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Laura McCullough


Like Living

There was my student, a cop, grown guy. He owned a motorcycle and had a black belt in karate. He was blond and Italian. Taking classes. Wanted to be a detective. Brought in the cycle for show and tell; it went with an essay he read to class. Then that news about him stepping in front of the train out of Atlantic City. The line to Philly, stops in Absecon; stops in Egg Harbor. That’s where he did it, just near the crossing, just beyond Hoene’s Café where you can get eggs anytime of day, and pork roll and real locally made scrapple which is a mush of meat scraps—pork, beef, even deer around here—formed into a loaf and sliced and then fried, damn it’s good especially when it’s crusty and I don’t mind telling you I like it with ketchup. And a little bit of maple syrup spilling off a pancake to sweeten it, too, is nice, and though I haven’t had any in years, it makes me think of the south Jersey Pine Barrens, and of usefulness, a gastronomic pragmatism, using all the parts just like in a good hot dog, what the hell, and I don’t know why my student stepped in front of that train, except we love to ask why, to try and understand, but I wonder about his buddies, the other cops, his family, the Emergency folk called to the scene, the volunteers looking for parts, how they live with it, how the sound of the train makes them feel, how living in Jersey is like living anywhere, some train always coming, some tracks always ending nowhere.


Dying of Slow

Or Bob in his office writing about geese and cows and his own painful watching, like catching fish, his creel full of poems, he heard that killer who then killed himself, and wrote poems about killers who kill people and then kill themselves and always will be haunted by the language of guns and the non-language of grief, and the people who have nothing to say and the guilt you feel when you’re secretly, madly, thrillingly grateful they have nothing to say because you are afraid of what they would say and that you would have nothing to say back, wouldn’t know how to speak in the dazzling muscle and bone dialect of worlds you haven’t and won’t ever visit, except that’s part of it, the fear we might all go into that other crazy dimension we call crazy since we don’t know much about the brain and what we do know is so awesome it’s like god, all the gods rolled into one, fearsome and full of wonder, Kali-death, Shiva-full, crucifix-ated and reborn in plasticity, and Bob is a double for all the teachers who’ve survived this sort of thing, and all the teachers who think about what it must be like to survive this sort of thing, the cows chasing them in the fields of academia, the silliness, the worry, the goose who can’t take flight when it most needs to; the goose lies down with the cows, and we’re all dying of slow viruses anyway.


A House You Donít Own

And I dream of Diego’s and Luanne’s and the sinister fictions of empathy because how else can we, when we’re young, converse with mortality when he’s a guest in a house you don’t even own? Mortality sits at every table, and the young have to be ignorant, or how could they talk or walk or do any of the headlong into life activities we want them to do, the insane launching into life? If I knew then what I know now, I would stay in my room, Kafka my only friend, read books and magazines, and sleep in between, and let them speak of me like Emily, just another reclusive gun going off over and over; please, Tommy, childhood friend, shine your light in my window at dusk; tell me there’s a way out of this mess, after all.


Hold On, Please

When I woke that morning and went out to my little blue car with the paint peeling off the right side and opened the door to get in and found the note from my boyfriend telling me why he was leaving me this note in the middle of the night instead of knocking on the door and waking me up to talk or fuck or get some water or maybe a beer, that he was going to shoot himself because he couldn’t stand it anymore, and I stood there reading this note in his loopy handwriting like it was some kind of crazy love letter or a poem or a joke or a grocery store receipt or a brown leaf blown off the yard and into my car, but how could it get through the window, what is this? Is it for me? Shit, I better call him, and he didn’t answer, so I called his best friend, who said, yeah, J shot himself in the mouth with a rifle on the north end of Brigantine beach, and I said that’s a cruel joke, why would you make a joke like that, and the friend was dead calm, and said it again, and I said what I said again, only this time edging toward screaming, and you’re a jerk to say this thing, and why are you saying this, and he said call the Brigantine police, and so I hung up and called, and they said, hold on, please, and that silence was a space I know as a wound, as a pocket without a bottom, all the loose change of my life slipping out into the dirt, and then a voice on the other end, and then, Oh, God, Oh, God, Oh god.


Gray World, Honey

There could be reasons. I could tell you some stories. I could tell you what I assembled, what the police assembled; I could tell you I think J is a kind of angel who whispers to me sometimes, but I don’t believe in angels, though I do believe something whispers to me, and maybe to all of us. I could tell you about his physical scars, how he was a drummer, how he liked Frank Herbert’s Dune. These would be specifics. I could tell you, but that’s his story, isn’t it? Maybe his mother’s? His father’s? His kid brother, who I saw at the funeral who was really a kid, maybe twelve, and what do we know about his story? I don’t know, which is why I invent stories, poems, fill my mind with people who might help me understand the things I don’t understand—and there is so much of that—or interact with that awful dinner guest, mortality, and talk with him, joke, spar, so maybe I can see something, and be able to put it all together. For me, I was at the funeral, the criers, the silent ones, the people in rows, the body laid out—he was handsome. My god, the young are always so handsome, and his pony tail was laid over his shoulder. And the back of his head was not visible, and it’s crazy to know that the back of it was blown off when he put a rifle in his mouth, the same mouth that breathed against mine once, many times, that read poetry to me, that took in air and exhaled the sweetness of possibility like kids always do. We were what? nineteen? And I went out in the parking lot with my mother, who was holding my arm, so she wouldn’t lose me in this terrible day, and I saw J’s van, and it meant that he was alive, because who else could have driven it there, and that, of course, was crazy, but I started keening and calling for him, and my mom used her best mother voice, and cut through the thick gray world, Honey, get in the car. And I did. And we drove away.


The Work of Protection

The reason why he did it is the first thing everyone asked, though that’s not really what they wanted to know, the repeated query, “Why?” like a mantra, why, why, why, but it wasn’t why he did it that prompted the question to be repeated that day, first in screams, and then in more screams, and later in whispers over uneaten dinner on tables, and then in small whimpers against the bed covers and the pillows upon which no one rested. Why he did it did matter, and there were some people who cared about that and wanted to know, his parents not least of them and the police certainly, but what the parents wanted to know and what the police wanted to know in relation to the question of why was as completely and totally different as to represent opposing life forms, as if the existence of one almost meant the other could not, and of course, the police had other related questions, as well, none of them about the human being at the center of it all, but more about the system in which a thing like this could take place, though the reason they wanted answers came out of a deep desire — desire being crucial to everything that happened that day, what led up to it, and all that would transpire — to make certain, yes, as certain as a brick wall, clear as a lighthouse in a dangerous night, complete as a truth, that it could never happen again, would never happen again, a kind of proof that their existence was warranted and successful; they could protect.


Rope and Pipe

But when L hung herself a year later from the water pipes in the basement of the building where she and her boyfriend rented an apartment, I was already gone, no longer her roommate, now a friend at a distance, and the call came in and the news that the funeral would be Wednesday which is when I had a job interview in the big, damned city of NY, and I needed a job, a way to get my life back, to start to live, and she was dead now—why the fuck did she kill herself? Did they all have different reasons?—so she wouldn’t care, and so I didn’t go. I did get that job, working for Merrill Lynch and commuting into the City from central Jersey each day with the cows of commerce, and once I drove down to see her family’s house, and I went by fast, because her dad was on the porch. He had a newspaper in his hands, and there was another kid there, playing in the yard—must have been Ls brother—and I couldn’t stop and talk to them. I couldn’t say I knew her, and I was sorry, and how were they doing, and yes, we used to do each other’s hair, and we were in classes together, and I was her roommate for a while, and I knew L didn’t talk to them much, and no, I have no idea why she did it, isn’t it horrible, where’s the boyfriend, who I didn’t really know, sorry, I had moved back home to deal with my own griefs before she took up with him, moved in with him, thought about rope and pipe and how to stop whatever train she was on from going anywhere anymore.


The Composition of Sky and Fear

And I collect these stories now, like cocoons of insects I can’t identify. A chrysalis is the cocoon of a butterfly, but a cocoon does not necessarily have a butterfly in it; there could be a moth, or a beetle, wasp, an ant, even some parasites. Suicides are like that, like a cocoon stuck to your consciousness with the pulpy mash of insect spittle twined and solidified into a tiny wick. There, waiting for years, and no one knows what’s inside or even if anything will emerge. Those who died, died, Jim Carroll said, those who died, died into the story of your life, the small rumbling sounds behind the sound track of your life, like a poor recording, that static down there, underneath, that hum, that terrorizing hum, so that when late August days roll around with their long yellow light and browning grass and the buzzing of heat bugs, those alien musicians who never sleep, their sound sounds to you like those whom you’ve lost, and the old questions of why and why and why like paper moths, like the birds who eat them, fill the sky, so you are afraid, and so afraid, and so damned sorry, sorry for not being better, for not doing more, for not knowing there was anything to be done except your own breathless attempt at living, and you turn up the music in the house, and when that isn’t loud enough, you get in your car, and blast that music, and sit in traffic knowing the cars around you are thrumming with their own music, and maybe you look at the person in the next car, and for one minute you can see their eyes through the nearly reflective glass of their vintage BMW, and you hesitate a second, a glorious, grateful, I see you, do you see me, second, before neither of you can bear it any longer, and look away.



The cars jammed together in a hive, humming. The high school band marching together, choreographed, and blowing, banging, swinging, turning, swaying. The blue uniforms. The brown uniforms. All the uniformed. Some sitting on boxes, waiting for the next shift. Some eating at the local diner, elbows on counter, sandwiches rising, mouths filling. Hospital doors opening closing, opening closing, clogs on, clogs off, get in bed, get out. Everybody make sure all the forms have signatures. Run, and get this woman admitted now before she gives birth, has a heart attack, loses an eye. And the train conductors. A deer steps in front of a train in south Jersey. Teen age boys in Ocean. A librarian in an NYC subway. Animals, kids, cops, the conductors can stop nothing. The trains keep going down the tracks. And somebody is always called in to clean up the mess, pick up the parts. And the sound behind it all, sibilant, buzzing, recalcitrant: s, s, s.




Laura McCullough has four collections of poetry including, PANIC, winner of a Kinereth Gensler Award (Alice James Books, 2011), Speech Acts (Black Lawrence Press, 2010) and two chapbooks including, Women and Other Hostages (Amsterdam Press, 2010). She is the founder and editor of Mead: the Magazine of Literature and Libations. She is the recipient of two NJ State Arts Council Fellowships, a Prairie Schooner Merit Scholarship, a Vermont Studio Center Scholarship, and a Bread Loaf Staff Scholarship. Her work is forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, The Writer's Chronicle, The Painted Bride Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Spoon River, Pank, Guernica, Crab Orchard Review, Hanging Loose, Pebble Lake Review, Iron Horse Quarterly, and others. She is the editor of the anthology in progress, A Better Way to Be Alone: The Mind and Poetry of Stephen Dunn. She was a poet performer in the 2010 Dodge Poetry Festival. Contact author. Visit author's website.

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