Monomania (from “Specter”)

The thing about bruises is that they heal.

He beat the dog indiscriminately with the vacuum tube, and then dragged it by the collar, nearly choking the thing as it cowered close to the ground. It happened in a matter of two minutes, maybe three.

They married on leap year. The way he tells the story is that they eloped. He says he didn’t know that it was leap year and that this date would disappear for the next three years. His children teased him, “What a way to get away with not buying presents but every four years,” even though this same time every year he remembers. He remembers that she carried a rag doll and wore a yellow dress when he came for her and took her away.

Not knowing is not the same as not remembering.

Even if someone had taken photos of the battered dog, no one would have believed that this sweet, ordinary man could have done such a thing.

Even if someone had taken photos of the dog’s scars, who would match them to the hands of this ordinary man? These hands that caress the cat’s belly and slowly stir the contents of the soup can into the pan? No one remembers what started the heat of his anger that day he left battle marks on his dog’s bare legs.

No one who was there really knows.

He doesn’t remember exactly what kind of doll his young wife held as they held each other in the spare bedroom in the house of his navy mate, or what material the yellow dress was made of or if it was plain or decorated with checkers or flowers, or clasped closed or zipped.

Maybe when he slammed the vacuum tube against the dog’s body until it yelped and howled, he thought about the oil left sizzling in the pan, the boiling oil that popped and splattered on the skin of his arms and forehead.

It’s silly to say that one bruises easily. Bruises do not come easy.

When he was just a little boy, he sang little tunes for the American soldiers who handed him and the other hungry boys Hershey’s candy bars. He didn’t have a secret hiding place like other little boys. His cousin, the one with the mean streak, kept him safe from would-be-bullies and from the cruelty of the occupying Japanese soldiers.

He says that keeping pets is really a form of cruelty. That these animals were meant to run wild and free.

He swears he’s never laid a hand on any of his eight children. He must mean intentionally.

He swears he can’t remember such a thing. That even if you showed him photos, bruises don’t come easily.

His mean-streaked cousin, older than him by only four years, lived into his 40’s and not surprisingly, drank consistently.

At the time of the beating, Polaroid cameras were in fashion. But they were used (ordinarily) to record happy things – holiday celebrations, birthdays and costume parties.

A monkey that belonged to an army officer bit him in the leg when he was 11. He didn’t kill it or take it down or beat it over the head because he was still a little boy and the monkey wasn’t his pet.

He used to call the dog, when it was a puppy, Little Princess, before he gave it a real name. He doesn’t know that everyone remembers that.

When he was still a little boy, he called the occupying soldiers “Japs,” and those Japs – each one of them – were mean, through and through. Blew off the top of a woman’s head. Blew a man’s guts outs so that his little son tried for the longest time to hold them in.

Now that he’s an old man, he has a Japanese friend, an army vet, who never speaks of World War II, or any other war for that matter, but of more ordinary, mundane things.

After he beat the dog, he hid away in his office room – the one with the doorknob that doesn’t have a lock. He kept the door shut by inserting a little piece of cardboard between the door and the frame, so the dog couldn’t push it open. Even though the dog was too bruised to even try.

Now that he’s grown into an ordinary old man, no one dares to bring it up. He keeps the door of his office room open.


The Performance Artist (From the Collection “Specter”)

The Performance Artist

Dress in all off-white like the tint of the sand in the hourglass. Let your hair hang loose and sweep it forward. Do your make-up, as you like. Turn the hourglass over, hold still and repeat: specter, specter, specter, specter, specter, specter – stress on first syllable. You must draw out the words until three-quarters of the sand has past, and then – and only then – flip the hourglass over. Repeat the previous four times.

The performance takes enormous skill.

Arthur’s voice is a deep baritone. Not that it matters. The audience never hears him speak.

Sometimes I wonder why I bother. The movement feels so mechanical and the word monotonous. I wish I could sit in the audience from time to time and just watch someone else perform Arthur’s word.

As I write this I think specter, specter, specter, now willfully. It won’t let me be. Sure, my body moves, but specter does not. It repeats in exactly the same spot. I’m not aware of time, neither is specter. Make the audience conscious of the passage of time. Why not ghost instead? Specter will give them pause if it’s not a word they own. Hourglass will enrapture their eyes and ears until everything falls away except for silence, sand, and specter.

Arthur’s speech is slow. He walks with both hands in his pockets and his shoulders arched back. That’s all I really know about Arthur, aside from his script.

Specter is a word I must have seen before, or else why would it repeat over and over in my mind. I don’t recall where and when I saw it, but it calls to me for a reason. This reason must be to place it in a different context and in a different time so as to do what it was meant to do.

I told Arthur he has a voice too and that specter is not a difficult word to pronounce. He said he doesn’t have the patience to grow out his hair.

The audience seemed to respond with enthusiasm. This is what Arthur says. I don’t know if this is true because when I perform I am one with specter and the hourglass. He said he’s not comfortable with enthusiasm because this is not specter’s mood. We will try it with another audience in a different sort of venue.

We never speak of intent.

I tried a new experiment this evening. No, I did not alter the script in any fashion because Arthur insists that I follow the script word for word each time. I looked at Arthur as he sat in the audience, seeking signs of intent. He would probably disapprove of my tactics because he seems to think the performance, just as he has created it, carries itself in and of itself, but what matters is he is pleased with the response. The audience did not respond with that same enthusiasm as the audience of last week, that enthusiasm that makes him cringe so, and so Arthur has scheduled a repeat performance for this same audience for the same time next week. I’m concerned that this will taint the experiment because the audience will know exactly what to expect and are therefore sure to respond in the form of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The audience – not surprisingly – fell into complete silence throughout all five cycles of specter once again, just as Arthur had hoped. I suppose it doesn’t matter if their response is due to their familiarity with the same performance performed in the same manner. What matters is that they fell into complete, uninhibited silence. The one thing we normally fear is complete silence because we don’t know what the other one is thinking. Yet silence can be a good thing. That is what Arthur says.

Due to the success of my experiment, I tried it again this evening. I hope Arthur couldn’t tell. While he sat, absorbing the reactions from the audience as usual, he seemed oblivious to my engaging with his intent. I repeated specter, specter, specter, specter, specter, specter on exact time and this time it felt as if my heart broke into a million different pieces. No wonder the audience fell into complete silence.

I’ve decided to confront Arthur with a most serious concern. His name appears as both the Author and the Performance Artist on the playbill of each performance, his and his alone. It is said that some audience members question the authenticity of the performance as the name “Arthur” suggests one thing and the performance suggests another. Apparently, these astute individuals can sense that there is indeed an individual underneath all this hair and makeup, one who appears prone to intense feelings. I’m not sure if this is a good thing. Still, I plan on asking him to at least include my name on the playbill as the Performance Artist, even if my name should appear underneath his.

Which makes me wonder – can the audience not differentiate the performer from the performance or the author from the script?

And yet, what would Arthur do without me, and what would I do without his script?

I have decided I will create my own performance. Apparently, Arthur and I have begun to lose distinction. One young lady with her hair swept back in a bun came up to me after the last performance and asked me for my autograph. When I signed my name, she stared down at the signature and turned to her friend and said admiringly, “Look! I got the Performance Artist’s autograph!” and walked away content.

I will write my own performance. I won’t use the repetition of one word alone like Arthur does. I will use a unique arrangement of words. Or no words at all.

I haven’t kept up with the latest on Arthur. I don’t know if he found someone else to perform for him, or if he has finally taken up his own performance. His specter still haunts me.

I perform in complete silence now, letting my subtle movements project meaning. I allow them to graduate into grander gestures when called for, and to minimize to stillness at the strike of the clock.

Silence can be a good thing. My fans know me by my name, but are satisfied with my unreadable autograph.

Broken Spades

Performance of “God is in the Ceiling” (Excerpt) at the &Now Festival of New Writing 2011 UCSD

Two poems published in MLM Anthology: Broken Spades

Two of my poems, “Gob-smacked” and “The Smell of Wet Pavement” are now available in Midwest Literary Magazine’s latest print anthology, Broken Spades.. Check it out at:

Blank Hours

My cat – in playing-dead position, marble eyes rolled back – murmurs like a dreamer. Does she dream herself the prey in some exciting chase? Or is the fluttering of her eyes and the quivering of her lips merely a physical reflex?

The 22-year old man-child sits on the floor, dressed up in a sweater and tie. The camera stays on him for a painfully long time. He was born deaf and blind. No one ever tried to awaken him, or even teach him how to walk. He doesn’t dress himself. Is he capable of abstract thinking? When he spits and drools and slaps his cheek, is this a form of language, or merely a physical reflex?

With one leap, the philosopher throws himself from his window. Perhaps death’s delay is too much to take, and after years of deliberation in everything else, he is driven to literally take the leap.

If he prayed, he would pray: Shall I like most, die when death takes a hold of me, suddenly, or preconceived? We owe one death each. Should we not have some say about the time to pay?

Do not be sad when death arrives. Welcome and accept it, rather than revolting like a spoiled child.

The man-child can’t help spitting and dribbling.

There are worse things than death – you’ve seen. Like watching someone offer up more than the one death he owes, an unwelcome generosity.

Hand him a banana and he’ll consume it instantly, without mashing it between his fingers. He can never think up a tree, but he can feel one with his hands and climb up one with his feet without knowing it’s a tree.

If the 22-year old man-child could pray: What is this constant buzzing sound in the back of my head? Please make it stop, and if you do, I’ll stop slapping and scratching and crawling on all four of these things you call feet.

Trapped in a one-lunged body, the philosopher suddenly leaps out the window. They say it was a reflex, after several years of struggling with painful breathing and living. The physical body can only take so much.

He had no time to think.

I wonder what my cat now awake, and the man-child now asleep dream about in the blank hours.