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Issue 10 - A Journal of Letters and Life
Hardboiled Poem
by Gary Keenan

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Some days life looks like a newsstand, every story covered on the pulp novel rack
Of chance, and our task, one of choosing what to browse. Sure, I love a piano
As much as the next guy, even play now and then, something to cool
The keys like mint in a julep. Never had a lesson, just went my own way
Stabbing and pounding until tunes began to form in my ear, music with an edge
That won't quit until your heart is diced into bite-sized bits. It's my peculiar destiny
To live in an age of iron, yet be haunted by visions of a more golden time
In which people touched when dancing, the liquors were amber, and smoking a virtue
Among the swells and roughs alike. I've made a career of my modest gifts - yes,
There are those for whom my eye and discretion are a valued resource, and my forte
Is to make my clients feel that every choice, step and breath has led them to my room
Across from the laundry on 7th and above the studio offering classes in Tae Kwan Do.

Sunday was like any other day with too much time and not enough to do,
I put a pot of water on to boil, picked a seersucker suit from the closet rack,
Waxed my whiskers, and lolled. Pinky snored loudly from the next room,
Always the sign of a bad night before and worse morning after. The piano
Waited for my fingers like a dozing cat, but piano was never my forte,
So I let it wait, casually plunked a kalimba and watched the java cool.
I hadn't had a job in months. Guys like me depend on sin, on people who say yes
When other folks would say no, or nothing, or merely nod and walk away,
And I guess sometimes virtue gets the upper hand, but I can't live on virtue
Very long without losing my edge, and in my trade, it's all about edges,
The line between what we want and what we fear, the steely razor of time
Cutting us into wallet-sized slices, the border between desire and destiny.

I drained my cup, stared at my eggs, read about a discovery in the Andes, tiny
Mummified corpses under a stone pile. I cracked my toes for something to do
While I perused the photo-a hank of black hair, a leathery grin, a blanket. I'm
The kind of guy, doesn't go for macabre effects-the maiden tied to the rack,
The severed head, the white-knuckle cliffside dangle-they make me edgy,
Like I just want to get on with things, even if that means the story ends, the room
Clears, everybody goes on their merry way without thinking too much about the virtue
In that, the simple need of plot in an aimless life, the little stool that makes the piano
Possible to play. "Human sacrifice?" quizzed the caption. I turned away
From the photo, but the phrase lingered. Pinky stumbled in, re-lit the burner for tea,
Collapsed in the opposite chair like a mildewed dishrag. No one has eyes
Like Pinky, great watery pools of blood vessel and blue, always unfocused, cool.

No one sees more either. Don't know the trick to it. Maybe there is none. Pinky lit a Kool,
Blew smoke rings at the ceiling fan. "Eggs?" I asked. "Later," came the reply, the voice tiny,
Breathless, all tooth and tongue. Call me jaded, but it takes more than a honey roasted "yes"
To butter my breadstick. I like a set of pipes with some tarnish on the luster, so the "do
Re mi fa" has a touch of soul. You can have your tuxedoed Horowitz at the grand pianoforte,
Just give me Spann deep in the bottle, muttering about TB and tapping his feet in time,
Fingers rumbling and moaning soft through the keys, too blue to cry, and I'm ready to give away
My money, jump the first thing smoking and lose myself in the land. Some days I rack
My mind for the wherewithal to keep going, not nerve because I have none, and a blues on piano
Reminds me to take the next breath, sign the next check, raise the blinds, ignore the window ledge.
The happy need no art, so I stay sullen and trust the filth to flower. Is that a path to virtue?
Beats me. All I know is by Sunday morning, a week's dirty laundry lay about the room,

So I bagged it, fished behind couch cushions for quarters. Pinky was making noise with a broom,
Not really sweeping, just whisking the bristles in time with Tristano while Konitz blew cool
Arpeggios. Outside a fine rain started streaking the window grime, and the middle class virtue
Of owning one's own washer and dryer appealed for a moment, but the moment was tiny
And passed without incident. I like the public spectacle of laundry, community poised on the edge
Of intimacy, personal soil dissolving in a coin-op jamboree. What size load? Cold or warm rinse? Yes,
The whites need bleach. Each decision alters the very fabric of reality. Think of Duke at the piano,
Not just considering the notes played, but the ones unplayed; how I envy the capacity both to do
And not to do. Was that the real question Hamlet avoided with all his fussy gloom and crack?
Sleep? Dream? A rubdown, maybe a handjob for an extra sawbuck? Can the average peon afford
To dwell on the finer points of depression? They say Shakespeare wrote for the mob in a way
That made individuals of them all. The language was fresh, the grit real, drama new. In our time,

Drama is imprisoned in video monitors; the laundromat had several going at the same time,
So I watched cable between loads. Some sages claim the world is always perfect, the only room
For improvement lies in our outlook, and they could be right; VH1 might well be the middle way,
The pathless void, the end of desire. Is nirvana where you watch the spin cycle while your coffee cools?
I set about sorting fabrics for drying--blacks with whites, like the keys of Pinky's beloved pianoforte;
Blues and greens tumbling in an oceanic swirl; my red flannels and brown rayons autumnal-the virtue
Being that if Milli Vanilli: Behind the Music grew tedious, the cloth's abstract expressionism could crack
Open my ordinary mind and hypnotically suggest another world standing behind this one, where destiny
Is as destiny does and no one argues the issue, where might makes might and the only way to be is to do.
So there I sat enthralled by a process, heart thumping with caffeine, feeling like a lemming at cliff's edge
Kissing the abyss, when I saw her languidly seated atop a washing machine like a lounge singer on a piano
And I knew the life I thought I was leading was kaput, and all my desires were reduced to a single Yes!

Call me a slut for the obvious, but watching a woman do nothing except sit brings tears to my eyes-
And this woman sat on her Maytag throne as if the cosmos would not budge another inch until such time
As she saw fit to rise and transfer her wash to a dryer. She seemed of another era, a woman in sepia--no,
Daguerrotype was more like it--the clarity of her collarbone, the genius calm in her breast as if it had room
For a great love she had yet to know but still sensed was out there gazing at her from sanity's far edge.
A certain type gets used to that prospect. Often they become painters or astronomers. That way
They get to look all the time and earn for their efforts. My peculiar skills of observation, of seeing todo
Where others see nada, have not gone unrewarded over the years, but I am no mere hireling content to cool
His heels in the shadow of the great parade of fools that is this life-I am unafraid of labor, of dusty knees
And callused palms and rivulets of grime across my chest; sure, I'll cede my seat at the piano for "Tea
For Two" by a real swinger-some chord changes seem to connote eternal life - is that what Burt Bachrach
Knows that we don't? Is music more alchemy than physics? Making a labor of leisure is surely a virtue

Without which one might live quite happily, but happiness is the preoccupation of fools. By virtue
Of my own foolishness I followed her slight movements and bored demeanor, willing her lambent eyes
To look into mine and failing utterly. ESPN ruled her regard. I hated sports that day. I tried to crack
Her reserve with an indifference of my own, idly whistling a little Mahavishnu ditty in 11/8 time;
Apparently she was not a music lover. At this I cranked my intuitive mesmerism from piano to forte;
I knew from experience the power of silent persuasion, that one's mind might be blankly happy and no
Closer to the truth for it, yet still vulnerable to that which is true in everything but intent, and these tiny
Distinctions of emotion and sensation, of hearing and listening, might fill an otherwise complacent room
With sangfroid and a libido of almost enchanted compulsion. Ah, the storms we stir! My loads, in cool
Down mode, spinning toward stillness with the sorrow one notes in a child's top wobbling at table's edge,
Whirled in final spasm of visual delight, then stopped as all things must. There was nothing to say or to do
Except fold. I stood as one invited from cell to gallows-"No padre, warden; he'll just be in the way."

When faced with a pile of warm clean clothes, one has a unique opportunity to observe the Tao, the Way
Things move between chaos and order, wrinkled and smoothed, jumbled and sorted. Call it entropic virtue,
The reverence for winding down. Was this my life writ small? I scanned her face as if to do
So would open a new chapter in the tabula rasa of my existence. She looked my way and yawned. Her eyes
Clouded with that distance one uses as defense against strangers with too much of an edge
To their casual glances. I shook out a t-shirt and folded it with the aplomb of a crack
Benetton clerk. I thrust my hand in the pile and without looking pulled out two white socks, so cool
Even I was impressed, and balled them in one deft motion while my boot heel tapped in time
With VH1, or what I imagined was in time; the sound was muted, the only music in the room
The slosh and whir of laundry in action. Not exactly a minuet for string octet and pianoforte,
But I've found that with the right ear training, any or no sound at all might be the music Destiny
Composes for the soundtrack to the tragedy of Life. Is that why I spent all that cash on therapy? Ah, no,

As a matter of fact, it was to get Valium. That was before my caffeine jones. Besides, in therapy, a "no"
Too often ends up a roundabout way of saying "yes" and letting a personal past hold one in its sway.
I don't take anything personally, even myself. Ask Pinky if you must. I suppose it was my scrutiny
That in minutes nudged this laundering Lola off the washer to check on a drying load of whites. Virtually
At the same moment her wash finished. She began an intricate exchange of damp and dry. For a day,
A month, a year, I could have watched her handle fabric, such supple wrists and tapered fingers do
Things to my amygdala I'm ashamed to admit-I become a lizard of flicking desire. No room
For roses and sugared sonnets in the primitive brain. The simplest notions are signs of genius-"No", "Yes,"
"Maybe"-O, the eons of evolution in that phonetic trinity!--and her lithe body all the time
Before my eyes, its vernacular voiced in each muscular gesture as she lay line-dry items on the edge
Of the counter, then turned to fold her first load. The clothes were mostly undergarments. "Cool,"
I thought with a vague smile. It was like poking through her drawers with her permission. I lost track

Of time, kept refolding the same pair of jeans over and over. She owned splendid camisoles and just the rack
To display them. Some silk and lace, some ribbed cotton, mostly pastels. At times, improvising at the piano,
I freeze momentarily at the 88 choices before me, and I imagined her in a similar dilemma-sleepy, cool
(As if she could be any thing else), choosing an outfit in the morning. It's true that naked is the only way
Through life, everything else is sham, but one must bow to custom, eh? Sexy underwear gives a girl an edge-
As long as it's of her own purchase and not the gift of some sugar daddy whose idea of sexy stops at tiny
And who's figured out a way to put his Victoria's Secret charges on his expense account. I bided my time
As she finished with the bras-tasteful lace in blacks, reds, the odd velvet, a few sport bras whose virtue
Was to preserve rather than display her charms. I thought of her on the soccer field, fist pumping "Yes!"
As she scored on a penalty kick, thighs golden in the afternoon sun. For I'd reached that odd place where forty-
Something turns into middle age, and all of life seems a spectator sport, and I'm the guy with cigar and broom
Who sweeps up when the crowd bleeds into evening and the lights blaze on paper cups and dust. Do

I kid myself to think in another lifetime she and I would have shared a hamper and fabric softener? "I do"
And a diamond lead to many things, but how many lovebirds treat laundry as foreplay? I racked
My mind for some word to bridge the yawning void between us, like we were two souls in a barroom
Who shared a taste for rob roys Tony Bennett and monosyllabic banter while some junkie fumbled at the piano
In a key only he can hear. Alas, no word came. She began folding panties - how's that for a tease-
A procession of skimpy coral pinks and eggshell whites, a healthy proportion of thongs for those cool
Summer terraces when the gown is slinky, the drink champagne, and jasmine fills the air with hints of "Yes."
I slowly bagged my well-creased clothes, glanced at the spitting rain, decided to pause before going my way.
I sat in a molded plastic chair, surmised from a subtle perusal of her hindquarters that, by virtue
Of her smooth cotton sweats, she had washed every panty she possessed - the fact had me on my seat edge-
And wore none. I sighed. She was too true to be good for me. I had to respect that. I loved the time
We spent together, even if she had played oblivious to my obvious, but fate turns the grandest passions tiny.

I knew Pinky waited helpless in a tiny dressing gown for a freshly laundered jumpsuit. What was I to do?
Be blood sacrifice to a panty-less goddess for a time, abandon my dignity, climb willingly onto the rack
Of her whims? Or step back from the edge, gather my dreams, fold them, bag them, go back to the room
I knew held the unassailable virtue of being known, where Pinky toyed with a half-eaten omelet and a piano
Tinkled from the next apartment? I took the long way home. It gave me time to think, which is my forte.
I'm a man of many thoughts and a few well-chosen actions. Yes, I have my passions, but above all, I stay cool.

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