My New Year’s Resolution, Etc.

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After being sick with the flu all of Christmas week, I got knocked out of my blogging groove. This was not a fun flu. I had a constant headache, was throwing up, nauseous, dizzy, and my whole body was in pain, especially my lower back. I could only lie in one place for an hour or so before having to get up and go somewhere else. Most of the time I spent on the recliner, unable to deal with noise or light, and I couldn’t read or draw or write because those activities only made my headache worse. It ended on Christmas day, which I spent alone, doing the last edits and rewrites of my novel, Ramblin’ Fever. I finished completely last night, and sent a copy to Erica, who’s offered to edit, and write a good synopsis and agent query. Hopefully something’s in the works by the time I get back to Berlin, January 11th, but no pressure. I’ll never rush to publish a novel again. I learned my mistake with Fortuna Berlin, which could’ve been so much better if I’d let the story sit and cure for about three or four years. My plan for 2018 is to either rewrite it, or start fresh on something similar. I also plan to keep up with this blog, and write some poems, and maybe fit some short stories in there too.

One thing about dividing your time between South Florida and Berlin is that wherever you are, it seems like you belong there and only there. I could be happy living full-time in either place, truth be told… IF… I had my loved-ones with me. The problem is I miss my son and Erica when I’m here, and I miss my family that’s in Florida when I’m there. The first miss is worse than the second, but I make my money here. I get paid minimum wage over there. I worked too hard from 1995-2011 establishing my business here to accept full-time minimum wage work over there. So I will keep coming back to South Florida, just long so I have enough to scrape by over there. Living is cheap over there. With all my travel and vacations and child support payments and trips to the bar and dinners out, I spent less than $20,000 last year. But I’m a minimalist, let it be known. All I really need are the bare essentials, plus my art and writing materials, and books. And beer. Though this year I’m going to try to drink more wine. That’s my New Year’s resolution. Force more wine down my neck.

Here’s a poem borne out of my recent one-night vacation to Key West:

Bone Island Elegy

The first time I visited Key West
was over thirty years ago.
I have been back almost once a year ever since.
There’s something about the place
drawing me to it. Something in the glow
of the jade waters;
something in the salt winds
and bleached conch shells washed up in the sands;

something in the shadows of the swaying coconut palms
and the dreams of the derelicts sleeping under them.

It’s a kind of mysticism, but not without a touch of deep,
raw, almost palpable melancholy.
It’s always there, but you feel it most late at night,
after all the bars have closed, and the music’s gone out to sea.
A faint, almost imperceptible trembling in the silence
of the island.

Something breathing,
something alive but in great pain.
Something that never sleeps because it can’t.
Its breath cuts into you.

Maybe it’s the ocean bounding in on all sides.
Maybe it’s all those Indian bones under the island
or the warning signal of some ancient prophesy.

Or maybe it’s just the curse of beauty.
That soft curse
that lets you know
you’ve found it, that you are someplace
precarious and holy.

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John Wayne Grimes, 911 Hijackers & The Man Without a Face

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When I was in my late teens and 20s, I worked for my dad selling and delivering patio furniture at his store. I did it during all my breaks in college, and for a year and a few months after I graduated. Then I got all the money I earned together and used a Home Depot card, a Sears card, and several credit cards to open the tool rental shop in Boynton Beach, Florida. The total cost was about $20,000, and the business just barely got by for the first ten years, so to make extra money I worked for my dad at his patio furniture store on Sundays. This meant I had no days off all year except holidays because my tool rental shop was open from 7-5:30 weekdays and 8-2 Saturdays, and I couldn’t afford to pay for any help, not regular help anyway. I couldn’t even afford a mechanic in those days. I used to send my equipment out to be repaired by a half-Japanese, half-American fellow named John Wayne Grimes, who worked out of his garage in Boca Raton. Johnny, as everyone called him, reminded me a little of Bill Murray’s character in Caddyshack, except for the half-Japanese part. He stood about five-feet-eight, had thick mop of straight black hair, always seemed to have a shit-eating grin on his face, and wore his clothes slovenly, often with his shirt unbuttoned and his pale toad’s belly punching out. Johnny was the first in a line of several insane mechanics I’d worked with. I’m not exaggerating when I say insane. I remember one night I called him to find out the status of a couple concrete cut-off saws he was supposed to be repairing for me. He spoke to me in tongue. I didn’t know what he was saying. Something about burning circles and the river’s voice and combustible leather sofas and an apple fairy. He hadn’t taken his medication and had been smoking crack all night with Lil’ Bit, a petite twenty-three year-old Jamaican who worked as stripper at the now defunct Porthole, a strip club in a strip mall in Pompano Beach. They ended up getting in a huge fight, and Lil’ Bit called the cops. When they showed up, he was chasing her around the house, but she managed to escape through an unlocked door with another roommate, and Johnny barricaded himself inside. The standoff lasted almost fourteen hours, ending when he burst through a door like a Himalayan brown bear and began throwing Chinese stars at members of the Special Response Team. A beanbag bullet was then fired into his chest and a concussion grenade was thrown into the house. The officers, “armed high-powered weapons and wearing riot gear,”, according to an article in the Sun Sentinel, then stormed the house and arrested Mr. Grimes, taking him to an area hospital and then the Palm Beach County Jail. I don’t know how much time he had to spend in jail, but he did at least nine months that year in a madhouse, and I never got my two concrete cut-off saws back. One was a customer’s and he still brings it up whenever he comes into the shop, even though I compensated him for it. He likes to pretend the saw had sentimental value, which makes him feel I’m indebted to him forever.

When I began this blog, I hadn’t planned on talking about John Wayne Grimes or the tool rental business. Something happened yesterday that got me thinking about my days selling and delivering patio furniture. The dead body of a man was found. It was found behind the patio store I used to work at, along the canal. An old man who lived at the apartment complex nearby came upon it, and I’m trying to imagine the shock he must’ve felt. Earlier in the week he said he saw that same dead man, presumably alive, sleeping somewhere. But it was a very cold night, so the old man went into his apartment and got a blanket and draped it over the sleeping man. Two or three days later, seeing him again, the old man approached the reposing body and beheld the gruesome spectacle. The man’s face was now gone. It had been picked away by turkey vultures or some other wild creature. My mother told me this story last night. She got it second-hand from a friend of hers at the patio store.

“To think that that man was once a little baby,” she said. “Lying in the arms of his mother who could’ve been kissing him and giving him all the love in the world… if she only knew he’d end up like that!”

Which brings me back to John Wayne Grimes. His mother owned, and maybe still owns The Homing Inn, a hotel in Boynton Beach that a few of the 911 hijackers stayed at the summer before the attacks. I got this from a recent article in the Palm Beach Post.

Waleed Shehri checked into the Homing Inn in June and paid his $260 a week rent and deposits with a Visa card, records show. Shehri had at least two associates who slept in Room B-308. The men gave the impression they spoke little or no English, housekeeper Valrie Williams of Lake Worth said in September 2001. She said one always would stay at the room, sitting in a chair partly in the walkway and partly in the threshold of the open front door.

“I would talk to them,” Williams said. “They made like they didn’t want to talk.”

My tool rental business was only a few miles from the Homing Inn. My mechanic at the time, a drunkard named Kevin Wagner, lived just south of the Homing Inn, in a little efficiency behind Denny’s, where two other hijackers, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, were late-night regulars that summer.

Waitresses recalled serving two Middle Eastern men who complained about their bills and left meager tips. One was Atta.

Anyway, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. I guess because it gives me a strange kind of pride thinking about how the people responsible for the biggest, most world-shaking event of the 21st century – awful though it was – could’ve been anywhere on the planet, but were in my little no-event town, going to my haunts, dealing with people loosely associated with me and my tool rental shop, just weeks before it happened. What if I’d seen one or two of them out at a bar one night? What if I held the door for one of them at a 7-11? What if my mechanic, Kevin Wagner, had eaten at the next table over from them one late night at Denny’s? Maybe he did. Maybe he even heard their plans to crash into the World Trade Center but it was in an undertone and he was so drunk he forgot the next morning.

I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I’m sure it was the alcohol that did it. His organs probably just shut down. Kevin Wagner, who I write extensively about in the novel I have finished but have yet to do anything with, Ramblin’ Fever, died in 2010, at age 46. John Wayne Grimes died a few years before that. He was about 50. He was 41 when he got out of the madhouse, and you know what he did after that? He got a huge loan from his mother and opened a tool rental shop in Pompano Beach. It was successful from the outset, partly because he could buy whatever he wanted with his mother’s Homing Inn money, and partly because he had a great location. Also, he was good to his customers so they kept coming back. But then, after about five or six years, I started hearing stories from wholesalers and mutual customers about how gaunt and pale and terrible Johnny looked, and I thought it was because he was off his medication and on crack again. I’d call down there. He usually wasn’t around. He’d put some young Latino girl in charge of the place, and she was always vague about his whereabouts. Then one day in about 2008 I heard he was dead of AIDS. At first I didn’t believe it, but it turned out to be true. Did he get it from Lil’ Bit? Did he get it from someone before her? In the article I found on him in the Sun Sentinel, it says he was arrested 17 times between 1989 and 1997. Those arrests included solicitation for prostitution, drug charges and transporting of explosives. Could it possibly be true? Not the arrests, this: John Wayne Grimes, like the man without a face – a baby once – an infant, his mother holding him in her loving arms, kissing and coddling him, full of dreams for his future, completely oblivious to the tragedy she was nursing. I guess it always works out like that. One way or another we’re all tragedies.

Everything’s Gone Fake

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The old beauty has died.
To come back to your old hometown
and see something else has replaced it,
something new and soulless
and full of strangers.

Where did all your old friends go?
They’re not at the bars, the restaurants,
or any of your old stomping grounds.
They might as well be dead. They might as well never have lived.
This place has been taken over by someone else
and they’ve killed the old beauty.

To drive around and see little more than shopping centers
and fast food restaurants and parking garages.
Nothing authentic is left.
Even the palm trees and beach sands
seem somehow tainted.

Only the music on the radio is the same: The Eagles,
Boston, Foreigner. They’ve been bashing us over the head
with this tired drivel
for the last thirty or forty years
and no one seems to complain.
It’s as if they don’t hear it anymore.
They accept the drubbing and go on like automatons,
not listening, not seeing, not thinking or feeling.
More proof that the shabby will
of the businessman has conquered this place.
More proof artistry only matters if there’s profit in it
and the old beauty has died.

Or maybe it’s just been stolen. Subdivided and parceled out
among the rich.

All the rest of us get are shopping centers
and fast food restaurants
and parking garages.
With a few fake plants
thrown in.
.

Yes, yes, yes

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I drew the above portrait of a Cuban piñata maker with pen and gave it to my mother to get framed and hang up in her house, but she seemed leery. At least at first. She said she would rather have one of my self-portraits. This is a self-portrait, I told her. It’s not me, but my hand did the work, so it’s reflection of me. She replied with nothing memorable. My dad then asked if I was going to buy a frame for it. I shook my head. We laughed about it later. But now you see, THAT’S what I’ve been up against my whole life. My parents always had the best intentions for me, but they never really knew me. They still don’t. How could they? They were born blind to the one thing I was born for: art and poetry. I had to find that world myself, and go off and nurture it all on my own, persisting despite everything outside of me that said no, which was pretty much everything there was. The yes was inside me, deep, impenetrable, eternal – it was the only thing I had for many many years that made life worth living, or gave it meaning. I’m not being melodramatic when I say I would’ve been dead long ago – of booze or pills or some other self-destructive act – if I didn’t have that yes.

Conch Republic by M.P. Powers

My Poem, Conch Republic, out today at In Between Hangovers.

In Between Hangovers

In the clashing crosswinds
somewhere between Elysium and the Dry Tortugas,
our little rotten carcass of a boat
started taking on water, the thunder bursting,
salt-spray lashing our sides,
the deckhands bilging brine out the hold; and there was
no black ram
for sacrifice,
no bull’s blood for Poseidon,
no drink-offering for All-souls. “She’s split!” bawled
Tony Calimari, this big-assed, bean-fed greenhorn
from Jersey. “Lowah duh topsail!
I say she’s split!”

Now I do admit, I’d been battling greensickness in the rack
below, and tho’ I had my books
and so potent Art, I was no picture of island calm,
nor Saint Lucia breeze,
nor far-sounding Antigua. Yet I kept thinking
about Delacroix’s 14 paintings
of Christ on the Sea of Galilee,
the Amazonian blond at the Hogfish
Bar in Little Torch Key, and how the last thing I’d heard about
Wagner, he’d gotten a DUI
after slamming his motorcycle…

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Prose Poem: Don’t Try

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My old mailman Todd – the one who used to bring me all those rejection letters and bounced check notifications – I’ve been seeing him in the bars for more than ten years now. Always alone, wearing the same clothes – either a black shirt and white jeans, or vice versa. I saw him again last night. He was on the far side of the barroom, too far away to acknowledge, but I could see through the crowd a little reddish light falling on his neck and the side of his melancholy face. He’d grown old – he was almost fifty now, but his hair was still blond and he was still playing the same game, still searching for his savior, giving it a go in those same old going-out clothes. His uniform. His costume for the ladies. Sitting there empty and alone in it. Trying to give the impression that he didn’t mind his loneliness, and that everything was going according to plan. Even as the night started to slip out from under him. He must’ve known how it would end. Melted ice in the glass, an inch of watered-down bourbon. Taking the last swig of that rusty swill and having no one to say goodbye to. No one even noticing as he heads for the exit, ignominiously, like a mouse. He walks out into the parking lot. It’s lit up like a football stadium. Can’t you hear it? Can’t you hear the roar of the imaginary crowd? They’re cheering him on out there, mocking him as he stumbles towards his car, drunk, his going-out clothes having failed him again. And all next week sticking mail. That same old route, the same mechanical motions he’s gone through thousands of times before and will no doubt go through thousands more. Thankless, thoughtless, a repetition of repetitions. And then another well-earned weekend. Another chance for an angel. Todd will put on his white shirt and black jeans, or vice versa, and the reddish light of the crowded barroom, the whirling blank faces, the acoustic guitar music of a cover artist, tired old songs, sad songs, the melted ice and the inch of luke-warm bourbon in the bottom of the glass, the incriminating parking lot lights – everything but the angel will find him. They never show up when we’re looking for them. I know. I too have tried.

 

A Disgruntled Customer

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I feel like I might be giving the wrong impression about my customers because I only write about the jackasses and halfwits. I do have normal ones. Some I have known for fifteen or twenty years and have a great rapport with. But somehow they’re not as interesting to write about. How much can you say about pleasant interactions with pleasant people? It’s conflict and the unusual that keeps people reading. It’s customers like Hank H., who told my brother on the phone this morning to “Take care you fucken piece of shit!” You see, we’d reserved a 3000 p.s.i. pressure washer for him to pick up at 9 a.m. Unfortunately, the person who’d been renting the machine needed it another day and we didn’t have another one in that size for Hank. To make up for it, we offered him a stronger pressure washer, one that would finish the job twice as fast, for the same price. He rejected the offer. The stronger one, he said, guzzles too much gas and in the middle of the job he’d have to schlep to the gas station all wet and muddy to fill the tank. “You need to call the guy who’s got that damn thing and tell him to bring it back to the shop. Pronto! MAKE HIM use the bigger one! I WANT THE ONE I RESERVED!” Hank seemed to have forgotten all the times he’d rented a pressure washer from us and kept it longer than he said he would – inconveniencing others – and how most times we didn’t even charge him for the extra time. He was intent on getting the little pressure washer, the weaker one, the one that would take twice as long to finish the job and would probably use the same amount of gas or less with the reduction of working time factored in. His ire grew. Shouting occurred. Words. Too many flat words of little sense or meaning spilled through his soft, foaming lips and into the phone line. Finally, my brother told him we just couldn’t do business with him anymore and to call XYZ Rentals. “Oh I will,” said Hank, “I’ll give my business to ANYONE but you people.” (Hank’s business amounted to about $70 per year but he somehow perceived himself as invaluable to the company – he no doubt forgot urns and graveyards and river-bottoms are full of ‘invaluable’ people). “Okay,” said my brother. “Take care.” “Take care you fucken piece of shit!” Hank shouted, and hung up.

It was no surprise.

We’d seen signs of Hank’s anger before that, and had read an article in the Palm Beach Post archives about how he’d become enraged at a bar during a Monday Night Football game in 1992. Something about the line being too long and how he offered a dollar to an undercover cop to buy one of the beers in the bucket on his table. The cop said no. He told Hank to buy one at the bar like everyone else, and then some taunting went on. Hank began throwing napkins and swizzle sticks at the cop and his buddies, and the dollar bill went back and forth. Then Hank dumped his beer on the cop, pretended it to be an accident, and the cop slammed his hard fist into the side of Hank’s face, shattering his cheekbone. Hank now has a titanium plate holding the bones of his cheek together, but you can’t tell by looking at him. He looks soft, like a fellow who’s held an office job all his life.

Hank H. is 66 years old. He has long, slicked-back gray hair, a ruddy face, and wears an oversized, navy-blue jumpsuit when he pressure washes. He’s the only one I’ve ever seen to wear such a thing while pressure washing. That’s part of the reason we Googled him. We had to know more. No one in his right mind – not in the subtropical Florida heat – would pressure wash in that grim and suffocating outfit.

O-Lan, you are the earth.” ~ The Good Earth (1937)

Hank had been coming into the shop about once or twice a year for the past five years and I don’t know where he’s going to go now to rent a pressure washer. All I know is that he’s going to be cursing us out until he’s satisfied he’s done it enough, which won’t be anytime soon. On the job he’s about to do – every pull of the starter rope, every swipe he makes with the pressure washer wand, every stinging bead of sweat that falls from his eyelid to the sleeve of his jumpsuit – will be dedicated to hating us. He might even curse himself too for not taking up our offer for a stronger, quicker-working machine at the same price. But by then there will be no olive branch, no olive, not even a branch – nothing at all. Rotten thoughts, rotten life. Circumstance follows the way a man thinks like his shadow.

Poem: The Stumpgrinder

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He used to sell pumpkins
from a tent
off Lake Worth Road.
Now he grinds
stumps for a living.
Johnneyboy.
That’s what he calls himself.
Forty-five
years old.
Standing in the middle of the shop.
Butch-haired.
Wrong
shoulder higher
than the
right, left leg
longer than the other.

Eyes
of an axe-
murderer.

He looks like
a grass
lizard,
a mud turtle –
something
that functions
better
when it’s crawling
on the ground.

His cellphone
rings.

He dredges it
from his voluminous pocket.
Looks at it.
Drops it back in
unanswered.

His keen,
bushy eyebrow
raises
itself.

“Evuh beat
yuh wife?” he asks.

“No,” says Dan, “I haven’t.”

“How long you been married?”

“Two
years,” says Dan.

Johnnyboy heads
toward
the door,
glances
back. “Give it three,” he says,
and exits.

Outside,
his wife is waiting for him
in a silver
Jaguar.

She is burgundy-haired,
grimacing,
with the eyes of a Eurasian sparrowhawk.

She is old
enough
to be
his
grandmother.