes he ran,
Bolted is a better word,
He bolted and leaped up,
Up and over
All the vaporized souls hanging there
In the merciless sun
That demanding sun of hypocrisy,
And I rode him
All the way.
I bought it,
I went for it
Like a trout goes for a spinnin’ jig
In the cool green river.
I didn’t give a hoot-nanny damn if we died tryin’
But we cleared the fence
And kept runnin’
Through the chocolate mountains around Las Cruces,
Though the paralyzing squalor of Gila Bend,
Through the Heaven-reaching cholla,
Through the birth canal of desert,
Through the cloying, echoing screams
Of familial expectations.

We made it,
My horse and me,
We made it.
We walk now, together,
In this magic place of free thought,
Of liberated self-identity
And at the very edge
The very edge of this place
I find no fence,
I find only the sand
Ending in the sea,
And I walk there,
Watching the pigeons,
The fat, pink-legged pigeons
Tirelessly marking every inch of sand
With their trident footprints
And I walk behind them
Leavin’ strange prints myself,
In a horseshoe shape.

Like I say,
I talk funny,
But it’s nice to meet you, Stranger.
You just never know
When you’re gonna meet a friend.

Yes, I know.
We’ve all got lots to do.
Maybe someday
You’ll have time to remember
A wayward stallion
Running loose
On the sand.

Part II. The Venus Fly-Trap

I have no idea how it happened.
One minute, I was looking at the world through these same eyes
waiting for tomorrow with hope and excitement
planning to marry Mister Perfect when Mad Mother, the petite femme fatale of the suburban social set, pretenders to the Houston throne at the altar of Money,
slammed me into a small room
with barred windows and a door that locked on the outside because my love was Catholic
Oh my God we certainly couldn’t have THAT, now could we?
And Dr Brown a psychiatrist came every Wednesday and finally
ended up telling her I hated my mother.
I could’a told her that and saved her all that money.

So then we drove all over hell and back
the two of them in the front seat
my father looking back at me alone there with I’m So Sorry in his eyes
and they settled on a private university
(in lieu of the distant college where I had met Him)
where I learned to drink and flirt and remained alive to my surprise
even after a brutal date-rape when I had passed out.
Through osmosis I had absorbed Mad Mother’s obsession
to teach me low self-esteem with her controlling power.
No, not ‘low.’ NO.

I didn’t care about much of anything.
I could have killed her I guess, but my beloved father, well, he adored her
I would die myself before hurting him.
I should have run away right then but
I didn’t know I could.

The walking wounded, that was me.
Degree in hand, I met an acceptable Protestant Air Force Lieutenant.
Mad Mother was ready for me to be gone from underfoot and out of the way
as she flirted shamelessly with a man from Alabama and seduced a company traveler.
She arranged the wedding, picked out my rings, dress, silver, china, lingerie,
they called it a ‘trousseau’ back then.
The clerk asked me when the baby was due
and from inside the camouflage of that black tent raincoat
I really did want to die.

I reassured myself that one day
One day I would do what I had to do to get away
I would be myself again, just be patient.
Within what seemed like only a brief recess from Mad Mother
I had my first son and everything else
faded into the background, got put on hold.
Just be patient, I thought to myself, there’s lots of time.
Then my second son joined the first and once again
all else shifted farther behind the mental movie of my expectations.
At one point, with the two little men,
I went to my parents’ home in tears
begging them to let me move back until I could feel like myself again
and Mad Mother shrieked for me to get the hell back where I belonged
because she sure as hell didn’t want any fussy babies messing up her routine
then she reached for the Old Crow and poured herself a stiff one.

I went back under the scrim, there was nowhere else to go, and before long
my third son arrived and then the next thing I knew
seven years had slipped by like the slip-stream under a slewing Piper Cub trying to land
and the fourth son appeared straight from Heaven.

All the love I had to give I poured into the four teddy bears tumbling through my life
which still was not my life
not as I had envisioned it.
I have never begrudged a second of the mothering time and my happiest memories
are the young years, before dope and homosexuality and crushed skull and nephrectomy
and car wrecks and puberty’s reverse-spiked road ripped us a new one so many times
but we kept going because we had to.

I kept telling myself
one of these days I would find my old self again
but I had to be patient
there were still things I had to take care of.

Then the paint began to peel off the chassis and the wheels wobbled.
The lieutenant had become a resentful civilian working for his father-in-law;
he must have hated it but it was a bird’s nest on the ground.
Here, take this successful business and as long as you don’t leave with my daughter
you’ll have a good income and a bright future.
Hello? What did you say, Mister Devil? I have to give you what? My Soul?
Oh well, that’s no problem. I don’t believe in that stuff anyway.

Underneath that carefully contrived impersonation of Van Johnson at his best
was another monster, much sicker than the one he had married.
His family had shoved him into the Merchant Marine when he was an effete sixteen.
The tanker he served on for many long months called at three ports in the Mediterranean
over and over and over and over.
He was the only young deckhand on board and the burly thugs in the crew used him
and his delicate blonde good looks for their pleasure
over and over and over and over.

A sure-fire formula for a destructive implosion: a bride, with no self-esteem
longing for an unrequited first love
and a sexually-abused groom with too much suppressed pain
hiding underneath the logs of pretended good behavior, waiting to strike like the mamba
the venom building at the base of the throat, beginning to taste of gall.

The father of the four expensive children didn’t even realize his own erosion.
He didn’t look at the monster within his soul but every chance he got
he considered it a natural behavior, common among boys and men.
When his second son received specific love letters from a church camp counselor
he assured the child’s mother it was nothing to worry about.
Then she stumbled upon her oldest two flagrante delicto and panicked
running to the house of close friends, the boys’ father out-of-town,
her world caving in, the years screaming by her ears her eyes her heart strings.
The eighth home, her ultimate creative achievement, up for sale
nothing nothing nothing was occurring as she had anticipated,
expected, dreamed, hoped, awaited.
Everything had been a façade, a sham, they both were being their fake selves, not real.
Even the pretense was artificial between them.
They had nothing
not even after the whole twenty-nine years.

He had thrown the third son out in the rain
when he was limping in a cast on his broken leg from the wreck
and he had beat the youngest on the head
for eating a third bowl of Sugar-Frosted Flakes
that’s when the boys’ mother slammed the dresser drawer shut
(she was dressing for work)
and said, “That’s it! I’m leaving and I’m enrolling the youngest in a military school where he’ll be safe!”
The two oldest had moved out and she thought they had made it, had gotten away in time
but she forgot about the Velcro-like tentacles of old baggage that had been dumped into their memory banks.

The very day they had agreed to divorce, she had a long-distance phone call
an unforgettable voice on the other end.
It was as if they had never been apart.
He flew to San Antonio
she drove up to meet him and they talked into the wee hours about their children
sharing pictures and anecdotes and tears and laughter.
There had never been another like each other for them.
He wanted only for her to be happy
and thought she should try to make her marriage work
like his own.

She cried driving back
weeping she had lost him again
for the second time.
but she had to be patient.
Things would work out.

She moved to an apartment, the youngest began to adjust to normal men and boys, and she met a nice military couple she wanted the boys’ father to meet.
Parts of her still could not accept the reality of the failure of her marriage.
He called her for his mother’s phone number and she called him for her wooden spoons.
It wasn’t long before they remarried; as bad as it was, it was the familiar
not the unknown
and she couldn’t stand the single women after him at church
(after she had tried so hard so hard so hard to get his affirmation and love)
and he couldn’t stand not having her delicious meals every day
and he missed what social life they had managed to create
both having become accomplished actors.

However, in the six weeks he had been alone in the quiet house – even the dog had died – he had become protectively insulated against the threat of being found out.
He knew he preferred homosexuality and had convinced himself there was nothing wrong with that.
He had even “molested” his second son a few times.
No one knew or he thought no one did;
he gave no credence to his wife’s psychic perception
but she intuited something was wrong.
The day they remarried he went right back to his desk
and she browsed a nearby health food store where the proprietor said
she looked just like a bride with the ring of Peruvian lilies in her hair
the small bouquet clenched in her perspiring hand
and she said I am.
She moved back into the lovely home in the midst of gales of teasing laughter
from friends and the moving crew from their company store.
Within a week, she had made plans to invite the young couple
from the apartment complex
for a small dinner party.
She set the table with her good china, her sterling and crystal, and prepared an elegant menu for four.
After they left, smiling and talking about the next time, they cleared the table together, loading the dishwasher.
He was ominously silent.
She retired to undress and get ready for bed and it was then she heard the sound of breaking glass.

She raced into the kitchen area barefoot.
The entire family room and kitchen floor was covered with broken crystal and china.
Her husband was in his blue bathrobe and Indian moccasins
flinging the glassware and china as hard as he could throw it
against the walls and windows and ceiling, his face as red as a Valentine.

She ran to him her arms upraised, screaming what is the matter, my God, what is it?

He charged at her his eyes yellow with anger, enraged, his hands doubled into fists.
He hit her so hard she fell backward onto the white tile floor
crushing a vertebra in the process.

He began to kick her and stomp around her as she lay there, almost unconscious.

He commanded her to get up in guttural tones but she could only whisper
that she couldn’t feel her legs.

This angered him even more and he stirred her coffee and slammed it down on the floor in front of her head.

She couldn’t raise up to drink it but had enough cognizance to know
she was dealing with a sick mind and had to be careful.

She gently suggested he call their friend, an orthopaedic surgeon.
He dialed their number and got the surgeon’s wife
who knew immediately something was amiss and called the EMTs.

She then begged this stranger she had married a lifetime earlier to please get her a robe because her short gown was not enough cover.
He stormed away, to come back with a pullover robe she couldn’t put on.
He threw a folded sheet at her head and she passed out, gratefully.

When she came to, there were three technicians struggling with a gurney.
One was inserting an IV line into her arm.
Her husband was standing across the room, watching as if from another world,
wearing his golf clothes, his face a deep, flushing red of embarrassment.
His real self had broken out at last, with dire results.
He was a stranger to the world he was in, even to himself.

She was in the hospital many days and in a back brace for months after that.
The damage was much worse inside her self than it was to her twelfth thoracic vertebra.
She still had her mantra, her promise to herself, that one day, one day soon
she would leave and be herself again.
She just had to be patient.

The doctors knew, of course, but they couldn’t get her to admit anything.
She felt responsible and guilty as sin
because that was the way her controlling Mad Mother had trained her to feel.

Her first love found her by telephone in the hospital
and tried to help her by long distance
assuring her the husband had to feel remorseful.
But she didn’t see any evidence of that, ever.

Her healing was very slow and every night, she had to walk two miles
in the clumsy brace to get rid of the muscle spasms.
One night, a large sea hen hovered over her head and followed her closely the entire time.

This made her uneasy and she felt an undercurrent of alarm coming from somewhere. That night she dreamed of her first love and saw herself the size of a mosquito,
sitting on his freckled cheek, his auburn eyelashes keeping his eyes shut.
She smelled smoke and dreamed of engulfing flames
so vividly she got up in the dark and put the manuscript of her first novel
in the trunk of her car – a pale green Cadillac
her husband had bought her to make himself feel better.

The next day, not having heard from her soul mate in Virginia for 4 or 5 days
she called his office, using a code name.
His secretary expressed regret that she had not been notified.
She added she was so sorry but the lawyer had suffered a massive heart attack
and had been cremated the following day.

That’s when she knew it had been his spirit in the sea hen telling her he was all right
and when he was cremated, she had known the fire.

When she was physically able, she filed for divorce
and didn’t tell anyone about the physical abuse
not just that time but several times earlier
and often against the third and fourth sons as well.
When she was packed, she left him in a rented house
after consolidating three of his five overdue loans at two banks
and leaving him a schedule on a legal pad
showing how he could become solvent in less than 18 months.

When she drove away, he was crying softly, standing there alone at the back door
still convalescing from a mild heart attack.
She was terrified of what lay ahead for her, as she drove across the country
to Santa Barbara, California, where she had attended a writers’ conference.
He had sold their company and the pay-out was to be split evenly between them
over time, but of course, that didn’t last.
He had also agreed legally to pay for the youngest son’s college tuition
but that didn’t happen, either.
The unethical priest that enjoyed playing God
had found him another Mommy
so he was busy evoking tongue-clucks and empathy.

Many years later, when the disability termed “dyscalcula” was recognized
she realized her former husband had suffered from this type of dyslexia
which prevents the victims from comprehending all mathematical concepts
then she knew why they had lost eight houses
why bills didn’t get paid
why he had cashed all his insurance policies
why he hadn’t paid into her social security the first few years she had worked
and why he begrudged even new shoes for their children.

He couldn’t understand fiscal responsibility, not even the basics.

They say tempering makes steel as strong as it can get.
There are days now when she’s not so sure about that,
especially when all four sons have turned away from her
and their father has died from a heart attack while with his second wife
who has already remarried.
Good for her.
He was very good at acting a part and played the role of Poor Me exceptionally well,
as he sat on the Pity Pot for years, blaming his extravagant first wife.
She found out he had borrowed thousands of dollars from their friends
all of whom assumed she knew it and was probably the heavy spender of the two.
Not so.
She married and divorced three more times, each one worse than the last,
as she looked for another soul mate
a man who wanted a partner not a mother, nurse, or maid
and who would not be intimidated by an intelligent woman.

Finally, she is no longer searching
and is content, marveling at her stamina surviving breast cancer
the shunning by family members
losing her first love three times not just once
and continues to tell herself she has to be patient.
One of these days she’ll be herself again.

Any day now.

Part II, B. Eight Years Later

Second son
painfully injured in a one-car accident
sandbagged Ambien
after giving up and choosing to leave us anyway
wisps of hatred-for-mother remaining
because she had ended up with his imaginary
“True Love”
his own father, a child molester,
always wrapped in the pretend cocoon
of his safe role, even posthumously influential.

Then the heartbreak of losing
Her third son, the lover of the sea,
The gentle one, the one grieving forever
For the father he never had
But needed oh how he needed a mentor.

The mother talks to both sons
Whose spirits hover and listen
From a safe distance.
She knits her days together
With the yarn of dried tears
And the square-knot of Maybe Soon
Growing worn and faded.

She names her increasing grands and greats
Every morning at dawn
So she can pretend she really knows them all
And can hear their laughter
Kiss their tears
And wave bye-bye
As they disappear over the imagined horizon.

Then she turns to face another day
Waiting to be herself
Again.

Any day now.

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