In the coin op laundry on Bridge Street
I’m fretting about trees
As clothes tumble in cyclones
Behind portal windows of washing machines
And the whistling moan
Of spin cycles rises and falls all around.
There are four of us shuttling soiled, wet and dry clothes
Back and forth across the linoleum
In wire basket bumper cars with rattling black wheels
And I’m thinking, the trees are in trouble.
Not just the big sycamore behind the laundry
Pelting parked cars with its spongy balls
Or the tough old white pine
Split by lightning last summer but holding on,
Its bark rubbed raw where it leaned all winter
Against the blue house with purple shutters up on Cedar street.
I’m worried about the black walnut
Beyond the ring of bamboo on the bike path.
The gingko in front of Schiable’s barber shop
That sheds in a single day every fall
Its yellow fan leaves in a heap
The fruitless cherry at the end of Fifth Street,
I wonder, did it ever bear fruit?
I’m beginning to get desperate.
They’re all dying, I imagine,
Their roots soak up the soap suds
Then their leaves suck in the exhaust of the Transbridge Bus
That chuffs from the curb under my apartment a block away.
They don’t have a chance, I decide,
Leaning depleted against the back door,
Breathing heard and watching rain come down in sheets,
My heart thudding like an unbalanced load.
Then dumpy Sylvia shuffles to the bill changer
In carpet slippers, draped in a bolt of faded flowers
Her hair is a riot of color, her skin an unnatural gray
Lips as hard as the beak of a snapping turtle
She eyes me warily and says,
“It’ll be all right, sonny,”
Slipping a tenner into the machine and
Leering as forty quarters fall ringing into the tray
Transporting her to Caesar’s Palace clutching a coin cup
Wondering whether she’s missed the last bus back to Bound Brook.
Suddenly my breath calms
And I begin to feel better.
Should I fret about the trees,
I ask myself, if she doesn’t?
Baby lettuce, toasted pecans,
funky perfumed goat cheese
with its history of grass and sunshine.
Black-flecked wild mushroom bisque
tasting of earthy beginnings in the lee of hundred-year hemlocks,
at the dark mouths of caves, beside slow-moving water.
Angel hair pancake… corn, scallion and red pepper chutney,
regrets of summer and spring forgotten
as fall fell across Cape May like a glass bead curtain.
We touched glasses and ate.
Oysters, roasted in their Pleistocene shells, the glistening pouch of meat
a lover’s tongue slipped between our lips,
yielding, releasing its sea salt syrup.
Fruit, pastry, something of chocolate,
things that made us look into one another’s eyes
and carry our shoes along the sand
with the full moon a silver hole in black heaven behind us.
Before us the sea rising and falling, thundering in the dark,
hissing about our feet in white foam ribbons.
You tilted your head beneath my chin like a violin,
the spinning air wove gossamer around us
and we rose, turning slowly, toward the silver hole in the sky.
Your lips touched mine, earth was a distant echo
and we were gone.
I wake on a flight to India
32,000 feet above the coast of
Vast, ghostly Greenland.
At first, in the undulating dark
I can’t tell pale land past the steel wing
From inky sea, fingers of one
Twined with those of the other
Like interracial lovers
Holding hands on a city bus.
We’re hurtling overhead
At nearly 600 land miles per hour
And the coast is soon gone
Just shadows and empty
Icy stretches barely visible
In the mist and lonely night
Without the contrast
Of the humpbacked sea.
Of the way to Mumbai, now
Where reports say a cold wave
Has pressed temperatures
Below 55 Fahrenheit,
A record for days
Around the New Year
As the country’s 1.2 billion people
Huddle closer if that’s possible
And the packed population
Of this aircraft, some 600 of us
Crowded closer than commercial cattle,
Dare not complain.
Every day Max and I have to discuss the issues before he is willing to begin studying for his Bar Mitzvah
What kind of God, you ask,
would let it happen, let 6 million Jews
let 2 million Russians, let Tienemen Square
let Bosnians, let Hutus, let Palestinians
what kind of God would allow such horror
floods in Honduras, earthquakes in India, drought in Ethiopia
(there are still Jews in Ethiopia, you know)
what kind allows the unholy disasters in Chernobyl, in China
what could such a God be thinking, you ask
Well I say give the guy a break
figure the universe is, what, 2 billion years old?
Rome wasn’t built in a day and anyway it wasn’t Shabbos
you think one day a week is time off enough? Christ,
everybody leaves to be with family at the end of the workday
and put the whole job thing out of mind for a few stinking hours
And what about vacations? You think a few hundred years off from time
to time is unreasonable when your workday lasts millennia?
So, here he is, the poor bastard, a million other worlds
depending upon him besides ours, you know
trying to take a little break, maybe take the wife for a trip someplace
(and what a nag she’s got to be: “Sure, Mr. Bigshot God.
He can make heaven and earth, divide the dark from light, but I ask him one little thing:
fix the leaky faucet, stop the screen door from banging, bring home a little chicken soup from the deli; noooo, this is too much to ask Mr. Bigshot God! He’s got people depending on him, too much on his mind to help out around the house. He’s too important, Mr. Bigshot.”)
or maybe he wants to go fishing with his son
(not that son, another one…you think he’s been in bed
only once and with only that one woman in all these millennia
what about the Greeks? The Romans? All the young Gods of unknown Mongolian tribes, what about totem gods of Eskimos and ephemeral Gods of the East?)
or maybe it’s to help a daughter move into an apartment in New York City after graduating college
(she wants to be an actress and wants no special help from daddy either
she’s going to make it on her own, thank you.)
or maybe it’s just a quickie weekend in a trailer in the Adirondack woods without electricity or running water where the mosquitoes whine incessantly and you think about bears all the time and the blankets smell damp even when they’re dry and you bring in bags of groceries and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until your tongue cleaves to the roof of your mouth and your teeth tingle from the sugar rotting away the roots
you know, a little fishing, a little hunting, tying one on with a quart of Old Grand Dad
watching a glacier come and go, leaving boulders the size of condominiums
in the middle of sloping meadows crowded with wildflowers where someone turns to a pal and says, “God, this is paradise.”
And what about all that noise he’s got to contend with all the time?
There’s what, 6 billion people on this planet alone, and right now all of them
in all those languages yammering all through the day
(from which he probably wishes, by now, that he’d never divided night)
Please, God, the lottery
Please, God, a new car
Please, God, let him get a hit just this once, with the team down one and two out and men on second and third in the top of the ninth
Please, God, I never ask for anything
Please, God, let her let me
Please, God, let this Anti-Semite prick buy 2 million units of this shit for the whole chain and I can retire on the commission from this sale alone, really, I mean it, to Florida, tomorrow and I’ll never ask for another thing again as long as I live
should you, by the way, be generous enough to grant me long life.
But today you want to talk about the chronic suffering of the human heart
about loneliness, heartbreak, unfulfilled yearning, broken dreams, cruel disappointments, unknown horrors of unwell minds, unrequited love, emptiness, otherwise hollow lives that are filled only with anguish, of the gnawing pain of the body, unending, irreversible
holding a child in your arms as her broken breaths shudder through her dying body watching helplessly the suffering of your loved wife as cancer eats away her insides
sitting with your brother as aids whirls through him sucking his eyeballs into their sockets
as rich abuse the poor, as men rape women, as one man squashes another
because of his skin or the shape of his eyes or his nose
or because his parents’ parents’ parents were born elsewhere and their God is not his God
the blind, the halt shamble by your door on their way to their own miserable end
but there is nothing you can do to help, ever. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Period. Ever.
End of story.
What kind of God, you insist, makes such a world?
I’ll tell you.
I don’t know.
We invent a God
who creates us in his own image
and then we complain that
he is as mad as we are.
Now, go study your haftorah
We’ll talk about it again tomorrow.
The concept of time has become
So troublesome for modern science that
Determined physicists have decided to simply
Do without it, setting the tick tock here now and gone
Of life to one side in order to better
Explain the constant conversation held between
Space and matter in our ten dimensional
Universe, which it should be noted,
Appears to be slowing down now
Intent, one might say, on stopping
Before, I’m told, rewinding
In a kind of backward ramble toward the
Beginning, which they — most of them, anyway
Still call the Big Bang
After which there was a period of time
They have somehow discovered
When time actually accelerated can you imagine rather
Than ticking along at its current stolid pace
A pace which, whether measured by the atomic clock
Or my grandfather’s wristwatch
Or the nanosecond counter of your soccer
Mom’s computer seems unfazed by the
Quibbling among famous scientists
Who have irrefutably proven —in the lab anyway —
That it (time) will actually stop
At some point, like an old fashioned watch left on the nightstand
While the owner lies in bed with the flu, negligently
Allowing it to wind down, having no need
To wear it today — less, actually to even think about time
Since going to work is out of the question
And the entire focus of the known universe has narrowed
To a bowl of chicken soup, a slice of toast
And later, whatever that means, a cup of tea
Which will sit beside the unwound watch while
The patient sweats out his fever and dreams
Awkward, remarkable dreams that feature friends
And events from his childhood and seem so immediate and real
Glimpses of which he may remember hours or days from now
When, getting unsteadily ready for the office
He will expand the gold-plated band of the real gold watch
And, as he always does before slipping it over
His hand and into place on his wrist, read the
Inscription on the back: To Max, Love Bertha, 1943.
Speak to me with
Your mouth close to my mouth
With the balm of your kiss
Beating in waves that swell
And recede with each breath,
Breath that falls upon
The rough skin of my face
And draws apart my lips
With quiet force and irresistible desire,
A breath that ignites embers
Left by your last kiss
Replacing crumbling death
With the soft pulse of air that is yours alone
Intimate with every molecule
Of your blood, your long body.
Speak to me with words that
Fill my mouth with the taste of you
Breathe shuddering life into me like a rescuer
Until all other tastes and smells and sounds
Fall away with everything else of the past
And all notions of time disappear
Leaving only this moment complete and whole
Filled with a meaning that has nothing at all
To do with the meaning of words.