Dean Young

Bay Arena

When I worked in the bookstore in Berkeley,
upstairs some woman would sing, alluring
as lava, husky as tar, sometimes it'd be
a whole band driving us a little crazy
downstairs because even good music
heard through a ceiling gets nerve-wracking,
a constant strain to make a whole of it,
catch the lyrics slurred by plumbing prattle
and footfall like you're getting complicated
directions over a bad connection or trying
to figure out just why it is you can't
divide by zero. But I'd say to Michelle
who did the ordering and sometimes would
ask me should she order The Wasps of
Puerto Rico, 55 bucks a shot, and I'd say
No way, it'll rot on the shelf like
everything else in Latin America
what with the jungle, poverty, and burn off,
so she'd order three and they'd sell
immediately. More stuff to mess up the store.
I hated customers, how they charged in, tusks
dismantling the alphabet, ranting, raving
in the thick accents of demand, something
about Puerto Rico, something about wasps
as if I was wired individually to each book
and in back, they're stuffing Treasuries
of Haiku in their pants, ripping covers off,
who knows, twice I found empty flaps, volumes
by Ricoeur who said I think, Everything is
profoundly cracked, although it might have been
an epigraph he used by someone else because
that's all I ever got to read, an education
of pithy, lost snippets, always trying to do
a million things at once, our filing system
like something out of Kafka, smudgy
index cards organized by press, don't mix up
a slash with a check, so I'd have to explain
and search through Books in Print because they'd
forgotten their glasses but really they were
people looking for books who couldn't read!
So I'd say to Michelle in the quiet hour
between 3 and 3:15, Man, that girl can sing,
and she'd just uh-huh because she too lived
upstairs and even Pavarotti would get sickening,
all that passion coming through a wall when
you just want to eat your green beans, watch
a little TV. I mean all music verges on pure
irritation, noise, wearying, weary. Michelle
feeding her turtle ripped up lettuce. Turtle
called Myrtle of course who it was okay
to bring to work, at least she wasn't breast-
feeding at the front desk the way L did who
was finally fired not only for not doing a thing
but fouling up everyone else. I mean there you are,
trying to calm a customer and she opens her blouse,
ladles out this enormous breast, it had a tendency
to knock out everything from anyone's head.
Eternally nonplussed creature, I mean this
turtle who I liked all right but how close
can you get to a turtle? It pulls its
head in, pushes it out, blinks--mostly
I worried about stepping on it then
some guy comes in waving a jar of Prego,
screaming about the New Deal and, This is it,
I think, I will die in Berkeley in a splatter
of extra thick sauce, a corona of glass
spread out like my incomplete poems,
my brains spilled out like sensibility
as outside the street starts percolating
in the gelling light. Soon the protesters
will be throwing rocks at the gym because
a volleyball court's finally gone into
People's Park like the university's been
threatening to do through the ages of Aquarius
and later cops shooting wooden pegs but
that afternoon I'm getting my falafel
lunch at the caboose on Bancroft from
the guy who always asks me how I'm managing
and tells me how he's sleeping, not too
good, who could these days, and I say Amen,
handing over my 2.25, giving this Arab
a more mixed message than I intend and
the guy in the tutu and evening gloves,
the Love-Hate man with rouge in his beard
is matching the blustering fundamentalist
syllable by syllable: for every hell a bell,
every damnation a dalmatian, shadow for
shadow, wagging Bible against wagging
New Age Singles, satori, samsara, and then
I hear her like smoke my mother blew in
my ear when I had an earache and I strain
against what lashes me to the mast. We are
stardust, we are golden, and there she is.
She must weigh 300 pounds, head like a glop
of Playdoh dropped on a mountain of smoldering
hams, feet immense puddles in those specially
designed fat shoes that lace on both sides
and that voice like a swan hatching from
a putrid egg and people tossing change
into a tambourine, arrhythmic accompaniment
to the drummer who closes his eyes,
the guitarist who closes his eyes,
the music passing through us all like
some frail filament driven through a pole
during a hurricane, through all our barriers
of tissue toward outer space, the rapacious
gardens of stars from which we've fallen,
shuddering cores of cinder, whirlwinds of ash.
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