When I was a teenager, I stopped putting ice
in my “iced” tea, and started drinking it right
out of the pitcher at room temperature. After an
initial phase of alarm on the part of my family, they
sort of just decided that if I was too lazy to put ice
in my tea, then I deserved to suffer all the
consequences that might entail, which,
I have to tell you, weren’t very serious
consequences in the end. I still enjoyed
strong and sweet freshly brewed tea,
but I didn’t have to worry about ice
trays or running out of room in the
freezer or any of that stuff. I was just
happy in my own kind of way.
A few years ago, I moved to England,
where nobody drinks iced tea,
so ice is no longer an issue, but
I still drink tea at room temperature,
which surprises the people who notice,
because most people don’t drink tea
that has “gone cold” around here.
I do, of course, and it isn’t really a
problem so long as I hold onto my
tea mug in case someone notices
it has gone cold and dumps it in the sink.
And, yes, in both countries I still get
judgmental comments about how I like
a little tea in my sugar, but I’m not bothered.
Like when I go to Starbucks and order a
flat white, and the cashier asks what size
I want, and I say there is only one size of
flat white, pointing at the menu, but the
cashier says, no sir, you can have whatever
size you want, and I say, yes, but any other
size is not a flat white, is it? It’s just some
milk with coffee in it, and the barista is
confused as to why I’m so exercised about
a coffee order.
If I wanted this poem to be more intimate,
I would address the reader directly, and
invite the reader into my inner world.
I would use second-person pronouns and
share the deeper and darker aspects of
my personality. I would regale the reader
with stories of elation and spiritual fulfillment
along with brutally honest accounts of
self-doubt, anxiety, fear, and loathing.
I might make it a little shocking by offering
raw accounts of emotional terrorism,
suicidal ideation, perversion, and criminality.
I might make the reader uncomfortable,
embarrassed or outraged. But today I want to
keep my distance. I will only tell the reader
the weather is crisp and cool and fine enough
for a pleasant walk. The livestock are neighing,
and braying and crowing in a delightful
cacophony of good cheer. The holidays are
just around the corner, and it’s best
I keep my distance.
I predicted the results of the election, and the death of the republic
I warned of financial collapse and the beginning of the pandemic
I shouted right in your face that you needed to protect your investment
I told you the university you chose faced regulatory reassessment
I knew your car was built by underpaid and untrained workers
And I mentioned you’d get heart disease if you ate too many burgers
If you listened, you’d know your new hoover would be recalled
And that the new prescription you filled will make you go bald
I laid out the argument against a global corporate cooperative
But reviewer number two insisted I’m being too negative
It is too depressing, I’m told, to always focus on disaster
We’ll just hope for the best and muzzle the forecaster
If we focused on our impending doom incessantly
We’d be paralysed with fear you declare contemptuously
So stop crying about all the amenities to be lost
We’d rather stroll contentedly to our next holocaust
I know you’re distracted by things much more important
And sometimes my entreaties come across as mordant
So you tune out what is most difficult to hear
And focus on beauty and how to calm your fears
You need clarity and can’t take it all in at once
So I should expect a certain amount of avoidance,
And I know the daily clamour distorts true prophecy
But I still want to be part of the chorus, not the cacophony
Betty was the kind of person who kept seeing Elvis all over everywhere. She just couldn’t believe he really died. She’d already visited Graceland twice and seen all the memorials and the so-called “grave site.” But she just thought he was probably hanging around Graceland somewhere watching everybody crying about how wonderful he was and laughing his ass off.
Betty was 18 when Elvis was said by some to have died, and she’d been a fan her whole life. Her mom, Marylou, was lucky enough to see Elvis perform at Magnolia Gardens before he got famous. Marylou told Betty plenty of stories about how Elvis was just a kind of shy boy who loved his momma and was real friendly but also maybe just a little bit sad.
Of course, Marylou didn’t have to say how handsome he was. Anyone who ever saw a picture of him knew he was handsome. Marylou did say she wished her eyes were as pretty as his, and God that little crooked smile of his would make you go a little weak in the knees.
So, Betty sort of grew up thinking that was kind of the ideal man. You know, shy and a little sad with a sideways smile. It’s not that she didn’t like the later Elvis (she was still driving all over the country and keeping an eye out for him wherever she went), it’s just that if someone in a bar looked nice and handsome and a little bit sad, she kind of almost thought talking to him was sort of like talking to a young Elvis. And if this boy in the bar could sing or play a guitar, she thought even better of him.
Let’s face it, not many men have the talent of an Elvis Presley, but quite a few men are shy, sad, and reasonably good looking, especially after a couple of beers. And Betty met more than one or two of these guys, and Betty met with some major disappointment on more than one or two occasions. If you think about it, you’ll probably agree that Elvis probably wasn’t the best partner you could have in the first place, and there was certainly no reason to think the substitute Elvises would be any better.
So it wasn’t Steve’s fault he was shy and sad and had his haircut like Elvis. Lots of guys were just the same. And Steve wasn’t the best musician, either, but Betty liked the way he played “Suspicious Minds.” She knew it was all a fantasy, but she felt that part of the fantasy was coming true.
It was kind of a fantasy for Steve, too. This was the late 70s, of course, and he was a Teddy Boy. It weren’t no accident he looked a little like Elvis, and he liked imagining he had groupies like Elvis, too. The fact that Betty was a kind of groupie by proxy was not a problem for him. But really, how long do you reckon two people can keep up this kind of role-play?
I guess no one can answer that question, but these two gave it a good go. Some people say you become what you pretend to be, and these two were pretending to be fabulous. They went to all these little clubs and danced and drank and just acted like regular little outlaws. Every now and then, Steve would even get a gig, and he’d be sure to play a couple of Elvis songs.
Betty said she was happier than she’d ever been, but Marylou said it was only pretend happiness. Betty said happy is happy. She couldn’t see any difference between pretend happiness and “real” happiness, whatever that is. We all sort of just make it up as we go along, don’t we?
So these two just went along with their rock and roll lifestyle, possibly living even more like Elvis than they knew in some ways. It was a heady mix of Quaaludes, speed, coke, beer, and tequila. Even after a few months, Steve was a pretty fun guy, even if Betty did find herself short on cash from time to time. She understood that he was focused on the music and his day labor gigs sometimes fell through, so she always kept her eyes and ears open for someone needing drywall work or a party band.
Still, the day-to-day uncertainty can start to get to you. Betty told Steve she didn’t make enough to keep paying for everything, and she didn’t think she could go on not knowing whether they could make it to the end of the month on any given day. He didn’t get defensive or anything. In fact he was very understanding, and he had a solution. He figured he could get a gig pretty near every night in Austin, and houses were going up like weeds there, so he could surely get plenty of work. And that was that. They threw their bags in the car and headed to Austin with a foolproof plan for a brighter future.
You’re usually expected to put
most of your attention on one person
at the center of all the action,
but I always get distracted by the
squire or the sullen daughter
or the doctor who just seemed so
unimpressed when her boss was
leading the rounds, showing off
for the residents.
I love how some secondary
characters manage to make it all
about themselves with an eye roll
or a sigh or a blank expression.
I guess it’s just fellow feeling
as I know I will never be the
central figure in any story,
perhaps not even my own,
but I still take solace in the
fact that supporting characters
sometimes become stars.
She’d always walk up and start talking
as if you were already in the middle
of a conversation. At first, I’d ask her
what the Hell she was talking about,
but I soon learned her explanations
were too long and circuitous to be of
any value. Best to just wait it out,
and eventually the picture would
come into focus. You’d suddenly
get it—like a Faulkner novel,
and then you’d start thinking how
Faulkner probably knew someone
just like her, and it wasn’t about
Freud’s stream of consciousness;
it was just about the way some people
talk. I mean, how they tell a story,
and you start to realize the most
interesting stories are the ones that
seem to have no point at all.
You start to think you could tell
a story like that. You’re thinking how
it would be greater than Faulkner and
all that when she puts her hand on
your shoulder and says, “Slow down, partner,
you done lost me a long time ago.
A Hell of a long time ago. “