There was a time when there was then.
When there was a watermelon
pink and pointy
as the sun and it was all
grapefruit and watermelon here.
In the woods.
Like I am. In the sea.
Regardless. It should be shared
that no grapefruit watermelon
can be before or could come.
That is, the pink sun. It is this grapefruit and melon.
Like a boy about to come. In France. On repeat.
Repeating, you wonder.
There is a prince who strokes the prism wondering also. And that
radiates. Grapefruit-like. Radiates a clean circle
of sea water and natural juices, piano keys, days of the week.
A pink number inside.
I am a boy in the woods. That Cadillac dropped off a dead person.
Head crushed like a watermelon. Pink and dreamy. I like
to stroke his head like a rose quartz and watch
for the stars that are telling me about the warm sun
to be found under the black birches. The bantams.
You wonder. There is a car in the woods. I load it
with quince and dead bodies. That is a job.
there is also persimmon and the birches put out.
Sluts, they give off invisible, metaphysical blossoms
that remind me, delicate as I am, of origami.
Tongue is like a silk worm.
Once I had sex with a blond boy. Oh.
In Japan. The grapefruity sound.
We made persimmon jelly.
The Cadillac is back again. The grill
is like a fist full of razors or like teeth
or a fistful of cherries or like dragonflies mating in lines.
I eat strawberries like I have a big car.
over the pond where there is an enormous pink
star underneath with pond people inside it
and in its orbits, the lilypad silk ties with their hair
and they sing with crystal voices and fish gills
the story of their victims in the heavy piano lounge
that they live in.
Susan Steinberg’s story collection Spectacle is a Fiction finalist for the 2013 L.A. Times Book Prize. It was one of the best books—novel, stories, poetry, criticism, or otherwise—that I read in 2013. Poetic and gritty and innovative and expansive. Here’s the story “Cowgirl” from the collection.
* * *
; it was virtual, the killing; it was conference call, the killing; it was party line, a party; it was everyone talking at once; it was everyone talking and me in charge; it was nearing morning, almost light; it was the doctor begging me, come on already; it was the doctor begging me, do it already; it was me saying, you do it already; it was my brother laughing into his phone; it was my mother sighing into hers; it was my mother saying, this isn’t funny; it was my mother saying, you kids are monsters; it was my mother saying, I’m hanging up; it was the voice she used when we were kids; we hated that voice when we were kids; my father hated that crazy voice; he called her crazy with that voice; he called her crazy, that way she got; it was his fault she was crazy; it was his fault everything went the way it did; it was his fault everything in the world: like planes falling from the sky, like suns exploding into dust, like the whole world how it was; but it was too easy to blame the father; I was done with blaming the father; I would take the blame from this point on; I would take the blame for the world how it was; the world was in a state of collapse; the world was collapsing in my hands; the world was my mother and the voice we hated as kids; it was my brother saying to my mother, take a fucking pill; it was my mother laughing too hard now; it was my brother laughing again; it was funny because we were on the phone; it was funny because we were in different rooms on different streets in different states; it was funny because it wasn’t funny; it was funny because it was nothing even close to funny; but it was totally ours; it was no one else’s but stupid ours: like words you made up as kids, like things you watched through a keyhole as kids; it was my tv on when it shouldn’t have been; it was my brother saying, turn down the fucking tv; it was me saying, no fucking way; it was my brother saying, this is serious shit; it was me thinking you don’t know serious shit; it was rain for the tenth day in a row; it was twelve spiders in twelve corners in three rooms in the house; it was a different time zone where I was; it was a different altogether time; it was the doctor saying, I need you to focus; it was never just, I need you; it was never just, let’s have a good time; it was the doctor saying, I need you to pull the plug; it was never that; it was softer than that; it was more like, I need you to do the right thing; it was more like, your father would want it this way; it was me not knowing what he would want; it was no one knowing what anyone else would ever want: even if he said it to your face, even if he wrote it down, even if he carved it into a tree, into the sidewalk, into the softest part of your arm; it was the doctor saying, this isn’t funny; it was the doctor saying, this isn’t life; it was the doctor saying, trust me; it was hard to trust a person I couldn’t see; it was hard to trust a person I could; it was like watching though a keyhole as a kid; it was long ago that one day; it was no big deal that one day; it was no big deal looking in at him; it was no big deal walking in on them; my father screamed; the lady screamed; my mother was out of town; I called her; she came back to town; she kicked him out; the end; it was not the thing that did me in; it was the conference call that did me in; it was the conference call why I had issues; and here I was on a date in a bar; here I was on a date with a guy and I told him there was no way; here I was in a lovely skirt, my knees exposed, his hand about to touch my knee, and I told him no fucking way; now was always no fucking way; now was always no fucking; now was the luxury of years passed; now was the luxury of the bartender’s serious face; now was his serious eyes as he described this wine or that; and it was me drinking way too much; it was the date saying, I think you’ve got issues; it was me saying, I think everyone’s got issues; it was the date saying, I think you know what I mean; it was me saying, bartender; it was the date saying, what’s your deal; it was me saying, there’s no deal; it was no big deal my deal; it was too easy to blame the father; it was too easy to blame a father dying on a terrible narrow bed I never saw; it was stupid to blame a terrible plug I never saw; it was unclear if the plug was a literal plug or not; it was possibly a switch one flipped; it was possibly a metaphor; it was easier to say a plug; it was something I never saw, the plug; it was virtual, the plug; and it was virtual, the terrible narrow bed; and it was virtual, the father; and it was crazy how he got that way; it was crazy that way he got; it was clichéd that way he got; it was too many drinks; it was too many pills; it was rock star how he was; it was hotel room how it was; it was calling me in the night; it was singing stupid songs to my machine; it was, wake up little, etc.; it was, wake up little, etc.; it was never funny; and then he got sick; and then he got sicker, and then, and then; it was never once funny; it was never me laughing; it was me looking for the bartender; it was another round; it was another round; it was me feeling slightly better; it was a shame of course, ever feeling better; it was the worst shame ever, killing one’s father; it was the worst shame ever, really killing him really; it was the worst shame ever the virtual way I did; it was me lying on my bed; it was me and the phone pressed to my ear; it was me watching some actor on tv; it was some familiar face that shouldn’t have been familiar; it was my brother and mother in my ear; it was all the voices I didn’t want in my ear; it was all the voices telling me to do the right thing; it was all the voices somehow knowing the right thing, and I didn’t even know the exact time; because there was no such thing as exact time; because it was one time where I was, one time where they were, one time where he was; it was me saying, wait a second; it was me saying, just wait a fucking second; it was me saying, just shut up a fucking second; it was wrong to say this to my family; it was only an actor on tv; it was only the actor saying something funny; it was only the actor saying a really funny joke; it was me needing a really funny joke right then; it was a shame to need a joke right then; it was me waiting, everyone yelling; it was me about to laugh my ass off; it was my mother complaining weeks later; it was my mother complaining, you shouldn’t have called me; it was my mother complaining, you put me in a hard place; it was my mother complaining, he was a monster; it was me thinking who put who in a hard place; it was me saying, who put who; it was me saying, you had me; it was me saying, you put me in the worst hard place: the oldest kid, the only girl; I said, who put who; she said, who put whom; I said, exactly; my father put me in a hard place; my father put my mother in a hard place; my father put the lady in a hard place; my eye was pressed to a hard place; my father put the lady in front of him; he stuck her there in front of him; she was younger than my mother; it was a hard place to be; it was probably love; it was probably total love; it was her laugh that waked me; it was her stupid laugh; and there was no keyhole; it was only a metaphor, I think; it was only me opening the door, I think; it was only me screaming, I think now, something awful; it was my father screaming something too; and it was me screaming something else; and it was shameful the lady screaming something too; it was shameful how trashy just screaming like that; it was shameful being a lady like that; it was my brother hiding in his room; it was my mother out of town; it was my mother still able to dream something lovely; it was my mother about to dream something lovely; it was me running out to the lawn; it was me standing under some dumb moon not knowing what next: like maybe I could run away, like maybe if I were a guy, like maybe I was not that girl, like maybe if I were I wouldn’t care; but I went back inside; and it was not the beginning of the end; it was the beginning of something else; her purse was on the hallway floor; and it was my floor, that hallway floor; meaning it was my purse on the hallway floor; meaning it was my stuff in that purse: meaning her comb, meaning her ten dollars, meaning her ID; it was the beginning of the beginning; I deserved something that night too; and her picture looked nothing like me; and her name was impossible to pronounce; and I memorized the spelling of her name; and I memorized her address; and I figured out her sign; and I styled my hair to look like hers; and I made a face that looked like hers; and the ID worked for many years; meaning I was a piece of trash for many years; I was a piece of trash walking into bars; it was me before I had issues; it was me before no fucking way; it was me before no fucking; it was me before, I’m too fucked up; it was the date giving that look dates gave; it was me thinking try killing yours, motherfucker; it was me saying, drink your drink, motherfucker; it was just shut up shut up shut up; it was a shame to make a virtual decision; it was a shame pulling a virtual plug; it was a shame my ear pressed to a hard place; it was only voices in my ear; it was only some actor on tv; it was half my brain waiting for the punch line; it was half my brain pulling a plug from a wall; it was pulling the plug in my brain like a pro; it was swinging the cord like a lasso; it was me like a cowgirl, swinging the cord around my head; it was the date saying, you’ve got issues; it was the date saying, serious ones; it wasn’t always like this though; it was a good time with that ID; I was a good time with that ID; I met guys and it was a good time back then; it was the ID always getting me in; it was the ID always getting me what I wanted; but there was a night a bouncer said, ID; I looked around like no big deal; there was a guy in the bar; there was a guy in the bar I wanted; the bouncer looked at my ID; he said, what’s your name; he said, where do you live; he said, what’s your sign; I was ready for this; I was well rehearsed; I said, Virgo; he said, no way; he said, you’re a Capricorn; he said, and a liar; it was true; I was a Capricorn; I was also a liar; the whole point of the story is something else; the whole point is I wasn’t always this pent up; the whole point is I wasn’t always; I said, you caught me; the bouncer said, get out of here; he said, liar; he said, get; but I wanted to go into the bar; I said, come on; I touched his leg; I said, I’m a Capricorn; I said, you guessed it; I could not hide what I was; I said, I’ll buy you a drink; he shifted; his leg was too warm; another bouncer walked up; then there were too many men in the picture; then there were too many men I needed to please; there were often too many men; some nights I just wanted to kiss the softest part of my arm; some nights I just wanted to think of some guy I thought I loved; some nights I waked, my mouth still pressed to my arm; some nights I could stay there and fall back into dreams; some nights, though, the phone rang through the night; some nights were songs on my machine; some nights were rain on my machine; some nights were dead air on my machine; some nights I should have said, no and no and no; some nights I should have fallen back into my arm; I was in love with myself some nights; but there were often too many men in the picture; there were often too many men I needed to please; and there was no way to shut it off; there was the date wanting something I didn’t want; there was my father singing, wake up wake up; there was the doctor saying, do it already; there was my brother saying, do it already; there was a plane past the window; there was sun past the window; and there was me saying, mother, to nothing there; there was me saying, mother, but she had hung up; because nothing was left but, shut it off; because nothing was left but, do it already; then it was a hum from some machine gone dead; then everything went dead; all the voices in my ear went dead; then the plane; then the sun; then light; then air; then the punch line to the actor’s joke; then another joke; then another joke;
Man at the End of Something
Admit the day’s veering toward something
else, the tiny flag of your heart inverted.
Admit the pause between words, wearing
away at the febrile. Admit jealousy, the want
for what you have if you didn’t have it.
Admit hunger. And an absence of which
you are far too aware. Admit the necessity
of breathing, the sound of several thousand
humming birds in torpor, ruby throats
pinched against their breasts. Admit sorrow,
which is the only heirloom that lasts.
Admit the deity, hallowed be his hollow
name. Admit change, but not so much
its progress or lack thereof cannot be seen.
Admit intrigue. Admit hangnail. Admit lovely,
how it casually and often passes you by.
Fail, because you won’t find respite.
Recourse, only as an occupation for the hands.
Reject delicate because you have walked
on glass for reasons. Admit deduction,
how easy it was to itemize. Then possibility,
but limit it to the aroma of an orchid, wilting.