The marching band is rehearsing “Summer Nights” from Grease in the parking lot of my old high school. You know, “Summer loving, had me a blast, etc.” This probably sounds terrible to you, but it’s an improvement over when they played “Eye of the Tiger,” which was almost unrecognizable. The band seems to know “Summer Nights,” enough to get by, though probably half the kids are just vamping. Maybe you should put your hand to your ear and try to hear them–the horns, the drumline–for a minute. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this yet.
Okay. Let’s try this: One time I was at a dance during the summer. At the beginning, the DJ played “Summer Nights.” The male chaperones formed a line keeping the boys on one side of the gym, while the female chaperones made a line holding back the girls on the other. If you’re feeling up to it, you can listen again and maybe hear our young bodies pressing against these human barricades, who were only a few years older than us, hungry for love.
When the song reached its climax–Travolta and Newton-John reaching for the high notes and the chorus with the “tell me more” fadeaway–the chaperones stepped aside and the mass of boys and girls rushed desperately at each other. It was like the war just ended. I danced with a girl visiting from Carencro. She had brown hair and was a head taller than me. I don’t remember what bands she said she liked. I didn’t bother waiting in line to have some guy with a slickback snap our photo so I have no tangible proof of any of this. The girl from Carencro feels less real than the talking blobs of computer code my kids watch before bed.
So, what was the point of the chaperones’ little exercise? Maybe they were simply trying to dramatize the pent-up hormones that were supposedly oppressing us all. Though, at that age, my primary motivator wasn’t hormones, it was rage. Rage that I was standing alone, smoking in a grove of trees, while everything that happened seemed far away from me. The river lapped over the breakage rocks, the light pulsed through the leaves, soft with summer ending. Whatever I felt–I’m realistic–was a small thing. You may not be able to hear it. You may not even try.
I wish I had come to the gate of my old high school for some noble purpose—walking the dogs or buying hallucinogens–instead of the ordinary loneliness from sharing a house with four people. Are you still listening? Are you even awake? It’s just as well. The past blows against me on its way to the end of the block and beyond that, the sea. Trying to be its narrator indicates a degree of control I don’t have. The night is starting. Leaves are falling from the trees. The band stops, but the music never seems to fade away.
The summer you moved out, my grandfather sat me down on his porch and explained that, at eighty-four, nothing good was ever going to happen to him again. I didn’t know how to respond. I don’t know how to respond when people say normal things, much less fucked up shit. I shook my head like I was politely disagreeing, but really I was trying to shake his words away, trying to make the whole room quiver and dissolve like when a flashback happens in a TV show.
I haven’t talked to you in forever. You used to say my poems were “all over the place,” that I should settle down, “see a world in a grain of sand.” But I like the idea of feeling multiple experiences at once, letting them knock into each other. I don’t have a problem leaving the house anymore, though I worry I’ve accidentally hit people with my car without realizing it. Sometimes I go back and check. I also check knobs and switches. I still think in headlines: “MAN BURNS DOWN OWN HOUSE,” “MAN RUNS DOWN NUN IN PARKING LOT.”
I miss how, when your parents were out of town, we’d take the train to their house to pretend to be real adults or at least get a decent meal: Defrosted shrimp and farfalle; scented candles and their stash of smooth jazz. Far enough away from the city to feel safe. Conversation came easier then. We might as well have been talking about the rain and the stones.
One time, you asked me if I liked working in the warehouse better than being in school. I told you how, when he was my age, someone gave my grandfather a beehive and told him to work it. Paw Paw didn’t have any equipment so he just put on a rain slicker and went out to try to collect the honey. Something went horribly wrong and a great cloud of bees flew up his pants. “I went out to rob the bees, and the bees robbed me,” he said ruefully.
You laughed at that story, a little. Probably because it was some folksy, folksy shit. At the time, I thought the point of the story was that all work has a certain level of danger, but maybe the point is that sometimes we just make bad choices. Either way, I wish I could tell you that story again, though I wouldn’t want to tell it twice. I’d want to tell it again for the first time.
When my grandfather got dementia, he started telling the same story over and over: The time he saw a woman sliced apart by an airplane propeller. If you have to keep telling the same story, why couldn’t it be something pleasant? But he didn’t have a choice.
It was during World War II. Paw Paw was stationed at the base in Alabama. They had a bunch of planes out on the airfield, some of them were running, their propellers spinning so fast they were nearly invisible. Paw Paw was working when he saw this woman walk out on the field, probably coming to visit her husband or her boyfriend. She couldn’t see the propellers. She kept walking. She didn’t know they were there till the blades cut her face and breasts open and she collapsed to the ground. Paw Paw ran to help, but stopped half way, knowing it was too late.
Paw Paw never said so, but I believe this is the part of the story where he began sobbing, standing alone in his uniform in the middle of a war, hot tears streaming down his face. My grandfather was pure, pure in the sense that he felt what he felt without a lot of internal clouding, though he’d never come out and say “The rain makes me wish for a world without limits” or “I love you.” He wouldn’t have said anything, just helped clean the woman off the ground.
Right now, I’m thinking of my grandfather, at the same time I’m thinking about you and the potential for fire and stinging insects. I never told you this story face-to-face. Not because it’s gory or there’s never a natural place for it in the conversation. We just never got to the right time for it. I wasn’t well enough to tell it without making it sensational or historical.
I want to sit down in a room we’ve never been before and tell you this story, tell it without embellishment or satisfaction, without trying to see a moral dangling at the end. I don’t think there’s a moral to Paw Paw’s story, except if you live long enough, you can earn a story hot and mean enough that it burns in the back of your head for sixty years. It stays there, even as your brain dies around it.
The summer after high school, I worked for my uncle, Paulie the Plumber. Our first job together was replacing a toilet for this grad student Paulie nicknamed the Bolshevik because he assumed she was a communist based off the bumper stickers on her car. She lived in a shotgun house in a part of the city my uncle had written off as no man’s land. Paulie said her pipes had corroded to the point they lacked integrity. I thought that could be a metaphor for anything, which was really all I was good for, making observations like that.
Paulie and I shuffled through the house balancing the new toilet on the balls of our fingers, while some world music program played on WWOZ, heavy with drums and horns. As we went back and forth, the grad student sat on the couch grading student essays with a green pen. Paulie asked her how come she didn’t use a red pen. She explained green was the color of hope, and he rolled his eyes.
I can’t tell you how to install a toilet. I can’t tell you about the wax ring or what a closet flange is or when to use plumber’s putty. All I remember is Paulie shouting lift with your knees and me guessing which wrench he wanted on my sixth try. I remember the woman had a tattoo of a mermaid on her arm and a long skirt that looked like it had been painted with watercolors.
When we took a break, she handed me a glass of water (Paulie refused). She asked where I went to high school because that’s what people from here are supposed to ask “Where’d you go to high school?” But she wasn’t from here and she didn’t know my school so she just stood there awkwardly, smoothing her skirt and I stood there awkwardly, wishing I could pick the caulk off my arm.
On my way back to help Paulie, I saw her bedroom door was ajar and I stuck my head in. There were clothes on the bed, some folk music and agitprop posters, but no other clues. I don’t know what I was looking for. Actually, I do know what I was looking for. I wanted a picture of her with a man and the man’s face x’d out. That’s all I wanted back then, a little initial certainty opening the door to endless possibility.
A couple of days after we finished the job, Paulie was restocking the van with parts. I went to his office. I got his black book of client numbers. I called the grad student. What was I going to say to her? You’re asking me that now? I think I wanted to say “Let me live with you. You’re different from everyone from my childhood.” But that’s probably a much more sophisticated version of what I wanted to say. The words have sat in my hands for twenty years. I may have rubbed them into something else entirely by now.
Actually, I didn’t say anything. “Hello? Hello?” she said patiently, but I stayed silent. She stopped saying “Hello,” but didn’t hang up. The waves of static moved like a gray sea between us for a minute. Neither of us said anything. Then I got scared. I put down the phone. I went back to work.
End of the line
When I was twenty and my girlfriend dumped me, I stood in a Texaco men’s room making faces in the mirror like I was going to cry for ten minutes and then went to a strip club that supposedly had a one-legged stripper. It didn’t. The club was the size of a small, rural post office. I think you went behind some Chinese folding walls for a lap dance (or whatever). There was barely anybody in there. At some point, the strippers gave up trying to make money and just sat at tables, relaxing like the clientele. One of the strippers kept handing me beers out of a cooler they kept under the stage. She wore cutoffs and a swimsuit top; her cheeks cratered with acne. She came from somewhere outside the Beltway and told me stories about her hometown, which included actual cow-tipping and making out in abandoned cars behind the Greyhound station. I avoided talking about college and told her about the sunlight coming up over various bars in New Orleans. I said something about “rays of sun shooting out of the silver clouds,” which is completely wrong, and only underscores that I didn’t belong there. I still had this naive belief in love as this purifying angel, which would come down if you just used the right words. The angel did not come down that night for the stripper and me, though we both wanted it or at least I did, not because I couldn’t find the right words, sitting there in the red light, sipping cans of Bud by the stage. I was too busy pretending to be someone else, and she still had to count the dollar bills she picked up from the stage, knowing someone else would come and take a cut.
When I was eighteen, there was this guy, Zach, who was legally blind, not totally blind, but he still had one of those red-and-white canes. He was twenty-one and we’d get him to buy us liquor on Saturday afternoons. He’d go into the liquor store by himself with our orders, while we waited in the parking lot. Half the time, the liquor store guys felt sorry for him and would carry the bags of booze to our truck, while Zach tap tapped his cane through the parking lot for effect. We had an arrangement: Zach would go to the liquor store for us if we drove him to the toy store so he could buy action figures from a Japanese cartoon I had never heard of. This part always took forever. Zach had to take each toy off the shelf, read the back of the box, and weigh its relative merits before deciding on his purchase. It was night by the time we made it out of the toy store. We genuinely liked Zach though, and would take him with us to Bayou Coquille–no one’s house was safe for drinking–and pass the bottle underneath a grove of cypress trees right by the water. Zach would take gulps of Jack Daniels and listen patiently while we talked about women, including my friend’s retelling of losing his virginity to “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Zach would chime in with child-like nihilism that all our dreams were ultimately futile. Or else he’d just perseverate on the cheat-codes for whatever wrestling game he was into at the time. I’ve probably told you enough now that you expect something from me. You want poignancy. This is my least favorite part of adulthood, all the expectations. I can’t give you what you want. Once, Zach and I were sitting alone by the bayou. There was a rustling on the other side, and two herons flew out from the tall grass, sailed over the trees. Zach said they looked like “killer angels,” as they seemed to glide across the moon. Neither of us spoke or moved for a minute. But this probably doesn’t mean anything to you.
I wrote most of these poems during the COVID-19 lockdown in New Orleans. During the lockdown, I finally developed a daily routine of writing. Basically, I’d wait for my kids to go to bed, and then I’d drink hard cider and write poems for the rest of the evening. At the same time, I was listening to a lot of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Van Morrison, which, along with Bob Dylan and Joe Henry, form the crux of my writing-music.
These poems are basically stories drawn from my own life, which until recently, was something I did not write about. Usually, my poems were more abstract and surreal (it may be quicker and more accurate to say “Ashbery rip-offs”). I credit re-reading Philip Levine with the change. Levine was a huge influence for me as a young poet. I read him obsessively and occasionally dreamed about him. When I turned forty, I picked up Levine again and re-read him obsessively, particularly The Simple Truth (An ex-girlfriend had given me a copy of this book–for which I’m eternally grateful).
From Levine, I came up with the idea of writing something “holy.” This sounds unbelievably earnest. All I mean is I wanted to write about the people I’ve known in a way that memorialized their beauty and humor, particularly the people I’m never going to see again. I wanted to capture the moments of my life, which, for whatever reason, stayed with me. I didn’t want them to disappear. But I also didn’t want to tell the story straight. These are poems about the “process” of remembering. Not just the memory itself, but how you get there, the weird connections you make along the way, and the self-critical voices that complicate remembering.
I’m thankful for Parhelion taking these poems. I’m thankful these poems exist at all. While I wrote poems as a young man, I stopped writing suddenly when I was about twenty-five and, except for a few fits and spurts along the way, did not write seriously for over a decade. I gave away most of my poetry collection because I believed I’d never write again. I’m grateful to be writing now; it may be a mid-life crisis or something sweeter. As Ray Wylie Hubbard observed, “the days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.”
Justin Lacour lives in New Orleans. His poetry has appeared in Bayou Magazine, The New Orleans Review (Web Features), B O D Y, and other journals. He edits Trampoline: A Journal of Poetry.