Tools and Utilities
Solar power of a ninety degree Saturday—
the Chevron station’s icy island, wrapped
in 808 bass beats, electric kudzu creeping
across the county road toward wilderness
while all here work their idle business—buying
milk or eggs, topping off the anti-freeze, going
in for cheap sunglasses, processed cheese food,
long fluorescent sugar bottles, fried chicken
dried to jerky under unrelenting lamps, every fast
grab item necessary to propel a sunburnt body
through the few prized minutes of a broiling
afternoon. I’ve run the squeegee notes over
my truck’s windshield, and tried to rub away
the bug juice left behind. I’ve caught a Spanish
joke and laughter from the other pump,
good music for this market scene, almost
cheered enough to whistle up a tuneless happy
trill for Saturdays, and summer indolence,
when the white pickup—Officer, that’s right,
a white pickup—cruises into place beside us.
It might have been a city cast-off, corrosive
fingers of rust fanning out from every dimple
in the body, bald tires, vast bed empty but for
two chubby twelve year-olds in string bikinis.
Two men up in the cab—one skinny seed hat
guy with chin fuzz trouble, one slumping, thirty-
five or so, crow’s feet, rough hands, working.
The girls bounce up out of the box and hit
the asphalt, flip-flops and gaudy laughter—
too much dizzy laughter, and every man-jack
in the parking lot shifts his attention. The men
creak from the front of the truck—No sir,
I didn’t hear or see anything especially suspicious, but—
they breeze into the food mart, straight up
to the tallboy tubs, while the girls pinwheel
around parked cars, pulling goofy faces at them
from the other side. It’s in the legs and arms,
no one can deny it—just kinda funny—in an instant
what had drawn us to it now explodes in raw
alarm when fully recognized, all the slack gone
tight and dry, eyes strained behind dark glasses,
trying to peer over the misplaced neon strings
to see inside the blood—Is everything ok? Ok?
tap-tap—the hell it is. Six or seven seconds more,
the men return with big sacks full of beer,
perfect stuff for afternoons like these, the full
assorted colds of carbonation, thin hint of hops,
sweet rice, the chunks of clean company ice,
things most gathered here know very well.
They boost the girls back to their shaky places,
where they kick the empty toolbox, so that
it resonates like a tin gong made in shop class—
both flat and hollow, nonmusical, not a cymbal,
but a plate. Then with a little herky-jerky
left turn and a squeak of treads, they’re gone.
What dark hand had passed over for a second,
snapped its fingers, and vanished in a cartoon
cloud? What explains the epidural chill that
fathered fear in me and in the others, just for
one moment, then was dismissed in a snap
choice to stay put, to tend our own timbers
before the specks of others—good judges,
moved and hardly certain, lazy and alive.
In Loco Parentis
But nothing works quite as it should—
large fistfuls of Bazooka gum, Pixie Stix,
mystery rings and bubba teeth, all pulled
from a huge hill of little plastic globes,
then even drippy patriotic bomb pops,
while we slosh our drive-up Daiquiris.
Everyone flashes cherry smiles, sugars
shining in our veins. No one speaks
at a decent volume. We’ve run the dog
from his narrow territory to feebly shake
behind a shrub, in absolute submission,
an elastic chaos bouncing all around him.
Has the harried cat committed suicide?
Have the egg-faced neighbors called
the cops? Are the bookshelves burning?
Will the handbrake hold? Is there pee
in the exotic garden fishpond? It seems
that one exhausted couple can be traded
for another—and this is living proof
that even the most fortunate arrangements
might hide unexpected funnies—God’s
great gifts like stink loads in the atomizer,
bright chicklets of habañero pepper gum,
rubber snakes under the covers, whoopee
cushions set in church—all the good things
better angels may somehow yet deliver us.
Yet, caught in the silly present, my left knee
tightens like a packed snowball; my Cool
Joe shirt’s been torn; the charcoal aviator
shades have slipped from my face; I blink
in and out like some rousted marsupial
and drag like a daysleeping ape. One boy
runs through tomato vines, cutting heads
with a pine branch sword, while his brother
creeps toward a screen door with the hose.
My wife shakes her head and laughs at me.
Give it time, she says. Just wait ’til we get home.
Voice of an exhausted angel
frayed at the high end, piano-
backed and soft in her dark room.
Claustrophobic bed-length blue
notes catch each falling drop.
By candlelight, all her poems
scalloped on the floorboards—
Love what will and will not do
in gothic calligraphic curls.
Locks and buckles tight across
this space reserved for her,
the always-crouching figure
who listens for another voice
to demonstrate what love is—
not some bleak joke, a phone call
novel as a glass of chocolate milk.
And she in a more than unclothed
condition, shadowed on the wall.
One way to comprehend herself,
nerve sparks to ragged ends,
is to touch the separations
of her skin to open air, the tool
to its translation. A tearless
murmuring of love-words,
spoken as she crouches still,
falling from the glistening lip
alone, precise as poems.
Her history in purple
marks made across her arms,
misery of springs where
womanhood comes looking
for her, turns, and runs
so far from this Van Nuys
split-level that no one
will even recognize what
she looks like in ten years.
And for now, the small gains
of caffeine pills and gossip
countered here, in quiet
contemplation of an art form,
dabbling by the bridge
no one comes back over—
you know—an ice compress
by her side, a roll of gauze,
the razor steady cuts all clean—
so much desire for it now—
the shadow motion’s smooth
long lines, the dappled pages.
Jim Murphy teaches creative writing at the University of Montevallo, where he is also co-director of the Montevallo Literary Festival. He has published two collections of poems, The Memphis Sun (Kent State UP) and Heaven Overland (Kennesaw State UP), and he has been fortunate enough to publish poems in journals including The Southern Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Brooklyn Review, Gulf Coast, and Mississippi Review, among others.