bookmark_borderBad Dad

I wipe tiredness from my eyes.
It’s morning, another day survived.

And so begins the drip of last-night scoops
of coffee into a mug, World’s Greatest Dad.

I fail to measure up to that cup’s depth,
a half-assed bundle of Irish rage

and remembrance of children dancing gingerly
as I brood in my La-Z-Boy.

I exchange mementos of saved ticket stubs
and photos taken at the zoo in front

of the Gross Outpost in Africa
where birds pick ticks from rhinos and the kids

pose—daughter as tick remover, son
as tick removee—for a warm, toaster

strudel, strawberry with cream-cheese icing
squeezed from a plastic pouch. This is

the sedimentary layer of my family
for which no fossil record exists—

just remnants from a psychiatrist
office, the strength of Prozac and Adderall

noted on the clipboard of someone
more attuned to the ebb and flow

of family dynamics, one’s mouth
a bucket in the act of fill and pour,

I’m a feather on the end of a cap of a man
halfway between dawn and dusk, a time

for white-tailed deer and auto insurance
deductibles. A fur-patch adorns my cracked bumper.

I loved my mother, but did not like her.
This is the legacy my children pull

from the sand and wash at the water’s edge:
A scallop shell nudging its way from ivory

to orange, and its edge, sharp and varied,
biting into the soft fat of a child’s fingers.

This poem appeared in East by Northeast, September 2020.

bookmark_borderAmerican Obsessive

My best friend’s life has been stripped to its essence. His living room is devoid of brash luxuries: no couches, no chairs. Twenty-eight years later, he’s still waiting for the right ones. His only photos are JPEGs on a computer. He likes to keep the walls pristine, freshly-painted Sherwin Williams Steamed Milk White every three years. I just don’t have the heart to sully such a perfect wall with nails.

Everything in his pantry bears the date of purchase in Sharpie. He’s given up cable TV for YouTube, mostly grocery hauls, middle aged women hoisting bags of frozen mango. He’s convinced the hardwood floors are creaking differently, so he asks me to walk back and forth as he listens.

He keeps the door shut to a third bedroom. Twice he’s shown me what he considers a failing—tall shelves containing more than four-hundred phones. Asimitel, Century, Crosley, Disney, Kingston, Regal, Strowger, Viking. Rotary phones, push-button phones, princess phones, a candlestick phone, a big button landline, a sleek slimline, a PacMan phone, a football phone, a Hot Lips landline.

He stands in the middle of the room. In the corner, four bins run length-wise, resembling a blue sarcophagus. His hand rests on a black Western Electric called the screamer, but there is no screaming. It’s quiet, this room filled with hundreds of phones. No voices other than our own. No rings, buzzes, rattles, clatters, hums.

My friend picks up the red handset of an Asimitel emergency phone and presses it to his cheek. There is no emergency. He sets the receiver back down. The sound of plastic settling into plastic, then nothing, then nothing all over again.

An earlier version of this poem appeared in East by Northeast, September 2020.

bookmark_borderFalling Outside the Body

Each blade of grass pressed by the bottom of my feet, I walk in open opposition to those seated at the wedding where I should have been your groom. I had learned to speak American through a series of tapes that arrived in the mail, being out of place more a mood than the actual spot where I buried my face into a pillow.

You look at me the way women look at the rib cages of Victorian corset wearers, holding the strings in their mouths while tightening the straps. Cordial cherries I bought at the drug store and administered to those I disdain. A drawer of zip ties and rubber bands. The way Sarajevo means something to those with a past and a passport.

A cat with a factory of purrs, and I will write the pen from the table and across the linoleum. The monotony of friendship, mathematical imprecision at the shoulders my head tucks into, a story of revolution where no hero, no David or Goliath. The haves and have nots both own flat screen TVs, microwaves, bicycles with the hand shake of handle bars, and froyo on almost every corner.

Every 50 years, a family tree re-written, two people fall into the pre-divorced state of marriage, followed by children. Desire on every billboard, commercial, college application. We are being marketed a version of ourselves: improved, enhanced, saddled with one more vacation getaway, a car more indulgent than the last. Was this where I lost you?

Life has starved the emotional connections on the vine so that social media posts trigger feelings. The Christmas commercial for a grocery chain prompts tears as I realize what a dead grandparent truly means. The time we stood on your apartment balcony and caught snowflakes on our tongues.

The boy at middle school whose mother packaged his sandwich in carefully folded wax paper, he experienced just a bit more love than the boy with the dollar bill for a hot lunch. Doubt is the real currency of capitalism. What if my future kids think I don’t love them because I didn’t buy them Lunchables? What if my future wife realizes all that’s stopping her from sleeping with other men is whether I bought the best patio set?

The landscape architect says he can tell your husband loves his family before steering him to the deluxe package, with swimming pool and white picket fence: vinyl, maintenance free, years of family parties before the inevitable divorce. My mind is a pocket cactus I take out and set on the window sill in the kitchen.

During a recent lunch with a co-worker, I learned she was on marriage number four. I loved them all, she said. There’s just a sort of magic that takes place in the first three years that she can only catch in a new one, a new ring, proposal, honeymoon, getting to know someone all over again for the not first time.

Even the waiters are singing along to the Christmas song amidst the clink of dishes and glasses filled and refilled. Not to trouble you taps the outside of my car window, but it’s awfully cold, and how much alive do I want to feel on my ride home?

A $5 bill I keep in the center console for such occasions. The truth in giving isn’t the size so much as the convenience, how paper currency folded in half and slipped like Cold War secrets takes me back. The time I fed scraps to the stray dog, and he came back with friends, so you called animal control. For their own good.

The amount of trouble caring takes depends on the make of the car and the condition of the roads. Under my seat, the ashes of a favorite uncle sealed in a cardboard box, waiting for just the right time I’m not sure will ever come.

At the crossroads of empty gestures, I wonder if tipping the barista is a way of asserting my humanity. I sit in front of my laptop, my finger hovering over the track pad uncertain whether to accept your friend request. I wonder why you are circling back to me: perhaps an inventory of paths not taken, perhaps an easier way to measure the years and ultimately keep score?

This poem appeared in The Write Launch, July 2020.

bookmark_borderSmall Talk

We are projections on a sheet in the yard,
suspicious spools of film liberated from metal cans.
When there is nothing left to play, the children retreat
to flashlight tag, and the women refresh their wine.

The men huddle in the darkness.
Someone is talking about the circus,
and a boy on stilts who used to shout insults at the crowd.
Your mama’s so short, she needs a ladder to pick up a dime.

The landscape is a mishmash of competing conversations
against a backdrop of cricket chirps.
A chalk-spot of moon hovers overhead.
The men join the women, and the story of how each couple met
becomes fodder for laughs and intrigue.

The new couple who just moved in say they met at the gym
in a nearby state—her just out of college.
What he doesn’t say is that he worked there
and had signed her up with her then husband—
a complimentary personal training session
that ended badly or well, depending on your perspective.

Desire is a stack of chips pushed into the middle of the poker table, all in.
Another one, he interjects. Your mama’s so short, she poses for trophies.
The men laugh. The women look at each other and smile.
The origin story was rehearsed, and tomorrow’s verdict
will be that it was fine. Such stories carry a short middle and end,
deliberate answers for deliberate actions.

A child emerges with a frog in her hand.
Can we keep it? she asks. Absolutely not, her mother says.
Polite laughter, then the girl runs back to the other children.

We have reached a crossroads, nay, a threshold.
Someone has walked into the wind chimes near the back door:
hollow bamboo and aluminum with no cadence.
I think someone has had too much to drink, someone says,
and more laughter.

The new couple stand as one shadow, and she says
it’s time to go, something about stopping at the dry cleaners
on the way to work in the morning.

The soundtrack in her head plays, You’re a fraud.
She smiles. You matter. You’re a good man, she says,
then switches over to another station.

This poem appeared in The Write Launch, July 2020.


I find you face down,
nestled somewhere between dream and sleep,
as if one could exist without the other,
as if a petty argument the night before
had never happened.

The silence of your back and shoulders
invites me back to bed,
where I anchor myself,
where my mind skips rocks as my father fishes.

The tension is as subtle as the water’s surface,
capable of holding up boats and a chubby boy
escaping the heat of summer.
Do you dream of such things, I wonder
as I approach my second wake?

Had we been childhood friends, I could imagine
you a spot on the water’s edge,
alongside my father.
Your arms stretched out,
the visible part of your skin warms
from midday sun as your body
slowly takes on water.

This poem appeared in New Plains Review, Spring 2020.