Looking up at an endless stipple of stars in my sky, and a single question tears at me: how do you light a Marlboro with hands like crushed pomegranates?
After twenty-nine years of getting hit and hitting back, it all boils down to the execution of simple tasks.
Case in point: just getting to the cig means nudging it up from my chest pocket with shaky, shredded knuckles so my teeth can fish it out, and even then I have to attack it from the side with molars. When you run your tongue along the cherries jubilee of jagged roots that were once your top and bottom incisors, you have to think outside the box, a side-effect of which is the rekindling of dormant memories. Six years back and three weeks into my first stint in McCreary, the very same broken-glass sensation lingered long after the crowns had been put in. Phantoms, they’re called. Nerves screaming their accounts of renounced body parts in pitch-black rooms. A reminder that the human body is little more than a roving, spongy container for ghosts.
Read about that in an AMA journal. About the phantoms, I mean. Not much to do on the inside but read your fill and fall in step with time’s heartless pulse. That first stretch, conjured out of some overblown vehicular misunderstanding involving the police while the boy was still in his mother’s belly, I busied myself dissecting the dictionary front-to-back between soaking up my weight in prose. Misters Chandler and Azimov were eagerly devoured between bench-presses, brawls, and the occasional muled reefer.
By my last stint, I could parse Hamlet and Macbeth to give the average Oxford don a run for his money. Turned out that words and I were a more natural fit than man ever was. It’s one of the few contradictions I ever got comfortable with.
As to the reasons I wound up penned on all those subsequent occasions, there were only bureaucratic ones. Nothing moral. Wasn’t a person who got thrashed that didn’t deserve it in the biblical sense. Missed the boy’s birth as a consequence though, along with the C-section that nearly killed Jenna. Over the next two years, she would bring the chubby little bundle along for visits, and she’d mail the occasional picture, but I don’t know him. Not how a father should. Only been on the outside for four of his ten years. The other six subsisted on daydreams and the scribblings of dead men, gazing out a tiny meshed porthole at a slow fan of constellations, hesitant of rejoining the world as an understudy.
Three teeth were vacated from my mouth on that first brawl. Far as I can recall, it was over a curl bar disagreement, of which there would be quite a few more. Had I occasion to do it over, I would’ve left them broken at the gum line as reminders to pick and choose my battles more wisely.
My sitting on this curbside at the moment doesn’t quite qualify as an example of such indiscretion, what with my blood and memories dribbling into a coursing gutter while the bar’s sign winks nasty in the corner of my eye. But neither are there intentions on fixing these freshly smashed teeth—four on this night—which should nullify any further excursions to the prison orthodontist on my next stretch, which is now a certainty.
Lee’s, the sign says in large, yellow block letters. As much a declaration of status as proprietorship. A simple marker garnished with stars shooting from the loops in the letters, forming a pattern surrounding the name. Even the apostrophe’s a star, the biggest one of the bunch. Jenna once told me the scientific term for the patterns stars make in the night sky, but damn if it’s not coming to me at the moment. For what it’s worth, I remember her saying once after lovin’—in what I assumed at the time to have been the very session that yielded the boy—that space is an endless, expanding womb where galaxies and stars, planets and comets, gametes and lust smash into each other to either create or extinguish life.
To which we can now add: Hands colliding into faces to alter gravities.
Spent years trying to remedy that, and now it’s all moot. My hands are fountainheads of agony—pulverized, misshapen lumps incapable of any further betrayal. The inside of my head burns and clangs like an off-plumb radiator. Brain cells, much like friends and opportunities, are a finite allotment, and I’ve officially burned through my quota and then some.
No way Jenna’s taking me back. Not after this. No one stays after this. Not with the boy to consider.