Do Not Prod the Beach Rubble

In college, I worked in a record store. A series of record stores, really. Also, it started in high school. I was all set to play the marimba in marching band (“what can I play, since I only know how to play the piano?”). Then mom and dad said something to me along the lines of “what are you doing? who’s going to pay for this? There is no college fund, and you need to get a job.”

So, I bought a navy blue polo shirt and a pair of khakis and went to work at Blockbuster Music. Oh yes, the world once contained stores where people would buy non-used music, and one of those stores was owned by Blockbuster. Gas was 1.95 a gallon, people did the Macarena without irony and electricity had just been invented.

The years spent unsealing rap CDs for the teenagers of Lexington, Kentucky became a year of unsealing rap CDs for the teenagers of Antioch. This is the valuable work experience that got me a job at what may be Nashville’s best-known used music (and comic book) store.

I worked with such characters as “Always High Manager,” “Old Rock Dude,” “OTHER Old Rock Dude,” “Body Odor Guy,” “Weird Art School Guy,” and “Lesbian Who Wants You To Watch John Waters Movies.”

The customers had names, too. “Go Pee Man,” a mentally challenged fellow who had an unsettling habit of materializing out of thin air, only to appear behind you and say, “Go Pee!” This would be your cue, of course, to reach over the counter and grab the bathroom key. After handling the long piece of wood attached to the key, you’d have a burning urge to wash your hands ASAP, to clean roughly 30 years’ worth of microscopic traces of fecal matter from your hands. Other customers included “Crystal Meth Guy,” “German Dude From the Gas Station” and Marty Stuart.

We clocked in on an ancient ka-chunk, ka-chunk timeclock which, from what I can hear when I’m in the store these days, is still being used. I never did quite grasp how to line up my time card with the machine. For over a year, I would be appearing to take my break before I’d even started my shift. It was one step up from the gap-toothed time card dinosaur on The Flintstones. I think I may have once clocked in from 1973.

Everything in that place had been there a while, none of it ever getting a thorough dusting. Items that didn’t sell just gradually faded from the sunlight or got buried under a thick coating of dead skin (aka “dust”) and, quite possibly, more traces of fecal matter. It was oddly Darwinian. Undesirables would get marked by ages on the shelf and those markings would damn near guarantee that the items would never sell. This is to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of items that weren’t even on the sales floor.

The sales floor may have resembled a cross between the house of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons and the world’s most overpriced yard sale, but the upstairs, “behind the scenes” area was like a retirement home for VHS tapes, Loretta Lynn merchandise, and roughly 100 sealed copies of Faith No More’s Angel Dust album. The only time the endless clutter came to a stop was when a space on the floor would be left clear to allow a hatch in the floor to open. Throughout the upstairs, little trapdoors could be opened to look down on would-be shoplifters on the sales floor. Who were we kidding? That place probably lost as much as it sold, but no matter. One sale of a sealed Beatles “butcher” cover would keep the ship floating.

Also in the upstairs was a small area next to heaps of old G.I. Joes and Star Wars figures where employees kept bags and purses. This is where I began to find mysterious little notes tucked into my backpack, coat pockets, and purse. Little poems, always written in red ink on good quality paper, complete with a deckled edge. Always in the same all-caps sort of handwriting.

It wasn’t Calculus. Nothing in that store was computerized, which meant that everyone knew everyone else’s handwriting. Besides, most guys still write with that sort of tiny, disconnected “ball and stick” print (no pun intended) that’s taught in first grade. There’s not a lot of epic penmanship left in the world. Besides, “Body Odor Guy” didn’t seem like the type to write little poems. Nope. My poet was Weird Art School Guy. But how to respond? I couldn’t suck all the mystery and joy out of the thing by walking right up to him and saying something. The thing to do was to write poems right back. Of course I wrote poems. It was the nineties and I was in college. All I was missing was a Jesus Lizard shirt and a bottle of black hair dye.

Back and forth the poems went. Things continued on this way until the nightly walk to the parking lot after work ended in conversation. It’s cold; let’s talk in the car. Let’s kiss in the car. Let’s fog up the windows. Let’s laugh at how we just fogged up the windows.

When I showed up for an afternoon shift the next day, I was wearing a high-necked Victorian blouse, and had my hair down. Why? Because my “hello, I have a giant fucking hickey” shirt was dirty, that’s why.

I unveiled my neck only to “Lesbian Who Wants You To Watch John Waters Movies.” Upon seeing my neck (which looked like I’d taken a baseball pitched by Wild Thing Vaughn), she gasped and whispered “Amy!! You’re not like that!!….well, maybe you ARE!” It took a week for the whole thing to heal, during which I had trouble using my neck properly.

After that, the poems continued for a while, until our less-eloquent speaking selves realized that, while it was a fun adventure, we were kidding ourselves if we thought this was a relationship. It’s all well and good to call my hair a strawberry veil (it was red then) and call my room my kingdom, but what are your long-term goals?

When I finally got out of retail and quit the job at the record store, he got me a cake and had a Sappho quote iced onto it: “do not prod the beach rubble.” The first part of the quote was “if you are squeamish,” but just putting the end on the cake made the message seem like sage advice to a friend going off to bigger and better things. I sense that this meaning may have been lost on the employees at the Kroger bakery, but not me. I lived on purple cake covered in purple roses for three days and (ah, youth) still never got over 105 pounds.

I heard that the guy eventually began writing poems to another girl who worked there after I did. She had him reported for sexual harassment and he got fired. How unfitting. How unfair.

Every so often, I think about him. Every so often, I clean out a closet. Sometimes, in that cleaning, I find a little box. In that little box I find a bundle of neatly-lettered poems, all in red ink, on good paper with a deckled edge.

That Time Again

Today is December 10. In keeping with the tradition of the last 2 years, I’m running the poem again.

Other people have left over the last two years, but strangely, those sting less because the leaving wasn’t voluntary and misunderstood. It’s a special kind of nagging, stabbing between the shoulder blades when someone tells you to your phone’s face that nothing you can do would be good enough to stop the falling piano. Inertia, you know. The little spot between my shoulders will forever be sitting in a taffeta skirt at an airport gate, waiting for some flight that never arrives.

You can go weeks and months without thinking about that taste in your mouth, but it never completely goes away. In a sense, you hope that it doesn’t go away. If it does, it means you don’t care anymore. So, you roll it around in your mouth, get a good taste of it, then spit it out until the next time it bubbles up. The only thing worse than remembering his voice is the idea of not being able to.

For Diah

Memory reared its head it last night’s dream
I was at the airport with a flowering potted plant
Dressed in my finest clothes
Waiting for you

But your plane was late.
I slept at the gate, waking each time a stranger passed
Hoping it was you.
Days went by
My flowering plant wilted and dried to brittle brown sticks
My finest clothes became wrinkled and unkempt
I wondered whether you would ever arrive at all.

Then, out from the gate’s mouth, you came.
I squealed your name and ran to meet you
Swept up in a giant hug and spun around in circles,
I was so happy and you were there-

Then I woke up.

My Funeral/Job Interview Outfit is Getting Tired.

I never know what to say when people die. I suck at anything that requires some other response than sarcasm. Luckily, Younger Amy (when she was Amy and not “evil,”) bailed me out on this one. She never said much of anything to anybody, but she has a tendency to sit in a coffee shop and write poetry with a Pilot V5. We all kind of took ourselves too seriously then. We ALL wrote poetry.

Anyway, I wrote this (completely friend-wise, might I add), for Kris Bristow. I’m guessing I’m about to witness the world’s best-dressed memorial service. There will be goth folk and roller girls. The place is going to be packed.

Grey

Gun metal grey, his eyes reached into me
Looking for understanding
His curled smile spoke truth
Of my walls
Which, til now, have served me well.
After months of braind ead comfort
His words have shaken me awake
To look up at the angel before me
To hear this song
Of words
Which lodge in my rib cage
Inches from my skittish heart
Two inches more…
And the bullet would have claimed me
He would hold my reluctant heart
Thus adding another to his collection.
What is one heart to him, but a drop in the ocean?
Yet, still, he has reached me
Though my heart is still my own,
A chip has fallen from its wall
Shaken loose by the force
Of ammunition words
From a curled smile
And gun metal grey eyes.

——————————————————
** Note to $_Deity: While you seem to be amused by killing my friends and family members lately, I appreciate letting my aunt and her friend survive that badass car wreck. Don’t think this gets you completely off the hook, though.

Hello, December 10th. We meet again.

I have been on a ballad-free diet for a year. I only think about it 3 or 4 days a week now, so my shrink would probably be proud of me, if I were still speaking to him. What my shrink doesn’t know is how I stood in the craft store trying to decide what is goth enough for a goth grave without being so goth as to prompt the jesusy parents to remove my flowers. I settled on some dark burgundy flowers that would blend in nicely with the black and white ones that were already there. I went out there on his birthday and sat in the grass two feet above his ashes while I evened up wire stems, meshed flowers together, and tied a long black ribbon (one of the ones I had been using for my hair) around the whole thing.

I know it happened. I sat at a funeral and listened to people dance around the truth for an hour. I sat there, publicly crying, next to some hot friend from his childhood. Then I drove to a cemetery and watched men in coveralls put dirt over a 12-inch cube of my friend. I watched his mom make a point to leave before the dirt-laying started. I know it happened. I’ve been back to the grave four times. It’s near my house and on the way to Rivergate, pure coincidence. I’m doing immersion therapy. Each time I go, it still takes me by surprise, but there it is in inch-high bronze letters. All three names, first, middle and last. The succession you only hear when you’re in trouble.

That big bronze plate just lies there, telling me that I could live to be 100 and he will never, ever be on the other end of the phone. Never again can I call his number and just start a conversation with “talk me down, man.” I am left here to wonder if maybe there were more times that should have been reversed. Left to forever wonder if I could have done something, even though I promised that I wouldn’t wonder that. He even made me repeat it back:

“There is nothing you could have done.”
“Okay.”
“Say it.”
“There is nothing I could have done.”

But still. There it is, in inch-high bronze letters. According to my filing system, I wrote the following poem in 2002. He had left town and I was waiting on a visit that never came. Women. We’re like dogs waiting at the front door, with no sense of how long we’ve been sitting there. Honestly, if I’d known the clock was ticking I would have gotten over my fear of flying sooner. Sorry for the now rather melodramatic title…that’s what I called it in 2002. Who knew?


For Diah

Memory reared its head it last night’s dream
I was at the airport with a flowering potted plant
Dressed in my finest clothes
Waiting for you

But your plane was late.
I slept at the gate, waking each time a stranger passed
Hoping it was you.
Days went by
My flowering plant wilted and dried to brittle brown sticks
My finest clothes became wrinkled and unkempt
I wondered whether you would ever arrive at all.

Then, out from the gate’s mouth, you came.
I squealed your name and ran to meet you
Swept up in a giant hug and spun around in circles,
I was so happy and you were there-

Then I woke up.