Tim Tomlinson is a co-founder of New York Writers Workshop and co-author
of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. His chapbook,
Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse (Finishing Line Press) will appear in
October 2015. His poems, stories, and essays have been published in China
(United Verses and Anthill), the Philippines (Esquire, Tomas, Silliman
Journal, and in the Anvil Press anthology Fast Food Fiction), and the U.S.
in numerous venues, including Blue Lyra Review, Caribbean Vistas, Soundings
Review, Theory in Action, and in the anthology Long Island Noir (Akashic
Books). He is a member of Asia Pacific Writers & Translators. He teaches
in the Global Liberal Studies Program at New York University.
Barmaid of the Dawn
She's heard it all before, this barmaid
of the dawn, so it's just as well you can't
say it, or anything, your tongue
like an empty wallet in the back pocket
of your face. The way she flips through magazines
in the glow of the silent jukebox,
her tennis shoes white as loose leaf and her hair
shining like ink spilled across a page.
It could form letters, this ink, make words, sentences,
a story, but how would that story begin?
Once upon a time, probably—same as yours.
Against the zinc, someone's old lady
with two black eyes snores into an ashtray.
The TV's on mute above bottles on the top-shelf.
Black tears pour from the eyes of Tammy Faye Bakker.
If you're not from here, and you're not, things
can start to look like some sad joke, but you've
been saying that about pretty much every place
you've ever seen from a barstool at 4:00 am.
The star of Then Came Bronson enters, tells
the barmaid who he is. She folds the magazine,
says, "Then came who?" And he leaves.
(after Dorianne Laux)
When I was sixteen years old and did not
need sleep to feel rested, or a job for
money, I joined the veterans outside
the Camp Street Blood Bank at 7 a.m.
where they smoked cigarettes peeled off
the cobblestones and drank MD 20-20
from pint bottles. They wiped their mouths on
the greasy sleeves of fringed jackets or jungle
cammies, looking for a piece of cardboard
or some old magazine to slap on the spit
and piss and vomit laminating
the sidewalks they slept on. I did not feel
soiled by the filth on their fingernails,
the grease in their hair, or the gravel in their
throats. I was enthralled by the lies they told
about where they'd been, what they'd seen, how
many they'd killed, and the way they told those
lies, as if they believed them. As if I
believed them, too.
Inside the clinic
we reclined on hard gurneys, flies lining
the rims of Dixie cups filled with urine.
"Shame, Shame, Shame" on the radio,
unlicensed nurses in tight white uniforms
dancing the Bump between rows of our
worn-out soles. They pushed thick cold cannulas
in our arms and our bloods drained into
plastic tubing. Arterial blood, slow
and thin. Blood over the legal limit, blood
so dirty it had fleas. Blood of our fathers
who'd disowned us, blood of our mothers
whose faces we'd failed to erase. At night,
I'd be back on Bourbon Street, a pint low,
a dollar flush, Buster's beans and rice glued
to my ribs. Blue notes from clarinets
and guitars joining the termites spinning
in the halos of street lamps, go-cups crowning
the trash cans and dribbling into the gutter
with the butts and the oysters and the sweat
off the shower-capped jheri-curled tap
dancer from Desire Project scraping spoons
across the slats of a metal scratchboard.
Hawkers barking at the swarms of tourists
gawking at strippers in storefront displays,
and the runaway girls at the topless
shoeshine spit-shining white loafers
on the feet of insurance agents from
Mutual of Omaha. The veterans,
my blood brothers, they'd lurk in the shadows
and scan the sidewalks for half-smoked butts,
and I'd help them put together the lies
they'd tell to strangers tonight, and repeat
to me in the morning, forgetting half
of those lies were mine, and I'd forget, too.
The Manpower temp agency sends me
to a railroad crew outside Columbia,
South Carolina. Red dirt, cold pines,
pick up trucks covered in mud, and thermoses
that smoke when you spin off the sealed tops.
Soup, coffee, chicken in tin foil out of
metal lunch pails. I'm the only white guy—
a kid, and they laugh at me like I'm
Leave-It-to-fucking-Beaver. Give me
cigarettes, invite me to dinner, half
the time cracking jokes I can't understand.
Some because they're about sex—I'm no virgin,
but shoving plugs into a wall socket
doesn't make you an electrician.
Foreman named Elrod, a thickset dude
like some villain off TV wrestling,
carries railroad ties under each arm. Gets
impatient watching how the rest of us
two-man singles. We lay tracks, bust tracks up.
A lot of steel, a lot of wood soaked
in creosote, the kind of grease in coveralls
you can't scrub out with a wire brush. And these
big-ass spikes an inch thick and six inches long.
Elrod sinks them with one swing of the sledge,
every time, clear down to the clang of the metal.
My best is seven, not counting all the misses.
White boss pulls up. Elrod shouts "Police up your
shit, boys." On go the orange hardhats.
Yes boss, no boss, then up your ofay white
ass boss soon as he walks away. Next hour,
no jokes, no smokes, no roaches pressed between
fingers out by the blue Port-o-Sans. Don't
worry, kid, it ain't you, they assure me.
But it is me. It's me everywhere I go.
It's 1965, I'm nine, Cousin Danny's fifteen, and he's visiting
from San Francisco, where he's a high diver, swimmer, runner, and climber,
and our backyard on Long Island, he says with great authority,
is so boring. As if I didn't know that, squirting glue
into ant nests and dropping matches onto the entrances,
the large black ants crinkling as they rush from their homes
through the burnt grass, fleeing from fire that's stuck on their backs.
Tossing crickets into webs and watching their crazy panic
while spiders spin them into little bags of meat.
Catching bumblebees in glass jars and leaving them sweating in the sun,
the bright shine of their yellow fur dulling in the airless heat.
In two years it will be the Summer of Love, with Danny
at its front lines, bearded, beaded, beautiful, but today he shows me
that if you remove the legs from a Daddy Longlegs, the legs continue
to twitch and reach and jackknife as if they still had somewhere
to go, and within minutes, ants locate the spider's legless ovoid body,
which they section and carry off, even as the spider watches.
Does the spider see its own legs there on the patio, escaping
in different directions? Does it see the boys who will do anything
not to feel remorse about anything they're doing? Does it see
that one day remorse will come, along with the fire, and the ants?
Back to Front.