by Denis Johnson
You might as well take a razor
to your pecker as let a woman in your heart.
First they do the wash and then they kill you.
They flash their lights and teach your wallet to puke.
They bring it to you folded—if you see her
stepping between the coin laundry and your building
over the slushy street and watch the clothing steam,
you can’t wait to open up the door when she puts
the stairs behind her and catch that warmth between you.
It changes into a baby. “Here’s to the little shitter,
the little linoleum lizard.” Once he peed on me
when I was changing him—that one got a laugh
from the characters I wasted all my chances with
at Popeye’s establishment when it was over
by the Wonderland. But it’s destroyed
now and I understand one of those shopping malls
that are like great monuments of blindness
and folly stands there. And next door,
the grimy restaurants of men with movies
where they used to wear human faces,
the sad people from space. But that was never me,
because everything in those days depended on my work.
“Listen, I’m going to work,” was all I could say,
and drunk or sober I would put on the uniform
of Texaco and wade into my life.
I felt like a man of honor and substance,
but the situation was dancing underneath me—
once I walked into the living room at my sister’s
and saw that the two of them, her and my sister,
had turned sometime behind my back not exactly
fatter, but heavy, or squalid, with cartoons
moving across the television in front of them,
surrounded by laundry, and a couple of Coca-Colas
standing up next to the iron on the board.
I stepped out into the yard of bricks
and trash and watched the light light
up the blood inside each leaf,
and I asked myself, Now what is the rpm
on this mother? Where do you turn it on?
I think you understand how I felt.
I’m not saying everything changed in the space
of one second of seeing two women, but I did
start dragging her into the clubs with me. I insisted
she be sexy. I just wanted to live.
And I did: some nights were so
sensory I felt the starlight landing on my back
and I believed I could set fire to things with my fingers—
but the strategies of others broke my promise.
At closing time once, she kept talking to a man
when I was trying to catch her attention to leave.
It was a Negro man, and I thought of black limousines
and black masses and black hydrants filled
with black water. When the lights came on
you could see all kinds of intentions in the air.
I thought I might smack her face, or spill a glass,
but instead I opened him up with my red fishing knife
and I took out his guts and I said, “Here they are,
motherfucker, nigger, here they are.”
There were people frozen around us. The lights had just come on.
At that moment I saw her reading me and reading me
from the end of the world where I saw her standing,
and the way the sacred light played across her face
all I can tell you is I had to be a diamond
of ice to manage. Right down the middle from beginning to end
my life pours into one ocean: into this prison
with its empty ballfield and its empty
preparations for Never Happen.
If she ever comes to visit me, to hell with her,
I won’t talk to her, and my son can entertain
himself. God kill them both. I’m sorry for nothing.
I’m just an alien from another planet.
I am not happy. Disappointment
lights its stupid fire in my heart,
but two days a week I staff
the Max Security laundry above the world
on the seventh level, looking at two long roads
out there that go to a couple of towns.
Young girls accelerating through the intersection
make me want to live forever,
they make me think of the grand things,
of wars and extremely white, quiet light that never dies.
Sometimes I stand against the window for hours
tuned to every station at once, so loaded on crystal
meth I believe I’ll drift out of my body.
Jesus Christ, your doors close and open,
you touch the maniac drifters, the fireaters,
I could say a million things about you
and never get that silence out of time
that happens when the blank muscle hangs
between its beats—that is what I mean
by darkness, the place where I kiss your mouth,
where nothing bad has happened.
I’m not anyone but I wish I could be told
when you will come to save us. I have written
several poems and several hymns, and one
has been performed on the religious
ultrahigh frequency station. And it goes like this.
Last updated March 15, 2023