Indecision in the morning,
Action in the afternoon,
Regret at night.
The Dog Star
August hot vinyl seats scald sticking to the backs of bare legs
lips shriveled from sucking and shucking sunflower seeds
Blue-white days, bleached miles
like faded cut-offs on an old clothes line.
Window units whir and drip. Car’s overheated again.
Get out and walk, flip-flops dangling from hand
Leave behind a trail of shells. Pavement scorching feet
Fire hydrant sprays pelting cars
screaming barrio kids wet T-shirted backs
with no thought to draining water pressure, no thought
to banks of pre-World War II houses
That catch and burn and spread like schwag
Dime-bag slinging youth retreat to project gulags
nothing left but asbestos and ashes.
The firemen pull out an old lady’s body
Curled and withered up like my lips after a bag of seeds.
My cottonmouth tastes prayer.
If the hill is an altar, this is our burnt offering
Flame-colored sunset garlanded in smoke
and dog-headed gods that toke and smile down
at the annual crop of strays they send to wander
begging up and down the alleyways
Sirius yips and capers overhead
The moon his water bowl
Dragging his hindquarters across the night
and drooling for the dead.
Every month has its cruelties, executors of time’s sentence
Marching us across seasons of brutality and torpor.
On our knees in the mulch, where memory is not the same
As desire, we clear a nest of dead stems
And behold the emergence of perennials.
It’s hard to believe there are things that come back.
Tornado sirens ushered in the season:
There was no Starnbergersee for us, no Hofgarten,
No colonnades. We ate frozen or fried things
In Formica kitchens. The chain link yard was confining.
Although, it cannot be denied: Ich bin ein Berliner.
Becky’s father was there when the wall came down.
He kept a bit of it in a shadow box.
Until I was eight, I had nightmares about acid rain,
Even as I took your hand and we splashed, in our jelly shoes,
Through the puddles and rills. We took our sweets
With Red Dye 40 and our milk in BPA cups.
In the living room, late-night television flickered
Gray and white over intent faces.
Even the static of blank channels, the test patterns
Shaped our inner landscape.
Where were the stars we wanted, the snows and rainbows
That governed our hours? Were we the keepers of the shadow box?
During re-run season, we’d eat hotdogs at the drive-in.
I read paperbacks in the afternoon and went nowhere.
Children of men,
This garden is a battleground of rising weeds.
We gas up the mower, scrub out the grill.
This is the shed of our insurrection, filled with fireworks
And fertilizers. Here is the delving water grass, the thistles
That must be pried up with a trowel,
The insects that skitter at the ferocity of our siege,
The ant stakes we bury at the corners of the house,
The citronella torches, the carpet bombs of DEET.
This is not the tropics, yet quinine fortifies me.
I garland my bunker with mosquito netting and
Bite the heads off matches, intent on breathing sulfur.
Even these fumes cannot fend off the trees of heaven.
The things you don’t want to return invariably do.
In mere weeks, they spring up to looming height,
Too spindly for shade, brittle fingers reaching for their namesake,
Their wing-like leaves transparent,
Hollow trunks unable to withstand cyclonic winds,
Their roots intolerable, disrupting our foundation.
When we lop them off with a weed whacker, the pungent smell carries,
Infects my gloves. I bundle the remains in twine and set them on the curb.
Two years after Chernobyl,
Two years after the Challenger,
It’s still a season of debris.
Yellowstone nearly succumbed to fire and drought.
In ’89, the floodgates opened and we witnessed
A new wave of sprawl. This fecund leviathan,
Throwing litters of strip malls, acres of plowed earth
Offered up to the concrete mixer.
The housing associations promised us any color
As long as it was beige. At dusk, the deer came out,
Casting long shadows over the ex-field.
It made Tiananmen Square feel like déjà vu,
This refusal to be cowed by bulldozers.
After school, the boys played in the mounds,
Setting up ramps and riding their bikes along red clay peaks,
Copperheads fleeing before their wheels.
Shoes in hand, they walked the pipe across the creek
And caught the last of the crawdads.
After Memorial Day, the pools reopened.
We gathered at the cul-de-sac to wave goodbye to our neighbors.
So many families departing for Disneyland, Lake Tahoe, Maui,
Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Black Hills.
We agreed to collect their mail, then went back inside.
Departures unnerved us. We hacked our jeans into cut-offs,
Trying to delay the window unit. There’s that other wall we know,
The black wall that runs us into the ground.
All the old ones who went to Germany and the Pacific have already gone.
The ones who stood in the breadlines, gone.
It’s amazing what starts to look good when you’re hungry enough,
Baking loaves out of grass, falling famished upon the stones.
Now the ones who went to Saigon grow old,
The women who danced naked at Bethel, mud caking their breasts.
Then came the ones who stood at the front of my classroom
In their dust-colored fatigues, talking of burning oil rigs
And rations that heat up in the desert sun.
Next is us. After us, it will be someone else,
And then someone else after that, until no one is left.
On Memorial Day, we got sunburned,
On Memorial Day, we got swimmer’s ear.
The chlorine tinted your blond hair green.
Every year, we come back to the diving board,
Every year, we lay plastic wreaths at the foot of the tomb.
Today is Monday. Lunch will be fish tacos. None of these people know how to cook fish, let me tell you. Everything ends up sushi, cooked only a little. We use hot sauce packets to cover the rank flavor and eat it between two slices of bread. You can choke it down that way. But after I choke it down, I will start to gather ingredients:
2 bags of plantain chips and 1 bag of pepperoni slices, purchased at commissary
Chicken (provenance unknown, paid for with postage stamps) nuked in a common room microwave and chopped
1 bag of shredded mozzarella cheese (again, don’t ask)
Portion arroz amarillo, cooked separately in improvised boiler (Rice made using wild onions dug from the yard and Top Ramen chicken flavor packets. Boiler fashioned with plastic container, nail clippers, a power cord, and a prayer)
1 microwavable bowl
Directions: mash plantain chips with salt and water to desired texture and use to line the bowl. Alternate layers of cooked chicken, pepperoni and mozzarella cheese. Heat in microwave until cheese melts.
Guys will tell you it’s the best mofongo they’ve ever eaten. I make it better than my ex-wife. When I taste the plantain flavor, I can close my eyes, and be back in Luquillo.
Make a big batch on Friday evening and eat all weekend.
But it’s only Monday.
Life Support, or
Things no one tells you about dealing with a terminally-ill spouse
1. When someone first uses terms like “terminally-ill” and “life support” in connection with your spouse, it kind of takes your breath away. That feeling of breathlessness? Get used to it. You will become intimately acquainted with panic attacks, and the lightheadedness that accompanies opening hospital bills and seeing the six-figure balance due.
2. This is where you and sleep part company. Your body goes into a state of high-alert, snapping awake every two hours so you can check to make sure he’s still breathing, that all the machines are running as they should. Without his treatments, the doctors say, he would be dead in eight days. And the next thing you know, you’re sobbing into a towel at 2 a.m. on the bathroom floor so no one will hear you.
3. You wish he’d hurry up and die already so his suffering can be at an end—and so can yours. With this thought comes suffocating guilt. You think every day about leaving and you wonder what sort of person that makes you. You hear stories about people who abandoned their loved ones, husbands, wives, fiancés, boyfriends, girlfriends, and you gain a horrible understanding. You don’t want to be like them; but you understand their choice.
4. Death, like grief, does not happen all at once, but comes in stages. The hardest thing is losing your best friend, though I don’t mean the final loss. It’s everything that comes before. You lose him by inches. The specter of death has a way of distancing you from the person you love. Becoming a caregiver means you stop being a lover or a partner. The playing field irrevocably shifts when one person becomes so dependent upon the other. Pretty soon, the expanse grows so wide, he’s in a whole different country. You can meet up at the border, but you don’t speak the same language anymore.
5. Once, I didn’t understand how people who’d been married for any length of time could just up and remarry after their spouse dies. Now I do. When you have to prepare yourself for the eventuality that they will die, you grieve for them. You grieve for them while they’re still alive. By the time death comes, you’ve already moved on.
6. For everyone, grief looks a little different. For me, bereavement was lying on the couch watching silent films because I couldn’t tolerate speech. My grief felt ancient, like something that predated the first lichen that clung to newly formed rock. My grief felt like something primordial, like the season of bonfires and altars that brings the tang of apples and burnt leaves charred to flecks on the October air. My days were filled with a strange, hollow-eyed calm that attracted children and dogs. I was told I made it look “easy.” The truth is, I was paralyzed by rage and violent thoughts, and the exhaustion that came of holding such thoughts in check so I could smile and pet poodles and toddlers, and all the little creatures that have no notion of their own fragility.
7. Death does come for the young. Once, we imagined our end would be something fiercely transcendental and cinematic, exiting on a bolt of lightning that would render our bodies back to atoms, or else, we would go out like Muppet wise men, imparting lessons to our protégés before winking out under our blankets. But we’ve learned since then that dying, much like life, is far messier than that, dominated by fluids and aches, and tacky syrups poured out on spoons, and that time he vomited blood on my new winter coat. There’s bedpans and puke, but there’s also alcohol and bleach, hand sanitizer, rubber gloves and face masks. The scent of a sterilized room makes you gag almost as swiftly as a dumpster.
8. There is not a support group for everything. Cancer gets all the press, so if you have something other than cancer, you’re on your own. And you’re even more on your own if you’re under thirty.
9. You want to throttle the next phlebotomist who blows a vein in his arm. And the insurance company, and the pharmacists, and that surgeon who sent him home too soon which caused him to get an infection that almost killed him. You could claw their eyes from their heads.
10. You’re willing to do anything – anything — to help ease his suffering. Legal, illegal, moral, immoral. Those words have lost their meaning here.
11. You’re young and you still have sexual needs. They do not go away because your loved one has gone all puffy from steroids, with tubes in his stomach and a PICC line in his neck. I spent two and a half years chasing solace in the arms of others—a dozen, two dozen, I lost count. Some of them were perfect strangers. None seemed to realize they were taking a ghost into their beds.
12. Becoming a ghost means you are more sensitive to the spirit world. I watched angels drift along ceilings and demons cavort in the shadows of my long nights. But when you talk to them, only the demons talk back.
13. Coming back from the dead means you’re still trailing a scent of brimstone. Even now, I am in a constant battle with the icicles that send their shoots along my dendrites, the Snow Queen shards lodged in my eyes. You want to let go, but you don’t want to forget. I’ve steeled myself against so many battles that this armor has nearly replaced my skin. I’m trying to retrain it so it can become soft again. I’ve been living at such intensity that I don’t know how to stop vibrating. I met a woman who told me her fiancé had died after a year’s illness, and all I could say was, “Be grateful he went fast.” At the same time, I feel like I have no skin left at all. I still start up from night terrors and jump at sudden noises. After you’ve been death’s hostage the way I have, you forget how to be human, but at least, when I go to hell, I’ll be able to look Satan up and down and sneer, “Is that all you got?”
Victoria Crawford says
I really like Dog Star and your vivd imagery down to the dog’s dragging hindquarters (usually means worms in my dogs). The Dog Star in African mythology is so vivid as well.
Lauren Scharhag says
Thank you, Victoria! I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. I didn’t know that about African mythology– I’ll have to do some reading.
Wow. I don’t read much poetry at all, but I thought all of these were very good. I hope “Life Support” was not written from first-hand experience. I would be interested in reading some of your fiction. Great work.
Lauren Scharhag says
Thank you, Mike. Unfortunately, “Life Support” does come from first-hand experience. My husband went into renal failure and was on dialysis for three years. He received a transplant five years ago and is doing well now. I hope you do get a chance to check out some of my books and/or short stories, and that they don’t disappoint. Thank you again for your interest and your kind words.