A MESSAGE FOR THE KING
You can’t miss it. There’s a plywood sign,
its white paint zebra’d
with weathering, that says BRUSH ARBOR REVIVAL.
Jalopies line the road and flap
their rusty wings. A peculiar people
wade the night, the boot-smooching mud.
Under the moon the silver rice.
King David, half-naked
on the levee, gets in a godly tizzy and speaks
in tongues. It sounds like “Come in a Honda,
leave in a Volvo. Come in a Honda, leave in a Volvo.
Econolodge: thirty-nine, ninety-nine.”
The queen, unmelting, hisses
mistily from her tower, sees
his praise arms
flung up filthy white
like a gas station toilet seat.
David waves at her window and laughs.
“Honda Honda Hyundai.”
He lays hands on the people.
“God, turn these silver fillings
into heaven-highway gold.”
“O God, bless this little infinite
a-growing in Mama’s belly.”
“Come in a Honda,
come a Honda, come a Honda.
Come in a Hon’, Econo-ninety-nine-a-Honda.”
Silver o’clock, and David dances Arkansas.
Work your way into the scrum. Tell the king
we cheer him, we love him for these nights.
But before you kiss his face
and go, urge him
not to be too proud not to be too proud.
is a bowl of rice cooked
in cinnamon milk. I’m clinking it down
in the middle of
a giant, pink, heart-shaped cookie.
I’ve cut the hot milk cake, and now
I’m mixing up mimosas. I’m building an altar
to Easy Lee.
is my spirit
wife. She loves
a sporting man. Here hangs
my Michael Jordan Starter jacket.
Now I need
some music. Two unlabeled cassettes
stare out the windows
of my jam box, their spools, like eyes
of owls, stuck in senile, crotchety panic.
The batteries are low:
push play, it sounds like demons.
I uncork a bottle
of strawberry wine. I’m trying to remember
what moving from thought to thought
felt like in the year before the Web.
This is wild
marshmallow blossom, dried and crushed,
from our wedding in the woods.
I now present
the first of two aquariums
I kept as a boy. I must have been
eight or nine when my grandfolks
bought it for me. Alive
with wavy golden fish, it’s confetti
in slow motion, like a happy memory
Vicki from Small Wonder
is a girl bot
with a control panel in her back.
Her reruns are playing
in black and white
on this miniature TV. And I’m building
an altar to Easy Lee.
I’m coloring a picture of the Mater Dolorosa
with the nubs
of my boyhood crayons. Auburn
for drawing hair,
tawny for filling in the skin
“high yellow.” I’m coloring
the girl I wed
before escaping childhood. The wedding
was the men’s idea. I didn’t want
a ghost queen, but I got one anyway. Easy
wore a teenaged girl to marry me in. A virgin
is the shirt I wore for the wedding.
I’m using it
to clean the blood and rust
from my guitar strings. Every Thursday
belongs to Easy—
cakes and spells and songs. I dream
her into bed. The men said never
take another lover. Said if I did,
the love would be cursed.
The love has been cursed.
I’m stacking lovers’ photographs, a luckless deck
of cards. With my very days and years, I’m building
an altar to Easy Lee.
I now present the second aquarium.
It stands for the worship party where
Easy commandeered my body.
in the Revel woods, off Highway 33.
I didn’t remember at all. I’m not sure
where my self went off to. Doubt
I got it all back. The men called a self
a “global non.” The men said
I put a dress and makeup on, and wept
my face to gleaming. This aquarium,
with its fish of many colors,
means there are
alien selves inside my head, an otherworldly
of notions and emotions.
Here’s a photograph of the girl
named Gladleen. Once,
by chance, I glimpsed her at a basketball game.
We were still
in junior high. She sat in the stands, eating
Frito pie with a white plastic spoon and
rooting for Palestine-Wheatley. She was
a real girl I didn’t know at all.
Wine all over the altar
is for the nights I walk—wine spilled
for the stranger, and the women since
my wedding. Two or three of them loved me,
never knowing I wasn’t free.
Spilled wine for the dark, wet streets
bleeding red light, bleeding
red light, red light in the rain.
Several phone calls and a couple of road trips later, I found the girl they called Gladleen. All that questing, and she was down the street the entire time. She ran a restaurant in my city. We arranged a get-together, and I met her at her private studio above the restaurant. She was working on a sculpture called “The Afterlife”: two fat-ass, taxidermied mice playing Twister on a Wonder Bread bag. The artist stood to greet me. All tall and tight in her waxed black jeans. Red powder-brush hair and a fitted T-shirt that said “Support Southern Rock.” She reached out her hand, I gave it a squeeze. “I like it,” she said. “Nice, firm dude grip. Don’t present me no bouquet of noodles. Hi, I’m Gladleen.”
I started meeting Gladleen for drinks, mostly at her restaurant. Both of us were plowing through breakups. We were at the mercy of ourselves, a place you never want to be.
One time, she said, “Let me see a picture of your lost lady-love.” I pulled one up on my phone and handed it over. She handed me her phone and made me watch a video of her ex-boyfriend. He was sitting on a tailgate, muttering unintelligible things to a My Buddy doll. The star of the video was Gladleen’s disembodied laughter.
For a time we avoided discussing our odd past in Arkansas. Fear of awkwardness, I guess. But avoidance itself is awkward, and one evening at the restaurant, Gladleen finally asked me why, as a boy, I had been willing to “marry a thighjacker.”
I tried to explain: “I remember when I was little, when you walked into McDonald’s, they had these life-sized cardboard cutouts of teenaged burger flippers, but if you moved around and got a different perspective, the burger flippers would hologram into older franchise managers wearing white shirts and dark neckties and grinning themselves silly.”
“Yes,” Glad said. “I remember those. Your point would be?”
“Lot of times when I was little bitty, maybe four or five,” I said, “when I would pray to Jesus, and think about those pictures of him hanging sensually, half naked, on the cross, with his flowy hair, lean body, and small wrists and ankles, he would start hologramming into a woman in my mind. And I would feel ecstatic but also wretchedly guilty about it. To make amends with God, I’d force myself to detonate the body of the lady Jesus in my brain, or I would cross her out with thick, dark, imaginary lines. I hated doing that terrorism so much. I can’t even tell you. I wound up having to see a psychiatrist because the detonations and lines got so intense, they started happening on their own, almost constantly, till I couldn’t even concentrate at school.”
Glad poured me a gill of scotch neat, herself one too, and clinked me with her wonted toast: “Wonder Twin powers, activate.” Then she said, “You know, the night you got married, my aunt dragged me into the swamp because she was helping with the wedding preparations. She was keeping me for a few weeks and didn’t have anybody to leave me with. I had never seen any religious ceremony of any kind except at the COGIC church. I didn’t know the first thing about what was happening in those woods that night, but when they started singing, the drumming noise looked like it was rippling and looping all over the air. Lassoed me something fierce.” She squinted into the memory. “When I waked up, I was still a virgin, but my body wasn’t.”
After one of our many drinking nights at Gladleen’s restaurant, I started staggering down the street, looking for a taxi, addled as hell. I stopped, almost lost my balance, feeling quoozy. Looked up and watched a cirrus cloud mummify the moon. Right beside me: a bar and grill with outdoor TVs blaring. I fished my phone out of my pocket and stared at it. Too drunk to realize I had picked the worst possible spot for making a call, I dialed my ex-girl.
Ashlee gets the left hand going here … There’s another one to the midsection!
“What’s up? You too drunk to hail a cab?”
North-south position now—hammers away to the side of the carcass!
“Glad? I was trying to call—”
“Oh my god! I told you not to drunk-dial her!”
I looked down at my phone. “What? How did you—?”
… boom with the right hand again! … End of the round! A few more seconds, she might have pounded her out!
Glad was practically shouting: “I put my number under her name in your phone!” By now I could see Glad walking toward me down the street.
Or is it over? It is over! It is over!
Day one of the art experiment,
Glad takes my clothes off
and wields her fancy camera. Shoots me all over
at close range. The camera, like a playfully vicious dog,
snaps at me
again and again, up one side and down the other.
All the while, the artist mumbles strangeness.
“Your brother Set persuaded you
to crawl into a box.”
“The hand of one
baptizing in the wilderness. One for Montenegro.”
Snap. “One for Mount Athos.” Snap.
“One for Istanbul.” Snap. “All these yearning, burning bones.”
“Something to feed the catfish.” Snap.
“When you refuse the maenads grabbing—”
Left foot, right foot. Snap. Snap.
At the end she says “decapitate”—
and shoots my face.
Makes me leave my blue jeans there, and gives me a pair of shorts.
Day two, Glad gets me drunk.
Three o’clock in the morning, restaurant long since closed,
she walks me up to her dark studio.
“Meet Eurydice,” Glad says and flips the lights on.
I see my photos glued all over
a shirtless, headless, thin, originally male
mannequin. My jeans recut
to wrap the legs tight. A dark-blue football helmet
mounted on the back, suggesting a woman’s ass.
Pocked orbs like cannonballs glued
to the chest, in a plain white bra.
I kneel before Eurydice. Up close,
to my hazy brain, the blue jeans’ zipper
turns into Tutankhamun’s death mask.
“Get off your knees,” Glad says.
“Pick her up and carry her downstairs.”
“All right. Now lay her down on the bar.”
Glad places a lime wedge
above Eurydice’s neck. “Undo her jeans
and lower them a little, not too much.
I wetten Eurydice. Glad gives me
a sea salt grinder, and I make it snow.
I lick it up.
She takes a bottle of Kah, pours
tequila on Eurydice’s belly. I slurp it up.
Glad says, “It’s time for the lime
kiss. Greg, repeat after me.”
I’m looking for the face …
I’m looking for the face I had …
I’m looking for the face I had
before the world was made …
I bend down slowly. Take
the lime between my teeth.
Greg Alan Brownderville is the author of the poetry collection Gust (Northwestern University Press, 2011) and Deep Down in the Delta (Butler Center Books, 2012), a collaboration with artist Billy Moore. His third book, A Horse with Holes in It, is forthcoming from LSU Press. He has received a Porter Fund poetry prize, a Voice-Only Poetry prize from the Missouri Review, and the University of Nebraska’s Jane Geske Award. He has published in Prairie Schooner, the Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals. He teaches creative writing at Southern Methodist University.