by James Tyner
(winner of the 2008 Coal Hill Review Chapbook Prize)
After Jumping Some Kids and Taking Their Money, 1988
We buy Cheetos and Fanta
with the money we stole.
Took it as they cried,
pried it loose with kicks to stomach
and stomps to the face.
Fingers grow orange
from the powder of our breakfast
and stomachs pop out
between ribs and belt buckles
as the soda slides down.
And Whooser laughs,
cheese staining his teeth,
his breath coming heavy
through busted lips.
I laugh also, lips stinging
from salt, from blood,
from smiles as we eat.
This is what we are given,
the children of the ghetto,
this is what we inherit,
a breakfast of chips,
skin pocked with dirt and scabs,
backs resting loosely
against graffitied alleys
as we laugh at fights,
at money stolen,
at the blood that drips loosely
down my left arm
We pull monsters from the trash.
Claws, teeth, the rubber foam
of alien heads and demon bodies
lying still among empty wrappers
and rotten food. Everything
just waiting to be found.
I am ten here, and my father
jabs a mop handle into the pile,
searching for glass and the looseness
of garbage, so we don’t slip or fall
too deep into it. We collect monsters,
throw them into black sacks slung
over our shoulders. From beyond
the trash, a door slams, and someone
shouts, “Fucking Mexicans, get out
of the trash.” And I am happy.
Rotten milk pools around my left
foot, and I forget about this werewolf
as it drops from my hands,
these hands that are white,
not like my mother’s, not like
my stepfather’s, as he lifts me up,
and we run to the car,
pieces of Hollywood
over our shoulders.
Bones in the Grapevines
We pulled it from the earth, soil
dripping from it, coloring
more gray than white. Long,
crusted, tips broken off so we
could see the gray honeycombs
of marrow inside. “Dog?”
My cousin, Juan, shook his head,
and stories we grew up on,
things we heard, came back.
Family said that white guy,
the one who owned these fields
before us, the one with the belt,
the buckle with diamonds and bullhorns,
would beat the field workers for being
too slow, not filling boxes quickly
enough, sometimes even to death.
Our parents would scare us,
make us clean rooms or go to bed
with visions of belt buckles glinting,
leaves slowly picked from thin branches,
till they became a switch, to peel
skin, peel back to blood and bone.
There are workers in the field now,
and we can hear a song coming
from them, mixed motor of the tractor,
black heads bobbing above green lines
of the fields. Juan, colors of his Raiders
jersey soaking up so much sun the heat
pours from him, his skin so brown,
almost black now from too much summer,
takes the bone, throwing it at the workers.
“Fucking wetbacks!!” The bone falls
somewhere in vines and dirt, lost.
Juan’s Raiders hat has fallen off,
and his hair glistens from Vaseline
used to keep his curls straight,
plastered to his skin, his skull.
Neighbor Dies of an Overdose, 1997
It lays there, resting against the gray walls
of the complex, its feet comfortable
on this second floor walkway. It
no longer has a name. We call it
“the body.” An empty bag of chips,
trash, in its lap, the body maybe stealing
a few bites, that tiny taste of crunch,
before a scream tore through it,
left its lips peeled back, an ache
shivering through muscle, forcing
eyes and teeth to reach out,
pull from skin. A child
watches it, leans against her mother’s
corduroyed legs, ice cream spilling
from the edges of her lips, her fingers,
sprinkling over sandaled feet.
Something about the sun setting,
the haze of red cast over puddles
in the parking lot, over heads of all those
looking up at the body, its hands
almost open, arms wide, as if to take them
in, all of them, in. The mother flicks
her cigarette, the haze of it rising,
bitter in the air, gray in her mouth.
She offers me a blowjob
for ten bucks, and I almost say yes.
Ode to the Math Compass
North is the downward swing
catching wrist, splitting skin,
digging itself in between tendons,
between muscle, fingers going
numb, tingling, and like first love,
you keep thinking, “this can’t be
happening, this can’t be.”
West is the shove against
the bathroom sink, porcelain
pressing air out of lungs, edges
of it against back, against kidneys,
the point of the compass coming
out of you, sliding, and the point
has so little blood, so much shine.
East is the release, knee crunching
into hollow of his groin, bastard
crashing through stall as you push
away, chase him through walls
of chipped paint and phone numbers
for good head, bring that bloodied
fist over his neck, his skull, club until
face and arm and wall meet,
and that tightness of the body
lets go, and he falls free, to a floor
of piss and pine sol, and there
are so many patterns now, blood
making maps on tile and clothes.
South is the compass in the good
hand. South is bringing the needle
of it into his back, South is making him
learn to never fuck with you,
South is watching him reach
for the new hole near his spine.
South is the screams, letting you know
something good has been found
with that compass, something good.
Wrapped in a glad baggie and taped
to the plaster of my bedroom wall,
my grandmother smiles at me
from a seventy year old photograph.
She cradles a shotgun, its head
held gently in her left hand, her right
supporting the butt. She’s comfortable.
I believe the fur coat that drapes
her is brown, but I can’t tell in the grays
and whites of the photo. It sparkles,
almost, and in this cold leaking through
my bedroom window I wonder
about its warmth. She is smiling
and her teeth are straight, bright,
bought that way with the same
bootleg money that bought her
that coat, that gun. This picture
is from the depression era. This night,
my shoulder has woken me up,
the scar there swollen, like it gets
sometimes before the rain.
The line of it is straight, bits
of the flesh still folded on itself,
strange for a gunshot wound,
even one this old. There’s this look
in her eyes, a gazing, like it’s past
the camera man. I can almost see
the lines of her mouth crinkle,
speaking, “sleep, mijo, sleep”
as I try for something other than awake
once more. I imagine her watching
over me, shotgun light in her hands,
her back and neck strong, eyes clear,
Right on Lincoln, left on Venice, half a block up.
It is three o’clock on Sunday, and the streets
of Los Angeles are heavy with people.
The place still has the same coat of paint,
same color at least.
My wife rests her hand on my thigh,
and asks, “Is this is it?”
“Yes,” I say, “This is where he died.”
We had been dancing that night,
waiting for dinner to finish.
Me, my sister, and Albert, three kids
shoved into the small space between sink and stove.
Then the windows caved in around us,
glass like rain in hair and eyes,
hum of bullets, piercing air like kisses,
plaster hiccupping off the walls,
and the scream of my sister, bacon grease
splashed from pan to arm.
My cousin, Albert, his face left me that day,
went from cheeks, and eyes, and lips, to nothing.
There was so little blood.
Just a raggedness with teeth,
clumps of hair and something dark like wetness.
The radio never stopped playing,
the thump of ranchero music echoing in the house.
It’s been 20 years, and still this place is home.
My wife and I drive by, hum of motor and music
spaced between our silence.
I close my eyes and try to remember his face, Albert’s, and I can’t.
All I can see is the yard of the home, upturned,
filled with holes where trees were pulled up,
and nothingness was left.
Dinner on Our Second Anniversary
Four hours of work paid for this.
A lady sits to my left, hair like plastic,
coifed with hours of hairspray, hours
of time. I hear her whispering
about our clothes, words like ratty
and poor. I rip cubes of beef
with my fingers, let cooked juices
and pepper roll down my fingers
to the edges of my wife’s lips.
If she hears, I can’t tell. But she tears
shrimp from kabobs, pulls the looped flesh
over to me, shares what is on her plate.
We don’t know what merlot means,
or cabernet, but we have the dark one,
a glass of the blood-colored wine
for each of us. There is just this
moment, the black decor of the restaurant,
the angled stares of people, the group
of teens to our left flipping through blackberrys,
through photos stored on cell phones,
plates heavy with uneaten food. I let it all go.
I keep only the crunch of grilled vegetables,
the tang of the wine, spoons dipping
into dessert, my wife kissing
off a spot I missed with my napkin.
The New Ride
I hang ten stories above the ground,
all of it like pebbles below me,
the shuttles, the cars, the people.
Then it all suicides down, the ground
reaching for me, the green of trees
and shrubs, grabbing, like dirt
under fingernails, and then it shifts,
the coaster slinging me through spirals,
November is the word.
Already his desert training has started.
He tells me about sun, about heat,
about how none of this is shit.
Words come from the phone
that I am not used to,
hostiles, terrorists, fucking things
up. All I know is that in November
his first tour in Iraq starts.
The wind is like fire in my ears
roaring, out of control, lost.
From between bars, my wife
stretches the thin flesh of her arm
until she can grab my knee.
She has noticed my silence
and screams if I am okay.
There is a pressure here,
metal on my chest, tightening
on my balls and knees,
keeping me in place,
keeping me from falling.
I tell her I’m fine,
and open my eyes.
At a Barbecue for R.C. One Week After He Is Out of Iraq
He laughs and tosses back
another shot of whiskey.
There are questions about cousins,
how is Lisa doing, she still drinking,
did Eddy finally marry that big
bitch, heard Monica is in L.A. now.
I fill him in, crack open another beer
chaser, and tell what stories I can.
I am light here, keeping things brief,
smiling, avoiding the heat from his skin,
the pocks and purple circles
that tighten his face, mar it.
A curl of scarred flesh lifts up
from the collar of his shirt,
hanging like a question
I can’t ask. And suddenly the food
is done, barbeque finished,
mom calls out to get the kids
ready to eat, and his face fills
with an emptiness, jaw loosens
and he is muttering now, about kids,
something about so many goddamn
kids. He asks me if I know what
the color of brains really is,
and I answer that the ribs
are getting cold.
James Tyner’s chapbook The Ghetto Exorcist. To purchase the chapbook please visit the Coal Hill Review chapbook catalog.