Act 1: And All That Came First
There was the war and mom and 21 guns
Mom collects a flag and I got a dead man’s name
Those were the first things.
Then there was the cigarette and the other cigarette and the borrowed knife
The book and the good book, and the preacher with the soft voice
Sure, that was part.
There was a great clatter of noise that opened a hole and some years fell down it
Picked up a tail outside the liquor store, but that was just in the movies
A house and a smaller house and two apartments that looked the same
On opposite sides of town, and a few uncles came around
Mrs. Taylor smiled and talked about potential and she smiled and talked about future but then she scowled while she patched up the blood and said you had to count to ten, breathe in, breathe out, and then you just had to keep counting…
but you couldn’t make it
so what now?
The fire and the guy at the gas station with the long hair and the powders
Spread legs and fair trades and unfair ones that hurt too long
The deal about the basement party
Miles and miles and miles on a map
Trade the old car for the other car that got old
Trade a lot of things
’Til the man with the kind eyes and the long hair
And the quiet, and the wind, and the way he said it.
There was believing him.
And then there was watching them put him in the ground
And then the city the city the city
Ink into your skin somehow, put the neon in your blood
Counting the tips. Then cleaning the floors. Then the alleyways.
Then it gets hard to remember.
Act 2: The Wise Man
A light is a bulb on a live wire dangling
and it stinks like blood and sweat and mold
And just what the fuck? but it doesn’t matter does it?
“It doesn’t fucking matter even a little bit,” says The Wise Man
and who is he? and why is he even here? and all of that
He’s The Wise Man.
So open veins and bloody knuckles and maybe that arm is broken after all
But one look at The Wise Man and you know it ain’t about you
“It ain’t about you” he says, maybe.
Now the whole grand goddam show must go on when there’s no understudy for the role
No more script to be followed
Just a IOU’s where story arc should be
Broken promises for characters.
and where the grand soliloquy was meant to bring the house down and the women to tears
well, there, there is only a tattertale collection of half-hearted poetry
Full of curses at unknowable, unnamed gods
Flashes of once remembered somethings
Hints of romance, flirtations with the passions
Smiling and winking at death
And the same at life
smiling and winking
smiling and winking
and it’s just too damn exhausting.
And The Wise Man is waiting for his time machine
Waiting for his second chance
Locking up his wisdom tight for rebirth
reading up on reincarnations and resurrections
Hoping either that the easterners were right and that Christ was all a lie
or that all the easterners were wrong and he himself is the christ
And this wise man, if you ask him
or if you don’t
He’ll tell you what he thinks he’s learned:
“You can’t ever live on what you’ve done.”
“The things you said and thought.”
“The things you loved. Left behind. Maybe loved and left behind.”
“Everything you’ve shouted. Everything you’ve built”
“Every foot and fist print you put in the dry sand and the wet cement”
“Not a single one of them will feed you tomorrow.”
“Not a single one of them will hold you tonight.”
“Not a single one will tell you it’s proud of you.”
“And all, all, will fade.”
“Because you can’t make them love you.”
“And you can’t make yourself loved.”
“Not with all the immortality our feeble memories and histories can muster.”
“Not with all the eternal libraries of genetic knowledge”
“Or the forever running waters of cosmic infinitum”
“Can you raise the subject from the photograph”
“Bring forth the builder from the monument.”
“Call back the grandfather from the progeny”
“Seed from the tree”
“Here,” he says. “Here! Here! Now! Here are your fucking dreams.”
We will now be taking a short intermission. Please help yourself to refreshments in the lobby. Please help yourself to methadone before the community college. Please make a donation to the “the world could use one more burnout bartender fund.” It’s for the kids, after all. The houselights will flash when it’s time to return to your seats.
Act 3: Once Burned
Stage lights up and my name’s ______ and I’m a fucking addict. I’ve been sober enough months I don’t count ‘em now. A lot of young faces today so I wanna talk about where it starts. Maybe listen or maybe tune the fuck out, but you aren’t fooling anyone. Know that.
First you think you’re a rebel. That’s before you get any of it — before you’re sticking shit in your arms. Maybe some shit happens before that but I’m talking about being a grown up. A lot of you wanna come up here and talk about your childhood. That’s fine, I guess. But not today. I want to talk about being a fucking adult but before. Before you know anyone. Before you even know what the fuck a rebel is, what you’re rebelling against, and what any of it matters.
So you find the shadiest fucking person you know and you convince yourself they’re the only person that understands you, and pretty quick you turn your one new best friend into ten new best friends, and suddenly your little cohort is running around like you’re the first group of assholes ever to close down a bar and piss on the side of a building.
Someone gets arrested,
someone moves away,
someone else comes out as gay and some one else takes it bad so one of ‘em goes away,
one kid actually dies someway you can’t even remember and everyone gets a bullshit tattoo of his name somewhere
— come to think of it, everyone gets a fuckload of tattoos —
then everyone starts fucking everyone else, and before you know it you’ve convinced yourselves you own the city or the night or the scene or whatever bullshit you and your stupid friends want to claim you own, and you’re having just enough fun that these delusions of grandeur get believable and you stop caring so much about all the things you used to think really mattered. But you’re still you, just a better you, you think. The fun you. The free you. The real you. Suddenly you’re the one who knows the truth when everyone else is kidding themselves. You shoot off for the fucking moon and it’s the ride of your life.
Of course, in between is a blur. It’s fun and it’s wild and you’re getting laid more often than you’re eating and you can’t remember what you ever worried about that couldn’t be settled by a bottle of whiskey and turning the music a little louder. There’s the blow and the X and about 10 billion cigarettes, and you’re counting up your tips and trying to remember if you’re short or if you stole from the register.
There are times you think about getting out, getting a day job, going back to school, but it always passes. One good night can scare a few weeks of anxiety away. Eventually you stop worrying about what you were supposed to be and if you’re lucky, you’ll actually have a vague recollection of those few glorious years where you’re really not worried about this life you chose. Eventually, and I mean eventually, your body starts to give you signs that are too glaring to ignore, but by then you’ve bought in and it’s easy enough to sell the whole thing to yourself in a new package you’re calling “life experience,” and you rationalize something about what you’ll want to say on your death bed and feel pretty alright about yourself most of the time.
By then you’re tired, but seasoned, and you know how to turn a dime into a dollar and a smile into a few weeks of honest fun. Then, before you know it, you’re just a sad collage of tattoos and hair dye that can’t remember which side of thirty you’re on without calling your mother. You’re never alone but you’re starting to get the sense that being surrounded by all these familiar faces isn’t as BoHo kumbaya us-against-them as you thought, and dear god has it always been this lonely?
By then, you might, if you have any shred of decency and hope, if you had any kind of upbringing where someone told you that you were worth a damn, by then you might entertain the thought that maybe it’s not too late. That thought will sustain you for a little while before you think “too late for what?” and every answer that crosses your mind is a laughable little stab at whatever remained of your sense of self-worth. No — not the surface stuff. That is long gone and probably wasn’t real to begin with. When you get to that point, honey, you’re stabbing at the back of the back shelf in the back room of the storage basement stuff. You’re trying to start fires with the last lighter on earth and good god dammit can I get a spark?
You want romance, kid? Yeah, I’ll show you romance. I’ll show you romance in a flash of light and a sixth month bender. I’ll teach you about love when you’re grasping onto the ceiling for dear life trying to figure out where you left your pants. I’ll show you destiny, beauty, passion, and all the sweet, sweet beauties of life in a row of tattooed women who traded names for verbs. They don’t care what you call them anyway because they sure as shit aren’t gonna remember your name. Tell them if you want to. Tell them whatever you want. If it strikes your fancy, tell them about your dreams, about your truth, about your rebellion and the whole long shitty version of your short shitty story.
You want that? I can show you that. I’ll show you all of it, and if you’ve got half a brain in your fucking head, you’ll vomit yourself clean after a week and never come back to my part of the world again. ”
Act 4: Old Haunts
Sitting there reading Bukowski by candlelight like it’s something to do
Your Antoinette populism
Your tightrope cancan confidence
Well, there’s a special place in hell for tourists and bad actors
With your maps and your scripts and your interminable dress rehearsals
Treading heavily and flapping your gums about this that look over there
All in borrowed old shoes.
That pipe dream of yours.
That cynical little pipe dream.
You took it.
Whatever it was, you took it.
And you think it’s alright. Because no one asked after it. No one asked where it had gone.
Well I’m not asking motherfucker.
But I see you.
Know that I know your name.
Know that I will not forget this is what you decided to be
When you still had the chance to choose.
About the author: Jesse Steele is a white bread bologna sandwich from the Midwest who got called a writer on some trumped up charges from a while back. He currently works in community development in southwest Virginia, and spends most of his days idly tapping his fingers on desks hoping to Morse code out the cure for ADHD. Jesse currently performs poetry readings whenever he’s had too much to drink at parties, works on his novel manuscript just hard enough to never finish it, and publishes his political ramblings not-at-all regularly on tldrtheblog.wordpress.com . He believes in himself and his heart can fly higher than an eagle.
Artwork: Justin Schapker is a photographer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.