Red Light of Shame
The fat couple drive out of the Popeye’s lot
with po boy sandwiches, onion rings,
popcorn shrimp cravers, biscuits,
strawberry sodas, and right away
before they can chew a second bite,
they’re stopped again by what the man
has started calling: The Red Light of Shame.
She is driving and as she slows down
she pops one more popcorn shrimp
while he lowers his po boy to his lap.
They wait at this red light, a long one,
while their food turns cold and on every side
people look in their windows at fat people
doing what all people must do: eat.
The drunks are paranoid in Alabama,
compulsive sexters hook up New York,
junkies writhe on piss-stained couches,
and the fat man doesn’t want to lift his chicken
with the nose-picker next to him staring.
This light goes on and on, a one-ring Inferno,
as the cop with a foot fetish pulls up
to look at the wife and think how nice it’d be
to stick those popcorn shrimp in certain places.
The man wraps his po boy again to save warmth
and the woman looks straight ahead, as if staring
at the bumper sticker hero’s fender in front of them
will save her from those sidelong glances she’s gotten
since mono shut her metabolism in high school.
Their long pause finally ends, green light
of God’s infinite mercies, or maybe
his brief forbearance, and they move forward,
she first to grab a popcorn shrimp,
and then he unwraps that po boy
while also reaching for an onion ring,
their Red Light once more behind them,
shame needing a pause and other eyes
to linger in the blur of highway America.
After the Performance
It’s taken years, I told my daughter and wife,
but I no longer feel like puking
when my daughter takes the stage to sing.
Stage fright is bad enough for oneself, but worse
for a parent with child in front of 200 people
and nothing between their savagery and his little girl
but her ukulele and voice. It’s taken years, I said,
but I finally have the beast under control.
I no longer need Xanax and tall beer;
my fingernails are same length after as before;
jaws won’t ache from clenching them.
My family congratulates me like I did something.
You don’t need to worry, Dad, Sophie said,
and she’s right, she’s right, but gut
is gut, and now it’s day after
her latest flawless, angelic performance
and I sit alone, alone with the ghosts
of this quiet but inexorable December morning,
promising next time I won’t sneak to the bathroom
fumbling for a nearly empty pill bottle.
Instructions for Making Commercials
White men are always fools
compared to black. If one
has to tell another what to do,
the black instructs the white.
Women always have rank over men,
unless the woman is white and man
is black, but this is easy to fix
by making the woman black also
rather than let a white woman tell a black man
what to do. Hispanics look upon whites
with disdain, but are bosom buddies
with blacks. All non-white people
live in nice suburban houses, dress
like whites, talk like whites, and the paler
the better. Gays are always funny
and are never incompetent or venal.
Unless we are specifically targeting the old,
old people are to be mocked
and overcome by the young,
who are always beautiful and sane.
People at fast food joints are never fat
and nobody in a beer commercial is drunk.
He’s certainly not being arrested for driving
or smacking around his wife and kids.
The results of our products must not be known.
No white man ever rolls his eyes at anyone.
His wife can hardly stand the sight of him.
Even his children think he’s a buffoon.
Children are taught disobedience
is cool, individuality attained by
buying the same stuff as everyone else.
Animals always get the better of humans,
though you never place a black man
with a monkey. Priests are fair game,
but stay away from rabbis,
and never, ever give Muslims
any reason to be upset.
Vice is always championed,
virtue mocked, since vice
enslaves people to our products
and virtue liberates, and the last thing
we want are free men and women
who see themselves as people
rather than as consumers.
Remember, we’re not just selling
our wares, but conditioning society
to be a better place: for us.
James Valvis has placed poems or stories in Arts & Letters, Barrow Street, Louisville Review, Ploughshares, River Styx, The Sun, and many others. His poetry was featured in Verse Daily. His fiction was chosen for Sundress Best of the Net. A former US Army soldier, he lives near Seattle.