By Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois
The old Italian sits in the café reading Pablo Neruda, a volume titled Fully Empowered, a bilingual edition, Spanish/English. His Spanish is a little stronger than his English, and he doesn’t like English, a crude, mechanic’s language. His brother is a mechanic in Long Island, NY. He’s been there many years but rarely writes, which disturbed their mother to the end.
The town swarms with salvage workers. The old Italian stops reading and peers out at the wreck of the Costa Concordia, named for harmony, unity, peace. Not much of that around, he thinks as he takes a tiny sip of wine.
The ship is on its legs again, but the starboard is muddy and horribly deformed. Like life itself, reflects the old man before he goes back to his reading. He reads with intensity—it helps keep his son out of his mind. His son also lives in the United States. His wife’s a drunk and a prescription drug abuser. He knows that this is very common in the United States.
His son’s father-in-law is “born again.” His mother-in-law has never been born, so things even out.
Drugs and alcohol don’t mix. His son’s wife falls asleep in odd places at odd times. His son decides to keep a record of her plunges into unconsciousness in a black-and-white composition book he finds on a bus. His son tears out twenty pages of some kid’s assignments before he gets to a blank page. His impression of that kid is that she’s not too smart and has loopy handwriting, and is a spoiled brat.
Wife has fallen asleep everywhere except in bed, his son writes, but then loses the heart to go on.
The Statue of Liberty rose before me as I climbed from steerage, as I would later climb subway stairs to my job in the garment district. The green statue in my blurry vision was a monster, like the ones my son would create in the movie industry. At that point I’d never even seen a movie but later, here was my son, making monsters.
I shrunk from the statue. Some burly Italian pushed me forward onto Ellis Island. I fell and tore my only pair of pants, already worn and frayed and dirty from riding on top of the train from Rumania to the ship in France. It was not a graceful entrance to America. It was, I later learned, Chaplinesque. I was, like Chaplin, a tramp with a funny hat.
The Statue seemed to tilt and fall over like a special effect in one of my son’s movies. But it was only me, sick, sentenced to quarantine for eight weeks, already a criminal, and I hadn’t even done anything.
The sun peeking through heavy overcast is the eye of a wild animal. I can’t quite make it out, but I believe it’s a Florida Cougar, endangered but not endangered enough, still dangerous. It stalks the old and weak. It stalks me, helpless as a lame rabbit, leaning on my cane, paralyzed by swelter. My vision is blurry, but my hearing is sound enough to hear it sneaking up on me.
It doesn’t need to sneak , but that is His way before He pounces, ravenous, his eyes bright.
Don’t Call Us
The Santa Ana winds shaped me. Their power sucked the cigarette from my fingers and drove it deep into chaparral. The fire was preordained. I could have stayed in Hoboken N.J. and the fire still would have blazed and spread, but the law apprehended me as if I were an outlaw, robbing banks or trains.
It was the wind that sucked the cigarette from my fingers. It’s not like I tossed it, all cool and cavalier. The western winds overwhelmed me, blew my garage open, sucked my tuba into the road, dragged it down the pebbly pavement. Sparks flew from its brass. The wind drove the sparks deep into the chaparral.
My skullcap flew from my scalp. How did God expect a silk skullcap to stay on when the Santa Ana winds blew? My grandfather’s fedora blew off his dead skull. His head was a block of grey clay, awaiting the pinch of my sculptor fingers to create something new from something old.
My cigarette was gone, my beret a Frisbee, my tuba a deformed sculpture, better than I could have made with torch and intention. I ran down the boulevard trying to catch up with it, but my tobacco lungs couldn’t beat a tuba in a foot race, a tuba that had played in marching bands and New Orleans funeral processions.
At age twenty-seven, my grandmother reclined on a tree limb, holding the eternal flame of youth. It glowed orange in her hands. But then the wind blew her out of her tree. The eternal flame set the orchard afire. The apples and cherries hissed, and blew up.
The wind blew carom boards down Topanga, out to the ocean. They skimmed across the surface on their way to radioactive Japan. I didn’t understand the meaning of youth or age. All I understood was the wind. I knew the wind would blow away everything of value or lacking value. It would all end up stuck on the branches of some bush. I didn’t need to go to school. The wind was my teacher. The wind would get fiercer every year. All human life would disappear.
The wind blew like it never did in Patterson, New Jersey. The wind blew out the windows of our home. My father, the engineer, sat at his desk while the wind sucked open all his drawers, scattered his business papers. Those papers were his life.
The wind turned coffee beans into bullets. Santa Ana stripped the tomatoes, the grapes from their vines. Italians and Jews cried together.
Tumbleweeds became deadly weapons, practiced hit-and-run and could never be identified. Hit-and-run tumbleweeds congregated at a local bar next to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, along with plastic heads stolen from Jack-in-the-Box.
In the future, recreational marijuana would be legal in Colorado but, in the meantime, I was going to prison. At least in prison, I would be safe, walled off from the powerful, destructive wind, untouchable.
In prison I became a writer of poetry and short fiction. One day, all the editors I had sent work to got together and sent me a letter. It said:
Do not send short stories that turn out to be all a dream.
Do not send stories in which the climax is the gruesome death of the protagonist or her pet.
Do not send poems featuring birds, feathers, flight or the unbearable lightness of being.
Don’t send us any poems that crassly exploit nature.
Do not send poems lacking elevated language.
Do not send poems that are funny but not poetic.
Do not send poems whose accounts of shattered childhoods play on our heartstrings.
Do not send poems that are too agricultural.
Do not send poems about deer in your fields. We don’t want to hear about storks or red-winged
backbirds (see above).
We don’t want to hear about all you have lost.
Don’t tell us about your captain raping you when you were in the Merchant Marine.
Don’t give us any material that comes from your ugly soul.
No memoir poems featuring drunkenness and debauchery.
No automatic writing or “channeling.”
No recycled mythology, western or eastern.
No hate. No excesses of love.
Nothing you would have written for your mother in elementary school.
Nothing from your fucking diary or journal. No diatribes against your ex-wife or husband.
No poems about your pet, alive or dead.
Nothing praising Jesus, especially: no Jews for Jesus propaganda. Nothing we would find in a
pamphlet in a toilet stall in a Greyhound bus station.
No poems about your travels on Greyhound buses. No poems whatsoever about “looking for
No poems about hunks you met on the train and had brief affairs with.
Do not send us illustrations, especially those of underwear models with six-pack abs, especially
if they are photographs of the hunk you met on the train, who fucked your brains out in your
No “Hallmark” sentiments. No fancy fonts, please. No bizarre spacings or other “experimental”
work—we’re no longer in high school.
No poems from high school students. No poems from high school dropouts.
No poems from people who fancy themselves Kerouac or Bukowski. No poems from women who
would like to fuck dead poets.
No poems with a cover letter that reveals you as a rank amateur, moron, or douche bag.
No poems about your pet, alive or dead.
No poems about your experiences on crack or meth. If you’re not Aldous Huxley, no poems
about your LSD trips, good or bad.
No poems about your paranoia after smoking too much dope.
No poems bashing your mother or father. No poems bashing your ungrateful children.
Come to think of it, no poems at all. No prose either.
Keep your lousy writing to yourself.
Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over six hundred of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for work published in 2012, 2013, and 2014. His novel, ‘Two-Headed Dog’, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition. He lives in Denver.