ash&bone

poetry and prose by julian s.

a note for survivors: some texts may reference sexual trauma or violence.

Here are some tips for grocery shopping.

You will need coupons, hundreds of them. It’s okay if they expire because ideally you’ll have a filing system in place by the time they reach critical mass. I suggest a blue nylon pouch with fraying edges and a silver snap to hold the top flap in place. If you’re organized you’ll use your coupons before they expire and if you don’t you’ll just have to clean the envelope out every weekend while clipping the new ones out from the newspapers you get each Sunday. Don’t be fooled into thinking a newspaper is anything but kindling covered coupons and a sheet of lukewarm comic strips with which to torture your children. For the record, you know Pearls Before Swine loses its comedic impact when it has to pass through your mouth before your kids can hear it. It drives them crazy but announcing the punch lines serves the dual purpose of irritating them and letting you feel like an adult penguin vomiting into the mouth of its young. You, the provider, the nurturer, squeezing through front door flanked by bags the size of full garbage liners stuffed with coats that might fit. You the hunter-gatherer, making endless trips between the house and a minivan trunk packed with double bagged groceries. Love wrapped in plastic, better than pureed fish wrapped in stomach acid.

Which brings me back to groceries. Effective shopping requires strategy; lists, tactical maneuvers. Imagine your family as a squadron of fighter jets, less flashy than the Blue Angels but every bit as patriotic. Divide and conquer. Send the oldest girl to find things she can’t fuck up, shelf stable condiments or discontinued novelty ice cream, teach the younger girl to look at the impulse candies by the register with her eyes and not with her hands. Teach them both to dangle from the nose of your cart, counterweighted by fragrant cantaloupes and packages of store brand pasta and graying meats on “Manager’s Special” to stash in the garage freezer.

Carry a calculator, in case cell phones haven’t been invented yet. Divide the cost of the cottage cheese by the weight; find the price per ounce. Do this for every brand and size container of cottage cheese. Find the cheapest per ounce. Put it in the cart amidst protests from little girls who only like the Knudsen brand on their pasta. When you get home, realize they’re right, and that Knudsen is far superior to Kraft or any store brand, the alternates too tart or dry or soupy, and Knudsen, perfectly smooth beneath its lid until stirred into a creamy, tender sea of cheese curds to be spooned over hot margarined pasta cooked several minutes too long until the whole thing slips down your throat in a hot-cold flurry of lactose and starch. Start hoarding the Knudsen coupons until you discover the pink plastic tub by the half-gallon at Costco and surrender to the convenience of the bucket. The girls like everything you cook: the half moons of brick red kosher salami fried in margarine and drenched in scrambled egg, the American cheese sandwiches on white bread with margarine. The Rice-a-Roni, the Hamburger Helper, the delicate golden slices of toasted challah from the only bakery in town that makes it.  All of it glistening beneath a perfect sheen of Country Crock.

When the candy bars inevitably go on sale, slip one into the palms of each girl, watch their eyes bulge at the unbelievable heft of an entire Milky Way in a tiny clenched fist. The older girl likes the dark chocolate ones, the younger, milk. Stash this away next to the note about Knudsen’s, the place that could eventually catalogue the older one’s inevitable teenage vegetarianism, the list of gelatin-free gummy candies to stock the glove box with, or the brand of tampons your wife prefers and the best deal on peanut butter. Do not forget to buy peanut M&M’s. You will want them when you settle into your makeshift garage office to watch action films or professional wrestling on the tiny workbench television, to masturbate and fall asleep sitting up with your hand still perched on the mouse, jaw slack and eyelids fluttering in the stale air.

In the morning, the girls will jump into your bed and wiggle into the blanket valley between you and your wife. You will think about the cubes of cut cantaloupe in the fridge, how much longer until they rot, how to convince the girls to snack on fruit when there’s cheese to be had. They want breakfast. While they eat, noisily, you will sit at the table and pore over newspaper inserts for deals on paper towels, paper napkins, and paper plates. Diet soda. Fat-free ranch dressing. Cans of tomato sauce. Processed cheese. Frozen vegetables. Look for the manufacturer’s coupons and cross-reference the store sales to maximize your discounts. Don’t be afraid to shop at multiple stores. Don’t be afraid to take hours. When you get home, dissect the ribbons of receipt paper with a highlighter. What did you spend? What did you save? Tell anyone. Tell everyone.

Here are some tips for grocery shopping. Smile your crooked smile when the clerk recognizes you and calls you Mr. Coupon because here, of all places, you are titled. In the grocery store aisles, you’re a strategist, a mathematician, and a gambler. In the check-out line, you’re shameless about the stack of clippings you trade for food. You disowned the shame ages ago, left it for the perturbed cashier waiting to go on lunch, or for your daughters to shovel into their backpacks, to keep and to save, to bag and to carry.

pills (10 of 30)

1) my grandmother, who more often kvetched than spoke, would gingerly lift her ass into the minivan with a labored groan and announce, to no one in particular, “if you shake me I’ll rattle,” fingers digging through the leather sack of medications on her lap.

2) a girl in my youth group who loved me ferociously. we called her crazy and she squealed “MARACAS” as she shook her pill bottles. She smelled like stomach acid and hair and I lived in fear of her damp touch. I get her confused with the other girl, the one who told me she was bisexual too, and whispered “you look so powerful” which was the worst thing anyone had ever said to me. I crumbled into a pile of excuses and combed my mental files for the “rejection hotline” number. children are cruel, but preteens are worse.

3) this week I held so much sand in my palm. welbutrin. Prozac. concerta. glucosamine. calcium. ibuprofen. Benadryl. later, an Ativan to wash it all down. I swallowed them until I dried out and wondered how anyone could get their act together enough to overdose: all that swallowing, the rolling of the throat squeezing pebbles through a pastry bag and into a sack of acid to clink together until melting away altogether.

(9 of 30)

"an inventory of shimmers"

it was the smallness of his bones
tucked into the dusty crater
or the way his left hand curled
around the exposed guts
of the upturned eucalyptus,
my small dog tethered to his wrist
like an anchor
or perhaps it was the long grass
clinging to the dirt caked on to the roots
still alive, if not a little disoriented

at the opposite end of the tree
we peered through the branches
down the trunk and to earth
perched between clouds
I said
I imagine this is what it’d be like
to be good at climbing trees
and he tilts his head and understands

and he is an inventory of shimmers
the fraction of a moment between moments
he is a cluster of building intensities
he is a indifferent possibility of something
he is neutral and he is the hope
of a bloom, he swells and crashes
into the dirt like a tidal wave or an
ancient eucalyptus in a wind storm

in the valley below the tree
he is suspended between lives
always on the verge of evaporating
he is light in his loafers and on his hands
I said
I imagine this is what it’s like
to be imminent, to be on the verge of tipping
and to never arrive.

(8 of 30)

In the town where I grew up, there were beaches
and orange groves, and there were fields of strawberries
and the bent spines that gathered them, I used to
look at them in the way one does a passing tree
or telephone pole, like they were imbedded into
the landscape out my faintly hissing window.
I sat in the back of the minivan, and on long rides,
sprawled across the row of seats to rest my
bony skull on a balled up sweatshirt and watched
the moon with more interest than I did the laborers

in the row ahead of me, my sister slept slack jawed
with her neck limp in the dip between the headrests
my parents sat silently staring at the highway, the lights
carving mickey mouse ears from blackness, sparks of
yellow flashing by out each window. I was young enough
to still be baffled by most optical illusions and the back
of my dad’s head and the thick forearm hazy with tufts
of black hair crossed my mother’s small one to hold hands

when they weren’t yelling they were silent except for their
breath, soft like the air whipping past the window and I
asked if the moon was following us and I think a normal
person would think I was cute and let me just think that
but my dad laughed and explained the physics of the thing
and yet I’d never heard about the grape strike just two
hours away from my bubbie’s house where the “nice girl”
who cleaned her permanently pristine pastel pink condo
always had a feather duster but never had a name

(7 of 30)

I grew up surrounded by money I couldn’t touch.
And when it crept up close enough to the house
it shriveled like a salted slug or else our hands
would pass through our bootstraps like spirits
grasping uselessly at living holograms.

in the 70s punks slipped out from the gutters
with moss behind their ears, crawled between
the boards of every pristine fence and into the
cardigans of the silent white faces. A man
left his windows open to air out the smoke
curling in tendrils from each pierced nose
and his parrot saw a palm tree and escaped.

My mother walks to the lake in the mornings.
She calls to tell me about the parrots who’ve
settled into this wet desert to build tract homes
from sticks and dust. The way the sun bounces off
their neon backs, their pink faces serene, like
they’d been there all along.

(4-5 of 30)

I’m only on time when I take buses, which defies both logic and physics. If I drive I run the risk of luxuriating in my extra hour, reclining so far back I slip into an internet wormhole and find myself wrist deep in some buzzfeed list of 300 ways you know you went to Hampshire, even though I’ve never even been to Massachussets. If I bike I lose momentum and motivation after the first traffic light, or stare out at the churning bay licking the rocks that hold up the bike path and start to fantasize about vanishing and then it’s 8:00 am and I’m supposed to be at work but am still next to the bay dreaming. And if I take the bus, I do all of the above until I’m so late I have to run like white flight through my neighborhood, tear into uptown and wheeze into downtown just as the 18 pulls up and swings its doors apart in a huff.

But last week my bike broke. And my roommate had the car. And I missed the bus. Which meant resorting to the strange and discomforting world of taxi apps which landed me in the pristine backseat of my first Uber. Two hours of wages and 20 minutes later I cruise into work just 4 minutes late and not reeking of teenage armpit for the first time in months. In addition to tumbling through web-based rabbitholes, avoiding my voicemails like running into a shitty hookup at a dance party, and letting my dishes multiply to a jenga-like state of precarity, I also am afraid of my bank account. Which means that when money’s tight, which is to say, always, avoiding acknowledging the growing red numbers is just as good as avoiding having them at all, which means two weeks without a bike, car, time management skills, or a realistic sense of available funds can lead to an unprecedented number of cab rides summoned by an iPod (not an iPhone because I’m afraid getting an age appropriate phone will mean never being forced to make eye contact again and if I lose that I’ll just absorb into the earth altogether.)

We always have the same conversation. They ask where I’m from, I tell them. I don’t ask where they’re from. They tell me. They’re from Ethiopia. They’re from Mongolia. They’re applying to Stanford. They’ve been here for 2 months. I ask them how they like it. They call it paradise. We pass a house with plywood in its eyes and a front porch made of broken teeth. They say “it could use some clean up, but otherwise, perfect.” They say “liberty” and “freedom” and “starving to death” in the same sentence and my mouth is empty save for its own broken teeth. I watch the plywood windows roll by, I watch the lonesome upturned shopping carts and the liquor stores and the old cars with their new wheels and the old women on their old porches and the new neighbors on their new bicycles and I can’t tell if the driver really believes in this place or if he wants me to think he does, like I’d be insulted if he looked out the window at the blue and red flashing and the sirens howling like sad dogs and I shudder to think that this is someone’s paradise, a city propped up on suffering and pulling apart at the seams, white fluff spilling onto cracked pavement, torn ligaments straining like memories about to forget.

(3 of 30)

I am a second-string understudy to a man
who screamed at me for getting lost in a book
with the same pair of wet pink lungs that
prescribed poetry for every teenage calamity
not because he liked it but because he listened and
didn’t care if I learned to alchemize words into paychecks.

when we were kids he wouldn’t let us eat sugar
and gave out raisins at Halloween, like an asshole
my dad worked at target, my dad put a million stickers
on a million boxes on a million shelves,
helped me trap leprechauns in green strawberry baskets
with dangling coins and science fair displays
and made rice-a-roni and canned corn for dinner
mom worked nights and dad did our laundry and dishes
while watching oily wrestlers on the little kitchen TV

I left my shoes in the living room and he screamed
I left my clothes in the dryer and he screamed
we interrupted him and he screamed
his deep voice shook everything, and the earth
rumbled until somebody cried and at 15 I got high
and fucked for the first time at a friend’s house
and he didn’t even notice; and his mother died
of cancer in the early 80s but I smoked cigarettes
in the park and he didn’t even notice and I never
told him anything my mom could mention for me
and he never said a word when that boy touched me
but he looked like he was drowning, like the house had
sprung a leak, like the white carpet was wet and swollen
and when he was a boy they called him a bear, or an ox,
and he was built like a buffalo and he still couldn’t protect me.
he used to steel himself for our tiny fists and laugh
as we hammered uselessly at the wall behind his belly.
when my mom told him, they gave me a feather pillow
and said “show us what you want to do to that boy”
and I did.

the remainder (2 of 30)

I hate everyone with a father,
even the mean ones, which isn’t fair—
like a drunk is better than a king is
better than a corpse is better than
the dusty workbench shoved into the
corner of the garage trailing wires behind it
like ligaments lingering like ghosts of the flesh,
flesh and veins hanging from the bone,
the bones peeking from beneath the skin.

that guy (1 of 30)

It’s spring and I bought 8 packets of seeds I’ll never plant because I’m too lazy to get the soil tested. It’s spring and I started kissing him again in spite of swearing off second-hand mouths. I spend my mornings in a dog pile and my evenings in the kitchen reading books I don’t like. It’s spring and I started taking calcium and glucosamine with my Prozac and Welbutrin every morning plus the half millileter of Testosterone I wedge into my belly fat every Thursday, except when it gets pushed back to Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. At night I stuff my lungs with drugs and pass out with a laptop roaring softly as it burns a hole in my gut. It’s spring now and I only need 2 quilts and a thin bedspread and 14 pairs of shoes and 10 milkcrates and 1 tube of toothpaste and the internet to live. It’s spring and I’m waking up in the dark to a small machine singing Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” every morning and I’m tired of lying about myself so yes, I’m coming out as a disgusting person who loves reality television and books about the holocaust and farts in elevators and will judge you on your shoes, yes, I’m that guy.