CJM: A Dime Store Epic
Ma io, perché venirvi? o chi ‘l concede?
Io non Enëa, io non Paulo sono…
A Jailer’s Imploratory Lament
Now that you’re strapped down good and tight,
Listen to what I have to say.
No fair singing Mary Had a Little Lamb
At the top of your lungs.
No, I won’t loosen the straps. Now listen,
O Wedding Guest, to this,
That the Muse of Blunt Instruments and Blunter Words
Bestowed upon my throbbing head
As she beat me senseless with a tire iron.
Listen, because I am hoarse.
I am your mark-down Aeneas on the clearance table,
Your bargain-basement Paul,
And you will hear for the ninth time, or the ninetieth,
Of a tourist’s Underworld jaunt.
Do not look for rhyme or reason in these words
hanging in fumes of formaldehyde;
They have been omitted.
There is a chance they would make the telling enjoyable
And the listening bearable.
And I am weak.
1. Promenade the First: To the Oracle
The stores are full of shoppers and bad feelings.
I’m privileged to be joining them
In an hour and a half.
Coldest day yet; people watch their breath fall
And shatter on the sidewalk.
I have ninety minutes.
I suit up:
No armor but an old army jacket.
My father’s gloves (too big) instead of gauntlets.
No gleaming sword, no trusty steed—
This is not a fairy tale.
I have a Kodak camera and a skateboard
And reality can be fun.
In my pocket, a present for a forgotten sister.
I bareface my way out
Past the incredulous living.
(Going to go skate, fer chrissakes,
Coldest day yet, he’s going to break his neck)
ha ha This is quite serious.
I hit the ground rolling, leaving the living behind.
Cold chews the flesh from my skull.
I push hard.
I have ninety minutes.
The Gate is intimidating in its plainness.
There is no inscription of despair.
There is no inscription at all.
It is imposing even in the sunlight, even open invitingly.
It whispers like scattered ashes through my naked earholes
—Come on in and rest those bones
But I ignore it, knowing in my soul I’m only half dead.
A greeting card on stilts reads Office Ahead— first stop.
I pick up my board—
To be forcibly ejected
Would be disastrous—
Slide through gaping iron jaws spiked black teeth
The icicle wind snaps them shut with a hollow clang
In the Necropolis there are many visitors.
I walk fast nerves crying it’s cold
Past a burial in progress.
These tourists would complain, surely,
At the sound of rusted bearings spinning.
I walk faster.
It is further from the Gate to the office
Than from my family to the Gate.
I stand in the foyer, a skeleton of blue ice
Waiting for my vision to clear
For my flesh to undissolve
So I can speak with lips and tongue.
I claw through invisible spumes of Catholic incense
Into Dead Central.
2. Directions at Death’s Service Station
It looks exactly like the post office.
I imagine them cancelling stamps
Bearing pictures of flowers and departed souls.
Like magic, a mailman enters.
Even the Dead get letters.
He smiles, sees the board:
—Been riding that thing out there?
With lips still blue still numb but there:
—No, didn’t want to make anyone mad.
He smiles again, chuckles like a brook in spring.
I find myself wishing I could do that.
He picks up the mail and floats out the door.
The incense is catching in my throat.
The plasticine woman finally hangs up the phone.
She has been eyeing me distastefully while
Solemnly reciting the works of Edward Lear
Over fiberoptic line to an unamused party.
Now she won’t say a word, just looks
And waits for her cue.
I begin the hateful dance:
—I’m looking for a relative.
In a Wizard of Oz voice:
I think that’s right I hope so
Last glimpsed the name on a
Parents had it buried away
Not well enough
I only glimpsed the name
Two tiny footprints
That was it
Never saw it again
And never saw her at all
I have more fingers crossed than I have fingers.
Superstition seems compulsory here.
She’s checking files in the side office.
Fingers crossed not sure if this is the place
Heard a whisper seven years ago
That my sister was here
Fingers crossed in my father’s gloves
Plasticine Pickford of the Emerald City returns,
Grand entrance stage right. Sour.
She delivers the immortal line beautifully:
—Was she like three hours old when she died?
(the crowd roars approval)
I didn’t know.
What could I have said to that?
She is writing on a slip of paper
Nice paper heavy cream Catholic paper
Charlene J. Miller
Grave 11 Lot 35 Block 7 Section 2
There is a map on the back—
Section 2 is back by the Gate.
I admit it’s funny though my toes do not.
I dodge the woman’s disapproving glances
At my undramatic exit
And start plodding back.
I carry my board like a rifle.
Halfway to the grave:
A mail truck passes.
Mailman honks and waves,
Smiling for all the world
Like a fifties sitcom dad.
I wave back.
I smile back.
3. Promenade the Second: Find the Lady
Section 2 is enormous.
There are no visible markings delineating Lots and Blocks.
The terms are like latitude and longitude
Pinpointing a location on an unruled globe.
There are no headstones, no monuments,
Just flat rectangular markers flush with the ground
No larger than a shirt cardboard
I am running out of time.
Somewhere in this earth is a tiny skeleton.
She would have been my sister had our lifetimes overlapped.
I feel like an archaeologist
Looking for a tooth
In a gravel pit
Hoping against Hope—
First marker: Husband Joseph.
Good Catholic name.
Next marker: Wife Mary.
I’m walking over hundreds of dead bodies peaceful citizens
There are no alleyways there is no space between graves
I feel extraordinarily guilty
More—Professor Son Daughter
Private First Class
Sorry to all of them for disturbing their peace.
Tiptoeing through remains I make sweeping apologies
Stepping on grave markers moving faster
Asking if anyone knows where Charlene J. Miller is
(I don’t know what the J. stands for)
Admitting that I haven’t a clue as to what I am doing
Complaining about the cold, the pain in my toes
Almost numb not yet
Feeling stupid for complaining
Ground’s colder when you lie in it
And I’m the only one who can hear…
Running out of time.
Spending an hour and a half on the Dead,
She lived twice that long.
What can you do in three hours?
Situation: Everyone finds out they have three hours to live.
Most people would complain it away.
Many would cry.
I wonder if she even had the strength
I waste more time than that
Staring at the wall
No not wasted it’s well spent
I am tired of tripping through the Dead.
By chance I notice a small round stone:
I brush the dirt off and feel the indentations
Through my father’s gloves.
Read like Braille:
Lot 35 Block 7
I’m standing on it.
I search the names
I isolate Lot 35 Block 7
To a square
Ten feet on a side—
None of these names belongs to her.
4. The Thunder Was Just Clearing Its Throat
Perhaps they couldn’t afford a marker.
Perhaps they figured
Why spend money on the dead?
Perhaps they were trying to forget
Perhaps they didn’t care
I have fought my way to the Chapel Perilous
And it is a ten foot square room
With invisible walls to the sky
And the Grail is here somewhere
But imperceptible, untouchable
Impossible to pinpoint
…I really just want to sleep.
Why spend money on the dead?
I pull an infant’s toy from my coat:
Red and yellow terrycloth giraffe,
With a rattle inside.
It cost five and change at the mall
And damn the salesperson was rude.
I’ll go back there today
It would be nice if she is nearer the tree.
The giraffe poses on the yellowing grass,
Surveying its ten-foot kingdom.
It looks ridiculously out of place.
I think she’d like it.
If she were twenty-six like she should be,
She’d probably appreciate the irony.
You do not need to hear the one-sided conversation,
The introductions and apologies,
The explanations and Christmas sentiment.
The one question I ask:
—What does the J. stand for?
The wind picks up a little.
We are out of time.
I take some pictures to remember.
I don’t know if I will ever return.
I don’t know if I will ever develop the film.
I make my goodbyes.
5. Happy Trails
I am ten minutes late.
I remember Odysseus and shrug it off.
Back to the land of the Living,
And bad feelings are better than none at all.
My feet are numb.
I stumble through more graves, ever apologizing.
The mourners have driven home to their families.
My friend learned to drive on these paths.
I’m finished here.
My board hits the ground, bearings spin
I push hard
Rolling faster I pop over a purple plastic bag
Kick me out
I’m finished here
Half a lifetime in the City of the Dead.
I don’t feel any different.
I’m still breathing
In and out.
The Gate just pouts.
…I’d like to buy a mailman a drink.
I read the guidelines for grave decorations
Toys are unacceptable
The giraffe will be removed
But there was a wreath
Looks like for a long long time
So the icicle wind may beat the groundskeepers
And steal her toy first—
Her first toy—
I’d prefer it that way.
One way or another, it will vanish
But now, looking back,
I’ll bet it was there