A Pun in the Punchline

My Story, Your Choice. Watch, Listen, or Read:

We met in the conference room at the back of the building, a small room with a table that reminded us of a surfboard. It was the only room free at that time; inexplicably, every other room on campus was booked from 4 to 6 on Tuesdays. The professor had looked, had gone through each of the college’s ten buildings, across campuses on either side of the river that cleaved our town in twain. He had searched, room by room, and had found nothing. Not even the abandoned dance studio was free, its broken mirrors and out-of-tune piano fodder for this semester’s course in advanced art therapy. There was only the surfboard room at the back of the student center. And so, that is where we met. That is where we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into a past where our school gave two shits about us and our stories.

It had been six weeks since Cain had missed his deadline and we’d had to punish him, but we’d been coming back to the topic of our having gone too far with increasing regularity. Sure, we were honor-bound to defend the syllabus’ rules and regulations — it was a contract, after all — but even the professor seemed to be feeling a bit of remorse. While he waited for us to file in each week, he kept his gaze fixed on the twenty-sided die and weathered D&D manual that had decided Cain’s fate. And when the workshop reached an impasse that seventh week, when silence took the room, the professor, before saying a word to get us back on track, he ran his fingers over the foxed, dog-eared pages of the old tome and let out a sigh.

And so it was that we were each assigned a piece of Cain to bring back for week eight.

Jules collected the right shoulder and arm from beneath the newsstand at Pickett Square. Azar retrieved the left leg from the floorboards of the crumbling Episcopalian church at Philbrick Circle. Me, I dug up the torso and left arm from where we’d stashed it beneath the flower bed outside the provost’s window. Corey found out where the right leg had run off to, but never told us. And the professor, he collected the head from atop the science building’s dome, skedaddling out of there just as the seniors were getting ready to reassemble the car of the dean of institutional advancement as part of their annual prank.

“Where did the dean find the money for a Beemer?” the professor wondered. We would find out at an all-campus meeting the following fall, when that dean rode off into the sunset with his embezzled fortune and we all got shipped off to other schools to finish our degrees. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Heads turned and noses were pinched as we strolled through the student center that eighth week, each of us with our heavy, malodorous burden. We drew the shades, we laid out the pieces of our comrade on the surfboard table, and we looked to the professor for guidance on what to do next.

“Well, it’s such an exquisite corpse,” he told us, looking at me, “that I think you should decide what happens next.”

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Closer to You

My Story, Your Choice. Watch, Listen, or Read:

Thumb and forefinger are pressed tight around the pencil, and I can’t tell if I’m staring at them or at the eye I’ve just finished drawing. Your eye, which doesn’t look at me, which never has, not even here on my canvas, where I could make you look. Where I could make you.

But I want the truth of you, so I don’t.

My vision blurs as I shift focus between the pencil and you, you and the pencil, as I am mesmerized both by the creation and the thing that created it. I wonder suddenly how many of these I have tucked away in the drawers beneath my drafting board. I wonder if there are enough boxes of them to get me through the rest of my miserable life. I swear that I will never draw with anything else, though of course I’m old enough — wise enough? — to know that’s a lie. Just as I know it’s a lie to believe that the eye that looks out from this canvas will ever look at me, even if I stand in a different place, or in a different way, or if I finally untuck my shirt the way your lovers do.

Once upon a semester, our class sat in a circle, enormous sketch pads propped precariously on our laps, and we were tasked with drawing the face that sat opposite us. And there you were. And there I was. And I have always wondered if the face you captured was smiling goofily at the opportunity he’d been given, or if his eyes were instead cast downward, the tip of his tongue clutched between his teeth as tightly as the bridge of his nose was clutched between the wrinkles of his furrowed brow.

The picture of you I captured that day is the one I’m still trying to draw now, the one I’ve started over and over and over again. And the words of our teacher ring my head, his declaration that drawing from a secondary source like a photograph or another painting would forever keep us from the truth of our subject. But I think he was wrong. He has to be wrong, because every balled up piece of paper in the waste bin of my life feels like it’s gotten me closer to you. The eye is almost looking at me now. Almost.


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All They Do Is Show You've Been to College

My Poem, Your Choice. Watch, Listen, or Read:

Punctuation painted upon pines,
a forest of question marks and
Semicolons, too.
I want to text my
English teacher,
tell her,
“If it’s good enough for graffiti,
it’s good enough for me.”

But she suckled
at the teat of Vonnegut,
who tells us that the mark
is a transvestite
as if that’s a bad thing.

Maybe I’d like to be spooned by
a person in a dress with
half a penis
and a cave
not meant for exploring.

Or maybe I’d like to be
in bed with my wife
dreaming of a me
without wrinkles
or folds
to get lost in,
instead of here
at this keyboard
trying to decide if
or when
or what comes next.

Lincoln said that
for him,
punctuation was
a matter of feeling.
He called the semicolon,
“a useful little chap.”

But I’m no president,
no Vonnegut.
There’s no Indiana boyhood
in my veins
or in the brains
I wrack now
to find an ending
for this thought that began with
a picture of question marks on trees,
with the question that wakes me
each morning
before the sun has its chance;
maybe a log cabin is
what I need.

The Price

My Story, Your Choice. Watch, Listen, or Read:

He delivered the bodies to the riverbank at sunrise, when the opposite shore was aflame in the light of a new day. And as he waited for the ferryman to arrive, he lit himself a cigarette and inhaled deeply the poison he hoped would soon make him a passenger on his cart instead of the driver. With the butt pressed between his lips, he fumbled in his pockets for the six coins he'd need. Presently, the palming and patting and clutching grew faster, more furious. The first five had been easy enough to find, but by the time he caught sight of the ferryman dragging her skiff ashore, the sixth coin was still missing.

He kept his eyes on the damp hem of the ferryman's robes until the woman had drawn to a stop and rasped, “They are not ready.”

Eyes still focused on the robes, on the sand that had clung there, he said, “I’m one coin short.”

“Which stays then?”

He looked now at the ferryman, at the pallid, gaunt face she kept hidden beneath her hood, and he pleaded for mercy.

The ferryman plucked the cigarette from his mouth and pressed it between her own lips, taking a long, slow drag.

“They all must go,” he said. “I am paid to make sure of it.”

She handed him back the cigarette, stained at one end by the paint upon her lips. “If you are paid,” she said, “should I not be?”

He pat himself down again. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I swear I had it.”

She took hold of his arms, stilling him with both the strength of her grip and with the iciness of it. “We may yet reach a bargain,” she said.

“My soul in place of the final coin,” he guessed, shrugging off her grasp. “That is no bargain.”

“But I see it in your eyes,” she said. “I tasted it on that poisoned teat from which you suck. And besides,” she said, taking gentle hold of his hands again, “it is not the whole of you that I seek. It is just a piece.”

“And which piece might that be?” he asked.

She lowered her hood, squinting in the bright morning light as she did. And then she undid the clasp at her neck and pulled off the robes entirely, holding them out for him to take.

He could not help but gawk at the slight form before him, the waif in the white dress who looked positively diminished without her robes.

“For how long?” he asked, running the coarse fabric of the robes through his fingers, noticing only now the places on her pale skin that had been rubbed raw by her accoutrements.

She smiled at him, and in that smile he saw the truth of it.

“Until I am owed,” he said. It was not a question.

He watched her dance across the sand as he pulled the robes onto himself. Then he carried the bodies one by one to the skiff and set them inside. And it was only then, as he stepped back to give the cart one last check, one last goodbye, that he saw it laying in the sand, nestled into the print of one of his boots: the final coin.

He picked it up, held it above his head, and shouted for the woman who'd worn the robes, but she was gone. Long gone.

Books & Letters

My Story, Your Choice. Watch, Listen, or Read:

When he sees her pulled from the register to reshelf things, he finds himself a dark corner in the stacks in which to hide. It doesn’t matter which corner — yesterday it was between Weight Loss and Human Sexuality, today it is amidst the tomes of Religion and Philosophy — but he must hide. He cannot see her.

Three days ago, he mailed the letter to her house. He didn’t know where her locker was at school, after all, so how else was he supposed to do it? And for three days now, he has waited, waited for her to find him and give him an answer. As he stands there, thumbing through The Celestine Prophecy, he imagines he could make it easier for her, but he’s scared he would drop a book on her foot again. For, like, the fifth time. She always tells him that it doesn’t hurt, but she’s stopped wearing shoes with open toes now, so he knows what’s what.

Hem, hem,” comes a voice from behind him.

He slaps the book shut and jams it rudely into the first empty spot he sees.

A squat woman dressed all in pink step toward him.

“I’m on my break,” he tells her.

“For how much longer?” she asks, nodding discreetly toward the cafe that fills out the back of the bookstore. There is a line forming there, he sees.

Just as he is about to respond, the girl rounds the corner with her cart and they lock eyes.

The woman in pink looks from boy to girl, from girl to boy, and gives her head the smallest shake. She walks away.

“I’m on my break,” he tells the girl.

“Okay,” she says.

“It’s almost over.”

“Right,” she says, ducking her head and nodding. And then, when a lock of hair falls down from her neat bun, she tucks it behind her ear, looks up at him one last time, and nods.

He stands there until she’s shelved the book in her hand, until she’s taken the cart and pushed past him onto whatever comes next. It is only when he hears the “Hem, hem” one more time that he remembers his role and dashes off to play it.

At school the next morning, when he opens his locker, the letter is there, wedged into the slats at the top; he’s surprised he didn’t notice the edge of it jutting out before he opened the door.

He holds it for a second, the letter, as his classmates crowd around him, nudging their way toward their own lockers in the cramped hallway. But he pays them no mind, doesn’t respond to their elbows or their glares. He needs to take it in.

The envelope has been opened neatly, cut at the top by a letter opener he imagines she stole from her father’s office. And his letter is there too, but there’s a smaller piece of paper, a purple one, wrapped around it. And she’s scrawled a note upon it.

There’s someone else now, reads the first line. I’m so sorry.

But it’s the second that gets him, the words that appear just above her looping signature: The books hurt less than this does.

He tosses his own letter back into his locker, then folds hers into a neat square. He stuffs it into his wallet, hides it in a corner so dark that even he will forget where it is.

Except that he will always know it is there. Always.